McClellan Invades Northern Virginia

March 10, 1862 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s Federals finally entered northern Virginia, but the Confederate retreat from that area jeopardized McClellan’s overall strategy.

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit:
Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

On the night of the 9th, President Abraham Lincoln met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General McClellan. Lincoln announced that he had received word of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac falling back behind the Rappahannock River. If true, this would block McClellan’s planned landing at Urbanna. Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, recorded that McClellan received the news “with incredulity which at last gave way to stupefaction.”

McClellan, who had said for months that Johnston’s Confederates were too strong to confront, now hurried his own Army of the Potomac to pursue them. As General Philip Kearny’s Federals chased the Confederate rear guard, the bulk of McClellan’s army poured across the Potomac River into northern Virginia:

  • General Irvin McDowell’s division moved from Arlington to Centreville
  • General Edwin V. Sumner’s division occupied Manassas Junction
  • Other divisions advanced to Fairfax Court House

They found little more than wrecked railroad equipment and burned supplies. Even worse, the Federals soon discovered that many of the fortifications that McClellan had considered impregnable were manned by “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to resemble cannon. Moreover, the abandoned camps indicated that no more than 50,000 enemy troops, or one-third the size of the force that McClellan had guessed, could have been stationed there.

A New York Tribune reporter submitted his article from what he called “Camp Disappointment, near Centreville.” Another correspondent stated that “the fancied impregnability of the position turns out to be a sham.” One reporter wrote, “Utterly dispirited, ashamed, and humiliated, I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.”

Still, McClellan maintained that the abandoned defenses were “quite a formidable series of works.” While Johnston had held the line largely through bluff, he had been given enough time to build very strong defenses in certain points, especially overlooking a likely Federal approach northeast from Centreville. McClellan asserted that this area would have been “somewhat uncomfortable for new troops to carry by storm.”

Although Johnston’s withdrawal allowed for a deeper Federal probe into Virginia, Federal officials, particularly the Radical Republicans and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, were generally unimpressed with McClellan’s “hollow victory.” After McDowell gave him a tour of the Bull Run battlefield, McClellan directed the army to fall back to Alexandria while he pondered his next move.

The Urbanna plan was no longer tenable, but McClellan did not want to altogether abandon the idea of moving down the Virginia coast. When the U.S.S. Monitor recently drove the C.S.S. Virginia away from Hampton Roads, it opened the possibility for McClellan to move his army even further down the coast. He could land the Federals at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers. From there he could advance 70 miles up to Richmond, with only two waterways in his path.

McClellan, having previously discussed this possibility with Stanton, wired him from Fairfax Court House:

“I have just returned from a ride of more than 40 miles… The rebels have left all their positions, and, from the information obtained during our ride to-day, I am satisfied that they have fallen behind the Rapidan, holding Fredericksburg and Gordonsville… They left many wagons, some caissons, clothing, ammunition, personal baggage, etc… Having fully consulted with General McDowell, I propose occupying Manassas with a portion of Banks’s command, and then at once throwing all forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week… I presume you will approve this course…”



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87; (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13385-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 183; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 423-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

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