March 17, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan finally mobilized the Army of the Potomac to begin his grand offensive to destroy the Confederacy.
The Confederate withdrawal from northern Virginia blocked McClellan’s proposed army landing at Urbanna. However, with the U.S.S. Monitor now controlling the Hampton Roads area, McClellan planned to move his army further south down Virginia’s coast to land at Fort Monroe, on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. As news of this planned landing reached Richmond, panic spread among the residents. General John H. Winder, the city’s provost marshal, relocated the passport office to accommodate the rush of people trying to leave town.
On March 13, McClellan met with his four new corps commanders at Fairfax Court House and shared his plan for landing the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula. Fort Monroe, three miles across Hampton Roads from Confederate-held Norfolk, would be the Federals’ supply base. McClellan asserted that not only would a march from Fort Monroe to Richmond be 10 miles shorter than one from Manassas Junction to the same place, but the Peninsula roads were usable any time of year. Even better, the navy could support the advance from the York River.
The corps commanders, along with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, agreed to McClellan’s plan on four conditions:
- The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia must be kept from interfering
- There must be enough transports to take the massive army down the coast
- The Federal navy must neutralize the Confederate guns on the York River
- A portion of the army must be left at Washington to provide “an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace.” (The generals could not agree on how many men should be left, but the average was around 40,000.)
McClellan dispatched Major General Irvin McDowell to Washington with the signatures of the four corps commanders endorsing the plan. Lincoln and Stanton added a statement to the form urging action: “Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here and there, or, at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.”
McClellan spent the next day planning to withdraw his army to Alexandria and divide it into corps in accordance with Lincoln’s order to create a corps structure. The five new army corps were to be commanded by Major Generals McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Erasmus D. Keyes, and Nathaniel P. Banks (currently stationed in the Shenandoah Valley). Lincoln had selected these corps commanders to better enable McClellan to lead overall army operations.
By the 17th, McClellan was finally ready to “give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.” It had taken over seven months, but he had forged an army “magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed.” The men marched through Alexandria and boarded transports that would take them down the Potomac River, into Chesapeake Bay, and on to Fort Monroe. This would outflank the Confederates on the Rappahannock River and put the army on a lightly defended path leading northwest to Richmond.
The largest army ever assembled in North America embarked on the largest amphibious operation ever attempted in the Western Hemisphere. In an incredible display of logistical prowess, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs assembled 113 steamers, 188 schooners, and 88 barges to transport 121,500 officers and men, 44 artillery batteries bearing 300 guns, 14,592 animals, 1,150 wagons, 74 ambulances, pontoon bridges, telegraph wire, and enormous quantities of supplies and equipment. This effort was supported by a state-of-the-art navy.
McClellan watched the first group leave the wharf and later issued a proclamation to his men:
“I will bring you now face to face with the rebels, and only pray that God may defend the right… ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours… I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart. It shall be my care… to gain success with the least possible loss.”
The 200-mile transfer to Fort Monroe began one day ahead of Lincoln’s deadline and was scheduled to take three weeks. McClellan moved the troops by division, which some saw as a disregard for Lincoln’s corps structure. In a last minute change, McClellan moved the divisions of McDowell’s corps from first to last in the order of embarkation. This decision later proved fateful.
As the troops headed down the Potomac, McClellan wrote to Stanton, “The worst is over. Rely upon it that I will carry this thing through handsomely.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 74-76; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89-93; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 140, 143; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 268-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 122, 124; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 428-31; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 198-200; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 184, 186; 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. 424; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 92-94, 110