March 31, 1862 – As the Federal Army of the Potomac headed for the Virginia Peninsula, Confederates scrambled to determine their landing point. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George B. McClellan disagreed on manpower.
While McClellan continued loading his Federals on transports at Alexandria, General Joseph E. Johnston continued withdrawing his Confederate army (also unofficially called the Army of the Potomac) southward. Johnston intended to put two rivers–the Rappahannock and the Rapidan–between himself and McClellan.
The Confederate high command still did not know where McClellan would strike, but a strong clue came on the 24th when Major General Benjamin Huger, commanding the Confederate department at Norfolk, reported that 20 steam transports had moved down Chesapeake Bay and were debarking Federal troops at Old Point Comfort.
Major General John B. Magruder, defending the area between the York and James rivers with his small 7,500-man Army of the Peninsula, confirmed Huger’s message and estimated that 35,000 Federals were now in the vicinity. He urgently called on Richmond for reinforcements.
President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, believed that these Federals would either reinforce Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside in North Carolina, reinforce the 10,000 Federals already at Fort Monroe to attack Norfolk while McClellan threatened Richmond from the north, or directly advance up the Peninsula.
Lee asked Johnston if he could spare any troops for Magruder and instructed him, “It will be necessary for you to organize a part of your troops to hold your present line, and to prepare the remainder to move to this city, to be thrown on the point attacked.” Lee explained that since the Federal intentions were still unknown, if he received “a dispatch saying ‘Move at once,’ you will understand that you are to repair immediately to this city, where you will be informed to what point you are to direct your course.”
That dispatch came on March 27, when Lee ordered Johnston to send 10,000 troops to Magruder via Richmond. This order came due to concern that Federal troops could be moved via transport up the York River and landed behind Magruder’s lines.
Johnston argued that relinquishing 10,000 men would make him unable to defend his line on the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg line if attacked. And 10,000 was not enough for Magruder to hold his ground against an attack on the Peninsula. Johnston recommended that he either stay intact where he was or move his entire army to reinforce Magruder. Johnston wrote, “We cannot win without concentrating. Should my suggestion be approved say so by telegraph, and the movement will be made with all expedition from Fredericksburg and this place.”
Meanwhile, President Lincoln faced mounting pressure from Radicals in his party to focus more on their darling, Major General John C. Fremont. Lincoln had recently put Fremont in charge of the new Mountain Department, and now Fremont and his allies asked for just 10,000 more men to invade eastern Tennessee and capture Knoxville.
Fremont specifically requested the 10,000-man division in the Shenandoah Valley led by General Louis Blenker. This division, mostly comprised of German immigrants who supported Fremont’s abolitionism, belonged to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had met with McClellan at Alexandria and assured him that he would not send Blenker to Fremont because the only reason for it would be political. But by the end of March, Lincoln apparently changed his mind (“Stonewall” Jackson’s recent activity in the Valley may have played a part). Lincoln wrote McClellan:
“This morning I felt constrained to order Blenker’s division to Fremont; and I write this to assure you that I did so with great pain, understanding that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case I am confident that you would justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgement that the Commander in Chief may order what he pleases. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”
McClellan immediately complained that losing 10,000 men would compromise his plans, especially now that nearly his entire army was on its way to the Peninsula. He met with Lincoln on the 31st, where (according to McClellan) the president promised that “nothing of the sort should be repeated.” McClellan also claimed that Lincoln told him that he “might rest assured that the campaign should proceed with no further deductions from the force upon which its operations had been planned.”
With this in mind, McClellan left Alexandria for the Peninsula the next day.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 92; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 273, 397; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 128-29; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3184-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 189-90; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 293