April 4, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan slowly advanced his Federal Army of the Potomac toward Yorktown, the first obstacle on the Virginia Peninsula.
On the morning of the 4th, having arrived just 36 hours before and with part of his army still on its way from Alexandria, McClellan directed a two-column advance up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. McClellan hoped to capture the port city of Yorktown and use it as a base from which to continue advancing to the Confederate capital of Richmond.
As the men moved out, it was immediately clear that this was not the same army that had been routed at Bull Run last July. This was a well-trained, well-disciplined army of men who moved with precision and were eager to please their beloved commander. General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps moved directly toward Yorktown, while General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps moved left to seize Halfway House, four and a half miles beyond the Confederate flank at Yorktown. General Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps followed Heintzelman in reserve. Meanwhile, Federal troops continued arriving from northern Virginia.
A thin line of Confederate defenders quickly abandoned Big Bethel, where they had defeated the Federals last June. The Confederates fell back to the main defenses, manned by Major General John B. Magruder’s small Army of the Peninsula. Magruder’s line ran from Yorktown on the right to fortifications on the York River on the left. McClellan’s corps commanders had told him that naval support would be needed to reduce these fortifications.
By this time, General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had transferred three of General Joseph E. Johnston’s six divisions from the Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line in northern Virginia to the Peninsula. This gave Magruder about 31,500 men either in his defenses or on their way. Lee left three divisions with Johnston because, despite reports of many Federals on the Peninsula, Lee still could not be sure that the main attack would be there.
On the Federal side, McClellan encountered some unexpected problems. One was the navy, which could not offer the promised support on the York River because the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia had reappeared to threaten Federal shipping in Chesapeake Bay. Another problem was the Coastal Survey maps, which did not show that the Confederates had dammed the Warwick River in five places, making it extremely difficult to cross. Yet another was the rain, which muddied the roads and swelled the waterways.
All these problems, along with the 60,000 troops that President Abraham Lincoln had withheld, made McClellan even more cautious. He hoped to have Major General Irvin McDowell’s I Corps ready to reinforce him when he began driving on Richmond, but the Lincoln administration not only withheld McDowell, they turned his corps into its own military Department of the Rappahannock. This suggested that its detachment from McClellan’s army would be permanent. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s V Corps of McClellan’s army, now in the Shenandoah, was likewise made its own Department of the Shenandoah.
McClellan notified McDowell that he intended to attack Gloucester, across the river from Yorktown. Unaware that McDowell would not be joining him, McClellan expected him to arrive the next day and land his troops up the York from Gloucester to cut the town’s supply line.
By the end of April 4, McClellan had about 67,000 men with more on the way. His advance was going according to plan so far, with Magruder falling back to exactly where McClellan expected him to put up a fight. McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that evening, “I expect to fight tomorrow.”
But the Federals awoke to pouring rain on the 5th, making roads impassable and swelling the lakes and swamps formed by the Confederate dams on the Warwick River. Keyes, who had been directed to outflank Yorktown, discovered that the only practical river crossings were at the dams, which were guarded by a “large force with three guns in position and strong breastworks.” McClellan had hoped to surprise the Confederates by taking this route, but now Keyes informed him “that we shall encounter very serious resistance.”
Keyes later learned from two fugitive slaves that the Confederates were heavily entrenched, and the roads were nearly impassable due to the heavy rain. Keyes hesitated sending this news to McClellan “in the hope that I might get some positive information, but I as yet have not succeeded.” This shocked McClellan, who had boasted that the roads on the Peninsula were passable all year around.
Even worse, Keyes reported seeing thousands of Confederates moving throughout his front. He was unaware that “Prince John” Magruder was using his enjoyment of theatrics by marching his men in circles through clearings to make it seem to the Federals that endless numbers of enemy troops opposed them. Magruder also employed “Quaker guns,” or logs painted to resemble cannon. Keyes reported that “no part of the line, so far discovered, can be taken by assault without an enormous waste of human life.”
Meanwhile, Heintzelman’s corps arrived in front of the Yorktown earthworks and began exchanging fire with the defenders. McClellan and all three of his corps commanders (Heintzelman, Keyes, and Sumner) agreed with the Federal chief engineer in calling the Confederate defense along the Yorktown-Warwick River line “certainly one of the most extensive known to modern times.”
Rather than risk heavy losses in a frontal assault, McClellan opted to begin siege operations and ordered up his heavy guns from Fort Monroe. He also anxiously awaited the arrival of McDowell’s corps until he finally received Lincoln’s messages informing him that McDowell would not be coming. McClellan responded in a message headed, “Near Yorktown, 7:30 p.m.”:
“In my deliberate judgment, the success of our cause will be imperiled by so greatly reducing my force when it is actually under the fire of the enemy and active operations have commenced… I am now of the opinion that I shall have to fight all the available forces of the rebels not far from here. Do not force me to do so with diminished numbers.”
To his wife, McClellan called Lincoln’s decision to withhold McDowell’s corps “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”
The perception of strong defenses worked to keep McClellan from attacking Magruder’s small, vulnerable force. McClellan’s decision to besiege and not attack Yorktown gave the Confederate high command more time to transfer troops from northern Virginia to the Peninsula.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 150; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 274, 398-401, 404-07; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 131-32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3240-52; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 199; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 193; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 110