The Siege of Yorktown Begins

April 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln questioned not only Major General George B. McClellan’s strategy and tactics, but also his math after McClellan opted to lay siege to Yorktown and not attack.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

By April 6, the rest of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac (less Major General Irvin McDowell’s I Corps) had arrived on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Lincoln expected to receive word that Yorktown had fallen, and when this did not happen, he telegraphed McClellan:

“You now have over one hundred thousand troops with you, independent of General Wool’s command (at Fort Monroe). I think you better break the enemies’ line from York-town to Warwick River, at once. They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can.”

McClellan, still seething over being denied McDowell’s services, wrote his wife that Lincoln “thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”

Ignoring Lincoln’s advice to attack immediately, McClellan instead began “the more tedious, but sure operations of siege.” His reluctance to attack partly stemmed from the performance by Confederate Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Known as “Prince John” for his enjoyment of theatrics, Magruder had his artillerists sporadically fire on enemy troops, his bands play loudly into the night, and his infantry march in and out of clearings to look like endless lines of troops. At the same time, General Joseph E. Johnston hurried the transfer of Confederate troops from his Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line to Magruder’s.

The next day, McClellan relayed reports of the difficulties the Federals would have in crossing the Warwick River. He informed Washington, “The Warwick River grows worse the more you look at it.” McClellan asserted that a third of his army still had not yet arrived from Alexandria, and based on testimony from Confederates captured outside Yorktown:

“It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more… When my present command all joins (from Alexandria), I shall have about 85,000 men for duty, from which a large force must be taken for guards, escort, etc.”

McClellan reminded Lincoln that he (Lincoln) had made Major General John Wool’s command at Fort Monroe unavailable to the Army of the Potomac, thus implying that more troops were needed. Meanwhile, the Federals continued digging trenches to lay siege to Yorktown.

The Federal army remained stationary for four days, during which time Magruder’s force gradually increased with the arriving reinforcements. But Magruder’s force was nowhere near the 100,000-man army that McClellan feared it to be; in fact, it was still no match for McClellan’s superior numbers. But McClellan continued preparing to besiege the enemy defenses rather than attack them head-on.

At Washington, Lincoln met with his cabinet to discuss the progress on the Peninsula so far and the “discrepancy” in McClellan’s April 7 message between the number of troops he claimed to have and the enemy numbers he claimed to be facing. After the meeting, Lincoln wrote a long letter to McClellan. In it, he explained further why McDowell’s corps had been kept back on the Rappahannock line: “My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected.”

McClellan had originally planned for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s V Corps to protect Washington, but that corps had been sent to the Shenandoah Valley. Regarding this Lincoln wrote, “And allow me to ask, do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops?”

Lincoln then stated that McClellan’s April 7 message contained “a curious mystery”: McClellan’s original troop report had listed 108,000 men, but as of the 7th that figure had dropped to 85,000. Lincoln asked, “How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?”

Explaining that McClellan should have his entire army on the Peninsula by now, Lincoln advised:

“Once more let me tell you that it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments in either place. The country will not fail to note–is now noting–that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated. I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.”

McClellan “acted” by proceeding with a siege against an enemy that could have been easily overrun if attacked with overwhelming force and speed. He also continued insisting that the absence of McDowell’s corps left him in hostile territory against an army with superior numbers.

At Richmond, General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, received a message from a minister in Alexandria stating that thousands of Federals, including McClellan himself, had boarded steamers and gone to the Virginia Peninsula. This coincided with Magruder’s reports stating that McClellan’s main army was facing him at Yorktown. This finally confirmed that the main Federal attack would be on the Peninsula.

Davis responded by summoning J.E. Johnston and his two best divisions–under Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith–to Richmond for reassignment to the Peninsula. Confederate forces south of the James River were pulled to reinforce Magruder as well. Major General Richard Ewell’s 7,500-man Confederate division remained on the Rappahannock line, ready to cooperate with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 5,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley if needed.

One of G.W. Smith’s brigades was left to defend Fredericksburg against McDowell’s corps. On the 10th, Lincoln relented and allowed McDowell’s lead division under General William B. Franklin, one of McClellan’s favorite commanders, to go to the Peninsula by water. McClellan had pleaded for McDowell’s entire corps to join him, but he was glad to get at least one division for now.

Two days later, J.E. Johnston arrived at Richmond with Longstreet and Smith and was given command of the Confederate Departments of Norfolk and the Peninsula. Johnston had asserted that he could not stop McClellan’s army from moving up the Peninsula because, even with Confederate reinforcements, he was still outnumbered nearly three-to-one. But Lee persuaded Johnston to make a stand.

When Johnston arrived at Yorktown on the 13th, there were nearly 34,000 troops manning the defenses in what soon became known as the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston inspected the lines at Yorktown and Williamsburg and determined that they could not withstand a frontal assault. He also expressed concern that defending a peninsula would allow McClellan to move troops up either river and land in his rear. Johnston returned to Richmond that evening to report his findings.

Opposing the Confederates were nearly 100,000 Federals of the II, III, and IV corps of Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes respectively. Franklin’s division of McDowell’s corps was held in reserve. With Franklin’s men arriving, McClellan wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I am confident as to results now. We shall soon be at them, and I am sure of the result.”

Federal optimism increased when the rains finally stopped and the skies cleared. With the roads improving, Federal scouts reconnoitered the enemy right flank near Lee’s Mill and the Warwick River and found potential weaknesses.



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97-102, 105; (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13427-46, 13453, 13682; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 154, 157-58, 160; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 401, 407-09; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 132, 135-37; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3264; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 431-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 194-95, 197, 199; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 110

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