April 14, 1862 – The Confederate high command met at Richmond to consider abandoning the Virginia Peninsula to the numerically superior Federal Army of the Potomac.
By this time, Confederate forces were holding the port city of Yorktown against a Federal force three times their size. Major General George B. McClellan, the Federal commander, began directing placement of his heavy siege artillery, opting to lay siege to Yorktown rather than risk a head-on assault. Despite his overwhelming numbers, McClellan believed the Confederate army was much larger than it truly was.
As part of the siege, McClellan relied on the Federal navy to neutralize the two forts on either side of the York River at Yorktown and Gloucester. But this would not be easy. Even though the Federals had a decided advantage in technology with rifled artillery versus smoothbore, the Confederates had 33 guns commanding the entire width of the 1,200-yard river. These gunners did not have to rely on accuracy like the Federal gunboats did. And the Federals would have great difficulty elevating their guns high enough to hit the forts, which were on bluffs above the river. Moreover, the best Federal ships remained in Chesapeake Bay guarding against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. So if the Federals would attack these forts at all, they would be doing it at less than full strength.
McClellan urged Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to send his ships past the forts under cover of darkness to land troops behind them, but Goldsborough declined. This prompted McClellan to try finding other ways to penetrate the Yorktown defenses. He soon learned from scouts that there could be a weakness in the Confederate line near Lee’s Mill. McClellan directed IV Corps under Major General Erasmus D. Keyes to exploit it.
Meanwhile, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston returned to Richmond after inspecting the Yorktown defenses and reported to President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s top advisor, that they were unsatisfactory. Davis called a council of war that included Lee, Johnston, Secretary of War George W. Randolph, and Johnston’s two top subordinates, Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith.
The conference began at 11 a.m. on the 14th and lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning. Johnston continued arguing that defending Yorktown was a waste of resources. The forts at Yorktown and Gloucester had old smoothbore cannon to face the Federals’ state-of-the-art rifled cannon. There were not enough troops to man the eight-mile-long defensive line, and it was only a matter of time before McClellan’s massive army overran the works.
Johnston strongly urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line, which meant losing not only Yorktown but the vital Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk as well. Johnston proposed falling back and concentrating all Confederate troops from Virginia and the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia around Richmond. They would then attack McClellan as he approached Richmond, being nearly 100 miles from his supply base at Fort Monroe. Johnston also offered an alternative plan in which Major General John B. Magruder’s Confederates would fall back to defend Richmond while the rest of the Confederates invaded the North.
Randolph, a former naval officer, objected to both proposals because they meant abandoning the navy yard at Norfolk, and if the yard fell, they would lose the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia stationed there. Losing Norfolk would also leave the Confederacy without a prime naval base from which to develop vessels to break the Federal blockade.
Lee also opposed abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line. He asserted that pulling troops from the coastal defenses would leave Charleston and Savannah open for easy capture. Johnston countered that those losses could be regained once McClellan was defeated. Neither Longstreet nor Smith offered an opinion.
The meeting adjourned for dinner and then resumed at Davis’s home at 7 p.m. As the discussion went on, Davis held back judgment but slowly began siding with Lee. After midnight, Davis finally broke the stalemate by voicing support for defending the Yorktown-Warwick River line. Johnston was to continue moving the bulk of his army to that line and absorb Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula into his. Johnston complied with the decision, but he also began preparing to withdraw to Richmond and implement his plan later.
On the Federal side, Keyes directed his 2nd Division under Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith to probe for potential weaknesses at Dam No. 1 to the right of Yorktown, near the center of the Confederate line. McClellan had ordered that the Federals were not to bring on a general battle, but merely stop the Confederates from working on the battery and earthworks there.
After an artillery bombardment on the 16th, Smith launched a reconnaissance in force that easily took the Confederate rifle pits and seized Burnt Chimneys. The Federals were poised to push even farther into the Confederate interior; a general assault might have even destroyed the Confederates’ center and opened the path to Richmond.
However, the Confederates counterattacked, and when the Federals’ call for reinforcements went unanswered, they fell back. Smith tried retaking the position later that evening, but by that time Confederate strength was too great. The Federals sustained 165 casualties in successfully stopping the Confederates from working on the defenses. But they could have accomplished much more had they been reinforced.
In response to President Abraham Lincoln’s request for a progress report, McClellan stated that he was still arranging to besiege Yorktown and needed reinforcements. Meanwhile, Confederate resistance at Burnt Chimneys and other points near Lee’s Mill gave Johnston time to hurry more Confederates to the Peninsula.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13498; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 160; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 401-02; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 138; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3264-87; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570