The Siege of Yorktown: The Buildup Continues

April 20, 1862 – Confederate morale sagged on the Virginia Peninsula, as the number of Federal troops continued increasing on multiple fronts.

General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Yorktown on April 17 and assumed command of the Confederate army that now consisted of his own Army of the Potomac and Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Johnston’s new command included both the Virginia Peninsula and Norfolk.

By this time, five of Johnston’s seven divisions had arrived or were on their way to reinforce the Yorktown-Warwick River line on the Peninsula, raising the total number of Confederate defenders to nearly 50,000. But this was still not half the total of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:
Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

Of Johnston’s two remaining divisions, one (8,000 men under Major General Richard Ewell) remained on the Rappahannock River line in northern Virginia at Brandy Station, and one (6,000 men under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson) was in the Shenandoah Valley at Mount Jackson. A third force, the Army of the Northwest under Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, consisted of about 3,000 men in the Valley west of Staunton.

President Jefferson Davis arranged for Ewell and Jackson to send their correspondence through his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rather than Johnston, who was now busy arranging defenses on the Peninsula. Due to the delicacy of military protocol, Lee had to be careful when communicating to Ewell and Jackson not to offend Johnston by infringing on his authority.

In northern Virginia, the Federal troops of Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock arrived at their namesake river north of Richmond after a forced march from Washington. This army, formerly I Corps in the Army of the Potomac, had been slated to join the Peninsula campaign but was withheld by President Abraham Lincoln to block any Confederate attempt to threaten Washington.

By the time McDowell arrived, the Confederates had burned all the nearby bridges and abandoned the town of Fredericksburg, just across the Rappahannock. McDowell did not move to take Fredericksburg because the river was too wide, and the primary movement was to be McClellan’s on the Peninsula. McClellan continued pleading with Washington to send him McDowell’s troops, despite now having 100,000 of his own.

Farther west, two Federal armies under Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont threatened the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia. This immense accumulation of Federal troops in Virginia represented their greatest opportunity to destroy the Confederates since the war began. McClellan, McDowell, Banks, and Fremont all faced vastly inferior opponents that could have been easily destroyed if any of the Federal commanders made a determined effort to do so. But none did.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces
Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Although McClellan wanted McDowell’s entire force to reinforce him, he settled for one of McDowell’s divisions, consisting of 12,000 Federals under Brigadier General William B. Franklin. This gave McClellan an even greater manpower advantage. Meanwhile, Johnston directed Confederates to repair bridges over the Chickahominy River, 20 miles in his rear, in case he needed to retreat. Acknowledging low morale among the men and his army’s vulnerability, Johnston said, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

By April 23, the Federals on the Peninsula had positioned six 10-gun batteries of 13-inch siege mortar cannon about two miles outside Yorktown. However, McClellan would not begin firing until his remaining nine batteries were put in place. McClellan telegraphed Lincoln, “Do not misunderstand the apparent inaction here. Not a day, not an hour has been lost. Works have been constructed that may almost be called gigantic.”

This unprecedented display of artillery disturbed Johnston enough to begin preparing for the worst. He informed his superiors that supplies could be diverted to the Richmond area for his troops “in the event of our being compelled to fall back from this point.” He asked for officials to have 100 wagons filled with supplies waiting for his men when they fell back to Richmond. Johnston then directed Major General Benjamin Huger to prepare to evacuate Norfolk and secure as many supplies and equipment as possible from the Gosport Navy Yard there.

Johnston wrote to Flag Officer Josiah Tatnall, commander of the Confederate naval fleet, asking him to use the C.S.S. Virginia to attack the Federal transports on the York River. Tatnall objected because 1) such an action would leave the Virginia exposed to Federal shore batteries, 2) the Virginia could not break through the Federal warships guarding the transports, and 3) such a mission would leave Norfolk undefended.

Returning to his original argument, Johnston once again urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line in a letter to Lee: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful… We must abandon the Peninsula at once.” Johnston contended that it would be better to give up Norfolk than to lose the army, and he again proposed falling back to positions outside Richmond. Johnston even suggested invading the North while General P.G.T. Beauregard somehow led his battered Confederate army out of Corinth to invade Ohio. Once again, Davis and Lee refused.

Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Maratanza began bombarding the forts at Yorktown and Gloucester on either side of the York River. Even with all his superior firepower, McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Would be glad to have the 30-pounder Parrotts in the works around Washington. Am short of that excellent gun.”

As April ended, Federal prospects for victory on the Peninsula seemed very bright. McClellan reported that he had 112,392 officers and men present for duty. They even had some of the best people to care for their sick and wounded, as the U.S. Sanitary Commission hospital ship Daniel Webster arrived at the York River with Commission General Secretary Frederick Law Olmstead and several top surgeons, physicians, and nurses.

Conversely, Confederate hopes were sinking, as Johnston most likely had less than 50,000 effectives, with many others been lost to illness, exposure, and fatigue.



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 105; (18 Apr 1862);; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13515-23, 13611-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 161; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 403-04, 410; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 139, 141, 143-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3287, 3323-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 201-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570-71

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