May 12, 1862 – Panic began spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond as Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was now just 22 miles away and still advancing up the Virginia Peninsula.
McClellan divided his army by sending one part toward Richmond from West Point and leading another to White House Landing, 15 miles up the Pamunkey River. This enabled the Federals to seize control of the Richmond & York River Railroad. It also gave them possession of White House, a 4,000-acre plantation where George Washington had courted Martha Custis. It was now owned by Martha’s granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee. Mrs. Lee pinned a note on the house door:
“Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington forebear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants. A grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington.”
Reaching White House put the Federals just 22 miles from Richmond. Capital residents hurried to leave, with traders trying to sell their goods to foreign consuls before moving out. Davis sent his wife Varina out of town, writing to her:
“If the withdrawal from the Peninsula and Norfolk had been done with due preparation and a desirable deliberation, I should be more sanguine of a successful defense of this city… I know not what to expect when so many failures are to be remembered, yet will try to make a successful resistance…”
Mrs. Davis joined many other residents in fleeing to western Virginia or North Carolina, as panic increased in the capital.
By May 14, McClellan’s troops had advanced about 30 miles since taking Yorktown 10 days before. McClellan informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, traveling with him on the Peninsula, that he intended to try another flanking maneuver to cut off the Confederate retreat at White House. But to be successful, McClellan argued that he needed Major General Irvin McDowell’s 40,000-man army on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg in northern Virginia.
McClellan stated, “No time will be lost in bringing about a decisive battle.” In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan explained, “All my information from every source accessible to me establishes the fixed purpose of the rebels to defend Richmond against this army by offering us battle with all the troops they can collect from east, west, and south.”
At this time, McClellan asserted that he could not “bring into actual battle against the enemy more than 80,000 men at the utmost,” and these men would be fighting not just the Confederates that had fled Yorktown, but a “much larger force, perhaps double my numbers.” Thus, McClellan’s estimate of 120,000 Confederates at Yorktown had grown over the last 10 days to 160,000.
McClellan said that there might be a chance that the Confederates would abandon Richmond without a fight, but, “it would be unwise, and even insane, for me to calculate upon anything but a stubborn and desperate resistance.” McClellan “respectfully and earnestly” asked Lincoln to reinforce the army “without delay by all the disposable troops of the Government.”
In reality, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had less than 60,000 effectives on the Peninsula, and they were pulling back toward Richmond. Johnston’s left flank withdrew away from the Federal gunboats on the Pamunkey as his men took up strong defensive positions at the Baltimore Crossroads.
Davis and his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode out to meet with Johnston and “better understand his plans and expectations.” Davis later stated that “a long conversation followed which was so inconclusive that it lasted until late in the night, so late that we remained until next morning.” To the concern of Davis and Lee, Johnston seemed to have no plan other than to build defenses and await a Federal attack.
Returning to Richmond, Davis met with Lee and the cabinet to discuss options in case they had to abandon the capital. The men suggested establishing new defensive lines south of the James, with Lee recommending falling back to the Staunton River, some 100 miles southwest. Then he added, “But Richmond must not be given up. It shall not be given up!” Meanwhile, Virginia state legislators approved a resolution:
“That the General Assembly hereby express its desire that the capital of the State be defended to the last extremity, if such defence is in accordance with the views of the President of the Confederate States; and that the President be assured that whatever destruction or loss of property of the State or individuals shall thereby result, will be cheerfully submitted to.”
Johnston continued his withdrawal on the 15th, moving his forces across the Chickahominy River, the last waterway separating the Federals from Richmond. Johnston pulled back from the river’s middle and lower stretches, moving some units to within three miles of the capital.
McClellan arrived at White House and set up headquarters in a tent on the mansion’s front lawn. He prohibited his men from desecrating the home or property, and White House became the main Federal supply base on the Peninsula. McClellan then visited nearby St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington married Martha Custis. That night, he wrote his wife, “As I happened to be there alone for a few minutes, I could not help kneeling at the chancel and praying.”
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 127, 129-30; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (14 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169, 171; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151-53; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-12; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 330; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 133-34; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262