May 17, 1862 – As the Federal Army of the Potomac continued inching toward Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln conditionally approved Major General George B. McClellan’s request for reinforcements.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton persuaded Lincoln to allow Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock (formerly I Corps in McClellan’s army) to reinforce McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. McDowell received orders to “move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with the forces under General McClellan…” McDowell was to stay “in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.”
Lincoln notified McClellan:
“At your earnest call for re-enforcements he (McDowell) is sent forward to co-operate in the reduction of Richmond, but charged, in attempting this, not to uncover the city of Washington; and you will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him out of position to cover this city.”
Stanton supplemented Lincoln’s message with one of his own:
“He (McDowell) is ordered–keeping himself always in position to save the capital from all possible attack–so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, so as to establish this communication as soon as possible, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond.”
Thus, McClellan would finally receive the reinforcements he had pleaded for, but under several conditions:
- McDowell would move overland to link with McClellan’s right instead of moving by water as McClellan had urged.
- McDowell would “retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward,” making him McClellan’s equal and no longer his subordinate.
- McClellan was expected to extend his army’s right over the Pamunkey River while McDowell extended his left until they linked. This meant that McClellan no longer had the option of moving across the Peninsula to try attacking from a James River point (which might have been a better option considering the recent Battle of Drewry’s Bluff).
- McDowell was not to leave his base on the Rappahannock River until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division, transferred from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army in the Shenandoah Valley.
McClellan objected to these conditions, arguing that it was vital to his plans to have McDowell’s Federals join his army by water rather than land. McClellan also insisted that according to the 62nd Article of War, McDowell had to obey McClellan as the ranking officer and could not act independently. McClellan wrote:
“Indications that the enemy intend fighting at Richmond. Policy seems to be to concentrate everything there. They hold central position, and will seek to meet us while divided. I think we are committing a great military error in having so many independent columns. The great battle should be fought by our troops in mass; then divide if necessary.”
To that end, McClellan reorganized his army to create a V and VI corps. V Corps, formerly the 1st Division of III Corps and the Regular Reserve Division, was given to his friend Fitz John Porter. VI Corps, formerly the 1st Division of I Corps and the 2nd Division of IV Corps, was given to another friend, William B. Franklin.
On the Confederate side, General Joseph E. Johnston continued withdrawing his army to more defensible positions closer to Richmond. Johnston’s left flank was just outside northeastern Richmond at Fairfield Race Course. His right was near Drewry’s Bluff, on the banks of the James River.
President Jefferson Davis wrote his wife Varina, who he had sent out of Richmond for her safety: “We are uncertain of everything except that a battle must be near at hand.” Capital residents discussed whether the Confederate troops could stop McClellan’s drive on the capital. Davis tried boosting morale by proclaiming that the city would be defended, in accordance with a congressional resolution.
Meanwhile, McClellan divided his army along both banks of the Chickahominy River and awaited the arrival of McDowell’s troops from northern Virginia. By May 21, the Federals were within eight miles of Richmond, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps operating at Bottom’s Bridge spanning the Chickahominy. As McClellan continued maneuvering his men, Lincoln responded to his objections regarding the use of McDowell’s Federals:
“You will have just such control of Gen. McDowell and his force as you therein indicate. McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Frederick’sburg,–unless his march shall be resisted, in which case, the force resisting him, will certainly not be confronting you at Richmond.”
Although McClellan was within striking distance of Richmond, he continued fretting that his force was not strong enough to confront the Confederate defenders. He wrote his friend, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, stationed on the North Carolina coast, “The Government have deliberately placed me in this position. If I win, the greater the glory. If I lose, they will be damned forever, both by God and men.”
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (17 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 172-73; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7441; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 417-18, 441-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 153, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 213-14; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76