Federals Vulnerable on the Peninsula

May 26, 1862 – Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley prevented Federal reinforcements from reaching Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. This left McClellan in a vulnerable position on the Peninsula.

Gens G.B. McClellan and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org
Gens G.B. McClellan and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The right flank of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army stood about five miles from Richmond across the Charles City road. The Confederate defense line ran northward to the Chickahominy River, with the left flank near the capital’s northeastern outskirts. There were scattered Confederate outposts north of the Chickahominy, but none farther north than Mechanicsville. Johnston officially reported having 53,688 officers and men, which was less than half the approaching Federal Army of the Potomac.

President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston that he was alarmed to see he had made no defensive preparations along the Mechanicsville turnpike in case the Federals decided to move “toward if not to Richmond” from that road. Davis and his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode out to Johnston’s headquarters at Mechanicsville, just six miles northeast of Richmond, to discuss the matter.

Johnston explained that he had fallen back across the Chickahominy to put the river in his front rather than his rear. He also moved the troops closer to Richmond because that area provided more adequate drinking water. Davis expressed concern that if the Federals broke Johnston’s line, they could march into Richmond within two hours. Davis was also annoyed that Johnston seemed to have no plan other than just trying to hold the Federals back.

Meanwhile, McClellan continued arguing with President Abraham Lincoln over the conditions that Lincoln had placed on Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals joining McClellan on the Peninsula. McClellan wrote:

“I desire that the extent of my authority over McDowell may be clearly defined, lest misunderstandings and conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused. I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing General McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, and holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions.”

While McClellan awaited Lincoln’s response, he received a dispatch from McDowell: “I have received the orders of the President to move with the army under my command and co-operate with yours in the reduction of Richmond.” McDowell could not move until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division. He expected Shields to arrive soon, enabling his army to begin moving toward McClellan on the 24th. McDowell also asked if McClellan could help block the retreat of the small Confederate force opposing him along the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad.

On the 22nd, Lincoln left Washington to confer with McDowell on the Rappahannock River. Admiral John A. Dahlgren and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton joined the president. McDowell showed the Lincoln party an 80-foot-long trestle bridge standing 100 feet above a wide ravine of Potomac Creek.

The bridge had been built from felled trees by engineer Herman Haupt’s Construction Corps. Working around the clock, it took them just 21 days to complete it. The bridge enabled trains to deliver supplies from the mouth of Aquia Creek on the Potomac River to Falmouth, 13 miles away, every hour. Lincoln walked across the bridge, but Stanton became dizzy halfway across and had to be helped back to land by Dahlgren.

Back on the Peninsula, McClellan arrayed his army along a line meant to attack Johnston’s Confederates. The new Federal V Corps under General Fitz John Porter advanced near Mechanicsville, with II and VI corps under Generals Edwin V. Sumner and William B. Franklin northwest of the Chickahominy. General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps was south of the Chickahominy at Seven Pines, about six miles east of Richmond, with General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps five miles behind Keyes. Federals on the far left and right of the line were so close to Richmond they could hear church bells ringing.

As Davis had feared, the Federals took Mechanicsville, which would enable McClellan to link his right with McDowell’s left. Johnston met with Davis in Richmond but still had no plan of action. It seemed that the capital could be saved only if either Johnston attacked preemptively or McDowell failed to join with McClellan. McClellan, still believing he was outnumbered, opted to wait for more troops before pushing forward.

To the Confederates’ good fortune, Lincoln decided to suspend McDowell’s march to join McClellan in response to the Federal defeat at Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. Instead, McDowell’s “object will be to capture the forces of Jackson & Ewell” by sending 20,000 Federals to support the armies of Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont in the Valley.

Knowing that such a decision would cause great resentment among the Federal high command, Lincoln asked Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to help explain to McDowell why this was being done. Lincoln wrote, “It will be a very valuable and very honorable service for General McDowell to cut them off. I hope he will put all possible energy and speed into the effort.” Chase replied, “General McDowell appreciates, as you do, the importance of the service he is called on to perform. All possible exertion is being made by him and the officers under him to expedite the movement.”

Lincoln then wrote McClellan explaining the necessity of withholding McDowell yet again: “In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you…” Lincoln elaborated in a second message:

“Apprehensions of something like this (defeat in the Shenandoah), and no unwillingness to sustain you, have always been my reason for withholding McDowell from you. Please understand this, and do the best you can with the force you have.”

Panic swept Washington when news of the Federal defeat at Winchester arrived. Lincoln, caught up in the frenzy, urgently wrote McClellan, “I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defence of Washington.” Noting the “general and concerted” crisis in the Valley, Lincoln pledged to send as many “such regiments and dribs” as he could to the Peninsula.

McClellan responded, “Telegram received. Independently of it, the time is very near when I shall attack Richmond.” But McClellan disagreed with Lincoln’s fear that the Confederates in the Valley intended to threaten Washington:

“The object of the movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me. All the information from balloons, deserters, prisoners, and contrabands agrees in the statement that the mass of the rebel troops are still in the immediate vicinity of Richmond, ready to defend it.”

McClellan then wrote his wife that Lincoln was “terribly scared. Heaven help a country governed by such counsels… A scare will do them good, and may bring them to their senses.”

Meanwhile, Keyes’s Federals, supported by Heintzelman’s corps, advanced to within five miles of Richmond on the Williamsburg road. But this put McClellan in a vulnerable position. He had two corps isolated south of the Chickahominy and three corps north of it, and now McDowell’s 40,000 men would not be joining him.

The next day, Lincoln asked McClellan, “What impression have you, as to intrenchments–works–for you to contend with in front of Richmond? Can you get near enough to throw shells into the city?” Meanwhile, Lee visited Johnston and learned that he was planning to attack and destroy McClellan’s right flank on the north side of the Chickahominy. Johnston hoped to permanently separate him from McDowell and isolate the rest of his army on the Peninsula.



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