Their Retreat is Our Defeat

Many important news bulletins came into Washington on Sunday, March 9. There were reports that ironclads were battling off Hampton Roads, Virginia. Then came reports that Confederates had abandoned Leesburg, Virginia, on the upper Potomac River. Then news came that they had abandoned their batteries on the lower Potomac. Then word arrived that the main Confederate army was abandoning the Centreville-Manassas line. All of this directly affected General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s plan to ship his Army of the Potomac down Chesapeake Bay and land at Urbanna, Virginia. If the C.S.S. Virginia proved victorious at Hampton Roads, she could come up and destroy his convoy. If the Confederate army fell back below the Rappahannock River, they would block his Urbanna landing.

McClellan rode out of Washington, confirmed the Confederate withdrawal, and telegraphed, “I am arranging to move forward to push the retreat of rebels as far as possible.” McClellan had said for months that the army of General Joseph E. Johnston was too strong to confront, but now he would hurry his own army to chase it down. As dawn rose on the 10th, the Army of the Potomac began moving out. A reporter for the New York Tribune wrote, “At two o’clock of that day, Gen. McClellan parted with his wife, according to the approved Hector and Andromache fashion, and, amid the waving of handkerchiefs from the most highly-born ladies of Washington… took the field.”

Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

The Federals advanced into northern Virginia, 24 hours too late to catch Johnston’s army. They found little more than wrecked railroad equipment and burned supplies. Even worse, the Federals soon discovered that many of the fortifications that McClellan had considered impregnable were manned by “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to look like cannon. Moreover, the abandoned camps indicated that no more than 50,000 enemy troops, or one-third the size of the force that McClellan had guessed, could have been stationed there. This indicated that McClellan had done nothing to closely reconnoiter Johnston’s fortifications in the eight months that the Confederates had held them.

Bayard Taylor of the New York Tribune submitted his article from what he called “Camp Disappointment, near Centreville.” He wrote, “The fortifications are a damnable humbug and McClellan has been completely fooled.” Another correspondent stated that “the fancied impregnability of the position turns out to be a sham.” Another wrote, “Utterly dispirited, ashamed, and humiliated, I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.”

An article in the Philadelphia Press declared, “If the rebel army, that since July has insolently menaced Washington, now escapes scot free, not all the newspaper panegyrics of the ingenious daring metropolitan editors can maintain that popular confidence in McClellan.” Author Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed “tremendous shock with which we were brought suddenly up against nothing at all!”

Despite this, McClellan maintained that the abandoned defenses were “quite a formidable series of works.” While Johnston had held the line largely through bluff, he had been given enough time to build very strong defenses in certain points, especially overlooking a likely Federal approach northeast from Centreville. McClellan asserted that this area would have been “somewhat uncomfortable for new troops to carry by storm.” The end result was that Confederates were no longer within striking distance of Washington.

Johnston’s withdrawal may have allowed for a deeper Federal probe into Virginia, but Federal officials, particularly the Radical Republicans and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, were generally unimpressed with McClellan’s “hollow victory.” After Major General Irvin McDowell gave him a tour of the Bull Run battlefield, McClellan decided not to “push the retreat” as he had promised and pulled the army back to Alexandria. Thus, the “pursuit” turned out to be just a marching expedition.

The Urbanna plan was no longer tenable, but McClellan did not want to altogether abandon the idea of moving down the Virginia coast. He had recently received word that the U.S.S. Monitor had driven off the Virginia at Hampton Roads, thereby opening the possibility for McClellan to move his army even further down the coast. He could land at Fort Monroe, on the Peninsula formed by the York and James rivers. The fort was already in Federal hands, and from there McClellan could advance 70 miles up to the Confederate capital of Richmond, with only two waterways in his path.

McClellan, having previously discussed this possibility with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, wired him from Fairfax Court House:

“I have just returned from a ride of more than 40 miles… The rebels have left all their positions, and, from the information obtained during our ride to-day, I am satisfied that they have fallen behind the Rapidan (River), holding Fredericksburg and Gordonsville… They left many wagons, some caissons, clothing, ammunition, personal baggage, etc… Having fully consulted with General McDowell, I propose occupying Manassas with a portion of (Nathaniel) Banks’s command, and then at once throwing all forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week… I presume you will approve this course…”


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