Major General George B. McClellan had planned to take his Federal Army of the Potomac down Chesapeake Bay and land it at Urbanna, on the Virginia coast. However, the withdrawal of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army from the Centreville-Manassas line made that plan untenable. McClellan now planned to move his army further south and land at Fort Monroe, on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers.
But before McClellan put the plan into motion, he wanted to show the Lincoln administration that his four new corps commanders supported his decision. He therefore called a council of war at Fairfax Court House on March 12. The attendees were Major Generals Samuel P. Heintzelman, Irvin McDowell, Edwin Sumner, and Erasmus Keyes, along with army chief engineer John Barnard.
McClellan shared his plan for landing the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula. Fort Monroe, three miles across Hampton Roads from Confederate-held Norfolk, would be the Federals’ supply base. McClellan asserted that not only would a march from Fort Monroe to Richmond be 10 miles shorter than one from Manassas Junction to the same place, but the Peninsula roads were usable any time of year. Even better, the navy could support the advance from the York River. McClellan then left to allow his commanders to discuss.
Sumner voted to support the plan, but only because he thought that McClellan was proposing to still land at Urbanna rather than Fort Monroe. Barnard noted the main obstacle to such a landing: the mighty ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (i.e., Merrimac). The U.S.S. Monitor had recently driven off the Virginia, but she still posed a threat in the Hampton Roads area. Barnard said that the Virginia threat “paralyzes the movements of this army by whatever route is adopted.”
When this was relayed to McClellan, he contacted Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, who was at Fort Monroe, to confirm whether the area was secure: “Can I rely on the Monitor to keep the Merrimac in check so that I can make Fort Monroe a base of operations?” Fox replied, “The Monitor may, and I think will, destroy the Merrimac in the next fight; but this is hope, not certainty.” Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough also reported the area relatively secure.
Based on these reports, the commanders approved McClellan’s plan on the morning of the 13th. But this approval came with four conditions:
- The Virginia must be kept from interfering;
- There must be enough transports on hand to ship the massive army down the coast;
- The Federal navy must neutralize the Confederate guns on the York River;
- A “competent military garrison” must be left at Washington to provide “an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace.” (The generals could not agree on how many men should be left, but the average was around 40,000.)
McClellan and his wife celebrated the approval by hosting a luncheon at his headquarters. He then sent McDowell, an administration favorite, to present the plan and its approval to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. McClellan declared to a reporter for the New York World, “I believe that we are now on the eve of the success for which we have been so long preparing.” That night, Stanton sent the administration’s response:
“The President having considered the plan of operations agreed upon by yourself and the commanders of army corps, makes no objection to the same but gives the following directions as to its execution:
“1st. Leave such force at Manassas Junction as shall make it entirely certain that the enemy shall not repossess himself of that position and line of communication.
“2nd. Leave Washington secure.
“3rd. Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here and there; or, at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.”
Stanton added, “Nothing you can ask of me or this Department will be spared to aid you in every particular.” Because McClellan had recently been removed as general-in-chief of all armies, Stanton created a War Board to help manage the war effort. This board consisted mostly of army advisors, and the most prominent of them was Major General Ethan Allan Hitchcock.
McClellan spent the next day planning to withdraw his army to Alexandria and assign regiments, brigades, and divisions to each of his five corps (the Fifth Corps, under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, was detached in the Shenandoah Valley). He wrote to Samuel L.M. Barlow, his friend and liaison to the Democrats, that he would mark the ultimately defeat over the Confederacy “as the brightest passage of my life.” He also expressed uncharacteristic kindness toward Lincoln: “The President is all right–he is my strongest friend.”
By the 17th, McClellan was finally ready. It had taken over seven months, but he had forged an army strong enough to destroy the Confederacy. The men marched through Alexandria and boarded transports that would take them down the Potomac River, into Chesapeake Bay, and on to Fort Monroe. This would outflank the Confederates on the Rappahannock River and put the army on a lightly defended path leading northwest to Richmond.
The largest army ever assembled in North America embarked on the largest amphibious operation ever attempted in the Western Hemisphere. In an incredible display of logistical prowess, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs assembled 113 steamers, 188 schooners, and 88 barges to transport 121,500 officers and men, 44 artillery batteries bearing 300 guns, 14,592 animals, 1,150 wagons, 74 ambulances, pontoon bridges, telegraph wire, and enormous quantities of supplies and equipment. This effort was supported by a state-of-the-art navy at a cost of nearly $25,000 per day. Assistant Secretary of War John Tucker proudly asserted that “for economy and celerity of movement, this expedition is without parallel on record.” A British military observer called it “the stride of a giant.”
McClellan watched the first group leave the wharf and issued a proclamation to his men that stated in part, “I have held you back that you might give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.” This army was now “a real Army–magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed;–your commanders are all that I could wish. The moment for action has arrived, and I know that I can trust in you to save our country…I will bring you now face to face with the rebels… where I know you wish to be,–on the decisive battlefield.” McClellan continued:
“I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your general loves you from the depths of his heart. It shall be my care, as it has ever been, to gain success with the least possible loss; but I know that, if it is necessary, you will willingly follow me to our graves for our righteous cause… I shall demand of you great, heroic exertions, rapid and long marches, desperate combats, privations perhaps. We will share all these together; and when this sad war is over we will all return to our homes, and feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.”
According to the St. Louis Republican, “There is nothing finer in the published literature of war.” But not everyone was impressed. The Radical Republicans in Congress, arch-enemies of McClellan and his Democratic allies, took exception to the general’s reference to “this sad war” because a war to end slavery (which is what the Radicals wanted) would be anything but sad. Democratic Senator Benjamin Stark noted, “The fire in the rear is a terrific one.”
The 200-mile transfer to Fort Monroe began one day ahead of Lincoln’s deadline and was scheduled to take three weeks. McClellan moved the troops by division, which some saw as a disregard for Lincoln’s corps structure. In a last-minute change, McClellan moved the divisions of McDowell’s corps from first to last in the order of embarkation. This decision later proved fateful.
As the troops headed down the Potomac, McClellan wrote to Stanton, “The worst is over. Rely upon it that I will carry this thing through handsomely.”
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