The Peninsula Campaign: Confederate Response

General Joseph E. Johnston had withdrawn his Confederate Army of the Potomac from the Centreville-Manassas line in Virginia southward to a line on the Rappahannock River. This was intended to better protect and provide for his numerically inferior army. On March 18, Johnston received intelligence that the Federals planned to move by water down Chesapeake Bay and land somewhere on the Virginia coast. He therefore pulled back further south to the Rapidan River, where he could better defend the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The Confederate high command still did not know where Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac would strike. But a strong clue came on the 24th when Major General Benjamin Huger, commanding the Confederate department at Norfolk, reported that 20 steam transports had moved down Chesapeake Bay and were debarking Federal troops at Old Point Comfort.

Major General John B. Magruder, defending the area between the York and James rivers with his small 7,500-man Army of the Peninsula, confirmed Huger’s message and estimated that 35,000 Federals were now in the vicinity. He stated, “The enemy are evidently concentrating their forces against this line,” and urgently called on Richmond for reinforcements.

President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, believed that these Federals would either reinforce Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside in North Carolina, reinforce the 10,000 Federals already at Fort Monroe to attack Norfolk while McClellan threatened Richmond from the north, or directly advance up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers.

Lee asked Johnston if he could spare any troops for Magruder and instructed him, “It will be necessary for you to organize a part of your troops to hold your present line, and to prepare the remainder to move to this city, to be thrown on the point attacked.” Lee explained that since the Federal intentions were still unknown, if he received “a dispatch saying ‘Move at once,’ you will understand that you are to repair immediately to this city, where you will be informed to what point you are to direct your course.”

That dispatch came on March 27, when Lee ordered Johnston to send 10,000 troops to Magruder via Richmond. This order came due to concern that Federal troops could be moved via transport up the York River and landed behind Magruder’s lines.

Johnston argued that relinquishing 10,000 men would make him unable to defend his line on the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg line if attacked. And 10,000 was not enough for Magruder to hold his ground against an attack on the Peninsula. Johnston recommended that he either stay intact where he was or move his entire army to reinforce Magruder. Johnston wrote, “We cannot win without concentrating. Should my suggestion be approved say so by telegraph, and the movement will be made with all expedition from Fredericksburg and this place.”

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, McClellan provided details of his plan to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. His army would land at Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, then move 55 miles northwest and establish a supply base at West Point, where the Pamunkey and Mattapony rivers merged to form the York. The key to success would be the capture of Yorktown as quickly as possible, and for this, naval support “should at once concentrate upon the York River all their available and most powerful batteries.” Without naval support, McClellan would have to lay siege to Yorktown, which could take several weeks.

McClellan wrote to the army’s chief engineer on the 28th, “The first operation will be the capture of Yorktown & Gloucester, this may involve a siege (at least I go prepared for one) in case the Navy is not able to afford the means of destroying the rebel batteries at these points.” Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, commanding the naval fleet in the Fort Monroe area, pledged to help McClellan as best he could, but his priority was to guard against the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia stationed at Norfolk. Moreover, Goldsborough only had seven wooden gunboats, and they were not powerful enough to silence the Yorktown-Gloucester batteries.

As McClellan worked to get all the support he could find for his Peninsula campaign, President Abraham Lincoln faced mounting pressure from the Radicals in his party to focus more on their darling, Major General John C. Fremont. Lincoln had recently put Fremont in charge of the new Mountain Department, and now Fremont and his allies were asking for more men to accomplish a mission that Lincoln had long wanted done: invade eastern Tennessee and capture Knoxville. Fremont wrote Stanton on the 30th, “I can do work if you will let me have immediately twenty-thousand men.” He then concluded his message with a lower estimate: “Pray let me have ten to twelve thousand men from the East, so that I may take the field immediately.”

Fremont specifically asked for the 10,000-man division in the Shenandoah Valley led by Brigadier General Louis Blenker. This division, comprised mostly of German immigrants who supported Fremont’s abolitionism, belonged to McClellan’s army. Lincoln had assured McClellan that he would not send Blenker to Fremont because the only reason for it would be political. But by the end of March, Lincoln apparently changed his mind (the recent Confederate activity in the Valley may have played a part). Lincoln wrote McClellan on the 31st:

“This morning I felt constrained to order Blenker’s division to Fremont; and I write this to assure you that I did so with great pain, understanding that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case I am confident that you would justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgement that the Commander in Chief may order what he pleases. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”

McClellan visited Lincoln at the White House that night, and despite the disappointment of losing a division, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay noted that McClellan “was much more pleasant and social in manner than formerly. He seems to be anxious for the good opinion of everyone.” McClellan told the president, “I cheerfully acquiesce in your decision without any mental reservation.” According to McClellan, Lincoln told him that he “might rest assured that the campaign should proceed with no further deductions from the force upon which its operations had been planned.”

With this in mind, McClellan left Alexandria for the Peninsula the next day.


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