McClellan Leaves That Sink of Iniquity

As April began, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac continued to be shuttled via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay from Alexandria, Virginia, to Fort Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. McClellan, still upset about being deprived of Brigadier General Louis Blenker’s 10,000-man division, boarded his headquarters ship Commodore en route to the Peninsula and wrote his wife Ellen, “I feared that if I remained at Alexandria I would be annoyed very much & perhaps be sent for from Washn. Officially speaking, I feel very glad to get away from that sink of iniquity.”

President Abraham Lincoln had one last meeting with McClellan before the general left on the morning of April 1. Afterwards, Lincoln told Senator Orville Browning that he believed McClellan to be an excellent military planner, but “as the hour for action approached he became nervous and oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis, but that he (Lincoln) had given him peremptory orders to move now, and he must do it.”

Prior to his departure, McClellan had been ordered to leave enough Federal troops behind to defend Washington and vicinity in case of a Confederate counterattack. McClellan did not discuss this with either Lincoln or Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton; he instead submitted a memorandum just before leaving that specified the “approximate numbers and positions of the troops left near and in the rear on the Potomac.” By the time this memo reached the War Department, McClellan was already on his way to the Peninsula.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

While McClellan’s corps commanders had recommended leaving 40,000 for capital defense, McClellan reported that he would be leaving nearly double that number. These would consist of a “covering force” that included 35,476 in the Shenandoah Valley, 18,639 in the Manassas-Warrenton sector, and 1,350 along the lower Potomac. Added to the 18,000 troops currently manning the Washington defenses, this totaled 73,465. This seemed more than enough, but after a closer look, the count had several flaws.

McClellan had included Blenker’s division, which was en route to western Virginia, too far to be part of the “covering force.” McClellan transferred many units and double-counted them while in transit. He also relied on troops in the northern states to come down and man several garrisons, even though he had not directly ordered them to do so. In reality, McClellan left only about 13,000 men in the Washington garrisons and another 14,000 in the Manassas-Warrenton sector. And although McClellan counted the troops in the Shenandoah as part of the defenses, memories were still fresh about Shenandoah troops being unable to get to Bull Run in time to prevent defeat last July.

But it was too late for Lincoln and Stanton to discuss this directly with McClellan because he and his staff reached Fort Monroe on the 2nd. By this time, about 58,000 Federals, or more than half the Army of the Potomac, had landed on the Peninsula. This strip of land was roughly 50 miles long and 15 miles wide at its widest. McClellan’s army would have to march over the Peninsula’s sandy ground, through dense woods, and across several waterways to get to the Confederate capital at Richmond, 70 miles away.

McClellan planned to quickly advance and establish a supply base at the head of the York near West Point. From there, he would fight the “decisive” battle between West Point and Richmond. His first obstacle would be Yorktown, a tobacco port where Lord Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington to end the War for Independence in 1781. Major General John B. Magruder defended Yorktown with his 15,000-man Army of the Peninsula.

McClellan intended to send three divisions directly against Yorktown while two others moved around the town on the James River side. To do this, McClellan would need support from the Federal gunboats on the York and James rivers, and to that end, he met with Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, aboard the U.S.S. Minnesota.

Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox had written Goldsborough, “I should like to see you knock down the town (Yorktown) for them, they consider it as saving several months in the campaign.” But Goldsborough feared that the Confederate batteries on shore might be too strong for his wooden gunboats; naval officials later asserted that their artillery could not reach the Confederates on the high bluffs anyway. Goldsborough also asserted that he needed most of his force to guard against the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (i.e., Merrimac): “I dare not leave the Merrimack and consorts unguarded.”

Back at Washington, Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, a former New York politician and current D.C. military governor, discovered the questionable math on McClellan’s roster of troops left behind. Acknowledging that a Confederate attack on the capital was “very improbable,” Wadsworth notified Stanton that only about 13,000 soldiers were available to man the Washington defenses. Lincoln “was justly indignant” when this was brought to his attention, and it raised administration concern over whether McClellan had left the capital “entirely secure” as instructed.

Two of McClellan’s army corps remained in the Washington area, waiting to be transferred to the Peninsula–the First and Second corps of Major Generals Irvin McDowell and Edwin V. Sumner respectively. Before leaving Alexandria, McClellan had directed Sumner to bring his corps to the Peninsula next, with McDowell’s to follow only after the rest of the army was approaching Richmond.

By this time, the Confederates in northern Virginia had fallen back to Fredericksburg and Orange Court House, and the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley had withdrawn to Mount Jackson. Nevertheless, Stanton and Lincoln concluded that Washington needed more protection against an unlikely Confederate attack. One of McClellan’s corps would need to be held back. Lincoln told Stanton to choose one, and Stanton picked McDowell’s. McClellan had initially scheduled McDowell’s corps to head to the Peninsula first, but now it would not be going at all. There were some 40,000 men in this corps, which comprised about a third of McClellan’s army.

Lincoln issued the order to McClellan through Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas: “The President, deeming the force to be left in front of Washington insufficient to insure its safety, has directed that McDowell’s army corps should be detached from the forces operating under your immediate direction.” Lincoln explained the order in a personal letter to McClellan: “I was satisfied with your arrangements to leave Banks at Manassas Junction, but when that arrangement was broken up (i.e., when Banks went to the Shenandoah Valley) and nothing was substituted for it of course I was not satisfied.”

To make things worse for McClellan, he was also informed that the 10,000-man Federal garrison at Fort Monroe would not be available for his use. This left McClellan with 60,000 fewer men than he expected to have on the Peninsula (Blenker’s 10,000, McDowell’s 40,000, and the 10,000 at Fort Monroe). However, he still had a tremendous advantage in manpower over Magruder’s small army at Yorktown. As such, Lincoln directed that “Gen. McClellan commence his forward movement from his new base at once.”

McClellan had not yet gotten word that McDowell was being held back when he sent an optimistic report to Stanton on the 3rd. He expressed confidence that Goldsborough’s fleet would neutralize the Virginia, and his only problem with the upcoming advance was “the scarcity of wagons.” McClellan wrote his wife, “I hope to get possession of Yorktown day after tomorrow. Shall then arrange to make the York River my line of supplies… The great battle will be (I think) near Richmond as I have always hoped & thought.”


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