The Most Infamous Thing That History Has Recorded

On the morning of April 4, Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign officially began. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac had been transported by sea down the Virginia coast to the strip of land between the York and James rivers, southeast of the Confederate capital at Richmond. McClellan had told his wife Ellen, “The grass will not grow under my feet.” He proved this by directing a two-column advance up the Peninsula just 36 hours after arriving on the scene. McClellan hoped to capture the port city of Yorktown and use it as a base from which to continue advancing to Richmond.

As the army went into motion, 55,000 strong, it was immediately clear that this was not the same army that had been routed at Bull Run last July. This was a well-trained, well-disciplined army of men who moved with precision and were eager to please their beloved commander. Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps comprised the right column, which moved directly toward Yorktown. The left column, which was Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps, advanced on Halfway House, four and a half miles beyond the Confederate flank at Yorktown. Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps followed Heintzelman in reserve. Meanwhile, Federal troops continued arriving from northern Virginia.

McClellan instructed Heintzelman, “Do not attack unless you see that the rebels are actually evacuating the place. I wish to cut off their retreat with Keyes’ column before pressing them on our right.” But some unexpected problems soon emerged. The Virginia roads that were supposed to be passable all year round were composed of almost bottomless mud. Spring rains swelled the waterways and made the roads even worse; wagons, cannon, and even horses and mules sank nearly out of sight during the march.

Another problem for McClellan was that the navy could not offer its promised support on the York River because the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia had reappeared to threaten Federal shipping in Chesapeake Bay. And the Confederates had dammed the Warwick River in five places, thereby flooding areas that the Federals’ Coastal Survey maps had showed to be perfectly suitable for an army to advance.

The Federals advanced nonetheless, and the thin line of Confederate defenders quickly abandoned Big Bethel, where they had defeated a much smaller Federal force last June. The Confederates fell back to the main defenses, manned by Major General John B. Magruder’s small Army of the Peninsula. Magruder had strong fortifications from the York River to beyond the Lee’s Mill Road. McClellan’s corps commanders had told him that naval support would be needed to reduce the fortifications on the York.

Maj Gen J.B. Magruder | Image Credit:

By this time, General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had transferred three of General Joseph E. Johnston’s six divisions from the Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line in northern Virginia to the Peninsula. This gave Magruder about 31,500 men either in his defenses or on their way. Lee left three divisions with Johnston because, despite reports of many Federals on the Peninsula, Lee still could not be sure that the main attack would be there.

The Federals held a clear numerical and strategic advantage. McClellan reached out to Major General Irvin McDowell, whose 40,000-man First Corps was slated to join the main army on the Peninsula soon, and stated that he intended to attack Gloucester, across the river from Yorktown. McClellan expected McDowell to arrive the next day and start landing his troops up the York from Gloucester to cut the town’s supply line and stand poised to take Yorktown from the rear.

By the end of the 4th, McClellan had about 67,000 men with more on the way. His advance was going according to plan so far, with Magruder falling back to exactly where McClellan expected him to put up a fight. McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that evening, “I expect to fight tomorrow, as I shall endeavor to cut the communication between Yorktown and Richmond.” McClellan told his wife, “Everything has worked well today–I have gained some strong positions without fighting & shall try some more maneuvering tomorrow.”

But the Federals woke to pouring rain on the 5th. A Federal officer described the condition of the roads: “The entire surface for miles is under layed by ‘quick-sands’ which give way as soon as teams begin to cross over the surface–such depth of mud & such frightful roads I never saw.” Keyes, who had been directed to outflank Yorktown, discovered that the only practical river crossings were at the Warwick River dams, which were guarded by a “large force with three guns in position and strong breastworks.” McClellan had hoped to surprise the Confederates by taking this route, but now Keyes informed him “that we shall encounter very serious resistance.”

Keyes later learned from two fugitive slaves that the Confederates were deeply entrenched, and the roads were nearly impassable due to the heavy rain. Keyes hesitated sending this news to McClellan “in the hope that I might get some positive information, but I as yet have not succeeded.” This shocked McClellan, who had boasted that the roads on the Peninsula were passable all year around.

Even worse, Keyes reported seeing thousands of Confederates moving throughout his front. He was unaware that “Prince John” Magruder was using his enjoyment of theatrics by marching his men in circles through clearings to make it seem to the Federals that endless numbers of enemy troops opposed them. Magruder also employed “Quaker guns,” or logs painted to resemble cannon. Keyes reported that “no part of the line, so far discovered, can be taken by assault without an enormous waste of human life.” Diarist Mary Chesnut wrote of Magruder, “It was a wonderful thing, how he played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies and utterly deluded him.”

Meanwhile, Heintzelman’s corps arrived in front of the Yorktown earthworks and began exchanging fire with the defenders. McClellan and all three of his corps commanders (Heintzelman, Keyes, and Sumner) agreed with the Federal chief engineer in calling the Confederate defenses along the Yorktown-Warwick River line “certainly one of the most extensive known to modern times.”

Rather than risk heavy losses in a frontal assault, McClellan sent orders to his quartermaster at Fort Monroe “to forward without delay… the siege train and mortars.” McClellan explained to Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the nearby Federal naval fleet, “Our neighbors are in a very strong position… I cannot turn Yorktown without a battle, in which I must use heavy artillery & go through the preliminary operations of a siege.”

While laying out the plans to besiege Yorktown, McClellan finally received the message that McDowell’s First Corps would not be joining the main army on the Peninsula. In fact, not only was McDowell’s corps being withheld, it was turned into its own military Department of the Rappahannock. This suggested that its detachment from McClellan’s army would be permanent. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Fifth Corps of McClellan’s army, now in the Shenandoah Valley, was likewise made its own Department of the Shenandoah. McClellan quickly fired off a response headed, “Near Yorktown, 7:30 p.m.”:

“In my deliberate judgment, the success of our cause will be imperiled by so greatly reducing my force when it is actually under the fire of the enemy and active operations have commenced… I am now of the opinion that I shall have to fight all the available forces of the rebels not far from here. Do not force me to do so with diminished numbers.”

McClellan asked to have at least the division under McDowell that was led by one of his favorites, Major General William Franklin, to no avail. Many Federal officers were angered by Lincoln’s decision. One of McClellan’s staffers noted, “Some are discouraged, others lose control of their language or sulk in silence, one even hears talk of calling upon the nation, upon the army, for a coup d’état.” Franklin wrote, “The bad faith to McClellan was such an outrageous thing.” Heintzelman stated, “At what a time to do such a thing. It is a great outrage.” Keyes opined, “The plan to which we are reduced bears scarcely any resemblance to the one I voted for.”

To his wife, McClellan called Lincoln’s decision to withhold McDowell’s corps “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”

The perception of strong defenses kept McClellan from attacking Magruder’s small, vulnerable force. McClellan’s decision to besiege Yorktown rather than attack quickly signaled to the Confederate high command that the main Federal thrust toward Richmond would come from the Peninsula. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army in northern Virginia, soon transferred more troops to reinforce the Yorktown defenders. But Magruder was pessimistic. “I have made my arrangements to fight with my small force,” he reported, “but without the slightest hope of success.”


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