You Better Break the Enemies’ Line

By April 6, most of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac had arrived on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. The glaring exception was the First Corps, which had been detached from McClellan’s army and redesignated the Army of the Rappahannock. McClellan’s Federals were poised to overrun the small Confederate garrison at Yorktown, and President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited word that the town had been taken.

As it became clear that Yorktown would not fall anytime soon, Lincoln telegraphed McClellan: “You now have over one hundred thousand troops with you, independent of General (John) Wool’s command (at Fort Monroe). I think you better break the enemies’ line from York-town to Warwick River, at once. They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can.”

McClellan, still seething over being denied McDowell’s services, wrote his wife Ellen that Lincoln “thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”

Ignoring Lincoln’s advice to attack immediately, McClellan instead began “the more tedious, but sure operations of siege.” His reluctance to attack partly stemmed from the performance by Confederate Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Known as “Prince John” for his affinity for theatrics, Magruder had his artillerists sporadically fire on enemy troops, his bands play loudly into the night, and his infantry march in and out of clearings to look like endless lines of troops.

Maj Gen J.B. Magruder | Image Credit:

But Magruder did not believe his line could hold for long. He reported to General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, that Federal observation balloons had been spying his defenses, and “They discovered a weak point.” He concluded that “numbers must prevail,” adding, “Reinforcements come very slowly, and will probably be too late.” General Joseph E. Johnston was in the process of transferring his Confederate army from his Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line to Magruder’s. Johnston’s troops were met with loud cheers by grateful residents as they marched through Richmond on the way to the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock reported that his Federals had found a gap in the enemy line at Dam Number 1. Brigadier General William “Baldy” Smith, Hancock’s superior, hoped to send Hancock’s Federals forward to exploit the breach. But orders from headquarters prohibited any forward movements until the engineers inspected the Confederate lines. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman found a similar gap at Wynn’s Mill, but he stated that “the siege was determined upon without my being consulted.”

The next day, McClellan relayed reports of the difficulties the Federals would have in crossing the Warwick River. He informed Washington that the waterway “grows worse the more you look at it.” McClellan asserted that a third of his army still had not yet arrived from Alexandria, and he fully believed the false testimony from Confederates captured outside Yorktown: “It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more… When my present command all joins (from Alexandria), I shall have about 85,000 men for duty, from which a large force must be taken for guards, escort, etc.”

McClellan’s chronic tendency to inflate enemy numbers while minimizing his own only became worse now that his army was finally on the Peninsula. He told Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “All the prisoners state that Gen J.E. Johnston arrived in Yorktown yesterday with strong reinforcements. It seems clear… In consequence of the loss of (Louis) Blenkers Division (which had been detached from McClellan for service in the Shenandoah Valley) & the First Corps my force is possibly less than that of the enemy…”

McClellan also reminded Lincoln that he (Lincoln) had made Major General John Wool’s command at Fort Monroe unavailable to the Army of the Potomac, thus implying that more troops were needed. On the same day that he reported having 85,000 men to Washington, McClellan told Wool that he only had 68,000 effectives. Meanwhile, the Federals continued digging trenches to lay siege to Yorktown, and Johnston’s Confederates continued pouring into Magruder’s strengthening defenses.

The Federal army remained stationary for four days, during which time Magruder’s force gradually increased with the arriving reinforcements. But Magruder’s force was nowhere near the 100,000-man army that McClellan feared it to be; in fact, it was still no match for McClellan’s superior numbers. McClellan nevertheless continued preparations to besiege the enemy defenses rather than attack them head-on.

Lincoln’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay shared messages regarding McClellan’s inactivity. Hay wrote, “Glorious news comes borne on every wind but the South Wind. The little Napoleon sits trembling before the handful of men at Yorktown, afraid either to fight or run. Stanton feels devilish about it. He would like to remove him if he thought it would do.”

Lincoln met with his cabinet on the 9th to discuss the progress on the Peninsula so far and the “discrepancy” in McClellan’s April 7 message between the number of troops he claimed to have and the enemy numbers he claimed to be facing. It was becoming clear that those critical of McClellan’s lack of results were growing increasingly critical of Lincoln for keeping McClellan in command.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

After the meeting, Lincoln wrote a long letter to McClellan. In it, the president addressed the general’s claims that the administration was not giving him what he needed for success: “Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much.” Lincoln explained further why McDowell’s corps had been kept back on the Rappahannock line: “My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected.”

McClellan had originally planned for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Fifth Corps to protect Washington, but that corps had been sent to the Shenandoah Valley. Regarding this Lincoln wrote, “And allow me to ask, do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops?”

Lincoln then stated that McClellan’s April 7 message contained “a curious mystery”: McClellan’s original troop report had listed 108,000 men, but as of the 7th that figure had dropped to 85,000. Lincoln asked, “How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?” The president told McClellan that he should have his entire army on the Peninsula by now, and then advised:

“Once more let me tell you that it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments in either place. The country will not fail to note–is now noting–that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated. I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.”

McClellan “acted” by proceeding with a siege against an enemy that could have been easily overrun if attacked by the Federal forces at hand. He also continued to insist that the absence of McDowell’s corps left him in hostile territory against an army with superior numbers. Reconnaissance of enemy lines from observation balloons did nothing to dissuade McClellan from believing he was outnumbered. To counter critics, McClellan leaked his intelligence reports inflating the Confederate numbers to the press. A reporter worried, “By the time the roads are in condition for the Union Army to move the rebels may be able to meet them with one hundred thousand men.”

At Richmond, General Lee received a message from a minister in Alexandria stating that thousands of Federals, including McClellan himself, had boarded steamers and gone to the Virginia Peninsula. This coincided with Magruder’s reports stating that McClellan’s main army was facing him at Yorktown. This finally confirmed that the main Federal attack would be on the Peninsula.

President Davis therefore ordered Johnston to send his entire army to that sector except for a guarding force on the Rappahannock line. Johnston complied by sending his two best divisions–those of Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith–to Richmond for reassignment to the Peninsula. Major General Richard Ewell’s 7,500-man Confederate division remained on the Rappahannock, ready to cooperate with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 5,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley if needed.

One of G.W. Smith’s brigades was left to defend Fredericksburg against McDowell’s corps. On the 10th, Lincoln relented and allowed McDowell’s lead division under Major General William B. Franklin, one of McClellan’s favorite commanders, to go to the Peninsula by water. McClellan had pleaded for McDowell’s entire corps to join him, but he was glad to get at least one division for now. McDowell was instructed to “make no movement throwing your forces out of position for the discharge of this primary duty.”

Two days later, J.E. Johnston arrived at Richmond with Longstreet and Smith and was given command of the Confederate Departments of Norfolk and the Peninsula. Johnston had asserted that he could not stop McClellan’s army from moving up the Peninsula because, even with Confederate reinforcements, he was still outnumbered nearly three-to-one. But Lee persuaded Johnston to make a stand.

When Johnston arrived at Yorktown on the 13th, there were about 34,000 troops manning the defenses in what soon became known as the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston inspected the lines as Magruder expressed astonishment that McClellan had “permitted day after day to elapse without an assault.” After inspecting the defenses, Johnston determined that they could not withstand a frontal assault. He also expressed concern that defending the Peninsula would allow McClellan to move troops up either river and land in his rear. McClellan was Johnston’s only saving grace: “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

Opposing the Confederates were nearly 100,000 Federals of the Second, Third, and Fourth corps of Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes respectively. Franklin’s division of McDowell’s corps was held in reserve. With Franklin’s men arriving, McClellan wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I am confident as to results now. We shall soon be at them, and I am sure of the result.”

Federal optimism increased when the rains finally stopped and the skies cleared. With the roads improving, Federal scouts reconnoitered the enemy right flank near Lee’s Mill and the Warwick River and found potential weaknesses.


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