The Siege of Yorktown: Confederate Response

By this time, a Confederate force now known as the Army of Northern Virginia was holding the port city of Yorktown on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Facing the Confederates was a Federal army three times their size. Major General George B. McClellan, the Federal commander, began directing placement of his heavy siege artillery, opting to lay siege to Yorktown rather than risk a head-on assault. Despite his overwhelming advantage in numbers, McClellan believed the Confederate army was much larger than it truly was.

As part of the siege, McClellan needed the Federal navy to neutralize the two forts on either side of the York River at Yorktown and Gloucester. But this would not be easy. Even though the Federals had a decided advantage in technology with rifled versus smoothbore artillery, the Confederates had 33 guns commanding the entire width of the 1,200-yard river. These gunners did not have to rely on accuracy like the Federal gunboats did. And the forts were on bluffs above the river, possibly too high for the Federals elevate their guns. Moreover, the best Federal ships remained in Chesapeake Bay guarding against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. So if the navy would be attacking these forts at all, they would be doing it at less than full strength.

McClellan urged Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to send his ships past the forts under cover of darkness to land troops behind them, but Goldsborough declined. This prompted McClellan to try to find other ways to penetrate the Yorktown defenses. He soon learned from scouts that there could be a weakness in the Confederate line near Lee’s Mill. McClellan directed the Fourth Corps under Major General Erasmus D. Keyes to exploit it. If the Federals were break the line, McClellan assured Keyes that reinforcements “will be promptly afforded.”

Meanwhile, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, the new commander of the Department of the Peninsula and Norfolk, returned to Richmond after inspecting the Yorktown defenses. Johnston reported to President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s top advisor, that the defenses were unsatisfactory. Davis called a council of war that included Lee, Johnston, Secretary of War George W. Randolph, and Johnston’s two top subordinates, Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith.

Gen J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

The conference began at 11 a.m. on April 14 and lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning. Johnston continued to argue that defending Yorktown was a waste of resources. The smoothbore cannon at Yorktown and Gloucester was no match for the Federals’ state-of-the-art rifled cannon. There were not enough troops to man the eight-mile-long defensive line, and it was only a matter of time before McClellan’s massive army overran the works. Once this was done, the Confederates at Yorktown could become trapped and the path to the Confederate capital of Richmond would be wide open.

On top of this, most of the Confederate army’s 12-month enlistments were about to expire. Many of the troops going home would be replaced by draftees under the Confederate Conscription Act, but this would require a massive reorganization, during which time a major battle must be avoided at all costs.

Johnston strongly urged that the Confederates abandon the Yorktown-Warwick River line and take up stronger positions closer to Richmond. He also proposed that the army be reinforced by all Confederate troops in Virginia as well as the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia. They would then attack McClellan, who at that time would be nearly 100 miles from his supply base at Fort Monroe.

Johnston also offered an alternative plan in which a token force under Major General John B. Magruder would hold the Yorktown-Warwick line while Johnston led the bulk of the Confederate army in an invasion of the North. This would “call McClellan to his own capital,” and force him to abandon the Peninsula.

However, these proposals would probably mean losing not only Yorktown but the vital Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk as well. Randolph, a former naval officer, argued that abandoning the navy yard would mean losing the Virginia because she was too unseaworthy to escape into the bay and did not have enough draft to move up the James River to Richmond. Losing Norfolk would also leave the Confederacy without a prime naval base from which to build vessels to break the Federal blockade.

Lee also opposed abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line. He asserted that pulling troops from the coastal defenses would leave Charleston and Savannah open for easy capture. Johnston countered that those losses could be regained once McClellan was defeated. Smith sided with Johnston’s proposal to invade the North. When Longstreet was asked for an opinion, he said that McClellan, being a skilled and deliberate engineer, would most likely not be ready to advance on Yorktown until the beginning of May. Longstreet added:

“The President interrupted, and spoke of McClellan’s high attainments and capacity in a style indicating that he did not care to hear any one talk who did not have the same appreciation of our great adversary. McClellan had been a special favorite with Mr. Davis when he was Secretary of War in the Pierce administration, and he seemed to take such reflections upon his favorites as somewhat personal. From the hasty interruption I concluded that my opinion had only been asked through polite recognition of my presence, not that it was wanted, and said no more.”

The meeting adjourned for dinner and then resumed at Davis’s home at 7 p.m. As the discussion went on, Davis held back judgment but slowly began to side with Lee. After midnight, Davis finally broke the stalemate by voicing support for defending the Yorktown-Warwick River line. Johnston was to continue moving the bulk of his army to that line and absorb Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula into his. Davis declared that the Confederates would have to fight at some point, and they would have much less of a chance at winning if they were closer to Richmond. Johnston complied with the decision, but he also began preparations to withdraw to Richmond and implement his plan later.

On the Federal side, Keyes directed his 2nd Division under Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith to probe for potential weaknesses at Dam Number 1. This dam was situated to the right of Yorktown, near the center of the Confederate line. After an artillery bombardment on the 16th, Smith launched a reconnaissance in force in which the Federals easily took the enemy rifle pits, seized Burnt Chimneys, and stopped the Confederates from working on a battery and earthworks. The Federals were poised to push even farther into the Confederate interior; a general assault might have even destroyed the Confederates’ center and opened the path to Richmond.

But the Confederates counterattacked, and McClellan ordered, “Upon reflection I think it will, under present circumstances, be wiser to confine the operation to forcing the enemy to discontinue work.” Federals’ call for reinforcements went unanswered, and they fell back. Smith tried to retake the position later that night, but by that time Confederate strength was too great. The Federals sustained 165 casualties in successfully stopping the Confederates from working on the defenses. But they could have accomplished much more had they been reinforced.

In response to President Abraham Lincoln’s request for a progress report, McClellan stated that he was still arranging to besiege Yorktown and needed reinforcements. He thanked Lincoln for sending him Major General William B. Franklin’s division as reinforcement, and reported, “Siege guns & ammunition coming up very satisfactorily–shall have nearly all up tomorrow. The tranquility of Yorktown is nearly at an end.” Meanwhile, Confederate resistance at Burnt Chimneys and other points near Lee’s Mill gave Johnston time to hurry more Confederates to the Peninsula.


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