We Must Abandon the Peninsula at Once

On April 17, General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Yorktown on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. From there, Johnston assumed command of the Confederate army holding the defensive line from Yorktown along the Warwick River. That army now consisted of his own Army of the Potomac and Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Johnston’s new command included both the Virginia Peninsula and Norfolk.

By this time, five of Johnston’s seven divisions had arrived or were on their way to reinforce the Yorktown-Warwick River line on the Peninsula. Magruder’s Confederates held the right, or southern, end of the line, Major General James Longstreet’s division held the center, and Major General D.H. Hill held the left. To the left of Hill were the works at Yorktown on one bank of the York, and Gloucester on the other. The total number of Confederate defenders was now up to 53,000, but this was still not half the total of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Of Johnston’s two remaining divisions, one (8,000 men under Major General Richard Ewell) remained on the Rappahannock River line in northern Virginia at Brandy Station, and one (6,000 men under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson) was in the Shenandoah Valley at Mount Jackson. A third force, the Army of the Northwest under Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, consisted of about 3,000 men in the Valley west of Staunton.

President Jefferson Davis arranged for Ewell and Jackson to send their correspondence through his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rather than Johnston, who was now busy arranging defenses on the Peninsula. Due to the delicacy of military protocol, Lee had to be careful not to offend Johnston by infringing on his authority when communicating with Ewell and Jackson.

In northern Virginia, the Federal troops of Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock arrived at their namesake river north of Richmond after a forced march from Washington. This army, formerly the First Corps in the Army of the Potomac, had been slated to join the Peninsula campaign but was withheld by President Abraham Lincoln to block any Confederate attempt to threaten Washington.

By the time McDowell arrived, the Confederates had burned all the nearby bridges and abandoned the town of Fredericksburg, just across the Rappahannock. McDowell did not move to take Fredericksburg because the river was too wide, and the primary movement was to be McClellan’s on the Peninsula. McClellan continued to plead with Washington to send him McDowell’s troops, despite now having over 100,000 of his own.

Farther west, two Federal armies under Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont threatened the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia. This immense accumulation of Federal troops in Virginia represented their greatest opportunity to destroy the Confederates since the war began. McClellan, McDowell, Banks, and Fremont all faced vastly inferior opponents that could have been easily destroyed if any of the Federal commanders made a determined effort to do so. But none did.

Although McClellan wanted McDowell’s entire force to reinforce him, he settled for one of McDowell’s divisions, consisting of 12,000 Federals under Brigadier General William B. Franklin. This gave McClellan an even greater manpower advantage. Meanwhile, Johnston directed Confederates to repair bridges over the Chickahominy River, 20 miles in his rear, in case he needed to retreat. Johnston knew that his army was vulnerable to destruction if McClellan decided to launch an all-out attack. But he also knew that McClellan was too cautious to try such a thing.

Franklin’s Federals began arriving on the Peninsula on the 19th. McClellan welcomed the reinforcements, even though he was planning to go ahead with siege operations with or without them. He was now confident of victory, as he wrote his wife Ellen, “I know exactly what I am about, & am confident that with God’s blessing I shall utterly defeat them.”

McClellan was further emboldened when he learned from spies that Lee was now Johnston’s superior in the Confederate order of command. He shared this news with President Abraham Lincoln and added, “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” because he believed that Lee was “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility… wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.”

By April 23, the Federals on the Peninsula had positioned six 10-gun batteries of 13-inch siege mortar cannon about two miles outside Yorktown. However, McClellan would not begin firing until his remaining nine batteries were put in place. McClellan telegraphed Lincoln, “Do not misunderstand the apparent inaction here. Not a day, not an hour has been lost. Works have been constructed that may almost be called gigantic.”

Positioning Federal guns in front of Yorktown | Image Credit: Wikipedia

This unprecedented display of artillery disturbed Johnston enough to begin preparing for the worst. On the 27th, Johnston notified Richmond that the Federal batteries would be ready to pound the Confederates into submission in the first week of May, and as such, Johnston would be forced to abandon the Yorktown-Warwick line. He informed his superiors that supplies could be diverted to the Richmond area for his troops “in the event of our being compelled to fall back from this point.” He asked for officials to have 100 wagons filled with supplies waiting for his men when they fell back to Richmond.

Johnston reiterated the proposal he had offered during the meeting with the president and other top officials in Richmond: fall back to a stronger position closer to Richmond, gather reinforcements from other sectors in the Confederacy and counterattack. He then directed Major General Benjamin Huger to prepare to evacuate Norfolk and secure as much equipment and supplies as possible from the Gosport Navy Yard there.

Johnston wrote to Flag Officer Josiah Tatnall, commander of the Confederate naval fleet, asking him to use the C.S.S. Virginia to attack the Federal transports on the York River. Tatnall objected because 1) such an action would leave the Virginia exposed to Federal shore batteries, 2) the Virginia could not break through the Federal warships guarding the transports, and 3) such a mission would leave Norfolk undefended.

Two days later, Johnston once again announced that he would most likely have to abandon the Yorktown-Warwick line. He wrote, “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful… We must abandon the Peninsula at once… I shall therefore move as soon as can be done conveniently…”

He expounded further in a letter written on the 30th: “We are engaged in a species of warfare at which we can never win. It is plain that General McClellan will adhere to the system adopted by him last summer and depend for success upon artillery and engineering. We can compete with him in neither.” Johnston contended that it would be better to give up Norfolk than to lose the army, and he again proposed falling back to positions outside Richmond. Johnston even suggested invading the North while General P.G.T. Beauregard somehow led his battered Confederate army out of Corinth to invade Ohio. Once again, Davis and Lee refused.

Gen J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Maratanza began bombarding the forts at Yorktown and Gloucester on either side of the York River. Even with all his superior firepower, McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Would be glad to have the 30-pounder Parrotts in the works around Washington. Am short of that excellent gun.”

While both sides prepared for battle, political differences began to brew within the Federal army. Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, a brigade commander in the Second Corps, wrote to Samuel Barlow, a prominent Democratic politician who was close with McClellan:

“With regard to the rumors you mentioned to me as intimating a serious difference between our general in chief and the Government, I heard of such (or something like such) a day or two after we disembarked. Since then have heard nothing–I understood that McDowell had played what the officers of the Regular Army and General McClellan’s friends regarded as a ‘scurvy trick’ in his taking advantage of the latter’s absence in this quarter to get a Corps d’Armee, and so withdraw some 50,000 men from this critical field of operations…”

Another powerful Democrat, August Belmont, wrote to Barlow, “The conduct of the Administration against McClellan is really disgraceful & wicked, it shows once more that instead of patriots & statesmen we have only partizans at the head of government.” Belmont stated that only disaster would result now that “the chief command of the army was taken from the hands of the most unquestionable capacity to be put upon the weak shoulders of civilians.”

As April ended, Federal prospects for victory on the Peninsula seemed very bright. McClellan reported that he had 112,392 officers and men present for duty. They even had some of the best people to care for their sick and wounded, as the U.S. Sanitary Commission hospital ship Daniel Webster arrived at the York River with Commission General Secretary Frederick Law Olmstead and several top surgeons, physicians, and nurses.

Conversely, Confederate hopes were sinking, as Johnston most likely had no more than 50,000 effectives, with many others having been lost to illness, exposure, and fatigue.


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