As elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed at Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula, President Abraham Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the five-gun Treasury cutter Miami, bound for Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s secretary stated that the president was going “to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the army and navy at that point.” Lincoln also wanted to see if the fall of Yorktown might cause the fall of Norfolk, and with it the capture of the fearsome ironclad C.S.S. Virginia.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was part of the group Lincoln had brought with him, contacted Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, once they landed. McClellan was then at Williamsburg arranging for the Federals to continue their advance up the Peninsula. Stanton invited him to come down to Fort Monroe to discuss operations, but McClellan replied that “in the present state of affairs… it is really impossible for me to go to the rear to meet the President and yourself.”
McClellan reiterated this in a second letter on May 7: “I regret that my presence with the army at this particular time is of such vast importance that I cannot leave to confer with the President and yourself… I dare not leave for one hour.” Relations between McClellan and the Lincoln administration had already been strained, and the fact that McClellan could take no time to travel the 30 miles to Fort Monroe to explain to his superiors what his army was doing only made them worse.
But this did not stop McClellan from reiterating his repeated requests for more men. He wrote to Stanton on the 8th:
“The time has arrived to bring all the troops in Eastern Virginia into perfect cooperation. I expect to fight another and very severe battle before reaching Richmond and with all the troops the Confederates can bring together… All the troops on the Rappahannock, and if possible those on the Shenandoah, should take part in the approaching battle… All minor considerations should be thrown to one side and all our energies and means directed toward the defeat of (Joseph) Johnston’s (Confederate) army in front of Richmond… We ought immediately to concentrate everything.”
The next day, McClellan once again voiced objection to Lincoln’s insistence that the army be divided into corps. McClellan wrote that the recent fight at Williamsburg “proved it to be very bad & it having very nearly resulted in a most disastrous defeat.” Although the fight had virtually ended by the time McClellan arrived, he alleged that “we would have been routed & would have lost everything” had he not gotten there in time.
However, McClellan did not directly acknowledge that he had caused much of the confusion by placing Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Second Corps, in charge of portions of the Third and Fourth corps. Instead, he declared his intention to remove “incompetent commanders” such as Sumner and Major Generals Samuel P. Heintzelman (Third Corps) and Erasmus D. Keyes (Fourth Corps).
Lincoln replied through Stanton that while he did not want McClellan to remove the corps structure, he would allow McClellan to temporarily suspend it to avoid being “trammelled and embarrassed… on the eve of an expected great battle.” Lincoln urged McClellan to consider the consequences of removing all three men at once; he also warned McClellan that some might consider the move to be “merely an effort to pamper one or two pets, and to persecute and degrade their supposed rivals.” Lincoln then defended the army’s corps system, asserting that it had been based “on the unanimous opinion of every military man I could get an opinion from, and every modern military book, yourself only excepted.”
McClellan’s annoyance was not limited to subordinates and superiors. In a letter to his wife Ellen, he complained, “I do not think you over much rejoiced at the results I gained. I really thought that you would appreciate a great result gained by fine skill & at little cost more than you seem to. It would have been easy for me to have sacrificed 10,000 lives in taking Yorktown, & I presume the world would have thought it was brilliant… I am very sorry that you do not exactly sympathize with me in this matter.”
The Federal army was given a day of rest on the 9th. This provided McClellan an excellent opportunity to go down to Fort Monroe and meet with Lincoln and his party. But McClellan did not. This may have been the last great chance for McClellan to restore friendly relations with his superiors. The next day, the Federal continued their advance as the troops who had fought at Williamsburg linked with the troops who had fought at Eltham’s Landing. McClellan wrote his wife, “The dangerous moment has passed. We are now again united and Joe (Johnston) has lost his best chance of catching us in detail.” He did not mention that the moment of catching the Confederates in detail was lost as well.
On the Confederate side, Johnston lodged many complaints of his own to General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, at Richmond. These mainly centered on the lack of resources to fend off such a numerically superior enemy. Lee delicately tried to address these grievances to not make the dangerous situation any worse. By this time, the Confederates had fallen back to within 15 miles of the Chickahominy River, the last waterway between them and the Confederate capital.
Davis tried to encourage Johnston by writing on May 10, “I have been much relieved by the successes which you have gained, and I hope for you the brilliant result which the drooping cause of our country now so imperatively claims…” Davis noted that Federal forces on the Rappahannock River also posed a threat to Richmond from the north.
Meanwhile, McClellan sent another message to Washington complaining that he needed more men. Stating that he had only 70,000 effectives, he wrote, “If I am not reinforced, it is probable that I will be obliged to fight nearly double my numbers, strongly intrenched.”
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