Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, continued his drive up the Virginia Peninsula toward the Confederate army of General Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate capital of Richmond.
McClellan divided his army by sending one part toward Richmond from West Point while leading another to White House Landing, 15 miles up the Pamunkey River. This enabled the Federals to seize White House, a 4,000-acre plantation where George Washington had courted Martha Custis. It was now owned by Martha’s granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee. Mrs. Lee pinned a note on the house door: “Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington forebear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants. A grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington.”
White House Landing was the terminus of the Richmond & York River Railroad, and it was now in Federal hands. This put the Federals within 22 miles of Richmond. Capital residents hurried to leave, with traders trying to sell their goods to foreign consuls before moving out. President Jefferson Davis sent his wife Varina out of town, writing to her, “If the withdrawal from the Peninsula and Norfolk had been done with due preparation and a desirable deliberation, I should be more sanguine of a successful defense of this city… I know not what to expect when so many failures are to be remembered, yet will try to make a successful resistance…”
By May 14, McClellan’s troops had advanced about 30 miles since taking Yorktown 10 days earlier. McClellan informed President Abraham Lincoln that he intended to move around the Confederates’ left flank to cut off their retreat at White House. But to be successful, McClellan again asked for reinforcements. He wrote:
“Any commander of the re-enforcements whom Your Excellency may designate will be acceptable to me, whatever expression I may have heretofore addressed to you on that subject. I will fight the enemy, whatever their force may be, with whatever force I may have, and I firmly believe that we shall beat them, but our triumph should be made decisive and complete. The soldiers of this army love their Government and will fight well in its support. You may rely upon them. They have confidence in me as their general and in you as their President.”
To McClellan, the most “acceptable” reinforcements were Major General Irvin McDowell’s 40,000 men on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg in northern Virginia. McClellan wanted these Federals to come down to the Peninsula via water and help turn the Confederate left.
McClellan stated, “No time will be lost in bringing about a decisive battle,” but then he warned Lincoln, “All my information from every source accessible to me establishes the fixed purpose of the rebels to defend Richmond against this army by offering us battle with all the troops they can collect from east, west, and south.”
At this time, McClellan asserted that he could not “bring into actual battle against the enemy more than 80,000 men at the utmost,” and these men would be fighting not just the Confederates that had fled Yorktown, but a “much larger force, perhaps double my numbers.” Thus, McClellan’s estimate of 120,000 Confederates at Yorktown had grown over the last 10 days to 160,000.
McClellan said that there might be a chance that the Confederates would abandon Richmond without a fight, but, “it would be unwise, and even insane, for me to calculate upon anything but a stubborn and desperate resistance.” McClellan “respectfully and earnestly” asked Lincoln to reinforce the army “without delay by all the disposable troops of the Government.”
In reality, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had less than 60,000 effectives on the Peninsula, and they were pulling back toward Richmond. Johnston’s left flank withdrew away from the Federal gunboats on the Pamunkey as his men took up strong defensive positions between the Long Bridge and the Baltimore Crossroads.
Davis and General Lee rode out to meet with Johnston and “better understand his plans and expectations.” Davis later stated that “a long conversation followed which was so inconclusive that it lasted until late in the night, so late that we remained until next morning.” To Davis’s dismay, Johnston only seemed intent on trying “to improve his position as far as practicable, and wait for the enemy to leave his gun-boats, so that an opportunity might be offered to meet him on land.”
Returning to Richmond, Davis met with Lee and the cabinet to discuss options in case they had to abandon the capital. The men suggested establishing new defensive lines south of the James, with Lee recommending falling back to the Staunton River, some 100 miles southwest. Then he added, “But Richmond must not be given up. It shall not be given up!” Meanwhile, Virginia state legislators approved a resolution:
“That the General Assembly hereby express its desire that the capital of the State be defended to the last extremity, if such defence is in accordance with the views of the President of the Confederate States; and that the President be assured that whatever destruction or loss of property of the State or individuals shall thereby result, will be cheerfully submitted to.”
On the 15th, Johnston learned that the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia had been destroyed, thereby allowing for Federal warships to move up the James River toward Richmond. This led Johnston to guess that McClellan would shift his advance from the York River to the James since it would put him on a more direct line to Richmond. Johnston therefore ordered another withdrawal, this time across the Chickahominy River, the last waterway separating the Federals from Richmond. Johnston pulled back from the river’s middle and lower stretches, moving some units to within three miles of the capital.
McClellan arrived at White House and set up headquarters in a tent on the mansion’s front lawn. He prohibited his men from desecrating the home or property, and White House became the main Federal supply base on the Peninsula. McClellan then visited nearby St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington married Martha Custis. That night, he wrote his wife, “As I happened to be there alone for a few minutes, I could not help kneeling at the chancel and praying.”
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