Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, had long asked President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to send him more men for his final drive against the Confederate army guarding Richmond. The men that McClellan wanted were those commanded by Major General Irvin McDowell, guarding the northern approach to Washington near Fredericksburg, Virginia. On May 17, Lincoln agreed to send McDowell’s troops to reinforce McClellan.
McDowell received orders to “move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with the forces under General McClellan…” McDowell was to stay “in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.” Lincoln then notified McClellan, “At your earnest call for re-enforcements he (McDowell) is sent forward to co-operate in the reduction of Richmond, but charged, in attempting this, not to uncover the city of Washington; and you will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him out of position to cover this city.”
Stanton supplemented Lincoln’s message with one of his own: “He (McDowell) is ordered–keeping himself always in position to save the capital from all possible attack–so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, so as to establish this communication as soon as possible, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond.”
Thus, McClellan would finally receive the reinforcements he had pleaded for, but under several conditions:
- McDowell would move overland to link his forces to McClellan’s right wing at White House Landing on the York River instead of moving by water as McClellan had urged.
- McDowell would “retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward,” and not return to being the First Corps in McClellan’s army; this suggested that McDowell would be required to answer to Washington first and McClellan second.
- McClellan was expected to extend his army’s right over the Pamunkey River while McDowell extended his left until they linked. This meant that McClellan no longer had the option of moving across the Peninsula to try attacking from a James River point (which might have been a better option considering the recent Battle of Drewry’s Bluff).
- McDowell was not to leave his base on the Rappahannock River until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division, transferred from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army in the Shenandoah Valley.
McClellan railed against his superiors once more in a letter to his wife Ellen: “Those hounds in Washington are after me again. Stanton is without exception the vilest man I ever knew or heard of.” He then sent a 10-page letter to Washington detailing his objections to the conditions placed on McDowell’s reinforcements. McClellan’s main objections were that McDowell had to be his right flank rather than reinforce him so that he might be able to shift his base of operations to the James, and that McDowell would retain his ability to act independently.
McClellan insisted that according to the 62nd Article of War, McDowell had to obey him as the ranking officer. He argued that it was vital for McDowell to be under “my orders in the ordinary way, & holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions” in protecting Washington. McClellan added:
“Indications that the enemy intend fighting at Richmond. Policy seems to be to concentrate everything there. They hold central position, and will seek to meet us while divided. I think we are committing a great military error in having so many independent columns. The great battle should be fought by our troops in mass; then divide if necessary.”
With McDowell on his way, McClellan felt the time had come to act on Lincoln’s permission for him to create two new army corps. The Fifth Corps, formerly the 1st Division of the Third Corps and the Regular Reserve Division, was given to his friend Fitz John Porter. The Sixth Corps, formerly the 1st Division of the First Corps and the 2nd Division of the Fourth Corps, was given to another friend, William B. Franklin.
Lincoln had expressed concern that McClellan very rarely consulted with his current corps commanders (Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes of the Second, Third, and Fourth corps respectively). Lincoln said that he also knew of rumors that McClellan would often “consult and communicate with nobody but General Fitz John Porter, and perhaps General Franklin.” Despite this subtle warning not to play favorites, McClellan promoted them both.
The disagreements with his superiors notwithstanding, McClellan felt confident of success. He wrote Ellen that he would soon “close up on the Chickahominy (River) & find out what secesh is doing. I think he will fight us there, or in between that & Richmond–& if he is badly thrashed (as I trust he will be) incline to believe that he will begin to cry peccavi & say that he has enough of it.”
Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, met with McClellan on the 19th to see if McClellan might spare some troops for an army-navy assault on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff. The naval forces had been repulsed in the fight on the 15th, but Goldsborough thought the position could be taken with army help, and the path to Richmond would then be opened. Goldsborough told McClellan, “Without the Army the Navy can make no real headway towards Richmond.” But McClellan would not commit to detaching any of his forces for such an operation.
Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army had withdrawn to a line about three miles outside Richmond. Johnston’s left flank was just outside northeastern Richmond at Fairfield Race Course. Major General John B. Magruder’s Confederates held this position and guarded the Nine-Miles road. Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates held the center, guarding the Williamsburg road. The right was near Drewry’s Bluff, on the banks of the James. Major General James Longstreet’s Confederates guarded the River road there.
President Jefferson Davis wrote his wife Varina, who he had sent out of Richmond for her safety: “We are uncertain of everything except that a battle must be near at hand.” Capital residents discussed whether the Confederate troops could stop McClellan’s drive on the capital. Davis tried to boost morale by proclaiming that the city would be defended, in accordance with a congressional resolution.
Meanwhile, McClellan divided his army along both banks of the Chickahominy River and awaited the arrival of McDowell’s troops from northern Virginia. By May 21, the Federals were within eight miles of Richmond, with Keyes’s Fourth Corps operating at Bottom’s Bridge spanning the Chickahominy. As McClellan continued maneuvering his men, Lincoln responded to his objections regarding the use of McDowell’s Federals:
“You will have just such control of Gen. McDowell and his force as you therein indicate. McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Frederick’sburg,–unless his march shall be resisted, in which case, the force resisting him, will certainly not be confronting you at Richmond.”
Although McClellan was within striking distance of Richmond, he continued to fret that his force was not strong enough to confront the Confederate defenders. He wrote his friend, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, stationed on the North Carolina coast, “The Government have deliberately placed me in this position. If I win, the greater the glory. If I lose, they will be damned forever, both by God and men.”
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