On the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac inched closer and closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond. McClellan divided his army along both banks of the Chickahominy River on May 20 and awaited reinforcements in the form of Major General Irvin McDowell’s army (formerly the First Corps of McClellan’s army) on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. The Federals were now within eight miles of Richmond.
McClellan reported having 102,670 effectives. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Third Corps, suggested that with McDowell coming down to link to McClellan’s right flank, perhaps Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Federal army could come up from North Carolina and link to McClellan’s left. With such a force, “we will in 48 hours be in Richmond.” But McClellan did not have a high enough opinion of Heintzelman to take his advice.
A division of the Federal Fourth Corps marched along the Williamsburg road to the Chickahominy, where Confederates burned both Bottom’s Bridge and a nearby railroad bridge. But the river was easily fordable, and the Federals crossed. McClellan personally reconnoitered the area on the 21st and came back perplexed. He wrote his wife Ellen that the Confederates were “giving up a great advantage in not opposing me on the line of the Chickahominy,” unless they had “some deep laid scheme that I do not fathom.”
The “scheme” of General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, was merely an attempt to cover a Federal approach on Richmond from either the York River base or a possible shift south to the James River. Johnston’s right flank stood about five miles from Richmond across the Charles City road. The line ran northward to the Chickahominy, with the left flank near the capital’s northeastern outskirts. There were scattered Confederate outposts north of the Chickahominy, but none farther north than Mechanicsville. Johnston officially reported having 53,688 officers and men, or just over half the approaching Federal army.
President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston expressing alarm to see that he had made no defensive preparations along the Mechanicsville turnpike in case the Federals decided to move “toward if not to Richmond” from that road. Davis and his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode out to Johnston’s headquarters at Mechanicsville, just six miles northeast of Richmond, to discuss the matter.
Johnston explained that he had fallen back across the Chickahominy to put the river in his front rather than his rear. He also moved the troops closer to Richmond because that area provided more adequate drinking water. Davis worried that Johnston had moved his army so close to the capital that if the Federals broke his line, they would march into Richmond within two hours. Davis was also annoyed that Johnston seemed to have no plan other than just to try to hold the Federals back.
Meanwhile, McClellan still had problems with the conditions that President Abraham Lincoln had placed upon sending McDowell to the Peninsula. McClellan had several objections, but what particularly irked him was the condition that McDowell would retain an independent command, subject to orders from Washington. McClellan wrote to President Abraham Lincoln:
“I desire that the extent of my authority over McDowell may be clearly defined, lest misunderstandings and conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused. I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing General McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, and holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions.”
While McClellan awaited Lincoln’s response, he received a dispatch from McDowell: “I have received the orders of the President to move with the army under my command and co-operate with yours in the reduction of Richmond.” But before McDowell could move, he had to wait for Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division to come from the Shenandoah Valley and reinforce him. He expected Shields to arrive soon, enabling his army to begin moving toward McClellan on the 24th. McDowell also asked if McClellan could help block the retreat of the small Confederate force opposing him along the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad.
On May 22, Lincoln left Washington with Admiral John A. Dahlgren and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to confer with McDowell on the Rappahannock. McDowell greeted the party by showing them the 80-foot-long trestle bridge that had just been completed. Working around the clock, it took engineer Herman Haupt’s Construction Corps just 21 days to build it. Made from felled trees, the bridge stood 100 feet over a wide ravine of Potomac Creek, and it enabled trains to deliver supplies from the mouth of Aquia Creek on the Potomac River to Falmouth, 13 miles away, every hour. Lincoln walked across the bridge, but Stanton became dizzy halfway across and had to be helped back to land by Dahlgren.
Back on the Peninsula, McClellan began arraying his army in attack formation. The new Federal Fifth Corps under Brigadier General Fitz John Porter advanced near Mechanicsville, with Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps and Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps northwest of the Chickahominy. Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps was south of the Chickahominy at Seven Pines, about six miles east of Richmond, with Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps five miles behind Keyes. Federals on the far left and right of the line were so close to Richmond they could hear the church bells ringing.
As Davis had feared, the Federals took Mechanicsville, which would enable McClellan to link his right with McDowell’s left. Johnston met with Davis in Richmond but still had no plan of action. It seemed that the capital could be saved only if either Johnston attacked preemptively or McDowell failed to join with McClellan. McClellan, still believing he was outnumbered, opted to wait for more troops before pushing forward.
On the 24th, McDowell’s Federals readied to march down and join McClellan’s drive on Richmond. McDowell wrote, “We were all in high spirits… The wagons were all loaded, the orders given and we were to march.” But then, to the Confederates’ good fortune, Lincoln ordered McDowell to suspend the march. Word had just arrived of a stunning Federal defeat in the Shenandoah Valley, which potentially put Washington in danger. McDowell was instead ordered to send 20,000 Federals to support the armies of Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont in the Valley.
Knowing that such a decision would cause great resentment among the Federal high command, Lincoln asked Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to help explain to McDowell why this was being done. Lincoln wrote, “It will be a very valuable and very honorable service for General McDowell to cut them off. I hope he will put all possible energy and speed into the effort.” Chase replied, “General McDowell appreciates, as you do, the importance of the service he is called on to perform. All possible exertion is being made by him and the officers under him to expedite the movement.”
Lincoln then wrote McClellan explaining the necessity of withholding McDowell yet again: “In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you…” Lincoln elaborated in a second message: “Apprehensions of something like this (defeat in the Shenandoah), and no unwillingness to sustain you, have always been my reason for withholding McDowell from you. Please understand this, and do the best you can with the force you have.”
Panic swept Washington when news of the Federal defeat at Winchester arrived. Lincoln, caught up in the frenzy, tried to inspire McClellan to turn the tide by attacking. He wrote, “I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defence of Washington.” Noting the “general and concerted” crisis in the Valley, Lincoln pledged to send as many “such regiments and dribs” as he could to the Peninsula.
McClellan responded, “Telegram received. Independently of it, the time is very near when I shall attack Richmond.” But McClellan disagreed with Lincoln’s fear that the Confederates in the Valley intended to threaten Washington: “The object of the movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me. All the information from balloons, deserters, prisoners, and contrabands agrees in the statement that the mass of the rebel troops are still in the immediate vicinity of Richmond, ready to defend it.”
McClellan then wrote his wife that Lincoln was “terribly scared. Heaven help a country governed by such counsels… A scare will do them good, and may bring them to their senses.”
Meanwhile, Keyes’s Federals, supported by Heintzelman’s corps, advanced to within five miles of Richmond on the Williamsburg road. But this put McClellan in a vulnerable position. He had two corps isolated south of the Chickahominy and three corps north of it, and now McDowell’s 40,000 men would not be joining him. To coordinate his movements, McClellan needed to ensure that communication between his wings would be maintained.
Lincoln asked McClellan on the 26th, “What impression have you, as to intrenchments–works–for you to contend with in front of Richmond? Can you get near enough to throw shells into the city?” McClellan wrote pessimistically, “I feel forced to take every possible precaution against disaster, & to secure my flanks against the probably superior force in front of me.”
Meanwhile, Lee visited Johnston and learned that he was planning to attack and destroy McClellan’s right flank on the north side of the Chickahominy. Johnston’s plan was to permanently separate McClellan from McDowell and isolate the rest of his army on the Peninsula.
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1992.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 11, Part 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.