As August began, new Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck was planning to remove Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the Virginia Peninsula. Halleck intended to transfer the army to Aquia Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River in northern Virginia, about 12 miles from Fredericksburg. From there, the troops would protect Washington and reinforce Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia.
In July, the administration had granted McClellan’s request for reinforcements by sending troops from Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Department of North Carolina and Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South. But on August 1, Halleck redirected Burnside’s force from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek, beginning the general removal. Unaware that he was about to be ordered off the Peninsula, McClellan continued lecturing his superiors on how the war should be fought. He wrote Halleck:
“The people of the South should understand that we are not making war upon the institution of slavery, but that if they submit to the Constitution and the laws of the Union they will be protected in their constitutional rights of every nature… I therefore deprecate and view with infinite dread any policy which tends to render impossible the reconstruction of the Union and to make this contest simply a useless effusion of blood.”
Halleck assured McClellan that he agreed entirely, and then once again tried to nudge McClellan to do what he had been directed to do in late July (i.e., send his sick and wounded men north in preparation for a general withdrawal).
Meanwhile, McClellan’s Federals remained at Harrison’s Landing, where they had been since their retreating victories in the Seven Days’ Battles. In late July, Halleck had directed McClellan to reconnoiter the Confederate positions on the Peninsula to determine if General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was staying around Richmond or moving north to take on Pope. McClellan thought that this was preparatory to another drive on Richmond, not a withdrawal from the Peninsula.
McClellan directed Brigadier General Joseph Hooker’s division to conduct “an expedition of importance in the direction of the enemy’s lines near Malvern.” The plan was to coax the Confederates into attacking so that McClellan could launch a counterattack powerful enough to blow open a path to Richmond. On the night of August 2, Hooker’s division backed by cavalry began advancing the six miles from Harrison’s Landing to Malvern Hill, site of the decisive Federal victory on July 1. A small Confederate unit led by Brigadier General Wade Hampton guarded the hill.
This reconnaissance failed, as Hooker reported the next day, “In consequence of the incompetency of guides furnished me, I regret to be obliged to inform you that I have deemed it expedient to return to camp. The German guide furnished me was lost before I left camp,” and only building a new road would “be likely to secure important results to the movement on Malvern Hill.” Hooker was ordered to withdraw, which he obeyed after angrily protesting that he could have broken the Confederate line if given the chance to build the road.
With another halfhearted drive on Richmond thwarted, McClellan’s worst fears were realized when a message from Halleck arrived on the night of the 3rd: “It is determined to withdraw your army from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek. You will take immediate measures to effect this, covering the movement as best you can.” The movement “should be concealed even from your own officers. The entire execution of the movement is left to your discretion and judgment.”
Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, one of McClellan’s corps commanders, wrote that Halleck’s order put McClellan “into a rage.” This was partly because it would make his army subordinate to Pope’s and would therefore place Pope above him in rank. McClellan wrote a lengthy plea for Halleck to reconsider:
“Your telegram of last evening is received. I must confess that it has caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced, for I am convinced that the order to withdraw this army to Aquia Creek will prove disastrous to our cause. We are 25 miles from Richmond. and are not likely to meet the enemy in force sufficient to fight a battle until we have marched 15 to 18 miles, which brings us practically within 10 miles of Richmond… Add to this the certain demoralization of this army which would ensue (from pulling out), and these appear to me sufficient reasons to make it my imperative duty to urge in the strongest terms afforded by our language that this order may be rescinded.
“Here, directly in front of this army, is the heart of the rebellion. It is here that all our resources should be collected to strike the blow which will determine the fate of the nation… It matters not what partial reverses we may meet with elsewhere. Here is the true defense of Washington. It is here, on the banks of the James, that the fate of the Union should be decided.”
In Halleck’s response, he turned McClellan’s own argument against him:
“Allow me to allude to a few of the facts in the case… You and your officers at one interview estimated the enemy’s forces in and around Richmond at 200,000 men. Since then you and others report they have received and are receiving large re-enforcements from the South. General Pope’s army covering Washington is only about 40,000. Your effective force is only about 90,000. You are 30 miles from Richmond, and General Pope 80 or 90, with the enemy directly between you, ready to fall with his superior numbers upon one or the other, as he may elect. Neither can re-enforce the other in case of such an attack.”
Halleck added, “As I told you when at your camp, it is my intention that you should command all the troops in Virginia as soon as we can get them together,” and once McClellan and Pope were united, “I am certain you can take Richmond.”
To obey the order, McClellan would have to move his army down to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula, load the troops on transports, and move them up Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River to get to Aquia Creek. This would be a massive undertaking, especially considering that McClellan had not yet even moved his sick and wounded troops as ordered.
The Lincoln administration wanted McClellan to withdraw so he could reinforce Pope’s army, which was the new hope to defeat the Confederates and capture Richmond after McClellan had failed. Politics also played a role in the administration’s shifting emphasis from McClellan to Pope: the latter was a fellow Republican unlike the former, who as a Democrat was openly hostile toward his Republican superiors.
Once McClellan’s troops reached Aquia Landing, they were to continue to Alexandria, where they could best defend Washington and reinforce Pope. But as Hooker pointed out, McClellan could not be expected to withdraw his army if it was engaged with the enemy. So McClellan decided to give Hooker another try against the Confederates at Malvern Hill. Hooker moved out on the night of the 4th and camped near the enemy lines, anxious to fight the next day.
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