Major General George B. McClellan had been ordered to take his Federal Army of the Potomac, currently stationed at Harrison’s Landing, off the Virginia Peninsula. Rather than obey, McClellan decided to delay the withdrawal by sending a Federal force under Major General Joseph Hooker to confront the Confederates at Malvern Hill once more. After all, McClellan could hardly be expected to start leaving the Peninsula if he was entangled with the enemy.
McClellan’s official reason or sending 17,000 Federals to Malvern Hill was to investigate rumors that the Confederates were abandoning Richmond. He reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that Malvern Hill was “very advantageous” for a renewed drive on Richmond, and “I feel confident that with re-enforcements I could march this army there in five days.” But McClellan had gotten reinforcements and failed to use them in the past, so Halleck replied, “I have no re-enforcements to send you.”
On August 6, McClellan received Halleck’s response to the former’s pleas not to leave the Peninsula: “You cannot regret the order of withdrawal more than I did the necessity of giving it. It will not be rescinded and you will be expected to execute it with all possible promptness.” When another day passed without any indication that McClellan would obey the order, Halleck wrote, “I must beg of you, General, to hurry along this movement (of withdrawing from the Peninsula). Your reputation as well as mine may be involved in its rapid execution.”
During this time, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia outside Richmond, received word that Federals had retaken Malvern Hill. A Confederate brigade probed the advance Federal positions until a more substantial force under Major General James Longstreet came up on the 7th. They found that the Federals had abandoned the position once again. This convinced Lee that McClellan would make no offensive move, as he reported, “I have no idea that he (McClellan) will advance on Richmond now.” It also indicated that the new primary threat would be Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia, north of the capital.
McClellan had pulled back Hooker’s men in hopes that this would coax Lee into attacking the main Federal defenses at Harrison’s Landing. Apparently unaware that Lee would never try such a foolish thing, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen, “If I succeed in my coup, everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet.”
Enraged by Halleck’s evacuation order, McClellan continued to denounce both him and Pope as “enemies of the country & of the human race.” McClellan told his wife that the more he learned “of their wickedness, the more am I surprised that such a wretched set are permitted to live much less to occupy the positions they do.” He predicted, “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week, & very badly whipped he will be & ought to be–such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.”
Boasting that he would march on Richmond (even though he was just 25 miles away and had made no effort to do so for over a month), McClellan wrote, “I will try to catch or thrash Longstreet, & then if the chance offers follow in to Richmond while they (the rest of Lee’s army) are lamming away at Pope.” If this desperate move failed, “why well & good. I will fall back.” But if successful, “I shall have saved my country & will then gratefully retire to private life.”
After divulging his true sentiments to his wife, McClellan sent one more frantic plea to stay on the Peninsula over a week after being ordered to evacuate. He cited the overwhelming logistical problems that went with moving such a large army up Chesapeake Bay to Aquia Creek, as well as the lack of adequate living space for his men once they got there. McClellan argued, “If Washington is in danger now this Army can scarcely arrive in time to save it. It is in much better position to do so from here than from Aquia.”
On the 13th, McClellan traveled to Cherry Stone Inlet, over 70 miles away, to have a direct conversation with Halleck from the telegraph office there. He received a final message from Halleck in the early hours of the 14th: “I have read your dispatch. There is no change of plans. You will send your troops as rapidly as possible. There is no difficulty in landing them. According to your own accounts there is now no difficulty in withdrawing your forces. Do so with all possible rapidity.”
Informed that Halleck had left the Washington telegraph office for the night, McClellan replied, “Your orders will be obeyed. I return at once. I had hoped to have had a longer and fuller conversation with you, after traveling so far for the purpose.”
As word spread throughout the Potomac army that it would be leaving the Peninsula, many worried about what Lee might do in response. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, one of McClellan’s corps commanders, wrote, “I think the withdrawal of this army of 90,000 a most suicidal act. As soon as the rebels learn we are retreating they will reinforce (Major General Thomas “Stonewall”) Jackson & he can overwhelm Pope before we can aid him.” This was just what Lee was planning to do.
A growing number of McClellan’s officers began predicting Pope’s defeat. Even more alarming was that many were openly hoping for it to happen so that they could come to the rescue and the Lincoln administration would put its sole reliance on them once more. A Federal staff officer boldly wrote, “I have one hope left; when that ass Pope shall have lost his army, and when Washington shall again be menaced (say in six days from this time) then and only then will they find out that our little General is not in his right place and then they will call loudly for his aid.”
Finally on the 14th, 11 days after receiving orders to immediately evacuate the Peninsula, McClellan began the withdrawal. Troops of the Third and Fifth corps began boarding transports, covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Galena, Port Royal, and Satellite. The last troops left Harrison’s Landing two days later. McClellan made sure that he was the last person to leave; he told his wife that this gave him “a savage satisfaction.”
This marked the end of McClellan’s failed five-month campaign to capture Richmond. His men had fought hard battles and had once advanced as close as five miles within the Confederate capital. But their leadership had failed them by treating victories like defeats and withdrawing the army from harm’s way at Harrison’s Landing. The focus would now shift to Pope’s army, which McClellan was expected to reinforce. McClellan would be in no hurry.
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