Category Archives: Virginia

The Siege of Yorktown: The Buildup Continues

April 20, 1862 – Confederate morale sagged on the Virginia Peninsula, as the number of Federal troops continued increasing on multiple fronts.

General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Yorktown on April 17 and assumed command of the Confederate army that now consisted of his own Army of the Potomac and Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Johnston’s new command included both the Virginia Peninsula and Norfolk.

By this time, five of Johnston’s seven divisions had arrived or were on their way to reinforce the Yorktown-Warwick River line on the Peninsula, raising the total number of Confederate defenders to nearly 50,000. But this was still not half the total of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Of Johnston’s two remaining divisions, one (8,000 men under Major General Richard Ewell) remained on the Rappahannock River line in northern Virginia at Brandy Station, and one (6,000 men under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson) was in the Shenandoah Valley at Mount Jackson. A third force, the Army of the Northwest under Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, consisted of about 3,000 men in the Valley west of Staunton.

President Jefferson Davis arranged for Ewell and Jackson to send their correspondence through his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rather than Johnston, who was now busy arranging defenses on the Peninsula. Due to the delicacy of military protocol, Lee had to be careful when communicating to Ewell and Jackson not to offend Johnston by infringing on his authority.

In northern Virginia, the Federal troops of Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock arrived at their namesake river north of Richmond after a forced march from Washington. This army, formerly I Corps in the Army of the Potomac, had been slated to join the Peninsula campaign but was withheld by President Abraham Lincoln to block any Confederate attempt to threaten Washington.

By the time McDowell arrived, the Confederates had burned all the nearby bridges and abandoned the town of Fredericksburg, just across the Rappahannock. McDowell did not move to take Fredericksburg because the river was too wide, and the primary movement was to be McClellan’s on the Peninsula. McClellan continued pleading with Washington to send him McDowell’s troops, despite now having 100,000 of his own.

Farther west, two Federal armies under Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont threatened the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia. This immense accumulation of Federal troops in Virginia represented their greatest opportunity to destroy the Confederates since the war began. McClellan, McDowell, Banks, and Fremont all faced vastly inferior opponents that could have been easily destroyed if any of the Federal commanders made a determined effort to do so. But none did.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Although McClellan wanted McDowell’s entire force to reinforce him, he settled for one of McDowell’s divisions, consisting of 12,000 Federals under Brigadier General William B. Franklin. This gave McClellan an even greater manpower advantage. Meanwhile, Johnston directed Confederates to repair bridges over the Chickahominy River, 20 miles in his rear, in case he needed to retreat. Acknowledging low morale among the men and his army’s vulnerability, Johnston said, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

By April 23, the Federals on the Peninsula had positioned six 10-gun batteries of 13-inch siege mortar cannon about two miles outside Yorktown. However, McClellan would not begin firing until his remaining nine batteries were put in place. McClellan telegraphed Lincoln, “Do not misunderstand the apparent inaction here. Not a day, not an hour has been lost. Works have been constructed that may almost be called gigantic.”

This unprecedented display of artillery disturbed Johnston enough to begin preparing for the worst. He informed his superiors that supplies could be diverted to the Richmond area for his troops “in the event of our being compelled to fall back from this point.” He asked for officials to have 100 wagons filled with supplies waiting for his men when they fell back to Richmond. Johnston then directed Major General Benjamin Huger to prepare to evacuate Norfolk and secure as many supplies and equipment as possible from the Gosport Navy Yard there.

Johnston wrote to Flag Officer Josiah Tatnall, commander of the Confederate naval fleet, asking him to use the C.S.S. Virginia to attack the Federal transports on the York River. Tatnall objected because 1) such an action would leave the Virginia exposed to Federal shore batteries, 2) the Virginia could not break through the Federal warships guarding the transports, and 3) such a mission would leave Norfolk undefended.

Returning to his original argument, Johnston once again urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line in a letter to Lee: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful… We must abandon the Peninsula at once.” Johnston contended that it would be better to give up Norfolk than to lose the army, and he again proposed falling back to positions outside Richmond. Johnston even suggested invading the North while General P.G.T. Beauregard somehow led his battered Confederate army out of Corinth to invade Ohio. Once again, Davis and Lee refused.

Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Maratanza began bombarding the forts at Yorktown and Gloucester on either side of the York River. Even with all his superior firepower, McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Would be glad to have the 30-pounder Parrotts in the works around Washington. Am short of that excellent gun.”

As April ended, Federal prospects for victory on the Peninsula seemed very bright. McClellan reported that he had 112,392 officers and men present for duty. They even had some of the best people to care for their sick and wounded, as the U.S. Sanitary Commission hospital ship Daniel Webster arrived at the York River with Commission General Secretary Frederick Law Olmstead and several top surgeons, physicians, and nurses.

Conversely, Confederate hopes were sinking, as Johnston most likely had less than 50,000 effectives, with many others been lost to illness, exposure, and fatigue.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 105; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (18 Apr 1862); CivilWarHome.com/SanitaryCommission.htm; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13515-23, 13611-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 161; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 403-04, 410; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 139, 141, 143-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3287, 3323-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 201-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570-71

The Siege of Yorktown: Confederate Response

April 14, 1862 – The Confederate high command met at Richmond to consider abandoning the Virginia Peninsula to the numerically superior Federal Army of the Potomac.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

By this time, Confederate forces were holding the port city of Yorktown against a Federal force three times their size. Major General George B. McClellan, the Federal commander, began directing placement of his heavy siege artillery, opting to lay siege to Yorktown rather than risk a head-on assault. Despite his overwhelming numbers, McClellan believed the Confederate army was much larger than it truly was.

As part of the siege, McClellan relied on the Federal navy to neutralize the two forts on either side of the York River at Yorktown and Gloucester. But this would not be easy. Even though the Federals had a decided advantage in technology with rifled artillery versus smoothbore, the Confederates had 33 guns commanding the entire width of the 1,200-yard river. These gunners did not have to rely on accuracy like the Federal gunboats did. And the Federals would have great difficulty elevating their guns high enough to hit the forts, which were on bluffs above the river. Moreover, the best Federal ships remained in Chesapeake Bay guarding against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. So if the Federals would attack these forts at all, they would be doing it at less than full strength.

McClellan urged Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to send his ships past the forts under cover of darkness to land troops behind them, but Goldsborough declined. This prompted McClellan to try finding other ways to penetrate the Yorktown defenses. He soon learned from scouts that there could be a weakness in the Confederate line near Lee’s Mill. McClellan directed IV Corps under Major General Erasmus D. Keyes to exploit it.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston returned to Richmond after inspecting the Yorktown defenses and reported to President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s top advisor, that they were unsatisfactory. Davis called a council of war that included Lee, Johnston, Secretary of War George W. Randolph, and Johnston’s two top subordinates, Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith.

The conference began at 11 a.m. on the 14th and lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning. Johnston continued arguing that defending Yorktown was a waste of resources. The forts at Yorktown and Gloucester had old smoothbore cannon to face the Federals’ state-of-the-art rifled cannon. There were not enough troops to man the eight-mile-long defensive line, and it was only a matter of time before McClellan’s massive army overran the works.

Johnston strongly urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line, which meant losing not only Yorktown but the vital Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk as well. Johnston proposed falling back and concentrating all Confederate troops from Virginia and the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia around Richmond. They would then attack McClellan as he approached Richmond, being nearly 100 miles from his supply base at Fort Monroe. Johnston also offered an alternative plan in which Major General John B. Magruder’s Confederates would fall back to defend Richmond while the rest of the Confederates invaded the North.

Randolph, a former naval officer, objected to both proposals because they meant abandoning the navy yard at Norfolk, and if the yard fell, they would lose the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia stationed there. Losing Norfolk would also leave the Confederacy without a prime naval base from which to develop vessels to break the Federal blockade.

Lee also opposed abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line. He asserted that pulling troops from the coastal defenses would leave Charleston and Savannah open for easy capture. Johnston countered that those losses could be regained once McClellan was defeated. Neither Longstreet nor Smith offered an opinion.

The meeting adjourned for dinner and then resumed at Davis’s home at 7 p.m. As the discussion went on, Davis held back judgment but slowly began siding with Lee. After midnight, Davis finally broke the stalemate by voicing support for defending the Yorktown-Warwick River line. Johnston was to continue moving the bulk of his army to that line and absorb Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula into his. Johnston complied with the decision, but he also began preparing to withdraw to Richmond and implement his plan later.

On the Federal side, Keyes directed his 2nd Division under Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith to probe for potential weaknesses at Dam No. 1 to the right of Yorktown, near the center of the Confederate line. McClellan had ordered that the Federals were not to bring on a general battle, but merely stop the Confederates from working on the battery and earthworks there.

After an artillery bombardment on the 16th, Smith launched a reconnaissance in force that easily took the Confederate rifle pits and seized Burnt Chimneys. The Federals were poised to push even farther into the Confederate interior; a general assault might have even destroyed the Confederates’ center and opened the path to Richmond.

However, the Confederates counterattacked, and when the Federals’ call for reinforcements went unanswered, they fell back. Smith tried retaking the position later that evening, but by that time Confederate strength was too great. The Federals sustained 165 casualties in successfully stopping the Confederates from working on the defenses. But they could have accomplished much more had they been reinforced.

In response to President Abraham Lincoln’s request for a progress report, McClellan stated that he was still arranging to besiege Yorktown and needed reinforcements. Meanwhile, Confederate resistance at Burnt Chimneys and other points near Lee’s Mill gave Johnston time to hurry more Confederates to the Peninsula.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13498; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 160; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 401-02; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 138; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3264-87; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570

The Siege of Yorktown Begins

April 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln questioned not only Major General George B. McClellan’s strategy and tactics, but also his math after McClellan opted to lay siege to Yorktown and not attack.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By April 6, the rest of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac (less Major General Irvin McDowell’s I Corps) had arrived on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Lincoln expected to receive word that Yorktown had fallen, and when this did not happen, he telegraphed McClellan:

“You now have over one hundred thousand troops with you, independent of General Wool’s command (at Fort Monroe). I think you better break the enemies’ line from York-town to Warwick River, at once. They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can.”

McClellan, still seething over being denied McDowell’s services, wrote his wife that Lincoln “thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”

Ignoring Lincoln’s advice to attack immediately, McClellan instead began “the more tedious, but sure operations of siege.” His reluctance to attack partly stemmed from the performance by Confederate Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Known as “Prince John” for his enjoyment of theatrics, Magruder had his artillerists sporadically fire on enemy troops, his bands play loudly into the night, and his infantry march in and out of clearings to look like endless lines of troops. At the same time, General Joseph E. Johnston hurried the transfer of Confederate troops from his Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line to Magruder’s.

The next day, McClellan relayed reports of the difficulties the Federals would have in crossing the Warwick River. He informed Washington, “The Warwick River grows worse the more you look at it.” McClellan asserted that a third of his army still had not yet arrived from Alexandria, and based on testimony from Confederates captured outside Yorktown:

“It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more… When my present command all joins (from Alexandria), I shall have about 85,000 men for duty, from which a large force must be taken for guards, escort, etc.”

McClellan reminded Lincoln that he (Lincoln) had made Major General John Wool’s command at Fort Monroe unavailable to the Army of the Potomac, thus implying that more troops were needed. Meanwhile, the Federals continued digging trenches to lay siege to Yorktown.

The Federal army remained stationary for four days, during which time Magruder’s force gradually increased with the arriving reinforcements. But Magruder’s force was nowhere near the 100,000-man army that McClellan feared it to be; in fact, it was still no match for McClellan’s superior numbers. But McClellan continued preparing to besiege the enemy defenses rather than attack them head-on.

At Washington, Lincoln met with his cabinet to discuss the progress on the Peninsula so far and the “discrepancy” in McClellan’s April 7 message between the number of troops he claimed to have and the enemy numbers he claimed to be facing. After the meeting, Lincoln wrote a long letter to McClellan. In it, he explained further why McDowell’s corps had been kept back on the Rappahannock line: “My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected.”

McClellan had originally planned for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s V Corps to protect Washington, but that corps had been sent to the Shenandoah Valley. Regarding this Lincoln wrote, “And allow me to ask, do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops?”

Lincoln then stated that McClellan’s April 7 message contained “a curious mystery”: McClellan’s original troop report had listed 108,000 men, but as of the 7th that figure had dropped to 85,000. Lincoln asked, “How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?”

Explaining that McClellan should have his entire army on the Peninsula by now, Lincoln advised:

“Once more let me tell you that it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments in either place. The country will not fail to note–is now noting–that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated. I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.”

McClellan “acted” by proceeding with a siege against an enemy that could have been easily overrun if attacked with overwhelming force and speed. He also continued insisting that the absence of McDowell’s corps left him in hostile territory against an army with superior numbers.

At Richmond, General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, received a message from a minister in Alexandria stating that thousands of Federals, including McClellan himself, had boarded steamers and gone to the Virginia Peninsula. This coincided with Magruder’s reports stating that McClellan’s main army was facing him at Yorktown. This finally confirmed that the main Federal attack would be on the Peninsula.

Davis responded by summoning J.E. Johnston and his two best divisions–under Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith–to Richmond for reassignment to the Peninsula. Confederate forces south of the James River were pulled to reinforce Magruder as well. Major General Richard Ewell’s 7,500-man Confederate division remained on the Rappahannock line, ready to cooperate with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 5,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley if needed.

One of G.W. Smith’s brigades was left to defend Fredericksburg against McDowell’s corps. On the 10th, Lincoln relented and allowed McDowell’s lead division under General William B. Franklin, one of McClellan’s favorite commanders, to go to the Peninsula by water. McClellan had pleaded for McDowell’s entire corps to join him, but he was glad to get at least one division for now.

Two days later, J.E. Johnston arrived at Richmond with Longstreet and Smith and was given command of the Confederate Departments of Norfolk and the Peninsula. Johnston had asserted that he could not stop McClellan’s army from moving up the Peninsula because, even with Confederate reinforcements, he was still outnumbered nearly three-to-one. But Lee persuaded Johnston to make a stand.

When Johnston arrived at Yorktown on the 13th, there were nearly 34,000 troops manning the defenses in what soon became known as the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston inspected the lines at Yorktown and Williamsburg and determined that they could not withstand a frontal assault. He also expressed concern that defending a peninsula would allow McClellan to move troops up either river and land in his rear. Johnston returned to Richmond that evening to report his findings.

Opposing the Confederates were nearly 100,000 Federals of the II, III, and IV corps of Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes respectively. Franklin’s division of McDowell’s corps was held in reserve. With Franklin’s men arriving, McClellan wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I am confident as to results now. We shall soon be at them, and I am sure of the result.”

Federal optimism increased when the rains finally stopped and the skies cleared. With the roads improving, Federal scouts reconnoitered the enemy right flank near Lee’s Mill and the Warwick River and found potential weaknesses.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97-102, 105; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13427-46, 13453, 13682; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 154, 157-58, 160; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 401, 407-09; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 132, 135-37; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3264; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 431-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 194-95, 197, 199; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 110

The Peninsula Campaign: Advance on Yorktown

April 4, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan slowly advanced his Federal Army of the Potomac toward Yorktown, the first obstacle on the Virginia Peninsula.

On the morning of the 4th, having arrived just 36 hours before and with part of his army still on its way from Alexandria, McClellan directed a two-column advance up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. McClellan hoped to capture the port city of Yorktown and use it as a base from which to continue advancing to the Confederate capital of Richmond.

As the men moved out, it was immediately clear that this was not the same army that had been routed at Bull Run last July. This was a well-trained, well-disciplined army of men who moved with precision and were eager to please their beloved commander. General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps moved directly toward Yorktown, while General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps moved left to seize Halfway House, four and a half miles beyond the Confederate flank at Yorktown. General Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps followed Heintzelman in reserve. Meanwhile, Federal troops continued arriving from northern Virginia.

Maj Gen J.B. Magruder | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Maj Gen J.B. Magruder | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

A thin line of Confederate defenders quickly abandoned Big Bethel, where they had defeated the Federals last June. The Confederates fell back to the main defenses, manned by Major General John B. Magruder’s small Army of the Peninsula. Magruder’s line ran from Yorktown on the right to fortifications on the York River on the left. McClellan’s corps commanders had told him that naval support would be needed to reduce these fortifications.

By this time, General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had transferred three of General Joseph E. Johnston’s six divisions from the Rappahannock-Fredericksburg-Rapidan line in northern Virginia to the Peninsula. This gave Magruder about 31,500 men either in his defenses or on their way. Lee left three divisions with Johnston because, despite reports of many Federals on the Peninsula, Lee still could not be sure that the main attack would be there.

On the Federal side, McClellan encountered some unexpected problems. One was the navy, which could not offer the promised support on the York River because the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia had reappeared to threaten Federal shipping in Chesapeake Bay. Another problem was the Coastal Survey maps, which did not show that the Confederates had dammed the Warwick River in five places, making it extremely difficult to cross. Yet another was the rain, which muddied the roads and swelled the waterways.

All these problems, along with the 60,000 troops that President Abraham Lincoln had withheld, made McClellan even more cautious. He hoped to have Major General Irvin McDowell’s I Corps ready to reinforce him when he began driving on Richmond, but the Lincoln administration not only withheld McDowell, they turned his corps into its own military Department of the Rappahannock. This suggested that its detachment from McClellan’s army would be permanent. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s V Corps of McClellan’s army, now in the Shenandoah, was likewise made its own Department of the Shenandoah.

McClellan notified McDowell that he intended to attack Gloucester, across the river from Yorktown. Unaware that McDowell would not be joining him, McClellan expected him to arrive the next day and land his troops up the York from Gloucester to cut the town’s supply line.

By the end of April 4, McClellan had about 67,000 men with more on the way. His advance was going according to plan so far, with Magruder falling back to exactly where McClellan expected him to put up a fight. McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that evening, “I expect to fight tomorrow.”

But the Federals awoke to pouring rain on the 5th, making roads impassable and swelling the lakes and swamps formed by the Confederate dams on the Warwick River. Keyes, who had been directed to outflank Yorktown, discovered that the only practical river crossings were at the dams, which were guarded by a “large force with three guns in position and strong breastworks.” McClellan had hoped to surprise the Confederates by taking this route, but now Keyes informed him “that we shall encounter very serious resistance.”

Keyes later learned from two fugitive slaves that the Confederates were heavily entrenched, and the roads were nearly impassable due to the heavy rain. Keyes hesitated sending this news to McClellan “in the hope that I might get some positive information, but I as yet have not succeeded.” This shocked McClellan, who had boasted that the roads on the Peninsula were passable all year around.

Even worse, Keyes reported seeing thousands of Confederates moving throughout his front. He was unaware that “Prince John” Magruder was using his enjoyment of theatrics by marching his men in circles through clearings to make it seem to the Federals that endless numbers of enemy troops opposed them. Magruder also employed “Quaker guns,” or logs painted to resemble cannon. Keyes reported that “no part of the line, so far discovered, can be taken by assault without an enormous waste of human life.”

Meanwhile, Heintzelman’s corps arrived in front of the Yorktown earthworks and began exchanging fire with the defenders. McClellan and all three of his corps commanders (Heintzelman, Keyes, and Sumner) agreed with the Federal chief engineer in calling the Confederate defense along the Yorktown-Warwick River line “certainly one of the most extensive known to modern times.”

Rather than risk heavy losses in a frontal assault, McClellan opted to begin siege operations and ordered up his heavy guns from Fort Monroe. He also anxiously awaited the arrival of McDowell’s corps until he finally received Lincoln’s messages informing him that McDowell would not be coming. McClellan responded in a message headed, “Near Yorktown, 7:30 p.m.”:

“In my deliberate judgment, the success of our cause will be imperiled by so greatly reducing my force when it is actually under the fire of the enemy and active operations have commenced… I am now of the opinion that I shall have to fight all the available forces of the rebels not far from here. Do not force me to do so with diminished numbers.”

To his wife, McClellan called Lincoln’s decision to withhold McDowell’s corps “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”

The perception of strong defenses worked to keep McClellan from attacking Magruder’s small, vulnerable force. McClellan’s decision to besiege and not attack Yorktown gave the Confederate high command more time to transfer troops from northern Virginia to the Peninsula.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 150; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 274, 398-401, 404-07; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 131-32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3240-52; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 199; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 193; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 110

The Peninsula Campaign: McClellan Arrives Shorthanded

April 2, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan landed on the Virginia Peninsula with a huge manpower advantage, even though he had fewer men than expected.

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

As April began, the Army of the Potomac continued being shuttled in continuous streams from Alexandria to Fort Monroe on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. McClellan, still upset about being deprived of General Louis Blenker’s 10,000-man division, boarded the Commodore to head to the Peninsula and wrote his wife that he was “very glad to get away from that sink of iniquity (Washington).”

Before leaving, McClellan complied with orders and quickly submitted a roster to President Abraham Lincoln listing the troops he was leaving behind to defend Washington. While his corps commanders had proposed leaving 40,000, McClellan reported that he would be leaving 55,465: 35,476 in the Shenandoah Valley, 10,859 at Manassas Junction, 7,780 at Warrenton, and 1,350 along the lower Potomac.

Added to the 22,000 manning the Washington defenses, this totaled 77,465 men. However, McClellan transferred many units and double-counted them while in transit. He also relied on troops in the northern states to come down and man several garrisons, even though he had not directly ordered them to do so. In reality, McClellan left only about 30,000 men in the Washington and Manassas Junction area.

McClellan and his staff arrived at Fort Monroe on the 2nd. By this time, about 50,000 Federals, or more than half the Army of the Potomac, had landed on the Peninsula. This strip of land was roughly 50 miles long and 15 miles wide at its widest. McClellan’s army would have to march upon the Peninsula’s sandy ground, through dense woods, and across many waterways to get to the Confederate capital at Richmond, 70 miles away.

McClellan planned to quickly advance and establish a supply base at the head of the York near West Point. From there, he would fight the “decisive” battle between West Point and Richmond. His first obstacle would be Yorktown, a tobacco port where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington to end the War for Independence in 1781. Major General John B. Magruder defended Yorktown with his 15,000-man Army of the Peninsula.

McClellan intended to outflank Magruder with help from Federal gunboats. However, Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, informed McClellan that he could offer few gunboats because most of his fleet was busy defending against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Naval officials later asserted that their artillery could not reach the Confederates on the high bluffs anyway.

Back at Washington, Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, a former New York politician and current D.C. military governor, discovered the questionable math on McClellan’s roster of troops left behind. Acknowledging that a Confederate attack on the capital was “very improbable,” Wadsworth notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that only 19,000 soldiers were available to man the Washington defenses. This raised administration concern over whether McClellan had left the capital “entirely secure” as instructed.

Two of McClellan’s army corps remained in the Washington area, waiting to be transferred to the Peninsula–the I and II corps of Major Generals Irvin McDowell and Edwin V. Sumner respectively. Before leaving Alexandria, McClellan had directed Sumner to bring his corps to the Peninsula next, with McDowell’s to follow only after the rest of the army was approaching Richmond.

By this time, the Confederates in northern Virginia had fallen back to Fredericksburg and Orange Court House, and the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley had withdrawn to Mount Jackson. Nevertheless, Stanton and Lincoln concluded that Washington needed more protection against an unlikely Confederate attack. Therefore, Stanton ordered McDowell’s 40,000-man I Corps, currently stationed near Manassas Junction, to stay behind. McDowell’s corps had originally been scheduled to go to the Peninsula first, but now it would not be going at all. This corps comprised about a third of McClellan’s army.

Lincoln issued an order through Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to McClellan: “The President, deeming the force to be left in front of Washington insufficient to insure its safety, has directed that McDowell’s army corps should be detached from the forces operating under your immediate direction.” Lincoln explained the order in a personal letter to McClellan: “I was satisfied with your arrangements to leave Banks at Manassas Junction, but when that arrangement was broken up (when Banks went to the Shenandoah Valley) and nothing was substituted for it of course I was not satisfied.”

To make things worse for McClellan, he was also informed that the 10,000-man Federal garrison at Fort Monroe would not be available for his use. This left McClellan with 60,000 fewer men than he expected to have on the Peninsula (Blenker’s 10,000, McDowell’s 40,000, and the 10,000 at Fort Monroe). However, he still had a tremendous advantage in manpower over Magruder’s small army at Yorktown. As such, Lincoln directed that “Gen. McClellan commence his forward movement from his new base at once.”

McClellan wrote his wife on April 3, not yet aware that McDowell was being held back, “I hope to get possession of Yorktown day after tomorrow.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (3 Apr 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 71; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 148; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7396; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 130; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 192

“Stonewall” Jackson Prepares to Move

April 1, 1862 – Federal forces moved farther into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, while Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began developing plans to drive them out.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal corps in the Valley had been reinforced due to the unexpected engagement at Kernstown in late March. As the Federals resumed their advance from Strasburg, Jackson’s small Confederate army fell back southward up the Valley from Hawkinsville, screened by Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry.

Jackson took positions near Rude’s Hill, with the massive influx of new recruits prompting him to reorganize his force. Jackson also directed troops to round up locals who refused to answer the conscription call; these were mostly pacifists such as Mennonites or Quakers. Jackson acknowledged their refusal to fight by employing them as teamsters, laborers, and cooks. A detachment also hunted down and captured a group of deserters led by Captain William H. Gillespie, who had served on Jackson’s staff and was up for a promotion to lieutenant.

East of the Shenandoah, General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his Confederate army beyond the Rapidan River and ordered Jackson to stop Banks from seizing Staunton, a key Valley town holding the main Confederate supply line to Richmond. Johnston also directed Major General Richard S. Ewell to lead his 8,500-man division from Brandy Station to Swift Run Gap to potentially reinforce Jackson.

The Confederates were aided by Banks’s slow, methodical pace. For over a week, Colonel Ashby’s small cavalry force blocked the Federals at Stony Creek. Banks reported on the 15th, “Ashby still here. We have a sleepless eye on him, and are straining every nerve to advance as quickly as possible.” Banks began planning to capture the crossroads at New Market.

Two days later, Federal infantry surprised Ashby by crossing Stony Creek before dawn. At the same time, Federal cavalry crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on a bridge that Ashby had failed to burn before retreating. Skirmishing occurred until the Confederates fell back to Jackson’s main line at Rude’s Hill, and Jackson’s artillery slowed the Federal advance. The Confederates slowly withdrew, and Banks took both New Market and Mount Jackson to try cutting off their retreat. Jackson fell back about five miles south of Harrisonburg on the night of the 18th.

Banks’s sudden show of aggression indicated to Jackson that he must have been heavily reinforced. To counter, General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, directed Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s 3,000-man army in western Virginia to coordinate movements with Jackson. Also, Ewell was instructed to link with Jackson.

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Jackson’s Confederates ended their 20-mile eastward march on the rainy night of the 19th. Having covered nearly 100 miles in the past month, the men camped near Conrad’s Store, at the foot of Swift Run Gap. This spot covered both the Luray Valley and Harrisonburg. If Banks moved south of this point, Jackson could attack him from the rear.

Meanwhile, a Federal expedition dispatched by Banks seized the Luray Valley bridges across the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. They scattered some Confederate cavalry but could not find Jackson’s army. Banks notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I believe Jackson left this valley yesterday.”

But Jackson had not left. He took up positions in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hidden by the Massanutten Ridge. He then dispatched his topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to lead a cavalry expedition (not Ashby, who had failed him at Stony Creek) in destroying the bridges over the South Fork.

Hotchkiss found the Confederate troopers at the Shenandoah Iron Works, with “many of them under the influence of apple-jack.” This disorganized force could only burn one of the three bridges before being driven back to Jackson’s main body by Federal cavalry. Around the same time, Major General John C. Fremont’s new Federal Mountain Department army pushed “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates away from the Shenandoah Mountain.

Banks continued to wrongly assume that Jackson had retreated east, presumably to reinforce Johnston’s army on the Virginia Peninsula. Banks told his superiors that Jackson’s supposed retreat “from the Valley by the way of the mountains, from Harrisonburg toward Stanardsville and Orange Court-House, on Gordonsville is confirmed this morning by our scouts and prisoners.” However, Jackson remained at Swift Run Gap; the scouts did not reconnoiter the gap and Confederate prisoners lied about his true whereabouts.

As the Federals moved southward toward Harrisonburg and occupied Luray, Banks reported that “Jackson has abandoned the valley of Virginia permanently, en route for Gordonsville, by way of the mountains.” But Federal scouts continued missing Swift Run Gap, the most logical point to move east toward Gordonsville. Meanwhile, Jackson was well aware of Banks’s movements thanks to Jedediah Hotchkiss’s close reconnaissance.

Lee sent a message to Jackson informing him that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federal Army of the Rappahannock (formerly I Corps of the Army of the Potomac) had established a base of operations against Richmond at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg in northern Virginia. Lee wrote:

“If you can use Genl. Ewell’s division in an attack on Genl. Banks, and to drive him back, it will prove a great relief to the pressure on Fredericksburg, but if you should find Genl. Banks too strong to be approached, and your object is to hold Genl. Ewell in supporting distance to your column, he may be of more importance at this time between Fredericksburg and Richmond… I have hoped in the present divided condition of the enemy’s forces that a successful blow may be dealt them by a rapid combination of our troops before they can be strengthened themselves either in position or by re-enforcements… The blow, wherever struck, must, to be successful, be sudden and heavy. The troops used must be efficient and light.”

Jackson chose to use Ewell to attack Banks, and began planning an operation that would divert Federal attention from both Fredericksburg and the Peninsula. Meanwhile, a portion of Banks’s army advanced into New Market while the main body reached Harrisonburg. Banks had moved an unimpressive 35 miles in 10 days while completely mistaking the location and intention of Jackson’s army.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87, 94-95; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 147; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 421; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 129-30, 140-41, 143; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3359-70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 191-92, 200-01; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 386

The Peninsula Campaign: Confederate Reaction

March 31, 1862 – As the Federal Army of the Potomac headed for the Virginia Peninsula, Confederates scrambled to determine their landing point. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George B. McClellan disagreed on manpower.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

While McClellan continued loading his Federals on transports at Alexandria, General Joseph E. Johnston continued withdrawing his Confederate army (also unofficially called the Army of the Potomac) southward. Johnston intended to put two rivers–the Rappahannock and the Rapidan–between himself and McClellan.

The Confederate high command still did not know where McClellan would strike, but a strong clue came on the 24th when Major General Benjamin Huger, commanding the Confederate department at Norfolk, reported that 20 steam transports had moved down Chesapeake Bay and were debarking Federal troops at Old Point Comfort.

Major General John B. Magruder, defending the area between the York and James rivers with his small 7,500-man Army of the Peninsula, confirmed Huger’s message and estimated that 35,000 Federals were now in the vicinity. He urgently called on Richmond for reinforcements.

President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, believed that these Federals would either reinforce Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside in North Carolina, reinforce the 10,000 Federals already at Fort Monroe to attack Norfolk while McClellan threatened Richmond from the north, or directly advance up the Peninsula.

Lee asked Johnston if he could spare any troops for Magruder and instructed him, “It will be necessary for you to organize a part of your troops to hold your present line, and to prepare the remainder to move to this city, to be thrown on the point attacked.” Lee explained that since the Federal intentions were still unknown, if he received “a dispatch saying ‘Move at once,’ you will understand that you are to repair immediately to this city, where you will be informed to what point you are to direct your course.”

That dispatch came on March 27, when Lee ordered Johnston to send 10,000 troops to Magruder via Richmond. This order came due to concern that Federal troops could be moved via transport up the York River and landed behind Magruder’s lines.

Johnston argued that relinquishing 10,000 men would make him unable to defend his line on the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg line if attacked. And 10,000 was not enough for Magruder to hold his ground against an attack on the Peninsula. Johnston recommended that he either stay intact where he was or move his entire army to reinforce Magruder. Johnston wrote, “We cannot win without concentrating. Should my suggestion be approved say so by telegraph, and the movement will be made with all expedition from Fredericksburg and this place.”

Meanwhile, President Lincoln faced mounting pressure from Radicals in his party to focus more on their darling, Major General John C. Fremont. Lincoln had recently put Fremont in charge of the new Mountain Department, and now Fremont and his allies asked for just 10,000 more men to invade eastern Tennessee and capture Knoxville.

Fremont specifically requested the 10,000-man division in the Shenandoah Valley led by General Louis Blenker. This division, mostly comprised of German immigrants who supported Fremont’s abolitionism, belonged to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had met with McClellan at Alexandria and assured him that he would not send Blenker to Fremont because the only reason for it would be political. But by the end of March, Lincoln apparently changed his mind (“Stonewall” Jackson’s recent activity in the Valley may have played a part). Lincoln wrote McClellan:

“This morning I felt constrained to order Blenker’s division to Fremont; and I write this to assure you that I did so with great pain, understanding that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case I am confident that you would justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgement that the Commander in Chief may order what he pleases. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”

McClellan immediately complained that losing 10,000 men would compromise his plans, especially now that nearly his entire army was on its way to the Peninsula. He met with Lincoln on the 31st, where (according to McClellan) the president promised that “nothing of the sort should be repeated.” McClellan also claimed that Lincoln told him that he “might rest assured that the campaign should proceed with no further deductions from the force upon which its operations had been planned.”

With this in mind, McClellan left Alexandria for the Peninsula the next day.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 92; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 273, 397; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 128-29; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3184-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 189-90; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 293