Tag Archives: Erasmus D. Keyes

Lee Begins Moving North

June 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee directed his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to begin its second invasion of the North.

Rumors had circulated among the Federals that Lee was planning to move his army out of Fredericksburg. Major General Erasmus D. Keyes, commanding a Federal division operating on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, reported on the 2nd:

“It seems apparent from the rumors that reach me that a movement of rebel troops is going on from south to north, and that the idea prevails over the lines that an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania is soon to be made. I have heard nothing definite, but all the rumors concur to produce the impression stated.”

Keyes’s Federals, being just 30 miles from Richmond, could obtain important information from the Confederate capital quickly. The Federals also observed Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederates heading north from Suffolk to rejoin Lee’s army. Keyes soon received orders to abandon the Peninsula and move northwest.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee had indeed been planning to move north, but he was reluctant to start while Keyes’s Federals hovered within striking distance of Richmond, which was lightly guarded. When Lee learned that Keyes was leaving, he began preparing his movement in earnest. He rejected Longstreet’s suggestion to take the offensive in Virginia, arguing that at best the Confederates would only push the Federals back to their impregnable defenses at Washington. Invading the North was the only option.

Lee’s army now numbered nearly 80,000 men, the largest since the Seven Days Battles nearly a year ago. However, there were many new officers, including two new corps commanders, and many among them had never been battle-tested in their new roles. But as he had done so often before, Lee hoped to take advantage of his opponents’ unwillingness to seize the initiative.

Lee issued marching orders on the 3rd, with Longstreet’s First Corps moving out of Fredericksburg toward Culpeper Court House, the first stop on the invasion route. Major General George Pickett’s division within Longstreet’s corps would stay at Hanover Junction, where it could either join Lee’s army on the march or move south and defend Richmond in case of attack.

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would follow Longstreet, a division at a time. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps would stay at Fredericksburg to keep the Federals across the Rappahannock River occupied. Lee planned to march into the fertile Shenandoah Valley and then cross the Potomac River into the North. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery, later wrote:

“I recall the morning vividly. A beautiful bright June day, and about 11 a.m., a courier from Longstreet’s headquarters brought the order. Although it was only a march to Culpeper Court House, we knew that it meant another great battle with the enemy’s army, which still confronted ours at Fredericksburg.”

Alexander noted “the pride and confidence I felt in my splendid battalion, as it filed out on the fields in the road, with every chest and ammunition wagon filled, and every horse in fair order, and every detail fit for a campaign.” The Army of Northern Virginia was much more polished than it had been when it invaded Maryland last September. There were far fewer stragglers, as army morale had never been higher. Most men had been recently fitted with new uniforms, shoes, and equipment.

The Army of the Potomac, camped across from Fredericksburg between Aquia Creek and Falmouth, showed no signs of aggression. Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the army, noted the Confederate movement but still did not know of Lee’s plan. However, he received intelligence from a Mr. G.S. Smith, a spy providing information to Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Federal Cavalry Corps:

“There is one thing that looks very apparent to me, and that is that this movement of General Lee’s is not intended to menace Washington, but to try his hand again toward Maryland, or to call off your attention while General (Jeb) Stuart goes there.”

Pleasonton added to Smith’s message: “It is my impression the rebel army has been weakened by troops sent west and south, and that any performance of Stuart’s will be a flutter to keep us from seeing their weakness.” Pleasonton was wrong.

When Hooker received word that night that Confederates were poised to cross the Rappahannock, he ordered Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps, guarding the river crossings on the right flank, to be on alert. He then ordered the rest of the army to prepare to mobilize at any time.

During the night, Federal pickets reported seeing large campfires on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock. This indicated that troops were burning what they could not bring with them before embarking on a general movement. Early on the 4th, Federals noted seeing fewer Confederate pickets than normal, and those previously on duty “were replaced near here by cripples.”

The divisions of Ewell’s corps began following Longstreet out of Fredericksburg on the 4th, the same day that Major General John Bell Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps arrived at Culpeper Court House. Only Hill’s corps remained in the defenses, with the Federals showing little activity at Falmouth or on Stafford Heights across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe, chief of aeronautics for the Federal army, ascended several observation balloons along the Federal line to try observing Confederate positions across the river. On the right, observers reported seeing infantry and artillery moving out around 6 a.m. Federals in a balloon overlooking Fredericksburg noted similar activity in the defenses west of town.

When Hooker learned that Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was near Culpeper, he dispatched Pleasonton’s 11,000 horsemen to confront him near Brandy Station. Hooker also directed Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether Lee’s movement was a feint or a legitimate northern thrust.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 294; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14, 16; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18977; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 290-91; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9285; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 447; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 304; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5684-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 361-62; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 648, 651; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 286, 307-08

The Battle of Seven Pines: Day One

May 31, 1862 – Confederates attacked the Federals on the south side of the Chickahominy River, but poor coordination prevented them from accomplishing their main goal of destroying the enemy.

By the morning of the 31st, troops in the front lines of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac were within six miles of Richmond, with the city’s church steeples visible in the distance. However, the Chickahominy divided McClellan’s 110,000-man army, with three corps north of the river and two to the south. And pouring rains had swelled the waterway, making it dangerously difficult for the two wings to unite if needed.

For the Confederate army, General Joseph E. Johnston had 74,000 men, but he reported just 62,696 effectives. He planned to send two-thirds of that number to attack the Federal wing isolated south of the Chickahominy, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps in front and III Corps under General Samuel P. Heintzelman in reserve. Most of Keyes’s Federals were positioned near Fair Oaks Station to the north and Seven Pines to the south.

The massive Confederate mobilization began at dawn, catching the attention of Richmond residents. Many followed the army to see the action, but that action would be delayed several hours. Johnston did not inform anyone of his plans, which required a rigid timetable and skilled coordination to execute. But they were bungled from the start.

Major General James Longstreet was supposed to lead the Confederate left (or north) wing down the Nine Mile road to attack Federals at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. But he misunderstood Johnston’s verbal orders and instead went down the Williamsburg road, the same road taken by Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates in the center. This not only jammed traffic on the road, but it greatly narrowed the Confederates’ attacking front.

Moreover, Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates were supposed to support Hill’s right, but Johnston merely ordered Huger to “be ready for action.” Huger took this to mean that he should stay in reserve until called upon, but Johnston wanted him to advance with Longstreet and Hill. Thus, Hill advanced unsupported, and Huger never received a specific order to commit his men to the action.

In addition, muddy roads made marching harder than expected, maps were inadequate, troops got lost in the dense woods, and officers got confused because of Johnston’s secrecy. Johnston also failed to establish that Longstreet was to command the operation, even though Major Generals Gustavus W. Smith and Huger outranked him. All these factors worked to completely upset the timetable.

As the Confederates tried untangling themselves on the road, and while Longstreet and Huger argued over who the senior commander was, Hill grew tired of waiting and ordered his men to attack at 1 p.m. Struggling through swamps and thick woods, Hill’s troops slammed into the Federals’ front line led by Brigadier General Silas Casey’s inexperienced 6,000-man division, one mile west of Seven Pines.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The initial attack consisted of just Hill’s four brigades, not the 13 total brigades of Hill, Longstreet, and Huger as envisioned. Nevertheless, the Confederates made headway as Casey’s line began buckling. Before Keyes could send Casey reinforcements, the Confederates captured a redoubt and the Federals were forced to retreat. Federal Brigadier General Henry M. Naglee led a bayonet charge that temporarily stalled the Confederate advance and enabled the rest of the Federals to fall back.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, commanding the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, reported at 2 p.m. from his observation balloon that Confederates were advancing in battle formation. Lowe continued telegraphing details on the battle to McClellan’s headquarters throughout the day. Thirty minutes later, Heintzelman informed McClellan that a battle had begun, but he had not received any word from Keyes on whether he should bring up reinforcements. Heintzelman soon began sending his men to the front as Keyes tried shoring up his defenses.

Johnston, two and a half miles in the Confederate rear, was not aware that the battle had begun because an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented him from hearing the sound of firing. General Robert E. Lee, farther in the rear, had to come up and tell Johnston that fighting was taking place. Then, Johnston received a message from Longstreet around 4 p.m. asking for reinforcements. Johnston responded by leading three of Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s reserve brigades down the Nine Mile road toward Fair Oaks Station.

About a half hour later, Hill, now reinforced by some of Longstreet’s brigades, approached the second Federal defense line. This consisted of Casey’s remnants, Brigadier General Darius N. Couch’s division from IV Corps, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division from III Corps. The Confederate attacks resumed, but they lacked proper coordination as men were sent piecemeal into the fray.

Hill directed Colonel Micah Jenkins to lead four regiments around the Federal right flank, forcing them to fall back about a mile and a half past Seven Pines. There they established a third defense line, and with more reinforcements arriving, the Federals stopped the Confederate advance and fighting began dying down in that sector around 6 p.m.

To the north, Johnston directed Whiting’s Confederates to attack Keyes’s right flank near Fair Oaks. By this time, Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding II Corps north of the Chickahominy, received word from McClellan to stand ready to cross the river and join the fight. Instead of just standing ready, Sumner ordered Brigadier General John Sedgwick’s division to cross the flooded waterway.

Sumner instructed Sedgwick to use the partly submerged Grapevine Bridge, the only available bridge, to cross. When engineers warned Sumner that a crossing was impossible, Sumner snapped, “Impossible? Sir, I tell you I can cross! I am ordered!” The men and horses crossed safely, with the bridge collapsing after the last man made it over.

By the time Whiting’s men arrived, the Federal right was reinforced. The Confederates launched several attacks but made no headway as casualties mounted. Three of Whiting’s four brigade commanders were lost; Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton was wounded, and Confederate Brigadier General J.J. Pettigrew was wounded and captured. On the Federal side, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard was wounded twice, resulting in the amputation of his arm.

Johnston watched the action with his staff atop a nearby ridge, and at 7 p.m. he decided to suspend the attacks until next morning. He was then hit simultaneously by a bullet in his shoulder and shrapnel from an exploding shell in his chest and legs. Johnston fell from his horse, severely wounded and unconscious. He sustained a broken shoulder and broken ribs.

President Jefferson Davis and Lee, who had ridden to the front, saw Johnston being carried off, and Davis offered him words of encouragement. Johnston’s wounds were initially assessed as mortal, but he survived. He wrote in his official report: “Had Major-gen Huger’s division been in position and ready for action when those of Smith, Longstreet, and Hill moved, I am satisfied that Keyes’ corps would have been destroyed instead of merely defeated.” Huger’s Confederates never took part in the action.

Army command passed to G.W. Smith, who was plagued by illness and indecision. When Davis asked Smith for his plans that night, Smith said he had none until he received more information from the front. In the meantime, he offered three options: hold his ground, withdraw, or attack.

Choosing the second option, Smith began withdrawing the Confederates from the field. But then he reconsidered and resolved to renew the fight the next morning. Unimpressed, Davis told Lee as the two men rode back to the capital, “General Lee, I shall assign you to the command of this army. Make your preparations as soon as you reach your quarters. I shall send you the order when we get to Richmond.”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76-78; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-45, 155-58; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 147, 149; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (31 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13765; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 177-78; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7504; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 451; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 160-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3537; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 199, 227-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 218-19; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 461; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 411; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 668; Wikipedia: Battle of Seven Pines

Johnston Plans to Attack

May 30, 1862 – Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston received vital intelligence that prompted him to plan an attack on the Federals isolated south of the Chickahominy River.

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

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

Most of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was positioned north of what he called “the confounded Chickahominy.” Part of the reason the river was “confounded” was because it was at flood stage, making it difficult for McClellan to unite the right and left wings of his army if needed.

The right wing consisted of three corps totaling 76,000 men. The left wing south of the river consisted of IV and III corps under Generals Erasmus D. Keyes and Samuel P. Heintzelman respectively. These two corps totaled just 34,000 men. Keyes held the forward positions near Fair Oaks Station to the north and the village of Seven Pines, where three roads intersected, to the south. Heintzelman was in reserve.

McClellan had dangerously separated his army based on assurances that Major General Irvin McDowell was coming to reinforce his right. When McDowell was redirected to counter the recent successes of “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, McClellan condemned the Lincoln administration and began preparing to reunite his force. Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, commanding the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, reported from his observation balloon that Confederate troops were massing near Fair Oaks Station, but McClellan did not act on this intelligence.

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

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

By this time, Johnston’s Confederate army had swelled to nearly 75,000 men, and they now had to either fight or flee. Johnston informed President Jefferson Davis that he would attack McClellan’s right wing on the morning of the 29th to keep McDowell from linking to it. Davis wrote his wife Varina (whom he had sent out of Richmond in case of a Federal attack), “We are steadily developing for a great battle, and under God’s favor I trust for a decisive victory.”

Davis hoped that Johnston would have attacked already, but Johnston was in the process of changing his strategy. At a council of war on the night of May 28, Johnston received an important message from Brigadier General Jeb Stuart stating that McDowell’s Federals were moving back toward the Rappahannock and not linking with McClellan as feared. Johnston responded by canceling his plan to attack McClellan’s right and reverting to his original (and more desirable) plan of attacking the isolated left wing.

Johnston did not inform Davis that the attack on the right had been canceled. When Davis heard no sounds of battle as expected on the 29th, he and General Robert E. Lee, his top advisor, rode to Mechanicsville to find out why. There they learned that McDowell was not reinforcing McClellan.

Meanwhile, Johnston began laying the groundwork for his attack south of the Chickahominy, with some skirmishing breaking out near Seven Pines and diversionary fighting occurring north of the Chickahominy near the South Anna River. The next day, Johnston received a report from Confederate scouts stating that the Federals south of the Chickahominy were strong on their left (near Seven Pines) but weak on their right (near Fair Oaks Station). Johnston resolved to attack on May 31.

Johnston divided the army into two wings, with one on either side of the Chickahominy. The right wing would conduct the main assault on the two isolated Federal corps south of the river. Led by Major General James Longstreet, this wing would consist of 22 of the army’s 29 brigades. Under Johnston’s attack plan:

  • Longstreet’s six brigades would form the left sector of the attack line, moving down the Nine Mile road to threaten both Fair Oaks Station and Seven Pines.
  • Major General D.H. Hill’s four brigades would form the center sector, moving down the Williamsburg road to attack the Federals at Seven Pines.
  • Major General Benjamin Huger’s three brigades would support Hill’s right from the Charles City road.
  • Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s division would be behind Longstreet on the left in reserve.

Major General Gustavus W. Smith, the second ranking officer behind Johnston, would lead the Confederate left wing north of the Chickahominy. There, divisions under Generals A.P. Hill and John B. Magruder would launch diversionary attacks against the three Federal corps.

Johnston’s plan was sound but somewhat complicated. Johnston’s vague, even contradictory, orders to the commanders, as well as his insistence on secrecy, complicated the plan even further. And heavy storms on the night of the 30th threatened to bog the advance down in mud. However, the storms also worked to Johnston’s advantage because they flooded the Chickahominy, making it even more difficult for McClellan to unite his two wings.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-38; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 147; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 177; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 443-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 159-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3466-90; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 439-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 217; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 461; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 668

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.

—–

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

Lincoln Issues Two General War Orders

March 8, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln demonstrated his flagging confidence in General-in-Chief George B. McClellan by creating a corps command structure within the Army of the Potomac.

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

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

Lincoln and McClellan met at the White House on the morning of the 8th to discuss McClellan’s plan to load the army on transports and move down Chesapeake Bay, landing at Urbanna on Virginia’s coast. During the discussion, Lincoln said that a “very ugly matter” had come up concerning rumors that the plan “was conceived with the traitorous intent of removing its defenders from Washington, and thus giving over to the enemy the capital and the government, thus left defenseless.”

McClellan quickly snapped that no man would call him a traitor, and, according to McClellan, Lincoln relented and “said that he merely repeated what others had said, and that he did not believe a word of it.” To prove his loyalty, McClellan announced that he would share the Urbanna plan with his division commanders, most of whom knew nothing about it yet, and ask them to vote on whether it was sound.

McClellan summoned the 12 division commanders to his headquarters, where he explained the plan and took the vote. He then returned to the White House that same day to report to Lincoln that the commanders had voted in favor of the plan, 8 to 4. This seemed to satisfy Lincoln enough to allow McClellan to proceed with his Urbanna strategy.

However, Lincoln was not completely satisfied until he issued two peremptory orders to McClellan later that day. The first, titled “President’s General War Order No. 2,” dismantled McClellan’s division-command structure by grouping the 12 divisions within the Army of the Potomac into four corps, to be led by Generals Irvin McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes. A fifth corps was also created and assigned to operate in the Shenandoah Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

McClellan had considered creating a corps system, but he wanted to select his corps commanders himself once they were tested in battle. Lincoln had not only made the selections, but he had consulted with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, not McClellan, beforehand. None of those promoted were McClellan’s favorites, and worse, three of the four (McDowell, Sumner, and Heintzelman) had voted against McClellan’s Urbanna plan.

Lincoln’s second directive, titled “President’s General War Order No. 3,” officially approved the Urbanna plan on several conditions:

  • McClellan had to leave enough troops behind so that Washington remained “entirely secure;”
  • He had to reach a consensus among his top officers as to how many men to leave behind;
  • He could not move the bulk of his army until the Confederate blockade of the lower Potomac River was broken;
  • He had to begin operations within 10 days.

Thus, McClellan got the approval he sought for his plan, but he feared that the conditions placed upon the approval might compromise his overall strategy. This would play a significant role in the way he conducted operations in the future.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-85; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7164-75; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 252-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 424; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-75, 598; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 773-74