Tag Archives: Irvin McDowell

Federals Vulnerable on the Peninsula

May 26, 1862 – Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley prevented Federal reinforcements from reaching Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. This left McClellan in a vulnerable position on the Peninsula.

Gens G.B. McClellan and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gens G.B. McClellan and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The right flank of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army stood about five miles from Richmond across the Charles City road. The Confederate defense line ran northward to the Chickahominy River, with the left flank near the capital’s northeastern outskirts. There were scattered Confederate outposts north of the Chickahominy, but none farther north than Mechanicsville. Johnston officially reported having 53,688 officers and men, which was less than half the approaching Federal Army of the Potomac.

President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston that he was alarmed to see he had made no defensive preparations along the Mechanicsville turnpike in case the Federals decided to move “toward if not to Richmond” from that road. Davis and his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode out to Johnston’s headquarters at Mechanicsville, just six miles northeast of Richmond, to discuss the matter.

Johnston explained that he had fallen back across the Chickahominy to put the river in his front rather than his rear. He also moved the troops closer to Richmond because that area provided more adequate drinking water. Davis expressed concern that if the Federals broke Johnston’s line, they could march into Richmond within two hours. Davis was also annoyed that Johnston seemed to have no plan other than just trying to hold the Federals back.

Meanwhile, McClellan continued arguing with President Abraham Lincoln over the conditions that Lincoln had placed on Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals joining McClellan on the Peninsula. McClellan wrote:

“I desire that the extent of my authority over McDowell may be clearly defined, lest misunderstandings and conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused. I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing General McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, and holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions.”

While McClellan awaited Lincoln’s response, he received a dispatch from McDowell: “I have received the orders of the President to move with the army under my command and co-operate with yours in the reduction of Richmond.” McDowell could not move until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division. He expected Shields to arrive soon, enabling his army to begin moving toward McClellan on the 24th. McDowell also asked if McClellan could help block the retreat of the small Confederate force opposing him along the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad.

On the 22nd, Lincoln left Washington to confer with McDowell on the Rappahannock River. Admiral John A. Dahlgren and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton joined the president. McDowell showed the Lincoln party an 80-foot-long trestle bridge standing 100 feet above a wide ravine of Potomac Creek.

The bridge had been built from felled trees by engineer Herman Haupt’s Construction Corps. Working around the clock, it took them just 21 days to complete it. The bridge enabled trains to deliver supplies from the mouth of Aquia Creek on the Potomac River to Falmouth, 13 miles away, every hour. Lincoln walked across the bridge, but Stanton became dizzy halfway across and had to be helped back to land by Dahlgren.

Back on the Peninsula, McClellan arrayed his army along a line meant to attack Johnston’s Confederates. The new Federal V Corps under General Fitz John Porter advanced near Mechanicsville, with II and VI corps under Generals Edwin V. Sumner and William B. Franklin northwest of the Chickahominy. General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps was south of the Chickahominy at Seven Pines, about six miles east of Richmond, with General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps five miles behind Keyes. Federals on the far left and right of the line were so close to Richmond they could hear church bells ringing.

As Davis had feared, the Federals took Mechanicsville, which would enable McClellan to link his right with McDowell’s left. Johnston met with Davis in Richmond but still had no plan of action. It seemed that the capital could be saved only if either Johnston attacked preemptively or McDowell failed to join with McClellan. McClellan, still believing he was outnumbered, opted to wait for more troops before pushing forward.

To the Confederates’ good fortune, Lincoln decided to suspend McDowell’s march to join McClellan in response to the Federal defeat at Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. Instead, McDowell’s “object will be to capture the forces of Jackson & Ewell” by sending 20,000 Federals to support the armies of Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont in the Valley.

Knowing that such a decision would cause great resentment among the Federal high command, Lincoln asked Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to help explain to McDowell why this was being done. Lincoln wrote, “It will be a very valuable and very honorable service for General McDowell to cut them off. I hope he will put all possible energy and speed into the effort.” Chase replied, “General McDowell appreciates, as you do, the importance of the service he is called on to perform. All possible exertion is being made by him and the officers under him to expedite the movement.”

Lincoln then wrote McClellan explaining the necessity of withholding McDowell yet again: “In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you…” Lincoln elaborated in a second message:

“Apprehensions of something like this (defeat in the Shenandoah), and no unwillingness to sustain you, have always been my reason for withholding McDowell from you. Please understand this, and do the best you can with the force you have.”

Panic swept Washington when news of the Federal defeat at Winchester arrived. Lincoln, caught up in the frenzy, urgently wrote McClellan, “I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defence of Washington.” Noting the “general and concerted” crisis in the Valley, Lincoln pledged to send as many “such regiments and dribs” as he could to the Peninsula.

McClellan responded, “Telegram received. Independently of it, the time is very near when I shall attack Richmond.” But McClellan disagreed with Lincoln’s fear that the Confederates in the Valley intended to threaten Washington:

“The object of the movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me. All the information from balloons, deserters, prisoners, and contrabands agrees in the statement that the mass of the rebel troops are still in the immediate vicinity of Richmond, ready to defend it.”

McClellan then wrote his wife that Lincoln was “terribly scared. Heaven help a country governed by such counsels… A scare will do them good, and may bring them to their senses.”

Meanwhile, Keyes’s Federals, supported by Heintzelman’s corps, advanced to within five miles of Richmond on the Williamsburg road. But this put McClellan in a vulnerable position. He had two corps isolated south of the Chickahominy and three corps north of it, and now McDowell’s 40,000 men would not be joining him.

The next day, Lincoln asked McClellan, “What impression have you, as to intrenchments–works–for you to contend with in front of Richmond? Can you get near enough to throw shells into the city?” Meanwhile, Lee visited Johnston and learned that he was planning to attack and destroy McClellan’s right flank on the north side of the Chickahominy. Johnston hoped to permanently separate him from McDowell and isolate the rest of his army on the Peninsula.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (22 May 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 146-47; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13722, 13749-58, 13765, 13995; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 174; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7441-52; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 437, 440-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 156-57; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3430-42; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 215-17; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262

Action Intensifies in the Shenandoah Valley

May 24, 1862 – Following the Federal defeat at Front Royal, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks retreated and President Abraham Lincoln scrambled to send him reinforcements.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The loss of the outpost at Front Royal meant that the Confederates could now interpose themselves between Banks’s main Army of the Shenandoah and Washington. Hurrying to prevent this, Banks set out on the morning of the 24th to lead his Federals out of Strasburg to Winchester, 20 miles north. Banks, refusing to admit that this was a retreat, informed his superiors that he would “enter the lists with the enemy in a race or a battle (as he should choose) for the possession of Winchester.”

Banks estimated Confederate strength to have increased to “not less than 6,000 to 10,000. It is probably (Major General Richard) Ewell’s force, passing through the Shenandoah valley. (Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall”) Jackson is still in our front. We shall stand firm.” Banks’s assumption that Jackson was “still in our front” indicated that he was still unaware Jackson and Ewell had joined forces. Based on Federal intelligence, Banks believed that Ewell had fallen back to Front Royal, leaving the Valley turnpike to Winchester open.

Banks’s superiors replied, “Do not give up the ship before succor can arrive.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton asked Major General John C. Fremont, commanding a Federal army at Franklin in western (now West) Virginia, to send reinforcements to Banks if possible. Fremont replied that he could not spare any men because “the enemy seems everywhere reinforced and active.” Fremont also complained that heavy rains and dwindling supplies were demoralizing his men.

Jackson anticipated Banks’s retreat toward Winchester. After confirming that his hunch was correct, he sent Ewell’s Confederates northward down a road parallel to the Valley turnpike. Jackson then led his men toward Middletown, hoping to trap Banks between his troops and Ewell’s before the Federals could reach Winchester. Jackson would then push northward to Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River.

Jackson’s men marched seven miles to Newtown, where they placed artillery atop a hill to fire on the Federal rear guard marching below. With the Federals stuck between stone walls on either side, Jackson reported that “in a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction. The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.”

Jackson finally ordered a halt, as Federal troops found “the bodies of men and horses so piled up that it was impossible to proceed.” Those not pinned between the stone walls or among the bodies fled toward Winchester. Jackson’s cavalry rounded up prisoners, along with large amounts of abandoned wagons and supplies. The Confederates spent time looting that could have been better spent chasing and destroying Banks’s army.

Allowing the Federals to escape mainly intact prompted Jackson to fear that they would entrench themselves on the heights southwest of Winchester, where Jackson had lost the Battle of Kernstown in March. Therefore, he drove his men on a forced march to hurry their pursuit.

At Washington, Lincoln telegraphed Fremont rejecting the general’s previous refusal to aid Banks:

“The exposed condition of General Banks makes his immediate relief a point of paramount importance. You are therefore directed by the President to move against Jackson at Harrisonberg [sic] and operate against the enemy in such way as to relieve Banks. This movement must be made immediately. You will acknowledge the receipt of this order and specify the hour it is received by you.”

Then, just after allowing Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula to be reinforced by Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals near Fredericksburg, Lincoln pulled McDowell back. He explained to McClellan:

“In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Fremont’s force & part of McDowell’s in their rear.”

Lincoln then issued orders to McDowell:

“General Fremont has been ordered by telegraph to move to Franklin and Harrisonburg to relieve General Banks and capture or destroy Jackson’s and Ewell’s forces. You are instructed, laying aside for the present the movement on Richmond, to put 20,000 men in motion at once for the Shenandoah, moving on the line or in advance of the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in cooperation with General Fremont, or, in case want of supplies or transportation has interfered with his movement, it is believed that the force which you move will be sufficient to accomplish the object alone… Reports received this morning are that Banks is fighting with Ewell, eight miles from Harper’s Ferry.”

These orders came just after Brigadier General James Shields’s Federal division from Banks’s army had arrived to reinforce McDowell. Now he would have to turn right around and go back. At this time, McDowell was within six miles of joining with McClellan on the Peninsula.

McDowell obeyed but complained to Stanton, “This is a crushing blow to us.” He then telegraphed Lincoln, “I beg to say that co-operation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon.” Explaining that the Confederates could destroy Banks before he even arrived, McDowell wrote, “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.”

McDowell also complained to General James Wadsworth, in charge of the Washington defenses: “If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point, then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one.” Shields, having served under Banks, told McDowell that “the same cry was constantly heard (from Banks) … that large numbers of thousands of the enemy always coming upon them.” Except this time, it was true.

By the night of the 24th, the Federals began straggling into Winchester, having won the race and avoiding the trap set by Jackson and Ewell. Residents there, being mostly pro-Confederate, cheered for Jackson and heckled the Federals as they came into town.

Ewell arrived at Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester, that evening and awaited Jackson’s men. Jackson continued advancing into night and early morning, finally reaching Kernstown before taking a two-hour rest at 2 a.m. on the 25th.

Despite losing the race to Winchester, “Old Jack” had the Federals on the run in the Valley and seemed to be singlehandedly turning the war’s tide in the Confederacy’s favor. However, McDowell would soon be coming to help Banks confront Jackson from the north, while Fremont started moving to cut Jackson off to the south.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (24 May 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 129-30, 135; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13815-22; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 174; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 431, 436; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 156; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 834; Klein, Frederic S, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 215-16; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 386-87; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677

McClellan Conditionally Receives Reinforcements

May 17, 1862 – As the Federal Army of the Potomac continued inching toward Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln conditionally approved Major General George B. McClellan’s request for reinforcements.

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

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

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton persuaded Lincoln to allow Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock (formerly I Corps in McClellan’s army) to reinforce McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. McDowell received orders to “move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with the forces under General McClellan…” McDowell was to stay “in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.”

Lincoln notified McClellan:

“At your earnest call for re-enforcements he (McDowell) is sent forward to co-operate in the reduction of Richmond, but charged, in attempting this, not to uncover the city of Washington; and you will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him out of position to cover this city.”

Stanton supplemented Lincoln’s message with one of his own:

“He (McDowell) is ordered–keeping himself always in position to save the capital from all possible attack–so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, so as to establish this communication as soon as possible, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond.”

Thus, McClellan would finally receive the reinforcements he had pleaded for, but under several conditions:

  • McDowell would move overland to link with McClellan’s right instead of moving by water as McClellan had urged.
  • McDowell would “retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward,” making him McClellan’s equal and no longer his subordinate.
  • McClellan was expected to extend his army’s right over the Pamunkey River while McDowell extended his left until they linked. This meant that McClellan no longer had the option of moving across the Peninsula to try attacking from a James River point (which might have been a better option considering the recent Battle of Drewry’s Bluff).
  • McDowell was not to leave his base on the Rappahannock River until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division, transferred from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army in the Shenandoah Valley.

McClellan objected to these conditions, arguing that it was vital to his plans to have McDowell’s Federals join his army by water rather than land. McClellan also insisted that according to the 62nd Article of War, McDowell had to obey McClellan as the ranking officer and could not act independently. McClellan wrote:

“Indications that the enemy intend fighting at Richmond. Policy seems to be to concentrate everything there. They hold central position, and will seek to meet us while divided. I think we are committing a great military error in having so many independent columns. The great battle should be fought by our troops in mass; then divide if necessary.”

To that end, McClellan reorganized his army to create a V and VI corps. V Corps, formerly the 1st Division of III Corps and the Regular Reserve Division, was given to his friend Fitz John Porter. VI Corps, formerly the 1st Division of I Corps and the 2nd Division of IV Corps, was given to another friend, William B. Franklin.

On the Confederate side, General Joseph E. Johnston continued withdrawing his army to more defensible positions closer to Richmond. Johnston’s left flank was just outside northeastern Richmond at Fairfield Race Course. His right was near Drewry’s Bluff, on the banks of the James River.

President Jefferson Davis wrote his wife Varina, who he had sent out of Richmond for her safety: “We are uncertain of everything except that a battle must be near at hand.” Capital residents discussed whether the Confederate troops could stop McClellan’s drive on the capital. Davis tried boosting morale by proclaiming that the city would be defended, in accordance with a congressional resolution.

Meanwhile, McClellan divided his army along both banks of the Chickahominy River and awaited the arrival of McDowell’s troops from northern Virginia. By May 21, the Federals were within eight miles of Richmond, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps operating at Bottom’s Bridge spanning the Chickahominy. As McClellan continued maneuvering his men, Lincoln responded to his objections regarding the use of McDowell’s Federals:

“You will have just such control of Gen. McDowell and his force as you therein indicate. McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Frederick’sburg,–unless his march shall be resisted, in which case, the force resisting him, will certainly not be confronting you at Richmond.”

Although McClellan was within striking distance of Richmond, he continued fretting that his force was not strong enough to confront the Confederate defenders. He wrote his friend, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, stationed on the North Carolina coast, “The Government have deliberately placed me in this position. If I win, the greater the glory. If I lose, they will be damned forever, both by God and men.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (17 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 172-73; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7441; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 417-18, 441-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 153, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 213-14; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76

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 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