Tag Archives: John B. Magruder

The Battle of Galveston

January 1, 1863 – Confederate army and naval elements attacked Federal occupation forces to take back the vital port city of Galveston on the Texas coast.

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

Major General John B. Magruder had worked to regain Galveston ever since taking command of the Confederate District of Texas in late 1862. He dispatched about 1,500 troops to the island town after midnight on New Year’s Day, using the unguarded bridge from the mainland. They quietly marched down Strand Street and prepared to attack the Federal garrison near the wharves. The garrison consisted of 250 men of the 42nd Massachusetts. The Confederates posted artillery within 300 yards of the Federal ships docked in the harbor.

Meanwhile, Major Leon Smith led a Confederate flotilla of two steamers converted into “cotton-clad” gunboats (the Bayou City and Neptune), and their tenders (the John F. Carr and Lucy Gwin). Texas cavalry led by Colonel Thomas Green manned the gunboats. This flotilla advanced into the west end of Galveston Harbor before dawn to attack the Federals.

The Confederate troops in town attacked the Federals but soon found themselves pinned down at the barricades. The U.S.S. Westfield under Commander William B. Renshaw began moving to support the 42nd Massachusetts, but the ship ran aground and sat helpless as the Confederate flotilla approached.

The copper gunboat U.S.S. Harriet Lane (named after President James Buchanan’s niece) sprang into action, led by Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright. The ship rammed the Bayou City with little effect. The Neptune rammed the Harriet Lane but sunk herself from the blow. The Bayou City then rammed the Harriet Lane, locking the two vessels together. The Texans boarded the Federal ship and fought the crewmen hand-to-hand, killing Wainwright and Lieutenant Commander Edward Lea. The Texans forced the ship’s surrender.

The capture of the Harriet Lane at Galveston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

From the Westfield, Renshaw ordered Lieutenant Commander Richard L. Law of the nearby U.S.S. Clifton to pull the four remaining Federal ships out to sea to avoid capture. Federals tried destroying the Westfield before the Confederates could take her, but a magazine aboard the ship exploded prematurely, killing Renshaw and his crew. The Federals on land had held their own against their attackers, but when they saw the carnage in the harbor, they surrendered at Kuhn’s Wharf.

The Confederates captured nearly all the Federals on shore, regaining their town after a four-hour fight. A Confederate wrote, “The victory was won, and a New Year’s gift was made to the people of Texas.” The Federals sustained 414 casualties, along with the Westfield and Harriet Lane. The other four Federal vessels (the Clifton, Sachem, Corypheus, and Owasco) escaped. The Confederates lost 143 men (26 killed and 117 wounded), along with the Neptune. Magruder reported:

“This morning, the 1st of January, at three o’clock, I attacked the enemy’s fleet and garrison at this place, captured the latter and the steamer Harriet Lane, two barges, and a schooner. The rest, some four or five, escaped ignominiously under cover of a flag of truce. I have about 600 prisoners and a large quantity of valuable stores, arms, etc. The Harriet Lane is very little injured…”

Magruder transferred his headquarters from Houston to Galveston the next day, where he reported to Richmond, “We are preparing to give them a warm reception should they return.” He then issued a proclamation:

“Whereas the undersigned has succeeded in capturing and destroying a portion of the enemy’s fleet and in driving the remainder out of Galveston Harbor and beyond the neighboring waters, and the blockade has thus been raised, he therefore hereby proclaims to all friendly nations, and their merchants are invited to resume their usual commercial intercourse with this Port.”

Meanwhile, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks issued orders recalling all Federal troops on transports going from New Orleans to Galveston. This temporarily broke the Federal blockade along the Texas coast and freed Texas from Federal occupation. Confederates held Galveston until the end of the war.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15771-89; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296-97; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 251; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 18-19, 58-59; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 249; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 48-49; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 116; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 306-07; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 566-67

Federals Capture Galveston

October 5, 1862 – Federal army-navy forces occupied Galveston, the most important port on the Texas coast.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this month, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron had seized various points on the Texas coast, from the Sabine River to Corpus Christi. The most important point was Galveston, which had been under Federal blockade for 15 months.

Naval Commander William B. Renshaw confronted Galveston with a gunboat squadron consisting of the U.S.S. Westfield, Harriet Lane, Owasco, Clifton, and the mortar schooner Henry James. The vessels neutralized the Confederates forces in the town, forcing Colonel Joseph J. Cook to surrender.

Renshaw had demanded unconditional and immediate surrender, but he ultimately agreed to give Cook four days to evacuate his troops and equipment. On the 5th, a Federal colonel and 260 men came ashore to begin occupation duty. The two sides agreed the Confederates would not move artillery into Galveston via the two-mile-long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

Federals now had a foothold in Texas, leaving Alabama as the only Confederate state that still did not have at least one point under Federal occupation. However, Farragut knew that even though his ships had taken several ports along the coast, they could not hold those points without army support.

He wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “I have the coast of Texas lined with vessels. If I had a military force I would go down and take every place from the Mississippi River to the Rio Grande.” Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation troops in New Orleans, had pledged to give Farragut some men to occupy these ports, but they did not materialize. This led Farragut to inform Renshaw, “I fear that I will find difficulties in procuring the few troops we require to hold the place.”

Meanwhile, the Davis administration, which had not responded to urgent calls for help in reinforcing Galveston, now scrambled to regain the port. Major General John B. Magruder was given command of the Confederate District of Texas, headquartered at Houston. Magruder, who had gained fame by holding off a superior Federal force at Yorktown earlier this year, soon began planning to liberate Galveston and other coastal points from Federal occupation.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15753-63; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296-97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 746; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 218, 221; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 275, 277; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 126-27; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 526; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 750-51

The Seven Days Battles: Savage’s Station

June 29, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula once more, targeting the rear guard as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing.

Action on the Peninsula, which had been north of the Chickahominy River for the past three days, now shifted to the south. On the morning of the 29th, the Federals abandoned their fortifications around Golding’s Farm, giving up any chance to attack Richmond. Three of McClellan’s five corps concentrated near Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the Richmond & York Railroad. There they prepared the difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp on their way to the James River. Federal morale dropped, as McClellan put nobody in charge of the disorganized retreat.

Confederate pickets on the Nine Mile Road found the Federal works deserted and informed Lee. Hoping to catch and destroy the Federal army before it reached the James, Lee quickly devised a complex strategy for an all-out pursuit:

  • Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would move toward Glendale
  • Major General John B. Magruder’s 11,000 Confederates would attack the Federal rear guard on the Williamsburg road paralleling the Richmond & York River Railroad
  • Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would move toward Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad and link with Magruder’s left
  • Major General Benjamin Huger’s division would move along the Darbytown road to Magruder’s right

Executing this plan depended mainly on Magruder, who had taken morphine for acute indigestion and was not fully coherent. His men began marching around 3:30 a.m. down both the Nine Mile and Williamsburg roads. Magruder expected Jackson to quickly cross Grapevine Bridge spanning the Chickahominy and come up on his left.

Combat opened around 9 a.m., with Magruder’s Confederates attacking two withdrawing Federal corps near Allen’s Farm. Federal cannon responded, killing Brigadier General Richard Griffith. Jackson was delayed once again, first by rebuilding Grapevine Bridge and then by a vague order from Lee directing him to stay where he was. Magruder mistakenly believed that Huger would support his right from the Charles City road, not the Darbytown road farther south. So he suspended hostilities and awaited the arrival of both Jackson and Huger. Lee responded by sending him two of Huger’s brigades as reinforcements.

The fight at Savage's Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The fight at Savage’s Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this lull, Federal General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps left Savage’s Station without notifying either of the other two corps commanders at the scene. This enraged General Edwin V. Sumner, the ranking commander. Sumner withdrew his corps around 11 a.m. to Savage’s Station, three miles south of the Chickahominy.

Near 5 p.m., Magruder launched a general assault that featured the first armored railroad battery ever used in warfare. Magruder directed his men to “attack the enemy in whatever force or works he might be found.” This vague order resulted in the general assault breaking down. He also committed only two and a half of his six brigades, making the attack ineffective. However, Sumner could not overwhelm the attackers because he only deployed 10 of his 26 regiments. The arrival of night and thunderstorms ended the fighting in stalemate.

Sumner continued withdrawing the Federals toward the James. At 10 p.m., he abandoned the Federal field hospitals in accordance with McClellan’s order to leave anyone behind who could not walk. Jackson’s Confederates finally crossed the Chickahominy around 2:30 on the morning of the 30th, too late to help Magruder. Lee admonished Magruder:

“I regret much that you have made so little progress today in the pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory that pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no more time or he will escape us entirely.”

Lee also explained to Magruder that Jackson was not supposed to stay where he was, but was supposed to support Magruder’s left: “On the contrary, he (Jackson) has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.” Jackson visited Magruder’s headquarters around midnight and assured him that his forces would be up and ready for action in the morning.

Each side suffered about 1,500 casualties. The Federals also lost 2,500 of their sick and wounded by abandoning their hospitals, along with medical personnel and supplies. Federals withdrawing from around White House Landing were covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Marblehead and Chocura on the Pamunkey River. Federal supply transports escorted by gunboats also began arriving at Harrison’s Landing on the James.

Lee failed to stop the Federal army from crossing White Oak Swamp, but he planned to concentrate his forces for another attack the next day.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (29 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 186; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 175; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3917-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 233-34; 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. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 52; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8-9, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Savage’s Station

The Seven Days Battles: McClellan’s Withdrawal

June 28, 1862 – The struggle on the Virginia Peninsula continued with sporadic fighting, as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing his Federal Army of the Potomac toward the James River.

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

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

Shortly after midnight on the 28th, McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about yesterday’s defeat at Gaines’s Mill:

“I now know the full history of this day. I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this, and I say it with the earnestness of a general who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed to-day. I still hope to retrieve our fortunes, but to do this, the government must view the matter in the same earnest light that I do. You must send me very large reinforcements, and send them at once.

“I only wish to say to the President, that I think he is wrong in regarding me as ungenerous, when I said that my force was too weak. I merely reiterated a truth, which to-day has been too plainly proved. If, at this instant, I could dispose of 10,000 fresh men, I could gain a victory tomorrow. I know that a few thousand more men would have changed this battle from a defeat to a victory. As it is, the Government must not and cannot hold me responsible for the result. I feel too earnestly tonight. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost.

“If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”

When this message reached the War Department in Washington, Colonel Edward S. Sanford, the chief censor of the Military Telegraph Service, considered the last two sentences so treasonous and insubordinate that he directed his staff to delete them before sending the edited message to Stanton and then to President Abraham Lincoln. The sentences were eventually published months later.

McClellan, a Democrat, blamed the Republican administration for supposedly withholding resources for him to adequately wage war on the Peninsula. Later on the 28th, Lincoln replied to what he saw of McClellan’s message: “Save your Army at all events… If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington.”

By 4 a.m., General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was across the Chickahominy River, and McClellan was pulling his army south toward the James River. He directed his commanders to issue three days’ rations to their men and send all their wagons to Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad. He further directed that “all tents and all articles not indispensable to the safety or the maintenance of the troops must be abandoned and destroyed,” and “the sick and wounded that are not able to walk must necessarily be left.” Two corps withdrew, and the other three guarded the western flank against a Confederate attack.

As Federals burned what supplies they could not carry, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, learned that they had abandoned their positions north of the Chickahominy River and destroyed the bridges. Confederate cavalry under General Jeb Stuart arrived at White House Landing, the former Federal supply depot on the York River, and found it evacuated. Federals burned the historic home of Martha Custis, wife of George Washington and now owned by Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

McClellan’s withdrawal after one major battle astonished Lee, who determined that the Federals must be concentrating south of the Chickahominy. Federals covered the approaches to the burned bridges with massed artillery, and Federal naval vessels at Fort Monroe began moving up the James to link with McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. Meanwhile, Lee prepared for another battle.

Fighting resumed from the previous day near the Golding farm, as Confederates under General John B. Magruder advanced on the presumption that the Federals were withdrawing. However, the Federals made a stand and drove the Confederates back. The Confederates lost 438 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Federals lost 189.

By this evening, Lee was poised to attack the concentrated Federal force south of the Chickahominy. However, he did not secure the road to Turkey Island Bridge, which McClellan used to withdraw his troops (Lee may have been able to destroy the Federals had he blocked that road). McClellan met with his commanders and informed them that since he believed an attack on Richmond would destroy the army, he would retreat to Harrison’s Landing. With the Confederate capital now out of imminent danger, Lee again resolved to resume the offensive the next day.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7558; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 492-93; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 174-75; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3893-3905; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Hoffsommer, Richard D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 745; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 232-33; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342-43; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 51; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8; Wikipedia: Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Battle of Garnett’s and Golding’s Farm

The Siege of Yorktown: Johnston Prepares to Retreat

May 3, 1862 – As Major General George B. McClellan prepared to bombard Yorktown with siege artillery, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston began planning to retreat.

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

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

By May 1, McClellan had 70 heavy guns in place to bombard the Confederate works on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Johnston, commanding the Confederate defenders at Yorktown, informed President Jefferson Davis that he planned to abandon the town the following evening. Davis replied:

“Accepting your conclusion that you must soon retire, arrangements are commenced for the abandonment of the navy-yard and removal of public property both from Norfolk and Peninsula. Your announcement to-day that you would withdraw to-morrow night takes us by surprise, and must involve enormous losses, including unfinished gunboats. Will the safety of your army allow more time?”

Davis then sent Secretary of War George W. Randolph and Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory to assess the situations at Yorktown and Norfolk to see if Johnston’s evacuation could be delayed.

At Yorktown, the Confederates continued trying to improve their defenses even as Johnston planned to pull out. Major General John B. Magruder, commanding a division in Johnston’s army, issued a proclamation asking locals to volunteer their slaves for digging trenches and building works:

“Under these circumstances, I am sure that no patriotic citizen, with the issue truly at heart, would hesitate to respond most cheerfully to the call which I now make, viz, one negro man, with his ax or spade, to be furnished at once by each proprietor.”

Magruder also addressed charges that the slaves already in the army were being worked too hard: “It is quite true that much hardship has been endured by the negroes in the recent prosecution of the defensive works on our lines, but this has been unavoidable, owing to the constant and long-continued wet weather.”

Magruder argued that the soldiers “have been more exposed and have suffered far more than the slaves,” who “have always slept under cover and have had fires to make them comfortable, whilst the men have been working in the rain, have stood in the trenches and rifle pits in mud and water almost knee-deep, without shelter, fire, or sufficient food.” There had been “sickness among the soldiers and the slaves, but far more among the former than the latter.”

Johnston backed Magruder’s request for more slave labor by asking the Confederate government at Richmond for another 800 slaves, which “can be returned when others are sent in their place.” But Richmond had none to give, as General Robert E. Lee, President Davis’s top military advisor, asked Johnston for “a portion of your negro force” to help build defenses along the James River.

On the Federal side, with McClellan having 70 guns and asking Washington for even more, President Abraham Lincoln sent a troubled response: “Your call for Parrott guns… alarms me–chiefly because it argues indefinite procrastination. Is anything to be done?” McClellan replied, “All is being done that human labor can accomplish.”

Lincoln had allowed McClellan to embark on the Peninsula campaign with the expectation that it would end the war faster than advancing on Richmond from northern Virginia. But McClellan’s request for more guns meant that he was settling in for a siege, which could last indefinitely depending on Confederate resistance. In addition, sending more guns to the Peninsula meant that there would be fewer guns to defend Washington.

By this time, McClellan had about 112,000 Federals on the Peninsula, or nearly double Johnston’s 57,000 Confederates. However, McClellan’s intelligence sources estimated Johnston to have about 100,000 men behind strong defenses, ready to repel any head-on assault. Thus, McClellan relied on his artillery, confident that the Federals’ superior firepower would tip the scales in his favor.

Once the Federal guns were in place, they could hurl 7,000 pounds of shell in every combined volley. But rather than begin firing each gun as it was emplaced, McClellan opted to wait until all the guns were emplaced before beginning his bombardment. And extensive construction was required to build roads, structures, and platforms sturdy enough to transport, house, and fire the heavy guns.

As the Federals continued preparing their siege, Randolph and Mallory arrived at Norfolk. Learning that Johnston had ordered Major General Benjamin Huger, commanding the Confederates there, to abandon the town and the vital navy yard, Randolph postponed the order “until he (Huger) could remove such stores, munitions, and arms as could be carried off.” Mallory issued similar orders to the navy commandant at Norfolk.

Johnston received orders to postpone his evacuation from the Peninsula until May 3. Lee explained that the Confederates needed more time to evacuate Norfolk and save the naval fleet there. By that date, McClellan had 114 siege guns facing Johnston at Yorktown, along with another 300 smaller field guns. Not only was Johnston faced with overwhelming firepower on the Peninsula, but another Federal army on the Rappahannock River threatened him from the north.

As McClellan planned to begin the great bombardment on May 4, Johnston spent the 3rd trying to disengage from the Federal Army of the Potomac just a few hundred yards in his front. Even though the Confederates lacked adequate transportation for their guns and equipment, Johnston instructed General D.H. Hill, commanding the Confederate left, “Nothing but an actual attack of columns of infantry need interfere with the movement of your main body soon after dark.”

Johnston planned to fall back to Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital, 12 miles west of Yorktown. McClellan was informed of Johnston’s movement by fugitive slaves, but he refused to believe that the Confederates would retreat. His refusal was partly based on a report from his intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton, stating that accounts from “spies, contrabands, deserters, refugees, and prisoners of war” provided a medium estimate of 100 to 120,000 Confederates in Johnston’s army. Of this, it could “safely be assumed that the medium estimates stated are under rather than over the mark of the real strength of rebel forces at Yorktown.”

McClellan responded by calling up his reserves and requesting the navy to send gunboats up the York River to destroy the Confederate batteries and bombard their defenses from the rear. Before the Federals could act, the Confederates opened a heavy bombardment of their own to hide their evacuation of the Yorktown-Warwick River line.

The Confederates withdrew in two columns, slowly moving through the night until all the defenses were abandoned by morning. They escaped McClellan’s grand bombardment by a day. The fact that the Confederates had held Yorktown for over a month in the face of such overwhelming enemy numbers was amazing in itself. Since McClellan had been unable to unleash his heavy artillery, in a sense the siege of Yorktown ended before it truly ever began.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 107; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13540-46, 13552-61, 15260-70; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 166; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 410; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 145-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3382; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 206-07; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 829, 847; Wert, Jeffry D, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 241-42

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