Tag Archives: William B. Franklin

Fredericksburg: Federals Cross the Rappahannock

December 12, 1862 – The Federal Army of the Potomac crossed pontoon bridges and looted Fredericksburg, while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia awaited the enemy’s advance from the heights west of town.

Federal teamsters began building the pontoon bridges at 2 a.m. on the 11th. The plan was to lay six bridges in three pairs, with one pair north of Fredericksburg, one south, and one farther downstream. This had to be done by mooring flat-bottomed boats in a line and securing pontoons on top of them across the freezing 400-foot-wide Rappahannock River.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

General John Bell Hood’s Confederates contested bridge construction downstream, but Federal artillery drove them off. These bridges were completed by 11 a.m., to be used by Major General William B. Franklin’s Grand Division. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal army, had ordered Franklin earlier, “After your command has crossed, you will move down the Old Richmond Road, in the direction of the railroad, being governed by circumstances as to the extent of your movements.”

When Franklin informed headquarters that the bridges had been built, Burnside seemingly contradicted himself by ordering him to stay put and await further orders. Burnside did not order Franklin to begin crossing until 4 p.m., five hours after the bridges were ready. By that time, Franklin’s troops could have easily been across the river and ready to confront the Confederates.

Meanwhile, General Henry Hunt, commanding the Federal artillery, positioned 147 guns on Stafford Heights to protect the engineers as they worked on the four bridges in front of Fredericksburg. Heavy fog initially hid the workers, but the Confederates finally realized what was happening and fired artillery rounds from Marye’s Heights at 4:45 a.m. to signal that the enemy was forcing a river crossing.

Sharpshooters from General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade hurried into position to fire on the pontoniers once they came within range. The Confederates took up positions in rifle pits, houses, and brick buildings along the riverside to stop the four crossings north and south of Fredericksburg.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, watched the action from a ridge that became known as Lee’s Hill. The rising sun enabled the Confederates to see the bridge workers through the fog and drive them off under fire. The workers then returned to the bridges under Federal covering fire. Three more times the Confederates drove them off, and they came back after each time.

As the fog lifted around 10 a.m., Burnside ordered the artillerists on Stafford Heights to bombard Fredericksburg. The guns hurled 5,000 rounds into the town in two hours, demolishing buildings, churches, and houses, and setting much of Fredericksburg on fire.

A correspondent witnessing the action wrote that “the earth shook beneath the terrific explosions of the shells, which went howling over the river, crashing into houses, battering down walls, splintering doors, ripping up floors.” Civilians who had not already evacuated hurried out of town; many left their homes in ruins. Some who could not flee huddled in cellars or any other shelter they could find.

Following the bombardment, the Confederate sharpshooters returned and continued firing on the teamsters. Federal troops from three regiments finally crossed in boats and drove the Confederates out of town, fighting from block to block, street to street, and house to house. The first bridge was finally completed by 4:30 p.m., allowing more Federal troops to cross and join the fray. The Confederates put up a fight before falling back to their defenses on the hills west of Fredericksburg around 7 p.m.

Barksdale’s Confederates had held the Federals off for over 15 hours, stopping nine attempts to span the river. This gave Lee more than enough time to finalize preparations to defend against the general Federal advance coming soon. Lee directed two of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s nearby divisions to move closer to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps on the ridges west of town.

Burnside remained unaware that four of his six crossings were at the Confederates’ strongest point. He received information from scouts in observation balloons that the Confederates downriver were making no effort to reinforce those at Fredericksburg. This convinced Burnside that the Confederate defenses outside town were weak and emboldened him to spend another day organizing his forces for an attack.

As his Grand Divisions began crossing the river and entering Fredericksburg, one soldier wondered aloud why it had been so easy getting into the town. Another replied, “They want to get us in. Getting out won’t be quite so smart and easy. You’ll see if it will.”

The Left and Right Grand Divisions under Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and Franklin continued crossing the Rappahannock on the morning of the 12th. They took up positions both in and southeast of town. The area was shrouded in heavy fog until around noon, making it too late for Burnside to launch his attack. He instead spent the day planning to attack tomorrow. Both sides exchanged sporadic artillery fire.

Federal troops looted what was left of Fredericksburg, taking artwork, furniture, pianos, china, jewelry, and anything else they could find. They vandalized nearly every private residence and destroyed whatever they did not want. This marked the first instance of urban warfare in America, and the first time an American town had been looted since the British plundered Washington in the War of 1812. A correspondent from the New York Tribune wrote of the spectacle:

“We destroyed by fire nearly two whole squares of buildings, chiefly used for business purposes, together with the fine residences of O. McDowell, Dr. Smith, J.H. Kelly, A.S. Cott, William Slaughter, and many other smaller dwellings. Every store, I think, without exception, was pillaged of every valuable article. A fine drug-store, which would not have looked badly on Broadway, was literally one mass of broken glass and jars.”

Most officers seemed unable or unwilling to stop the destruction. Some even joined in the ransacking with their men. Only Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding II Corps, posted guards at the bridges to stop troops from trying to bring their loot back across the river to their camps.

Lee called on Jackson’s last two divisions at Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck to come support the rest of the army outside Fredericksburg. Longstreet held Marye’s Heights with his corps, which covered five miles. To his right, Jackson’s corps took positions on Prospect Hill and along the wooded ridges south of town. A swampy region caused a 1,000-yard gap in Jackson’s line, but the Confederates did not expect the Federals to test it.

The Confederate line stretched seven miles. Lee’s ranks had swelled to over 75,000 effectives in nine divisions grouped into two corps (five in one and four in another), along with 275 guns. Lee said, “I shall try to do them all the damage in our power when they move forward.”

Burnside set up headquarters in Chatham Mansion, where Lee had courted his future wife 30 years before. Burnside next inspected Sumner’s lines, which faced Longstreet, and then Franklin’s, which faced Jackson. Franklin persuaded Burnside to begin the attack in his front because the Confederates seemed weakest at that point. Part of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division, which was still crossing the river, would reinforce Franklin.

By nightfall, Burnside had nearly 120,000 effectives in three Grand Divisions of two corps each, and three divisions within each corps; he also had 312 guns. He planned to attack at dawn.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 87; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 278-79; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 58-61; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17663; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 240; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 21-22, 26-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 237-38; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5030-63; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-58; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 111-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 294-95; 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. 571; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 539-40, 548; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 169; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

Fredericksburg: Confederates Strengthen Defenses

December 2, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside proposed a plan to move his Federal Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued strengthening its defenses west of Fredericksburg.

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

As December began, Lee now had his entire army at his disposal, with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps massing to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s right. Jackson’s men had endured one of the most grueling marches of the war, moving 175 miles from Winchester to Fredericksburg in 12 days. Many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear; one in six were barefoot. Nevertheless, morale in the Confederate army was high.

Jackson complained about the army’s position to Lee. He argued that while the Confederates could easily repel the Federals when they tried crossing the river, nothing could be gained from such a victory. The Confederates could not counterattack from where they were, leaving them in a purely defensive posture while the Federals could regroup and try attacking again and again. As Jackson told Major General D.H. Hill, “We will whip the enemy but gain no fruits of victory.”

Lee rejected Jackson’s urgings to move to the North Anna River, where they had a better chance to counterattack. Lee reasoned that merely stopping Burnside’s superior army would be enough of a victory for the time being. He had 78,511 officers and men to face Burnside’s 116,683 Federals across the Rappahannock. This threatened to become the largest confrontation of the war to date.

Fredericksburg residents who had not already left town began rushing to do so. They took trains to Richmond and sent their slaves farther south to prevent either escape or Federal confiscation. On the 4th, skirmishing broke out between Federals and D.H. Hill’s men near Port Royal, about 20 miles downriver (east) from Fredericksburg. This marked the Confederates’ easternmost position.

Burnside met with his top commanders and shared his plan to cross the army at Skinker’s Neck, about 15 miles downstream from Fredericksburg. Burnside contended that the Confederates were not guarding that ford, and if the Federals could secure it, they could set up a supply base at Port Royal and enjoy gunboat support from the Potomac Flotilla. All but Major General Joseph Hooker supported the plan.

Burnside issued orders for the plan to proceed, unaware that Jackson’s corps had arrived and D.H. Hill now held both Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck. Hill’s Confederates waited in rifle pits supported by artillery to stop gunboats from moving upriver to aid the Federal army. The Confederates exchanged fire with the gunboats on the 4th and forced them to withdraw that night.

Federal infantry moved out on the morning of the 5th, marching through rain that turned to sleet and snow. As they struggled to advance through freezing winds, Burnside finally realized that the Confederate line extended from Fredericksburg to Port Royal. He now saw no alternative other than crossing the river directly in front of Fredericksburg in the hopes that Lee would not expect such a bold move.

Burnside’s Grand Division commanders (Major Generals Hooker, Edwin V. Sumner, and William B. Franklin) received orders on the 9th to supply their men with three days’ cooked rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. The pontoons would be brought up, and engineers would build six bridges across the river on the 11th. The troops would then cross, landing in front of and below Fredericksburg. They were not to stop to aid wounded comrades. Musicians were to be armed as well.

Burnside explained the plan to his commanders at a 12 p.m. council of war. He said that since Confederates were lined up all the way to Port Royal, Lee must have divided his forces, leaving him vulnerable at Fredericksburg. Burnside believed the town could be taken because Lee “did not expect us to cross here.” Once the Federals crossed the river, they could defeat the small portion of Lee’s army outside the town and then turn to defeat what Burnside thought was the main Confederate force downriver.

The commanders had reservations, but Burnside declared that “all the influence on the face of the earth” would not change his mind. They all finally agreed to the plan after five hours of discussion. When the Grand Division commanders imparted the orders to their subordinates, many openly questioned the plan. Major General Darius N. Couch told Sumner that it would not work, and when Burnside learned of this, he directed Sumner to “say to General Couch that he is mistaken.”

Burnside wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that night:

“I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river. The commanders of Grand Divisions coincide with me in this opinion, and I have accordingly ordered the movement… We hope to succeed.”

Burnside sought President Abraham Lincoln’s endorsement, writing Halleck, “The movement is so important that I feel anxious to be fortified by his approval. Please answer.” Lincoln did not respond.

West of Fredericksburg, Lee continued strengthening his defenses. This included building a road to connect all the troops on the various hills overlooking the town and installing telegraphic communications. President Jefferson Davis wrote Lee, “You will know best when it will be proper to make a masked movement to the rear, should circumstances require you to move nearer to Richmond.”

Burnside called a meeting with Sumner and all his corps and division commanders to confront those who opposed his plan. Many objected to the idea of crossing a river in the face of the enemy, entering a hostile town, and then charging up steep hills to attack defenses. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding a division in Couch’s corps, was particularly vocal.

Burnside singled out Hancock for his criticisms and demanded obedience. Hancock explained that his dissent was not personal and pledged to obey Burnside’s orders to the death. Couch then declared that he would put forth twice the effort he had ever given in combat before. Major General William French, commanding another division in Couch’s corps, broke the tension with some light humor.

Burnside reiterated that he had not wanted to be army commander, but since he was in charge, “Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.” Burnside explained that there was more to the plan than simply storming into the town and up the hills. Federal gunboats were firing on Confederates at Port Royal while Federal troops built a false road to Skinker’s Neck to deceive the Confederates into thinking they would cross there. All commanders agreed to do their duty as ordered.

Officers confirmed that everything was ready for the advance. An enormous Federal supply train assembled on Stafford Heights, ready to cross with the army and supply the men once they secured the town and drove the Confederates off.

A lady from Falmouth relayed to the Confederates that the Federals were collecting large quantities of rations and ammunition, indicating that they would be moving very soon. The Confederates placed artillery on the hills beyond Fredericksburg, and sharpshooters came up to fire on the engineers as soon as they started building the pontoon bridges. Lee’s telegraph network could relay orders to move his men to wherever needed.

That night, a Federal band set up on the banks of the Rappahannock and played music for both armies. Songs included “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” and even “Dixie.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17727; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 237-39; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 782; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 5-6, 25-26; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 234; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5018; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 292, 294; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 539

Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac Mobilizes

November 15, 1862 – The Army of the Potomac mobilized for its march on Fredericksburg under its new commander, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Federals began moving out of Warrenton, led by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside could have tried attacking General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia while it was divided (one corps was at Culpeper Court House and the other was at Winchester), but he planned to instead feint southwest and then hurry southeast to the lightly defended town of Fredericksburg. After capturing that town, he would drive on Richmond.

The sudden swiftness of the Federal army after being so sluggish for so long under George B. McClellan shocked the Confederates. Federal cavalry seized the bridge at Rappahannock Station before the enemy could destroy it, and Federal artillery began shelling Confederate positions at Culpeper. This confused Lee, who thought that Burnside would target Fredericksburg; he did not yet know that the Federal “attack” was part of Burnside’s feint.

By evening, the Federals had disengaged and Lee figured out what was happening. He notified Colonel William Ball, commanding the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg, “It is reported that the enemy is moving from Warrenton today, and it is probable that he is marching upon Fredericksburg.” Lee then dispatched cavalry to Fredericksburg. The troopers were to defend the town if Federals had not captured it already. If the town was captured, the Confederates were to “take position on the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, where it crosses the North Anna.”

Lee instructed Ball, “The bridges and culverts must be thoroughly destroyed,” with the cross-ties “removed and piled, with the rails placed across them, and, when the timber is sufficiently dry, fired; the weight of the bars will thus cause them to bend, and prevent their being relaid.” Lee then awaited Burnside’s next move.

The Federal Left and Center Grand Divisions under Major Generals Joseph Hooker and William B. Franklin left Warrenton the next day. Sumner’s Grand Division marched along the Rappahannock’s north bank and arrived at Falmouth, across the river about a mile upstream from Fredericksburg, on the 17th. The Federals had covered 40 miles in just two days, a remarkable feat for such an enormous army.

Sumner’s Federals met light Confederate resistance from the small garrison outside Fredericksburg. Seeing that the town could be easily captured, he requested permission to cross the river at Falmouth Ford and attack. Burnside refused, ordering Sumner to stay put until the pontoons arrived.

That night, Lee received word that Federal infantry had reached Falmouth, with Federal transports and gunboats entering nearby Aquia Creek. Lee wrote the secretary of war, “I do not know whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond,” but “before it (the Federal army) could move from Fredericksburg, I think this whole army will be in position.” Lee directed one of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s divisions at Culpeper to go to Fredericksburg, with the rest of Longstreet’s corps to follow once it was confirmed that Fredericksburg was indeed the Federal target.

The other two Federal Grand Divisions reached Falmouth on the 18th. A New York Tribune correspondent traveling with the Federals reported:

“Officers wont to believe that a great command cannot move more than six miles a day, and accustomed to our old method of waiting a week for the issue of new clothing or a month for the execution of an order to advance, rub their eyes in mute astonishment. We have marched from Warrenton 40 miles, in two days and a half.”

Burnside did not want to attack immediately due to fall rains making the 400-foot-wide Rappahannock impossible to cross without pontoon bridges. His Federals took up positions on the heights across the river from Fredericksburg. The first 48 pontoons arrived at Belle Plain via steam transport, but no wagons or teams were available to haul them to Falmouth.

Lee directed one of Longstreet’s divisions to go to Fredericksburg, and another to advance farther south to block any Federal advance toward Richmond from Fredericksburg. He sent Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry north to reconnoiter enemy positions, and Stuart reported that the entire Federal army was advancing on Fredericksburg. Lee ordered Longstreet’s remaining divisions to hurry directly there without blocking any other routes. He also notified Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Winchester:

“Unless you think it is advantageous for you to continue longer in the valley, or can accomplish the retention and division of the enemy’s forces by so doing, I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains, and advance them at least as far as Sperryville or Madison Court-House.”

Lee was determined to hold the region south of the Rappahannock because, having not yet been ravaged by war, it provided much needed harvests for his army.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 271; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 234; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 766; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 230-31; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4972-84; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-33, 35; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 111-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 287-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

The Battle of South Mountain

September 14, 1862 – A portion of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defended key mountain passes in Maryland against Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Sixteen hours after receiving Lee’s lost Special Order No. 191, McClellan finally moved to attack Lee’s scattered army. Part of Lee’s forces besieged the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, while another part guarded the path to Harpers Ferry and the army’s supply train through the passes of South Mountain, a part of the Blue Ridge chain about 20 miles south of the Pennsylvania border. McClellan planned to “cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail.”

The Federals descended on three mountain passes: Turner’s Gap in the north, Fox’s Gap in the center, and Crampton’s Gap in the south. A small Confederate force led by Major General D.H. Hill guarded Turner’s and Fox’s, which were essential to preserving the army’s supplies. The Federal army’s right wing–two corps numbering some 30,000 men under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside–advanced on these two gaps.

Fighting began when Major General Jesse L. Reno’s Federal IX Corps attacked Confederates in the pastures in front of Fox’s Gap around 9 a.m. Confederates led by Brigadier General Samuel Garland counterattacked, and both Reno and Garland were killed in action. The Federals captured most of Garland’s brigade, but their assault on Fox’s Gap stalled in the face of stubborn resistance and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements.

The Battle of South Mountain | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, the Federal I Corps under Major General Joseph Hooker advanced on the National road in Boonsboro to seize Turner’s Gap, a mile north of Fox’s. Confederate defenders resisted into the afternoon, but superior Federal numbers eventually overwhelmed them. As the Confederates began breaking, two divisions under Major General James Longstreet reinforced them and prevented a rout. Fighting continued until the Federals secured the high ground at Turner’s around 10 p.m., and the Confederates withdrew near midnight.

At Crampton’s Gap, the southernmost defile, the Federal left wing–Major General William B. Franklin’s 12,000-man VI Corps–advanced with orders to break through the pass and “cut off, destroy or capture (General Lafayette) McLaws’ command & relieve Col (Dixon) Miles” at Harpers Ferry, just a few miles away.

A single Confederate brigade under Colonel William A. Parham guarded the gap when the Federals attacked around noon. The Confederates held against repeated attacks for several hours, but they eventually wavered and broke. Brigadier General Howell Cobb arrived with Confederate reinforcements, but they soon wavered as well and joined the panicked retreat down the mountainside into Pleasant Valley.

The arrival of McLaws and his men from Harpers Ferry finally stabilized the Confederate line. Franklin, unaware that his troops could have easily destroyed the enemy, called a halt and camped for the night, missing a prime opportunity to relieve the garrison and cripple Lee’s army.

The battle ended in Federal victory, but the Confederates had held the mountain passes for most of the day against a force five times their size. This gave Lee the time he needed to concentrate his army. The Federals sustained 2,325 casualties (443 killed, 1,807 wounded, and 75 missing) out of about 28,000 effectives. The Confederates lost 2,685 (325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing or captured) from some 18,000.

When Lee received news of the fight at South Mountain, he decided to return to Virginia. Word of Federals taking Crampton’s Gap and threatening McLaws’s rear at Harpers Ferry confirmed Lee’s decision. Lee sent a message to McLaws that night: “The day has gone against us and this army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the (Potomac) river.”

Lee sought to concentrate his army at Sharpsburg, the first stop on his withdrawal, about six miles west of South Mountain. But news from Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Harpers Ferry soon compelled Lee to change his mind and make a stand.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 83-85; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45-48, 55; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 227; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17326-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 211; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 677; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 207-08; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4719-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385; 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. 537; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 477; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 623-24; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20, 189-90, 706-07

The Peninsula Campaign: Eltham’s Landing

May 6, 1862 – The Confederates continued falling back, with a detachment trying to bide time by challenging a Federal troop landing at the mouth of the York River.

As the fighting took place at Williamsburg, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, continued withdrawing the bulk of his forces toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. In so doing, he tried guarding against flanking maneuvers by Major General George B. McClellan, who hoped to catch Johnston before he could set up defenses across the Chickahominy River.

McClellan disregarded messages urging his presence at Williamsburg and instead supervised the loading of Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division onto transports at Yorktown. Franklin’s mission was to go up the York River to the Pamunkey River and land before Johnston could reach the Chickahominy, thus putting Federal troops between the Confederates and Richmond.

On May 6, the Confederates at Williamsburg disengaged and continued falling back with the main force. Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s Confederates remained at Barhamsville to cover the withdrawal, guard the wagon train, and block the road from Yorktown to Richmond.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s division steamed up the York and began debarking at Eltham’s Landing on the south bank of the York around 5 p.m. Part of Smith’s force was already there to challenge the landing. Like at Williamsburg, the Confederates only needed to keep the Federals occupied while the rest of Johnston’s army fell back.

The gunboats U.S.S. Wachusett, Chocura, and Sebago escorted the transports, with Acting Master William F. Shankland of the U.S.S. Currituck reporting that the Confederates had destroyed 20 schooners and two gunboats above the landing. As the Federal troops disembarked, Smith pulled his Confederates back to lure them away from the protection of their gunboats.

At Richmond, Confederate officials learned of the fight at Williamsburg but still heard nothing from Johnston. General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, issued orders to hurry building defenses on the James River, removing supplies and equipment from Norfolk, and sending reinforcements to Major General Richard Ewell’s division defending against a potential Federal thrust from northern Virginia.

Johnston finally contacted Richmond the next day, informing his superiors that Federal ironclads and transports had reached West Point, where the head of the York River met the Pamunkey. Johnston assured them that he could defend against any Federal attack on his York River flank, but he did not indicate whether he intended to make a stand in front of the capital.

By the morning of the 7th, the bulk of Johnston’s army had assembled around Barhamsville, with G.W. Smith still threatening the Federals at Eltham’s Landing. Smith directed Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting to shell the Federal transports and gunboats there. Whiting passed the order to Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade, tasking Hood with advancing close enough for his artillery to reach the vessels.

Hood’s Texans knocked Federal skirmishers back a mile and a half, with Hood and Franklin calling for reinforcements. A Federal soldier aiming to kill Hood was shot to death by a Confederate who disobeyed orders to advance with an unloaded rifle.

As the Federals fell back under protection of their gunboats, Hood’s artillery could not effectively reach them. Likewise, Federal artillery did little damage to the Texas brigade. With nothing to be gained, Whiting ordered Hood to withdraw while Franklin occupied West Point.

In the two-hour engagement at Eltham’s Landing, the Federals sustained 186 casualties, including 46 taken prisoner. The Federal attempt to flank the Confederates from the York failed, as the Confederates withdrew with their wagons intact and did not allow the Federals to get between them and Richmond.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7408; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 147-49; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3394; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 207-08; Wert, Jeffry D, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 241-42; 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

McClellan Refuses to Divulge His Plans

January 13, 1862 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan defended his military strategy to increasingly skeptical politicians and subordinates.

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

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

As the new year began, McClellan reported that he felt much better after contracting what doctors called typhoid in December. But he still could not resume active command. Meanwhile, politicians continued pressuring President Lincoln to get McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to move. Much of this pressure came from the Radicals in Lincoln’s Republican Party.

A group of Radical senators met with Lincoln in early January and claimed that the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had evidence of McClellan’s incompetence. Some accused McClellan of treason, alleging that he was using his illness to keep from fighting the Confederates. When the senators asked why McClellan had not shared his plans with anyone, Lincoln replied that he “did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan.”

When Lincoln refused demands to fire McClellan, cabinet members suggested creating a war council that would oversee the general. It seemed that Lincoln had to do something and soon, otherwise, as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase explained, the treasury would run out of money to pay for the war. On top of this, serious charges of corruption in the War Department were mounting, which led to the removal of Simon Cameron as secretary of war.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Despondent, Lincoln went to Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs’s office and complained that the armies had made no significant progress since McClellan fell ill three weeks ago. Meigs said that if McClellan really had typhoid, he could be sick for another three weeks, meaning nearly another month of military inactivity. Lincoln asked, “General, what shall I do? The people are impatient; Chase has no money and tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”

Meigs proposed arranging a meeting with the top Army of the Potomac commanders to discuss the possibility of temporarily replacing McClellan. Lincoln agreed, holding a conference at the White House on the night of the 10th with Generals Irvin McDowell and William B. Franklin, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Chase, and Assistant Secretary of War Peter Watson.

Lincoln announced, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.” He asked for ideas on how best to confront the Confederate army in northern Virginia.

Major General Irvin McDowell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Irvin McDowell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

McDowell proposed a second overland advance toward Manassas Junction, partly to avenge his defeat at Bull Run last July. Franklin, a McClellan ally, proposed an idea similar to McClellan’s secret plan in which the army would move by water down the Virginia coast and then march on Richmond from the east. Lincoln asked the generals to return the next day with a report on the army’s condition.

The following evening, Franklin announced that he had changed his mind and now supported McDowell’s overland plan, mainly because it would take less time to implement. But Meigs and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had not attended the previous conference, voiced strong objections, with Blair warning that a “plan of going to the front from this position is Bull Run all over again.” Seward and Chase said that they would support any plan that brought a victory. With the attendees at an impasse, Lincoln asked the officers to present a sound strategy the next day.

Meanwhile, War Department operative Edwin M. Stanton informed his close friend McClellan that his subordinates were plotting his army’s fate without him. This enraged the general to the point that he shrugged off his illness long enough to attend the conference on the morning of January 12. McClellan later stated that his appearance “caused very much the effect of a shell in a powder magazine,” and the men’s faces showed that “there was something of which they were ashamed.”

McClellan did not explain the reason for his attendance, and he still refused to divulge his plans other than promising an offensive in Kentucky soon. None of the attendees mentioned McDowell’s overland plan. Lincoln announced that the meeting would resume the next day.

Overcoming his sickness once more, McClellan attended the conference on the 13th in a surly mood. Lincoln asked McDowell to describe his overland plan. McDowell, unsure of himself because his superior was in the room, reluctantly complied and estimated that it would take three weeks to implement. McDowell then explained that he had offered his opinion only because McClellan had fallen ill and his recovery time was uncertain. McClellan interrupted by saying, “You are entitled to have any opinion you please!”

McDowell then offered an alternate plan similar to the one described by Franklin on the 10th by which the army would move by water along the Virginia coast and land at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. Franklin accused McDowell of pandering to McClellan, but McDowell argued that he had developed the plan without consulting the commander. Seward reiterated that any plan would be fine if it brought a victory.

When Lincoln asked when an offensive could begin, McClellan said nothing. The president again listed the reasons why action was so crucial. McClellan replied that “it was so clear a blind man could see it,” and repeated his common complaint that the Confederates in northern Virginia outnumbered his army.

As the meeting devolved into smaller discussions among the participants, Meigs whispered to McClellan, “Can you not promise some movement towards Manassas?” McClellan said, “I cannot move on them with as great a force as they have,” wrongly estimating that there were 175,000 Confederates in northern Virginia (there were really no more than 55,000). Meigs then whispered that the commander-in-chief should know his top commander’s plans. McClellan whispered, “If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret.”

Chase then directly asked McClellan to offer a timetable, explaining that the whole purpose of this meeting was for the commander to present his plan for the participants to review. McClellan replied that he was unaware of that purpose, and he did not feel compelled to answer questions from a man he did not consider his superior (by this time, Simon Cameron had been removed as secretary of war, so that left Lincoln as McClellan’s only superior).

Lincoln finally spoke up over the conversations: “Well, General McClellan, I think you had better tell us what your plans are.” McClellan responded:

“If you have any confidence in me, it is not right or necessary to entrust my designs to the judgment of others, but if your confidence is so slight as to require my opinions be fortified by those of other persons, it would be wiser to replace me by someone fully possessing your confidence. No general commanding an army would willingly submit his plans to the judgment of such an assembly, in which some are… incapable of keeping a secret so that anything made known to them would soon spread over Washington and become known to the enemy.”

McClellan added that Lincoln knew the Army of the Potomac could not move until the Federal offensive in Kentucky (i.e., the planned drive into eastern Tennessee) began. The general then declared that he was “unwilling to develop his plans,” but “that he would tell them if he was ordered to do so.” Lincoln would not issue that order.

McClellan assured Lincoln that he had a timetable in mind, which satisfied the president enough to announce, “Then I will adjourn this meeting.” Later that day, both Lincoln and McClellan cabled the commanders in the Western Theater, imparting upon them the importance of taking the initiative in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lincoln appeared to disregard McClellan’s insolence toward the meeting attendees, but it angered many others, among them Seward, Chase, Blair, and Meigs.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 68; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-68; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 108-09, 111; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6916-26, 6937-58; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 240-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 96, 98; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 409-410, 425; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 157-58, 160; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 601; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 90