Tag Archives: Yorktown

The Fall of Yorktown

May 4, 1862 – The Federal Army of the Potomac entered the abandoned enemy works at Yorktown. Some celebrated this as a great victory, while others noted that the Confederate army had escaped intact.

Major General George B. McClellan, poised to begin one of the largest artillery bombardments in history, wrote to his wife on the morning of the 4th about “the perfect quietness which reigns now.” He was unaware that General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates had abandoned their defenses through the night.

After dawn, Federal Lieutenant George A. Custer and others ascended in an observation balloon and saw that the enemy works along the Yorktown-Warwick River line were empty. They notified McClellan, who deployed a Federal division under General William F. “Baldy” Smith to confirm the news. Meanwhile, rumors of the Confederate retreat quickly spread through the Federal army. These rumors were confirmed when the troops entered the works without resistance.

Siege guns at Yorktown | Image Credit: Hendricksonrevwar.wikispaces.com

Siege guns at Yorktown | Image Credit: Hendricksonrevwar.wikispaces.com

McClellan telegraphed Washington, “Yorktown is in our possession… Our success is brilliant, and you may rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up with the rebels.” President Abraham Lincoln and others within his administration were not completely satisfied, mainly because it had taken McClellan nearly a month to capture the town, and Johnston’s army had escaped unscathed.

The Confederates left behind 56 naval guns because they were too heavy to take. To the Federals, these smoothbore cannon were of no use compared to their new rifled guns. The Confederates also left primitive land mines (i.e., buried artillery shells attached to fuse wires that exploded on contact). McClellan condemned these devices as “murderous and barbarous,” and Federal troops entering the works forced Confederate prisoners of war ahead of them to dig them up or set them off.

Meanwhile, Federal gunboats advanced up the York River, with the crew of the U.S.S. Wachusett seizing Gloucester Point opposite Yorktown. Federals also captured two Confederate schooners. In April, Federal Commander John S. Missroon had deemed the Confederate batteries on the York too strong to neutralize. Now that they were in Federal hands, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox disagreed:

“If Missroon had pushed by (at night) with a couple of gunboats, the Navy would have had the credit of driving the army of the rebels out, besides immortality to himself… The water batteries on both sides were insignificant, and, according to all our naval conflicts thus far, could have been passed with impunity.”

Confederate officials at Richmond learned of Johnston’s evacuation from Yorktown when news arrived that Federal gunboats had moved up the York River as far as West Point. General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, asked Johnston if he could use field artillery to stop the gunboats’ advance. Johnston did not respond. Davis expressed alarm that Johnston had given up such an important position as Yorktown, and by default Norfolk, so quickly.

As Federals continued entering the abandoned Confederate works, McClellan assigned cavalry under General George Stoneman and about 50,000 infantrymen in five divisions under General Edwin V. Sumner to pursue Johnston’s Confederates. McClellan knew that Johnston was falling back toward Williamsburg on the only two roads leading there, and that those roads converged a couple miles outside the town. McClellan hoped to wipe out Johnston’s rear guard as it merged onto that one road.

Advance units of Federal cavalry and horse artillery caught up to Johnston’s rear guard in heavy rain and mud around 2 p.m., sending the Confederates into Williamsburg. As they ran down the streets, a woman demanded to know why they were not defending Williamsburg like their ancestors did in the War for Independence. Then she yelled, “If your captain won’t lead you, I will be your captain!”

Before she could take charge, orders came for the Confederates to about-face and take up positions in earthworks about two miles east of Williamsburg. Major General John B. Magruder had built these defenses in case Yorktown had to be abandoned. The works stretched four miles across the Peninsula neck and included 13 redoubts to repel any flank attack. The largest redoubt, in the center, was called Fort Magruder. Johnston ordered Major General James Longstreet to hold Fort Magruder long enough for the retreating Confederates to regroup.

The Confederates assembled behind the works and repelled an advance of about 9,000 Federals. As the Federals withdrew for the day, Longstreet spent that night strengthening Fort Magruder and other redoubts.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 107-09; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 117; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (4 May 1862); 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. 410-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 146; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3382-94; 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. 207; 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. 427; 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. 108; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571, 829; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 133

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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 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: 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