On the afternoon of April 2, 1862, George McClellan arrived on board the steamer, Commodore, at Hampton Roads. By this time, using
almost 400 vessels, McClellan had moved to the tip of the Yorktown Peninsula, almost
60,000 men, 15,000 animals, 1,200 wagons and ambulances, 44 artillery batteries
and many tons of ancillary supplies. (Using the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Henry Halleck, in the West, had just done essentially the same thing.) Following
eventually, came the two divisions of Sumner's corps and William Franklin's
division, detached from McDowell's corps.
Two days later, with Navy gunboats steaming up the York
River to shell the rebel batteries at Yorktown, McClellan's march to Yorktown began,
with two columns marching on parallel roads: Samuel Heintzelman's two divisions
marched from Newport News on the main road to Yorktown while Erasmus Keyes,
General Scott's old military secretary, moved his two divisions on a branch
road on the James River side of the Peninsula. Behind these lead divisions
would come the rest of Mac's army, followed by immense artillery and supply
The Army of the
Potomac Begins to March
No sooner had McClellan's march up the Peninsula begun than
a disheartening communication came to him from the War Department, the
consequence of which would eventually prove to be the wreck of the campaign.
GENERAL'S OFFICE, April 4, 1862
By direction of the President, General
McDowell's army corps has been detached from the forces under your immediate
command, and the general is ordered to report to the Secretary of War.
Thomas, Adjutant General
In 1864, publishing to the public his report of the Richmond
Campaign, McClellan wrote vehemently about this.
"I was shocked at this order,
which with that of March 31 (removing Blenker's division from me), removed
nearly 60,000 men from my command, and reduced my force by more than one third
after its task had been assigned, its operations planned, its marching begun.
To me the blow was most discouraging. It frustrated all my plans for impending
operations. It fell when I was too deeply committed to withdraw. It left me
incapable of continuing operations which had been begun. It compelled the
adoption of another, a different, and a less effective plan of campaign. It
made rapid and brilliant operations impossible. It was a fatal error."
Note: Mac had originally planned
on landing a force on the lower Rappahannock and marching it to Gloucester
Point, opposite Yorktown, seize the batteries at that place and then move the
force directly to West Point, thus turning the Yorktown fortified lines.
McClellan replied to the War Department's order with a
telegram sent to Lorenzo Thomas, the evening of April 5.
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
NEAR YORKTOWN, April 5, 1862
Brig. Gen. Thomas, Adj. Gen. U.S.A.
The present state of affairs renders it
exceedingly unfortunate that McDowell's corps has been detached from my command.
It is no longer in my power to move directly upon West Point. I am reduced to a
frontal attack upon a very strong line at Yorktown. Without McDowell's corps I
do not think I have sufficient force to accomplish the object of this campaign
with that certainty, rapidity, and completeness which I had hoped to obtain. I
hope it will be realized that more caution on my part will be needed, after
having been deprived of such a very large force at a time when I am under fire.
obedient servant, General B. McClellan
To this, Mac received two days later this brusk and really
incomprehensible response from Lincoln.
WASHINGTON, April 6, 1862
Gen. G..B. McClellan:
You now have over one hundred thousand
troops with you. I think you had better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once.
What Lincoln was thinking when he wrote this defies
imagination. At the time he wrote it, Henry Halleck in the West had about
40,000 men concentrated on the west bank of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg
Landing,, with many more regiments on transports heading there from Cairo. He also had Buell's army of about 50,000 marching there from the east. Once all
these western troops were concentrated at Pittsburg Landing, Halleck meant to
move the whole force through twenty miles of forest and attack the railroad
crossroads at Corinth, Mississippi, meeting at some point, and probably
defeating, the smaller rebel army in his front. Halleck received no "you
better strike the enemy at once" messages from Lincoln.
To his wife, Mary Ellen, Mac wrote this on April 6th.
Yorktown, April 6, 1862
Fitz John Porter is in the advance on
the right, finding the enemy in strong force in a very strong position; and
Baldy Smith is on the left. Thus far it is altogether an artillery affair.
While listening to the guns this afternoon, I received the order detaching
McDowell's corps from my command—it is the most infamous thing that history (so
far) has recorded. The idea of depriving a general of 35,000 troops when
actually under fire?
It took Henry Halleck thirty days to move his army the
twenty miles between the two points. Yet, Lincoln wrote Halleck no nasty notes,
nor did he interfere in any way with Halleck's plans. But, no sooner had McClellan
begun to move toward Richmond than Lincoln not only substantially interfered
with Mac's plans but is demanding that Mac order the troops he has available
(about 50,000) to immediately make a frontal attack against a fortified line.
What was the tactical basis for Lincoln demanding McClellan
make a frontal attack immediately upon arriving in front of Yorktown? Lincoln had no knowledge of the conditions that existed at that time. He had no previous
experience with masses of troops making frontal assaults on entrenched
positions. The conclusion follows from this that Lincoln's mindset was for
McClellan to ignore the amount of casualties that troops can be expected to
suffer in making a frontal attack against a fortified position that is
completely intact and defended by scores of artillery batteries.
What was the strategic necessity that justified Lincoln's demand that McClellan make such an attack immediately? Was Washington in danger?
Hardly, for at this time, by Lincoln's interference with Mac's plans, there
were more men protecting Washington, tactically as well as strategically, than
McClellan had with him on the Peninsula. Lincoln now has established separate
"departments" stretching from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Washington:
Fremont with 20,000 men is in the Appalachians; Banks with 20,000 in the Shenandoah
Valley chasing down Jackson; McDowell, with 35,000 to 40,000 men, is at
Fredericksburg; there is a garrison of 18,000 men in the forts around
Washington. The only rational explanation for Lincoln's conduct is that his
motive, in taking control of a total force of almost a hundred thousand men, was
to holdterritory, not to defend Washington.
Chain of Command At This Time
It is true, of course, that Stonewall Jackson, with one
division of infantry, was in the Shenandoah Valley, but, regardless of his
ability to march men toward the Potomac, the idea that his force posed an
actual threat to Washington is ridiculous. Assuming no resistance, Jackson, who
at this time has about 9,000 men, might have attempted to march down to the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, cross over at that point into Maryland. . . and then what? He
would have to march east fifty miles, passing Frederick, Urbanna, and
Gaithersburg, at which point he would arrive in front of the forts garrisoned
by about 20,000 men. Alternatively, he might have attempted to march across the
Blue Ridge Mountains, at, say, Sperryville or Front Royal, join with Ewell's
division at Gordonsville, cross fifty miles of the Manassas Plain, where he
would arrive in front of the Washington forts with still a river to cross, and
at a point where it could not be done without a bridge.
The Idea that Jackson Might March to Washington Too Ridiculous to Consider
The march would take Jackson at least ten days to
accomplish. During this time, what is happening? Nothing? Of course not.
Lincoln and his crowd would be calling on General Dix, commanding the
Department of Baltimore, to send troops by train to Washington and they would
be calling on General Wool, commanding the Department of Pennsylvania, to send
troops by train to Washington. At the same time, presumably, Nathaniel Banks,
holding the line Winchester-Front Royal-Warrenton-Manassas with
20,000 men, would be concentrating to block Jackson's march at some point.
Certainly, during this time, Fremont's force of 20,000 men would be ordered to
move against Jackson's line of retreat. Jackson would need a great many more
troops that he was known to have, to attempt such an incredible endeavor.
But, Lincoln might argue: there is an enemy force spread
along the Rappahannock, from the vicinity of Gordonsville to Fredericksburg.
This force might advance directly north across the Manassas Plain, as Jackson marched down the Valley or crossed the Blue Ridge.
All right, this was possible but was it reasonably
probable? Union reconnaissance made it clear at the time that there were two
rebel divisions―one at Gordonsville and one at Fredericksburg―which
could possibly move toward Washington. Thus, if it materialized, the feared enemy
attack on Washington would be composed, at a maximum, of three divisions, say
about 25,000 to 30,000 men. In an abundance of caution, certainly justified if
there were any reasonable chance Washington might be suddenly taken, a
reasonable person in Lincoln's shoes might well have held one of
McDowell's four divisions at Fredericksburg, but to hold back McDowell's entire
corps from McClellan clearly cannot be justified on the ground of protecting
Washington. No, a reasonable person, if all he cared about was protecting
Washington while the siege of Richmond went on, would have used Blenker's
division instead, or for that matter, Fremont's entire force, to cooperate with
Banks's force in protecting the place.
Union Gun In Washington Defenses
If we are to treat Lincoln in this as acting as a reasonable
person, then the only explanation for his conduct, is that he wanted everything—he
wanted to use Fremont to hold territory and therefore stripped McDowell's corps
from McClellan's army to guarantee absolute protection for Washington. His
conduct was cavalier and short-sighted; in the end, in conjunction with
McClellan's failure as a general, it would bring ruin to the great Union
operation against Richmond and cause the war in Virginia to go on two years
In the panic that overcame him, in June when General Lee
attacked McClellan's flank and rear, Lincoln sent a flood of telegrams to Henry
Halleck, in the West, imploring him to send east by train, 50,000 men. Halleck
responded by claiming offensive operations would have to cease in the West if
this was done. Lincoln lowered his demand to 25,000, but on this condition
only―"Please do not send a man if it endangers any place you deem
important to hold or if it forces you to delay the expedition against Chattanooga. To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland, in East Tennessee, I think fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond."
Cutting off Chattanooga's communications with Knoxville
as capturing Richmond?
Certainly, capturing Chattanooga was at that time "as
important" as capturing Richmond, but the question was, which general, in
April 1862, had a better chance of capturing one place or the other.
Certainly the answer is not, Henry Halleck. Halleck arrived at Pittsburg
Landing on April 14, to find that Grant's Army of the Tennessee was in a
shattered condition. He could not begin the campaign to capture Chattanooga, much less the railroad east of that place, until he had reorganized Grant's
army and brought Pope's Army of the Mississippi to Pittsburg Landing. He then
had to advance to Corinth, attack or maneuver the enemy out of that place and
then. . . ? And then he had to consolidate his hold on the vast
territory that his operations to that point had gained for the Union.
First, he had to deploy his troops to repair the railroads
that now necessarily, with the fall of water level in the Tennessee, had to
function as his lines of communication with his base of operations at Cairo,
Illinois—a distance of 175 miles.
Second, he had to deploy his troops to occupy
two major rebel cities, Memphis and Nashville, not to mention the
many key points on the railroads in between that required protection.
Third, he had to deploy his troops in a manner calculated to
suppress the burgeoning guerilla warfare that now sprang up all around him
while keeping Beauregard's army at bay. In doing all this, Halleck was clearly
of the view that offensive operations in his department, which now stretched
from Kansas to Fremont's "Mountain Department," some four hundred
miles as the crow flies, had come to an end for the spring and summer at least.
As for Lincoln's thinking that there was any reasonable
chance Halleck would capture Chattanooga, much less Cleveland, it had no
rational foundation in fact? And this is a trial lawyer who supposedly won more
cases than he lost, convincing juries his were the better cause.
After the capture of Corinth, Halleck did send Carlos
Buell's army off on the mission of "capturing" Chattanooga, but he
knew nothing would come of the effort until the fall, because he ordered Buell
to move by the Charleston & Memphis Railroad instead of by the Nashville
& Chattanooga Railroad. By the Charleston & Memphis Railroad Buell had
to march 250 miles over a road that could not be used to support him
logistically, until the several major bridges it traversed were rebuilt and
locomotives and boxcars put on it. Buell would have to do this by guarding
every mile of track from the guerilla bands infesting the captured territory.
This would take much time, guaranteeing that Buell would not see the church
spires of Chattanooga any time soon.
It is just impossible to believe Lincoln seriously thought
that Halleck could do more, in capturing territory from the enemy, than he had
already done. Halleck had achieved a great result in the West, and after a
time he would be able to leap forward to Chattanooga, but not now. This was the
time for Lincoln to concentrate his attention on supporting McClellan, as he
had supported Halleck, giving McClellan the best chance possible to achieve an equivalent
result for the Union in the East by giving him the most men possible.
The Yorktown Terrain and Defenses
Defenses, entrenchments, artillery, and water obstacles
Lines Inch Up To The Enemy's
On April 9th, apparently stung by McClellan's reaction to
his conduct, Lincoln wrote a very long letter to McClellan attempting to
Washington, April 9, 1862
Major General McClellan:
My Dear Sir, your dispatches pain me
very much. Blenker's division was withdrawn because of the political pressure
put to me. As to the rest, when I found out you left me less than 20,000 unorganized
men, without a single field battery and Banks was tied up in the Valley with
Jackson and could not leave without exposing the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad
I was constrained to substitute something for him myself. Do you really think I
should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas to Washington to be entirely
open, except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000
I think it is the time for you to
strike a blow. And let me tell you, it is indispensable to you
that you strike a blow. The country will not fail to note that the present
hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy, is but the old story of Manassas repeated. You must act.
very truly, A. Lincoln (edited for brevity)
Lincoln writes this three days after the battle of Shiloh occurred, rendering for the Union over 13,000 casualties and wrecking Grant's army,
and the battle occurring without fortifications involved. Just amazing!
If Lincoln wished his field general to be as bold as Grant was in the
forest of Shiloh, he should have steamed down to Fort Monroe, mounted a horse
and rode to the front, to judge with his eyes how formidable was the physical
character of the enemy's entrenchments and the depth, density and placement of
their artillery. A field general's choice in the situation confronting
McClellan was to either attempt a frontal assault against the fortified
position in his front, or first reduce the effectiveness of the enemy's
position by the regular operations of a siege. That McClellan, despite Lincoln's preemptory demand for "Charge em out!", did what
Halleck did at Corinth is a testament to his West Point professionalism. And
all the chanting of the historians and civil war writers that Mac had "the
slows," as Lincoln is supposed to have said, demonstrates their
Mac replied to Lincoln on April 20 with this:
Army of the Potomac, April 20
His Excellency The President
My Dear Sir. I enclose a map of the
vicinity, to give you a good idea of positions. We are at work building
enclosures for six batteries, plus ten 13-inch mortars. As soon as these are
armed we will open the first parallel and other batteries for 8-inch and
10-inch mortars and other heavy guns. We shall soon open with a terrific fire.
The difficulties of our position are considerable, that is the enemy is in a
very strong position, but I never expected to get to Richmond without a hard
fought battle and am willing to fight it here as anywhere.
I am, Sir, most
respectfully and sincerely your friend,
By the end of April, McClellan's army had moved by traverses
and parallel trenches to within a hundred yards of the enemy's line of
entrenchments, this done under a constant artillery barrage. He now had in
place, in counter battery, five 100 pounder Parrott guns, ten 4-inch ordnance
guns, eighteen 20 pounder Parrotts, six Napoleons, six 10 pounder Parrotts and
forty-five other guns of smaller caliber, in redoubts.
Sally Gate in
Confederates Entrenchments at Yorktown
works at Yorktown
Lincoln answered this with, "Is anything to be
done?" Lincoln wrote this as Halleck was still sitting at Pittsburg
Landing, not having started on the twenty mile march that would bring him to
lay siege to Corinth―a siege that would see Halleck do in front of Corinth exactly what McClellan was doing in front of Yorktown, and there is no evidence in
the record of Lincoln dissing him. What explains Lincoln's contradictory
treatment of these generals the record does not say.
The Confederates Scramble to Defend Richmond
Confederate Divisions In Northern Virginia
Confederate Force Confronting McClellan at Yorktown
As it was in the West, it was the same in the East. The
Confederate Government did not have available a force equal in size to that available
to Lincoln's Government. Compounding the Confederates' disadvantage was the
fact that they lacked rifles so that a significant portion of their men could
not be immediately armed. This problem was diminishing as privateers, operating
out of the Bahamas, began to arrive in Southern ports carrying cargoes of arms
and munitions and universal conscription became the law, but right now, and for
several months to come, the problem of shortage would remain acute.
Joe Johnston, in field command of the Confederate Army in Virginia, arrived at Yorktown at about the same time McClellan's forces began moving up the
Peninsula from Fort Monroe. At the time of his arrival there were present
about 25,000 Confederate troops. Half of them were manning the entrenchments at
Yorktown, under the command of John Magruder; the other half, under the
command of Benjamin Huger, were holding the navy yards at Norfolk. Johnston brought with him about 25,000 men, organized in three divisions under the command
of James Longstreet, D.H. Hill, and D.R. Jones.
Joe Johnston found a fourteen mile long string of defenses,
stretching across the Peninsula from the mouth of the Warwick River to where it rises near the town of Yorktown. From in front of Yorktown to the bank of the
York River there are a series of deep water filled ravines that make the
movement of massed infantry impossible without the construction of roads and
causeways. Magruder had dammed the stream in different places to create large
pools of water and, on the high ground overlooking the stream, he had built a
line of field works directly on top of the old revoluntary field works of 1778.
At Yorktown as well as Gloucester Point, batteries were in place, their field
of fire interlocked to prevent Union vessels from steaming past the town.
Johnston recognized that the fortified line was a
substantial obstacle to McClellan's advance and thought that it could be
defended for a very long time, but for the fact that it could be easily turned
if the enemy could use either James River or York River to get troops in the
rear of it. At the moment, the rebel ironclad, Virginia, blocked
the mouth of James River and the field and water batteries were holding the
enemy back on the York River, but this situation could change very quickly; if
it did, the Confederate troops would have to scramble to get closer to Richmond
before McClellan could throw an infantry force in his rear, of sufficient force
to block his retreat.
On April 14, bringing with him James Longstreet, Johnston appeared in Richmond and went into a meeting with President Davis, Secretary of
War Randolph and the general commanding Confederate forces, Robert E. Lee. Johnston
expressed the attitude that, while the Yorktown defenses were strong and would
force the enemy to spend weeks laying siege to the place, it would be
eventually turned by the enemy opening the York River by demolishing the water
batteries and getting troops past it by water. Instead of engaging the enemy in
a delaying action, Johnston pushed the proposition of concentrating as much
force as possible in front of Richmond and attacking McClellan as he came up.
General Lee came to the meeting with a full understanding of the
strategic situation confronting the Confederacy. In the West, the Confederate
army was standing on the defensive at Tupelo, Mississippi, about 30 miles south
of Corinth on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad waiting to see what Halleck's
armies would do next. Anticipating that Halleck would now go over to the defensive,
in order to consolidate his gains in territory, Lee had managed to cobble
together a force of 12,000 men, under the command of Kirby Smith, and had him
in motion toward Knoxville and the Cumberland Gap, with instructions that he
hold himself ready "for rapid movements whenever the enemy may expose
himself to a blow." In the East, Fremont had two columns in motion in the Alleghenies,
moving south toward Moorfield, and Stonewall Jackson, in the Shenandoah Valley,
was retreating toward Harrisonburg, pursued by Banks. Here, too, Lee,
anticipating an opportunity to seize the initiative, had sent instructions to
Richard Ewell, posted near Gordonsville, to move part of his division toward
Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge, to connect with Jackson.
Thinking to take the initiative as soon as opportunity
presented itself, Lee was not keen to give up the sixty miles of ground between
Yorktown and Richmond without a fight, much less give up the navy yard at
Norfolk which would mean the abandonment of the Virginia and the
opening of James River to the enemy's naval operations. Furthermore, Johnston was banking on a concentration of force at Richmond that brought troops from the Carolinas and Georgia, troops that were needed where they were, protecting not only Charleston and Savannah but also the Savannah-Charleston Railroad from the enemy's
attacks. Finally, accepting Johnston's forecast of a turning movement on Yorktown by the York River, there still remained many miles of terrain, as far as Lee was
concerned, between the headwater of the York River at West Point and Richmond in which excellent fields of battle for a small army could be found. Taking
advantage of these fields would give the Government time to outfit and drill
the 30,000 young men of Virginia that the State had just conscripted to defend
itself against the enemy's advance on Richmond.
President Davis, after listening without comment to the
arguments, pro and con, adjourned the meeting, asking Johnston to return for a
further conference. That evening, at 7:00 p.m., the discussion reconvened and
continued until the early morning hours of April 15 when Davis announced his
decision that Johnston was to hold the Yorktown line until such time as his
army was seriously threatened with the enemy's flanking movement, or the Yorktown lines were on the verge of being broken. On April 17, Johnston assumed command of
all Confederate forces on the Peninsula, including those at Norfolk and, with
his troops working feverishly to strengthen the position's defenses, he waited
for the moment McClellan's big siege guns opened.
During the subsequent weeks of April, anticipating Johnston's fall back on Richmond, General Lee spent the days on horseback, riding the
developing lines of entrenchments that were being built by African slaves and,
to their discomfort, soldiers. The Richmond newspapers railed in headlines
against this, but he persisted; at the same time calling to Richmond what
regiments he could spare from the South. Though using all his skills as an
engineer to build an impregnable line of fortifications on the west bank of the
Chickahominy, General Lee was still thinking of the moment the Confederate
forces might seize the initiative from Lincoln. On April 29, just as McClellan
had finally gotten his big guns within range of Johnston's entrenchments,
General Lee sent this to Stonewall Jackson.
RICHMOND, April 29, 1862
Major-General T.J. Jackson,
commanding, etc, Swift Run Gap.
General: From the reports that reach me
the enemy's force at Fredericksburg is too large to permit me to reduce the
force I have opposing it, as, if I do, it will invite an attack on Richmond
from that direction and endanger the safety of General Johnston's army on the
Peninsula. Can you draw General Edward Johnson's command from Staunton to you?
His returns show he has about 3,500 men. A successful blow against Banks's
column would be fraught with the happiest results and I deeply regret my
inability to send you the reinforcements you ask.
Truly Yours, R.E. Lee
Richmond Defenses, 1862
The stage was now set for the epic struggle between the Union and the Confederacy that would decide the issue of how long the war was to last, and
the fact that it was decided that the war would continue to the last ditch was
in large measure due to General Lee.
At the same Lee wrote to Jackson, setting him in motion
again toward the Potomac, his youngest son, Robert, who was a student at the
University of Virginia at the time, tells us that, "My father allowed me
to volunteer, and I joined the Rockbridge Artillery. My father gave his time
and attention to the details of fitting me out as a private soldier. I do not
suppose it ever occurred to my father to think of giving me an office, which he
could easily have done, nor did I ever hear from anyone that I might have been
given a better position because of the prominence of my father. With the good
advice to be obedient to all authority, to do my duty in everything, great or
small, my father bade me good-bye, and sent me off to the Shenandoah Valley where
my battery was serving under Stonewall Jackson."