Monday, May 07, 2007

The Peninsula Campaign, 1862

Dates: 4 April to 16 June, 1862


Union: Major General George McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Joseph Johnston, commanding Confederate forces defending Richmond, VA.

Prelude: It has been about three quarters of a year since the Union was routed at Manassas, VA. Since that time, there was a complete reorganization of what was considered the main army of the Federal war effort. While there were successes in the field (Missouri, North Carolina, Pittsburg Landing, New Orleans, and other places, usually out West), the attitude in Union political circles was that the rebellion would not be crushed unless the Confederate capital, Richmond, VA, was in Federal hands. To this end McClellan, who had just achieved success in Western Virginia, was chosen to command the main army.

First thing McClellan did was give the army a name; The Army of the Potomac. Next, he began a program of training, organization, and supply, which turned what was a rabble into an army. Thing was, he was great at doing that, but when asked about when he was going to take the offensive, he was evasive. The press made good fun of the entire process, even printing a political cartoon that depicted McClellan and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, enjoying themselves while their troops hold parties and snowball fights. The cartoon was captioned “All Quiet on the Potomac.”

All this stemmed from McClellan’s main fault; he was overly cautious and was loathe to take chances. He wanted everything to be perfect before taking to the field. It seems that he forgot one of the maxims of war that was taught at West Point (he was second in the class of 1846), plans never survive first contact with the enemy. Even with pressure from US President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan did not want to move.

One possible reason was that McClellan relied not on his army’s intelligence section for information about the enemy, but had hired a civilian outfit, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to get that information. McClellan also had a thing for inflating the estimates of the Confederate’s numbers. When the Spring of 1862 arrived, he had about 155,000 men at his command. He really believed that the Confederates had twice his numbers. The Confederates wished they had the numbers. He still refused to move when Northern newspapers were screaming, “ON TO RICHMOND.”

Finally, President Lincoln had enough.

27 January, 1862: Lincoln issues General War Order Number One, which ordered a general offensive for all Union armies on 22 February.
31 January, 1862: Lincoln followed this with Special War Order Number One, which ordered the Army of the Potomac to seize the railroads south of Manassas, and then move on Richmond.

McClellan was not having that. He had great disrespect for the President, calling him names such as “baboon” in letters to his wife. His disrespect was so great that one evening, when the President arrived to discuss plans with him, McClellan went to bed while Lincoln was in his sitting room.

McClellan had a plan of his own. He wanted to take his army to Fortress Monroe, at the tip of a peninsula formed between the James and York Rivers. He would than march up the peninsula to a position where he could make the assault on Richmond.

In spending time lobbying for the new plan, while a Federal force under soon to be promoted to Major General Ulysses S. Grant was taking Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, McClellan, who also was made General-in-Chief on the Union Armies, was still in Washington.

7 March, 1862: McClellan finally makes a move, sending some of his army into Northern Virginia and headed for Manassas.

8 March, 1862: President Lincoln agrees to McClellan’s plan (anything to get him moving) with one condition, some of his army must remain to protect Washington.

McClellan decides that he would take II Corps, under Major General Charles Sumner, III Corps, under Major General Samuel Heintzelman, V Corps, under Major General Fitz-John Porter, and VI Corps, under Major General William Franklin, with him. He wanted to take I Corps, under Major General Irwin McDowell, but that corps was ordered to defend Washington.

17 March, 1862: McClellan has his troops begin boarding transports for the trip to Fortress Monroe.

During all of this, President Lincoln decided relieve McClellan of the pressure of handling the entire Union war effort, he declares the position of General-in Chief be set aside. McClellan only has command of the Army of the Potomac and nothing else.

2 April, 1862: McClellan arrived at Fortress Monroe, joining the 112,000 men of his army.

Opposing him was a Confederate force of about 70,000 under Johnston. About 17,000 of them manned an eight-mile long trench near Yorktown. The rest were near Richmond, but were being gathered together, now that Johnston knows where McClellan was at.

With all the troops, equipment, and supplies gathered, the Army of the Potomac was ready to take the offensive.
4 April, 1862: McClellan sends three corps up several roads toward the Confederate line.

The next day, they reach the Confederate defensive line. The defenders, commanded by Major General John Magruder, put up a spirited fight, so much that when word got back to McClellan, he ordered siege lines dug.

Amazing, after a brief fight, McClellan felt he was outnumbered, even though he was enjoying a 10-1 superiority. He also received reports of massed artillery batteries that could slaughter his men. So he decides to siege. This would only give Johnston time to prepare a proper defense.

2 May, 1862: After nearly a month besieging and trading shots with the Confederates, McClellan decides it is time to resume the offensive.

Johnston sees that a general Union attack would hurt his forces, so he orders his army to pull back to a more defensible position.

3 May, 1863: Johnston’s army pulls out of Yorktown.

4 May, 1862: Yorktown is occupied by McClellan’s army. When they moved in, it was found that all those cannon facing them were large logs painted black to look like guns.

While probing beyond Yorktown, Union forces run into a strong rearguard, consisting of the divisions of Major Generals James Longstreet and Daniel H. Hill.

McClellan’s vanguard clashes with Johnston’s rearguard at Williamsburg, but was not able to bring on a general engagement. McClellan sends cavalry to see what was in front of him, but they are stopped at Fort Magruder, east of Williamsburg. The cavalry hold until a division under Brigadier General Joseph Hooker arrived.

5 May, 1862: Meanwhile, President Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasure Samuel Chase depart Washington for Fortress Monroe on a fact finding mission. It seems that McClellan was not sending many reports.

Battle of Williamsburg: At 7:30 a.m. Hooker launches an attack on Fort Magruder. Severe fighting continued for several hours as Union reinforcements arrived. Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding some of the reinforcements, fakes a withdrawal, turned around, sent a masses musket volley, and then a bayonet charge that broke the Confederate line. Late that afternoon, McClellan arrived on the scene and amazingly ordered a halt, allowing the Confederates to get away. Union losses were over 2100 while the Confederates lost 1700.

McClellan not wants to try something different; upon hearing that CSS Virginia was up the James River, he decides to head up the York.

7 May, 1862: VI Corps is sent up the York River to Eltham’s Landing. Upon disembarking, they find a Confederate force under Brigadier General John B. Hood there, who put up a strong enough defense to hold Franklin and give Johnston tome to pull back further.

9 May, 1862: McClellan was called back to Fortress Monroe to confer with President Lincoln. One positive thing about the operation was that the Confederates abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard when word of Johnston’s retreat arrived. CSS Virginia was sailed up the river to near Drewry’s Bluff in order to assist in defending Richmond.

11 May, 1862: CSS Virginia, unable to move up the James due to its large draft (remember, this was once the US Navy frigate Merrimac), is destroyed rather than let it fall into Federal hands. The cannon were removed beforehand and moved to Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff.

15 May, 1862: Fort Darling is attacked by Federal troops, backed by a fleet of gunboats that include USS Monitor, but the Union force is repulsed.

Johnston’s army continued to fall back toward Richmond, causing a panic in the capital. Preparations were made for the evacuation of the Confederate Government.

McClellan, still advancing, was still badgering Washington for reinforcements, especially McDowell’s corps, who were at Fredericksburg and preparing to advance on Richmond themselves.

Thing was, Washington was occupied with Confederate Major General Thomas Jackson’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and could not send McClellan anything. He just had to make do.

McClellan decided to wait until reinforcements were sent to him.

17 May, 1862: Johnston arrives in Richmond and prepare to defend the city.

25 May, 1862: President Lincoln was tired of McClellan’s lack of movement and gives him a choice, attack Richmond or defend Washington.

McClellan decides to act.

27 May,1862: Battle of Hanover Court House: McClellan sends Porter’s corps to the north of Richmond and hit the Confederate left flank. At Hanover Court House, they meet the Confederate defensive line. After an assault, they pull back and porter orders a pursuit. One brigade is sent to cut rail and telegraph lines, but is his by a large Confederate force. Porter soon doubles back and manages to rout the defenders.

Despite the loss at Hanover Court House, Johnston has concentrated his forces east of Richmond and is ready to take the offensive. McClellan’s army has supply lines stretching back to Fortress Monroe, making him vulnerable.

31 May, 1862: Battle of Fair Oaks: The Army of the Potomac is straddled over the Chickahominy River, to the south are Heintzelman’s corps, as well as IV Corps, under Major General Erasmus Keyes. The rest of the army is to the north. They are divided by a river that was flooded by recent storms. Johnston decides to take advantage of that. It also helped that McDowell’s corps was diverted to help with the operation in the Shenandoah Valley. Johnston sends Hill’s and Longstreet’s divisions to hit the Union lines at a spot known as Seven Pines (another name for the battle). Hill arrives there first but Longstreet is delayed. Not wanting to wait, Hill launches his assault and drives the Federals back. The line is reinforced and the confederate attack is soon stalled. Another Confederate attack, this time to the north of Seven Pines and led by Brigadier General G. W. Smith, is also stopped by timely Union reinforcements. Sumner’s men found a rickety bridge across the Chickahominy and managed to cross. Stopping the Confederates, Sumner orders an assault of their own.

During this fighting, Johnston was nearby, observing the fighting. Also in the area was CS President Jefferson Davis and his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee. As evening approached, a Federal artillery shell exploded near Johnston’s position, wounding him severely. President Davis orders Lee to take over until Johnston’s condition was assessed. The fighting died out when darkness came.

1 June, 1862; On the same day that Lee is formally given command of the army defending Richmond, Smith (not knowing about Lee’s appointment) attacks Sumner’s positions at Fair Oaks. The Federals bring up artillery and manage to hold the Confederates until Hooker’s division could come up. Hooker attacks and succeeds in driving Smith back. The assault, however, spreads the Federals all over the place and a pursuit could not take place.

McClellan finally gets to a position in which Richmond could be assaulted directly. He could even see the spires of the churches there. But he stopped. He wanted to gather his army together.

All this did was give Lee time. Several things did fall into place for him. Jackson was finished with his campaign, tying up 60,000 Federals. Lee ordered Jackson to join him. Next , Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry rode around McClellan’s army from 12-15 June, gathering intelligence and disrupting the Union supply lines.

Lee was ready to take the fight back to McClellan.

His army was now called the Army of Northern Virginia.

What happened next was called the Seven Day’s Battles.

For now, Richmond was safe.

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