Union General George McClellan at Yorktown


 

On March 8, 1862, the first ironclad naval vessel to appear in the world, the Confederates' Merrimac, steamed into Hampton Roads; her two 7-inch pivot guns firing on the 30 gun U.S. Navy frigate, Cumberland, riding at anchor in the channel off Fort Monroe, she plowed her iron brow into the frigate's starboard side. While the other navy ships of the U.S. blockading squadron were getting under way to come to the Cumberland's aid, the Merrimac hauled back from the frigate and the sea poured through a gaping hole in its side and it quickly sank in the shoals. Joined by the Confederate gun boats, Patrick Henry, Jamestown and Teaser, the Merrimac next laid a raking fire into the 50 gun frigate, Congress, which, maneuvering in the narrow channel, attempted to loose a broad side on the Merrimac but the frigate ran aground in the ebbing tide, caught fire and began to sink. Night was falling by this time and the Merrimac, minus her iron brow, which had broken off in the impact with the Cumberland, slowly made her way through the remaining U.S. warships scattering out of her path, Roanoke, St. Lawrence and the Minnesota, and steamed back up the Elizabeth River, past crowds of cheering spectators, to her berth.

The following day, March 9, as the news of the Merrimac's appearance in Hampton Roads reached President Lincoln, General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army at Manassas, set his six divisions in motion for the Rappahannock River in order to counter the obvious threat that, as the Lincoln government began its active operations, it might move its army by boats down the Potomac River to a point close to the mouth of the Rappahannock and move on Fredericksburg; leaving Johnston two days march away.

When George McClellan learned of Johnston's departure from Manassas, he immediately moved the main body of his army forward and occupied the abandoned entrenchments. After reconnaissance revealed that the enemy had destroyed the bridges over the Rappahannock, the army returned to Alexandria on March 11 and waited for the government to assemble the necessary fleet of boats to begin its transfer down Chesapeake Bay to the new base of operations at Fort Monroe.

Several days later, on March 13, without training or experience qualifying them for the task, two prairie lawyers assumed they knew better than McClellan how to plan a campaign.

President Lincoln suddenly announced the termination of General McClellan's services as his general-in-chief, and established his new secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, in the military chain of command. Next, Lincoln ordered the western armies consolidated into the Department of the Mississippi and placed in command of it, Henry Halleck, a career army officer. Adjacent to Halleck's department, he established the Mountain Department, covering Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, giving its command to John C. Fremont. Then, giving in to the demands of the radicals in Congress, the President placed Nathaniel Banks, an ex-governor of Massachusetts and ex-speaker of the House of Representatives, in command of the Department of the Shenandoah, the territory between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge. General McClellan was left the Yorktown Peninsula. to march over.

At the same time, in response to a telegram from President Davis telling him to come quick, General Lee was arriving in Richmond from Savannah where he had been organizing the coastal defenses, and he found that President Davis had issued a very different order.

Adjutant General and Inspector General's Office

Richmond

March 13, 1862

 

General Robert E. Lee is assigned to duty at the seat of government; and, under the direction of the President, is charged with the conduct of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy.

By Command of the Secretary of War:

S. Cooper

Adjutant and Inspector General

In formulating a plan of operation for the Army of the Potomac, General McClellan understood that the amount of time and force needed to carry it out must be in direct proportion to its ultimate scope and objectives. The Army, as President Lincoln preferred, could have engaged in general battle with the enemy in the central position it occupied in Northern Virginia; but, at best, the expenditure of time and force wouldGeorge McClellan result in the enemy falling back to another position where the battle must be renewed again and again and again and again until, finally, the enemy's will to fight or his means of resistance in the theater of war became utterly exhausted.

In the mind of General McClellan, Lincoln’s plan violated the basic principles by which war is intelligently fought, that is, the intelligent commander does not waste resources battering against stonewalls if there is a rapid means of getting around them. Clearly, the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay provided such means.

. Among the several points along the length of Chesapeake Bay where the Army of the Potomac might have established a base of operations on the strategic flank of the enemy, the tiny village of West Point at the headwaters of the York River provided the greatest advantages. It had wharfs and warehouses suitable for stockpiling supplies brought by steamers up the deep channel of the York River from Chesapeake Bay, and it was the terminal of the York River Railroad that ran 35 miles into Richmond. Compared to the best alternative line of operation, the Richmond, Fredricksburg & Potomac Railroad, linking Richmond with Fredericksburg 55 miles distant on the Rappahannock, the York River Railroad could be easily protected from the enemy's disruptive attacks; for 18 miles its tracks ran on the north side of the Pamunkey River and a secure forward depot could be constructed at the White House plantation, where the York River Railroad crossed over the river and angled toward the Chickahominy River and Richmond. Urbanna, 15 miles northeast of West Point, was the best point for the Army's landing because not only could the Army reach West Point in one rapid march, turning the enemy forces on the Yorktown Peninsula, but also the Army could march on the enemy batteries at Gloucester Point across from Yorktown and open the river to its supply transports. Accordingly, McClellan had planned to take the Urbanna route to reach West Point but changed his mind when Lincoln rearranged the chain of command.

At dawn in early summer, I rode the horse, with my pal Murphy, south out of Yorktown and went down H.W. 704 to a little cemetery surrounded by a high, red brick wall. Parking the Lincoln on the grass by the wall, I got a pack from the trunk and led Murphy along an abandoned asphalt roadbed that passed through a grass field. A tenth of a mile ahead of us, a small herd of mule deer was in the field, the rising sun spreading behind them, a rosy gleam through the fringe of dense trees. A quarter mile to the north, the earthen rampart of a line of trenches stretched toward the York River bank, a half mile to the east. Behind us, a cluster of deep pits overrun with weeds flanked both side of H.W. 704. We were walking between the remnants of the mound and ditch lines of Washington and Cornwallis that were renovated and expanded upon by Joe Johnston and McClellan.

The Opposing Lines at Yorktown

General McClellan never got to Urbanna. On March 8, 1862, President Lincoln ordered the 12 divisions of the Army of the Potomac organized into five army corps and assigned McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes and Banks to command them. At a council of war McClellan held with the new corps commanders on March 13, a majority insisted that Fort Monroe, not Urbanna, serve as the Army's base of operations and General McClellan had little choice but to acquiesce.

On March 17, an armada comprised of hundreds of barges, steamers and schooners was assembled in the Potomac in front of Washington; over a period of four weeks the boats transported 110,000 men, 15,000 animals, 1,200 wagons, 44 artillery batteries, 74 ambulances, pontoon bridges, telegraph materials and camp equipment to Fort Monroe.

On April 2, General McClellan arrived at Fort Monroe on board the steamer Commodore. The next day he had moving toward Yorktown, 2 divisions of Heintzelman's Corps, followed by 2 divisions of Keyes's Corps and 1 division of Sumner's Corps, with the Army's artillery reserve; in all about 58,000 men and 100 guns. The remaining divisions of the three corps were still enroute along with the rest of the artillery and much of the transportation and camp equipment.

McClellan's advance moved north toward Yorktown on two parallel roads: Heintzelman's two divisions marched on the direct road to Yorktown from Fort Monroe (H.W. 134) and Keyes's divisions marched on the road from Newport News which leads to Williamsburg (H.W. 143). By April 3, Keyes's two divisions had reached the Warwick River and encamped on the Williamsburg road near a crossroads leading east toward Yorktown. At the same time, Heintzelman's leading division halted on the Yorktown road several miles south of the town.

The following day, McClellan's engineers reconnoitered the ground in front of the two corps. They found that the enemy line stretched across the peninsula ten miles from the York River to the James River. Like fingers spreading out from the palm of a hand, deep ravines cut the ground in front of the town between the Yorktown Road and the York River and a series of creeks feed rain water into the York River. 

 Where the Yorktown Road bends to the east to enter the town, the headwaters of the Warwick River rise and flow southwest six miles into the James River through dense forest and deep broadening swamps. McClellan's engineers discovered that dams had been built along the length of the Warwick River, creating a series of vast ponds which were defended by artillery placed in earthworks. General McClellan probed the left side of the enemy's line by staging an assault across the dams in Keyes's front. After its repulse convinced him that the enemy line was too strong for a frontal assault, McClellan began a slow advance on the right side of the line.

While working parties drawn from the infantry began digging a network of trenches, the Army's pioneers pitched into cutting rough roads in the forest in order to move McClellan's heavy siege guns into position in front of the ravines; once in place the heavy guns could overpower the Confederates' batteries covering the York River and open the river to McClellan's troop transports which would allow him to get a force up to West Point in the enemy's rear.

The established technique of siege warfare that had developed to that time was complicated and though frequently successful it was necessarily slow. The digging of the trenches had to proceed in a zigzag toward the Yorktown defensive works and branch off at intervals known as parallels. Behind the advanced parallel, heavy guns would be placed in fortified breastworks within range of the enemy's lines. Finally, when the trenches had been pushed close enough for the infantry to attempt to take the enemy's lines by storm, the artillery would begin pounding at the point of attack to open a breach for the infantry; if the infantry's frontal assaults were still repulsed, the trenching would continue under the enemy's works which would then be breached by mining.

  Upon setting the siege operation in motion, McClellan returned to the concept of turning the enemy position by capturing the enemy's batteries at Gloucester Point, on the left bank of the York River opposite Yorktown, which prevented the Navy from taking troops up the river to West Point. To Irwin McDowell, whose First Corps had not yet embarked for Fort Monroe, McClellan telegraphed his intentions.

 

  General:

The information I have obtained here has induced me to move forward the troops for whom I have wagons, in order to invest Yorktown. I still think that it will be advisable for you to land at least one division at MoJack Bay behind Gloucester in order to insure its fall. I have therefore telegraphed to Franklin to get your First Division embarked as soon as possible to make this movement.
 

 Shortly after this telegram was sent, General McClellan was handed a telegraph from the War Department.

 

 

General:

The President, deeming the force to be left in front of Washington insufficient to insure its safety, has directed that McDowell's army corps shall be detached from the forces operating under your immediate direction.

 

Drenched to the bone by successive rain storms that had been smashing into the Peninsula all the while his forces were deploying in front of Yorktown, McClellan stomped down a muddy road under construction behind the trenches forming the first parallel and hurried inside a tent staked under a clump of weeping trees. Inside, he flung himself down on a camp chair and scribbled a message to President Lincoln on a sheet of paper. When he was done writing, he thrust it into the hand of a soldier sitting at a small desk where a telegraph apparatus was set up and ordered him to send it.

 

Hon. A. Lincoln, President        Near Yorktown, April 5, 1862 7:30 p.m.

The enemy are in large force along our front and, apparently, intend to make a determined resistance. A reconnaissance shows that their line of works extends across the entire Peninsula from Yorktown to Warwick River.

 

Under these circumstances, I beg that you will reconsider the order detaching the first Corps from my Command. In my deliberate judgment the success of our cause will be imperiled by so greatly reducing my force. If you cannot leave me the whole of the first Corps, I urgently ask that I may not lose Franklin and his Division.

 

 

Several days later, standing with his engineers at the top of one of the ravines watching the pioneers extend the military road net toward Wormsley Pond, General McClellan received President Lincoln's reply


 

Washington, April 9, 1862

 

Major-General McClellan

My Dear Sir, Your dispatches, complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much.

 

After you left I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field battery, were all you designed to be left for the defense of Washington and Manassas Junction. I do not forget that I was satisfied with your arrangement to leave Banks at Manassas Junction; but when that arrangement was broken up and nothing was substituted for it, of course, I was constrained to substitute something for it myself. And allow me to ask, Do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond to Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open, except what resistance could be presented by less than twenty thousand unorganized troops?

 

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 entrenchments, at either place. The country will not fail to note—is now noting—that the present hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated.

 

Yours, very truly,

A. Lincoln

 

. The Constitution confers upon the President of the United States the name of "Commander-in-Chief" of its armed forces, but unless the President is an Eisenhower he must rely upon the generals; those who by training and experience he believes can translate the government's war policy into decisive action with the means he has available to carry it out. In the west, President Lincoln had three armies in the field commanded by John Pope, Carlos Buell and Ulysses Grant, operating under a common plan of campaign. By April 9, 1862, the three generals had cooperated to drive the rebels out of Kentucky and Western Tennessee, penetrate Northern Mississippi and Alabama, and free the navigation of the Mississippi down to Memphis. The Union government's plan of campaign in the West was a first step on the path to ultimate victory over the Confederacy; the final step would never be reached, however, until Richmond fell. Yet, inexplicably, President Lincoln was disparaging and undermining the one plan of campaign that could quickly bring the war to an end.

            Three weeks before President Lincoln ordered McDowell's corps detached from the Army of the Potomac, General McClellan wrote to Nathaniel Banks and ordered him to bring the main body of the Fifth Corps from the Shenandoah Valley, where it was then posted, to the vicinity of Manassas. While the Army of the Potomac was operating on the Yorktown peninsula, Banks was to command his detached corps of two divisions, each 9,000 men strong, at Manassas Junction and guard the approaches to Washington. McClellan's orders required Banks to use one division to guard against an enemy force coming down the Shenandoah Valley toward the Potomac and the other division to guard against an approach from the direction of Fredericksburg and Culpeper. Centrally positioned at Manassas, Banks could easily concentrate his corps along the line, Manassas-Warrenton-Front Royal, to oppose the enemy's advance on whichever side of the Blue Ridge Mountains it might come.

McClellan's orders to Banks constituted a reasonable distribution of the army's force, between the Commander-in-Chief's opposing objectives of attacking the enemy—with the ultimate objective of destroying his ability to resist—and protecting Washington from a surprise attack. In the event an enemy force was observed attempting to pass the Rappahannock, depending upon Banks's perception of its size, his right wing guarding the valley approach, leaving some cavalry and infantry behind, would march to the support of the left wing at Manassas and, if necessary, the Fifth Corps could fall back behind the perimeter of the forts on the right bank of the Potomac in front of Washington. In the event an enemy force was discovered marching down the valley toward the Potomac, again depending upon its size, Banks's could send his left wing to the support of his right wing and, if necessary, fall back toward the troops posted at Williamsport and Harper's Ferry.

On March 20, as Heintzelman's and Keyes's corps were embarking for Fort Monroe, one division of Banks's Corps, under General Williams, began its march from the Valley to take up the blocking position required by McClellan's orders for the left wing, while the other division, under General Shields, fell back to Winchester preparatory to taking up its position on the right wing. Stonewall Jackson, in peacetime an eccentric professor of mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute, was positioned 40 miles south of that place, with 4,500 infantry and a regiment of cavalry. When Jackson learned that the brigades of Williams's division were marching across the Blue Ridge toward Manassas, he marched his force forward at once and, on March 22, Jackson's cavalry skirmished with Shield's picket line a mile south of Winchester at a place called Kernstown. The next day, Jackson's infantry reached Strasburg at dawn ten miles distant from Kernstown, and four regiments went forward to reinforce his cavalry followed by the reserves. Arriving on the field about noon, Jackson decided to attack Shield's division, which was now drawn up in line of battle across the Winchester road. Jackson sent his main body in a column around a hill on Shield's right with the idea that he could get them on Shield's line of retreat; but in the movement's execution, Shields repulsed Jackson's attack and capturing 300, compelled Stonewall to retreat

The Strategic Situation


 Jackson's decision to attack Shields resulted in a tactical defeat but gained in the end a strategic victory. Shields, an Illinois politician who once challenged Lincoln to a sword fight on a road outside Springfield, did not think Jackson would have dared attack his superior force unless heavy reinforcements were lurking somewhere behind him. Shields sent a courier riding pell mell after Williams, requesting that he send back to Shield's support, his rear guard brigade which had just reached the Blue Ridge gap. Another courier caught up with General Banks as he was crossing the pontoon bridge at Harper's Ferry on his way to Washington. Banks ordered Williams to march two of his three brigades back to the Valley, leaving only the third brigade of 4,500 and a battery of artillery to continue toward Manassas. Banks came to Kernstown and when Williams's brigades appeared he marched up the valley 20 miles and established a line in front of Jackson's force bivouacked near the crossroads that leads to the Massanuttons, a 2,000 elevation mountain range that rises between the branches of the Shenandoah River in the center of the Valley, parallel to the Blue Ridge. McClellan sent several telegrams to Banks, demanding that Banks engage in action with Jackson's rear guard, to hurry his retreat, but Banks did nothing. For six whole days Banks remained stationary in front of Jackson's position, passively observing an enemy force one fourth his strength of 16,000 men.

At this point, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, President Lincoln badly blundered; excited by a belief that one army corps was insufficient to secure Washington from surprise attack, President Lincoln decided to use three army corps to cover Washington The President had good political reasons to want security for Washington: if Washington should fall, France and England might ignore the Union blockade of the Confederacy's ports and extend money and material to the Davis government. But Lincoln had no good military reasons to believe that an enemy force large enough to pose a serious threat to its security would suddenly appear in front of Washington.

The art of warfare distills to the concepts of hitting and guarding through movements which are consistent with economy of force. Application of these essential principles of war to the strategic situation confronting Lincoln rendered ridiculous the idea that, with the Army of the Potomac closing on Richmond, the enemy would march an army to the suburbs of Washington. The only means by which the enemy could rapidly move the military hardware and food supplies necessary to sustain an army marching onto the Manassas Plain was the Orange & Alexandria's railroad bridge spanning the Rappahannock ten miles northeast of Culpeper; but, in its withdrawal from Manassas on March 8, the enemy had destroyed the bridge and any attempt to rebuild it would quickly be detected by Bank's cavalry scouting the line of the river. If the enemy advanced its infantry and supporting wagon trains by fording the Rappahannock, or by approaching Washington from the direction of the Valley, the infantry and artillery must also ford the Potomac somewhere between Williamsport and Leesburg, a distance of 45 miles from Culpeper and 35 miles from Front Royal, and then march down the left bank of the river and break through the cordon of forts around Rockville. As the enemy columns marched, however, the divisions of Shields and Williams would be marching their brigades on the shorter line extending from Front Royal to Warrenton and they easily could block the enemy's path south of the Potomac or cross the river first and take position in the forts around Washington.

Leaning on his experience with his generals in the West, President Lincoln divided responsibility for the Virginia territory, which was beyond the scope of McClellan's line of march to Richmond, between three men: He ordered John Fremont, in command of an army corps operating in the Appalachians, to advance into southwestern Virginia and come into Stonewall Jackson's rear area; Banks was retained in command of the forces in the lower Valley and ordered to press against Jackson's front; Irwin McDowell was ordered to guard the line of the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg.

If Lincoln's decision to create three little armies, whose generals reported directly to him was a blunder, McClellan's choice of Banks's corps as Washington's guarding force was a blunder too. The logical choice to command the guarding force was Irwin McDowell; he was a career army officer with real experience in warfare and he was well-liked by Lincoln and his cabinet. McClellan probably picked Banks because he did not want the politician-general campaigning with him and if he chose McDowell the Army of the Potomac would lose three divisions, not two.

Just as the decision to detach McDowell's corps, when the Army of the Potomac was in contact with the enemy, demonstrated Lincoln’s ignorance of the art of war, so, too, did his characterization of McClellan's conduct at Yorktown as the "story of Manassas repeated."

Movement is the axis around which revolve the contrasting actions of guarding and hitting. The entrenchments at Manassas had nothing to do with McClellan's hesitation in approaching the enemy there, but they had everything to do with his hesitation in approaching the enemy at Yorktown. The Army of the Potomac easily could have forced the enemy to abandon any position taken on the Manassas plain, whether entrenched or not, simply by marching wide around it and getting on the enemy's line of retreat; but at Yorktown the only way of going around the entrenchments was by passing them on either the James or York rivers which Lincoln's Navy claimed it could not do.

The reality was that even without McDowell's Corps being with him, General McClellan had enough men available to launch frontal assaults at Yorktown; but it would have been stupid to do so before he really had to. Frontal assaults result in heavy casualties requiring replacement and President Lincoln had closed the recruiting offices a month before! And if the President truly thought the "unorganized troops" McClellan was supposed to have left behind him, could not be relied upon to hold the entrenchments around Washington, then he could hardly expect them to charge entrenchments on a field 100 miles from Washington.

Reaching the end of the old asphalt road that tracks east from the cemetery, Murphy and I came to a finger of trees that poked out from the dense forest that borders the fields. On the other side of this salient of trees, the field bulges toward the south and we followed the tree line a quarter mile until a piece of red striping tied around a tree caught my eye; motioning to Murphy to follow me, I plunged into the thick undergrowth of the woods. Slapping her thigh to scare away the grasshoppers leaping at her out of the grass, Murphy followed me in with a sigh.

The tree line marked the last entrenchments of McClellan's siege works. Somewhere deep in the woods were the redoubts for his Parrot guns. Making our way forward, we skirted a tangle of bramble bushes and zigzagged through a grove of saplings, only to find a cluster of fallen trees blocking our path at the other end. Our dodging through the obstacles of the woods had brought us up against a massive spider web that stretched across a six foot space between two trees. We could see more webs were behind it, looking like reflections of an image in a series of mirrors. Tiny translucent mummies made of spun silk were neatly arranged in the web's filigree. A fat-bellied brown spider with grey and yellow markings sat high up in one corner, its long slender legs gauging the meaning of the slight trembling it sensed in the threads. I picked up a dead branch from the debris on the forest floor and with a sharp crack, broke it over my knee into two pieces. I offered the longer one to my pal, who was standing now with her hands spread on her hips; Her blue-grey eyes flashing, she looked skeptically, first at me and then at the stick. Mumbling something I couldn't quite hear, she suddenly snatched it out of my hand and stomped off straight into the undergrowth slashing at the webs in her tracks.

Yorktown Trenches

 

After twenty minutes of hiking, we came to the edge of a ravine. Looking down the slope we could see water sparkling through the trees; it was Wormsley Pond. Angling down the slope, we came upon the trace of an old wagon road bending east around the edge of the pond, and walked along it for about 100 feet or so. Slowly, the parapet of one of the sections of McClellan's Battery No. 1. emerged into view ahead of us. Two deep gouges had been cut into the slope, each about twenty feet long by ten feet wide; in the middle of each gouge there was a weathered earth rampart perpendicular to the mound of earth that formed the front face of the work.

McClellan's artillery men, with the help of the pioneers using mule teams, had dragged two Parrot guns, each weighing 30,000 pounds, along a network of corduroyed roads from the Yorktown Road two miles off to the southwest, through the ravines and around to the north end of Wormsley Pond. Once there, the woods echoing with their grunting curses, McClellan's men wrestled the iron carriages of the guns off the wagons and on to wooden platforms the pioneers had built on top of the earthen ramparts. The tubes of Battery No. 1's siege guns needed 40 pounds of powder for propellant. When the energy of the powder was initiated, it propelled a 200 pound cast-iron shell about 3,000 yards; fully elevated to 25 degrees and charged with maximum powder these monster guns could throw shells 4,000 yards.

The placement of the guns was but one element in the military tradition of the siege that had developed steadily from the Middle Ages onwards. As the guns were being scraped into their emplacements, McClellan's engineers were supervising the slow, complicated process of digging trenches toward the town; at intervals, constructing branching tunnels, bastions,redoubts, redans, revetments and traverses along the full six mile length of the Union line, which stretched from Wormsley Pond southwestward to James River. When the tunnelling network pushed the Army's most advanced line within 200 yards of the enemy, the heavy Parrot guns would be pointed to bombard the key defensive points; eventually the bombardment would breach the enemy's walls and then the troops would climb over the parapets of their trenches and, in the face of rifle and field artillery fire, rush pell mell across the intervening ground to engage in hand to hand combat with the enemy infantry; tremendous bodies of fierce wild-eyed young men, desperately grappling together in the smoking ruins of the walls.

We left the weathered remnants of McClellan's gun pits and went back to the military road. We followed it a short distance east until we came up on the National Park road which slides around behind Wormsley Pond; walking along the Park road for a hundred yards we came to the grassy plateau again and crossed the open fields toward the York River. Near the Moore House, which dates from the Revolution, the National Park Road intersects with another road just in front of the river; this road is lined on the river side with recently built twostory brick homes. Taking it, we soon came to an undeveloped lot between two of the new houses. A mound of earth protruding from the midst of the trees and tangled brush that covers the lot, forms a tooth-like structure; it outlines the redan that anchored the left flank of the Confederate fortifications to the river. Looking back across the fields toward Wormsley Pond, we could see that the shells from McClellan's huge Parrott guns could easily reach beyond the redan to the river channel. Four weeks after the Army of the Potomac arrived in front of Yorktown, McClellan's siege works were finished and his gunners began pointing the Parrott guns, one by one, calculating the angles and range to their designated targets. Late in the night of May 4, just hours after the booming of the Union guns signaled the gunners were fixing their ranges, the Confederate general, Joe Johnston, ordered his batteries to barrage the Union lines and his infantry began evacuating the Yorktown entrenchments.

  In the darkest part of the night, the muzzles of the guns lit up with white flashes of light and iron projectiles went hurtling in whining arcs through the moonless sky, to thud concussively into the freshturned earthen brims marking the Union infantry lines, spraying showers of dirt and, occasionally, bits of some screaming soldier's arm or leg into the air. At dawn's light, the heads of Johnston's columns were marching northwest in a rain storm on the peninsula's two main roads to Williamsburg, twelve miles from Yorktown. By midday, as the divisions of the Union Army were massing to attack the Yorktown defensive line, black clouds of smoke began billowing into the sky from the fires Johnston's rear guard had set in the warehouses alongthe piers at the river, and McClellan knew he had won his first encounter with the enemy in the field; but it wouldn't count for much in Washington.   

Several days before George McClellan's engineering made Joe Johnston abandon the Confederate position at Yorktown, President Lincoln telegraphed his commanding general:

 

WASHINGTON, MAY 1, 2 P.M.

Maj-Gen. G. B. McClellan:

 

Your call for more Parrott guns from Washington alarms me, chiefly because it aims indefinite procrastination. Is anything to be done?

A. Lincoln President  

 

The next day, after the firing of the Parrott guns confirmed that their tubes were aligned on their targets, the Union's young general sat in his tent behind Wormsley Pond and, penning a letter to his wife, Mary Ellen,  revealed himself to be a very unstable man:

I need rest—my brain is taxed to the extreme—I feel that the fate of the nation depends upon me and I feel that I have not one single friend at the seat of Government; any day may bring an order relieving me from command. If such a thing should be done our cause is lost. If they will simply let me alone I feel sure of success—but, will they do it?

On May 4, moving his headquarters to Yorktown, McClellan send Stoneman's cavalry in pursuit of the enemy and ordered Franklin's division, which had reached him from McDowell's corps a few days before, to take the transport boats and move up the York River past Yorktown to the mouth of the Pampunkey River at West Point. On May 7, with Franklin reaching the landing at West Point, the leading division of Heintzelman's corps, now reduced to Hooker's and Kearney's divisions, engaged Johnston's rear guard in a fierce fight at Williamsburg, while the rest of the Confederate Army and its trains hurried to clear the crossroads at the top of the Peninsula where the West Point road comes down. When McClellan's Army was moved after the Confederates several days later, its marching soldiers heard the metallic sound of spades striking rocks in the forest around them fade away; except for a few empty cracker boxes, nothing was left to mark the spot where the remains of the slain had been tamped down in the earth like cord-wood in the deep ruts of a swampy road.

The Pursuit From Yorktown

 

Late in the evening while McClellan's men were settling into their camps near a crossroads at the top of the Yorktown peninsula, President Lincoln crossed the White House lawn, passed through a gate in a picket fence at the boundary of the White House grounds and entered the War Department Building. Inside, he waved at the sentries standing guard and climbed the stairs to the second floor where he entered a small room crammed with chattering telegraph equipment. Lincoln sat down at a cluttered desk in a corner and began slowly to inch a trembling index finger over the names on McClellan's first casualty list of the campaign: 1,700 men wounded; 500 men dead; however slowly he was moving, finally McClellan was starting to get it done.

 

 

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

@ AmericanCivilWar.com



 
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
 

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