In April 1862, George McClellan gained the reluctant assent of Lincoln to transport the Army of the Potomac by steamer to Fort Monroe at the tip of the Yorktown Peninsula, with the object of marching up the Peninsula to Richmond. McClellan’s plan was an excellent one: The movement turned Confederate general, Joseph Johnston, out of his position at Manassas, forcing him to abandon huge stockpiles of food supplies he had built up at Thoroughfare Gap, on the Manassas Gap Railroad, and march south to interpose his army between McClellan’s and Richmond.
McClellan’s progress up the Yorktown Peninsula was slow but sure. A short distance north of Fort Monroe, McClellan came upon the rebel defensives at the narrow waist of the Peninsula, between the James River and the York. Here, to Lincoln’s chagrin, McClellan approached the defenses by a standard siege operation, digging trenches, by zigzag and parallels, with battery emplacements. The process took a month to bring the Union troops within storming distance (a hundred yards) of the rebel defensive lines. Today these entrenchments can still be seen, although to find them you must enter the woods and walk a half mile or so. Just as the Union troops were on the verge of initiating their attack on the rebel line, Joe Johnston abandoned the position and withdrew his forces westward up the Peninsula, stopping at a second line of works at Williamsburg. Here, a small battle between brigades occurred and Johnston moved quickly on to the Chickahominy, primarily because McClellan had used transports to bring troops up the York River to turn the position.
Crossing the Chickahominy, Johnston put his troops behind entrenchments that stretched from the White Oak Swamp on the south of the line of the York River Railroad, which crossed the river at Bottom’s Bridge, to the vicinity of the Mechanicsville Pike to the north. (Area Video by Joe Ryan)
Here, on the Chickahominy, McClellan ran into a problem time demonstrated he was unable to solve. The rebel right wing was positioned three miles back from the Chickahominy, mainly because the slope of the river bank in that sector is relatively slight in grade, making the river line difficult to defend against Union efforts to force a crossing. This fact allowed McClellan to easily get across the river his left wing: Heintzelman’s, Keyes, and Sumner’s corps. North of the York River Railroad, which McClellan was using as his communications with his base of supply at “The White House,” however, the river bank on the Richmond side was high bluff with deep ravines cut into it. At only one point was there a road available, this located at New Bridge where it passed through a ravine onto the table top of the Richmond plateau and ran into Richmond through a point known as Old Tavern. Today this road is called Lee Avenue. Where it ends at the bluff a gravel road exists that takes you down the bluff to the Chickahominy bottomland, a golf course today.
The tactical challenge for McClellan was to get his right wing across the river, take possession of Old Tavern, connect the wing to his left, and, by artillery barrages with his long range Parrott guns, push entrenchments close enough to the Richmond defensives to storm the place. Lincoln, in ignorance, thought this was a waste of time, a showing on Mac’s part of tenatativeness. Lincoln wanted Mac “to strike a blow” immediately by wild frontal attacks, a point of view Lee was clearly at the time comfortable with.
To accomplish this, it was plain to McClellan that he needed more troops than Lincoln was willing to give him. Between the time McClellan had begun the movement by water to Fort Monroe and the time he arrived on the Chickahominy, Lincoln had been stripping him of troops he had counted on when the operation began. Among other things, Lincoln had held back an entire corps to occupy Fredericksburg, forty miles north of Richmond, as insurance against the rebels somehow managing to march a column of troops on Washington.
From a military point of view Lincoln’s fear of this happening was silly, but from his political view point even a remote possibility of it happening had to be guarded against. Then, Stonewall Jackson, with three divisions, appeared in the lower Shenandoah Valley, ran over Union garrisons at Strasburg and Front Royal, forced Nathaniel Banks to abandon Winchester, and chased him down to the Potomac. Lincoln reacted to this development in a very stupid way: He designed an operation to “bag” Jackson that had no reasonable chance of working. He ordered John Fremont, who then was in the Alleghany Mountains, supposedly marching toward Tennessee, to march to Strasburg and block Jackson’s line of retreat to Staunton. He ordered Irwin McDowell, commanding the corps stationed at Fredericksburg, to march west on the Manassas Gap Railroad to meet Fremont. The exercise accomplished nothing. Fremont and McDowell failed to cooperate in closing the line of retreat, which allowed Jackson to scrape through between them and get up the valley to Harrisonsburg. McDowell followed Jackson on a parallel track through the Luray Valley while Fremont followed him on the Valley pike. Jackson turned on Fremont at Cross Keys, inducing him to stop, and then attacked McDowell’s force as it came out of the Luray Valley at Port Republic. Then Jackson crossed over the Blue Ridge and headed for Richmond.
The Shenandoah Valley
While these events were unfolding, McClellan tried to push Johnston back from the Chickahominy, in order to give himself room, to make an attack diagonally against the rebel position in front of his right wing. Heintzelman’s corps, supported by Keyes, had established a line of entrenchments in the vicinity of Seven Pines, a point on the Williamsburg Road between White Oak Swamp and the York River Railroad. Johnston attacked Heintzelman’s line, broke through it, and rushed troops on toward the river but they were stopped by Keyes’s corps manning the second and third lines. In the course of the battle, Johnston was wounded and taken from the field. The next day, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the army.
As soon as General Lee took command, he called for Jackson to move to Richmond by the line of the Virginia Central Railroad, with the objective of coming down from the direction of Hanover Junction on McClellan’s right flank and rear. At the same time, Lee, with almost two-thirds of his force, would cross the Chickahominy north of McClellan’s right flank and join with Jackson in attempting to turn McClellan’s flank and move toward the York River Railroad thereby cutting McClellan off from his base of supply at the White House.
Aware from the circumstances of his position that the enemy would try to do this, McClellan repeatedly called upon Lincoln to release McDowell’s corps to him. Lincoln refused. McClellan then decided that he lacked the numbers necessary to conduct two operations at once: move on the offensive to get across the river and attack the rebel position at Old Tavern, thus opening the way to connect both wings of his army on the west bank of the river; and, at the same time, act on the defensive to hold the rebels from getting on his communications with his base of supply. From a strictly military point of view, Mac was correct in this.
The force Lincoln allowed him was simply not strong enough to do both operations at once. Mac might stand on the defensive on the west bank of the river while conducting offensive operations, to protect his communications on the east bank, or he might stand on the defensive on the east bank, holding his position at Beaver Dam Creek, but he could not advance against Richmond at the same time. Since this meant, to hold his position on the east bank he could not move forward his right wing across the river, he had no practical choice but to shift his army’s position from the Chickahominy to the James River. Had Lincoln given him McDowell’s corps, though, McDowell could have come down from Fredericksburg on Jackson’s left flank as he appeared at Hanover Junction, effectively breaking up Lee’s offensive against Mac’s rear. Indeed, in such circumstances, while McDowell was fighting Jackson, Mac could have gone on the offensive with Porter’s and Franklin’s corps against Lee’s advance toward Mechanicsville, driving Lee back on Old Tavern and fighting him for possession of the place.
Therefore, as Lee’s movement against his right flank materialized, McClellan had Fitz John Porter’s corps, which was positioned on the extreme right of his line, abandon its position at Beaver Dam Creek and take up a position behind Boatswain Creek, near Gaines Mill. Porter’s assignment was to hold the enemy long enough for Mac to move his army trains and his main body away from Richmond by passing through White Oak Swamp and moving south by Richmond to Harrison’s Landing on the James.
Fitz John Porter did a marvelous job holding off Lee’s forces, which outnumbered his two to one, and Lee gained his first experience in the realities of civil war fire power, specifically the relative advantage the defender had over the attacker. After eight hours of intense combat, throwing division after division at Porter’s position, Lee had accomplished nothing. Only because his attacks had finally depleted Porter of his last reserves was Lee able to finally gain a breakthrough in Porter’s center, which forced Porter to retreat toward the river and the bridges that would carry his troops across to the west side to join in McClellan’s movement toward the James. Even then, had Mac given Porter the reinforcements he had been asking for all day during the battle, it would have become very doubtful whether the rebel breakthrough would have happened. As it was, McClellan’s army was well on its way south by the time the breakthrough occurred and Lee’s pursuit, not beginning until the next day, was slow in developing. Contact was made with Mac’s rear guard at Frayser’s Farm but Lee could not bring to bear enough force to cut off the rear guard or reach Mac’s main body.McClellan took up a position at Malvern Hill, just to the north of Harrison’s Landing. Lee attacked this position with frontal charges by infantry which were shattered by Union artillery barrages. At each step of Lee’s operations against Mac, he had thrown masses of men at Mac’s defensive positions which resulted in over twenty thousand casualties. It left Mac with the impression that the rebels had an endless supply of reinforcements available, an impression that would affect Mac’s decision-making during the battle on the Antietam.
|Joe Ryan Original Works
|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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