One division of the army embarked on March 17th, and the others followed in quick succession.
Continuing McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign,
our selection from History of the War of Secession by Rossiter Johnson published in 1895. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Place: Eastern Virginia
The order for the transportation of McClellan’s army was issued on February 27th, and four hundred vessels were required; for there were actually transported one hundred twenty-one thou sand men, fourteen thousand animals, forty-four batteries, and all the necessary ambulances and baggage-wagons, pontoons, and telegraph material. Just before the embarkation, the army was divided into four corps, the commands of which were given to Generals Irvin McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes. High authorities say this was one of the causes of the failure of the campaign; for the army should have been divided into corps long before, when McClellan could have chosen his own lieutenants instead of having them chosen by the President. General Joseph Hooker said it was impossible for him to succeed with such corps commanders. But his near approach to success discredits this criticism.
Another element of the highest importance had also entered into the problem with which the nation was struggling. This was the appointment (January 21, 1862) of Edwin M. Stanton to succeed Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. Mr. Stanton, then forty-seven years of age, was a lawyer by profession, a man of great intellect, unfailing nerve, and tremendous energy. He had certain traits that often made him personally disagreeable to his subordinates; but it was impossible to doubt his thorough loyalty, and his determination to ﬁnd or make a way to bring the war to a successful close as speedily as possible, without the slightest regard to the individual interests of himself or anybody else. He was probably the ablest war minister that ever lived — with the possible exception of Carnot, the man to whom Napoleon said, “I have known you too late.” It is indicative of Mr. Lincoln’s sagacity and freedom from prejudice, that his ﬁrst meeting with Mr. Stanton was when he went to Cincinnati, some years before the war, to assist in trying an important case. He found Mr. Stanton in charge as senior counsel, and Stanton was so unendurably disagreeable to him that he threw up the engagement and went home to Springﬁeld. Yet he afterward gave that man the most important place in his Cabinet, and found him its strongest member.
One division of the army embarked on March 17th, and the others followed in quick succession. General McClellan reached Fort Monroe on April 2d, by which time ﬁfty-eight thousand men and one hundred guns had arrived, and immediately moved with this force on Yorktown, the place made famous by the surrender of Cornwallis eighty years before. The Confederates had fortiﬁed this point, and thrown a line of earthworks across the narrow peninsula to the deep water of Warwick River. These works were held by General John B. Magruder with thirteen thousand effective men. General Johnston, who was in command of all the troops around Richmond, says he had no expectation of doing more than delaying McClellan at Yorktown till he could strengthen the defenses of the capital and collect more men; and that he thought his adversary would use his transports to pass his army around that place by water, after destroying the batteries, and land at some point above.
McClellan, supposing that Johnston’s entire army was in the defenses of Yorktown, sat down before the place and constructed siege-works, approaching by regular parallels. As the remaining divisions of his army arrived at Fort Monroe, they were added to his besieging force; but McDowell’s entire corps and General Louis Blenker’s division had been detached at the last moment and retained at Washington, from fears on the part of the Administration that the capital was not sufficiently guarded, though McClellan had already left seventy thousand men there or within call. The fears were increased by the threatening movements of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, where, however, he was defeated by General James Shields near Winchester, March 23d.
General Johnston had to contend with precisely the same difficulty that McClellan complained of. He wished to bring together before Richmond all the troops that were then at Norfolk and in the Carolinas and Georgia, and with the large army thus formed suddenly attack McClellan after he should have marched seventy-five miles up the peninsula from his base at Fort Monroe. But in a council of war General Robert E. Lee and the Secretary of War opposed this plan, and Mr. Davis adopted their views and rejected it. Johnston therefore under took the campaign with the army that he had, which he says consisted of fifty thousand effective men.
McClellan spent nearly a month before Yorktown, and when he was ready to open fire with his siege-guns and drive out the enemy, May 3d, he found they had quietly departed, leaving “Quaker guns” (wooden logs on wheels) in the embrasures. There was no delay in pursuit, and the National advance came up with the Confederate rear-guard near Williamsburg, about twelve miles from Yorktown. Here, May 4th, brisk skirmishing began, which gradually became heavier, till reinforcements were hurried up on the one side and sent back on the other, and the skirmish was developed into a battle. The place had been well fortified months before. The action on the morning of the 5th was opened by the divisions of Generals Hooker and William F. Smith. They attacked the strongest of the earthworks, pushed forward the batteries, and silenced it. Hooker was then heavily attacked by infantry, with a constant menace on his left wing. He sustained his position alone nearly all day, though losing one thousand seven hundred men and five guns, and was at length relieved by the arrival of General Philip Kearny’s division.
The delay was due mainly to the deep mud caused by a heavy rain the night before. Later in the day, General Winfield S. Hancock’s brigade made a wide circuit on the right, discovered some unoccupied redoubts, and took possession of them. When the Confederates advanced their left to the attack, they ran upon these redoubts, which their commanding officers knew nothing about, and were repelled with heavy loss. Hancock’s one thou sand six hundred men suddenly burst over the crest of the works, and bore down upon the enemy with fixed bayonets, routing and scattering them. McClellan brought up reinforcements, and in the night the Confederates in front of him moved off to join their main army, leaving in Williamsburg four hundred of their wounded, because they had no means of carrying them away, but taking with them about that number of prisoners. The National loss had been about two thousand two hundred, the Confederate about one thousand eight hundred.
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