The topography of Virginia is favorable to an army menacing Washington, and unfavorable to one menacing Richmond.
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
Wishing to know the extent of McClellan’s earthworks on the right wing, Lee, on June 12th, sent a body of twelve hundred cavalry with two light guns, to reconnoiter. This was commanded by the dashing General J. E. B. Stuart, commonly called “Jeb Stuart,” who used to dress in gay costume, with yellow sash and black plume, wore gold spurs, and rode a white horse. He was ordered to go only as far as Hanover Old Church; but at that point he had a ﬁght with a small body of cavalry, and as he supposed dispositions would be made to cut him off, instead of re turning, he kept on and made the entire circuit of McClellan’s army, rebuilding a bridge to cross the lower Chickahominy, and reached Richmond in safety. The actual amount of damage that he had done was small; but the raid alarmed the National commander for the safety of his communications, and was perhaps what determined him to change his base.
Stonewall Jackson, if not Lee’s ablest lieutenant, was considered his swiftest, and the one that threw the most uncertainty into the game by his rapid movements and unexpected appearances. At a later stage of the war his erratic strategy, if persisted in, would probably have brought his famous corps of “foot cavalry ” (as they were called from their quick marches) to sudden destruction. An opponent like Sheridan, who knew how to be swift, brilliant, and audacious, without transgressing the fundamental rules of warfare, would have been likely to ﬁnish him at a blow. But Jackson did not live to meet such an opponent. At this time the bugbears that haunt imaginations not inured to war were still in force, and the massive thimble-rigging by which he was made to appear before Richmond, and presto! sweeping down the Shenandoah Valley, served to paralyze large forces that might have been added to McClellan’s army.
The topography of Virginia is favorable to an army menacing Washington, and unfavorable to one menacing Richmond. The fertile valley of the Shenandoah was inviting ground for soldiers. A Confederate force advancing down the valley came at every step nearer to the National capital, while a National force advancing up the valley was carried at every step farther away from the Confederate capital. The Confederates made much of this advantage, and the authorities at Washington were in constant fear of the capture of that city.
Soon after Stuart’s raid, Lee began to make his dispositions to attack McClellan and drive him from the peninsula. He wrote to Jackson: “Unless McClellan can be driven out of his intrenchments, he will move by positions, under cover of his heavy guns, within shelling distance of Richmond.” To convey the impression that Jackson was to move in force down the valley, Lee drew two brigades from his own army, placed them on the cars in Richmond in plain sight of some prisoners that were about to be exchanged, and sent them off to Jackson. Of course the released prisoners carried home the news. But Jackson returned with these reinforcements and Ewell’s division of his corps, joined Lee, and on June 25th concerted a plan for immediate attack. Secretary Stanton appears to have been the only one that saw through the game; for he telegraphed to McClellan that while neither Banks nor McDowell nor Frémont could ascertain anything about Jackson’s movements, his own belief was that he was going to Richmond. Yet the impression was not strong enough in the mind of the Secretary of War (or else the Secretary could not have his own way) to induce the appropriate counter move of immediately sending McDowell’s whole corps to McClellan. General George A. McCall’s division of that corps, however, had been forwarded, and on the 18th took a strong position on McClellan’s extreme right, near Mechanicsville.
On the 25th McClellan had pushed back the Confederates on his left, taken a new position there, and advanced his outposts to a point only four miles from Richmond. But he began his movements too late, for the Confederates were already in motion. Leaving about thirty thousand men in the immediate defenses of Richmond, Lee crossed the Chickahominy with about thirty-five thousand under Generals Ambrose P. Hill, Daniel H. Hill, and James Longstreet, intending to join Jackson’s twenty-five thou sand, and with this enormous force make a sudden attack on the twenty thousand National troops that were on the north side of the river, commanded by General Fitz-John Porter, destroy them before help could reach them, and seize McClellan’s communications with his base.
Jackson, who was to have appeared on the field at sunrise of the 26th, was for once behind time. The other Confederate commanders became nervous and impatient; for if the movement were known to McClellan, he could, with a little boldness and some fighting, have captured Richmond that day. Indeed, the inhabitants of the city expected nothing else, and it is said that the archives of the Confederate Government were all packed and ready for instant removal. At midday General A. P. Hill’s corps drove the small National force out of Mechanicsville, and advanced to McCall’s strong position on Beaver Dam Creek. This they dared not attack in front; but they made desperate attempts on both flanks, and the result was an afternoon of fruitless fighting, in which they were literally mowed down by the well-served artillery and lost more than three thousand men, while McCall maintained his position at every point and lost fewer than three hundred.
That night, in pursuance of the plan for a change of base, the heavy guns that had thwarted Lee in his first attack were carried across the Chickahominy, together with a large part of the bag gage-train. On the morning of the 27th Porter fell back somewhat to a position on a range of low hills, where he could keep the enemy in check till the stores were removed to the other side of the river, which was now his only object. McClellan sent him five thousand more men in the course of the day, being afraid to send any greater number, because he believed that the bulk of the Confederate army was in the defenses on his left, and a show of activity there still further deceived him.
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