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Chapter 15:

  • The Peninsular campaign
  • -- Landing at Fortress Monroe -- that place removed from his command -- Secretary Stanton stops all recruiting -- advance on Richmond -- columns under fire -- first corps withdrawn from the army.

In the course of description of the operations preliminary to the siege of Yorktown, attention is necessarily directed to the erroneous maps in our possession, and on which certain orders were based. This was but a single instance among many. In fact, it may be broadly stated that we had no military maps of any value. This was one of our greatest difficulties, and always seriously interfered with our movements in the early part of the war. When in presence of the enemy it was necessary to reconnoitre under fire, the accidents of the ground being entirely unknown to us.

It was a peculiar feature of our staff departments before the war that no measures were taken to collect topographical information about our own or any neighboring country. I do not know to what extent this has now been rectified, but there certainly should be some bureau charged with the collection and arrangement of topographical and statistical information in regard to our own and adjacent countries. It is true that the Confederates were no better off for correct maps than ourselves, but they possessed the inestimable advantage of operating on their own ground, which they knew perfectly well; they had plenty of good guides; and as they usually conducted a defensive campaign, they had plenty of time to construct maps and acquaint themselves thoroughly with the ground in the interests of active operations. Moreover, the white people, at least, were usually in their favor and acted as scouts, guides, and spies. Even when the negroes were favorable to us they seldom possessed the intelligence required to give any value to their information. They rarely knew more of the country than the plantations on which they had passed their lives, could give no accurate or intelligible description of roads or accidents of the ground, and their estimates of numbers were [254] almost always ridiculously inaccurate. If a negro were asked how many Confederates he had seen at a certain point his answer was very likely to be: “I dunno, massa, but I guess about a million.”

I went on board the steamer Commodore on the afternoon of the 1st of April, off Alexandria, and remained at anchor until an early hour next morning, being engaged all night in giving the necessary orders for the conduct of affairs in front of Washington, the movements of troops, supplies, etc.

I reached Fort Monroe on the afternoon of the 2d, still under the delusion that I should have an active army of 146,000 and the full control of my base of operations, and that I should receive efficient support from the navy.

According to the best information in our possession in regard to the Peninsula; our main road extended from Fortress Monroe, through Hampton and Big Bethel, to Yorktown; while another existed from Newport News, nearly parallel with the James river, and passing through Warwick Court-House to the Halfway House, where it met the main road from Yorktown to Williamsburg. Both of these roads between Yorktown and the point of the Peninsula were intersected by many streams, and we had information to the effect that many of these crossings — as, for example, Big Bethel, Young's Mill, Howard's bridge, Cockletown, etc.--were strongly entrenched and would be obstinately defended.

Our information seemed also to be clear that the Warwick river ran alongside of the Newport News road, which crossed only an insignificant branch, and that it presented no obstacle to a march on the Halfway House in rear of Yorktown.

After the Fort Monroe movement was decided upon my first intention was to inaugurate the operation by despatching the 1st corps in mass to the Sand-Box, three or four miles south of Yorktown, in order to turn all the entrenched crossings referred to, and receive a base of supplies as near as possible to Yorktown; or else, should the condition of affairs at the moment render it des irable, to land it on the Gloucester side of the York river at the mouth of the Severn, and throw it upon West Point. But transports arrived so slowly, and the pressure of the administration for a movement was so strong and unreasonable, that I felt obliged to embark the troops by divisions as fast as transports [255]

Map of the Penninsula.

[256] arrived, and then determined to hold the 1st corps to the last, and land it as a unit whenever the state of affairs promised the best results. A few hours after I had determined to act upon this determination McDowell telegraphed me from Washington, suggesting that the troops should be embarked by divisions: according to convenience, instead of awaiting the arrival of sufficient transports to move his whole corps. Soon after this I was more than once informed that Gen. McDowell and others in Washington had instanced this decision to embark the troops by divisions as a proof that I had disobeyed the President's order as to the formation of army corps, and that I intended to throw obstacles in the way of its fulfilment.

Considerable delay occurred in the arrival of the sailing transports for horses, in consequence of an order being given, without my knowledge, for the steamers to come to Alexandria without them.

The first division which had embarked was Hamilton's, formerly Heintzelman's, of the 3d corps, which sailed on the 17th of March; it was followed by Gen. F. J. Porter's division of the same corps on the 22d of March. Gen. Heintzelman accompanied Porter's division, and was instructed to get his corps in condition for an advance without delay. He was also ordered to encamp his two divisions some three or four miles out from Fort Monroe, in good defensive position, and to push out strong reconnoissances to ascertain the position and the strength of the enemy, without going so far out as to destroy the impression that our movements might be intended against Norfolk.

On the 27th he sent Porter towards Big Bethel and Howard's bridge, and Smith towards Young's Mill, on the James river road.

Porter occupied Big Bethel and pushed one brigade four miles further, sending skirmishers on to Howard's bridge, where they saw entrenchments occupied. Deserters reported Magruder at the place with 800 men. Smith went as far as Watt's Creek, where he found no entrenchments, and gained information that the enemy held Young's Mill in strong force. Both divisions returned to their camps after completing the reconnoissance. Heintzelman reported that, from the best information, Magruder had from 15,000 to 20,000 men, and gave not the slightest indication that he thought he could take or invest Yorktown. [257] On the 3d of April there were of my command in the vicinity of Fort Monroe the 3d Penn. Cavalry, the 2d, 5th, and a part of the 1st U. S. Cavalry, a part of the reserve artillery, two divisions each of the 3d and 4th corps ready to move, one division of the 2d corps, Sykes's brigade of U. S. Infantry. Casey's division of the 4th corps was at Newport News, but totally unprovided with transportation. Richardson's division of the 2d corps and Hooker's of the 3d had not yet arrived. The troops ready to advance numbered about 53,000 men and 100 guns-less than 45,000 effectives. The amount of wagon-transportation arrived was altogether insufficient for a long movement, and it became necessary to advance in order to establish new depots on the shore more to the front. It was evident that to await any considerable accession of force and transportation would involve a delay of many days; I therefore determined to advance on the 4th of April.

The following telegram of April 3 to Mr. Stanton requires no explanation:

I expect to move from here to-morrow morning on Yorktown, where a force of some 15,000 of the rebels are in an entrenched position, and I think it quite probable they will attempt to resist us. No appearance of the Merrimac as yet. Commodore Golds-borough is quite confident he can sink her when she comes out.

Before I left Washington an order had been issued by the War Department placing Fort Monroe and its dependencies under my control, and authorizing me to draw from the troops under Gen. Wool a division of about 10,000 men, which was to be assigned to the 1st corps.

During the night of the 3d I received a telegram from the adjutant-general of the army stating that, by the President's order, I was deprived of all control over Gen. Wool and the troops under his command, and forbidden to detach any of his troops without his sanction.

This order left me without any base of operations under my own control.

On my arrival at Fortress Monroe I was informed that the enemy had been very active for some days past in crossing troops over the James river on the line of communication between Yorktown and Norfolk. Reports were conflicting as to the direction [258] of this movement, but in any event it seemed proper under the circumstances to move on Yorktown as promptly as possible with the troops in hand, in order to invest the place before further reinforcements and supplies could reach it.

On the same day, on the very eve of the advance of the Army of the Potomac into the enemy's country, with the certainty of heavy losses by battle and disease, was issued the order putting a complete stop to the recruiting, service for the volunteers and breaking up all the recruiting stations:

General order no. 33.

adjutant-general's office, U. S. A., Washington, April 3, 1862.
III. The recruiting service for volunteers will be discontinued in every State from this date. The officers detached on the Volunteer Recruiting Service will join their regiments without delay, taking with them the parties and recruits at their respective stations.

The superintendents of the Volunteer Recruiting Service will disband their parties and close their offices, after having taken the necessary steps to carry out these orders. The public property belonging to the Volunteer Recruiting Service will be sold to the best advantage possible, and the proceeds credited to the fund for collecting, drilling, and organizing volunteers.

By order of the Secretary of War.

L. Thomas, Adj.-Gen. U. S. A.

Common sense and the experience of all wars prove that when an army takes the field every possible effort should be made at home to collect recruits and establish depots, whence the inevitable daily losses may be made good with instructed men as fast as they occur, so that the fighting force may be kept up to their normal strength. Failure to do this proves either a desire for the failure of the campaign or entire incompetence. Between the horns of this dilemma the friends of Mr. Stanton must take their choice.

During the preceding autumn I advocated a system of drafting, but was not listened to. Had it been adopted at that time, when recruiting was rapid and easy, it could have been established and well regulated without difficulty and without any shock to the country. The system as finally adopted was as bad as bad could be, and cannot be defended. It was unnecessary [259] to disturb all the relations of society and the business interests of the country, and the numbers called out were absurdly large.

The numbers of troops on foot in April, 1862, in the various parts of the country, were ample for the suppression of the rebellion, if they had been properly handled and their numbers made good by a constant stream of recruits poured into the old regiments, so as to keep them always at their full strength. Instead of this, spasmodic calls for large numbers of men were made, and the general rule was to organize them into new regiments, often allowing the invaluable old regiments to die out. This system was infinitely more expensive, but gave the opportunity to promote personal or political favorites. The new regiments required a long time to make them serviceable, while the same men placed in the old regiments, under experienced officers and surrounded by veterans, would in a few days become efficient soldiers. Another grave defect of this system was the destructive effects on the esprit de corps of the old officers and men — an invaluable adjunct in war.

Out of these wholesale drafts grew the system of substitutes and bounties, which cost so many unnecessary millions to the country, and so seriously affected the quality of the troops in the latter years of the war.

Never in the whole history of nations was anything more absurdly and recklessly managed than the whole system of recruiting, drafting, and organization under the regime of Secretary Stanton. When his actions are coolly criticised, apart from the influence of party feeling, his administration will be regarded as unparalleled in history for blunders and ignorant self-assertion. He unnecessarily prolonged the war at least two years, and at least tripled its cost in blood and treasure.

The movement was made by the two roads already mentioned: the two divisions of the 4th corps from Newport News via Warwick Court-House; the two divisions of the 3d, supported by Sedgwick's division of the 2d corps, Sykes's brigade, and the reserve artillery, by the road from Hampton and Big Bethel to Yorktown. The advance on Big Bethel would turn the works at Young's Mill and open the way for the 4th corps; while, in turn, the advance of the latter corps on Warwick Court-House would turn the works at Howard's bridge and Ship Point, [260] and open the road of the right column to the immediate vicinity of Yorktown.

Smith's division (4th corps) encamped on the 4th of April at Young's Mill, with one brigade in advance on the road from Big Bethel to Warwick; Couch's division on Fisher's creek.

Porter, on the same day, occupied Cockletown with Morell's division and a battery, his pickets a mile in advance near Pavis's house; the other brigades of the division less than two miles in rear of Morell. Averill's cavalry found the Ship Point batteries abandoned. They were strong and well constructed, with deep wet ditches; they had platforms and magazine for siege-guns, all the guns withdrawn; there were excellent quarters for three regiments of ten companies each. Hamilton's division encamped about two miles in rear of Howard's creek. The reserve cavalry, artillery, and infantry bivouacked with headquarters at Big Bethel. Gen. Heintzelman learned during the evening that there were no batteries between Porter and Yorktown; that Yorktown was strongly fortified; that its garrison until recently consisted of 10,000 men, but was then increased to 20,000 or 25,000; that there were more troops at Williamsburg, and batteries about two miles south of it, and that reinforcements were said to have come from Richmond. Gen. Heintzelman concluded that the enemy had no idea of abandoning Yorktown. During the same afternoon Gen. Keyes, commanding the left column, received information that from 5,000 to 8,000 of the enemy were strongly entrenched at Lee's Mill. Still ignorant of the true course of the Warwick and of its relations to the entrenchments at Lee's Mill, and alive to the necessity of preventing further reinforcements to the garrison at Yorktown, I, on the evening of the 4th, ordered the movements for the 5th as follows:

Smith's division to move at six A. M. via Warwick Court-House to the Halfway House on the Yorktown and Williamsburg road; Couch's division to move at the same hour and close up on Smith at the Halfway House; any positions of the enemy met with on the may to be carried by assault without delay; on reaching the Halfway House the corps to occupy the narrow dividing ridge at that point, so as to prevent the escape or reinforcement of the garrison of Yorktown.

Porter's division to close up on its advanced guard at six A. M., and more forward to an intersection of roads about two [261] and three-quarter miles from Yorktown, there to halt and send out reconnoitring parties, to cover the reconnoissances of the engineer officers, etc.

Hamilton's division to move at the same hour and close up on Porter. Sedgwick, temporarily attached to headquarters, to move with the reserves to Dr. Pavis's house, where the road to Lee's Mill diverged, and there await orders.

If Heintzelman found it possible to assault the works at Yorktown immediately, the reserves were in position to support him; if he found an assault impracticable, and Keyes needed assistance in carrying out his orders, the reserves were in position to move at once to his support. If Keyes had succeeded in passing Lee's Mill and reaching the Halfway House, I should at once have gone to his support with all the reserves and one of Heintzelman's divisions, thus holding the key-point of the operation with four divisions of infantry, the brigade of regulars, the cavalry and artillery reserves.

In consequence of the heavy rains the roads were very bad and the troops moved with difficulty, so that little of Keyes's artillery and none of the ammunition, forage, and provision trains could be brought. up. Heintzelman early in the day came under the artillery-fire of the works of Yorktown, and soon saw that an assault was impracticable. Keyes also found himself brought to a halt by the artillery-fire of the Lee's Mill works, and discovered that they were covered by the Warwick river, rendering any attempt at assault utterly out of the question.

It was at this moment, with the leading division of each column under a hot artillery-fire, and the skirmishers of the 3d corps engaged, being myself with Porter's division, that I received the telegram informing me of the withdrawal of the 1st corps (McDowell's) from my command:

adjutant-general's office, April 4, 1862.
Gen. McClellan:
By directions of the President Gen. McDowell's army corps has been detached from the force under your immediate command, and the general is ordered to report to the Secretary of War; letter by mail.

L. Thomas, Adj.-Gen.

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