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Chapter 16:

  • Effects of reduction of the army
  • -- overthrow of the campaign -- New campaign with reduced army -- siege of Yorktown.

Soon after receiving the telegram I sent the following to the Secretary of War, dated April 5:
The enemy are in large force along our front, and apparently intend making a determined resistance. A reconnoissance just made by Gen. Barnard shows that their line of works extends across the entire Peninsula from Yorktown to Warwick river. Many of them are formidable. Deserters say that they are being reinforced daily from Richmond and from Norfolk. Under the circumstances I beg that you will reconsider the order detaching the 1st corps from my command.

In my deliberate judgment the success of our cause will be imperilled by so greatly reducing my force when it is actually under the fire of the enemy and active operations have commenced. Two of my divisions have been under fire of artillery during most of the day. I am now of the opinion that I shall have to fight all the available force of the rebels not far from here. Do not force me to do so with diminished ranks; but whatever your decision may be, I will leave nothing undone to obtain success.

If you cannot leave me the whole of the 1st corps, I urgently ask, as a military necessity, that I may not lose Franklin and his division.

On the same day, at ten P. M., I sent the following to Secretary Stanton:

Since Gen. Woodbury's brigade of volunteer engineer troops was only temporarily attached to the 1st corps for special service, and is much needed here, I have directed Gen. Woodbury to bring it here at once. Their services are indispensable.

The following letter was written during the evening of April 5:

headquarters, Army of Potomac, camp near Yorktown, April 5, 1862.
Brig.-Gen. L. Thomas, Adj.-Gen. U. S. A.:
general: I have now a distinct knowledge of the general position of the enemy in my front. His left is in Yorktown; his [263] line thence extends along and in rear of the Warwick river to its mouth. That stream is an obstacle of great magnitude. It is fordable at only one point (so far as I yet know) below its head, which is near Yorktown; is for several miles unfordable, and has generally a very marshy valley. His batteries and entrenchments render this line an exceedingly formidable one, entirely too much so (so far as I now understand it) to be carried by a simple assault. I shall employ to-morrow in reconnoissances, repairing roads, establishing a depot at Ship's Point, and in bringing up supplies.

Porter, the head of the right column, has moved as close upon the town as the enemy's guns will permit; he is encamped there, supported by Hamilton's division. Porter has been under fire all the afternoon. But five men killed. His rifled field-guns and sharpshooters have caused some loss to the enemy. Keyes, with two divisions, is in front of Lee's Mill, where the road from Newport News to Williamsburg crosses Warwick river. He has been engaged in an artillery combat of several hours' duration, losing some five killed. At Lee's Mill we have a causeway covered by formidable batteries. The information obtained at Fort Monroe in regard to the topography of the country and the position and strength of the enemy has been unreliable. He is in strong force and very strong position. If the reconnoissances of to-morrow verify the observations of to-day, we shall be obliged to use much heavy artillery before we can force their lines and isolate the garrison of Yorktown. I omitted to state that I hold the reserves in a central position until I can learn more of the condition of affairs. The present aspect of affairs renders it exceedingly unfortunate that the 1st corps has been detached from my command. It is no longer in my power to make a movement from the Severn river upon Gloucester and West Point. I am reduced to a front attack upon a very strong line. I still hope that the order detaching the 1st corps may be reconsidered. I do not feel that without it I have force sufficient to accomplish the objects I have proposed in this campaign with that certainty, rapidity, and completeness which I had hoped to obtain. The departments will, I trust, realize that more caution will be needed on my part after having been so unexpectedly deprived of so very large a portion of my force when actually having my troops under fire. I have frankly stated what I now consider to be the strength of the enemy's position; the reconnoissances of to-morrow may modify my opinion. Whatever the facts may be, I shall make the best use I can of the force at my disposal, determined to gain my point as completely and as rapidly as may be.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Geo. B. Mcclellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.
[264] P. S. All my movements up to this evening were predicated upon the expectation that no more troops would be detached from my command. I have involved my troops in actual conflict upon that supposition, and calculating upon the prompt arrival of the 1st corps as a part of the programme. It has just occurred to me to say that the maps of the Peninsula I sent to the President and secretary are perfectly unreliable; the roads are wrong, and the Warwick river crosses the Newport News and Williamsburg road some three miles above Warwick Court-House, which latter place is about one mile from the road.

This, then, was the situation in which I found myself on the evening of April 5: Flag-Officer Goldsborough had informed me that it was not in his power to control the navigation of the James river so as to enable me to use it as a line of supply, or to cross it, or even to cover my left flank; nor could he, as he thought, furnish any vessels to attack the batteries of Yorktown and Gloucester, or to run by them in the dark and thus cut off the supplies of the enemy by water and control their land-communication. I was thus deprived of the co-operation of the navy and left to my own resources.

I had been deprived of five infantry divisions, and out of the four left to me there were present at the front five divisions of volunteer regiments, the weak brigade of regulars, Hunt's artillery reserve, and a small cavalry force.

Owing to the lack of wagons Casey did not reach Young's Mill until the 16th. Richardson's division reached the front on the same day. Hooker's division commenced arriving at Ship's Point on the 10th. The roads were so bad and wagons so fern that it was with the utmost difficulty supplies could be brought up, and the field-artillery moved with great difficulty. Even the headquarters wagons could not get up, and I slept in a deserted hut with my saddle-blanket for a bed.

My telegram of April 7 to the President shows that only 53,000 men had joined me, so that I had not more than 44,000 effectives, and found myself in front of a position which apparently could not be carried by assault. The force was too small to attempt any movement to turn Gloucester without the assistance of the navy, and I was obliged to abandon the plan of rapid turning movements which I had intended to carry out. [265]

All that could be done was to halt where we were, and by close reconnoissances ascertain whether there were any weak points which we could assault, or, failing in that, determine what could be effected with the aid of siege-artillery to cover the attack.

Next day, April 6, I sent the following telegram to his excellency the President:

The order forming new departments, if rigidly enforced, deprives me of the power of ordering up wagons and troops absolutely necessary to enable me to advance to Richmond. I have by no means the transportation I must have to move my army even a few miles. I respectfully request I may not be placed in this position, but that my orders for wagons, trains, and ammunition, and other material that I have prepared and necessarily left behind me, as well as Woodbury's brigade, may at once be complied with. The enemy is strong in my front, and I have a most serious task before me, in the fulfilment of which I need all the aid the government can give me. I again repeat the urgent request that Gen. Franklin and his division may be restored to my command.

I received the following reply from Secretary Stanton:

The President directs me to say that your despatch to him has been received. Gen. Sumner's corps is on the road to you and will go forward as fast as possible. Franklin's division is now on the advance towards Manassas. There is no means of transportation here to send it forward in time to be of service in your present optrations. Telegraph frequently, and all in the power of the government shall be done to sustain you as occasion may require.

And this from the President:

Yours of eleven A. M. to-day received. Secretary of War informs me that the forwarding of transportation, ammunition, and Woodbury's brigade under your order has not and will not be interfered with. You now have over one hundred thousand troops with you, independent of Gen. Wool's command. I think you had better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick river at once. This will probably use time as advantageously as you can.

[266] To this I replied, April 7, to the President:
Your telegram of yesterday received. In reply I have the honor to state that my entire force for duty only amounts to about eighty-five thousand (85,000) men. Gen. Wool's command, as you will observe from the accompanying order, has been taken out of my control, although he has most cheerfully co-operated with me. The only use that can be made of his command is to protect my communications in rear of this point. At this time only fifty-three thousand (53,000) men have joined me, but they are coming up as rapidly as my means of transportation will permit. Please refer to my despatch to the Secretary of War of to-night for the details of our present situation.

I find on the back of my retained copy of this despatch the following memorandum made at the time by myself:

Return of March 31, 1862, shows men present for duty171,602
Deduct 1st corps, infantry and artillery,32,119 
Deduct Blenker,8,616 
Deduct Banks,21,739 
Deduct Wadsworth,19,318 
Deduct Cavalry of 1st corps, etc.,1,600 
Deduct Cavalry of Blenker,800 
Van Alen and Wyndham,1,600 
Officers, about 3,900.
Total absent from whole command, 23,796.

As this memorandum was a calculation to ascertain only the number of troops left under my command, it did not take into consideration all the troops left behind which did not compose parts of the total of 171,602 for duty. My letters of April 1, show that many more were left in addition to those mentioned in this memorandum.

The telegram referred to in my despatch to the President was the following, of April 7, to Secretary Stanton:

Your telegram of yesterday arrived here while I was absent examining the enemy's right, which I did pretty closely. . . . The whole line of the Warwick, which really heads within a mile of Yorktown, is strongly defended by detached redoubts and other fortifications, armed with heavy and light guns. The approaches, except at Yorktown, are covered by the Warwick, over which there is but one, or at most two, passages, both of [267] which are covered by strong batteries. It will be necessary to resort to the use of heavy guns and some siege operations before we assault. All the prisoners state that Gen. J. E. Johnston arrived at Yorktown yesterday with strong reinforcements. It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands — probably not less than (100,000) one hundred thousand men, and possibly more. In consequence of the loss of Blenker's division and the 1st corps my force is possibly less than that of the enemy, while they have all the advantage of position.

I am under great obligations to you for the offer that the whole force and material of the government will be as fully and as speedily under my command as heretofore, or as if the new departments had not been created.

Since my arrangements were made for this campaign at least (50,000) fifty thousand men have been taken from my command. Since my despatch of the 5th instant five divisions have been in close observation of the enemy, and frequently exchanging shots. When my present command all joins I shall have about (85,000) eighty-five thousand men for duty, from which a large force must be taken for guards, scouts, etc. With this Army I could assault the enemy's works, and perhaps carry them. But were I in possession of their entrenchments, and assailed by double my numbers, I should have no fears as to the result.

Under the circumstances that have been developed since we arrived here, I feel fully impressed with the conviction that here is to be fought the great battle that is to decide the existing contest. I shall, of course, commence the attack as soon as I can get up my siege-train, and shall do all in my power to carry the enemy's works; but to do this with a reasonable degree of certainty requires, in my judgment, that I should, if possible, have at least the whole of the 1st corps to land upon the Severn river and attack Gloucester in the rear.

My present strength will not admit of a detachment sufficient for this purpose without materially impairing the efficiency of this column. Flag-Officer Goldsborough thinks the works too strong for his available vessels unless I can turn Gloucester. I send by mail copies of his letter and one of the commander of the gunboats here.

Gen. Keyes, commanding 4th army corps, after the examination of the enemy's defences on the left, addressed the following letter to the Hon. Ira Harris, U. S. Senate, and gave me a copy. It describes the situation at that time in some respects so well that I introduce it here:

headquarters, 4TH corps, Warwick Court-House, Va., April 7, 1862.
My dear Senator: The plan of campaign on this line was [268] made with the distinct understanding that four army corps should be employed, and that the navy should co-operate in the taking of Yorktown, and also (as I understood it) support us on our left by moving gunboats up James river.

To-day I have learned that the 1st corps, which by the President's order was to embrace four divisions, and one division (Blenker's) of the 2d corps, have been withdrawn altogether from this line of operations and from the Army of the Potomac. At the same time, as I am informed, the navy has not the means to attack Yorktown, and is afraid to send gunboats up James river for fear of the Merrimac.

The above plan of campaign was adopted unanimously by Maj.-Gen. McDowell and Brig.-Gens. Sumner, Heintzelman, and Keyes, and was concurred in by Maj.-Gen. McClellan, who first proposed Urbana as our base.

This army being reduced by forty-five thousand troops, some of them among the best in the service, and without the support of the navy, the plan to which we are reduced bears scarcely any resemblance to the one I voted for.

I command the James river column, and I left my camp near Newport News the morning of the 4th instant. I only succeeded in getting my artillery ashore the afternoon of the day before, and one of my divisions had not all arrived in camp the day I left, and for the want of transportation has not yet joined me. So you will observe that not a day was lost in the advance, and in fact we marched so quickly and so rapidly that many of our animals were twenty-four and forty-eight hours without a ration of forage. But, notwithstanding the rapidity of our advance, we were stopped by a line of defence nine or ten miles long, strongly fortified by breastworks, erected nearly the whole distance behind a stream or succession of ponds, nowhere fordable, one terminus being Yorktown and the other ending in the James river, which is commanded by the enemy's gunboats. Yorktown is fortified all around with bastioned works, and on the water-side it and Gloucester are so strong that the navy are afraid to attack either.

The approaches on one side are generally through low, swampy, or thickly wooded ground, over roads which we are obliged to repair or to make before we can get forward our carriages. The enemy is in great force, and is constantly receiving reinforcements from the two rivers. The line in front of us is therefore one of the strongest ever opposed to an invading force in any country.

You will, then, ask why I advocated such a line for our operations? My reasons are few but, I think, good.

With proper assistance from the navy we could take Yorktown, and then with gunboats on both rivers we could beat any force opposed to us on Warwick river, because the shot and shell [269] from the gunboats would nearly overlap across the Peninsula; so that if the enemy should retreat — and retreat he must — he would have a long way to go without rail or steam transportation, and every soul of his army must fall into our hands or be destroyed.

Another reason for my supporting the new base and plan was that this line, it was expected, would furnish water-transportation nearly to Richmond.

Now, supposing we succeed in breaking through the line in front of us, what can we do next? The roads are very bad, and if the enemy retains command of James river, and we do not first reduce Yorktown, it would be impossible for us to subsist this army three marches beyond where it is now. As the roads are at present, it is with the utmost difficulty that we can subsist it in the position it now occupies.

You will see, therefore, by what I have said, that the force originally intended for the capture of Richmond should be all sent forward. If I thought the four army corps necessary when I supposed the navy would co-operate, and when I judged of the obstacles to be encountered by what I learned from maps and the opinions of officers long stationed at Fort Monroe, and from all other sources, how much more should I think the full complement of troops requisite now that the navy cannot co-operate, and now that the strength of the enemy's lines and the number of his guns and men prove to be almost immeasurably greater than I had been led to expect! The line in front of us, in the opinion of all the military men here who are at all competent to judge, is one of the strongest in the world, and the force of the enemy capable of being increased beyond the numbers we now have to oppose to him. Independently of the strength of the lines in front of us, and of the force of the enemy behind them, we cannot advance until we get command of either York river or James river. The efficient co-operation of the navy is, therefore, absolutely essential, and so I considered it when I voted to change our base from the Potomac to Fort Monroe.

An iron-clad boat must attack Yorktown; and if several strong gunboats could be sent up James river also, our success will be certain and complete, and the rebellion will soon be put down.

On the other hand, we must butt against the enemy's works with heavy artillery and a great waste of time, life, and material.

If we break through and advance, both our flanks will be assailed from two great water-courses in the hands of the enemy; our supplies would give out, and the enemy, equal, if not superior, in numbers, would, with the other advantages, beat and destroy this army.

The greatest master of the art of war has said that “if you would invade a country successfully, you must have one line of operations and one army, under one general.” But what is our [270] condition? The State of Virginia is made to constitute the command, in part or wholly, of some six generals, viz.: Fremont, Banks, McDowell, Wool, Burnside, and McClellan, besides the scrap, over the Chesapeake, in the care of Dix.

The great battle of the war is to come off here. If we win it the rebellion will be crushed. If we lose it the consequences will be more horrible than I care to foretell. The plan of campaign I voted for, if carried out with the means proposed, will certainly succeed. If any part of the means proposed are withheld or diverted, I deem it due to myself to say that our success will be uncertain.

It is no doubt agreeable to the commander of the 1st corps to have a separate department, and, as this letter advocates his return to Gen. McClellan's command, it is proper to state that I am not at all influenced by personal regard or dislike to any of my seniors in rank. If I were to credit all the opinions which have been poured into my ears, I must believe that, in regard to my present fine command, I owe much to Gen. McDowell and nothing to Gen. McClellan. But I have disregarded all such officiousness, and I have from last July to the present day supported Gen. McClellan and obeyed all his orders with as hearty a goodwill as though he had been my brother or the friend to whom I owed most. I shall continue to do so to the last and so long as he is my commander, and I am not desirous to displace him, and would not if I could. He left Washington with the understanding that he was to execute a definite plan of campaign with certain prescribed means. The plan was good and the means sufficient, and, without modification, the enterprise was certain of success. But, with the reduction of force and means, the plan is entirely changed, and is now a bad plan, with means insufficient for certain success.

Do not look upon this communication as the offspring of despondency. I never despond; and when you see me working the hardest you may be sure that fortune is frowning upon me. I am working now to my utmost.

Please show this letter to the President, and I should like also that Mr. Stanton should know its contents. Do me the honor to write to me as soon as you can, and believe me, with perfect respect,

Your most obedient servant,

E. D. Keyes, Brig.-Gen. Commanding 4th Army Corps. Hon. Ira Harris, U. S. Senate.

The reconnoissances of the 6th and 7th and following days, pushed with great vigor and with some loss, confirmed the impressions gained on the 5th. I verified all these reconnoissances [271]

General McClellan reconnoitring at Yorktown.

[272] in person, going everywhere beyond our lines of pickets, and resuming my old trade of reconnoitring officer, so anxious was I to find a practicable point of attack. In fact, during the whole siege I exposed myself more in this way than was proper for a general commanding an army; but I had had far more personal experience in sieges than any of those under my command, and trusted more to my own knowledge and experience than I then could to theirs.

It was found that the Warwick valley headed within two thousand yards of the enciente of Yorktown, and within half that distance of the White Redoubt, or Fort Magruder, a strong work, essentially a part of the main works at Yorktown, which were so strong-having ditches from eight to ten feet deep, and more than fifteen feet wide at the top — and so heavily armed with siege and garrison guns, as to render an assault hopeless. The interval between Yorktown and the Warwick was occupied by strong works, and all the open ground in front, as well as the direct approaches to the town itself, so thoroughly swept by the direct fire of more than fifty guns of the heaviest calibres then known as to render it an act of madness to assault without first silencing the fire of the enemy's artillery. From its head to Lee's Mill the Warwick was flooded by means of artificial inundations, which rendered it unfordable. The dams constructed for this purpose were all covered by strong works so situated as to be unassailable until their artillery-fire was reduced. Below Lee's Mill the river was a tidal stream, not fordable at any stage of the tide. That portion, moreover, was controlled by the fire of the Confederate gunboats in the James river. The valley of the Warwick was generally low and swampy, the approaches to the dams were through dense forests and deep swamps, and every precaution had been taken by the enemy, in the may of felling timber and constructing works, to make a crossing as difficult as possible.

In his report of the 6th of May, immediately after the occupation of Yorktown, Gen. Barnard, chief-engineer of the Army of the Potomac, says:

They (referring to the groups of works covering the Warwick) are far more extensive than may be supposed from the mention of them I make, and every kind of obstruction which the country affords, such as abattis, marsh, inundation, etc., was skilfully used. The line is certainly one of the most extensive [273]

Map of siege of Yorktown.

[274] known to modern times. The country on both sides the Warwick from near Yorktown down is a dense forest with few clearings. It was swampy, and the roads impassable during the heavy rains we have constantly had, except where our own labors had corduroyed them. If we could have broken the enemy's line across the isthmus we could have invested Yorktown, and it must, with its garrison, have soon fallen into our hands. It was not deemed practicable? considering the strength of that line and the difficulty of handling our forces (owing to the impracticable character of the country), to do so. If we could take Yorktown or drive the enemy out of that place, the enemy's line was no longer tenable. This we could do by siege operations. It was deemed too hazardous to attempt the reduction of the place by assault. The operations of the siege required extensive preparations.

I regret that there is not time and means to prepare a complete plan of this enormous system of defences. They should form part of the record of the operations of the Army of the Potomac. The forcing of such a line with so little loss is in itself an exploit, less brilliant, perhaps, but more worthy of study, than would have been a murderous assault, even had it proved successful.

I need only add to this that Gen. Barnard never expressed to me any opinion that an assault was practicable upon any part of the enemy's defences. From his first reconnoissances he was decidedly of the opinion that the use of heavy guns was necessary. More than this, I never, at the time, heard of any contrary opinion from any one, and, so far as I know, there was entire unanimity on the part of the general officers and chiefs of staff departments that the course pursued was the only one practicable under the circumstances.

From Lee's Mill a line of works extended to the enemy's rear to Skiff's creek, se that if we had forced the passage of the Warwick below that point we would have found a new line of defence in front of us, completely covering the enemy's communications.

During the progress of these reconnoissances every effort was made to bring up supplies and ammunition. A violent storm beginning on the 6th, and continuing without cessation for three or four days, almost entirely interrupted the water-communication between Fortress Monroe and Ship Point, and made the already bad roads terrible beyond description. In those days I more than once thought of a reply made to me by an old general [275] of Cossacks, who had served in all the Russian campaigns against Napoleon. I had asked how the roads were in those days, to which he replied: “My son, the roads are always bad in war.”

It was not until the 10th that we were able to establish a new depot on Cheeseman's creek, which shortened the haul about three miles. The rains continued almost incessantly, and it was necessary not only to detail large working parties to unload supplies, but details of some thousands of men were required to corduroy the roads, as the only means of enabling us to get up supplies.

As illustrating the condition of things, I insert the following despatch from Mr. John Tucker, Assistant Secretary of War, dated near Yorktown, April 10, to Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:

I reached Gen. McClellan's headquarters at seven this evening, having had an accident to the steamer on the way from Fortress Monroe to Ship Point. I was five hours on horseback (making about five miles), the roads being almost impassable and so entirely occupied with army wagons I frequently had to leave the road and take to the woods. The severe storm at Fortress Monroe prevented transports from leaving for several days. The facilities for landing at Ship Point are very poor, and for several days it must have been next to impossible to move artillery over such roads. I learn that twelve thousand men are engaged in repairing and building new roads. The difficulties of transportation have been so great that some of the cavalry horses had to be sent back to keep them from starving. I will report my observations of army movements to-morrow, but I see an earnest determination to lose no time in attacking the enemy.

John Tucker, Assistant Secretary of War.

The following telegram was sent as indicated, on April 10, to Brig.-Gen. Thomas, adjutant-general:

I examined the works on enemy's left very carefully to-day. They are very strong, the approaches difficult; enemy in force and confident. Water-batteries at York and Gloucester said to be much increased; have not seen them myself. Have not yet received reports of engineer officers. I go to-morrow to examine our left. Sharp firing on our right for some time to-day while I was there; no harm done, although their shells burst handsomely. [276] Am receiving supplies from Ship Point, repairing roads, getting up siege artillery, etc.

It seems now almost certain that we must use mortars and heavy guns freely before assaulting. The naval officers urge an attack in rear of Gloucester; I think they are right, but am now too weak to attempt it, unless new circumstances come to my knowledge. The affair will be protracted in consequence of the diminution of my force.

The following was sent to Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, on April 8:

Weather terrible; raining heavily last twenty-eight hours; roads and camps in awful condition; very little firing to-day. Reconnoissances being continued under disadvantageous circumstances. Gen. Sumner has arrived. Most of Richardson's division at Ship Point. I cannot move it from there in present condition of roads until I get more wagons. I need more force to make the attack on Gloucester.

To Brig.-Gen. L. Thomas on April 9:
Weather still execrable; country covered with water; roads terrible. It is with the utmost difficulty that I can supply the troops. We are doing an immense deal of work on the roads. Cannot land siege-tram until wind moderates. Reconnoissances being pushed and point of attack pretty well determined. Rebels have thrown ten-inch and twelve-inch shells yesterday and today without effect. I have now placed all the troops in bivouac just out of shell-range, holding all our advanced positions with strong detachments well sheltered. I shall not lose an unnecessary hour in placing our heavy guns in battery, and will assault at the earliest practicable moment. The conduct of the troops is excellent.

At this time I received the following letter from the President:

Washington, April 9, 1862.
My dear Sir: Your despatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much.

Blenker's division was withdrawn from you before you left here, and you know the pressure under which I did it, and, as I thought, acquiesced in it — certainly not without reluctance.

After you left I ascertained that less than 20,000 unorganized men, without a single field-battery, were all you designed [277] to be left for the defence of Washington and Manassas Junction, and part of this even was to go to Gen. Hooker's old position. Gen. Banks's corps, once designed for Manassas Junction, was diverted and tied up on the line of Winchester and Strasburg, and could not leave it without again exposing the upper Potomac and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This presented, or would present when McDowell and Sumner should be gone, a great temptation to the enemy to turn back from the Rappahannock and sack Washington. My implicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected. It was precisely this that drove me to detain McDowell.

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 via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open, except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops? This is a question which the country will not allow me to evade.

There is a curious mystery about the number of troops now with you. When I telegraphed you on the 6th, saying you had over a hundred thousand with you, I had just obtained from the Secretary of War a statement, taken, as he said, from your own returns, making 108,000 then with you and en route to you. You now say you will have but 85,000 when all en route to you shall have reached you. How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?

As to Gen. Wool's command, I understand it is doing for you precisely what a like number of your own would have to do if that command was away.

I suppose the whole force which has gone forward for you is with you by this time. And if so, I think it is the precise time for you to strike a blow. By delay the enemy will relatively gain upon you — that is, he will gain faster by fortifications and reinforcements than you can by reinforcements alone. And once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. 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.

I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller [278] purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.

Yours very truly,

The portions of this letter referring to the arrangements for the defence of Washington and the Shenandoah have already been fully answered and need not be alluded to again in this place.

As regards the discrepancy of 23,000 men, it is sufficient to say that my estimate was made from the actual latest returns of the men present for duty, and was correct. I have no doubt that the number furnished the President was the aggregate present and absent — a convenient mistake not unfrequently made by the Secretary of War.

The number I gave was correct; that furnished the President was incorrect.

In regard to the employment of Wool's command, the authorities in Washington failed to perceive the irony of my remark in my telegram of April 7, to the effect that the only use that could be made of his command was to protect my communications in rear of the point I then occupied. There were no communications to protect beyond Ship Point, and there was no possibility of the roads to Fortress Monroe being troubled by the enemy. Wool's troops were of no possible use to me beyond holding Fortress Monroe, and would have been of very great use if the surplus had been incorporated with the Army of the Potomac.

The whole force sent forward had not joined me at the date of this letter; it was not until seven days later that Casey, Hooker, and Richardson reached the front line; they could not be brought up earlier. I have already shown the impossibility of attacking earlier or otherwise than we actually did.

When in front of Sebastopol in 1855 I asked Gen. Martimprey, chief of staff of the French army in the Crimea, how he found that the cable worked which connected the Crimean with the European lines of telegraph. He said that it worked admirably from the Crimea to Paris, but very badly in the opposite direction; and by way of explanation related the following anecdote: He said that immediately after the failure of the assault of June, 1855, the emperor telegraphed Pelissier to renew the assault immediately. Pelissier replied that it was impossible [279] without certain preliminary preparations which required several weeks. The emperor repeated the peremptory order to attack at once. Pelissier repeated his reply. After one or two more interchanges of similar messages Pelissier telegraphed: “I will not renew the attack until ready; if you wish it done, come and do it yourself.” That ended the matter.

Referring for a moment to the President's despatch of April 6, it is well to recall the facts that at that time, instead of 100,000 men, I had — after deducting guards and working parties — much less than 40,000 for attack, and that the portion of the enemy's lines which he thought I had better break through at once was about the strongest of the whole, except, perhaps, the town itself.

The impatience displayed at that time, after so greatly reducing my force, is in remarkable contrast with the patience which permitted Grant to occupy months in front of the lines of Petersburg, far inferior in strength to those of Yorktown.

On the 22d of March I had prepared the following:

Confidential Memorandum.

For the operations against Yorktown, Richmond, etc., where we will probably find extensive earthworks heavily garrisoned, we shall require the means of overwhelming them by a vertical fire of shells.

I should therefore be glad to have disposable at Fortress Monroe:

I.1st. 2010-inch mortars complete.
 2d. 208-inch mortars complete.
II.208-inch siege-howitzers.
III.204 1/2-inch wrought-iron siege-guns.
IV.4020-pounder Parrotts.
V.-24-pounder siege-guns.

The 24-pounder Parrotts with the batteries will, of course, be counted as available.

I do not know the number of 4 1/2-inch guns available; if not so many as I have indicated, something else should be substituted. I wish Gen. Barry and Col. Kingsbury to consult with Gen. Marcy, to make such suggestions as occur to them, and ascertain at once to what extent this memorandum can be filled. It is possible we cannot count upon the navy to reduce Yorktown by their independent efforts; me must therefore be prepared to do it by our own means. There are said to be at Yorktown from 27 to 32 heavy guns, at Gloucester 14 Columbiads. The probable armament of Yorktown, when exterior guns are drawn in, will be [280] from 40 to 50 heavy guns, from 24-pounders to 8-inch and perhaps 10-inch Columbiads.

Before leaving Washington I detailed Col. Robert Tyler's 1st Conn. regiment as heavy artillery, and placed the siege-train in their charge; it will be seen, as the narrative proceeds, how admirably this splendid regiment performed their most important duties at all times and under the most trying circumstances.

As soon as it became clear that no aid was to be had from the navy, and that we must reduce Yorktown by a front attack, I took steps to increase the number of heavy guns and mortars to the extent shown by the statement of batteries given hereafter. The number of officers of the corps of engineers and of the topographical engineers at my disposal was so small that it was necessary to supplement them by civilian employees kindly furnished by Prof. Bache, of the U. S. Coast Survey, and by details from the line. These civilian employees vied with the officers of the army in the courage, devotion, and intelligence with which they performed the dangerous and important duties devolving upon them, There were but twelve officers of the engineers, including four on duty with the three companies of engineer troops, and six of the topographical engineers. These officers at once proceeded to ascertain by close reconnoissances the nature and strength of the enemy's defences and the character of the ground, in order to determine the points of attack and the nature of the necessary works of attack. Meanwhile the troops were occupied in constructing roads to the depots. Gen. Sumner reached the front on the 9th of April, and was placed in command of the left wing, consisting of his own and the 4th corps. He was in front of the line of the Warwick, while the 3d corps was charged with the operations against Yorktown itself. The following despatch to Secretary Stanton shows the condition of affairs at its date, April 11:

The reconnoissances of to-day prove that it is necessary to invest and attack Gloucester Point. Give me Franklin's and McCall's divisions under command of Franklin, and I will at once undertake it. If circumstances of which I am not aware make it impossible for you to send me two divisions to carry out the final plan of campaign, I will run the risk and hold myself responsible for the results if you will give me Franklin's division. [281] If you still confide in my judgment I entreat that you will grant this request. The fate of our cause depends upon it. Although willing, under the pressure of necessity, to carry this through with Franklin alone, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I think two divisions necessary. Franklin and his division are indispensable to me. Gen. Barnard concurs in this view. I have determined upon the point of attack, and am at this moment engaged in fixing the position of the batteries.

The same day the following reached me:

By direction of the President, Franklin's division has been ordered to march back to Alexandria and immediately embark for Fortress Monroe.

L. Thomas, Adj.-Gen.

I replied to the secretary: I am delighted with Franklin's orders, and beg to thank you.

I insert the following letter from my venerable friend, Francis P. Blair, as an indication of the state of feeling at the time:

My dear Sir: There is a prodigious cry of “On to Richmond!” among the carpet-knights of our city, who will not shed their blood to get there. I am one of those who wish to see you lead a triumph in the capital of the Old Dominion, but am not so eager as to hazard it by hurrying on too fast. The veterans of Waterloo filled the trenches of Gen. Jackson at New Orleans with their bodies and their blood. If you can accomplish your object of reaching Richmond by a slower process than storming redoubts and batteries in earthworks, the country will applaud the achievement which gives success to its arms with greatest parsimony of the blood of its children. The envious Charles Lee denounced his superior, Washington, as gifted too much with that “rascally virtue prudence.” Exert it and deserve his fame.

Your friend,

My retained copy of the following letter is not dated, but it must have been written somewhere about the 20th of April:

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, before Yorktown.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
Sir: I received to-day a note from Assistant Secretary Watson [282] enclosing an extract from a letter the author of which is not mentioned. I send a copy of the extract with this. I hope that a copy has also been sent to Gen. McDowell, whom it concerns more nearly, perhaps, than it does me.

At the risk of being thought obtrusive I will venture upon some remarks which perhaps my position does not justify me in making, but which I beg to assure you are induced solely by my intense desire for the success of the government in this struggle.

You will, I hope, pardon me if I allude to the past, not in a captious spirit, but merely so far as may be necessary to explain my own course and my views as to the future.

From the beginning I had intended, so far as I might have the power to carry out my own views, to abandon the line of Manassas as the line of advance. I ever regarded it as an improper one; my wish was to adopt a new line, based upon the waters of the lower Chesapeake. I always expected to meet with strong opposition on this line, the strongest that the rebels could offer, but I was well aware that upon overcoming this opposition the result would be decisive and pregnant with great results.

Circumstances, among which I will now only mention the uncertainty as to the power of the Merrimac, have compelled me to adopt the present line, as probably safer, though far less brilliant, than that by Urbana. When the movement was commenced I counted upon an active and disposable force of nearly 150,000 men, and intended to throw a strong column upon West Point either by York river or, if that proved impracticable, by a march from the mouth of the Severn, expecting to turn in that manner all the defences of the Peninsula. Circumstances have proved that I was right, and that my intended movements would have produced the desired results.

After the transfer of troops had commenced from Alexandria to Fort Monroe, but before I started in person, the division of Blenker was detached from my command — a loss of near 10,000 men. As soon as the mass of my troops were fairly started I embarked myself. Upon reaching Fort Monroe I learned that the rebels were being rapidly reinforced from Norfolk and Richmond. I therefore determined to lose no time in making the effort to invest Yorktown, without waiting for the arrival of the divisions of Hooker and Richardson and the 1st corps, intending to employ the 1st corps in mass to move upon West Point, reinforcing it as circumstances might render necessary.

The advance was made on the morning of the second day after I reached Fort Monroe. When the troops reached the immediate vicinity of Yorktown the true nature of the enemy's position was for the first time developed. While my men were under fire I learned that the 1st corps was removed from my command. No warning had been given me of this, nor was any [283] reason then assigned. I should also have mentioned that the evening before I left Fort Monroe I received a telegraphic despatch from the War Department informing me that the order placing Fort Monroe and its dependent troops under my command was rescinded. No reason was given for this, nor has it been to this day. I confess that I have no right to know the reason. This order deprived me of the support of another division which I had been authorized to form for active operations from among the troops near Fort Monroe.

Thus when I came under fire I found myself weaker by five divisions than I had expected when the movement commenced. It is more than probable that no general was ever placed in such a position before.

Finding myself thus unexpectedly weakened, and with a powerful enemy strongly entrenched in my front, I was compelled to change my plans and become cautious. Could I have retained my original force I confidently believe that I would now have been in front of Richmond instead of where I now am. The probability is that that city would now have been in our possession.

But the question now is in regard to the present and the future rather than the past.

The enemy, by the destruction of the bridges of the Rappahannock, has deprived himself of the means of a rapid advance on Washington. Lee will never venture upon a bold movement on a large scale.

The troops I left for the defence of Washington, as I fully explained to you in the letter I wrote the day I sailed, are ample for its protection.

Our true policy is to concentrate our troops on the fewest possible lines of attack; we have now too many, and an enterprising enemy could strike us a severe blow.

I have every reason to believe that the main portion of the rebel forces are in my front. They are not “drawing off” their troops from Yorktown.

Give me McCall's division and I will undertake a movement on West Point which will shake them out of Yorktown. As it is, I will win, but I must not be blamed if success is delayed. I do not feel that I am answerable for the delay of victory.

I do not feel authorized to venture upon any suggestions as to the disposition of the troops in other departments, but content myself with stating the least that I regard as essential to prompt success here. If circumstances render it impossible to give what I ask, I still feel sure of success, but more time will be required to achieve the result.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Geo. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.


The affair known as the one-gun battery is explained by the following instructions and statement:

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, camp Winfield Scott, April 15, 1862.
Brig.-Gen. W. F. Smith, Commanding Division.
Sir: You will please advance to-morrow morning to stop the work now being carried on by the enemy near and in rear of the “one-gun battery.” This can probably be most readily accomplished by throwing sharpshooters well forward to the edge of the stream, leaving in front of the work a clear interval through which four to six guns can shell the working parties and adjacent woods. Your flank towards Lee's Mill should be carefully watched, also towards Wynn's Mill, communicating with Gen. Gorman, who will have orders to prevent an attack upon your right flank from Wynn's Mill. It is probable that by placing your guns near the burned chimneys, as well under cover as possible, they will accomplish the result.

If the enemy are driven entirely away, advance cautiously a fern skirmishers across the dam to penetrate the woods and ascertain whether there is any clearing near at hand where you can hold your own. In this event cross over and send for immediate assistance, which will be promptly afforded. If you find the position across the stream dangerous and untenable, cut the dam.

In any event exercise the utmost caution before crossing the stream. The great object is to stop the work, and merely to take advantage after that of any opportunity that may offer itself to push the advantage. I should prefer stopping the work and attacking when our preparations elsewhere are more advanced. I would prefer making the attack at the one-gun battery a part of a more general plan involving the use of batteries against Lee's Mill and other contiguous points. From the statement of Capt. Hope (had since I wrote the foregoing) I imagine a position can be found on the road at a distance of some twelve hundred yards, whence their works can be shelled with 10-pound Parrotts and probably spherical case from the Napoleon guns. I would be glad to learn that the work is stopped and the enemy taught a lesson.

Please inform Gen. Gorman of your instructions, and inform me as early as possible of your arrangements.

Very truly yours,

Geo. B. McClellan, Maj-Gen. Commanding.
P. S. I send this direct to you for the reason that it is too late to communicate it through the commander of the 4th army corps [285] and give time to execute the movement at a sufficiently early hour.

Upon reflection I think it will, under present circumstances, be wiser to confine the operation to forcing the enemy to discontinue work.

In compliance with these instructions Gen. Smith placed two brigades and three batteries on his left to guard against any attack from Lee's Mill, and commenced operations with his remaining brigade and battery. He posted Mott's battery opposite the dam at a distance of about eleven hundred yards from the works, sent in one regiment through the woods on the right with instructions to open fire on any working parties they might observe, another regiment on the left with similar orders, and held the remaining three regiments in reserve. As soon as our infantry opened fire the enemy replied with shell, upon which Mott opened and kept up a sharp fire for about an hour until he silenced the enemy.

About three o'clock Gen. Smith had placed eighteen guns in position about five hundred yards from the works, supported on either flank by Brooks's Vermont brigade, Hancock's being brought up in support. Our guns then opened, the enemy replying for some time with rapidity; when their fire slackened Smith ordered four companies of the 3d Vermont to cross the dam and feel the enemy. On arriving at the crest of the work they were met by the enemy in force, who had lain secreted, and were forced to retire with a loss of about 20 killed and wounded, after having held the work for some minutes.

Later in the day, after I had left the ground, another reconnoissance was made, under cover of the artillery-fire, by the 4th Vermont on the right, the 5th and 6th on the left, but it was found impracticable to push further than to the dam, which ground was held. During the night strong entrenchments were thrown up, on the right for four guns within three hundred yards of the work, on the left one with eight embrasures, and in the centre one with four embrasures, the last two within five hundred yards' range. This reconnoissances was conducted with skill and great gallantry, the Vermont troops thus early giving earnest of the high qualities they so often displayed during all the war.

The losses in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to about [286] 150. The objects of the operation mere completely achieved: we prevented further work at this point, prevented the enemy from using the crossing, and ascertained that the line could not be broken there without further preparation in the way of artillery, etc.

The general plan of operations determined upon was to establish batteries of heavy guns and mortars bearing upon Yorktown and Gloucester, their water-batteries, a line of works between Yorktown and the Warwick river, Wynn's Mill, and the “one-gun battery” about a mile lower down the Warwick.

The general order regulating the details of the siege operations: as well as the instructions issued by Gen. Fitz-John Porter, who, on the 25th of April, was assigned to duty as director of the siege, are for the present omitted. I issued all orders relating to the siege through him, making him commandant of the siege operations, and at the same time chief of staff for that especial work. Under the circumstances of the case some such arrangement was necessary to relieve me of too much personal labor, and it worked admirably.

Ground was broken on the night of the 17th of April upon batteries 1, 2, and 3, it being only at that date that the necessary roads and bridges mere completed and the requisite material collected. The first parallel was commenced on the morning of the 25th.

The work was pushed with so much energy that by the night of May 3 all the batteries were completed and nearly all armed; the armament would have been completed on the night of the 5th, and fire opened the next morning.

In all sixteen batteries were constructed, their full armament being two 200-pounder rifled guns, twelve 100-pounder rifled, ten 13-inch mortars, twenty-five 10-inch mortars, seven 8-inch mortars, twelve 4 1/2-inch rifled siege-guns, twelve 30-pounder rifled guns, thirty-two 20-pounder rifled guns, and two 8-inch siege-howitzers, being 114 heavy guns and mortars in all.

In order to conceal our purposes and complete the work with the least possible exposure, none of the batteries were opened, except No. 1, which on the 30th of April opened with excellent effect upon the wharves of Yorktown and Gloucester, in order to prevent the landing of supplies and men. [287]

It was intended to open with all the 114 guns and mortars at once, in order to create the greatest possible moral and physical effect.

Towards the close of the siege it was apparent that the works at Gloucester could not be carried by assault from the rear without some preliminary work in the way of reducing the fire of their batteries on the land side — a matter requiring a good deal of time, and force greater than a single division.

With the force at my disposal it was impossible to reinforce Franklin for that purpose, and I determined, late on the 2d of May, to disembark that division and move it to the front, in order to employ all my force in the assault about to be given, and thus render the result as sure as human foresight could make it. On the 3d, then, Franklin's division was disembarked, and was to have moved to the front on the 4th.

As soon as the fire of the water-batteries was silenced the gunboats, reinforced by the Galena under the gallant John Rodgers, were to run by and take up a position in rear, whence they could get a nearer fire on the defences and control the road leading from Yorktown to Williamsburg.

When this was effected, the artillery of the land defences silenced, and the garrison demoralized by the shell-fire, the columns of assault were to advance from the nearest cover.

The principal assault was to have been upon the line between the Warwick and Yorktown, a column being ready to assault the latter if the effect of the batteries justified it. The enfilading and two counter batteries were prepared against Wynn's Mill, which, with the dam next above it, would also have been assaulted at the same time with the main attack.

The counter batteries against Wynn's Mill enfiladed the lines stretching thence towards the “one-gun” battery, against which latter a mortar battery was also prepared; under cover of these and the fire of the field-batteries an assault was also to be made on the “one-gun” battery. Under cover of the field-guns of the 4th corps a feint was to be made upon Lee's Mill, to be converted into a real attack if the effect of the operations at other points opened the way thereto.

The fire of our batteries would probably have enabled us to assault about noon. As the enemy were practically without bomb-proof shelters, the fire of our forty-two mortars, ten [288] of which were 13-inch and twenty-five 10-inch, should in five or six hours have blown up their magazines and rendered the works untenable for the garrisons. As many of their guns, all in the water-batteries, were en barbette, the fire of our seventy-two heavy guns should in the same space of time have dismounted most of their guns; and as the mortars could well continue their fire until the assaulting columns had reached the immediate vicinity of the works, the success of the assault, with very little loss, was reasonably certain.

In order to diminish the risk to the gunboats as much as possible, I proposed to Flag-Officer Goldsborough and to Capt. Smith, commanding the gunboats, that the gunboats and the Galena should run the batteries the night after we opened fire. If the effect of our fire had equalled our expectations so as to justify an assault during the first day's firing, I am very sure that Capt. Smith would have run by the batteries in broad daylight, without awaiting the cover of darkness. I have no doubt whatever that at the latest the dawn of the second day would have seen the gunboats in the rear of the defences, and the assault delivered with entire success and without any heavy loss on our side.

Gen. Johnston told me in Washington, during the winter of 1882 and 1883, that one of his strong objections to holding Yorktown was his apprehension that the gunboats would force the batteries at night and thus render the position untenable. Other Confederate general officers serving there have told me that in their opinion, at the time, the gunboats could easily have effected this on any dark night.

Early in the morning of the 4th of May it was found that the enemy had during the night evacuated all his positions, very wisely preferring to avoid the experiment of withstanding a bombardment and assault. We captured in the works, including Gloucester, seventy-seven guns and mortars, supplied with the ordinary complements, and seventy-six rounds of ammunition to each.

The captured pieces were as follows: one 10-inch Columbiad, thirteen 9-inch Dahlgren guns, sixteen 8-inch Columbiads, two 7-inch heavy guns, one 6 1/2-inch rifle, one 4 1/2-inch rifle, one 2 8/10-inch rifle, two rifled 32-pounders, one 8-inch siege-howitzer, three 64-pounders, eight 42-pounders, seventeen 32-pounders, four [289] 24-pounders, one 42-pound carronade, two 8-inch mortars, two 12-pounders, one 6-pounder.

They had evidently removed such guns as they could, probably light guns.

I have been much criticised for not assaulting Yorktown immediately. Perhaps the point has been made clear enough, but at the risk of repetition I will say something more on the subject.

Before starting from Fortress Monroe the best information in our possession clearly indicated that the Warwick river ran nearly parallel with the James, instead of heading at Yorktown, and it seemed certain that the road from Newport News to Williamsburg did not cross that stream, at least any important branch of it, and that it presented no obstacle to an advance. Upon these data were predicated the orders of April 4 (for the march of the next day, the 5th), according to which Heintzelman was to move into position close to Yorktown, while Keyes was to take up a position in rear of Yorktown at the Halfway House; Keyes was also ordered to attack and carry whatever he found in front of him. Now, let it be observed that at all points (on the right, centre, and left) we found the enemy's works fully garrisoned and provided with artillery, and that Keyes and his general officers reported that they found the position in their front so strong and so well provided with troops and artillery that it was impossible to assault with any hope of success. The same state of things was clearly the case in front of the right column, where I was. Now, it is very certain that the only thing to be done was to make close reconnoissancess of the enemy's position, in order to discover a vulnerable point. This course was followed, and the unanimous opinion of all was that certain preliminary siege operations were necessary. I assert without fear of contradiction that no one at that time thought an assault possible; moreover, that when we saw the works abandoned by the enemy it remained the conviction of all that, with the raw troops we had, an assault would have resulted in simply an useless butchery with no hope of success. The statements made long afterwards by such men as Barnard were simply ex-post-facto opinions, gotten up for political purposes, and never could have been really entertained by them. The only fault to be found with the operations at Yorktown is in regard to the slowness with which some of the engineer officers operated. I was often obliged to [290] make just such reconnoissancess as I did at Vera Cruz (when a brevet second lieutenant of engineers) to expedite matters. Had Duane been chief-engineer, operations would have progressed much more rapidly. The co-operation of the navy amounted to little or nothing.

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