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Chapter 14: the Peninsular campaign begun; Yorktown

In order to leave McClellan's army free to act General Banks was to come from West Virginia and command a fifth corps with which to cover Washington. He was to give up Sedgwick's fine division to complete Sumner's corps. While matters were being planned and were not yet half executed, Stonewall Jackson, always our marplot, struck one of Banks's divisions near Winchester. Fortunately, General Shields, the division commander, with his arm shattered in the beginning of the battle, succeeded in holding Jackson at bay, and after a terrific conflict forced him up the Shenandoah Valley. But the battle itself served to call back to West Virginia General A. S. Williams's division, which belonged to Banks and was already en route to Manassas with orders to relieve our troops, that we might go back to Alexandria and follow our comrades via the Chesapeake to the Virginia Peninsula.

Banks himself with his Fifth Corps never did succeed in making that contemplated Centreville and Manassas march to cover Washington. But provisional troops from Washington were at last sent out to replace ours, watch against Confederate raids in that quarter, and secure the Manassas field as a shield to the capital. [200]

Stonewall Jackson's interruption of well-conceived and well-ordered proposals caused such apprehension on all sides that the President gave the following order, which I have always wished he had not been worried into issuing:

Adjutant General's Office, April 3, 1862.
To General George B. McClellan, etc.
By the direction of the President, General McDowell's army corps has been detached from under your immediate command and the general is ordered to report to the secretary of war. Letter by mail.

[Signed.] L. Thomas, Adjutant General.

To McDowell he wrote:

While cooperating with General McClellan, you obey his orders, except that you are to judge, and are not to allow your force to be disposed otherwise than so as to give the greatest protection to this capital.

This came from the President's anxiety for the protection of Washington. He could, however, have secured precisely that same protection by giving his instructions directly to McClellan. Mr. Lincoln evidently had begun to distrust McClellan; if so, it was not wisdom to keep him in command and at the same time plainly show distrust by telling a corps commander to obey his orders or not, according to that commander's judgment.

I am not surprised at McClellan's grievous complaint. “I may confess,” he said, “to have been shocked at this order which, with that of the 31st ultimo, removed nearly 60,000 men from my command and reduced my force by more than one-third after its task had been assigned, its operations planned, and its [201] fighting begun.... It compelled the adoption of another, a different and a less effective plan of campaign.” To this statement his officers agreed and still agree. It was a heavy blow, and with one constituted like McClellan it was so crippling and disappointing as to render subsequent operations on his part less brilliant and decisive.

What paralyzed his arm most was this want of confidence on the part of the President and his advisers, and the growing opposition to him everywhere for political reasons. Think of the antislavery views of Stanton and Chase; of the growing antislavery sentiments of the congressional committee on the conduct of war; think of the number of generals like Fremont, Butler, Banks, Hunter, and others in everyday correspondence with the Cabinet, whose convictions were already strong that the slaves should be set free; think, too, of the Republican press constantly becoming more and more of the same opinion, and the masses of the people really leading the press. McClellan's friends in the army had often offended the Northern press. In his name radical antislavery correspondents had been expelled from the army. An incident affecting the popular Hutchinson family shows some of the conditions that existed. Because they had been singing a song which ended with:

What whets the knife
For the Union's life?
Hark to the answer:
Slavery Slavery!

an order of McClellan was issued recalling the permit given to them to sing in camp; and their pass to cross the Potomac was annulled. [202]

On April 1, 1862, the country was divided in sentiment touching the political policy henceforth to be pursued, the majority evidently inclining to the belief that “the Union as it was” could never be restored.

It is not under these circumstances at all unaccountable that Mr. Lincoln's faith in McClellan should have been gradually undermined. McClellan had begun his work when the preservation of slavery was accepted as necessary and, naturally conservative, it was next to impossible for him to modify or abandon an opinion once formed.

Thus McClellan, a soldier of conservative tendencies, promising sincerely to prevent, if possible, the dissolution of the Union, and to preserve or restore that Union as it was before the war, became now, the moment the abolition of slavery as a war measure or otherwise entered as a watchword, the great name around which to rally all the political forces opposed to the party in power.

On the contrary, Lincoln, moving with his party, naturally kept with his political household, while the Republicans gradually passed from their “nonextension” principles to their final stand against all human enslavement. McClellan was, and continued to be, a war Democrat. Lincoln at heart detested slavery and became an emancipator. He personally liked McClellan, but he began to see, prior to Johnston's retreat, that McClellan must gain victories and gain them quickly, or as President he would be forced by an imperious public sentiment to choose another chief. He practically began this (March 11th) by relieving McClellan from the command of all other armies besides that of the Potomac. [203]

While he longed for his success on the peninsula, he did not dare to risk Fremont in the Mountain Department, Banks in West Virginia, or Wadsworth in the District of Columbia, without giving to each sufficient force to make the defense of the capital secure. And in addition it seemed to him imperative to detach McDowell, put him directly under the Secretary of War, and hold him and his corps for a time at Falmouth and Fredericksburg.

Could McClellan instinctively have comprehended all this, he doubtless would have been chary of his entreaties and beseechings for more force, would have masked the Confederate troops near Yorktown with a good division, and pushed the remainder of his army rapidly up the left bank of the York River before Johnston's arrival and before his enemy's reenforcement. That was McClellan's opportunity.

On April 1st in all the land satisfactory results were not wanting. The Confederacy had been pushed into narrower limits along its whole northern frontier and along the Mississippi, and important Atlantic and Gulf Coast positions had been captured.

In the face of many disasters to the Confederate cause there was much discouragement at Richmond. On March 30th General Robert E. Lee was put in command of all the Confederate armies, but was not expected to go into the field himself. This left General Joseph E. Johnston to command only in our front on the peninsula.

A letter from Richmond said: “The President (Davis) took an affectionate leave of him (Johnston) the other day; and General Lee held his hand a long time and admonished him to take care of his life. There was no necessity for him to endanger it as had [204] just been done by the brave Albert Sydney Johnston, at Shiloh, whose fall is now universally lamented.”

This gallant Confederate commander, once away from Richmond in the turmoil of battle, fogot that affectionate warning.

Here, then, we have McClellan and Johnston, each set apart to manipulate a single army — the one the Army of the Potomac and the other the Army of Northern Virginia--no wider range and view demanded of them than a single field of operation and the two contending armies.

As McClellan stepped ashore near Fortress Monroe the afternoon of April 2d, Admiral Goldsboro was out in Hampton Roads with his fleet; the entrance to York River was then clear enough of foes, but a terrible soreness was afflicting that naval squadron. There was a waning confidence in wooden vesselsl Only a few days back the long'dreaded Confederate ironclad, the Merrimac, had come like a gigantic, allpowerful monster and destroyed the Congress and the Cumberland and disabled the Minnesota and sent a large percentage of our naval force to the bottom. Nothing but that little shapeless Monitor, providentially arriving the day after that one-sided, hopeless, bloody battle, was between the fleet and utter destruction. The monster Merrimac had not only faced and defied our navy with the contempt of a Goliath and slain her stalwart sons without the hope of redress, but had humbled and conquered the old-fashioned and well-merited naval pride with which our brave officers and men had regarded their well-manned and wellarmed ships. The Monitor thus far was thought to have succeeded only in worrying the gigantic enemy and causing a temporary withdrawal. Nobody then [205] believed it the final contest. Of course, Admiral Goldsboro and his men bravely stayed in Hampton Roads, ready to die there if need be; but McClellan could not get that strong, constant, energetic, sanguine help for Yorktown that Grant had had from Commodore Foote's fleet at Fort Henry, or that was subsequently rendered the army by Admirals Porter and Farragut on the Mississippi and at Mobile.

Johnston had two forces to watch-McDowell on the Fredericksburg line of approach to Richmond and McClellan landing at Ship Point near Fortress Monroe. The Confederate general Magruder, having Johnston's advance troops, had seized and fortified the line of the Warwick and made that swampy stream the meeting point of the two great armies. Magruder's force numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 17,000 effectives at the time our advance touched his outposts. It must have been contemplated by both Lee and Johnston in the outset to force the principal expected battle to grounds near Richmond, because at Yorktown or Williamsburg the left of their position was already completely turned by McDowell's corps. They doubtless did not base their plans on a Washington scare, and so could not count upon McDowell's being suddenly anchored back there at the Rappahannock. Undoubtedly, Magruder's energy and enterprise did secure a longer delay at the Warwick and near Yorktown than was intended or dreamed of by his seniors. This accounts for his receiving no reinforcement before he began his retreat.

The country below the Warwick, which, indeed, guards all the ground from river to river, from Yorktown to the James, was low, flat, and wooded with thickets difficult to penetrate. The natural stream [206] heading near Yorktown was narrow, but had been widened by artificial means, having several dams recently made. Wyman's and Lee's dams were there before Magruder came. The banks, gentle and swampy, covered with dense fringes of thickets and small trees, were, for the most part, impassable, easily defended, and remarkably uncertain to the assailant as to what force he would have to encounter should he assault. At Gloucester Point across the York River from Yorktown and also on the James River Magruder had good field works and had thoroughly manned them. The remainder of the Warwick stretch he held by detached bodies at the dams and other points to be reinforced at need by movable columns. The dense, impassable forest shores enabled him to do this handsome defensive work without detection.

There were on our side but two roads at all practicable as approaches to the Warwick: the one near the east shore and parallel with the direction of the York, running by Howard's Bridge straight to the village of Yorktown, and the other near the James via Horse Bridge and Warwick Court House to Lee's Mill. The country roads coursing hither and thither from one small farm to another were never reliable. Fair to the eye at first, with the rain and the travel of heavy trains, the crust, like rotten ice, gave way, and then horses, mules, and wagons dropped through into sticky mud or quicksands.

Magruder had his Confederates on the north shore of the Warwick, and McClellan, with at least 50,000 men of all arms, was working his way toward the obstructions, hoping to reach Yorktown on one highway and pass far beyond it on the other to the WilliamsburgHalfway House.” [207]

My brigade in Richardson's division, Sumner's corps, at last turned back from Warrenton Junction toward Alexandria, Va. We had been four weeks during the stormy March weather in the field without our tents. The men's shoes were spoiled by tramping long distances in slippery, cloggy mud with the constant wetting and drying, and their clothing was much soiled and rent, so we were hoping to halt somewhere long enough to refit. At Bristow Station, a place subsequently renowned, welcome home letters found their way to our bivouac for the night. They added their cheer to the supper and the camp fire.

The next day, April 3, 1862, we marched over ground already more familiar than the farms and meadows of my native town-Manassas, Bull Run, Sangster's, Fairfax, and Springfield. The excessive weight originally carried by the men was reduced to a minimum. My men did not straggle. At a rout step they smoked and chatted with each other, keeping well closed up and never relaxing their swinging, easy gait. Now and then for relief they lifted the musket from one shoulder to the other. Now and then somebody struck up a song with a chorus and all joined in the singing. It was a pleasure to see the men cross a fordable stream-frequent in that part of Virginia. They waded creeks fifty feet wide. Sometimes, to forestall grumbling and set an example, I dismounted and walked ahead to the farther bank. The regimental bands played during the passage and the soldiers, without elongating the column, marched straight through the waters. In crossing Broad Run the water was high and came up to our hips.

We reached Alexandria on April 4th, three days after McClellan's departure for Fortress Monroe. [208] The transports were already on hand, so that we could not stay to refit as I had hoped, but marched at once on board. Here our division commander, General Richardson, for the first time joined his division. He was a large, fleshy man, generally careless in his attire and toilet; an officer who knew him said: “He is inclined to lie abed in the morning.” I soon, however, learned to prize him for his pluck and energy that came out in battle and on an active campaign. In the fight he was a capital leader, very cool and selfpossessed.

The greater part of my brigade found good accommodations on the Spaulding, a transport ship where our men could be well distributed and find the rest they coveted. They were much interested to see for the first time the lower Potomac and catch a glimpse of Mount Vernon as we steamed down the broadening river. Personally, having been much wearied with the care and movement of the troops,I did enjoy that short voyage. The rest was sweet and more precious when that night, after all but the sentinels and a few officers were asleep, I sat down with pen and paper to think of home. It had been almost a year of absence from the precious little group there! A startling question not so restful closed my revery: When shall I see them again?

Saturday evening, April 5th, brought us to the place of debarkation and I sent two regiments ashore. This was Ship Point intended just then for the main depot of supplies for the army. A dim twilight survey of this landing and the vicinity was my first introduction to the Virginia peninsula. The landscape in the fading light appeared delightful-small openings amid variegated forests generally level, and [209] the roads smooth and promising. A few days later I recorded: The ground is almost all quicksand. I have worked my brigade very hard, making roads and bridges, loading and unloading barges and wagons filled with commissary and quartermaster's stores.

We took up our first camp a little to the south of the landing in a pretty grove, making my own headquarters at Mr. Pomphrey's house. Mr. Pomphrey passed for a poor man, yet he owned 200 acres of land, 15 slaves, and had a wife quite as much a slave, as the others, to the pipe which she incessantly smoked.

One never saw more grateful people than Mr. Pomphrey and his wife when I proposed to make his house my headquarters. He said with a sigh of relief: “I shall sleep to-night!” Their wilderness had been suddenly transformed into a strange city where soldiers, wagoners, negroes, and camp followers were constantly coming night and day, rummaging and often seizing what they could lay their hands upon. I could not help thinking how my own mother would feel to have her cows shot, her chickens killed, the eggs stolen, and the cellar robbed of an entire winter's supply. Such was the work of some characters who-hard to discover and control near that thickly populated landing-mingled with us.

General McClellan paid us a visit on April 9th, making a brief stay at my headquarters, and a longer one at Richardson's.

There my first knowledge of a difference between him and our much-loved President dawned upon me. His aid-de-camp, Colonel Colburn, complained bitterly to me of the action of the President in taking away over 50,000 troops which had been promised to McClellan. Of course, Mr. Lincoln's promise had been [210] contingent upon the safety of the capital, but at that time I did not know of the contingency and so could make no reply.

I heard McClellan, during this visit, remark to another officer that he found Yorktown a very strong place. He said: “It cannot be carried without a partial siege.”

He examined carefully our temporary wharves, structures, and roadways along the shore. He talked very much to the point with our quartermaster in charge and with others; while doing this he partook of a luncheon and indulged in a smoke at Richardson's headquarters; then, with the small staff which had accompanied him, rode away toward Yorktown. I trusted McClellan and sympathized with his disappointments, but had misgivings when I heard the words, “a partial siege at Yorktown

For a short time while we were waiting for men and material that belonged to our division to come by other steamers than the Spaulding, the days were mainly spent in constructing a “log road” from Ship Point to Yorktown. Indeed, after the first cold and drenching rain, we discovered that that whole vicinage was underlaid with “sinking sand.” We constantly beheld whole fields of poor, struggling mules more than half buried in front of heavy wagons with wheels sunken to the hubs. All the roads, which on our arrival had been beautiful and smooth, without rut or stone, had become miry and treacherous. We were toiling on with the vigor of men who knew how to work and were making commendable progress with our corduroying when, on April 16th, the order came to proceed at once to Yorktown and join our corps. Before the close of the 17th all the brigades of Sumner's command [211] were together in “Camp Winfield Scott.” This force, usually from this time designated by its number “the Second Corps,” was not far from the center of the general line and pretty well back.

My private notes made after our arrival at Yorktown indicate a considerable impatience on my part because of the slowness of the army. The reasons given for so much delay seemed insufficient. A siege party was working on our right indicating circumvallation and regular approaches, and a detachment of our men were throwing up breastworks near the middle of our front line, as though we might have to resist an attack from Magruder.

The morning of April 24th I rode to McClellan's headquarters to pay my respects to him and to some of his staff. The grandeur of that staff greatly impressed me. I had a long talk with my old friend Colonel Kingsbury, chief of ordnance in the field. He said in parting: “General McClellan wishes to get all his batteries in readiness before he opens fire. If our friends could realize the kind of country they are in they would not be impatient.” Thus Kingsbury gently rebuked my impatience.

In the afternoon of the same day I went to the extreme left of McClellan's lines and followed the Warwick River in that neighborhood as far as I could on horseback, along its swampy border and impenetrable thickets, and visited Generals Erasmus D. Keyes, Silas Casey, and other acquaintances who were stationed near that flank. During my ride we were crossing a narrow ravine in the midst of which was a sluggish, muddy stream. Lieutenant Nelson A. Miles, my aidde-camp, rode up and, though usually ardent, wisely checked his horse. Believing I could easily clear the [212] stream at a bound I let my active horse, “Charlie,” have the reins. He sprang forward but was unable to make the leap — the ground at the starting point not being firm enough; in fact, the whole bank before and beneath him gave way and we sank to his shoulders in the yielding mud. I scrambled off as best I could and left “Charlie” to himself. After some floundering and a few plunges he managed to catch the firm ground. My own mishap saved the remainder of the party from a mud bath.

Warwick Court House consisted of a small, brick schoolhouse, a building for the court, a jail of less size, and one other fair structure, probably intended for a store. Near at hand was a dilapidated dwelling house. These made up the little village which occupied one clearing. The intervale lands in the neighborhood at that season of springtime were beautiful. Apple and peach trees were in blossom, the grass was a bright green, and all the trees were putting forth their leaves.

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