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Book I:—Richmond.

Chapter 1:


WE concluded the former volume with the narrative of the first year of the war, having brought down our review of the campaigns which were being prosecuted in the East and West to within a few days of the anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Those campaigns were but the prelude to the far more extensive operations and sanguinary conflicts which we are about to relate.

We shall begin by speaking of the army of the Potomac, of which we have described the slow formation during the autumn and winter of 1861, and of its first movements in the spring of 1862. Whilst the armies of the West have already overrun several States and fought great battles, the former has not yet had an opportunity to seek revenge from the conquerors of Bull Run. In the last chapters of the preceding volume the reader has seen the difficulties of every kind which embarrassed its movements, prevented it from taking the field at an earlier day, and jeopardized the success of the plan of operations so happily conceived by its chief. Nevertheless, after the unlooked — for evacuation of Manassas by the Confederates, after the combats which kept in the valley of Virginia troops that would have been more useful elsewhere, after Mr. Lincoln's interference in reducing his force to strengthen the [2] garrison of Washington, that army finally embarked at Alexandria, in the last days of March, for the great expedition which was to transfer the seat of war to the vicinity of the enemy's capital; and General McClellan, when he landed upon the peninsula of Virginia, notwithstanding all these drawbacks, had still a fine army under his command—a numerous army, however imprudently reduced, composed of ardent, vigorous, brave, and intelligent men, although without experience. Recruited among all classes of society, the ranks of this army contained many men of military ability, as yet unknown to the world, and even to themselves, some of whom were about to be sacrificed before they could have a chance of asserting their full worth, whilst others were to be called to direct its long and painful labors. Consequently, despite the mistakes of the government, this army could hope to run a brilliant career upon the ground, classic in the history of the United States, where it was at last to encounter the élite of the slavery troops. It was, in fact, in the peninsula where the soldiers of Washington and Rochambeau completed the glorious work of American emancipation. It was around Yorktown, already made celebrated by the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis, that the army of the Potomac was about to fight its first battles; and if it may be permitted to an obscure member of that army to indulge here in a personal reflection, it was the remembrance of the victory achieved by France and America conjointly upon this very soil which caused a throb in the heart of the exiles so generously received under the shadow of the flag of the young republic.

Notwithstanding the historical associations which cluster around it, this locality was but little known; and in view of its peculiar configuration, we deem a detailed description necessary to a proper understanding of the operations we are about to relate. Fortress Monroe, situated at the extremity of the peninsula, lies one hundred and fifteen kilometres from Richmond, in a direct line. The route which the army of the Potomac had to follow was all laid down; it stretched out, bounded on the south by the James River—which is a river (fleuve) at Richmond, and a vast estuary at Newport News—and at the north, first by an arm of the sea called York River, and then by the Pamunky, its principal tributary. The region lying between these water-courses may be [3] divided into two parts: The first, by far the more important, forms a real peninsula between the salt tide-waters which ascend York River as far as West Point, and the James beyond City Point. This flat country, which is both sandy and marshy, intersected by countless bays, extremely wooded, poor, and thinly peopled, forms the peninsula of Virginia. The second, extending, between the Pamunky and the James proper, to a distance far above Richmond, very undulating, covered with magnificent forests, a little better cultivated than the former, and enlivened here and there by the residences of a few wealthy planters, is divided longitudinally by the Chickahominy, a river rendered famous in the annals of American colonization by the romantic adventures of the traveller John Smith and the Indian maid Pocahontas. This water-course, of little importance from its ordinary volume of water, flows through wooded swamps, where impenetrable thickets alternate with groves of tall white oak, a tree admirably adapted for naval construction, the feet of which are buried in the ooze, while the trunks, as straight as the mast of a ship, rise to extraordinary heights. After a rain-storm, the Chickahominy not only overflows its wooded banks, but, spreading over the adjacent plains, forms a sheet of water which at times is a kilometre in width. This, therefore, was a formidable obstacle in the way of military operations. The river runs parallel with the Pamunky, and cutting off a corner of the peninsula, empties into the estuary of the James at an equal distance from City Point and Newport News. The James on one side, the York River and the Pamunky on the other, form two magnificent lines of communication. The former is navigable as far as Richmond, but the Virginia debarred the Federals from using it. The latter may be ascended as far as White House, a plantation which had formerly belonged to Washington, and was now the property of General Lee. But at the entrance of York River, the two banks of this arm of the sea draw closer, forming a strait commanded by the guns of Yorktown, and batteries erected opposite, at Gloucester Point. Hence the importance which has always attached to the little place of Yorktown, around which some slight undulations covered with rich turf still indicate the trace of the parallel thrown up by the French and American [4] soldiers in 1781. The peninsula itself upon which Yorktown stands is narrowed by a swampy stream, Warwick Creek, which, taking its rise at less than two kilometres from the old bastions of this town, empties into the James perpendicularly to its course. It was here that nature had marked out for the Confederates their true line of defence. Having control of James River, thanks to the Virginia, and of York River, owing to the batteries of Gloucester Point, they could not be turned by the Federal navy. The two rivers supplied them with provisions, instead of furnishing the means of attack to their adversaries, and so long as they preserved the line of Warwick Creek, Yorktown could not be invested. All these points, therefore, supported each other mutually. Thirty-two kilometres separated Yorktown from Fort Monroe. Sixteen kilometres farther, another contraction of the peninsula occurs, even narrower than that caused by Warwick Creek, formed by two streams called College Creek and Queen's Creek; one running toward the James, the other toward York River. Near this place stands the oldest university in America, William and Mary College, founded during the reign of William the Third, the spacious buildings of which, of red and gray brick, together with the court-yards and pavilions, remind one of the English edifices of the eighteenth century, and have an air of antiquity seldom met with in the New World. Around the university is grouped the pretty little town of Williamsburg, the houses of which are surrounded by gardens and shaded by beautiful trees. It was for a time the capital of the colony, when Virginia was richer and had a larger population than at the present day.

Between Fort Monroe and Richmond there is but a single line of railway, which, starting from the latter city, crosses the upper Chickahominy, then the Pamunky at White House, and terminates at West Point, where the latter river and the Mattapony both empty into the salt waters of York River.

Such was the new ground upon which the army of the Potomac was about to fight. The transportation of this army was a difficult task, and was accomplished in a remarkable manner. The first vessels were chartered on the 27th of February; on the 17th of March the first soldier was embarked; and on the 6th [5] of April, all the troops which had not been withdrawn from General McClellan's command were landed upon the peninsula. During this short period of time, four hundred ships, steamers, and sailing vessels, had been collected and taken to Alexandria, and had transported a distance of eighty leagues, 109,419 men, 14,502 animals, 44 batteries, with all the immense materiel which generally follows such an army, leaving nothing behind them except nine stranded lighters and eight drowned mules.

McClellan had not waited for the end of this operation to take the field. Out of the one hundred thousand men, or thereabouts, he was to have under his command,1he found on the day of his arrival fifty-eight thousand, accompanied with one hundred cannon, in a condition to march. The remainder had either not landed or were without the necessary transportation to take part in a forward movement. Many teams were yet wanting for the numerous wagons, without which troops could not venture among the marshy roads which they were to encounter.

The army was put in motion on the 4th of April, and arrived before Yorktown and Warwick Creek the next day without having seen the enemy. The latter had hastily abandoned the few works erected at Big Bethel, in the firm belief that the Federals, who had control of the sea as far as Yorktown, could easily turn all those defences. This first march was not accomplished without some difficulty. The roads were in a deplorable condition. The maps were bad, which was even worse than not having any. They had relied upon those which the officers stationed at Fortress Monroe had taken all winter to prepare, and the several columns, thus misled by false information, could hardly preserve their order of march. Deceived by these incorrect charts as to the direction of [6] Warwick Creek,

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