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Philatelic Vignettes of the American Civil War - McClellan's Peninsula Campaign

After the debacle at First Manassas/First Bull Run on July 21 (See On to Richmond in last month’s Global Stamp News), the Union army commander, General Irwin McDowell, was sacked. On August 15, 1861, General George McClellan, shown in Figure 1, was given command of the Army of the Potomac. He was chosen for the job because he had won a small battle at Rich Mountain, West Virginia just ten days before the disaster at Bull Run. McClellan immediately began organizing and training the troops camped around Washington D. C., a task that he was very well suited for.

He spent the next two months making sure Washington and the army were safe from attack. It was mid-October before he even considered a small advance away from the safety of the city’s fortifications. The Confederates had not been idle since the July battle. They had fortified several positions on the western bank of the Potomac River, both above and below Washington, affecting a blockade of the water route to the city. One of these positions was a battery site at Mathias Point.

On September 30, a joint Army and Navy operation was scheduled to attack the battery. The Navy arrived at the designated departure spot with gunboats to bombard the battery site and barges to transport 4,000 infantry troops across the river, but the Army never appeared. McClellan had had some misgivings about the feasibility of transporting the troops across the river and canceled the operation without informing the Navy.

After a visit from Lincoln and Gustavus Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, McClellan agreed to reschedule the operation for the next day. Once again the Navy arrived at the appointed time, but the Army was nowhere to be found. McClellan had once again cancelled Army participation without notifying the Navy.

Finally, on October 19, McClellan advanced one division of the Army, commanded by General George McCall, toward Leesburg, Virginia after learning that the Confederates had recently reduced their garrison there. The division advanced as far as Dranesville, about ten miles from Leesburg. McClellan hoped his show of force would maneuver the Confederates out of their positions on the upper Potomac without engaging in a major offensive. The next day he ordered another division, commanded by General Charles Stone, to find out if the occupation of Dranesville had caused the Confederates to abandon Leesburg.

Stone interpreted his orders to mean that he was to move toward Leesburg as well and he assumed that McCall’s division would remain at Dranesville putting additional pressure on the Confederates. On October 21, one of Stone’s brigades, commanded by Colonel Edward Baker, crossed the Potomac at Ball’s Bluff. But McClellan had ordered McCall to abandon Dranesville and return to Washington without notifying Stone. Consequently, Baker’s brigade was left alone on the west bank of the Potomac River and soon suffered the wrath of an overwhelming Confederate force.

The situation became desperate when Baker’s brigade was pinned against the river without sufficient portage to make a rapid withdrawal. The result was another Union debacle with 921 casualties, including Colonel Baker, compared to Confederate losses of 149. McClellan immediately began distancing himself from the disaster. He placed the blame entirely on the dead Baker’s shoulders, disingenuously claiming that the movement of Baker’s brigade across the river was completely unauthorized. The battle of Ball’s Bluff is commemorated in Figure 2.   Meanwhile, McClellan was busy with another maneuver. He was plotting to compel the aging General Scott to retire so he could become Commander in Chief of all Union armies. The deed probably would have been accomplished in October but for the Ball’s Bluff affair. Oddly enough, the Democrat McClellan was able to enlist the aid of five Radical Republican politicians in his plan to replace Scott. He convinced them that Scott was obstructing his plans for the advance of the army against Richmond. His strategy paid off when Scott retired on October 31 and McClellan was named Commander in Chief on November 1. McClellan’s promotion is commemorated in Figure 3.

   McClellan now had everything he wanted, but the Army of the Potomac still didn’t move from the Washington fortifications. On November 13 Lincoln visited McClellan’s headquarters to talk to him about his plans. The president was advised that McClellan was attending an officer’s wedding so Lincoln settled himself in the parlor to wait for the general’s return. When McClellan finally came home an hour later he passed by the parlor and went upstairs, ignoring his orderly’s announcement that the president was waiting to see him. After waiting another half hour, Lincoln asked the orderly to remind McClellan that he was waiting to see him. The orderly soon returned with the news that McClellan had retired for the night!

Lincoln wasn’t the only person who wanted to know when McClellan might move the army against the Confederates. When the Congressional session began in December, the inactivity of the Army of the Potomac was a main point of discussion. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, an enthusiastic proponent of McClellan in August, now demanded a winter campaign in Virginia. By January 10, 1862, Lincoln had become so exasperated that he called a counsel of war at the White House attended by several cabinet members and generals, but without McClellan who was ill at the time. He began the meeting by remarking, "If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it provided I could see how it could be made to do something."

On January 27, 1862, Lincoln issued General War Order #1. The order marked February 22 to "be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States". Lincoln also specified that on that date, the Army of the Potomac was to march on Manassas Junction. McClellan responded on February 3 with a twenty-two-page letter explaining in great detail why a movement on Manassas Junction was ill advised. Also, he finally laid out his own plan for the coming campaign.

McClellan proposed the Urbanna Plan which involved moving the entire army by water, through the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Rappahannock River. The exact landing spot was to be at Urbanna, Virginia, only 60 miles from Richmond. Lincoln was not enamored with the plan because he feared that it would expose Washington, D.C. to a Confederate attack. But McClellan vowed to leave adequate troops to protect the capital and finally received the president’s blessing for the plan.

By early March, Confederate commander Joseph Johnston was getting anxious about the extended positions of his army. He decided to consolidate the army and on March 7 he abandoned the Manas-sas Junction area, pulling back to the Rappahannock River. The movement rendered McClellan’s Urbanna Plan obsolete. Fortunately he had an idea for a back up plan with Fort Monroe as the staging area for an advance up the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Fort Monroe is shown in Figure 4.

   On March 8 McClellan’s plan for a Peninsula Campaign was thrown into doubt by the appearance of the ironclad CSS Virginia under the command of Captain Franklin Buchanan. Her task was to destroy the Union ships in Hampton Roads and lift the blockade. The presence of the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads would also serve to deny the use of the James River to McClellan. Although the Union squadron at Hampton Roads was composed of eighteen wooden ships mounting a total of 188 guns, they would prove to be no match for the 10-gun ironclad.

At 11:00 A.M. on March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia left her base at Norfolk, Virginia and steamed down the Elizabeth River toward Hampton Roads. An hour and a half later the ironclad was spotted by Union troops stationed at Fort Monroe. The Union fleet was immediately alerted, and the battle was joined. Bucha-nan first made for the sloop USS Cumber-land, the largest ship in the Union fleet. The ironclad rammed the USS Cumber-land smashing a huge hole in the Union ship. The USS Cumberland was sinking so fast she threatened to take the stuck CSS Virginia down with her. The ironclad was finally able to pull free but she left her ram behind. The ramming of the USS Cumberland is shown in Figure 5.

    The CSS Virginia next made for the USS Congress, which was already seriously damaged from cannon fire and was fleeing to shallow water where she was grounded. The CSS Virginia came as close as possible, without becoming grounded herself, and began taking the USS Congress apart with accurate fire from her guns. Soon the USS Congress surrendered.

By now it was 5:00 P.M. The CSS Virginia next made for the USS Minnesota that was also grounded in shallow water. The ironclad could not get close enough to inflict terminal damage on the frigate but did cause considerable destruction. As night fell, the CSS Virginia was forced to disengage and head for home. Finishing off the USS Minnesota would have to wait until tomorrow. What the Confederates did not know was that as the CSS Virginia was leaving Hampton Roads, the USS Monitor was arriving.

At 6:30 AM on March 9, the CSS Virginia was again ready to steam into Hampton Roads and destroy wooden ships. Her first objective was the battered USS Minnesota. But as she made for the USS Minnesota, she noticed an odd object in the water which one Confederate sailor described as "a cheese box on a raft". It was the USS Monitor. As the two ships closed on each other, the first clash of ironclads began. Thousands of soldiers and civilians lined the shores to watch the epic confrontation.

The two ironclads traded shots for four hours with little or no effect. However, as the shot and shells bounced off their respective hulls, all the existing wooden ship navies of the world became obsolete. At times the two ships were only a few feet apart as is shown in Figure 6. Then a lucky shot hit the view slit in the Monitor’s pilothouse disabling her commander John Worden.

The USS Monitor was taken into shallow water, where the CSS Virginia could not follow, so Worden’s injuries could be assessed. At about the same time, the CSS Virginia’s crew realized that the tide was falling quickly and they must leave soon or be stuck in Hampton Roads. The battle was ended with both sides claiming victory. But the USS Monitor had effectively neutralized the CSS Virginia making the Peninsula Campaign plan workable once more.

Still, McClellan had to make significant changes to the Urbanna plan. Lincoln decided to assist him by relieving him of all other responsibilities. On March 11, McClellan was removed as Commander-in-chief of all Union armies, ostensibly so he could concentrate on the Peninsula Campaign. General Henry Hallick was placed in command of all Union armies in the western theater, and Lincoln himself would take overall control of the four Union armies in the east.

Finally, on March 17, the transport of troops began. McClellan left for Fort Monroe on April 1 and on April 5 the transfer of the army was complete. Over 400 transport ships carried a total of 121,500 men, 15,000 horses and mules and 264 cannons. One of the ships that transported troops, the Great Republic, is shown in Figure 7.

During the transfer of the army, Secretary Stanton discovered that McClellan had misrepresented, probably intentionally, the number of troops that would be left behind to protect Washington, D.C. General McDowell’s corps had not yet left for Fort Monroe and on April 3, Stanton issued orders for the 30,000 man corps to remain at the capital. McClellan was also advised that he could not use the 10,000-man garrison at the fort in his campaign. Consequently, McClellan began his trek up the peninsula with 90,000 combat troops as opposed to the 130,000 he had counted on.

To oppose McClellan’s force, the Confederates had only a scant 15,000 men in General John Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. But Magruder had been busy creating defensive positions, and he had three main defensive lines between Fort Monroe and Richmond. The first was a lightly constructed advance line that was only twelve miles from the fort. The second ran fourteen miles from Mulberry Island in the James River, along the Warwick River and ended a half-mile from Yorktown. The city of Yorktown was heavily fortified and about half of Magruder’s army was there.

The Warwick River also provided a substantial obstacle as Confederate-built dams had swollen the river considerably. It could now only be forded at the dam sites, which were also fortified with artillery positions and rifle pits. The third defensive line was composed of fourteen redoubts that ran across the peninsula about two miles east of Williamsburg. Fort Magruder (Redoubt #6) on the Williamsburg Road formed the center of the line.

The Union advance from Fort Monroe quickly overran the lightly defended first line, but it was a very different story when they reached Magruder’s second line. McClellan was convinced, based on horribly inaccurate intelligence provided by Allan Pinkerton, that the Confederate force confronting him was substantially larger than it actually was. Magruder did his part to confuse his adversary by marching regiments back and forth, in and out of wooded areas, so that there appeared to be many more Confederate troops at hand than there actually were.

For six or seven days McClellan enjoyed at least a 4-1 advantage and a concerted push by the Union army could have easily overrun Magruder’s second and third lines of defense. As overall Confederate commander Joe Johnson remarked several weeks later, "No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack". Not only did the extremely cautious McClellan hesitate, he refused to attack at all, settling in for a siege of Yorktown instead. The siege lasted until May 3, and only ended then because Magruder was ordered to abandon Yorktown and withdraw to the defenses around Richmond. By May 3, Johnson had moved his entire army from the Rappahannock River line to Richmond. The Confederates now had 60,000 men to oppose McClellan.

As the Confederates withdrew from Yorktown, McClellan ordered a pursuit. The Confederate rearguard made a stand at Magruder’s third defensive line around Williamsburg. On May 5, Union forces opened the battle with a frontal attack against Fort Magruder but were repulsed. Fighting continued throughout the day. After nightfall the Confederates continued their withdrawal. Union forces suffered 2,239 casualties and Confederate forces lost 1,603. The battle of Williams-burg is commemorated in Figure 8.

As Confederates withdrew up the Peninsula, Confederate forces at Norfolk were left isolated. On May 9, General Benjamin Huger abandoned Norfolk and withdrew to Petersburg. The Confederates also had to blow up the CSS Virginia, which was based at Norfolk, because her draft of twenty-two feet would not allow her to navigate the James River, and she was not sufficiently seaworthy to sail to another coastal town. The destruction of the CSS Virginia on May 11 is commemorated in Figure 9.

With Norfolk occupied and the CSS Virginia destroyed, there was only one remaining obstacle to prevent the Union Navy from sailing up the James River to Richmond, but it was a formidable one. The Confederates had constructed Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff, a ninety-foot cliff on the south bank of the river just eight miles from Richmond. On May 15, Union Commander John Rodgers led a flotilla of five vessels, including the ironclade USS Monitor and USS Galena, toward Drewry’s Bluff. The flotilla on the James River is shown in Figure 10

For four hours, the ships traded fire with the heavy guns in the fort. The ships were also raked by rifle fire from infantry on the banks of the river. The Union fleet proved no match for the well-placed Confederate artillery and was forced to retire. The battle of Fort Darling is commemorated in Figure 11

Confederate forces were now firmly ensconced in the defenses around Richmond. As McClellan advanced his army to the outskirts of Richmond, he greatly extended his right flank in expectation of receiving reinforcements by land from the Fredericksburg area. In order to do so, McClellan was forced to position his army so that it was divided by the swampy Chickahominy River, with two corps south of the river and three corps north. Unfortunately for McClellan, General Stonewall Jackson’s successful campaign in the Shenandoah Valley had compelled Lincoln to hold the anticipated reinforcements at Fredericksburg.

On May 31, General Johnston launched an attack seeking to take advantage of the divided Union army. The attack was aimed at the two Union corps south of the river. The battle opened at 1:00 PM with a successful assault on Union forces at Seven Pines. Union troops were forced back. But the attack was not as effective as it could have been because it was made piecemeal. Union troops were forced back twice but were able to hold onto a third defensive line when twilight ended the battle at 6:00 PM. The fighting at Seven Pines is shown in Figure 12.

   Meanwhile the Confederate attack on Union positions at Fair Oaks finally began at 4:00 PM. This attack was repulsed when Union reinforcements were able to cross the Chickamominy River. The fighting at Fair Oaks is shown in Figure 13.    General Johnston tried to rally his troops at Fair Oaks but was seriously wounded. The wounding of Johnston is commemorated in Figure 14.    General Gustavus Woodson Smith temporarily replaced Johnson. The battle was renewed on June 1, but all Confederate assaults were repulsed and the Confederate forces withdrew to the Richmond defenses.

Contact's: Dennis Carman