When he came to write his official report on the Peninsula campaign a year later, General McClellan was still incensed. He labeled the withholding of McDowell’s First Corps a “fatal error,” making it impossible for him to execute the “rapid and brilliant operations” he had so carefully planned. “I know of no instance in military history where a general in the field has received such a discouraging blow,” he wrote. What was worse—and he made this charge from the first—it was all part of a deliberate plot, conceived by “a set of heartless villains” in Washington, to sacrifice him and his army on the altar of abolitionism.
As McClellan viewed it, the real reason for holding back the First Corps was to make sure he would not have force enough to capture Richmond and end the rebellion before the abolitionists could enlarge the conflict from civil war to revolution, from the reuniting of the sections to the forcible abolition of slavery in defiance of the Constitution. As he told his friend Samuel Barlow, it was all a conspiracy originating in “the stupidity & wickedness” of his enemies in the government.
There was no substance whatever to McClellan’s conspiracy theory, but there was also no doubt of his fervent belief in it. Unable to recognize failings in himself, he needed to invent failings in others to excuse whatever went wrong with his grand campaign. His list of conspirators was a long one, headed by Secretary of War Stanton and seconded by radical Republicans of every stripe, and it included General McDowell, whom he suspected of plotting to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln was on the list as well, but more as Stanton’s tool than as instigator. Throughout the campaign McClellan would rarely find a good word to say for the president—and would never grasp the reality that it was Lincoln, rather than Stanton, who made the decisions affecting him and his army. Although he had glimpsed the truth earlier when he remarked to Barlow that the president “is my strongest friend,” he would not return that friendship. This matter of the defense of Washington was just the first of many instances when General McClellan’s refusal to trust the president or to take him into his confidence would cost him dearly.
Nor was there any substance to McClellan’s claim that holding back McDowell to guard Washington dislocated all his plans for getting the Peninsula campaign off to a fast start. He had already brought the campaign to a dead stop, before learning of the First Corps’s detachment, by electing to lay siege to Magruder’s line across the Peninsula. The First Corps was not even a high priority in his planning—by his scheduling it was to be two weeks or more before its divisions began to reach Fort Monroe. In any event, his original idea of using McDowell to outflank all the enemy positions on the Peninsula was gone beyond recall the moment he decided that the main army could not turn Yorktown.
Should he land the First Corps on the north bank of the York and send it past Gloucester Point while the rest of the army was immobilized in its siege lines before Yorktown, he would be committing what was for him a cardinal military sin: dividing his army in the face of what he now had no doubt was a superior foe. It would invite his opponent to leave a holding force in his own siege lines, cross the York with the rest of his army, and fall on McDowell like an avalanche. General McClellan’s declarations to the contrary, the president’s decision to hold back McDowell did not dictate the decision to besiege Yorktown. It did not affect the way the siege was conducted, or even how long it lasted. The sole author of the siege of Yorktown was George Brinton McClellan.
Sunday, April 6, dawned clear and pleasant, and at first light the balloon Intrepid, piloted by “Professor” Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the New Hampshire Yankee who headed McClellan’s aeronaut corps, rose majestically from behind the trees to spy out the Yorktown defenses. On the ground dozens of other Yankees crept forward with telescopes and field glasses on the same mission. Prince John Magruder, continuing his game of bluff, provided them with a good deal to see, but little that was distinct. His artillerists and sharpshooters continued to fire at the slightest movement, and the Yankee observers had to keep their distance.
Some of McClellan’s generals were eager that morning to see what was really behind the fierce front Magruder displayed. Charles S. Hamilton, leading a division in Heintzelman’s Third Corps, said he could not see much in the way of any actual defenses in the gap between Yorktown’s ramparts and the headwaters of the Warwick River. Heintzelman and Hamilton went to headquarters to seek permission for a reconnaissance in force to probe the spot. They got nowhere with the idea. McClellan’s favorite lieutenant, Fitz John Porter, and his chief engineer, John Barnard, both strongly seconded the general’s decision to do nothing more than dig in where they were. As Barnard wrote in appraising the siege, “The project of an assault was mere hare-brained folly. . . .” Just then, however, an actual reconnaissance in force was being launched against another part of Magruder’s line, and it very nearly succeeded.
Leading the left wing of the Federal advance was the Fourth Corps division of General William F. Smith, who since his West Point days had been known as “Baldy” for his thinning hair. Baldy Smith was an aggressive, contentious sort, with little faith in the resolve of his corps commander, Erasmus Keyes, and that morning he acted on his own in ordering two regiments to investigate the Warwick River line to see if there were any holes in it. Smith assured the leader of the expedition, Brigadier Winfield Scott Hancock, that if a hole was found he would send him strong reinforcements to exploit it.
After seeing off his reconnaissance, Smith rode to Keyes’s headquarters to let his superior know “in a conversational way” what he had done. As they talked, a messenger arrived from McClellan’s headquarters. Keyes read the dispatch and without a word handed it to Smith. No action was to be initiated against the enemy, it read, until the engineers had thoroughly studied the Rebel line and determined the best approach. Smith, “very much chagrined,” rushed back to the front to recall Hancock. Hancock said that he had already discovered the weak spot they were looking for, and that it could be taken easily. No matter now, Smith told him: it was out of their hands. Baldy Smith always believed that had McClellan’s order arrived an hour or two later, he would have broken the enemy’s line and ended the siege of Yorktown the day it began.
Ironically, this aborted assault furnished General McClellan with the evidence he needed to prove he had done the right thing in putting Yorktown under siege. Hancock came back with four prisoners from the 14th Alabama who were so talkative that it is likely they were members of Prince John’s acting company. Under questioning by one of Pinkerton’s detectives, the Alabamians revealed that the Rebel line on the Warwick was manned by 40,000 men, which would grow “in a few days” to 100,000. Joe Johnston himself was expected that day, along with 8,000 reinforcements.
McClellan took the baited hook. On April 7 he telegraphed Washington, “All the prisoners state that Gen. J. E. Johnston arrived in 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 men & possibly more”; as a result of the government’s deductions from his command “my force is possibly less than that of the enemy. . . .” To take the offensive now would be fatal: “Were I in possession of their entrenchments and assailed by double my numbers I should have no fears as to the result.” Simply to continue the siege he must have more men and more heavy guns.
President Lincoln urged him to break the enemy’s line in front of him immediately. “They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can,” he warned, and sought to reason with his general. Yorktown would only become another Manassas: “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, intrenchments, at either place.” The country could not fail to note “that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched 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. . . . But you must act.” McClellan ignored the overture. He wrote his wife that the president had urged him to make an attack, and added, “I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”
Prince John Magruder continued to direct his charade bravely enough, but he was not confident that it would hold together much longer. On the evening of April 6 he telegraphed General Lee in Richmond that enemy observers, in the air and on the ground, had been active along every part of his line throughout the day. “They discovered a weak point,” he reported, and while he would make every effort to shore up the spot he worried that “numbers must prevail.” Reinforcements were reaching him very slowly “and will probably be too late.” The previous evening a brigade had arrived from General Huger’s command at Norfolk, but that day had brought him just two regiments from across the James and no troops from Johnston’s army.
Prince John was not one to display his concerns outwardly, however. In full regalia, with staff and escort, he rode his lines from one end to the other, radiating confidence, encouraging his troops, looking every inch the part of commanding general—or more accurately in his circumstances, every inch the part of leading actor.
Richmond was almost sixty miles from the scene of conflict at Yorktown, but already there was a palpable sense of crisis in the Confederate capital. Martial law was imposed on the city, the sale of liquor prohibited, and all military furloughs canceled. Additional state militia were called to the colors to supplement the half-dozen militia units already serving with Magruder on the Peninsula. The women of Richmond, responding to an appeal from the authorities, stitched together 30,000 sandbags for Yorktown’s defenders in thirty hours. The Confederate Congress sitting in the Virginia State Capitol debated a revolutionary bill to conscript men into the army, and Richmond’s city council appropriated funds to bolster the city’s defenses. According to one Southern newspaper, the issue building at Yorktown was “tremendous,. . . for the stake is enormous, being nothing less than the fate of Virginia.” The editor went so far as to compare the army McClellan was assembling to march on Richmond to the Grande Armée Napoleon had assembled to march on Moscow fifty years before.
The capital’s mood brightened considerably when Joe Johnston’s army began to arrive from the Rapidan. A steady parade of Johnston’s troops started through the city on April 6, the very day Magruder remarked on how slowly help was reaching him. While there was no official announcement of the fact, it was obvious to all that the army was on the march to meet McClellan on the Peninsula, and spirits soared.
“Richmond is one living, moving mass of soldiers & to day the streets show nothing but a continuous stream on their way to Yorktown—infantry, cavalry & artillery,” a Mississippi soldier wrote home. Citizens filled the windows overlooking Main Street and lined the sidewalks to cheer column after column as they made their way to the depot of the York River Railroad or to the wharves at Rocketts for passage down the James. Women welcomed them with food and drink and bouquets of flowers. The men responded with the Rebel yell, and regimental bands swung into “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Maryland, My Maryland” and “Dixie.” Flamboyant Robert Toombs, one of the founders of the Confederacy and now a brigadier in Johnston’s army, was especially noticeable. Looking revolutionary in a flaring black slouch hat and tossing red scarf, he personally led each regiment of his brigade in turn past the cheering throng in front of the Spottswood Hotel, making sure all Richmond knew that Toombs’s brigade was on its way to war.
The first two brigades reached Yorktown on April 7, and a third the next day. On the tenth another brigade arrived, and on the eleventh, three more. By that date, General Magruder’s force stood at 34,400, two and a half times his strength just a week earlier when the Federals began their march on Yorktown, and he finally began to breathe easier. Prince John expressed himself utterly surprised that his opponent had “permitted day after day to elapse without an assault,” but he was properly grateful nonetheless. Joe Johnston was equally surprised. After inspecting the Warwick line and hearing what Magruder had to say about those first days of the siege, he told General Lee, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”
On April 11, taking a leaf from General Magruder’s book on bluff, the Merrimack appeared suddenly out of the morning haze and steamed slowly and menacingly toward the Federal squadron in Hampton Roads. “The cry was raised, ‘There comes the Merrimack!!’” a Northern diarist wrote. “. . . Such a scatteration of vessels as ensued was quite a sight: the roads were full of transports of all sorts, steam and sail, and those which lay farthest up got underway in a hurry.” The Monitor and her consorts cleared for battle, seeking to draw the monster deeper into the roadstead to give the ramming vessels the sea room they needed to make their runs at the enemy. By contrast, the Merrimack’s commander, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, was determined to lure the Monitor into the narrow waters of the upper bay, engage her there, and capture her. He knew of the Yankee rams and was heard to say that he was not going out into enemy waters “to get punched. The battle must be fought up there.”
It was Tattnall’s idea for sailors from his escorting gunboats to close with the Yankee ironclad, board her, jam the turret with wedges, blind her by throwing a wet sailcloth over the pilot house, and smoke out her crew by tossing lighted, turpentine-soaked cotton waste down the ventilators. Tattnall expected to lose half his gunboats in the attempt; Flag Officer Goldsborough expected to lose half his ramming squadron if it engaged. Hour after hour the contestants feinted and challenged and exchanged random shots at long range, but neither commander would forgo his tactical plan, and at last the Merrimack steamed back to her lair in Norfolk. The stand-off would be repeated several times in the coming weeks. By threat alone the Merrimack succeeded in guarding Norfolk and sealing off the James and in neutralizing every major fighting ship in the Federal squadron.
General Johnston first reached Richmond from the Rapidan on April 12, to be greeted by President Davis with new orders. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula and Huger’s command at Norfolk were thereby folded into Johnston’s command, which was officially styled in these orders the Army of Northern Virginia. This ought to have made him, in history’s eyes, the famous first commander of this most famous of Confederate armies, but Joe Johnston would never be a general blessed by fame, and his name—in contrast to Robert E. Lee’s—would never be automatically coupled with that great army. Johnston himself preferred to continue calling his command the Army of the Potomac, as if in deliberate defiance of the Federal army of the same name. Some who communicated with Johnston in these weeks used the one name for his army and some the other; Jefferson Davis even addressed him as commander of the Army of Richmond. Despite these eccentricities, most people found it most convenient to call the army now defending Yorktown the Army of Northern Virginia.
Joseph E. Johnston was by nature a fault-finder, seldom satisfied with his circumstances, always first calculating risks before profits. A story was told of him on a grouse-hunting outing before the war. Johnston was known to be a crack shot, but on the hunt he could not seem to find the perfect moment—the birds flew too high or too low, the dogs were not properly positioned, the odds for a sure shot were never quite right. His companions blazed away and ended the day with a full bag; Johnston was blanked. “He was too fussy, too hard to please, too cautious. . . .”
Much the same could be said of him when he inspected General Magruder’s Yorktown line. Magruder was certainly to be commended for his efforts, Johnston said, but everything was wrong with his position—the line was incomplete and badly drawn; it was purely defensive, with no avenues for an offensive; the artillery was inadequate; the Federals, with their naval and arms superiority, would surely turn one or both flanks. On the morning of April 14 Johnston was back in Richmond and delivering his gloomy report to President Davis. He wanted to abandon Yorktown immediately and pull right back to Richmond, the better to contend against the enemy host.
Davis called together a council of advisers to take up this momentous question. He had General Lee and Secretary of War Randolph join them, while Johnston brought in his two senior generals, Gustavus W. Smith and James Longstreet. In the president’s office in the Confederate White House, from eleven that morning until one o’clock the next morning, with only a break for the dinner hour, the six of them debated the proper strategy for meeting the invaders.
Collectively they possessed a remarkable range of personal knowledge of the general opposing them. Lee had commanded young Lieutenant McClellan in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican War, and Longstreet too had made his acquaintance in the old army. Joe Johnston had been McClellan’s close friend in the decade before the war, and G. W. Smith his closest friend. As a junior officer McClellan was the protégé of then secretary of war Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis, Longstreet recalled, took special note of the “high attainments and capacity” of General McClellan.
Repeating his arguments for abandoning the Yorktown line, Johnston urged that all the forces from his command and from Magruder’s on the Peninsula and Huger’s at Norfolk, reinforced by garrison troops from the Carolinas and Georgia, be massed at Richmond for a showdown battle against the invading army. Alternatively, he proposed leaving Magruder to hold Yorktown for as long as he could while the rest of the army marched north to menace Washington and (as Longstreet phrased it) “call McClellan to his own capital.” Longstreet predicted that McClellan, being a careful-minded military engineer, would not be prepared to assault Magruder before May 1. Smith added his support for Johnston’s plan and strongly pressed for an invasion of the North that would not stop at Washington but go on to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.
Randolph and Lee took an opposite tack. Randolph pointed out that giving up Yorktown would also mean giving up Norfolk and its important navy yard, where there were ironclads and gunboats under construction and where the Merrimack was based. Lee added his voice to the argument for continuing to hold the lower Peninsula, primarily for the time it would gain them: time to complete the difficult transformation of the Confederacy’s one-year volunteer army into a “for the war” army; time to begin enlarging that army through the conscription law then being acted on by the Congress; and time to forestall the call-up of reinforcements from other areas. Immediately stripping the Carolinas and Georgia of troops, he warned, would very likely lead to the loss of Charleston and Savannah. In any case, Lee said, the lower Peninsula was well suited defensively for fighting the Yankees.
The debate continued hour after hour until all the arguments—and all the participants—were exhausted, and then Mr. Davis announced his decision. Johnston was to shift the rest of his army—the troops of Smith and Longstreet—to Yorktown and make a stand there for as long as it was practical to do so. Whatever General McClellan gained on the Peninsula he would have to fight for. Joe Johnston accepted the decision without protest. He later wrote that he knew Yorktown could be held only so long before the government would come around to his plan to fall back on Richmond; that, he said, “reconciled me somewhat to the necessity of obeying the President’s order.”
The two armies went to ground, and the siege of Yorktown settled into a sometimes deadly but more often dull routine. Reinforcements would raise the number of men involved to 169,000, with the Federals enjoying a final superiority of almost exactly two to one. On the Confederate side Magruder’s redoubts and trenches—including some first dug by Cornwallis’s redcoats in 1781—were extended and deepened and weak points strengthened, using slave labor impressed from the Peninsula’s plantations. Starting their fortifications and trench lines from scratch, the Federal troops had much the heavier labor, which was multiplied by McClellan’s decision to emplace 111 of the largest siege pieces in the Union arsenal in order to blast his way through Yorktown’s defenses.
He had a choice, McClellan explained: an approach “blocked by an obstacle impassable under fire”—the Warwick River—“& another that is passable but completely swept by artillery. I think we will have to choose the latter, & reduce their artillery to silence.” He sent to his wife for his books on the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimea, which he had studied intensively. In planning the siege of Yorktown, he told her, “I do believe that I am avoiding the faults of the Allies at Sebastopol & quietly preparing the way for a great success.”
Day after day at one point or another in the disputed ground in this hugely scarred landscape there were exchanges between pickets or sharpshooters or artillerymen. “There is scarcely a minute in the day when you cannot hear either the report of a field-piece and the explosion of a shell, or the crack of a rifle,” Lieutenant Colonel Selden Connor of the 7th Maine wrote. In a letter home Lieutenant Robert Miller of the 14th Louisiana described one of these outbursts of firing. The Yankee shells, he wrote, “get to us some seconds before the report . . . so that the first thing we know of them is a shrill whistle unlike any thing you or I ever heard before, then the sharp bell-like crack of the bomb—the whistle of the little balls like bumble-bees—then the report . . . but it all comes so nearly at the same time that it takes a very fine ear to distinguish which is first.” Lieutenant Miller counted 300 shells fired at his sector in one twenty-four-hour period; miraculously the only casualties were three men wounded.
“I believe if there is anybody in the world that fulfills the Apostle’s injunction, ‘beareth all things,’ and ‘endureth all things,’ it is the soldier.” Thus the 2nd Vermont’s Wilbur Fisk opened his weekly letter to his hometown paper on April 24. At its best, life in the trenches meant endless boredom. “This is the dullest place I ever saw, nothing to arouse one from the oppressive monotony but an occasional false alarm . . .,” the 19th Mississippi’s Oscar Stuart wrote bitterly after three weeks in the lines. “I am afraid we will stay in this abominable swamp for a long time without a fight.” Another Mississippian, Augustus Garrison, said that after a while the boys began to wish for a nice safe flesh wound, one that would get them home and “that they might show the girls.” His friend Pink Perkins got his flesh wound, Garrison noted, being nicked in the hip by a piece of shell, “which was very painful but which he could not show to any of the fair ones.”
Life in the trenches was at its worst during the periods of miserable weather that marked these April weeks. Soldiers sent their letters home datelined “Camp Muddy” and “Camp Misery.” A Georgian in Toombs’s brigade, which had marched so gaily through Richmond a few days before, recorded in his diary one particular pitch-black night when his brigade had to crouch for twelve hours in a waterlogged trench knee-deep in mud and water while a cold rain poured down on them without letup. In the middle of the night there was an alarm and much firing, and at daylight they discovered two of their men badly wounded and one dead, all three, it was decided, shot accidentally by their comrades. “It was a night that will long be remembered not only by me, but all that were in that disagreeable hole,” he wrote.
As often as not the killing was random and without purpose. An other diarist, Lieutenant Charles Haydon of the 2nd Michigan, was off duty one day and well behind the lines when he noticed a soldier walking idly by himself across an empty field. With no warning a shell burst over the man’s head, killing him instantly. It was the only Confederate shell fired within a mile of that spot during the entire day. “Some men seem born to be shot,” Haydon decided.
By far the most dangerous siege duty was the advanced picket line, which called for keeping a close watch on the enemy while at the same time avoiding becoming a sharpshooter’s target. Captain William F. Bartlett of the 20th Massachusetts, in command of a company assigned to picket duty every third day, expressed a universal complaint when he called it “very unpleasant duty. No glory in being shot by a picket behind a tree. It is regular Indian fighting.” Four days after writing this, Bartlett had his knee shattered by a sharpshooter’s bullet and had to have the leg amputated.
Early in the siege it was the Union sharpshooters who had the decided edge in this deadly contest, and any Rebel showing himself was liable to catch a bullet. Among the units in the Army of the Potomac was a regiment of sharpshooters recruited by Colonel Hiram Berdan that contained expert marksmen armed with special rifles, among them finely crafted target pieces equipped with telescopic sights. “Our Sharp Shooters play the mischief with them when they come out in daylight,” one of Berdan’s men told his wife.