General McClellan and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

April 5, 1862 (Saturday)

Mac's got it rough.

The previous day had been a good one for George Briton McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. The Rebels to his front gave up ground quickly as he advanced two columns up the Virginia Peninsula. Though a division had been withheld from him a few days ago, he quickly recovered, taking less than two days to get his entire army of 66,700 on the road.

As the dawn drove out the night, he must have felt a renewed optimism. He was certain that Confederate commander General John Magruder had left his back door open wide enough for one wing of the Army of the Potomac to slip around behind Yorktown, the Confederate stronghold. He was also certain that General McDowell’s First Corps, 10,000-strong, would be joining him in the next couple of days.1

General Keyes, mystified by Prince John!

But his day went from good to bad possibly even before he left his tent. General Erasmus Keyes, heading up the army’s left column, reported early, saying that the back door was blocked by a “large force with three guns in position and strong breastworks.” McClellan had expected Keyes to face little or no resistance, but it was now Keyes’ opinion “that we shall encounter very serious resistance.” There was no way that he was going to be able to best the Rebels with the force he had, so he called for reinforcements. Though they had done no fighting, his artillery was inexplicably low on ammunition. The same was true for the infantry. Also, he wanted some more artillery, and the roads were bad.

A little while later, Keyes checked in again with more bad news. All of his troops were at Warfield Court House and two escaped slaves confirmed that the Rebels were seriously entrenched. He gave further details about how bad the roads were and even delayed sending the message “in the hope that I might get some positive information, but I as yet have not succeeded.”2

To McClellan this was shocking news. He assumed that the roads would be clear of Rebels and would somehow be impervious to the foul weather. But these supernatural roads apparently would have been impassible, even if the Rebels hadn’t been there.3

Map of the Rebel line.

By afternoon, Keyes was seeing the enemy everywhere and trying to figure out what it meant. First, he saw them filing out of their works and going down the Warwick River, which ran between the Rebels fortifications and Keyes’ men. Then, they were seen on the opposite side of the river. To Keyes it seemed that wherever he moved, there was the enemy. He told McClellan the next day that wherever the Rebels had shown themselves, “I have shown a force to confront him, and I think he must suppose that I have an immense army.” 4

Almost the opposite was true. General “Prince” John Magruder was well aware how many Federals were in his front and was doing all he could to make sure that the Yankees thought that it was he who had the immense army. For twenty-four hours, much of Magruder’s small force of 13,000 marched in circles, showing themselves to the Union forces as many times and in as many places as possible. Some units marched from the York River to the James River, the width of the Peninsula, six times.

But that was not all. Other regiments were hidden behind hills and would march by specific locations several times throughout the day, adding a more random, natural feel to the charade. When woods were too thick to be peered into by the Federals, drummer boys and buglers were ordered to beat and bleat while officers loudly shouted orders to nobody. Some regiments even fired to create the illusion of sporadic skirmishes up and down the line.5

Prince John Magruder

This sneaky little ruse worked. Convinced that his 66,700 could not carry the Rebel fortifications, held by what he now believed to be many more than Magruder’s 13,000, his day was almost certainly ruined. Still, McClellan saw a small sliver of hope.

He didn’t expect to find Magruder’s force still stretched across the Peninsula. Probing for a weakness could expend more troops than he cared to lose. And so he prepared to lay siege to Yorktown, ordering up the siege train from Fortress Monroe. He was rightly confident that, given the time, the siege would be successful. The day had not gone as he had hoped, but all was not lost. Besides, he must have mused, General McDowell’s First Corps would be along any time now.

It was then that he received word that General McDowell’s First Corps wouldn’t be joining him on the Peninsula. McClellan was enraged. He could not believe that Lincoln would do such a thing. He wrote to his wife, telling her that this was “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”6

The President had promised him that no further troops would be plucked from his army. “I beg that you will reconsider the order detaching the First Corps from my command,” he wrote Lincoln that night. But Lincoln would not reconsider.7


How Could They Not Know?

William Tecumseh Sherman

There had been signs. Increased skirmishing along the Union outposts near Pittsburg Landing should have been some indication. But sharp cavalry scraps and the calls for infantry reinforcements were not enough to convince Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant that the Confederates were heading towards them. In fact, Grant was still certain that they had not even left their camps around Corinth, twenty-five miles south.8

Though the march had been filled with pointless strife, somehow or another, over 44,000 Confederate troops under Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard were arrayed before the Union troops by 4pm. That the Federal troops seemed not to suspect a thing was surprising.

Rebel "counsil of war" on April 5.

What started as a discussion between Generals Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, devolved into a screaming match that dragged in several other generals, including Polk, Breckinridge, Gilmer and the army’s commander, General Johnston. The march had taken three days. There had been steady musket and artillery fire only the day before. Beauregard was convinced that the Federals were well aware of their presence and demanded that the army turn back to Corinth.

Johnston then took control of his army. They would attack the Yankees at Shiloh Church at dawn the next day.9

  1. George B. McClellan; The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1988. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p69-70. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p75. []
  5. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p71. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, p95. []
  9. Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University, 1967. []
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General McClellan and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. Just proves General McClellan is a failed general of the Union army. One of the worse in history. Just imagine if he was general rest of the war we would have 2 America’s by now.

  2. Is it any wonder that not one piece of Army rolling stock, artillery, armored personnel carrier or tank has been named after General McClellan?

    Must be a story there, somewhere.

    • Well, that is mostly true, yes. There is a Fort McClellan in Alabama (dating back to the Span-Am War) and how could anyone forget the USS McClellan, which was a WW1 refrigerator ship? πŸ™‚


  3. I’ve seen a McClellan saddle–very interesting. In my research on Picacho Peak, turns out they are no good for the desert. The seat is made out of rawhide, which softens when rain-soaked, letting the wooden frames spread out & gall the backs of the horses. Then, when the rawhide dries quickly, it splits and curls, creating sharp edges that gall the men’s seat.

    In the desert, those infernal afternoon t-storms come up, then it gets hot again-dry hot. McClellan saddles did not hold up well under those conditions, so the California Cavalry replaced them with Ranger saddles whenever possible.

  4. I love General β€œPrince” John Magruder. He’s so theatrical…”Some units marched from the York River to the James River, the width of the Peninsula, six times.”

    I’ve just noticed captions on the photos…really adds to the experiance.

    …and my final accolade…the Balloon ilustration in the map…it’s the first I’ve seen with the Balloon deployed…and I LOVE balloons and the Balloon Corp. Here’s a nice link…the Confederates had one too:

    What can you think of George Briton McClellan? God knows the troops loved him, but with Pinkerton’s inflated intelligence, he was always too cautious. I’m not very impressed with General Keyes in this story.

    And Shiloh looms…


  5. Thanks, Hank,

    I try to keep the captions humorous and informative. But since I do them at the end of writing and researching the post, their humor varies.

    If the post was a tough one, you’ll get names only. If it was a fun, breeze, you’ll probably get sassy sarcasm. It’s actually a good barometer for telling just how difficult the post was for me. This one apparently fell in between.