May 3, 1862 (Saturday)
General Joe Johnston, Confederate commander on the Peninsula, spent most of the previous two days trying to figure out how to dislodge an army of 56,600 from Yorktown and its outer defenses. He had twenty-six brigades and thirty-six batteries. On the 1st, the plan was to move “tomorrow evening at sundown.”1 But “tomorrow evening” came and went with little movement.
General D.H. Hill, commanding the Confederate left, mistakenly published Johnston’s order to evacuate, which threw even more confusion into the pot. To make matters worse, the telegraph operator at Williamsburg, towards which they were to retreat, left his post. Hill had wanted transport ships to ferry his men up the James River, but none could be found. He wanted horses, but there were no horses.
Still, General Johnston insisted upon a retreat. “Nothing but an actual attack of columns of infantry need interfere with the movement of your main body soon after dark,” replied the General to D.H. Hill.2
Retreating such an army withing a few hundred yards of an enemy nearly twice its size is a near impossibility, even under the cover of darkness. Word had indeed leaked to General George McClellan, commanding his 112,000-strong Army of the Potomac. Escaped slaves told of Confederate wagon trains moving towards Williamsburg. Even they, with no military training whatsoever, could tell that the Rebels were about to retire.
McClellan, however, refused to believe it. His intelligence was certain that the Confederates were going to make their stand at Yorktown. And on this date, the very date that Johnston was about to retreat, The Pinkerton Agency, collecting intelligence for McClellan, submitted their report.3
Allen Pinkerton, so cleverly writing as “E.J.Allen,” had gleaned his information from “spies, contrabands, deserters, refugees, and prisoners of war.” Collecting from these myriad sources, he divulged that the actual number of Confederates in the Yorktown defenses was anywhere from 100,000 to 120,000. And this was a medium estimate. Allen somehow conferred with someone connected to the Rebels’ commissary department, who told him that 119,000 rations were being issued each day.
To strike even more fear into McClellan, Pinkerton concluded that it could “safely be assumed that the medium estimates stated (100,000 to 120.000) are under rather than over the mark of the real strength of rebel forces at Yorktown.”4
Ignoring the intelligence that claimed the Rebels were about to retreat, and believing fully that they were at least 100,000-strong and determined to stay, McClellan began to plan an attack. He unloaded General Franklin’s reinforcements from transport ships, and wanted the gunboats, namely the newly-build ironclad USS Galina, to destroy the batteries along the York River and fire into the Rebel defenses from the rear, cutting off their line of retreat to Williamsburg.
All the while, the copious amounts of siege artillery would be firing incessantly until the Rebels were so decimated that the infantry could advance without taking heavy losses. All of this, said McClellan well after the war, would have been tied up neatly in two day’s time. Alas, however, it was not to be.5
It was after night had fallen before the Confederate artillery open a deafening bombardment upon the Union trenches. Instead of focusing upon one target, the fire was random and all along the line. This was done to keep the Federals from becoming brave enough to see just what was happening several hundred yards away.
The retreat used two parallel roads that joined two miles before reaching Williamsburg. The marching was mostly stop and go, and of those, mostly the former. The evacuation would take all night, but by morning, the Confederate trenches would be empty.6
Butler Unleashes His Proclamation
Though it was dated (and probably written on) May 1, General Benjamin Butler’s Proclamation to the people of New Orleans was not published until this date. The reason was because the New Orleans True Delta refused to print it. In retaliation, Butler commandeered their press and shut down the paper until the owner apologized to Butler. All the while, the General’s printers were flying the sheets, printing as many copies of the proclamation as they could.7
There were several key points that rankled any self-style secessionist. First, the city was to remain under martial law. Butler argued that since it had been under such orders since the Confederates occupied its streets, he saw no reason to entrust the civil authorities in keeping the peace.
He also suppressed the flying of any flag of the rebellion. The United States flag had to be “treated with the utmost deference and respect by all persons, under pain of severe punishment.”
Now was the time to switch allegiances. If one had been true to the Confederacy, but now saw the error of their ways, they would be welcomed back into the fold after swearing their allegiance to the Union. Of course, the flip side was that “all persons still holding allegiance to the Confederate States will be deemed rebels against the Government of the United States, and regarded and treated as enemies thereof.”
Though enemies, the citizens in rebellion were not subject to the articles of war. If a Union soldier were to be killed “by any disorderly person or mob is simply assassination and murder and not war, and will be so regarded and punished.”
Butler also curtailed the freedom of speech: “No publication, either by newspaper, pamphlet, or handbill, giving accounts of the movement of soldiers of the United States within this department, reflecting in any way upon the United States or its officers, or tending in any way to influence the public mind against the Government of the United States, will be permitted…..” Additionally, any article or editorial containing any news of the war had to be “submitted to the examination of an officer who will be detailed for that purpose from these headquarters.”
All “assemblages of persons in the street, either by day or night, tend to disorder,” were also forbidden. Even the police force was disbanded. The only civil institution allowed to continue seemed to be the fire department, but even they had to report to the provost marshal.
“All inhabitants are enjoined to pursue their usual avocations,” Butler encouraged, “all shops and places of business are to be kept open in the accustomed manner, and services to be had in the churches and religious houses as in times of profound peace.”
After all, the Union army had come to New Orleans “not to destroy but to make good, to restore order out of chaos, and the government of laws in place of the passions of men.”8
The public was, of course, irate, but Butler was unmovable in most respects. Later in the day, a few delegates from the Mayor’s officer dropped by to let Butler know that the Mayor was not going to disband the civil government, as he had threatened to do the previous day. The delegates requested that Butler remove the Federal troops from City Hall, and he agreed. To brighten the day even more, he allowed the Postal Service to continue in its work.9
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p488, 489. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p491-492. [↩]
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p268. [↩]
- McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. [↩]
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]
- Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj. F. Butler by Benjamin Butler, A. M. Thayer, 1892. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p717-720. [↩]
- When the Devil Came Down to Dixie by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 1997. [↩]