April 14, 1862 (Monday)
Confederate General Joe Johnston had very little faith that his Army of Northern Virginia could hold the defenses across the Peninsula against the Union Army of the Potomac. After being placed in command of all troops gathered there (the bulk of which had been made up of his old Confederate Army of the Potomac), he examined for himself the works. Finding them not up to his liking, he met with President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and the new Secretary of War, George Wythe Randolph.
Not only were the defenses inadequate, the Rebel artillery was out-gunned. The fortifications around Yorktown and Gloucester, across the York River, were armed with older, smooth-bore guns, while the Union artillery had newer, rifled cannons, which had a much greater range. From beyond the throw of the Confederate artillery, their Union counterparts could pick apart their batteries.
Defending the Peninsula merely delayed the Union approach at the cost of untold lives. Johnston believed that he had a better plan. He wanted to gather together all the forces down the Confederate coast, uniting them before Richmond, drawing out McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and surprising them as they were about to lay siege to the city. Once defeated, they would be 100 miles away from their nearest base (Fortress Monroe) and could reasonably be annihilated. This battle, believed Johnston, would decide the war.
While Davis listened, Lee and Randolph were not convinced that Johnston’s plan was sound. Lee believed that pulling troops from the coast would lead to the fall of Charleston and Savannah. Randolph, who had been a naval officer before the war, thought that giving up the Navy Yard at Norfolk (on the Peninsula) a particularly bad idea.
Johnston countered that whatever loss that might first occur was merely temporary and would surely be regained once the army was victorious.
The discussion ebbed and flowed, the details coming and going. They had been joined by Generals James Longstreet and G. W. Smith, who sometimes added their own opinions and sometimes said nothing. This went on for nearly seven hours, until they broke for dinner. At 7pm, they met again in Davis’ house, where they debated until after midnight.
Slowly, Johnston’s plan lost favor with the President, who sided with General Lee. Johnston was to leave at once for Yorktown and defend it against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Without the extra troops from Georgia and the Carolinas, the Army of Northern Virginia could field only 70,000, or roughly two-thirds of the Union forces on the Peninsula.
Though he obeyed, he had no faith that his army could hold and fully expected to find himself at the gates of Richmond before too long.1
Rebel Artillery Not as Shabby as First Supposed
Johnston was absolutely correct in his assessment of the Union artillery pointed at the Confederate defenses in and around Yorktown. After deciding that he couldn’t carry the Rebel positions at Yorktown with infantry, Union General George McClellan called for a siege. This required the digging of trenches and artillery positions. It also required artillery to fill these positions. Most importantly, all of this required time.
It did not take long for McClellan to begin to gather his guns. While the Confederates had mostly smooth-bores, along with the twenty 8″ and 10″ siege mortars, he also had twenty rifled guns. From the five 100 lbs Parrots to the ten 4-1/2 inchers, his artillery could safely fire upon the Rebels with little risk to his own men.2
All of this firepower, however, didn’t mean that the Rebels were defenseless. Johnston believed that the Union Navy could take out the batteries at Gloucester and Yorktown and land behind the Confederate lines. But taking out those artillery positions wasn’t so simple.
Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, commander of the Union Navy around Fortress Monroe (and thus the Peninsula), had no real desire to attack Gloucester and Yorktown. He believed that his first priority was to protect the fleet against the ironclad CSS Virginia, which had been lately poking around. This freed up only seven wooden gunships to aid the infantry.
The USS Monitor, which had previously fought the Virginia to a tactical draw, was believed by the Navy to be vulnerable, and they refused to rely upon it to defend against the Rebel monstrosity.
While Goldsborough’s seven available gunboats had plenty of firepower, the Rebel’s land-based guns were given a three-to-one advantage over ship-based guns. The heavy artillery in the forts, being secure on the ground, were more accurate. They had the decided advantage of knowing the range of the targets before them.
The attacking ships would either have to fire on the move, which greatly reduced their accuracy, or stop to fire, which left them susceptible to the Confederate gunners. Goldsborough also considered that he would be attacking not just one fort, but two, one on either side of a 1,200 yard stretch of water. It was true that the smooth-bore guns were less accurate than rifled guns, but with each fort needing to cover only 600 yards, the accuracy of the thirty-three pieces covering the narrow channel wasn’t really an issue.
To make matters even worse for the Union Navy, some of the Rebel fortifications were elevated twenty-five to seventy feet above the York River. The artillery aboard the gunboats couldn’t be elevated enough to hit such targets.
McClellan had repeatedly tried to coax the Navy into steaming past Yorktown under the shroud of night so he could land troops behind the Rebel lines, but Goldsborough refused. Seeking a different plan, he turned to the infantry. Scouts on the Union left flank had reported a weakness in the Rebel lines near Lee’s Mill.
McClellan, after studying maps, selected the location for the attempted breakthrough and ordered that the reserves from General Keyes’ Corps be brought up, though nobody seemed to know where they (the division of Silas Casey) were. Once found, and once Keyes’ Corps was ready, McClellan would order the attack.3