April 9, 1862 (Wednesday)
While the Battle of Shiloh raged for two days in the west, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac moved not an inch. Four long days has passed since McClellan learned that the Confederates had fortified across the entire Virginia Peninsula. He had expected them to retreat to Yorktown, which he felt could easily be taken. The same day, he discovered that President Lincoln was withholding General McDowell’s First Corps, keeping it near to Washington.
McClellan had decided to besiege Yorktown. This siege would take time. Lincoln was growing increasingly short on such a commodity. On the sixth, Lincoln had wired McClellan, urging him to move. “You now have over 100,000 troops with you,” reasoned the President, “I think you better break the line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once.”
McClellan argued that he had only 85,000 men (of which only 53,000 were on hand). When McClellan first landed on the Peninsula, by his own calculations, the enemy before him consisted of no more than 15,000. Things on that end, however, seemed to have changed. As he took in Rebel prisoners, he heard again and again that General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac (very soon to use the moniker “Army of Northern Virginia”) had left their works along the Rappahannock to reinforce their comrades on the Peninsula.
This meant, according to McClellan, that the enemy now had “probably not less than 100,000 men, probably more.” Since the loss of Blenker’s Division and McDowell’s First Corps (a loss he somehow totaled to the sound of 50,000 men), his force “was probably less than that of the enemy.”1
Writing to his wife that evening, McClellan complained that Lincoln “thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”2
The truth was that many of Johnston’s Rebels had come to Yorktown. However, the prisoners McClellan relied upon for information greatly exaggerated things. Manning the Confederate defenses, they had few more than 34,000, doubling the original Army of the Peninsula, commanded by General “Prince” John Magruder, who was blissfully surprised that McClellan had not yet attacked.3
Also surprised, though less than blissful, was President Lincoln, who, upon this date, donned his lawyer’s cap and sent McClellan a very stern note, arguing why the General had to pick up the pace. With all the skill of a master attorney, Lincoln deftly punched holes in each of McClellan’s complaints and excuses.
Lincoln’s biggest concern was that Washington be left protected. McClellan originally placed General Banks’ Corps at Manassas to do the job, but then moved them to the Shenandoah, leaving nothing in their place. “And allow me to ask,” jabbed Lincoln, “do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops?”
As McClellan claimed to have only 85,000 men, Lincoln wondered how that could be so. According to McClellan’s own returns, he had 108,000 men total. “How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?”
Lincoln was not finished. He figured that however many men McClellan had en route to the Peninsula had already arrived. The enemy, however, would only grown stronger. While Lincoln ultimately approved McClellan’s Peninsula plan, it was not his first choice. “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,” explained the President, “we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments at either place.”
Now was no time for regrets. It was time for action. Several places throughout the letter, Lincoln insisted that McClellan do something. “I think it is the precise time for you to strike a blow,” penned Lincoln only two lines before he wrote: “And once more let me tell you it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow.”
He concluded in much the same manner: “I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.”4
Union Col. Edward Canby had hoped to take Confederate-held Albuquerque, holding it until he could form a junction with the troops coming south from Fort Union. Combined, with a force of 2,200, he planned to defeat the Rebel Army of New Mexico, commanded by General Henry Sibley, roughly 2,000-strong.
Canby and his column arrived before Albuquerque the previous day, but had met with a stiff resistance put up by the 120 Rebels left in town. Sibley, who had concentrated most of his force to the north, at Santa Fe, was currently doing everything he could to rush them back to Albuquerque.
The Federals spent most of this day skirmishing with the Confederates. No casualties were recorded, but the fire, including artillery, was kept up for hours. At dusk, Canby ordered that his men build campfires and that his drummer boys and buglers remain behind while the rest of his force moved east under the shroud of nightfall.
The deception worked, and not a day too soon. The first elements of Sibley’s Rebels began to arrive at 10pm. South of their position, they saw the Federal camp, lit with fires, and could hear the bugle strains and beats of the drum. Meanwhile, Canby slipped to Carnuel Pass, near San Antonio. There, he would wait for the troops from Fort Union, under Col. Gabriel Paul.5
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol 11, Part 1, p14; 11-12. [↩]
- Lincoln and McClellan; The Trouble Partnership Between a President and His General by John C. Waugh, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. [↩]
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol 11, Part 1, p15. [↩]
- Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall, University of New Mexico Press, 1960. [↩]