McClellan Complains to Lincoln; Jackson Ready to Attack

May 22, 1862 (Thursday)

General George B. McClellan, Union commander of the Army of the Potomac had upwards of 110,000 men under his command on the Virginia Peninsula. These men, and this army, were arrayed against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, 72,000-strong and backed up against the gates of Richmond. Naturally, McClellan believed the enemy, under General Joe Johnston, numbered as many as 160,000, so before making any full on assault, he wanted reinforcements.

Specifically, he wanted General Irvin McDowell’s First Corps, weighing in at 41,000 bodies, and holding the town of Fredericksburg. After many pleas to Lincoln, the President finally relented, allowing McDowell to edge closer to Richmond and McClellan’s right wing.

The catch (there was always a catch) was that McClellan was not allowed to have full command over McDowell’s Corps. Originally, McDowell was charged with protecting Washington, and those orders still stuck. McDowell was given to McClellan to use against Richmond, but his Corps always had to be on McClellan’s right.1

Following the campaign, and after the war, McClellan pinpointed these reinforcements as the reason why the campaign failed. Instead of using the more southerly James River, he was forced to use the more northerly York River to link up with McDowell. Prior to receiving the news of the reinforcements, however, McClellan had only used the York River to transport troops and supplies.2

General Irvin McDowell

After stewing for three days, McClellan wrote to Lincoln, arguing that even one division added to the Army of the Potomac, under his own command, could better protect Washington than McDowell’s “whole force anywhere on the field.” But since McDowell was coming, McClellan wondered why he wasn’t able to do as he pleased with the reinforcements.

“I desire that the extent of my authority over McDowell may be clearly defined,” wrote McClellan, “lest misunderstandings and conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused. I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing General McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, and holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions.” 3

Though it would take a few days for Lincoln to receive and respond to McClellan’s long dispatch, General McDowell, on this date, opened communication with the Army of the Potomac. “I have received tbe orders of the President to move with the army under my command and co-operate with yours in the reduction of Richmond,” began McDowell. It’s interesting that he referred to his command not as the “First Corps,” but as “the army,” placing himself on the same level as McClellan.

McDowell, by order of the President, was not to move from his position near Fredericksburg until General Shields’ division, recently taken from General Nathaniel Banks in the Shenandoah Valley, arrived. Since Shields was expected sometime on this date, McDowell predicted that he would be able to move out with his army on the 24th.

There was a division or so of Confederates under General Joseph R. Anderson, holding the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad and blocking McDowell’s route to McClellan’s side. To help with this, McDowell needed reinforcements, and asked what McClellan could do to cut off the retreat of the Rebels under Anderson, once beaten.4

There seemed to have been no reply from McClellan, but by the time he might have, things had changed yet again.

Large map showing today's troop movements. (Also shows where Banks believed Jackson and Ewell to be.)

__________________

Jackson Moves Within Ten Miles of the Unsuspecting Yankees

It’s impossible to talk about the Peninsula Campaign without also talking about Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign, as one effected the other in multifarious ways. General Shields’ Division had been taken from General Banks’ command, reducing the latter’s force to roughly 8,000. This movement gave Confederates under Jackson and Ewell the chance to combine and attack Banks, at Strasburg.

Union troops at Front Royal.

In attacking, General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, believed that it would threaten Washington and keep Union reinforcements from the Peninsula. And so, Jackson and Ewell decided to hit Banks at Front Royal, where he had a detachment. This slight of hand including leaving the main Shenandoah Valley and slipping north via the Luray Valley. Once completed, they would be on the enemy’s right flank with him being none the wiser.

Having encamped near Luray Court House, Jackson’s force of over 17,000 was on the march by 6am. As Ewell’s troops took the lead, Jackson rode towards the rear with his men. As the day progressed, he moved forward, giving the newly-added regiments their first sight of Stonewall Jackson. They shouted and huzzahed as he passed.5

Col. John R. Kenly

That night, they halted ten miles south of Front Royal, an indefensible little burg held by 1,000 Federals under Col. John R. Kenly. Both he and General Banks believed Jackson to be somewhere in the main Valley, probably near Harrisonburg. He feared that Jackson might try to come up towards New Market, only twenty-five miles south. If he got to New Market, mused Banks in a letter to Washington (written on this date), he could easily unite with Ewell, who he believed to be over sixty miles away.

Though he had absolutely no idea that Jackson and Ewell had united and were a good fifty miles closer to him than he suspected, he was well aware of Jackson’s abilities.

“To these important considerations ought to be added the persistent adherence of Jackson to the defense of the valley and his well-known purpose to expel the Government troops from this country if in his power. This may be assumed as certain. There is probably no one more fixed and determined purpose in the whole circle of the enemy’s plans.”6



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p28-29. []
  2. McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p29. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p214. []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p524-525. []
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4 thoughts on “McClellan Complains to Lincoln; Jackson Ready to Attack

  1. To be sure, I have done no specific research into General George B. McClellan. I’m left wondering if his “recent” failures are not due to his tendency to be overly cautious. As you have presented it here he routinely overestimates the numbers of his opponents and hesitates when he might have taken advantage of momentum. Assuming that I am not simply falling into lockstep with a prejudice of yours (and I have seen no tendency to express favorites or dislikes in your material to date) then McClellan seems like a competent but timid General. I wonder… does this prove to be true through the balance of the war, or does he gain some confidence and begin to assert his advantages more later?

    1. He was definitely over-cautious. And, during the Maryland Campaign, he did pick up the pace a bit, but this is pretty much how he works.

      McClellan was merely an okay General in WAY over his head. He had no business leading men into battle. He was an amazing organizer and (though he ego would never allow it) he should have been in command of garrison troops.

      There’s an interesting connection between McClellan and our neck of the woods. When Jefferson Davis was the US Secretary of War, he sent Mac on a mission to the Cascades to find a pass for the railroad. He started from Fort Vancouver (Washington) and the going was rough. It took 12 days to cover less than 80s miles.

      Eventually, they got near to Snoqualmie Pass (somehow getting there from Yakima), but didn’t want to cross it (he was never ordered to do so). When Gov. Stevens (also later a CW general) urged him on, McClellan got slower. Stevens wanted Mac to check out the Natches Pass (US 12, now), but Mac said that it wouldn’t work, that there was too much snow. Finally, he agreed to go, but gave a laundry list of reasons why it would fail (sound familiar?).

      Still, Mac found Snoqualmie Pass and the rails did finally run across it (Milwaukee Road in 1919ish), though they were not the first (that was the Great Northern in 1880ish).

      I really wish I knew more about all of this. Until then, here’s a fine paper about it.

  2. That side story about Mac in the NW have become your little trademark. you have written several side stories about CW characters that were unrelated to the story of the day except that person’s involvement. How many of those are waiting in the wings? Keep up the great work.

    dave

    1. Well funny you should ask! I’m heading to Oregon this weekend and I’ll hopefully be able to find out why/if the “left wing” of Sterling Price’s Army settled the town of Wingville along the Oregon Trail (near Baker City).

      There’s also something I’m working on with one of the Garnetts, but that will have to wait.

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