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
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.
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.
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
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
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p28-29. [↩]
- McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p29. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p214. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p524-525. [↩]