May 14, 1862 (Wednesday)
General George McClellan’s trudge up the Virginia Peninsula was slow going to be sure. He needed more troops, more ammunition and more time. A week prior, he had made one effort to cut off the Confederate retreat by throwing a couple divisions between the Army of Northern Virginia and their capital. The effort was made too late, and the Rebels had escaped.
Marching slowly forward, the Union Army of the Potomac was, on this date, between New Kent Court House and Cumberland, along the Pamunky River. Since the siege of Yorktown was broken on the 4th, McClellan’s army had traveled thirty miles, or roughly three miles per day.1
General Joe Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had pulled back to Baltimore Crossroads, moving his left flank away from the Pamunky and the Federal gunboats commanding it. With the Rebels in a fine defensive position, McClellan had some more time to contemplate the situation.
To Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, still traveling with the Army on the Peninsula, McClellan had told that he was going to attempt to cut off the Confederate retreat once again, by getting around their left flank with a move towards White House. The only problem was that he needed more men. Specifically, he needed General McDowell’s First Corps, now bulging with 41,000 men, in the vicinity of Fredericksburg. “No time will be lost in bringing about a decisive battle,” said McClellan to Stanton.2
The reason he needed the extra men was explained fully in a letter to President Lincoln. “All my information from every source accessible to me establishes the fixed purpose of the rebels to defend Richmond against this army by offering us battle with all the troops they can collect from east, west, and south,” asserted McClellan.
Due to casualties and illnesses, McClellan warned Lincoln that he could not “bring into actual battle against the enemy more than 80,000 men at the utmost.” These 80,000 would not just be fighting the enemy that had been before him at Yorktown, but an entrenched “much larger force, perhaps double my numbers.”
While he mused that the Rebels might simply abandon Richmond without a fight, he reasoned “it would be unwise, and even insane, for me to calculate upon anything but a stubborn and desperate resistance.”
In closing, McClellan “respectfully and earnestly” urged Lincoln to reinforce the Army of the Potomac “without delay by all the disposable troops of the Government.”3
The day before Yorktown fell, McClellan had informed Lincoln that, according to his sources, the Confederates had 120,000 before him. Now, just over a week later, they might have as many as 160,000.
General Johnston’s Rebel army, while in a fine defensive position, was not even half as strong as 160,000. On this date, President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee rode the twenty or so miles from Richmond to “better understand his [Johnston’s] plans and expectations.”
Throughout the day and evening, related Davis after the war, “a long conversation followed which was so inconclusive that it lasted until late in the night, so late that we remained until next morning.” The President and General were left somewhat baffled by the chat. Johnston’s plan, it seemed, amounted to little more than improving his lines and waiting for the Federals to attack.4
Though Johnston was doing little more than waiting for McClellan to make a move, his mind wasn’t just occupied with the Peninsula. On the 13th, he had written to Generals Jackson and Ewell, in the Shenandoah Valley, that Jackson was to return to the heart of the Valley, unite with Ewell and track down Union General Banks, who was near Strasburg, roughly seventy miles away from Ewell, and upwards of 100 miles away from Jackson.5
Ewell had sent a message to Jackson, stating that he believed one of Banks’ two divisions was leaving the Valley. Jackson didn’t buy it and figured that Banks entire command was either retiring north to Winchester or moving south to link up with General Fremont’s command somewhere near Staunton. Jackson ordered Ewell to follow Banks if he was headed north.
Since he had been given no instructions on what to do if Banks moved south, Ewell prepared to head north. However, Ewell wasn’t jumping into it whole-heartedly. “General Jackson’s views may change at any moment,” wrote the General to one of his brigade commanders, “I won’t go too far under present instructions, as I may be wanted elsewhere.” As will be seen, Ewell was all the better for dragging his feet.6
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p172-173. Marching orders for May 15. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p170-171. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p26-27. [↩]
- The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 2 by Jefferson Davis, D. Appleton and Co., 1881. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p888. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p888-890. [↩]