McClellan Reacts to Retreat Order by Advancing on Malvern Hill

August 4, 1862 (Monday)

Mac isn't ready to leave just yet.

General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was appalled. His battered and depleted force had been recovering from the near-constant victories suffered during the Seven Days Battles over a month ago. At Harrison’s Landing, twenty-five miles east of Richmond, 90,000 men were encamped, waiting for General McClellan to make his next move. Meanwhile, McClellan was waiting for General-in-Chief Henry Halleck or President Lincoln, or anybody in Washington, to tell him what to do.

And on the morning of this date, he finally received his orders. The Army of the Potomac was to abandon the Virginia Peninsula and their campaign against Richmond. Their new base would be Aquia Creek, thirty-five miles south of Washington.

“I must confess,” replied McClellan to Halleck’s order to retreat, “that it has caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced, for I am convinced that the order to withdraw this army to Aquia Creek will prove disastrous to our cause. I fear it will be a fatal blow.”

He explained that he really couldn’t understand why Washington wanted him to retreat when it would be so much easier to advance upon the Confederate capital. “We are 25 miles from Richmond,” reminded the General, “and are not likely to meet the enemy in force sufficient to fight a battle until we have marched 15 to 18 miles, which brings us practically within 10 miles of Richmond.”

McClellan again asked for more reinforcements and did what he could to sway his masters to allow him to do what they had begged him to do for weeks. Halleck wouldn’t receive this message until the next day and would take an additional day to gather up enough energy to address McClellan’s new concerns.1

General Joe Hooker

Though McClellan was ordered to begin his withdraw immediately, he wasn’t quite ready to follow such disastrous orders. On the 2nd, he had sent General Hooker’s Division towards Rebel-held Malvern Hill to find out if the rumors of a Confederate withdraw from Richmond were true. Due to a missing guide and horrible roads, Hooker barely got out of his camp. After a bit of fixing, McClellan ordered him to try it again.

Around 5pm, Hooker’s men began their march. Better guides and better planning got them through the dusk, until 11pm, when they formed line of battle on hills adjacent to Malvern. There, they threw out pickets and bivouacked for the night.2

Even before Hooker’s men halted for the night, North Carolina cavalry under Wade Hampton received word that quite a few Federals had appeared in their front. Through the night, the Rebel pickets near Malvern could hear the turning wheels of artillery being moved into place and the calls of bugles splitting the silence.3


Lincoln Again Denies Black Troops, but isn’t it Already Too Late?

Lincoln still doesn't want black troops in the army.

Back in Washington, Lincoln met with two members of Congress and a delegation of men from the west. They had come to Washington asking the President to accept two regiments of black soldiers that had been raised in Indiana. Lincoln, of course, received the men courteously, but reiterated his policy on black troops.

Lincoln was not yet ready to enlist them into the army. He was, however, more than happy to have them as laborers – an employ for which they would be paid. The President reminded them that if blacks were enlisted, border states like Kentucky might fall to the Confederacy. He predicted that if he signed up these two regiments, no less than 50,000 otherwise peaceful border state denizens would rise up against the Union.

Making sure they understood his position, he told them that he could not promise to arm slaves freed by the Confiscation Act or encourage slave rebellions in the Confederacy.

Plantation near Port Royal, SC.

The western men left the meeting feeling disheartened that unless some major crisis befell the North, black troops would never be used.4

However stern Lincoln was on this point, cracks were already beginning to show themselves. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recalled a Cabinet meeting in late July, where Lincoln had come out against officially arming black troops. However, Lincoln then stated (according to Chase) that “he was not unwilling that commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming into their lines.”5

What sparked this Cabinet discussion was General David Hunter, who had proposed to rebuild his forces in South Carolina with escaped and freed slaves. Though he was not granted permission to do so, he had already issued his own emancipation proclamation and opened his ranks to freed slaves. Unfortunately for him, most of his new recruits had to be drafted. He discovered that a lifetime of wretched bondage hardly encouraged one to join the army.

Hunter had no way to pay his new soldiers, and so their condition was only marginally better. Other freed slaves had become laborers or servants to officers, and received a wage. Rampant desertions followed and he even had to place white guards around the camps of black soldiers. This, no doubt, seemed a bit too much like slavery for the newly-freed slaves. Many made a run for it. Some even escaped back into slavery – the only world they ever knew.

Rufus Saxton

To deal with the fallout, Captain Rufus Saxton, a Quartermaster at Port Royal, South Carolina, was sent by Washington to take charge of the freed slaves in Hunter’s department. Several plantations had been captured and Saxton distributed around thirty muskets to each, encouraging daily military drills. Some of the freed slaves enjoyed it, seeing it as a chance to defend their homes, while others were incredibly skeptical. Saxton, however, also had to call in white troops, but in his case, it was to keep other white Federal troops from ransacking the freed slaves’ quarters.

Saxton was about to leave Port Royal to see the rest of his charges in Georgia and Florida. With him, he brought along Co. A of the 1st South Carolina (African Descent). Hunter had personally selected this company’s officers and the unit, unlike most of the other companies, was well drilled and ready to fight. Saxton’s first stop was St. Simons Island, where local freed slaves had been skirmishing with local Rebels. Seeing that Co. A was needed, Saxton left them on the island to battle the remaining Confederates.6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p81. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p952, 954. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p957, 958, 959. []
  4. Abraham Lincoln: Collected Works, Vol. 5, p356-357. Originally printed in the New York Tribune, August 5, 1862. []
  5. “First Plans for Emancipation” by John Hay and John Nicolay, as it appeared in The Century Magazine, Vol. 37, p292, Published 1889. []
  6. Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen During the Civil War by Howard Westwood, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. []
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McClellan Reacts to Retreat Order by Advancing on Malvern Hill by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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