McClellan Wants More Guns, Lincoln Urges Him to Move; Complaints about Slaves

May 1, 1862 (Thursday)

Yorktown defenses.

Through the previous two weeks, both Confederate and Union troops on the Peninsula hunkered down for a siege at Yorktown. General George McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, had been reinforced and its ranks now swelled to 112,000. His opponent, General Joe Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, 57,000-strong. Though McClellan outnumbered Johnston at nearly two-to-one, he refused to attack. His own reconnaissance put the Rebel numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000.

General McClellan had come to the Peninsula looking for a siege. President Lincoln allowed him to go, hoping for a quick trip up the Peninsula for an attack upon Richmond. When arrayed before the Rebels at Yorktown, McClellan poked and prodded some, but quickly decided to dig in for the long haul. Fortunately for him, his siege train contained a whole arsenal of immovable seacoast guns that, once installed, were expected to stay where they were planted for the duration.1

30-pounder parrott.

Though McClellan practically doubled the Rebel numbers, he was still convinced of victory due to his superiority of artillery. Once completed, his artillery could pummel the Confederate earthworks with 7,000lbs of iron in every volley.

The heavy artillery couldn’t simply be placed, like field artillery. Trenches had to be dug, platforms erected, trees had to be chopped down and roads constructed to hull these eight to ten ton monsters into place. While the soldiers dug, picked and axed their way towards the front, the Rebels along the Yorktown line fired artillery at the sounds of their implements, making a day’s work much hotter than the chilly April would otherwise provide.2

Mortars at Yorktown.

General Johnston had never wanted to fight on the Peninsula. And so, by the third weed of April, he was already making plans to pull back towards Richmond. On the 24th, he asked General Robert E. Lee, acting at President Davis’ military advisor, to have 100 wagons filled with provisions waiting to meet the Richmond-bound army. Three days later, Johnston was becoming increasingly worried that the Federals would, as at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, run the gauntlet up the York River, past Yorktown, rendering their defenses near Yorktown pointless.

“We are engaged in a species of warfare at which we can never win,” wrote Johnston to Lee on the 30th. He also suggested that he move north with his army to cross the Potomac, while General Beauregard somehow crossed into Ohio. The latter was a complete impossibility.3

Johnston certainly had a point. McClellan had built up his artillery to a staggering seventy pieces of heavy artillery. He had everything from two 200-pounder Parrots (which fired a 200lbs shot) to 13-inch mortars. Though not all were yet emplaced, McClellan was able to take in just how much artillery he had to conduct the finest siege ever attempted in the Western Hemisphere. And still, he wanted more.

Union supply on wharf near Yorktown.

“Would be glad to have the 30-pounder Parrots in the works around Washington at once,” wrote McClellan to the War Department on the 28th. “Am very short of that excellent gun.”4

On this date, President Lincoln, perhaps rankled that McClellan was suggesting that the defenses around Washington be striped so he could add to his personal artillery collection, replied: “Your call for Parrot guns from Washington alarms me, chiefly because it argues indefinite procrastination. Is anything to be done?”5

Also on this date, Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, finally reacted to Johnston’s desire to abandon the defenses of Yorktown. He was somehow surprised by the announcement that Johnston planned to begin the retreat on the 2nd. He wanted to first remove the Naval Yard at Norfolk, and asked, “will the safety of your army allow more time?” Though he wished for Johnston to hold out a bit longer, he was seriously considering the General’s proposition for an invasion of the North.6

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Confederates Complain About their Slaves

Escaped slaves on the Peninsula, May 1862.

To make a stand and fight, Johnston would need reinforcements. There were none to be had, and so he believed he had to retire towards Richmond. But to retire, he would need more slaves. Some officers were complaining that they couldn’t dig in fast enough because the soldiers had to do all the hard labor themselves. For the amount of work to be done, more slaves were indeed “needed.” General John Magruder, commanding the defenses around Yorktown, suggested the people of Virginia donate their slaves to the cause. “Under these circumstances,” proclaimed Magruder to the denizens of the Peninsula, “I am sure that no patriotic citizen, with the issue truly at heart, would hesitate to respond most cheerfully to the call which I now make, viz, one negro man, with his ax or spade, to be furnished at once by each proprietor.”7

In fact, the lack of slaves, caused the slaves with the army to be overworked and abused so much so that some complained to the Confederate Secretary of War. Magruder responded to these complaints. “It is quite true that much hardship has been endured by the negroes in the recent prosecution of the defensive works on our lines,” Magruder acquiesced, “but this has been unavoidable, owing to the constant and long-coutinued wet weather.” But, he countered, the soldiers “have been more exposed and have suffered far more than the slaves.”

Plantation slaves.

The slaves, said Magruder, “have always slept under cover and have had fires to make them comfortable, whilst the men have been working in the rain, have stood in the trenches and rifle pits in mud and water almost knee-deep, without shelter, fire, or sufficient food.” He admitted that there had been “sickness among the soldiers and the slaves, but far more among the former than the latter.”8

There were other complaints about the slaves, but not in favor of their better treatment. Johnston’s Assistant-Adjutant General, A.G. Dickinson, complained of their moral: “Owing to the demoralized condition of the negroes, it is impossible to get them to work where firing is going on.”9 General D.H. Hill complained that “fifty more negroes here would give a great relief” to his men. He also bemoaned the fact that “a large portion [of his 300 slaves] have reported sick and have left.”10

Escaped slaves camping for the night.

Concerning the complaints of ill-treatment made to the Secretary of War, Johnston simply asked for 800 more slaves, promising that they “can be returned when others are sent in their place.” And a day later, on this date, Johnston gave Hill permission to keep the slaves that he had so he could “have the work pressed to immediate completion.”11

Even General Lee was complaining that he hadn’t enough slaves. To construct a defensive work along the James River, he requested from Johnston an engineer and “a portion of your negro force.”12

Not only were the Confederates fighting to preserve their rights to keep slaves, they needed the slaves to enable them to make that fight.



  1. The Peninsula Campaign of 1862; A Military Analysis by Kevin Dougherty, University of Mississippi, 2005. []
  2. To The Gates of Richmond by Stephen w. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p461, 469, 477. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p126. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p130. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p484-485. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p473, 437. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p475. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p445. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p465. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p478, 486. []
  12. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p485-486. []
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McClellan Wants More Guns, Lincoln Urges Him to Move; Complaints about Slaves by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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