March 17, 1862 (Monday)
The Union Army of the Potomac, even by General George McClellan’s own admission, had been inactive all through the fall and winter. There was a purpose, claimed the General. There was a reason that the Rebels in the defenses at Centreville and Manassas had been unharmed, had been allowed to escape. The Army of the Potomac was getting ready so that they might “give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.”
McClellan was certain that he had created a real army, “magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed.” This period of inaction was at an end. McClellan would now bring his army “face to face with the rebels, and only pray that God may defend the right.”1
This real army was, on this date, stepping aboard transports in Alexandria to be ferried to its new base of operations, Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula. A magnificent number of crafts had been collected from up and down the northeastern shore. To carry the 121,000 men, 131 vessels had been procured. Ferry boats, stern-wheelers, river boats and seafaring packets began to take on the first of McClellan’s boys. To carry the supplies, the artillery, the animals, and wagons, 276 additional boats of varying lineage were also being filled, not only at Alexandria, but at Annapolis and at Washington, as well.2
As General Joe Johnston’s Confederates pulled south towards the Rappahannock River, they also gave up their batteries along the upper Potomac. This gave life and possibility to McClellan’s Peninsula plan. The move to Fortress Monroe had been quickly planned. Originally, McClellan wanted McDowell’s entire First Corps to leave (and thus arrive at Monroe) first. McDowell’s Corps had been at Centreville not long ago. The Third Division of the Third Corps, commanded by Generals Charles Hamilton and Samuel Heintzelman, respectively, had been left in Alexandria in reserve.
Since they were closest, they boarded first and McClellan decided to move McDowell’s Corps last, a decision he would come to regret. This created some controversy, not because Hamilton’s Division wasn’t from McDowell’s Corps, but because it was seen by some as proof that McClellan was disobeying Lincoln’s orders to organize the Army of the Potomac into corps. McClellan wanted to move his army by divisions, as it would be quicker than waiting for enough transport ships to move an entire corps at once.
In his memoirs, McClellan goes as far as saying that General McDowell had come up with the idea of moving the army by divisions, only to turn around and accuse him (McClellan) of disobeying Lincoln’s order.3
The next division, commanded by General John Porter, wouldn’t board until March 22. McClellan would not leave until April 1. It would take nearly three weeks for the entire army to arrive at Fortress Monroe.
“I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart.”4
The Union Western Flotilla that had unsuccessfully bombarded the Rebel works on and around Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River the previous day, had come back for more. Flag Officer Andrew Foote ordered his flagship, the USS Benton, as well as the gunboats Cincinnati and St. Louis, to again attack the Confederate fortifications. This time, however, they would focus upon the redan on the Tennessee shore.
In addition to the first three gunboats, the USS Mound City and Carondelet, as well as eight of the mortar boats also joined the fray. By 11am, the Rebels were under attack. Two hours later, all five ships were letting loose their fury upon the enemy. The Confederates finally defended themselves a little after 2pm, with three of their 8-inch Columbiads. By the time they did so, well over 100 rounds had been fired at them. Soon, though, the other batteries were awoken, hurling thirty-two pound shells at the Union fleet.
Before thirty minutes had elapsed, the USS St. Louis had taken a couple of hits, the last from a 42-pounder that exploded a shell, killing several men. The Cincinnati took hits as well. An 8-inch ball pierced the Benton’s armor and ripped through the length of the ship, finally landing in Foote’s desk.
The Confederate redan, the focus of the attack, was faring little better. The Federals had taken out one of the Columbiads and several artillerymen with it. The parapet was flooded and swampy, requiring more troops than usual to man the guns. As the Union shells felled trees and damaged the works, several hundred slaves did what they had to to keep the place together.5
Sometimes in warfare, an unrelated event changes the course of the battle. As Flag Officer Foote stood on the deck of the Benton, amid the bursts of enemy shells, he was handed a bundle of mail. Finding that one letter was from home, he opened it and calmly read it as the guns blasted forth around him. Perhaps four lines into the reading, he turned to Captain James Eads, who was by his side.
“I must ask you to excuse me for a few minutes, while I go to my cabin,” said the surprisingly composed Foote. “This letter brings me the news of the death of my son, about thirteen years old, who I had hoped would live to be the stay and support of his mother.”
Without saying another word, Foote departed. After but fifteen minutes, he returned, still perfectly composed. Captain Eads, himself aggrieved, spoke first about the battle and then told the admiral a story he remembered about his (Foote’s) young niece. This brought a small, fleeting smile to his countenance. But the battle and the antidote could not stave off the loss of his boy.6
Somehow, Foote was able to get a telegram sent out to his wife that afternoon: “May God support us. The shock stuns me in midst of fight. Thy will be done to us and ours.”
The battle was over. Foote withdrew his gunboats to the cheers of the Confederates on and around Island No. 10. The Mound City kept up her fire until midnight, but the outcome was clear, the defenses could not be broken. Though Foote would command another smaller and thinner attack the following day, he was reeling from depression and the “power of his grief.”7
- McClellan’s Address to the Army of the Potomac, March 14, 1862. As printed in the Rebellion Record, Vol. 4 edited by Frank Moore, 1862. [↩]
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears. [↩]
- McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan. In Russel H. Beatie’s Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign, it’s stated that Lincoln was “micromanaging” the affair and it was he who told McDowell to tell McClellan to move the army by divisions. Unfortunately, Beatie cites McClellan’s Own Story as the source (page 255-256), and McClellan never made that claim in his memoirs (unless I’m missing something, which is entirely possible). [↩]
- McClellan’s Address to the Army of the Potomac, March 14, 1862. [↩]
- Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock. [↩]
- “Recollections of Foote and the Gun-Boats” by James Eads, as it appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 29. [↩]
- Life of Andrew Hull Foote by James Mason Hoppin, Harper & Brothers, 1874. [↩]