McClellan’s Army of the Potomac Ordered to Retreat Off the Peninsula

August 3, 1862 (Sunday)

Mac is about to receive some incredibly bad news.

“In consequence of the incompetency of guides furnished me,” wrote an incredibly virulent General Joe Hooker, “I regret to be obliged to inform you that I have deemed it expedient to return to camp.”

Based upon rumors delivered from Washington that General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was leaving Richmond, General George McClellan sent Hooker’s Division towards the Rebel pickets at Malvern Hill. His overall objective was to take the hill and make a reconnaissance in force towards the Confederate capital. This didn’t even come close to happening.

McClellan had given Hooker a guide that would lead his division to Malvern, around six miles away. “The German guide furnished me was lost before I left camp,” Hooker went on to explain. Without a guide, and under the cover of darkness, Hooker placed a Major at the head of his column, but he got lost, taking the main road, when he should have taken a secondary one. At this rate, opined Hooker, the rear of his column wouldn’t have made it out of the Union works before dawn.

Hooker suggested that if McClellan still wanted to try taking Malvern Hill, a road would have to be made, as that was the only way the advance would “be likely to secure important results to the movement on Malvern Hill.”1

Throughout the day, maps were studied, more men were given to Hooker, and a new, more reliable guide was furnished. All would be ready for another advance the next morning.

Meanwhile, messages between McClellan at Harrison’s Landing and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington were lagging. McClellan answered questions concerning the removal of the sick and wounded before receiving Halleck’s message asking why McClellan had never answered. McClellan was not yet removing the sick and wounded as Halleck had ordered – he needed boats to do so. McClellan explained that to Halleck in the morning, but by evening, Halleck had not yet received it.

Aquia Creek, circa January 1863.

Halleck was also anxious to hear about how the advance upon Malvern Hill had gone. McClellan, who knew by dawn that it had failed had himself failed in reporting it to Halleck until 11pm. This was four hours after Halleck had given up.

By 7:45pm, Halleck had heard nothing about the advance and nothing about the removal of the sick and wounded. And so Halleck ordered the very thing that McClellan had feared. “It is determined to withdraw your army from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek,” ordered Halleck. “You will take immediate measures to effect this, covering the movement the best you can.”

Aquia Creek was a tributary to the Potomac River, roughly forty-five miles south of Washington. McClellan had to dislodge his 90,000-man Army of the Potomac, march them back down the Virginia Peninsula to Fortress Monroe, load them onto boats, and steam them up the Potomac to a spot ten miles northeast of Fredericksburg.

Halleck instructed that the withdraw from the Peninsula “should be coucealed even from your own officers.” This would not be an easy or quick task to accomplish. First, he would finally need to remove the sick and wounded. Then, the supplies, artillery and other accouterments. “The entire execution of the movement is left to your discretion and judgment,” allowed Halleck in closing.

McClellan would not receive this message until the following morning.

Incredibly large map showing approximate positions and strengths.


Pope: “I shall be in possession of Gordonsville and Charlottesville within ten days.”

Meanwhile, at Aquia Creek, around the time that General-in-Chief Halleck was sending McClellan the removal order, General Ambrose Burnside’s Coastal Division, 7,000-strong, was disembarking. They had been called from North Carolina, leaving only a couple of Union regiments in the entire state.2 His Coastal Division, now technically the Army’s IX Corps, was to relieve General Rufus King’s Division at Fredericksburg. King was part of General Irvin McDowell’s Corps of General John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia.

Pope reviewing Sigel's Corps.

Pope was consolidating his troops for a move south to strike Stonewall Jackson’s troops at Gordonsville. The previous day, he had sent General Samuel Crawford’s Brigade to hit the Rebel outposts at Orange Court House. After a spirited fight, Crawford was left in command of the town.

While McClellan almost always exaggerated his enemy’s numbers, Pope was getting more and more accurate. While some on his staff suspected Jackson of having upwards of 60,000 troops, Pope was beginning to see the reality of the situation. “The enemy is in considerable force at and south of Gordonsville, though not so strong, I think, as was supposed,” wrote Hooker to Halleck. Prisoners had truthfully reported that Jackson’s Valley Army had been augmented by General A.P. Hill’s Division of 10,000. This allowed Pope to arrive at a reasonable figure of 28,000 – a few thousand more than Jackson actually had, but still fairly close.

“Unless the enemy is heavily re-enforced from Richmond,” promised Hooker, “I shall be in possession of Gordonsville and Charlottesville within ten days.”3


Breckinridge Calls Upon the Arkansas

The summer sun and Louisiana humidity was taking its toll on Confederate General John Breckinridge’s force of 3,400 on their march from Camp Moore to retake Baton Rouge, the state capital. Breckinridge, the former Vice-President of the United States, was sent by his commander, General Earl Van Dorn, from Vicksburg, though Breckinridge himself thought it was a horrible idea.

As the heat caused hundreds of his men to straggle or drop out completely (he started with 4,000), he received word that Baton Rouge was held by 5,000 Federals and three gunboats. At that point, he determined to call off the attack unless he could have a gunboat of his own.4

And so, he wired Vicksburg in hopes of securing the CSS Arkansas to deal with the Union gunboats. The Arkansas‘ commander, Captain Isaac Newton Brown, had fallen ill and was taken to Grenada, Mississippi to recover. Lt. Henry K. Stevens was left in command of the ironclad with orders from Brown not to leave Vicksburg.

When Van Dorn received Breckinridge’s plea, he immediately ordered Stevens to ready the Arkansas. Stevens, under orders not to move the ship, wired Brown, who had become bed-ridden and was violently ill. Brown reiterated that the Arkansas was not to be moved until he returned to Vicksburg. Brown then, through his illness, made for the depot and, as he wrote after the war, “I threw myself on the mail-bags of the first passing train, unable to sit up, and did not change my position until reaching Jackson, 130 miles distant.”

At Jackson, Brown learned just how serious Van Dorn was about using the Arkansas. The argument between Van Dorn and the ships surrogate commander, Lt. Stevens, quickly wound up on the desk of senior Naval officer, Flag Officer William F. Lynch, who was in charge of the Confederate operations on the Mississippi River. From his office, inexplicably in Jackson – sixty miles away from the river, the commanding officer agreed with Van Dorn and ordered the Arkansas to immediately steam for Baton Rouge, 300 miles south of Vicksburg.

It was full speed ahead for the ironclad, whose engines had never been fully completed and was in no real condition to make such a run.5

With assurances from General Van Dorn that the Arkansas would be at Baton Rouge by August 5, Breckinridge stumbled forward.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p951-952. []
  2. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barret, University of North Carolina Press, 1963. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p527. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p76. []
  5. “The Confederate Gunboat Arkansas” by Isaac N. Brown, as printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 3, The Century Magazine, 1888. []
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McClellan’s Army of the Potomac Ordered to Retreat Off the Peninsula by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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