McClellan’s Plan Discovered! Johnston Ordered to Reinforce the Peninsula

March 27, 1862 (Thursday)

General John Bankhead Magruder

Ten days had passed since Union General George B. McClellan had started his Army of the Potomac to Fortress Monroe. This change of base, from around Washington to the Virginia Peninsula, was the first step in his conquest of Richmond. Almost daily had the transport vessels been arriving. By this date, there seemed to be a countless number of Union steamers coming and going from the fort near Norfolk.

All this activity hardly went unnoticed. The Virginia Peninsula was guarded by the tiny Confederate Army of the Peninsula, commanded by General John Bankhead Magruder, a flamboyant socialite from the Old Army. By the 24th, Magruder realized that he was in trouble. Though he had spent the winter preparing the defenses, which ran from Mulberry Point, along the James River, north, across the entire Peninsula, to Yorktown, along the York River. The problem was that he had only 10,000 or so men to man them. By his estimates, there were at least 30,000 Federals currently encamped at Fortress Monroe.

He warned Richmond of this and questioned whether he would receive reinforcements. General Robert E. Lee, now back in Richmond, acting as President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor, assured Magruder that two regiments were on their way.1

General Lee

In Richmond, nobody was really sure what the Union army was doing. In North Carolina, General Burnside had a force along the coast, so it was possible, they must have mused, that the 30,000 Federals at Fortress Monroe were there to reinforce him. It was also possible that they were there to attack General Magruder. Perhaps it was a demonstration to weaken Joe Johnston’s Army along the Rappahannock before attacking south from Washington.2

By the 25th, the day after Magruder informed Richmond of the Union force at Fortress Monroe, General Lee was trying to think a few moves ahead of McClellan. He wrote to General Johnston, north of Richmond, asking what force could be spared to reinforce Magruder. Lee suspected that the influx of Federals was from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, and put Johnston on notice.

“It will be necessary,” Lee wrote, “for you to organize a part of your troops to hold your present line, and to prepare the remainder to move to this city, to be thrown on the point attacked.” Lee admitted that details were still a bit foggy, but made it clear that if Johnston were to “receive a dispatch saying ‘Move at once,’ you will understand that you are to repair immediately to this city, where you will be informed to what point you are to direct your course.”3

Map showing relative positions.

Turning back to the Peninsula, Lee was concerned about the rivers. Though he credited Magruder for selecting a good defensive position, he worried that both flanks could easily be turned if the Union troops were ferried up the rivers and landed behind the Confederate lines.4

On this date, Lee telegraphed Johnston, ordering him to send 10,000 troops to Richmond, so that they could be forwarded to the Peninsula. Johnston was a bit confused as to why his entire force of 30,000 was not being called upon. He argued that his main line along the Rappahannock was now too weak to defend an assault, just as Magruder’s line was not reinforced enough. Instead of having one strong line, the Confederates now had two weak ones.

Nevertheless, Johnston sent 7,500 from the Rappahannock and 2,500 from Fredericksburg. “We cannot win without concentrating,” pleaded Johnston in conclusion. “Should my suggestion be approved say so by telegraph, and the movement will be made with all expedition from Fredericksburg and this place.”5


Tired of Waiting in New Mexico

As a final lull fell over the battlefield at Apache Canyon, New Mexico, Union commander, Major Chivington and Confederate commander, Major Pyron established a truce until 8am the following day (this date). Over the night, as many as 1,000 Confederate reinforcements, under Col. Scurry, joined the roughly 200 remaining veterans of the previous day’s engagement.

Col. Scurry

As the Rebels marched into camp around 3am, the old comrades swapped tales about the battle while warming themselves around their fires. By dawn, their wagons had come up and they treated themselves to a hearty breakfast of hardtack.

Because the truce ended at 8am, Col. Scurry, now in command of the field, established a line of battle across the Santa Fe Trail. All day they waited, fully expecting the Federals to come charging down Glorieta Pass at any moment. The hours passed slowly until dusk, when it was clear that this day had been a day of rest.

The 400 Federal troops, who had been led into battle by Major Chivington the previous day, had retired to a ranch five miles east of the Rebel position. Coming from the old Pecos ruins, even farther east, Chivington’s commander, Col. Slough, was preparing to join his subordinate to renew the battle.

Slough’s superior, Col. Canby, had specifically ordered him not to engage the Rebels until both of their forces could be combined.6

But the Rebel position was a strong one, with four pieces of artillery atop a hill, overlooking Apache Canyon, giving a full view to the crest of Glorieta Pass. That day, Col. Scurry and Major Pyron discussed the overall plan. Their superior, General Henry Sibley, along with 300 mounted troopers under Col. Tom Green, had been left behind in Albuquerque. The original plan was for the three Rebel columns to converge upon Fort Union, but that had all been changed. Now it seemed obvious to them that Sibley and the cavalry could easily ride behind the Federals and cut off their retreat.

There were, however, two problems. First, Sibley and Green had not yet even left Albuquerque, so the chances of them showing up on the other side of the Federals were fairly slim. Second, Scurry was itching for a fight. His position was a good one and all he really had to do was wait for the Union troops to attack him. Unfortunately, patience was not his strong suit.7

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p392-394. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond; The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p397. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p398-399. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p405-406. []
  6. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
  7. Blood & Treasure by Donald S. Frazier. []
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McClellan’s Plan Discovered! Johnston Ordered to Reinforce the Peninsula by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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