McClellan’s Plan is Too Little, Too Late; Jackson on the March!

May 7, 1862 (Wednesday)

General Franklin

While Union Generals Sumner and Hooker fought the Battle of Williamsburg against Confederate General Longstreet (and each other), Federal commander General George McClellan had remained back at Yorktown. During the battle, he had heard the sound of a sharp fight, even telegraphing Washington about it, but never ventured forward to see what was going on.

The entire day, he busied himself overseeing the boarding of General William Franklin’s Division at Yorktown, while message after message from the front begged him to come forward. For a General commanding upwards of 120,000 men to ignore heavy firing to his front in order to load troops onto transports, these troops must have been fairly important.1

Franklin’s Division was, in fact, the key to McClellan’s plan. Whatever fighting was going on, believed the General, was merely a rear guard action, unable to do more than nip at the heels of the Army of Northern Virginia, retreating towards Richmond. If he could somehow get between the main body and their capital before they entrenched themselves behind the Chickahominy River, he might be able to defeat them.

Map of very approximate troop locations.

To accomplish this, he loaded Franklin’s Division onto transports and prepared to steam them up the York River to cut off the Rebels. Any serious fighting, thought McClellan, would be done by Franklin, not by Hooker and Sumner. McClellan was sorely mistaken, but the rear guard action had turned into a pitched battle before he had learned too much about it.

By the morning of the 6th, Franklin’s Division was on their way up the York, with General John Sedgwick’s Division following as support. 2

By 5pm, all of Franklin’s troops had disembarked at Eltham’s Landing, roughly twenty-five miles up the York River. Their arrival did not go unnoticed by the Rebels encamped nearby. The idea that General Joe Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia had been able to retreat this far up the Peninsula meant that McClellan’s plan for Franklin to cut them off had expired.

General Hood

As with the Battle of Williamsburg, to win the day, the Confederates didn’t have to win the battle. They only had to hold Franklin’s force at bay while they continued on their line of retreat.3

Around 7am, Confederate General John Bell Hood threw back Franklin’s skirmishers and continued pushing forward towards the river.4 While Hood was pushing, General Franklin was reconnoitering, unaware that he was in such close proximity to the enemy. Around 9am, the firing grew in intensity and he sent back to the transports for reinforcements. An hour or so later, General Slocum arrived with his division and Franklin felt secure that they could handle any amount of fire and steel that could be brought upon them.5

Hood, however, was only ordered to get within cannon shot of their transports, so he could shell them. As the day wore on, both sides called in reinforcements. Hood’s Brigade was joined by Col. Wade Hampton and another brigade of Confederates, while Franklin was able to draw upon a brigade from Sedgwick’s Division. Around noon, the Federals pulled back to the cover of their ships, and the Rebels stayed at a safe distance. Each side dueled the other with artillery to little effect. An hour or so later, and the skirmish was over. Hood was ordered to retire and Franklin declined to follow.6

As the Rebels continued on their retreat, neither Franklin nor McClellan would again try to outflank them.


Jackson Marches to McDowell

General Fremont

Though the fighting at Eltham’s Landing had started early, 150 miles to the west, General Stonewall Jackson was up earlier, riding towards the Union forces of General John C. Fremont, locally commanded by General Robert Milroy. From Staunton, they marched west, towards the mountains and the town of McDowell, where Jackson wanted to give battle. Leading Jackson’s force of 10,000 was “Allegheny” Johnson’s Brigade.

General Milroy, whose force numbered 4,000 less than Jackson’s, had just been made aware that Johnson’s 3,000 had just been joined by Jackson and he would have nearly three times as many Rebels to deal with than previously suspected.

In the afternoon, Milroy caught sight of the Confederates, with Johnson’s men far out in front, marching west along the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike. He unlimbered his artillery and surprised them with a volley as they crossed over Shenandoah Mountain. At first, it seemed as if the Rebels would withdraw, but soon another column came into view and Milroy retreated towards McDowell, leaving his baggage and tents for the Rebels to find.7

Another map of the approximate troop locations.

That night, the Federals had made it to McDowell, but the town offered little in the way of reassurances. The small village, unmarked on many maps, was surrounded by high ground. Still, Milroy wanted to make some sort of stand and sent several dispatches to General Fremont and others to come to his aid. Fremont could do nothing, being so far removed from the front, but General Robert Schenck was hurrying along his brigade of 1,500 along as quickly as he could.8

Through the night, as Scheck moved to reinforce Milroy, Jackson encamped his men about five hours march from Johnson’s. If Milroy would attack at dawn, he would have a two-to-one advantage over the Rebels (until Jackson showed up). But Milroy, assuming that Jackson’s entire force was before him, elected to go on the defensive.9

  1. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie, Sevas Beatie, 2007. This is probably the final time I’ll be using this brilliant book. As of this writing, Russel Beatie does not have a release date for his fourth volume, and so it seems that I’ll be leaving him behind. It will be a real loss. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p631. Hood’s Report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p615. Franklin’s Report. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p614, 627, 630. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p465, 471. Milroy’s and Jackson’s Reports. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p141. []
  9. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
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McClellan’s Plan is Too Little, Too Late; Jackson on the March! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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