Spring 1862 was a dark time for the Confederacy. Defeats had come on the Mississippi River, in Tennessee and along the North Carolina coast. A powerful Union army was poised outside Washington, ready to strike a blow against Richmond, the Confederate capital. The events which took place that Spring along the rivers, swamps and fields of the Virginia Peninsula were initiated to do just that—capture Richmond and end the war.
The Peninsula Campaign was the strategic concept of Union Army Commander–in–Chief Major General George B. McClellan. By advancing up the Peninsula, McClellan would avoid suffering the high casualties caused by a march south on Richmond from northern Virginia. The powerful Union navy could first transport McClellan’s army to the Peninsula, then, using the James and York rivers, protect that army’s flanks as it advanced toward Richmond. It was an excellent plan and McClellan’s army seemed unstoppable. Yet, despite all these advantages, he failed to achieve his goals.
Confederate sailors in the USS VirginiaMajor General Benjamin Franklin Butler was the first Union commander to recognize the strategic importance of the Virginia Peninsula. His defeat during the June 10, 1861, Battle of Big Bethel ended Butler’s feeble effort to capture Richmond via the Peninsula. McClellan, however, viewed the Peninsula as his second choice. His initial plan was an advance against Richmond by way of Urbanna on the Rappahannock River. This would have placed the Union army behind General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army then positioned in northern Virginia. When Johnston withdrew further south from the Manassas Line on March 8, 1862, McClellan had to scrap his original plan and select his second alternative, the Peninsula. McClellan believed that by using Fort Monroe as a base, he could march against Richmond “with security, altho’ with less celebrity and brilliancy of results, up the Peninsula.”
In early March 1862, McClellan found himself under considerable political pressure to launch some advance against Richmond. Even as he shared the merits of his plan with President Abraham Lincoln, it started to unhinge. The emergence of the ironclad ram CSS Virginia (the captured and refitted USS Merrimack) on March 8, 1862, sent shock waves through the Union command. In one day, the Virginia destroyed two Union warships, the USS Congress and USS Cumberland, threatening Federal control of Hampton Roads. A strategic balance was quickly gained when the novel Union ironclad USS Monitor arrived and fought the Virginia to a standstill the next day. While both sides claimed victory, the Virginia’s presence denied the James River to Federal use.
Union troops disembarking at Fort MonroeConfident that the Monitor could hold off any advance against his transports by the Confederate ironclad, McClellan proceeded with his campaign. He began shipping his 121,500–strong army with all of its supplies and armaments to Fort Monroe on March 17, 1862, intending to move against Richmond by way of the York River.
Confederate guns of the Warwick-Yorktown LineOn April 4, 1862, McClellan’s army began its march up the Peninsula. The next day the Army of the Potomac found its path to Richmond slowed at first by heavy rains and then blocked by Confederate Major General John Bankhead Magruder’s 13,000–strong “Army of the Peninsula.” Since his June 1861 victory at Big Bethel, Magruder had constructed three defensive lines across the Peninsula. The most formidable of these lines was the second, a line which stretched from Yorktown, along the Warwick River, to the James River. As McClellan carefully surveyed the extensive Confederate fortifications, “Prince John” Magruder paraded his troops along the earthworks, deluding the Union commander into believing he was outnumbered.
The events of April 5 changed McClellan’s campaign. Not only were his plans for a rapid movement past Yorktown upset by the unexpected Confederate defenses along the Warwick River, but also by Lincoln’s decision not to release General Irwin McDowell’s I Corps from northern Virginia to use in a flanking movement against the Confederate batteries at Gloucester Point. The U. S. Navy, too, refused to attempt any offensive action in the York River. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough feared that the CSS Virginia might attack the Union fleet while it attempted to silence the Confederate guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point. Since McClellan’s reconnaissance, provided by detective Alan Pinkerton and Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s balloons, confirmed his belief that he was outnumbered by the Confederates, the Union commander thought that he had no choice but to besiege the Confederate defenses.