The Civil War – Union General McClellan takes action

By C.J. Johnson

Union General George McClellan had spent the past several months reorganizing, training, and equipping his Army of the Potomac. He had recently been relieved of the duties of General-in-Chief of Union forces. It was finally time for him to take action – action which Lincoln had been demanding for months. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was the first large scale operation in the East. McClellan felt sure that northern Virginia was full of C.S.A. troops, so he planned to move men, horses, artillery, and support by ship to the Virginia coastline. He had developed an amphibious movement with the ultimate goal of capturing Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. Union forces landed at Fort Monroe and began moving to the northwest. McClellan ran into the first true obstacle at Yorktown, where 91 years earlier, George Washington and his patriot army had defeated Lord Cornwallis and the British forces in the American Revolution. Brig. General Magruder and his troops awaited McClellan’s advance. A document from the National Park Service states, “The Civil War approached its first anniversary with Federal troops retaining control of Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort on the tip of the Yorktown Peninsula. Confederate leaders were acutely aware that Union forces could land at this point and advance up the peninsula toward Richmond. Confederate troops had taken up a position at Yorktown as early as the spring of 1861. A soldier stationed there indicated that traces of the old British works still existed. Writing in May, he noted: ‘Col. Hill commenced fortifying the lower line of Yorktown by retouching the old British works. Now such things would be considered as no defense at all, but then with our limited force, they were the best we could do…’ But a ‘retouching’ of whatever remained of the eighty-year-old British works was wholly inadequate to the Confederates’ needs. By autumn, Gen. J. Bankhead Magruder had begun the construction of the massive earthworks that the weapons of the era demanded – at Gloucester Point, at Yorktown, and on a line across the peninsula from York River to James River, principally along Warwick River.” According to the History Channel website, “McClellan was discouraged by what he thought was a substantial force resting inside of strong and well-armed fortifications. The Confederates he saw were actually 11,000 troops under General John B. Magruder. Although vastly outnumbered, Magruder staged an elaborate ruse to fool McClellan. He ordered logs painted black, called “Quaker Guns,” placed in redoubts to give the appearance of numerous artillery pieces. Magruder marched his men back and forth to enhance the illusion. The performance worked, as McClellan was convinced that he could not make a frontal assault.” McClellan decided to lay siege to the city, beginning on April 5. While Yorktown was under siege, Confederate troops were gathering near Richmond. Magruder’s soldiers abandoned Yorktown on May 4, having tied up McClellan’s forces for a month, delaying their march toward Richmond.