On March 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac, now 120,000 strong, was finally in motion. “I will now bring you face to face with the rebels,” Little Mac told his men: “I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your general loves you from the depths of his heart. It will be my care… to gain success with the least possible loss.” It was a humane little speech, but it struck an oddly unwarlike tone for the commencement of a military campaign. Once landed at Fort Monroe (it took three weeks to get his men and the vast impedimenta of war ashore), McClellan confronted his first enemy: not Rebels but the peninsula itself. The low ground between the York and James was an overgrown, vine-tangled, bottomless bog. Worse, very few of the features in the landscape were where McClellan’s maps said they should be. It was truly slow going on the York. By April 5, the army’s lead elements had made their way only as far as Yorktown, resonant in the memory of both sides as the field where Washington’s victory over Cornwallis had won the nation’s independence. At last the Army of the Potomac was “face to face with the rebels.” In earthworks before the city were 13,000 Confederates under John Bankhead Magruder. Known as “Prince John,” he was a handsome, flamboyant Mexican War veteran who enjoyed the good life and loved amateur theatricals. The play he was about to perform for Little Mac would be a great triumph. Vastly outnumbered, Magruder would manage to persuade the Federal commander that Yorktown was in fact held in force. By day he kept up steady artillery fire, rattling guns from position to position; by night he had his bands play gayly as if for a large audience. Well in sight of Union lines, he had one luckless Alabama unit march out of cover into the open, then back into cover, then back to the starting point to repeat the loop–all day long. By this ruse, a battalion became a brigade and a brigade a division. McClellan, already inclined to take counsel of his fears, concluded that he was now facing “probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more.” (It was a conclusion helped along by the fact that for months he had been fed wildly inflated estimates of Rebel strength by the famous detective, Allan Pinkerton.) Yorktown that day might have been overwhelmed in one determined rush. Instead, it was held by an old charade.
McClellan, much to Lincoln’s dismay, decided that Yorktown could only be reduced by siege. He set in motion the laborious machinery for bringing up his guns, especially the ponderous ten-inch and thirteen-inch siege mortars. It would be nearly a month before he would be in a position to fire the first shot. To McClellan, the commander-in-chief wired not an order exactly but urgent direction: “I think you had better break the enemies’ line… at once. By delay, the enemy will relatively gain upon you… It is indispensable to you that you strike a blow… The country will not fail to note–is now noting–that the present hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated… I have never written you… in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you… But you must act.” McClellan had a Confederate enemy on his front, but he had, after all, an enemy in his rear as well: the so-called Radical Republicans in Congress. Believing McClellan sympathetic to the South and to slavery, they wanted either aggressive and immediate action or McClellan’s head, and perhaps both would please them best.
Despite Lincoln’s urging, however, the extent of McClellan’s action was to continue preparations for a siege and to write testily to his wife: “The President very cooly telegraphed me . . . that he thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once. I was much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself.” Little Mac put his army to the business of building earthworks that, as he put it, “may almost be called gigantic.” He even sent aloft a technological marvel, a hydrogen-filled balloon with Professor Thaddeus Lowe aboard as observer. By the end of April, as the work dragged on, he would get a good look at the arrival of Joe Johnston’s army, just as Lincoln had predicted.
Johnston, however, saw clearly how vulnerable Yorktown was. Indeed, he thought that “No one but McClellan would have hesitated to attack.” Johnston, whose army was but half McClellan’s, counseled withdrawal to the works now being readied before Richmond, but Jefferson Davis with his chief military advisor, Robert E. Lee, insisted on holding a line on the Peninsula as long as possible. By May 3, McClellan had at last got his guns in place, ready to hammer Yorktown into submission. That night, however, it was Confederate artillery that did the hammering, shelling Federal positions all along the line. The next morning the Rebels were gone. Under cover of artillery fire, Johnston had slipped away in the night, falling back on Williamsburg. Twice now, first at Manassas, now at Yorktown, McClellan had let Joe Johnston withdraw without a fight: a fact that distressed equally both Davis and Lincoln. Lincoln must have been particularly astonished at McClellan’s characterization of a month of futile toil in the mud: “Our success is brilliant, and you must rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up the rebels.” On the fifth of May, Little Mac did in fact catch up to the Confederates. In front of Williamsburg, the Yankee pursuit collided with James Longstreet’s rearguard. A sharp, confused little fight ensued. The Federals suffered slightly more than two thousand casualties and the Confederates slightly less. Johnston continued his retreat up the Peninsula in the ceaseless rain. McClellan followed at a prudent distance.
As Johnston slogged toward Richmond through the glutinous mud, Jeff Davis grew increasingly alarmed. In the West, April had been the cruelest month, adding Shiloh to the list of Confederate defeats; Corinth, too, was ready to fall whenever Henry Halleck would resolve to press it. Now in the East with the fall of Yorktown early in May, the Confederate navy yard at Norfolk was indefensible and had to be destroyed. Even the once-redoubtable ironclad Virginia was scuttled. In the middle of May her recent antagonist, the Monitor, led five gunboats up the James, hoping, like Farragut at New Orleans, to run the shore batteries and steam up to Richmond and shell it. While Davis was making plans to evacuate the government, batteries on Drewry’s Bluff seven miles downriver badly damaged the Yankee gunboats and drove them off. For the moment Richmond was safe, but the Army of the Potomac was just six miles from its gates.