On The March: Magruder’s Deception on the Peninsula

John Magruder

Though usually the means of moving from Point A to Point B and perhaps determining a campaign or battle by speed, marching also became a tool for deception. Especially in April 1862 on the Virginia Peninsula.

Confederate General John Bankhead Magruder—known for his lavish and somewhat eccentric lifestyle —reigned on the Virginia Peninsula and had spent his time preparing defensive earthworks along the Warwick River to slow the Union advance. Union General George B. McClellan transferred the Army of the Potomac to the Peninsula, eventually offloading thousands of troops at Fortress Monroe and preparing to march them up to Richmond. Magruder realized his outnumbered situation and resorted to the strength of the Warwick River line and a little marching deception to delay the Federal advance on Yorktown.

Magruder put 6,000 men in the strong fortifications on the flanks of his line, and stretched his remained 7,600 soldiers across the 14 mile defensive line.[i] As usual, the Confederacy in Virginia lacked troops to meet all threats and Magruder would have to rely on his troops marching skills to increase his numbers in the eyes of his opponents.

The Union commander at Fortress Monroe, John E. Wool, kept tabs on the Confederate numbers, sending reports to McClellan who lingered in Northern Virginia, attending to other military duties before joining his army. Wool informed McClellan that Magruder had 15,000-18,0000 on March 12, 1862, and he was not terribly far off on his conclusion.[ii] With McClellan’s 130,000 man army, the Confederate defenders near Yorktown theoretically should not have been a problem.

Peninsula Campaign – The Warwick River Line is near Yorktown

By April 5, McClellan and his army were on the move, and they encountered an unforeseen trick upon their imaginations. Leading elements of the Union force came to a clearing and spotted “across the pen space a long line of rebel earthworks with a stream in front, and the rebel flag was flying and we could see secesh officers riding along their lines inside the works.”[iii] The Union officers also counted a column of 2,000-3,000 Confederate troops marching off into the woods, presumably to flank their own units. The Yankees called a halt to evaluate the situation.

Within the Confederate lines, regiments kept up an exhausting schedule of marching without getting anywhere. Lieutenant Robert Miller from the 14th Louisiana Infantry later wrote: “The way Magruder fooled them was to divided each body of his troops into two parts and keep them travelling all the time for twenty four hours, till reinforcements came.” In fact, Miller and his regiment marched across Peninsula from river to river six times! An Alabamian infantry officer, Captain James McMath of the 11th, recalled his unit leaving their entrenchments, ordered to march through enemy fire, hiding behind a hill for a half-hour and then returning to their entrenchment by countermarch. [iv]

In addition to the marching, Magruder also arranged for his dramatic deception to have sound effects. Stationing troops out of his enemy’s view, he ordered them to play drum and bugle calls, officers shouted orders, and soldiers occasionally fired useless, but strategic volleys.

McClellan took the bait, quickly concluding that his intelligence reports had been wrong. He also believed that Magruder would never have attempted to hold the Warwick River line with only 15,00-18,000 troops, so the reports of a larger number of defenders had to more correct that Wool’s original reporting. Little did he realize that Magruder had about 13,600 men and a lot of ingenuity to “make” soldiers double or triple their numbers just by marching and making noise.

While Magruder did not hold McClellan’s army at bay for the entire campaign and the Confederate eventually abandoned the Warwick River lines and Yorktown, he bought valuable time for the defense of Richmond in the rest of the spring. Southern diarist Mary Chesnut later wrote: “It was a wonderful thing how he [Magruder] played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies and utterly deluded him—keeping down there ever so long.”[v]

While marching back and forth, around a hill and back again sounds rather like the children’s nursery rime about the “Grand old Duke of York” with his 10,000 men aimlessly marching, “Prince John” Magruder created a deceptive tactic that slowed McClellan’s planned advance and planted seeds of doubt in the Federal commander’s mind that would continue to flourish during the rest of the campaign.

Sources:

Clifford Dowdey, The Seven Days: The Emergence of Robert E. Lee (New York, The Fairfax Press, 1994).

[i] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, (New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1992), Page 26.

[ii] Ibid., Pages 29-30.

[iii] Ibid., Pages 37-38.

[iv] Ibid., Pages 37-38.

[v] Mary Chesnut, edited by C. Woodward, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981) Page 401.

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2 Responses to On The March: Magruder’s Deception on the Peninsula

  1. Daniel Nettesheim says:

    Magruder’s feints we’re assisted by the poor Federal maps of the Peninsula which depicted the Warwick River as flowing parallel to the Peninsula rather than across it. As a result McClellan believed it provided flank protection for his planned advance rather than a major obstacle.

  2. 67th+Tigers says:

    Magruder did not deceive McClellan, and certainly did not attempt to at Yorktown.

    In sum Sears offers two officers describing the 9th Alabama mentioning their redeployment from Lee’s Mill to Wynn’s Mill and their recall (an event clearly mentioned in Magruder’s AAR), a tall tale told by an officer of the 14th Louisiana which is contradicted by the rest of his writings, and the diary of a Richmond socialite boasting of what she read in the newspapers.

    Lt Miller was lying to his uncle. He gave a factual account to his mother. Contrast the following:

    Our Regiment was driven away from Ship Point on the 27 March by the Yankees and was ordered to fall back to the line of battle formed by Genl. Magruder long ago, it is from Yorktown straight across the Peninsula to the James River, a distance of about 9 miles, but protected on the Right for a long distance by the Warwick River. On this line we are now stationed, two miles and a half from Yorktown, and are to guard a place across a creek called Dam No. 1, which is a narrow pathway of dirt the same as a line to make the water above it too deep to cross. Our Reg. is strung along each side of this Dam for the space of three hundred yards on each side in one rank – we have dug Rifle pits, and are compelled to eat – sleep and stand in them from day to night and from night to day. Three days ago, ended the pleasure and novelty for then the April sunshine changed to rain, and the heavens have been weeping bitter bitter-cold tears ever since perhaps for the prospect of blasted human happiness that is so soon to follow.

    – Lt Robert H. Miller (adjutant, 14th Louisiana) writing to his mother 9th April 1861

    With the more bombastic:

    The truth is we were not prepared here for them, we had little over three Effective Regiments, and the way Magruder fooled them was to divide each body of his troops in two parts and keep them travelling all the time for twenty four hours, till reinforcements came. The 14 La. Regm’t travelled from Yorktown to the right flank on James River six times.

    – Miller to his unionist uncle and former schoolmaster, Thomas F. Campbell

    So, which of these is more creditable; the regiment dug in at the dam and defended it without relief for over a week, or that instead they marched a marathon a day up and down the length of the Warwick river instead of digging in? Obviously Miller is feeding his uncle BS. It is completely at odds with his more truthful, and realistic account to his mother.

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