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.
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.
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.