McClellan Misses An Opportunity: The Peninsula and Combined Arms

In the spring of 1862 Major General George McClellan landed his massive Federal force on the Virginia Peninsula with plans to advance on Richmond. His original concept had been to land at Urbanna, on the Rappahannock River… at the time, General Joseph’s Johnston’s Confederate army was stationed near Manassas. From Urbanna, McClellan could cut Johnston off and reach Richmond before the Confederate Army could arrive. Johnston’s move to the Rappahannock stymied that idea.

McClellan adjusted his plan and changed his destination to the Fort Monroe area, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. There he could use both the York and James rivers to move men and supplies as he advanced on Richmond. Unfortunately for McClellan, the C.S.S. Virginia appeared in Hampton Roads, effectively blocking the James. The timely arrival of the U.S.S. ­Monitor prevented further damage to the Union fleet, but as long as the Virginia existed, the James remained impassable.

Johnston responded by moving the bulk of his army to the Peninsula to join forces with Maj. Gen. John Magruder’s small force. McClellan’s luck began to change when the Confederates began pulling back up the Peninsula towards Richmond. The Federals had been moving slowly up the Peninsula. McClellan planned to lay siege to the strong Confederate position at Yorktown, but the defenders evacuated before the Federals opened fire. A brief fight followed with the Confederate rearguard at Williamsburg. McClellan attempted to cut off the enemy retreat by an amphibious end run at Eltham’s Landing, but it was too little, too late. Both armies would continue to move towards Richmond.

As the Confederates moved west, their naval base at Norfolk became untenable and was abandoned, and consequently the base for the Virginia was lost. The ship had too deep a draft to move upriver and was scuttled, opening the James to the Federal fleet. All that prevented it from sailing all the way to Richmond were the few guns the Confederates were mounting on Drewry’s Bluff, about eight miles from the capital.

On May 11 McClellan wrote to the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, saying, “I would now most earnestly urge that our gun boats & the iron clad boats be sent as far as possible up the James River without delay. This will enable me to make our movements much more decisive.” If the James was cleared, it would permit supplies and men to be shipped as far as the very docks of Richmond. The guns of the Federal fleet could suddenly appear point-blank at the city. It was even possible that some of Major General Ambrose Burnside’s army in North Carolina could be brought up. It would likely be checkmate for the Confederate capital.[1]

Five Federal ships appeared at Drewry’s Bluff on May 15, including the ironclads Monitor and Galena. A fierce fight ensued, but unfortunately for the attackers the bluff was 90 feet high and most of their guns could not be elevated enough to hit the defensive positions. The Federals fleet fell back, unable to force the river. In a May 17 message to Stanton McClellan commented, “We ought not to be discouraged. They were caught in very adverse circumstances…. I would urge the necessity of perfect cooperation between all the Army and Navy forces in Eastern Virginia.” On June 24 he wrote to Commodore John Rodgers that he hoped to get in position to remove the obstructions “so that you can cooperate in the final attack.”[2]

Robert E. Lee was well aware of the danger posed should McClellan cooperate with the navy. On June 24 he wrote to Major General Theophilus Homes, “It is difficult to say what may be the course adopted by the enemy, but I think he will endeavor to break of the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff to let his gunboats up to Richmond.” Holmes’ small force of some 6,500 men would be used to counter such a move.[3]

McClellan did not attack Drewry’s by land, and the results of his campaign are well known. The mystery to this author is why McClellan did not participate in a combined arms operation to drive the Confederate defenders from Drewry’s Bluff. He could have crossed the river with an adequate force to do so, and the way would have been open for the Federal navy to sail all the way to Richmond. Was it because he was so focused on his land campaign? It is well known that he was concerned about being outnumbered by the enemy, who he thought might have as many as 150,000 to 200,000 men ready to attack him. Was he fearful of sending troops away from the main army and across the river? Could it have been his ego… that he was going to take Richmond by himself, without the aid of the fleet? I would love to hear the thoughts of our ECW readers.


[1] The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan. Edited by Stephen W. Sears. DaCapo reprint of the Ticknor & Fields edition, 1989, p. 263.

[2] Ibid, pp. 268, 307.

[3] The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee. Edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin, DaCapo reprint, 1961, p.195.

7 Responses to McClellan Misses An Opportunity: The Peninsula and Combined Arms

  1. They are not mutually exclusive, so I think a bit of both. I wouldn’t underestimate the ego of Little Napoleon in any circumstance and if instead of over cautious, we called him paranoid about always being outnumbered, the two personality traits harmonize better and remind us of someone we know. It’s possible, even maybe understandable, in my humble opinion, to have an enormous ego and yet be paranoid that the odds are always stacked against you.

  2. The height of Drewery’s Bluff was a problem for the Union ironclads but more in the other direction. Monitor’s Captain Jeffers did complain that his guns could not elevate to hit the Confederate batteries if he got in close. At point-blank range, he felt he could have dismounted their guns one by one while they could not damage the well armored (and small target) Monitor badly. So, he backed off to longer range and could hit, but not as effectively, and he only had two guns anyway. The Galena had more guns and could hit the targets, but her problem was poor design and thin armor. Plunging shots from the bluffs riddled the hull and deck with severe damage and heavy casualties. She had to withdraw. Commodore Rodgers always maintained they could have made it on upriver if the army had attacked the fort from the landward side. I suggest another of McClellan’s shortcomings was tunnel vision, not seeing beyond his immediate objectives and the forces he directly commanded. He thought the navy was great for water transportation but could not (as Grant clearly did) see it as an effective element of offensive combined arms integrated with land forces.

  3. Great points, Doug and Dwight – heartily agree. Drewry’s Bluff was one of the great turning points of the campaign.

  4. Didn’t the Confederates foul the approaches of the James River in the immediate areas in and around Drewery’s Bluff? I thought the route to Richmond was basically closed because of obstacles the Confederates put in the river, like sunken boat and ship hulks and other items? Might they have contributed to any doubts McClellan might have had, despite his optimistic letter to Stanton after the first try to take the Bluff?

  5. Yes, they did. There were sunken ships and boats in the river at Drewry’s Bluff, which rendered it difficult for Union ships to pass the fort and proceed on upriver. If the fort was neutralized, however, the obstructions would be removed as finally happened in April 1865.

  6. While Mr. Crenshaw asks for comments on McClellan and Drewry’s Bluff, I am thinking of a squandered opportunity to see the places mentioned in this post. I was stationed @ Fort Eustis in 1973(Newport News) and never once took advantage of the nearby places for visiting and study. Unfortunately, my interest in the American Civil War emerged decades after my Army time. Another opportunity wasted on youth!

  7. It is well known to those that study McClellan, that he wanted to move to the James and reduce Ft Darling. However, orders from Stanton and Lincoln forbade him from doing so, because it would uncover Washington.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!