Civil War Surprises: McClellan’s Surprises

George McClellan had a plan. Having taken command of the remnants of the Federal army after its defeat at Bull Run, he fashioned it into a powerful, well-organized and supplied force. President Lincoln and his administration witnessed this and consistently hammered the general with demands to take the massive army to the field, face Confederate General Joseph Johnson in the Manassas-Centerville area and put down the rebellion. McClellan, never a fast mover, resisted the pressure as he intended to advance when both he and the army were quite ready.

McClellan developed a creative plan to make use of the Union Navy and transfer most of his army to Urbanna, on the Rappahannock River. There his force would be roughly 50 miles from Richmond, almost half the distance Johnston was from his own capital. McClellan could beat the Confederates in a race to Richmond… Johnston would then have to attack him, on ground chosen by the Federals. It was an audacious and solid plan. After being transported by ship, the Federal army would then be supplied by the navy. In moving to Richmond, he would have use of the York River Railroad.

The Lincoln administration was not keen on the plan. They worried that Johnston would move on Washington, and preferred that McClellan take the overland route through Manassas. McClellan considered this to be a mistake, as he would have to fight the Confederates repeatedly in order to drive them back to Richmond. His strategy seemed to offer great gains at little human cost. He eventually won out but was forced to leave a large contingent behind to protect the Union capital.

Joe Johnston was cautious, and he could read a map. He saw the potential threat posed by the Federal navy and traveled to Richmond to discuss it with President Davis. Johnston proposed to move army back to the Rappahannock River line, much closer to Richmond. This would negate any move by the Federals on the Potomac or Rappahannock rivers.

Johnston returned to his army in northern Virginia and ordered it to pull back. Here was the first surprise… President Davis had not approved the move and was incensed that so much land and so many supplies had been given away. Johnston was a poor communicator, and his relations with the president suffered, but time would prove that he made the right move.

The real surprise was on McClellan. Once he received word that Johnston had pulled back to the Fredericksburg area, his plan was ruined. What could he do now? Would he revert to the overland route preferred by the administration? As before, that seemed senseless. Instead, he would move his army to Fort Monroe, on the tip of the peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. It was some 80 miles from Richmond, much farther than Urbanna. He could use the rivers to transport his troops up the peninsula, but Johnston could still beat him to Richmond. The Confederate commander might even move to the peninsula to block McClellan’s advance.

McClellan soon had one more surprise: The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia appeared, and as long as she existed, the James would effectively be blocked to Union transports. Even the timely arrival of the U.S.S. Monitor could not negate the threat, as she could not destroy the Virginia. McClellan would now have to march up the peninsula. He would have to face a small army of Confederates under John Magruder on a line that stretched along the Warwick River from Yorktown in the north to the southern shore of the peninsula; he would also eventually have to face Johnston.  Also, his supply line would be extended much farther than was desirable.

McClellan had originally developed an excellent and perhaps winning plan. The twin surprises of Johnston’s move to the Rappahannock, and then the appearance of the Virginia made his life vastly more complicated. Could he compensate for these surprises and still defeat Johnston and capture Richmond? Time would tell, but it would not be easy.

6 Responses to Civil War Surprises: McClellan’s Surprises

  1. I recently started a blog as part of a school project relating to this topic. This provides an interesting perspective.

  2. “McClellan, never a fast mover.” R. E. Lee would disagree, after McClellan advanced more rapidly from Frederick than Lee found convenient and then got his hindquarters thrashed at South Mountain and Sharpsburg/Antietam.

  3. There is a lot that is incorrect here.

    Notably, Urbana was still McClellan’s plan after Johnston pulled back. However, Stanton arranged to have the corps commanders vote on the matter. They were far more conservative and risk-averse than McClellan, and they substituted the Peninsula plan for Urbana.

    McClellan disliked the Peninsula because it held no possibility of any great results. When examining the situation in December, James Shields had determined that a siege of Yorktown would take six weeks. The Navy apparently made a pinkie-swear to Keyes that they would knock down Yorktown obviating this delay, but McClellan (rightly) didn’t trust they’d do so. McClellan expected a major delay at Yorktown (due to a siege of the fort, not the Warwick line), and whilst he did his best to work around it, he had little cooperation from the Navy.

    Urbana was still viable. The question always was whether Fraser’s Ferry on the Mattapony could be seized before Johnston would react. The worst case scenario for an Urbana landing, that McClellan is halted at the Mattapony by a rapid (and unlikely) movement of Johnston still opens the York and progresses the campaign far quicker.

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