The Civil War Letters of Forrest Little: McClellan's Peninsula Campaign

General McClellan

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Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department


   General McClellan had been developing an elaborate scheme in which 100,000 federal troops would be transported by water to the Yorktown Peninsula, and from there would fight their way to Richmond, seventy miles to the northwest. McClellan hoped that he could catch the Confederate army out of position, and he reasoned that the Peninsula route would be shorter than a direct southward march to Richmond. The York and James Rivers would provide protection on the advancing Union army's flanks and would allow gunboats to accompany them toward the Confederate capital. After ensuring that enough Union troops would be left behind to protect Washington, a reluctant President Lincoln approved the plan.

   On March 15th in camp outside Fairfax Court House, Colonel Henry Smalley read aloud to the Fifth Vermont's soldiers General McClellan's Address to the Army of the Potomac. "The moment for action has arrived," McClellan announced, "and I know that I can trust in you to save our country." Then the general struck a note that the soldiers found reassuring but that confirmed Lincoln's fears: "It shall be my care, as it has ever been, to gain success with the least possible loss." Still unaware of their ultimate destination, the Vermont men marched twenty miles in the rain that day to Alexandria. Since Union transports were not ready, the brigade set up camp—as Forrest's letter of March 20 confirms—near Cloud's Mills within four miles of the Potomac port. Five days later, at daylight on the 24th, amid great fanfare the Fifth Brigade boarded the steamer South America at Alexandria's docks and headed down the Potomac. Arriving at Fortress Monroe late on the night of the 25th, they marched north and made camp near Newport News, about twelve miles from Yorktown. The Peninsula Campaign had begun.

   For the next ten days McClellan assembled his vast Army of the Potomac at the foot of the Yorktown peninsula, carefully overseeing preparations for the offensive. Finally, on April 4th McClellan's entire army of 70,000 men—soon to be 100,000 with reinforcements—began its advance toward Yorktown. The troops were divided into two huge columns, one marching on the right directly to Yorktown, the other advancing on the left, hugging the James River and pointed toward Williamsburg, ten miles beyond Yorktown up the Peninsula. General Smith's division headed this column. McClellan hoped that Smith's men could bypass Yorktown and compel Confederates to abandon it. But he had not counted on the strong rebel defenses that blocked their passage.

   By April 15th the Fifth Vermont faced a line of Confederate defenders, including artillerymen, crouched behind formidable breastworks across the Warwick River, which nearly bisected the lower peninsula. At a small dam near Lee's Mill, Union generals thought they found a weak spot in the Confederate line, and on April 16th a few companies of the Third and Sixth Vermont regiments made an unsuccessful charge across the river. Most soldiers of the Fifth regiment, including Company F, were stationed in the rear of the Union batteries in the woods; they served as backup but were held back from the assault when it proved futile. The attack at Lee's Mill was Forrest Little's first taste of battle. He fired some rounds, saw a cannon shell tear out a Union artilleryman's innards, and heard shells whistle over his head. His comment that it "wasent much fun" suggested that even in this limited action the cockiness of Camp Griffin began melting before the reality of war.

Lee's Mills skirmish

   Confronted with an unexpectedly strong defense, McClellan reverted to his old overcautious ways. Confederate General John Magruder had at most 17,000 soldiers at Yorktown, stretched along a thin and vulnerable nine-mile line. Yet McClellan estimated the rebel force at over 100,000. Believing that Yorktown would be the decisive battle with the Confederate army of Virginia, he began preparations for a siege. It was a disastrous decision that gave Confederate General Joseph Johnston time to shift the bulk of his army from Northern Virginia to the Peninsula and to strengthen Richmond's defenses. The Union's Peninsula campaign had hardly opened when it lost the element of surprise.

   Like his officers, Forrest Little swallowed whole the story that "the Rebels are 200000 strong and all the infantry that the north has got couldent drive them out of their place till we starved them out." The men of the Fifth Vermont were put to work building roads and fortifications. Writing home on May 2, Forrest reported that the men had been digging entrenchments and mounting heavy guns for the siege. "General McClellan is working it so that we shant have to loose many lifes in the battle of Yorktown he is doing the thing slow but sure." Two nights later the Confederate army, aware that McClellan was finally ready to pound their defenses, slipped away from Yorktown and retreated toward Williamsburg. The Union siege had gained almost nothing and squandered a month's time.

   Several divisions of Union troops pursued the retreating Confederates. Smith's Vermonters crossed the dam at Lee's Mill with two days' rations in their haversacks. At Williamsburg on May 5, the Union men faced the rebels' rear guard in their defensive redoubts. On the left, Hooker's division attacked Fort Magruder, the strongest of the Confederate works, while Hancock's men moved around to the right in an attempt to flank the rebels' position. During the hard fighting that ensued, most of Smith's division, which might have tipped the balance, was held in reserve at the Union center by the disorganized Union command. The men of the Fifth Vermont watched the fighting from the edge of the woods and faced only a few stray bullets. The next morning the Confederates were gone, and the Fifth Vermont marched past the site of Hancock's fight to camp behind the rebel works. This was the second battle that Forrest told his parents he had lived through. McClellan claimed victory, but the Union army had suffered more casualties than their enemy and the Confederates continued their retreat unmolested.

-- Next: Richmond and Retreat