Read an Excerpt
"It [the attack on Smith for his condition at Lee's Mill] was designed as an attack on Gen. McC."- Porter to Manton Marble
The Decision (April 17, 1862)
While the late afternoon sun of April sixteenth plunged toward the James River, McClellan and his staff turned their horses from the vicinity of Lee's Mill and headed in the direction of Army headquarters to the east. During the past ten days, five days of ghastly storms followed by a period of weather recovery, he must have had much time to reconsider his plans for the Army of the Potomac.
By now, he had vastly different ideas than his original plan for a dash through the divide to a blocking position north of Yorktown followed, when that failed and the Navy refused to contribute, by a breakthrough and pursuit based on the reconnaissances by Burns and Hancock. His analysis would have rested on his two needs: a line of advance and a line of supply. As he saw them he had three alternatives: the James River, the York River, and the Peninsula itself. He could not use the James and York River routes without help from the Navy although each river made a different demand on the Navy. For the Peninsula the Navy could do nothing. He needed the forbearance of Mother Nature and her servant the weather. The Peninsula he could eliminate from his thinking as long as Mother Nature continued her obdurate spring. No matter what he did, he could not make them subservient to man.
The two rivers presented altogether different issues. On the James loomed the Virginia and the James River squadron. The Navy, with its wooden capital ships, some still powered by sail, would not willingly participate in any strategy certain to call forth the iron demon.
McClellan's initial conclusions about the effect of losing McDowell and the First Corps seem uncertain, nor did the consequent adjustments to his plans remain consistent throughout the month of April. He could not capture Gloucester, could not eliminate the crossfire of heavy, land-based guns on the narrow Yorktown-Gloucester waterway, and could expect no useful support from the Navy. He had first decided that his remedy was a breakthrough, which he could make along the Warwick River line between its headwaters and Warwick Court House. He had spent ten days finding and confirming the place for the attack, but the misadventure by Smith had caused the Rebels to fortify the area so strongly that he now deemed a breakthrough there impossible.
Probably during the middle of the month, McClellan began to realize the more subtle implications of losing McDowell. As long as the Virginia remained potentially active and a real threat, he could not use the James River; as long as the Confederates held Yorktown and Gloucester, even if they abandoned the rest of their line, he could not use the York River; as long as the spring rains continued to convert the roads to mud, he could not exploit a breakthrough because he could not pursue with his army or supply it in pursuit. Even if he bypassed the Yorktown fortifications on land, as the Desert Fox would bypass Tobruk in 1942, McClellan would achieve little or nothing. According to the count's diary, "not having railroads in the peninsula our experience teaches us that it is absolutely impossible . . . to supply a large army at a distance by the roads of this countryside [and] these wood roads are so bad that when some hundred wagons passed, they become absolutely impracticable; they turn into one meter deep holes filled with mud."
After the war engineering officer Colonel Wesley Brainerd wrote about Yorktown: "It rained almost every day and every night," rendering the roads almost impassable for ordinary travel; and "when our heavy Artillery and baggage came upon them they were soon converted into quagmires. . . . This march up the peninsula has passed into history as one of the most tedious and exhausting of the war. Officers and men alike were covered from head to feet with mud, presenting anything but a military appearance. At night we were glad enough to rest upon the ground making no attempt to raise our tents."
After three days of pursuit on land McClellan would outrun his supply trains which would have become bound fast in the mud behind him. A breakthrough and a "dash" up the divide would produce nothing useful because it would leave the York and James Rivers, his only practical supply routes, closed. He could not wait for the dry roads of summer. That was a practical and political impossibility.
The sharp-eyed young Comte de Paris recorded these obvious and very important facts in his diary; but for once, he did not recognize their consequences. Of course, the Navy recognized no facts and reached no conclusions that would solve the problems presented by unavailable naval gunfire support and the Navy's insistence that it protect its capital ships from shore battery fire. Nor did it reconsider its refusal to deliver reverse fire on the fortifications or several hours of bombardment followed by one hour of covering fire for the infantry assault. Both cases required the Navy to pit its capital ships against heavy shore batteries, some on high precipices. Here, too, the Navy refused.
Assuming that the Navy declined both alternatives on the York, would give no help on the James, and could not, even if it wished, solve the muddy Peninsula problem, what assets could McClellan deploy to open one of the routes? Exclusively under his control were his infantry supported by his field artillery. Mother Nature stood supreme above mere mortal efforts of infantry and artillery . . . and so did her Peninsula. Infantry and artillery could do nothing to open the James River and keep it clear. But they could capture Yorktown and open the bottleneck on the York River without any help from the Navy. As he and his staff neared army headquarters, how did the Yorktown alternative compare with a breakthrough at Garrow's Chimney? How much had his thinking changed over the past ten days? How much did it change during the ride from the Garrow clearing to headquarters? Or did his thoughts merely become more firm.
From time to time he had considered the necessity of a modified siege in which he would construct positions for heavy artillery and mortars that could neutralize the fire of the Confederate heavy guns on his charging infantry. He had begun the ten day period with a clear intention of finding a place for a breakthrough to be followed by a pursuit. The position at the one gun battery and the Garrow's Chimney seemed the best place from the outset and had the support of two of his best subordinates, Baldy Smith and Winfield Hancock. At the chimneys the men of Smith's division had overnight, April sixteenth to seventeenth, to complete the revetments for the artillery, infantry entrenchments to support them, and sharpshooter positions next to the flooded area. Only the flooded river bottom, one hundred fifty yards wide, separated these positions from the Rebel entrenchments on the far river bank. Responsibility for digging the rifle-pits, Civil War foxholes, went to Lieutenant George A. Custer. During the work, "no word was spoke above a whisper, as the voices of the enemy could be distinctly heard while engaged in ordinary conversation," Custer wrote after the War. "Even the breaking of twigs under their feet, as they moved about in the woods, could be heard."
The sandy, loose soil allowed the men to work silently with shovels and without noisy picks. "Each man knew that the enemy's battery, supported by his sharpshooters, was within easy range, and no-one knew how soon the enemy might discern what was going on; it was of course the purpose of all engaged to push the work forward as rapidly as possible, at least until it would afford cover from the enemy's guns, which by daylight would certainly open on them." Before light, "the rifle pits, the entrenchments, and the revetments stood ready for their occupants." Headquarters sent Smith two rifle companies, but not ordinary rifle companies. They were Companies A and C from Berdan's United States Sharpshooters. "The sharpshooters took particular delight in their little stronghold," Custer observed, "as it afforded them a fine opportunity to exercise their peculiar accomplishment." The Confederates could no longer use the annoying "one gun battery." Crack shots and a bit irregular, the sharpshooters tended to ignore even the absolute rules like the prohibition against firing weapons in camp . . . even though headquarters intended the ban for their safety by not attracting artillery fire. Nevertheless, one of Berdan's men saw a familiar target in the trees surrounding the camp and fired.
Immediately, he stood before Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith. "Well, my man, why did you shoot off your gun when it is against orders to do so?"
"I know 'tis wrong, General, but I couldn't resist temptation to try that squirrel's head. 'Twas a splendid mark; and I really believe when I pulled on it, I forgot about orders."
Smith struggled to suppress a smile. "Well, what was the result? Did you bring it down?"
"I did." He revealed the game. "Here it is."
"What! Shot through the head! Off that tall tree? What gun did you shoot?"
"Target rifle, sir."
The sharpshooter lifted his rifle and telescopic sight. Smith stared at him steadily. Finally, he spoke.
"'Tis well. You may go this time; but if you had missed it, my friend, you would hardly have got off so easy. Cease firing! Do you understand?"
The sharpshooter acknowledged that he did.
"All right, then," Smith concluded. "Go to your regiment." With a silent thanks to the division commander, the marksman took his supplemental rations to his campfire for cooking. . .