The Civil War Connections Blog

The Cowardly Lion on the Peninsula

Hey everybody, welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: I’ve never been west of the Texas panhandle, but I long to explore the great expanses of mountain and sand that are the American West.

Look at all the FUN I could be having!


So in our last blog posting, I discussed the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. Now, Drewry’s Bluff was part of the Peninsula Campaign, where the Union tried to take Richmond by landing a GIGANTIC army in Hampton and Newport News during the early months of 1862. By mid-spring of 1862, the Union army on the Peninsula had about 120,000 men against the available Confederate force of about 13,000! Balancing out this enormous advantage, however, was the Union army’s commander: General George McClellan. McClellan had trained and organized the army in northern Virginia during the winter seasons, and formed them into fine fighting shape. Whatever skills he had as a trainer and organizer, however, were completely negated by his “skill” (or lack thereof) as a military commander. Ironically, McClellan thought of himself as a modern-day Napoleon: in truth, he was more like the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, except WAY more arrogant.

"If I keep putting my hand in my jacket, I'll be just like Napoleon!"


When McClellan took command of Union troops on the Peninsula, he took command of a large land army and a formidable naval force. However, he was criticized because the Battle of Hampton Roads in March had delayed the onset of his campaign for an entire month. Although he still possessed the USS Monitor and maintained control of the waterways around the Peninsula, he did not feel confident moving out. This was not the first time McClellan was scared to move: he had already received some criticism for not doing any campaigning at all with the Union army in northern Virginia after the battle of First Manassas/Bull Run. His excuse – that he was ‘outnumbered” – was not only false, but would become a recurring excuse for not moving out and engaging the Confederates.

This snowball fight is completely inaccurate! The Confederates wouldn't have had NEARLY that many guys!


After doing a whole lot of nothing in northern Virginia, McClellan decided to galvanize his forces on the Peninsula in early April 1862 and strike forward. He advanced steadily against the Confederates that he outnumbered 10-1, bravely ready to continue walking in their general direction… until he reached Yorktown. There, the Confederates had created a SMALL LINE OF DEFENSIVE POSITIONS!! How frightening! The 12-mile-long defensive line stretched from Yorktown out into the interior of the Peninsula. The Confederates on the Peninsula, lead by General Magruder, were again only 13,000 strong: this meant they had a whopping 1,000 men per mile of defenses. Once he encountered this terrifying obstacle, McClellan understandably brought his 120,000 men to a grinding halt so he could build defensive lines of his own.



How could this happen, you may ask yourself? Well, General Magruder was an ex-actor, and he decided that McClellan was fool enough to be tricked into a lengthy siege, which would delay the Union long enough to get reinforcements to Richmond so that the Confederates could have a chance at holding it. To fool McClellan, Magruder built lots of fake gun emplacements full of fake wooden cannons, and marched his tiny army around back and forth in front of McClellan’s forces, making it kind of look like he had more men and cannons than he really did. It completely fooled McClellan.

Seems legit


Now, granted, the Union army didn’t have anywhere NEAR the intelligence options available to it that we do today. But the Confederates knew approximately how many men the Union had: shouldn’t the Union be able to do the same? Even if Magruder had succeeded in making it look like he had three times as many men as he really did, that would amount to about… 39,000 men. McClellan would still outnumber him over 3-1. As for the Union, they had access to the first ever observation balloon during the Peninsula campaign. Since there weren’t nearly as many trees around back then as there are now, one would think that even if Magruder made it look like he had 39,000 men, the Observation balloon would be able to easily confirm that whatever the number, the Union still outnumbered the Confederates by a staggering amount. In any case, McClellan ended up believing that he was outnumbered. Again. By a force that in reality was one tenth his size. As a result, he wasted an entire month putting the “defenses” of Yorktown to siege, refusing to engage the Confederates at all. The USS Monitor may have ensured the safety of the waterways, but McClellan made no attempt to use the navy to land forces behind the Confederates and trap them. By the time he was ready to attack, he found that the Confederates had abandoned their earthworks at Yorktown and withdrawn.

"SEE?! They ran because they KNEW they could not defeat my genius! Now bring me more fine clothing!"


Well, that’s enough blog for today – tune in next time and I’ll focus on either the rest of McClellan’s sad tenure as Union commander during the Peninsula Campaign and beyond (likely), or on something else entirely (not as likely, but possible). Oh, and here’s an article covering the Peninsula Campaign (article HERE) in case this article has stirred your interest! See ya later!