The Civil War Connections Blog

An Optimistic Perspective

Today, Brian posted an excellent and timely blog concerning General McClellan and what became known as the siege of Yorktown (1862).  Demonstrating McClellan’s wary nature, Brian presented you with an overview of the Confederate force he faced in 1862; a force, needless to say, that could have been quashed far earlier if McClellan had chosen to move the massive Army of the Potomac more effectively.  Alas, McClellan erred on the side of caution, drawing out the Peninsula Campaign until the Confederates could slip far from his grasp allowing him to advance toward Richmond at a disappointingly slow crawl.  However, the May 17, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly was not so pessimistic.  On page 315 under the headline “General McClellan’s Army,” the “evacuation” of Confederates from Yorktown is lauded as a stellar Union victory.  Following the logic of Archer Jones in his essay “Military Means, Political Ends,” the Confederate loss of territory was ultimately what the author used to applaud McClellan’s early advances in the campaign, not the general’s tactics.  As Jones explains, “both governments…recognized the political significance of the gain and loss of territory because these provided a measure of military success and failure.”  Tactical victories could thus be overshadowed by the retreat of a military line.[i]

Yorktown Cartoon

"PICKETS CONVERSING BEFORE YORKTOWN—A COMMON SCENE.—SKETCHED BY MR. MEAD OF THE VERMONT BRIGADE." P. 311

McClellan’s perceived success would not last long, however, as the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Lee escaped total destruction at the conclusion of the campaign…to Lincoln’s displeasure.  In a letter written on October 13, 1862, Lincoln took a stab at McClellan’s notorious ego by asking “Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?  Should you not claim to be at least his equal in powers, and act upon the claim?”[ii]

Image 1 of 6, Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916.

Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, Monday, October 13, 1862 from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

 

Please take a look at the article from Harper’s Weekly and compare for yourself the author’s account of the siege with Brian’s superb summary.  Always consider the source from which you gather information and never lay down your guard when evaluating media bias.  Nineteenth century journalism was not only slanted, but downright doused in partiality from both Union and Confederate sources.

 

General McClellan’s Army 

From the May 17th, 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly, p. 315

WE devote several pages this week to illustrations of our Army under General McClellan, which has just driven the rebels out of Yorktown…

Five companies of Massachusetts troops participated in a splendid little action which took place this morning. One company made a brilliant charge on a rebel redoubt, drove the rebels away, killed quite a number, and hemmed in fourteen, who were taken prisoners. The redoubt is situated in front of a piece of woods, and faces an open cornfield to the right of the Yorktown road. It was determined last evening to reduce the work and ascertain what fortifications were behind, beyond the woods. Early this morning three companies of the First Massachusetts Regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel Wells, and two. companies of the Eleventh, under Major Tripp, left camp and arrived on the ground just about daylight. Company A, Captain Wild, was deployed as skirmishers to the left across the field to prevent a flank movement of the enemy. Company I, Captain Rand, was held in reserve toward the right near a small ravine, while Company H, under Captain Carruth, advanced at double quick across the field and charged upon the work. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Wells, they dashed ahead in the most gallant manner. As soon as they were seen crossing the open field, a distance of four or five hundred yards from the redoubt, the rebels opened a spirited fire from behind the parapet. In face of this fire the gallant little band of sixty advanced at a double quick with bayonets fixed. Their comrades were falling on the field around them; but not a man on our side fired a gun until those who charged the redoubt had arrived within a few yards of the ditch in front. Then they discharged a volley, and the rebels retreated. Although much exhausted by the run across the corn-field, our men jumped into the ditch and climbed over the parapet. Thus the work was successfully taken in a few minutes. Lieutenant Chandler and Lieutenant-Colonel Wells were among the first to reach the fort. Company H lost three men killed and thirteen wounded. No other casualties occurred on our side. Most of the killed and wounded fell within twenty yards of the ditch, which was six or seven feet deep and eight feet wide in front of the redoubt. Company A still held their position as skirmishers to the left, and subsequently Company I was ordered to advance to support those in front. In the meantime Company A, Eleventh Massachusetts, Captain Humphrey, came forward to the right at double quick and kept the rebels back, while Company G, Captain Allen, which had been placed to support a section of our artillery, also advanced, and with picks and shovels commenced destroying the redoubt. Our artillery did not fire a single shot. Presently the rebels opened with their artillery from their fortifications to the left. Our brave Massachusetts boys fired away into the woods, while some of their comrades were shoveling the earth from the parapet of the rebel fort into the ditch below. A little to the right of this work there was an opening through the woods and a clearing behind, where another rebel redoubt was situated. From this the rebels poured forth a continuous fire; but the skirmishers from the Eleventh regiment filed off to the right and left, covered by the woods, and thus escaped the effect of their fire. When the attack was made on our left the rebels were driven in confusion in every direction. Fourteen of them got on a small strip of ground behind which was a stream which they could not cross. Hence they were taken prisoners. One of them rushed out with a white haversack on his musket and begged our men not to shoot. Firing in that direction ceased for a moment. He said there were thirteen others who wanted to surrender. Soon they appeared and were taken prisoners. Fourteen rebels were captured altogether—one sergeant, one corporal, and a dozen privates. They all belonged to Company E, Nineteenth Virginia Regiment. They were a companyof sharp-shooters who were on duty in the fort. They said they were completely taken by surprise, and when we opened the attack there was great confusion among them; but they were soon supported by other troops on the right and left. Our soldiers acted in the most gallant manner, and were highly complimented by the Brigadier-General, who was on the ground. The object of the movement having been most successfully accomplished, our men retired from the field in perfect order.


[i] “General McClellan’s Army.” Harper’s Weekly Vol. VI- No. 281. May 17, 1862. Web. May 16, 2012. <http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1862/may/capture-fort-macon.htm>; Archer Jones, “Military Means, Political Ends,” in Why the Confederacy Lost ed. Gabor S. Boritt, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 48.

[ii] Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to General McClellan: Oct. 13, 1862.” Library of Congress. Web. May 16, 2012. <http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mal/mal1/189/1899300/001.jpg>.