Stuart’s Finest Hour: Chapter 1

This is a sample from Stuart’s Finest Hour by John Fox III

Chapter 1  

On to Richmond

Spring 1862

During the last week of March 1862, numerous heavily laden ships rode low in the water as they floated down the Potomac River from Alexandria, Virginia. The decks of these boats held precious cargo, soldiers from Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. These soldiers, dressed in Union blue, shared space with horses, wagons, cannons and the myriad of supplies that this army of 100,000 men needed to sustain themselves for the coming spring offensive.

McClellan wanted to attack Richmond, but an overland march that sliced through Major General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate defense lines in northern Virginia seemed risky. Instead, McClellan visualized using the Potomac River as an end-run around the Rebel army. The transports docked at wind-whipped Fortress Monroe, the largest coastal fort in the country. This hexagonal rock-and-brick bastion guarded Point Comfort, which jutted into Hampton Roads, the name of the body of water where the James River churned into the Chesapeake Bay. McClellan planned to march his army northwest, up the Virginia Peninsula to Richmond about 100 miles away.

The 6th United States Cavalry regiment boarded the boats at Alexandria on March 27, 1862. The vessels creaked and groaned as they plowed through the waves of a freak snowstorm.  Touching dry land three days later at Fortress Monroe reminded these horse soldiers of the benefits of the army over the navy. The regiment had formed a year earlier as the 3rd Cavalry; hence, it was re-designated as the 6th U. S. Cavalry in August 1861. Most of these men came from Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York and numbered about 34 officers and 950 enlisted men. This unit would be the only regular United States cavalry regiment raised during the war. 1

Meanwhile, the members of the 5th U. S. Cavalry had also boarded boats at Alexandria on the same day. This regiment had originally formed as the 2nd U. S. Cavalry in 1855, and numerous important men had served in the unit before the Civil War. Both Albert Sydney Johnston and Robert E. Lee had commanded the 2nd Regulars. Other familiar names included George Stoneman, Earl van Dorn, John B. Hood, and Fitzhugh Lee. In the summer of 1861, the regiment was re-designated as the 5th U. S. Cavalry. By late May 1862, the 5th U. S., the 6th U. S. and the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry regiments formed Brigadier General William H. Emory’s brigade, which was part of Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke’s Cavalry Reserve.

As McClellan’s invasion force assembled, concern grew in the port towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Both of these places stood across the water from Fort Monroe. By May 9, the Confederate military evacuated both towns. A parade of demoralized citizens followed the soldiers. Fear of the Yankee invaders soon spread west, and many Richmond area women and children left that city. Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ family fled to safety in Raleigh. 2

General Joseph Johnston’s 75,000-man army had arrived in mid-April from their northern Virginia defense lines to join Major General John B. Magruder’s small force near Yorktown. Magruder had deceived McClellan into thinking he had more than his 8,000 men. Thus, the Union army dug defensive positions at Yorktown and built numerous small forts and batteries all in the face of a weak but theatrical foe.

Johnston not only feared McClellan’s numerically superior army but also the big shells from nearby Union gunboats. The Confederate commander soon ordered a withdrawal up the Peninsula toward Richmond. He also worried that a Union infantry move via boat up the York River might cut off his left flank. A rapid movement by his army toward the capital would alleviate this potential problem. The Army of the Potomac followed and over the next several weeks, the two armies clashed at Yorktown, Williamsburg and Eltham’s Landing.

On May 11, with the C.S.S. Virginia [Merrimac] trapped near Norfolk, her crew scuttled the ironclad to prevent her capture. This unsettling event opened the river approach to Richmond for the Union navy.

By May 14, Johnston’s men had run out of space. The gray army stood five miles east of Richmond. Many politicians and citizens voiced displeasure over Johnston’s apparent lack of aggressiveness, for they knew that neither the Confederate army, the Confederate government nor the citizens could long endure a siege against the city. Joseph Johnston had to go on the offensive.

MAP1 – Area of Operations  – June 1862

“Much anxiety is felt for the fate of the city,” noted John B. Jones, one of the city’s numerous war clerks. “Is there no turning point in this long lane of downward progress?” Then, the next day the alarm bells sounded on Capitol Hill as word spread that a string of Federal warships chugged up the James River to shell Richmond. The sound of gunfire reached the city as the enemy boats rounded a sharp bend in the river eight miles away and faced the Confederate guns at Drewry’s Bluff. 3

The Union army’s proximity to Richmond plus the approach of the gunboats buoyed McClellan’s confidence and his ego in a May 15 telegram to his wife. “My troops are in motion, all in splendid spirits. We may have a severe battle to fight but I know that I will win it and we’ll be together again.” 4

The May 15 edition of the Richmond Dispatch stressed that the “greatest anxiety was manifested by our citizens” despite several bold notices seeking brave men to impede the approach of the Federal flotilla. One notice requested “[a]ll young men out of the army who are familiar with the use of the Rifle” to come to the Washington statue next to the capital building to form teams of sharpshooters to roam the banks of the James River to pick off enemy sailors. Another person with the pen name “Corinth”, presumed to be a soldier or sailor from Mississippi, stated he would join about 100 other “determined and resolute” men who would seize the enemy fleet of gunboats “at all hazards.” 5

A rival paper, the Richmond Examiner, assumed a more cavalier attitude toward the possible naval bombardment of the city. Comparing the fortitude of Richmonders to war-weary Venetians in 1848, the writer welcomed the attack if that was to be the fate of the Confederate capital [fait accompli]. With “bombs crashing through every roof” the Venetians had survived “famine and pestilence” by eating rats and making soup from old shoe leather. The writer urged his fellow citizens to be no less defiant or brave. 6

Vermin and shoe leather soup aside, General Robert E. Lee decided that he did not want his wife, Mary, to endure the potential siege of Richmond either. He sent her and several daughters to a safer place on some family land in Hanover County on the bank of the Pamunkey River. The Lee family had called the property White House Landing for many years. 7

The war had also displaced Judith McGuire. She and her family had fled their home in Alexandria in 1861 to escape the invading Union army, which she called the “locusts of Egypt … carrying the bitterest enmity and desolation wherever they go.” Judith’s pedigree placed her in the category of FFV – First Family of Virginia. She was born in Richmond and her father, Judge William Brockenbrough, had served on the Virginia Supreme Court. She married a prominent Episcopal minister, John P. McGuire, who was headmaster of the well-heeled Episcopal School in Alexandria when the war began. Both their sons had enlisted in the Confederate army while they had sent their daughters farther south to safety. Now Judith found herself in Richmond. She soon departed the city for safety with family at Summer Hill, an estate in Hanover County. 8

Late on May 15, the capital’s citizens cheered news that the rapid plunging fire from the Drewry’s Bluff garrison had caused enough damage both to the Federal boats and their sailors to turn the flotilla back downstream. Residents breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then, word spread that the Union army had halted their slow march toward the city as McClellan had ordered his men to dig defensive positions. However, President Davis knew that the Federal army and navy would threaten the city again soon. He called for May 16 to be a day of “fasting and prayer,” and many residents streamed in to fill church pews. 9

However, where Richmond citizens gathered, the talk inevitably turned to their apprehension that Confederate authorities would abandon the city once the Union army began to move again. John Jones, privy to much military and political correspondence, sent a letter to President Davis reminding him of the “demoralization and even insubordination in the army” should Richmond be evacuated. The Confederate Congress had even given political cover to the Davis administration and senior military leaders by passing resolutions urging the army to stay and fight. Jones reflected the view of many when he told his diary, “Better die here!” On May 20, Jones’ noted that Davis had stated that the city would be defended. His pen flowed to the melodramatic when he wrote, “A thrill of joy electrifies every heart, a smile of triumph is on every lip. The ladies are in ecstasies.” 10

As the residents waited, the continual bang and pop of artillery and musketry from the east and northeast kept their worries alive. Hospital Hill, on the northern outskirts of Richmond, became a popular place as residents flocked there to listen to the sounds of the guns and to swap rumors. The appearance of one, two and even three balloons floating high above the trees along the Union lines created a stir. Thaddeus Lowe’s invitation by Union authorities to use his gondola balloons for observation represented the first use of an airship in combat and a huge technological leap forward. John Jones was not alone in his concern when he wrote “they can not only see our camps around the city, but they can view every part of the city itself.” 11

However, despite his advantage in men and supplies, George McClellan had a problem that increased the closer his army came to Richmond. He seemed convinced that he was outnumbered two-to-one thanks to some dubious arithmetic from members of his staff and a civilian named Allen Pinkerton, who was hired to make intelligence assessments. A telegram McClellan sent on May 14 to Lincoln reflected this obsession: “Casualties, sickness, garrisons, and guards have much weakened my force and will continue to do so. I cannot bring into actual battle more than eighty thousand men at the utmost, and with them I must attack in position, probably entrenched, a much larger force, perhaps double my numbers.” 12

A British military observer later commented on McClellan’s perceived numerical disadvantage. Lieutenant Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley, who later became field marshal and commander in chief of the British army, arrived in Richmond in the fall of 1862. Wolseley knew that the Comte de Paris had observed the inner workings of McClellan and his staff during the Peninsula Campaign. Both foreign officers agreed that McClellan “had a tendency to greatly exaggerate the numbers,” but this affliction caused him to hesitate, “which was of great advantage to his opponents.” 13

While Richmonders feared for their future, George McClellan had other problems to think about as well. While his troops marched up the Peninsula they increased their line of communication from Fort Monroe. The massive job of moving the Union army’s supplies across a broad front fell to a forty-two-year-old West Pointer named Rufus Ingalls.