Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Army of the Potomac Sets Off for the Peninsula, March 1862

In mid-March 1862, the Alexandria waterfront was the scene of  a whirlwind of activity.  General McClellan's beloved Army of the Potomac was embarking on transports en route to Fort Monroe, a Union toehold on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula..  In a three week period, nearly 121,500 men, 14,500 animals, 1200 wagons and ambulances and 44 artillery batteries were dispatched to Fort Monroe.  This logistical feat-- the U.S. Army's largest ever deployment at the time-- was the opening move of the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan's ill-fated effort to strike Richmond via the lower Chesapeake.

A lithograph depicting Alexandria' busy waterfront during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Although President Lincoln preferred an advance by land against General Johnson's Confederate Army, he  relented and approved McClellan's seaborne plan. Annapolis originally was set to be the Army of the Potomac's embarkation point in order to bypass the Confederate artillery  that restricted Union maritime movement along the very river for which McClellan army derived its name.  However, with the Confederate evacuation of their Potomac batteries in early March, Union transports could now be loaded along Alexandria's riverfront.

John Tucker, an Assistant Secretary of War, was tasked with procuring the necessary vessels to transport the Army of the Potomac to Fortress Monroe.   Although the planned destination was supposed to be secret, the massive preparations could not exactly be hidden in plain sight.  For example, in late February the War Department solicited bids for seaborne transportation.  The Department ultimately chartered 113 steamers, 188 schooners and 88 barges.  Additionally, the over 100,000 man Union army on the Peninsula needed to be sustained by over 500 tons of rations and fodder on a daily basis.  Tucker proudly boasted in his final report that the only loss was that of eight mules and that "for economy and celerity of movement, this expedition is without a parallel on record."

 
A May 1865 view of part of the Alexandria waterfront.  The scene was undoubtedly much more chaotic in March 1862 as McClellan's army boarded all sorts of vessels to finally begin the long awaited campaign against Richmond. (Library of Congress)

Some troops boarded steamers at Washington's 6th Street Wharf, but the bulk of the army embarked at Alexandria.One Pennsylvania soldier vividly captured the impressive scene:  "When, from our camp, we came to the height over Little Hunting Creek, the spectacle that burst upon our view was brilliant... stretching from the hills to the streets of Alexandria, was a long dense column of men, flowing like a dark river, from whose surface arise bubbles, sparkling in the sunshine.  In the Potomac lay a thousand craft, of every form and sail..."  

Steam powered derricks hoisted wagaons, guns and other supplies onto the awaiting transports.  It took 25 steamers and schooners to transport General Fitz John Porter's division alone.   At the height of the effort, the transports sending one division per day from Alexandria to the Peninsula. 


Washington resident Horatio Nelson Taft noted in his diary on March 17th that "the long trains of Govt Wagons which used to obstruct our Streets have nearly all left, and are over the River having followed the Army."  Sgt. Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island noted in his diary that the steamer transporting his regiment was "gaily decorated with flags, and it looks more like a pleasure excursion than an army looking for the enemy." 

Although the Army's movement to Fortress Monroe was impressive, the campaign ultimately failed to capture Richmond and the war would go on three more years.  General Robert E. Lee beat back the ever cautious McClellan in a series of battles from June 25-July 1, 1862 known as the Seven Days.   A deluded McClellan, who continued to falsely believe that his army was vastly outnumbered, pestered Washington for up to 100,000 additional men. In early August, a frustrated Lincoln ordered that the army withdraw from the Peninsula.  The beaten army retraced much of its steps returned to northern Virginia  again via sea..

Sources

Marks, James.  The Peninsula Campaign in Virginia.  Applewood Books:  2008.
Report of the Organization of the Army of the Potomac, and of its Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, Under the Command of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, from July 26, 1862, to November 7, 1862.  Washington, D.C.:  War Department, 1864.
Sears, Stephen W.  To the Gates of Richmond:  The Peninsula Campaign.New York:  Ticknor & Fields, 1992.

1 comment:

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