Thursday, May 3, 2012

Johnston Abandons Yorktown Lines

In early 1862, General George B. McClellan with his grand Union Army of the Potomac had been transported by sea to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula, in an attempt to get closer for a strike at Richmond. Moving up the Peninsula he had encountered 15,000 men under "Prince" John Magruder. Although they were no match for McClellan's 125,000 soldiers, McClellan could not believe the Confederate forces were that week so he decided to settle in for a regular siege. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the main Confederate army, wrote to Robert E. Lee that, "No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack."

150 years ago today after just under a month McClellan's siege lines were finally complete. His men had spent weeks digging entrenchments, building roads, and hauling forward dozens of heavy artillery. McClellan was prepared to unleash a terrific bombardment on the morning of May 5th to prepare for an eventual infantry assault. Allan Pinkerton, in charge of the army's intelligence, reported a minimum of 100,000 Confederates in the opposing works.
Union mortars

The Confederates however were not going to be waiting for the attack. Johnston, who had joined Magruder on the Peninsula was actually outnumbered two to one by McClellan. He had written a few days before, "The fight for Yorktown ... must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful.... I shall therefore move as soon as can be done conveniently...." Now with the Federal trenches approaching the Confederate lines, was a convenient time. Therefore, 150 years ago tonight, Johnston ordered a bombardment of the Union trenches, his heavy guns firing randomly at McClellan's lines. Under the cover of this fire, the infantry pulled out, leaving empty trenches and 70 pieces of antiquated heavy artillery for McClellan's men to find the next morning. As found, written on the wall of a tent in the abandoned camp was a message from a rebel, "He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day." That fighting would soon come as the Confederate army retreated north toward Richmond.


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