A century and a quarter before Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the United States Army engaged in another large-scale deployment into a hostile theater. Just as in Southwest Asia, nearly everything required for the mission had to be imported, and the enemy allowed the buildup to proceed without serious interference for several months. Unhappily, the operation did not end as well as the Persian Gulf War-nowhere near as well, unless you happened to be a Confederate defender of Richmond, Virginia.
This operation was the Civil War's 1862 Peninsula campaign in Virginia. Its roots lay, ironically, in continued Union control of a fortification designed by the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, and in a newspaper article.
Lee, while serving as a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers before the war, had supervised much of the construction of Fortress Monroe in Virginia. The massive masonry fort was designed to protect the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay from European naval marauders, such as the British who attacked during the War of 1812. It was this fort, at the eastern tip of the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers, that became the starting point for the Union movement toward the Confederate capital at Richmond in 1862.
Hampton, the city immediately outside the fort's moat, was burned on 7 August 1861 by the Old Dominion Dragoons of Elizabeth City County, Virginia, commanded by Captain Jefferson Phillips, on the order of Confederate Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder. Magruder had read in the New York Tribune about the "Slabtown" that Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the commanding general of Fortress Monroe, was building in Hampton to house all the "contrabands" (freed and runaway slaves) who were flocking there. He feared that the Union Army would also use Hampton to provide winter quarters.
Hampton, which had been burned by the British in 1813, was just beginning to regain its economic vitality in 1861. Butler disclaimed any military appreciation of what he termed an act of barbarism, but Magruder's burning of the city did focus President Abraham Lincoln's attention on the Peninsula. It also forced the initial Union deployment to the Peninsula to be based at Fortress Monroe rather than upon the surrounding expanses of Hampton.
On 3 February 1862, Major General George B. McClellan submitted a plan to move on Richmond from Urbanna, which is northeast of Richmond on the Rappahannock River, rather than striking south from Washington. President Lincoln approved McClellan's plan on 13 March, but with a significant change: McClellan's army would land at Fortress Monroe, not Urbanna, and move up the Peninsula to attack Richmond from the east.
The initial embarkation would include 100,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses, 1,100 wagons, and 44 batteries of artillery. John Tucker, the Assistant Secretary of War, chartered 113 steamers, 188 schooners, and 88 barges to move McClellan's army from northern Virginia down the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay to Fortress Monroe. The first vessels arrived from seaports in the Northeastern States at Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, on 17 March.
Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Ingalls, the acting quartermaster for the move, was conducting the largest deployment the U.S. Army had ever made. Over a 3-week period, the transports moved 3,600 wagons, 700 ambulances, 300 tubes of artillery, 2,500 head of cattle, and 25,000 horses and mules.
Four hundred five vessels totaling 86,278 tons-including 71 side-wheel steamers; 57 propeller-driven steamers; 187 schooners, brigs, and barks; and 90 barges-hauled an enormous tonnage of cargo for the Peninsula campaign to Fortress Monroe in the spring of 1862. The daily supply requirements were prodigious: 3 pounds of subsistence per man and 26 pounds of fodder per horse or mule; over 500 tons of rations and fodder and over 100 tons of all other classes of supply for the entire army.
The Mexican War landing of Major General Winfield Scott's army of 10,000 at Vera Cruz, Mexico, on 9 March 1847 was the first large amphibious operation planned and executed by Americans. There was little precedent for it. But the Army gained no subsequent experience in amphibious operations, and certainly not in what we now know as logistics over the shore.
Many of the watercraft used to support McClellan's Peninsula campaign were the same ones that had ferried his troops and supplies from the Washington area to Fortress Monroe. Other craft he used had even humbler origins: the flight of many of the contrabands down the James and York Rivers had left hundreds of canal boats (which had a draft of only 1 foot when empty) cluttering the Fortress Monroe waterfront. Lincoln proposed that these craft be beached at Willoughby Point, across the James from Hampton, and used as floating causeways and piers for disembarking troops at Norfolk in May. The subsequent advance up the York River towards Richmond used these watercraft again in much the same role.
As a result of lessons learned during the Peninsula campaign, the quartermaster fleet was eventually to consist of coal-fired ships displacing 900 to 1,100 tons and capable of speeds of 8 to 10 knots. They included some steam-driven, light-draft stern ferries built in Philadelphia. These ferries could carry a fully equipped battery of artillery, a wagon train, or a regiment of infantry and functioned as a very early form of landing craft.
Establishment of Logistics Base at White House
Major General Stewart Van Vliet, McClellan's quartermaster during the Peninsula campaign, noted that rain and mud made traffic very slow. He estimated that the army, then consisting of 130,000 troops, required 500 tons of forage and subsistence daily. On 15 May, the Navy cleared the James River of Confederate shipping; the York River was always clear.
His water flanks secured, McClellan set up his headquarters and depot at Robert E. Lee's plantation, White House, which was located where the Richmond-York River Railroad crossed the Pamunkey River on its way from Richmond to its terminus at West Point on the York. (The Pamunkey joins with the Mattaponi at West Point to form the York.) Four hundred transports began shuttling stores from the Fortress Monroe-Hampton area up the York River to West Point. Five locomotives and 80 railcars were shipped by transport from Alexandria to West Point to restart the railroad. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lee remained at White House until McClellan escorted her to the Confederate lines a few weeks later.
The site of White House, at a point where large ships could no longer navigate, was at that time the most forward Union station on the railroad from West Point to Richmond. The railroad had not been seriously damaged during the retreat of Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston's troops up the Peninsula into the defenses of Richmond; it required only engines and rolling stock to put it back into service. An immense concentration of steamers and wagons combined to move all kinds of supplies forward and evacuate the sick and wounded.
The bulk of McClellan's army was south of the Chickahominy River, which divides the Peninsula before flowing into the James. They were therefore nearer the James than the York. Only the V Corps under Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter was centered around and based upon White House. Supplies from the White House-West Point area were transferred by wagon and rail to the units in the field. The railroad was a single line and was constantly threatened by washout, but its great advantage was that it ran straight to Richmond, the strategic objective of the campaign.
The Confederates' concern about disrupting McClellan's supply lines manifested itself in a failed attempt on 1 June to drive the Union left wing into the Chickahominy and thus cut McClellan's line of communications from White House. Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart's raid and ride around McClellan's army on 12-15 June managed to burn two transports at Garlick's Landing on the Pamunkey River, cutting connections to White House, and capture a wagon train. During this action, he also raided Tunstall's Station, between Richmond and White House. After almost catching a train returning to White House on which Union soldiers were riding on flatcars, Stuart tore up tracks, cut down telegraph poles, destroyed the bridge across Black Creek, and burned or plundered sided railcars. His troops resupplied themselves from sutlers' stores.
Stuart did not press an assault on the supply base at White House because he reasoned that the defenses would be thoroughly alerted. However, his raid caused McClellan to change his supply base from White House to the James River.
McClellan began relocating his supply operation and shifting his tactical focus south of the Chickahominy River within a week of Stuart's raid. On 18 June, he ordered 800,000 rations shifted from White House to the James River. Colonel Ingalls, in charge of the White House depot, dispatched several loads of forage and provisions to the James on 23 June. Canal-boat and barge floating wharves on the York River were broken apart. Four hundred transports began shifting cargo from White House to the James.
In the meantime, Johnston had been wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee as the Confederate commander. Lee counterattacked McClellan's army on 26 June, intent on driving the Union invaders away from Richmond. The ensuing Confederate offensive lasted until 1 July and became known as the Seven Days' Battles.
While struggling to repulse the attacking Confederates, McClellan began shifting his actual base of operations to Harrison's Landing on the James on the morning of 27 June. Contrabands were evacuated to Fortress Monroe on canal boats. Supplies not needed by the forces north of the Chickahominy during the switch of fronts were retrograded by wagon and rail to White House.
Van Vliet shipped supplies by wagon and rail to Savage's Station so advancing troops could resupply en route to Harrison's Landing. They destroyed excess stocks. Supplies at Orchard Station and Despatch Station were sent on to Savage's Station as well, and excess stocks were evacuated to White House. Some 2,500 cattle were herded across the Peninsula to the James.
Transports evacuated hundreds of sick and wounded. Cavalry screened the hospital while litters and ambulances evacuated the wounded. Gunboats (the Commodore Barney, Currituck, and others) stationed around the port complex at White House provided additional security. Commissary stores were evacuated by transports; the sutlers' supplies were looted by departing Union soldiers and advancing Confederates. Buildings, including White House itself, and rows of tents were fired with whiskey-soaked hay. Ammunition dumps that could not be evacuated were blown up-the sounds convinced Confederate leaders that a full-scale Union retreat was in progress. Three locomotives and a hundred railcars were also burned. When all was done, Colonel Ingalls, now deputy quartermaster for the Army of the Potomac, and his staff boarded the transport Circassian and sailed to Fortress Monroe.
Following the Union retreat after the battle of Gaines' Mill on 27 June, wagoneers loaded all the supplies possible at Savage's Station for retrograde; the rest were destroyed. Meanwhile, Stuart arrived at White House in time to see the last gunboat leaving and nine barges, five destroyed locomotives, trains of railcars, and rows of tents burning.
Lee and his chief subordinate, Major General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, were both convinced after the main battle that McClellan would hold his lines of communication with White House. Stuart therefore ordered Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell's cavalry to attack White House. The cavalrymen saw fully loaded trains being run into the river with engines at full steam to avoid being captured by the Confederates. The finale of the entire operation was, fittingly, unusual: Stuart's horse artillery traded shots with the Union gunboat Marblehead at the very end of the evacuation from White House.
After the Seven Days' Battles, McClellan's equipment status at Harrison's Landing was 2,578 wagons, 415 ambulances, 5,899 horses and 8,708 mules. Colonel Ingalls reported on 20 July that the Army of the Potomac had 3,100 wagons; 7,000 cavalry mounts; 5,000 artillery horses; 5,000 draft horses; and 8,000 mules. He described its status thus: ". . . the Army was then perfectly equipped." Whichever benchmark is used, the logistician knows that the 1862 Peninsula campaign did not fail for want of support.
The impact of logistics upon the conduct of both Union and Confederate operations during the 1862 Peninsula campaign was significant. The buildup and sustainment of a huge Federal force before McClellan undertook any major combat operations forced his logisticians to move materiel on either muddy roads or the rivers. As the James River was still a contested waterway until the campaign was quite mature, that left the York River. The need-or the attraction-to use the railroad (and McClellan was a railroad president before the war) made the choice of White House as a logistics base eminently logical. The use of White House, however, put the main focus of sustainment north of the Chickahominy River. The Chickahominy became a major obstacle in the drive on Richmond, because the capital city was south of that river. Most of McClellan's army was also south of the Chickahominy after its advance up the Peninsula from Fortress Monroe.
The inherent cacophony and seeming chaos of a shift of base operations from White House to Harrison's Landing, coupled with an unexpected counterattack, appears to have distracted, paralyzed, and then panicked McClellan. Stuart's "ride around the Army" had convinced him that his supply base was too vulnerable; it was already slow in responding to the units south of the Chickahominy. His decision to move to Harrison's Landing, once the James River had been cleared by the Navy, was as logical as his original move to White House. That it occurred when Lee launched his counterattack was unfortunate; it conveyed the image of an Army in retreat, both to Lee and, ultimately, to a disoriented and distressed McClellan.
The Confederates were still expecting to encounter an operation based at White House when they attacked. They read the noise of the destruction of excess supplies as a sign of full retreat, instead of abandonment. Had Lee known that McClellan was relocating rather than retreating, he would probably still have attacked Porter's V Corps; but he probably would not have left as few troops as he did directly in front of Richmond. His counterattack probably would not have been decisive in ending the Union offensive. The subsequent slaughter of the useless Confederate attacks at Malvern Hill, just northwest of Harrison's Landing, on 1 July probably would not have occurred. The campaign could have resulted in a drawn battle, a continued slow Federal advance toward Richmond, and the beginning of siege warfare in 1862 instead of 1864. As to the long-term effect on the war, however, we can only speculate. ALOG
Bruce P. Schoch is multimedia information specialist for the Curriculum Development Center, Army Combined Arms Support Command, Fort Lee, Virginia. He was previously chief of multimedia technologies at the Army Transportation School, Fort Eustis, Virginia. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Army Management Staff College, the Transportation Officer Advanced Course, and the Quartermaster Officer Basic Course.