The last time we checked in with George B. McClellan, it was November of 1861 and his rank (or his ego) couldn’t go any higher. In his fourth month as general-in-chief of the Union army, McClellan was still well-loved by his troops, but sentiment from the government and press in Washington had definitely grown cold. Lincoln had been pressuring McClellan for months about his plans to start a major offensive against the rebel army. McClellan, known both for his overly cautious nature and his secrecy, continued to deflect such pressure. It wasn’t until rumors questioning McClellan’s loyalty to the Union started swirling that he began to reveals his plans to Lincoln.
Knowing there was a large Confederate force across the Potomac (led by General Joseph Johnston), McClellan’s plan was to avoid them altogether and move his army via ship to Urbanna, VA, southeast of Richmond. The truth was, McClellan’s army outmanned Johnston’s 2-to-1, but McClellan often made a habit of grossly overestimating the size of the enemy in front of him. Once his troops landed in Urbanna, the plan would be to rush up the peninsula to strike Richmond before Johnston’s troops had a chance to move south and reinforce the city’s defenses. The plan was sound militarily, but it required McClellan to move quickly, which wasn’t exactly his strong suit.
It was late in the planning stages of the “Urbanna Plan” when news broke about the CSS Virginia’s attack at Hampton Roads. The news gave McClellan even more apprehension: his whole plan rested on transporting his army by sea. A Confederate ironclad prowling the coast of Virginia was the last thing he needed. In addition, reports came in shortly after that Johnston’s Confederate troops had left their positions near Washington to move further south. McClellan could no longer rely on racing to Richmond before Johnston could arrive. He also grew increasingly suspicious that these Confederate actions meant that somehow they had discovered the Urbanna Plan and would plan an ambush before he could establish a base there.
Truth be told, the Confederates were acting more out of common sense than any knowledge of McClellan’s plan. Knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the Union launched a major assault on Richmond, Jefferson Davis asked Johnston to move his troops into a better position to defend the capital. Once the Confederates abandoned their entrenchments on the other side of the Potomac River, McClellan took his troops to investigate. What they found was startling–many of the cannons left abandoned by the rebel army were actually just logs that had been painted black. McClellan had been deceived for months about the strength of the enemy across the river. Once newspaper reporters caught wind of this, they had a field day with McClellan. “The fortifications are a damnable humbug and McClellan has been completely fooled” wrote Bayard Taylor of the New York Tribune. It would not be the last time McClellan’s paranoia was taken advantage of by the Confederate army.
After that embarrassment and the continuing delays in launching the Urbanna plan, Lincoln called his cabinet for a meeting on March 11th to discuss McClellan. In the meeting, Lincoln decided to strip McClellan of his general-in-chief title so that he could focus entirely on the campaign and command of his Army of the Potomac. The president sent an emissary to McClellan, who was still in the field, to urge him to return to Washington at once to give him the news in person. Historian Stephen Sears wrote of his reaction:
The summons only aroused McClellan’s suspicions; it must signal a plot by his enemies. “I think the less I see of Washington the better,” he replied, and remained in the field. “I regret that the rascals are after me again,” he wrote his wife that night. “…If I can get out of this scrape you will never catch me in the power of such a set again – the idea of persecuting a man behind his back.” As a result, McClellan learned of his relief as general-in-chief the next morning from Washington’s National Intelligencer. To The Gates of Richmond, Stephen W. Sears, pg. 17-18
Lincoln’s emissary finally reached McClellan later in the day and explained the decision and insisted that he still had the President’s confidence and was in full control of the Army of the Potomac. This seemed to satisfy McClellan, who began to make alternate plans for his attack on Richmond.
The Urbanna Plan was off the table. The recent Confederate movements made a drop into enemy territory far too risky for McClellan. He instead shifted his landing point 75 miles southeast to Fort Monroe on the southern tip of Virginia’s peninsula. The fort was in Union hands and, in McClellan’s mind, a vastly safer alternative. Although, it would make for a much longer trek to Richmond.
Much to Lincoln’s relief, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac finally disembarked from Alexandria on March 17th to Fort Monroe. According to author Bob Navarro in The Country in Conflict, it was “an armada that dwarfed all previous American expeditions, transporting 121,500 men, 44 artillery batteries, 1,150 wagons, over 15,000 horses, and tons of equipment and supplies.”
The Peninsula campaign had begun.