The Confederate general responsible for defending the Peninsula was a man named John B. Magruder, known to friends as “Prince John.” Known for his concerts and theatrical performances, in April 1862 Magruder would play to McClellan’s paranoia and put on the biggest theatrical performance of his military career.
It took approximately three weeks for Gen. George B. McClellan to transport the entirety of his army, equipment, horses, and artillery batteries from Alexandria to Fort Monroe on the tip of Virginia’s Peninsula. Despite concerns about potential Confederate attacks on the crowded cargo ships, no enemy ships ever materialized during the effort–including the nearby ironclad CSS Virginia. The massive organizational effort to get all the ships unloaded and a base of operations established at the fort was one for which McClellan was well-suited. He had already achieved great success in re-organizing and training the Army of the Potomac after the disaster at Bull Run, so this effort played to his strengths.
The large movement of Union ships did not go unnoticed by the Confederates. Reports of the troops amassing at Fort Monroe reached Richmond relatively quickly. It was clear this meant an attack was coming–but there was no way to confirm if the Union was planning to use Fort Monroe as a base to attack up the Peninsula, as a staging area for an attack on North Carolina, or possibly as a distraction to draw troops away from defending Richmond. The Confederates would have to wait and see.
The Confederate general responsible for defending the Peninsula was a man named John B. Magruder, known to friends as “Prince John.” Magruder was handsome and had a flair for the dramatic–he regularly performed and staged both concerts and theatrical productions during his military service. In addition to his acting talents, he was also a smart military strategist. During his time on the Peninsula, he used the natural topography to his advantage to build fortifications at key chokepoints to protect Richmond. Beyond the fortifications outside of Richmond, Magruder had at his disposal a fort at Williamsburg and a set of strong fortifications at Yorktown, with a series of rifle pits and artillery redoubts set behind the Warwick Creek along the full length of the Peninsula. An approaching enemy would have to contend with his artillery, as well as a difficult water-crossing.
Magruder was lucky his fortifications were sound, because he had a much bigger problem to contend with: a severe shortage of troops. His 14-mile line outside of Yorktown had to be manned by a small force of only 11,000. McClellan’s massive army at Fort Monroe outmanned him nearly 10-to-1 and accompanying them was an equally formidable amount of artillery. There was simply no way that Magruder would be able to hold his defensive position for long. When the Union army first started their march from Fort Monroe towards Yorktown on April 4th, 1862, Magruder sent word back to Richmond saying “I have made arrangements to fight with my small force, but without the slightest hope of success.” The moment the Confederate government received word of the march, they put a plan in action to reinforce Magruder on the Peninsula, but it would take time to execute. Magruder would have to find a way to hold them off until help arrived.
When the Union army approached his line at Yorktown, Magruder put on the biggest theatrical performance of his career. By moving troops back and forth along his line, he created the illusion of a much larger defending force.
“This morning we were called out by the ‘Long roll’ and have been traveling most of the day, seeming with no other view than to show ourselves to the enemy at as many different points of the line as possible,” a tired Alabamian noted in his diary. As Lieutenant Robert Miller of the 14th Louisiana explained it, “The way Magruder fooled them was to divide each body of his troops into two parts and keep them travelling all the time for twenty four hours, till reinforcements came.” Before the charade was over, Miller’s regiment had marched from Yorktown to the James and back six times. Stephen W. Sears, To The Gates of Richmond, pg. 37
Magruder’s performance had the desired effect and completely took McClellan by surprise. Union intelligence suggested Yorktown’s defenses were only based around the city itself and none of the reports he’d received had included the long line of fortifications at Warwick Creek. Magruder’s non-stop troop movements and the sheer length of the 14-mile defensive line convinced McClellan that a much larger force awaited him on the other side. Once McClellan’s imagination got the best of him, there was no stopping it: he decided the only way to take Yorktown was by a siege. He sent word back to Fort Monroe to begin preparations for a siege and bring up heavy artillery.
The rainy weather that spring had turned the roads of the Peninsula into a muddy nightmare, so what McClellan was proposing would take weeks to complete, but in his mind it was the only path forward. He began working on siege plans that evening when he received some unexpected news from Washington in the form of a telegram from Abraham Lincoln.
Before disembarking for the Peninsula in late March, Lincoln had told McClellan that he must leave a force behind to protect Washington. McClellan, confident that the best defense of Washington was a strong offense against Richmond, didn’t take the request seriously and left a much smaller force behind than what Lincoln felt was needed. In response, Lincoln took the last remaining corps waiting to be sent to the Peninsula and ordered them to, instead, remain behind and protect the capital. McClellan was shocked:
The news drove McClellan to a towering rage. In his nightly letter to his wife he called the president’s action “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.” He telegraphed Lincoln that in his “deliberate judgement” the loss of the First Corps imperiled his entire campaign. Now more certain than ever of playing the underdog’s role in the fighting to come, he erased from his mind the least thought of an immediate assault on the “formidable” enemy line in front of him. Prince John’s bluff was safe. (Stephen W. Sears, To The Gates of Richmond, pg. 39)
So the great Peninsula Campaign came to a grinding halt at Yorktown. Despite having an army ten times greater than the one opposing him, McClellan’s paranoia got the best of him–and now he had found the perfect scapegoat in Lincoln, who stripped him of the additional soldiers he felt he would now need to face the imaginary force he was confident outmanned and outgunned him.
Across the line of battle, Magruder could breathe a little easier. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but he had bought the precious time he needed to wait for reinforcements.