A rough balance was restored with the arrival at Yorktown of John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade from Johnston’s army. Hood’s men had a sizable number of British-made Enfield rifles and knew how to use them. When the Yankee sharpshooters grew too bold, the Texans would slip into the forward picket line for what they liked to call a little squirrel shooting. Soon their fire would drive the Federals out of the trees and other hiding places they favored and back into their fortifications, where sharpshooting continued but on more even terms. The marksmen on both sides at Yorktown considerably exaggerated their prowess, especially to credulous newspaper correspondents, yet there was no doubt that because of them the prudent learned to keep their heads down. The story quickly got around, for example, of the Confederate soldier who woke up one morning in his cramped trench and unthinkingly stood up to stretch and was instantly shot through the heart.
In spite of the sharpshooters’ threat the siege had its lighter moments. One day a Louisiana soldier searched out his colonel in the trenches to report “an awful thing has just happened!” What was it, the colonel demanded: were the Yankees attacking? It was worse than that, the man said. A Yankee shell had just struck the colonel’s camp tent and smashed a barrel of whiskey stored there. The colonel rushed to his tent in the hope that something might be salvaged, but he was too late. His men had already crowded in with their tin cups to rescue whatever had survived the wreck.
One particularly novel form of entertainment in the Confederate ranks was electioneering. For months Richmond had been struggling with what General Lee termed “the fermentation of reorganization”—keeping its army in being beyond the one year that the volunteers had signed up for in the first rush to the colors in 1861. To encourage re-enlistments it had tried bounties and furloughs and even allowed men to change their branch of service, but with indifferent results. Finally on April 16 the Congress, acting on a bill drafted by Lee, took the ultimate step and decreed conscription. Men between eighteen and thirty-five would be subject to military service, and the one-year volunteers had their enlistments extended to three years or the duration of the war. Regiments had forty days in which to reorganize under the new system and to hold elections for their officers.
For those who had seen enough of soldiering, even the thought of changing the rules this way was a betrayal. “I have no respect for a government that is guilty of such bad faith,” an Alabamian complained. Private Jesse Reid of the 4th South Carolina thought Congress was taking the law into its hands unjustly; if volunteers were kept on for two more years, he asked, what was to prevent the lawmakers from keeping them on for ten more years? With conscription, he warned, “all patriotism is dead, and the Confederacy will be dead sooner or later.”
Most of the men accepted the new law more philosophically, recognizing that there was nothing they could do about it anyway. At least electing their officers would break the monotony of their days, and they followed the campaigning with interest. Certain candidates found one time-tested electioneering tactic that worked as well in the army as it had back home. “Passed the Whiskey round & opened the polls,” Private John Tucker of the 5th Alabama wrote in his diary on April 27. It was very much a “Big day” when his brigade elected its field and company officers, he wrote, “& a great many of the men got gloriously tight.”
Resourceful Federals found ways to vary the monotony of their days as well. It did not take them long to discover that the tidal creeks emptying into the York below Yorktown contained the most succulent oysters they had ever tasted, and that the gray squirrels infesting the thick woods made a delicious stew (wearing the enemy’s colors, it was said, made them fair game). The hogs that roamed the woods were also declared contraband of war and subject to capture, although the headquarters prohibition on firing guns behind the lines forced a resort to the bayonet; it was admitted that considerable effort was required for the enjoyment of roast pork. Pennsylvanian Oliver W. Norton felt obliged to justify such foraging by explaining that whatever they found in Virginia “is nothing else than a secesh, and when Uncle Sam can’t furnish food, I see nothing wrong in acquiring it of our enemies.” A Virginia woman who lost most of her pigs and chickens to the light-fingered Yankee cavalrymen encamped on her farm near Yorktown had taunting advice for her guests. Want to get into Yorktown did they? “General Magruder’s thar, an’ he kin drink more whiskey nor enny general you’uns got, but he won’t be thar when you git thar. . . .”
Informal truces, usually arranged when no officers were around, also served to break the siege routine. These sometimes produced odd coincidences. The men of the 2nd Rhode Island discovered that the Rebel pickets opposite them had haversacks and canteens stenciled “2nd R.I.” that they had picked up when fighting the Rhode Islanders at Bull Run nine months earlier. (One of the Rhode Islanders got a big laugh from the Rebels when, called on for the name of his regiment, he shouted back, “150th Rhode Island!”) The men of the 2nd Michigan found that the Georgians posted in their sector were from the same regiment they had faced the previous fall at Munson’s Hill near Washington. They talked this over at a parlay between the lines and agreed that as old acquaintances they would refrain from firing at each other when on picket duty.
In places where the lines were close together there was a good deal of bantering back and forth. “As they have only a large swamp between them,” a man in the 61st Pennsylvania wrote his family, “they can talk as well as if in a room together, they throwing up Bull Run to our boys & we Fort Donaldson & other places.” At the James River end of the Warwick line, where tidal marshes 300 or 400 yards wide made the prospect of any attack highly unlikely, informal truces might stretch on for as long as the stints of duty lasted. When one side or the other was due to be relieved, the pickets shouted across to watch out and everybody keep their heads down, for they could not be responsible for what the new men might do.
Federal general Philip Kearny was struck by the ironies of the situation. “Is it not odd to think,” he wrote his wife, “that Magruder, one of my best friends, is one of the chief men here. This is surely a most unnatural war.” At one of the nearby farms, Kearny went on, he had the disconcerting experience of talking to an elderly slave of at least ninety who distinctly remembered, as a child, hearing cannon fire once before at Yorktown—during the first siege in 1781. Union engineers examined old maps made by Cornwallis’s army for clues to the Confederates’ Yorktown defenses.
Whenever the weather was good Professor Lowe’s war balloons—by April 10 he had the Constitution as well as the Intrepid at the front—soared high in the air over Yorktown like great yellow soap bubbles, searching out information about the enemy positions. Generals frequently went up with the professor, to cast a professional eye on what the Rebels might be doing. Confederate artillerists did their best to shoot down the intruders, and while they scored no hits they did force Lowe to keep his distance and thus limited what he could see. For all the drama of these ascensions, balloon reconnaissance brought very little real enlightenment to General McClellan; certainly they furnished him nothing that brought any reality to the way he was counting the Army of Northern Virginia.
Indeed, the Intrepid very nearly deprived him of his favorite general. On April 11, in Professor Lowe’s absence, Fitz John Porter went up alone, and the balloon broke free of its moorings and began drifting straight toward the enemy lines. Fortunately for Porter, a last-minute wind shift carried him back to Union territory, and he managed to reach the gas valve and bring himself to the ground. General McClellan termed the episode “a terrible scare,” and Professor Lowe admitted that it was some time before he could persuade any other generals to go up with him.
Determined not to be outdone in aeronautics, the Confederates countered with a balloon of their own. Lowe was scornful: it was nothing but a hot air balloon—he called it a fire balloon—and could only stay aloft a half hour or so before the air in the envelope cooled and lost its aerial buoyancy. Lacking a portable hydrogen generator of the sort Lowe had developed, the Rebels had to stoke a hot fire of pine knots soaked with turpentine to get their aeronaut, Captain John Bryan, off the ground. Captain Bryan had the same visibility problems as the Yankee aeronauts, complicated by the fact that his balloon had but a single mooring rope whose strands tended to unwind and spin him around dizzily like a top. On his third ascension he duplicated General Porter’s experience. His balloon broke loose, drifted over the Federal lines, then was finally blown back to safety by a Confederate breeze. “This was indeed luck of the greatest kind,” Captain Bryan observed, and never went up again.
Easily as unusual as the war balloons were the coffee-mill guns, a Yankee invention getting a tryout in General Keyes’s Fourth Corps. This crank-operated prototype machine gun fired cartridges rapidly from a hopper mounted atop the barrel; President Lincoln, an enthusiast for new weapons, coined its name. Its promoters called it “an Army in six feet square.” Rhode Islander Charles E. Perkins, for one, was impressed. “And we have got 4 other guns that shute a ball a little larger than our muskets do and thay can shute it a hundred times a minit,” he wrote home. “Thay are drawed by one horse and are very handy and I should think that thay might do a grate work.” A newspaper correspondent was sure this example of Yankee ingenuity “must have astonished the other side.” No Confederates recorded any reaction to the novel weapon, however. In any event, as well sheltered as the Rebels were from the Federal artillery it is doubtful that the coffee-mill guns claimed any victims during the siege.
On April 16 General McClellan took his first aggressive action against the enemy since arriving in front of Yorktown. He ordered Baldy Smith to stop the Rebels from strengthening their defenses behind the Warwick River at a place called Dam No. 1—the “weak spot,” as it happened, that General Hancock had wanted to seize ten days earlier. There was no truly pressing need for the operation—it was not the spot McClellan had selected to pulverize with his siege guns to force a breakthrough—and he hedged his orders with cautions. There was to be no general engagement; his last words to Smith were to “confine the operation to forcing the enemy to discontinue work.” Smith dutifully advanced his divisional artillery close to the dam, along with the Vermont brigade—five regiments from his native state, including the 3rd Vermont that he had led at Bull Run back in 1861—for infantry support. For most of the day the Yankee gunners and skirmishers blazed away at long range at the enemy across the millpond.
The Confederates prudently took shelter from this barrage (“Break ranks and take care of yourselves, boys,” one of their officers shouted, “for they shoot like they know we are here”) and nothing could be seen of them, and presently an adventurous Yankee lieutenant waded across the waist-deep pond and came back to report he thought the enemy’s works could be taken. Four companies from General Smith’s old regiment, the 3rd Vermont, holding their rifles and cartridge boxes high, splashed across the pond on a reconnaissance. As the Rebel pickets scattered, the Vermonters rushed into the rifle pits on the far bank and opened a steady fire into the woods beyond. Having gained this much, no one in the Federal high command seemed to know what to do next.
Baldy Smith was victimized by an unruly horse, which twice threw him and left him stunned and incapable of “seeing the advantage I had obtained.” General McClellan, who had come to observe the operation, offered no advice and then left, having concluded that “the object I proposed had been fully accomplished. . . .” After clinging to their foothold for forty minutes, the Vermonters were counterattacked by a brigade of Georgians and Louisianians and sent flying back across the pond, losing men at every step. “As we waded back,” one of them wrote, “. . . the water fairly boiled around us for bullets.” Of the 192 who began the ill-fated reconnaissance, 83 were killed, wounded, or captured. The Vermont brigade’s commander, William T. H. Brooks, belatedly sent in reinforcements, but their assault was shot to pieces before it fairly began. Recalling McClellan’s injunction not to bring on a general engagement, Brooks finally ordered everyone back. The day’s Federal casualties came to 165.
The operation left a sour taste. “This Battle took place at Dam No. 1 in Warwick creek,” a Federal diarist wrote, “and was a Dam failure.” It was rumored that General Smith had not been thrown by his horse but was in fact drunk and had fallen off. In Washington a Vermont congressman introduced a resolution calling for the dismissal of any officer “known to be habitually intoxicated by spirituous liquors while in service,” and left no doubt who it was aimed at. Smith’s defenders, and Smith himself, hotly denied the charge and eventually a congressional investigating committee found it groundless. It was clear enough that the operation had been bungled, but less clear where the fault lay. All he could see, General Brooks remarked ruefully, was that his brigade had gotten itself involved “in something we did not exactly finish.”
“The roads have been infamous,” General McClellan wrote Winfield Scott, his predecessor as general-in-chief; “—we are working energetically upon them—are landing our siege guns, and leaving nothing undone.” His sense of accomplishment was understandable. The complex arrangements for commencing siege warfare were proceeding on schedule. Two weeks into the siege, he already had 100,000 troops under him. He had persuaded the president to let him have the First Corps division commanded by a favored lieutenant, William B. Franklin, and he was promised the second of McDowell’s three divisions, under George A. McCall, as soon as “the safety of the city will permit.”
Prospects for naval cooperation were improving. A new ironclad warship, the Galena, was slated for his use, to break through between Yorktown and Gloucester Point and cut the enemy’s communications on the York. Critics were muffled by the release to the press of “official” estimates of Confederate strength that ranged up to 100,000 men and 500 guns. “The task before Genl McClellan, reduction of fortified entrenchments, is that for which he is held specially qualified and the result is not doubted,” one correspondent wrote.
A suddenly docile Secretary Stanton even volunteered to put General Franklin in command of the Fourth Corps, in place of the ineffectual Erasmus Keyes, an offer McClellan was quick to accept. Although nothing finally came of this idea, it at least suggested a thaw in his chilly relationship with the contentious secretary of war. There was a strong gleam of optimism in the letter McClellan wrote his wife on April 19. “I know exactly what I am about,” he told her, “& am confident that with God’s blessing I shall utterly defeat them.”
He grew increasingly confident the next day as a result of new intelligence about the enemy’s high command. He had heard, he told President Lincoln, that Joe Johnston was now under the command of Robert E. Lee, and that greatly encouraged him. “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” he explained. To his mind, General Lee was “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility . . . wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” (He added the opinion, a few days later, that “Lee will never venture upon a bold movement on a large scale.”) McClellan did not elaborate on how he had arrived at this singular appraisal; mercifully for him, it was never made public during his lifetime.
The Yankees pursued their siege operations with great energy and according to the latest principles of military science. However much he overestimated Confederate numbers, General McClellan never doubted his own superiority in artillery, especially heavy artillery. His confidence in ultimate victory rested on his guns. His siege train contained no fewer than seventy heavy rifled pieces, including two enormous 200-pounder Parrotts, each weighing more than 8 tons, and a dozen 100-pounders, all of which greatly outgunned any cannon the Rebels had at Yorktown. The balance of McClellan’s heavy rifled pieces were 20-pounder and 30-pounder Parrotts and 4.5-inch Rodman siege rifles. For vertical fire he had forty-one mortars, ranging in bore size from 8 inches up to massive 13-inch seacoast mortars that when mounted on their iron beds weighed almost 10 tons and fired shells weighing 220 pounds. Once they were finally all emplaced and opened fire simultaneously, as McClellan intended, these siege guns would rain 7,000 pounds of metal on Yorktown’s defenders at each blow. Such firepower dwarfed even that of the Sevastopol siege.
Fifteen batteries for these heavy guns were dug and fortified. “It seems the fight has to be won partially through the implements of peace, the shovel, axe & pick,” a New Hampshire soldier observed. To reach the battery sites new roads had to be cut through the forest and bridges built and old roads made passable by corduroying them with logs. The best at this road-making proved to be the 1st Minnesota regiment, whose skilled woodsmen could clear a mile of road and corduroy a quarter of it in a day. According to a Minnesota diarist, the Rebel gunners heard them felling the trees and fired at the sound. The heaviest pieces in the siege train had to be carried forward in canal boats on the York and then up Wormley’s Creek to the front. To mount one of the great seacoast mortars in battery, the side of the canal boat was cut down, tracks were laid to the bank, and the piece was raised by a hoisting gin and dragged ashore on rollers and finally hauled to its platform suspended under a high-wheeled sling cart. Simply to stock the battery magazines required 600 wagonloads of powder and shot and shell.
Much of the digging for batteries and trenches and redoubts was done at night and under fire. “Night work in the trenches is a sight to be remembered,” a man in an engineer battalion wrote in his journal, “to see a thousand strung along like a train of busy ants in the night, shoveling away, with now and then a shell bursting near. It is strange . . . to have a piece of shell come so near you, you can feel the wind. . . .” Although Fitz John Porter was put in direct command of the siege operations, General McClellan, a military engineer by training, visited the batteries constantly, directing construction, planning for the final assault, encouraging the troops. “Gen. McClellan & staff have just rode along the line,” a Pennsylvanian recorded in his diary on April 16. “Took a view of the rebel fortifications, gave some orders to the Gen. & passed on. While riding along he stopped and lit his cigar from one of the private’s pipes.” Such homely touches by the general sent morale soaring.
The import of all this immense effort was not lost on Joe Johnston. As the siege dragged on and the Yankees continued to fire only their field artillery in the periodic exchanges, it became obvious that McClellan was holding back his big siege guns until all were emplaced and ready to open simultaneously. General D. H. Hill, now in command of the Confederate left at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, observed that with his control of the water McClellan could “multiply his artillery indefinitely, and as his is so superior to ours, the result of such a fight cannot be doubtful.” One of his lieutenants, Gabriel J. Rains, predicted that when the enemy opened fire it would be with 300 shells a minute. One day Hill was discussing their prospects with Johnston. Johnston asked him how long he could hold Yorktown once the Federal siege batteries opened. “About two days,” Hill said. “I had supposed, about two hours,” Johnston replied.
Scouts and spies reported evidence of the rapidly multiplying Federal batteries and sightings of numerous transports entering the York, suggesting preparations for a drive up the river. It was reported too that the Yankees now had one or two more “iron-cased” war vessels in addition to the Monitor. To the trained military eye, a certain sign of impending attack was the appearance of parallels, the advanced trench lines from which the final assault would be launched once the siege guns had battered down Yorktown’s defenses.
On April 27 General Johnston warned Richmond that thè enemy’s parallels were well along and he would be compelled to fall back to avoid being trapped in his lines. On April 29 he made it official: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, 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. . . .” Once Yorktown and the line of the Warwick were abandoned, Norfolk could not be held for long; it too must prepare for evacuation.
Johnston sent an appeal for the Merrimack to come to his aid by attacking the Federal shipping in the York and upsetting McClellan’s best-laid plans. (He also repeated his earlier call for a strike on Washington so as to distract his opponent further.) This idea of a sortie by the Merrimack had already caught General Lee’s imagination, and he several times urged the navy to send the big ironclad by night past Fort Monroe and the cordon of Federal warships to get in among McClellan’s transports in the manner of a fox in a henhouse. “After effecting this object,” he explained, “she could again return to Hampton Roads under cover of night.” For Robert E. Lee, a weapon in war was only as good as the use made of it.
Flag Officer Tattnall complained that too much was expected of the Merrimack. Her fight in March in Hampton Roads, in which her first captain, Franklin Buchanan, was wounded, had raised expectations too high, Tattnall said; “I shall never find in Hampton Roads the opportunity my gallant friend found.” The truth of the matter was that the Merrimack was altogether a dubious proposition—unseaworthy except in a flat calm and ponderous to maneuver, inadequately armored, powered by engines that constantly broke down. In truth too the adventurous spirit that had marked Josiah Tattnall in long-ago battles against the Royal Navy and the Barbary pirates had cooled. Now, at age sixty-five, his first impulse was to catalogue all the possible risks in any plan, and certainly here was a plan freighted with risks.
Tattnall was appalled at the thought of navigating the Merrimack by night across Hampton Roads and up the York. To attempt such a sortie by day would mean running the gauntlet of Fort Monroe’s guns and those of the Monitor, the forty-seven-gun frigate Minnesota, and assorted other Federal warships, not to mention the threat of being “punched” by the Yankee rams. Even if he somehow reached the York safely, McClellan’s transports would probably find shelter from his guns in shoal water and in the tidal creeks. Flag Officer Tattnall could see only hazard in the operation. General Johnston would have to manage without any aid from the Merrimack.
Evacuating an army of twenty-six brigades of infantry and cavalry and thirty-six batteries of field artillery—56,600 men all told—and their equipment, and carrying out the evacuation secretly in the face of the enemy, was a truly challenging task. It was also a complicated task, and Johnston had to endure delays caused by every imaginable complication. “I am continually finding something in the way never mentioned to me before,” he complained. He finally set the withdrawal for the night of May 3 and made it a “without fail” order. Anyone and anything not ready to move by that night would be left behind. And unlike the earlier Manassas evacuation, this time the entire Federal army was only a few hundred yards distant.
Perfect security proved impossible, and hints of the movement leaked out. Northern newspaper correspondent Uriah H. Painter, for example, interviewed an escaped slave from Yorktown who had seen the Rebel wagon trains pulling out behind the lines. When Painter reported this to Chief of Staff Randolph Marcy, however, he was told it could not be so; headquarters had “positive intelligence” the enemy was going to put up a desperate fight at Yorktown.
That was indeed the message in most of the intelligence reaching General McClellan. On May 2 another contraband reported the Confederates were 75,000 strong and intended to hold out until 75,000 more men reached them. On May 3 detective Pinkerton announced the enemy’s strength to be between 100,000 and 120,000, and since that was merely a “medium estimate” it was very likely “under rather than over the mark of the real strength of rebel forces at Yorktown.” McClellan was thus confirmed in another of his intuitive leaps of logic. Just as he had been sure in early April that Magruder would never attempt to hold a line all the way across the Peninsula with a mere 15,000 men, he now concluded that with eight times that number the enemy would certainly stay and make a showdown fight of it. “I can not realize an evacuation possible,” he told Baldy Smith.
He pressed ahead with his plan for the grand assault. The heavy batteries would simultaneously open fire at dawn on Monday, May 5, the thirty-first day of the siege. Once the enemy shore batteries were silenced, gunboats and the new ironclad Galena would run past to take Yorktown’s defenses in reverse. General Franklin’s reinforcing division from Washington, held on shipboard for ten days while McClellan debated what to do with it, was brought ashore to add weight to the attack. After a day or two of unremitting bombardment—or only a few hours, some predicted—it was supposed that every gun and fortification between Yorktown and the headwaters of the Warwick would be demolished. Heintzelman’s Third Corps would then storm the position. “I see the way clear to success & hope to make it brilliant, although with but little loss of life,” McClellan told President Lincoln.
After nightfall on May 3, a Saturday, the Confederates opened a tremendous bombardment with their heavy guns. The shells were not directed at any one spot but seemed rather to be aimed at random, driving the Yankees to ground everywhere. Their burning fuzes traced brilliant red arcs across the dark sky. The surgeon of a New York regiment called it “a magnificent pyrotechnic display.” At last the guns fell silent, and for the first time in a month it was utterly still. At first light General Heintzelman went up in the balloon Intrepid with Professor Lowe. “We could not see a gun on the rebel works or a man,” the general would write in his diary. “Their tents were standing & all quiet as the grave.” He shouted down that the Rebel army was gone.
The Yankees on picket duty rushed forward and clambered into the empty redoubts, and the color bearer of the 20th Massachusetts laid claim to being the first to plant the Stars and Stripes over Yorktown. “The soldiers gave tremendous cheers,” wrote the 20th’s Lieutenant Henry Ropes, “and it was altogether a glorious occasion.” Another Massachusetts soldier, wandering through one of the abandoned Rebel camps, was struck by the message scrawled in charcoal across one of the tent walls: “He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. May 3.”