McClellan Invades the Virginia Tidewater
"It is indispensable to you that you strike a blow...you must act."
President Abraham Lincoln to General George B. McClellan, April 6, 1862
The York River Confederate defenses were tested early in the Civil War. A large Union force, the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George B. McClellan, steamed down the Chesapeake Bay from Washington D.C. in March, 1862. McClellan, called "Little Mac" by his adoring troops, intended to use the York and James Rivers to capture Richmond. The general had created a world class army but was a cautious field commander.
A spirited defense of the James River turned McClellan toward the York. His Union army faced strong forts at Gloucester Point and Yorktown. When the Union navy refused to attack the Gloucester guns on April 5, the Army of the Potomac settled in for a siege on the Yorktown side of the river.
General McClellan was befuddled by a daring Confederate army, one-third the size of his own force. He spent a month bringing in huge mortars and siege guns. A few days before he was ready to begin his massive bombardment, the Confederates withdrew and moved to defenses closer to Richmond. Only the Gloucester Point artillery kept firing. Thomas J. Page, boldly commanding the Confederate cannons, finally ordered a retreat on May 4th as the Union forces closed in.
(sidebar)The Search for Dependable Siege Guns
In the 1860s, rifled and large cannons were revolutionizing siege warfare. Firing artillery, however, could be as dangerous for the crew as their intended target. Bags of gunpowder and projectiles were still loaded at the muzzle and giant cast iron guns often blew up. The nearby gun breech belongs to a Parrott Rifle that fired a rifled shell. It was a new style cast iron cannon, invented by Robert Parrott in 1860, and featured a heavy band added to reinforce the breech. The reason this gun exploded is lost to history.