Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review--Yorktown's Civil War Siege

Quarstein, John V. and J. Michael Moore. Yorktown's Civil War Siege: Drums along the Warwick (Civil War Sesquicentennial) . The History Press, Charleston, SC. 2012. 192 pages, 156 pages of text, Index, bibliography, notes, order of battle, b/w photos, maps. ISBN 9781609496562, $19.99.

For most readers of Civil War history Union General George McClellan has a reputation for being overly cautious with his own troops and for grossly overestimating the size and strength of the Confederate troops he was to face. In many ways it would be these types of actions that led Abraham Lincoln to remove him from his position at the head of the Army of the Potomac after the Antietam campaign. While the Union army missed a great opportunity in September 1862 authors John Quarstein and J. Michael Moore argue that McClellan missed just as large an opportunity earlier in the same year. While McClellan may have been a good strategist he was not a good battle leader.

In April 1862 General McClellan began his plan to march down the peninsula from the key location of Fort Monroe in an attempt to take the Confederate capital of Richmond. Had he been successful there is a real possibility the war would have ended three years earlier than it ultimately did. Things were never this easy for Little Mac however as several obstacles, including his own fear of imagined Confederate manpower, stood in his way.

Despite having a dramatic four to one edge in manpower McClellan was fooled into thinking the Confederates were massing a large force by a simple but clever ruse by John Magruder. Magruder divided his forces and had them move continually along their line making it appear as though reinforcements were continually arriving.

Perhaps beyond McClellan's control but not helping him at all was the Union Navy and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough's failure to provide support along the James and York rivers. While it is true that the Confederates had a new fighting force in the ironclad CSS Virginia the Union failure to actively engage and attempt to draw out this new ship caused this vital route to be unusable until the Confederate withdrawal toward Richmond.

In addition to his own timidity and the failure of the Navy McClellan did not have the best of intelligence nor were his maps accurate. These combined factors led McClellan to decide upon a siege of Yorktown at the spot of the great Revolutionary War siege. Confederate troops suffered tremendously during the siege due to the poor weather, limited rations and lack of health care.

The month long siege was ultimately going to be ended by a relentless pounding of the city by McClellan's massive array of artillery. Unfortunately for the Union army, and McClellan's reputation, the Confederate army slipped away just days before the planned bombardment thus saving the city. On the retreat toward Richmond several indecisive battles took place that further frustrated Abraham Lincoln.

The book contains a large number of b/w photos and several maps. An order of battle is included as is an interesting run down on Union artillery in the Peninsula Campaign. An extensive bibliography is available for those wanting further source material.

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