Cautious McClellan Wastes the Month of April Taking Yorktown - 1862

War of the Aeronauts, pages 209-212

    Patience in McClellan's assessment of the situation in Virginia was beginning to grow thin in Washington. In a telegram to McClellan sent in early April, 1862, Lincoln wrote, "You now have over 100,000 troops with you. I think you better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once."

    In spite of the acrimony that was rapidly developing between the president and the Army of the Potomac's commander, McClellan ordered the bombardment of Yorktown to begin in late April. General Fitz-John Porter was placed in charge of the assault.

    McClellan's chief of engineers, General John G. Barnard, was responsible for positioning over one hundred heavy Parrott guns, howitzers, and mortars aimed at the town based on observations he had made while accompanying Thaddeus Lowe mid-month.

    While McClellan was able to set artillery in place, the land attack on Yorktown was an entirely different matter. The Warwick River, which rose about a mile and a half from Yorktown, was usually a small stream running diagonally across the peninsula and emptying into the James River. But heavy rains combined with deliberately built Confederate dams had managed to swell the river as much as a mile wide in places. Two crossings, one at Wynn's Mill and another at Lee's Mill, were heavily defended by Rebel earthworks.

    Compounding all of this, Magruder was also successful in his request to Richmond to detach more men for the defense of Yorktown. By the time McClellan began his advance, Magruder's 12,000 or so men were joined by reinforcements under the commands of Jubal Early, Daniel H. Hill, and David R. Jones.

    On May 1, Union gun batteries opened fire on Yorktown. For the next three days shells from both sides pounded away unmercifully. "The whole atmosphere was filled with bursting shell and shot," Thaddeus Lowe later recalled. The intensity of the battle made balloon ascensions more dangerous than ever.

    "On the 3d of May I made a reconnaissance ... at sundown before Yorktown ... General Porter and myself ascended. No sooner had the balloon risen above the tops of the trees than the enemy opened all their batteries," said Lowe. The shelling was among the heaviest yet encountered by Lowe.

    While Porter and Lowe remained unscathed by the heavy fire, the effect of the artillery directed at the balloon was devastating. With their field glasses, Porter and Lowe could see the overextended Confederate shot exacting a heavy toll on Union ground forces below.

    "(One shot) struck near to the place where General McClellan stood," Lowe observed while in the air. "Another 64-pounder struck between two soldiers lying in a tent, but without injury.

    "Fearing that by keeping the balloon up the enemy's shots would do injury to the troops that were thickly camped there, General Porter ordered the balloon down."

    Not long after Lowe's ascent with General Porter, the tempo of the battle began to change. During  the early morning of May 4, Lowe received word from General Heintzelman, who was commanding the Union III Corps, that there was a strong possibility that the Rebels were pulling out of Yorktown and setting fire to the town as they left. In the pitch darkness of night, Lowe went aloft.

    After making his report, Lowe was told by Heintzelman to ascend again. His next ascension came just before dawn. "At this time in the morning, I could see no campfires. As soon as it became a little lighter I discovered that the enemy had gone."

    Lowe immediately relayed his observations to Heintzelman, who insisted on going up with Lowe to confirm the information. From above, Lowe and Heintzelman saw the rear guard of Magruder's army at a position one mile distant of Yorktown. The Rebels were falling back in anticipation of an attack on Richmond.

    "At first the general was puzzled on seeing more wagons entering the forts than were going out," Lowe observed. "But when I called his attention to the fact that the ingoing wagons were light and moved rapidly, while the outgoing wagons were heavily loaded and moved slowly, there was no longer any doubt as to the object of the Confederates."

    "It (was) fair to presume that the first reliable information given on the evacauation of Yorktown was that transmitted from the balloon to General McClellan by General Heintzelman and myself," Lowe said.

Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 119-121

    Firing from the fortifications continued all day. The last shell fired after dusk came into General Heintzelman camp and completely destroyed his telegraph tent and instruments, the operator having just gone out to deliver a dispatch. The General and I were sitting together discussing the probable reasons for the enemy's unusual effort to destroy the balloon when we were both covered with earth thrown up by the twelve inch shell. Fortunately it did not explode. I suggested that the next morning we would move the balloons so as to draw the enemy's fire in another direction, but the General said no, that he could stand it if I could. Besides, he wanted me near as he enjoyed making an occasional ascension himself.

    At midnight that night, however, I was aroused by Captain Moses of General Heintzelman's staff, who informed me that the General was apprehensive that the enemy was evacuating from the fact of the consistent cannonading and that a heavy fire was raging in Yorktown. I immediately ascended and saw that the fire was confined to one building or vessel near the wharf and therefore I did not consider it a sufficient indication that they were evacuating for if destruction of property was intended they would burn their barracks, tents, wharves, storehouses, etc. I, therefore considered the fire to be accidental.

    However, I decided to keep an eye on them, and watched for the camp fires which therefore appeared at daybreak but I saw none and as it grew a little lighter I discovered that the enemy had gone. This I immediately communicated to General Heintzelman, who on learning it, ascended with me, satisfied himself of the fact and reported it by telegraph to General McClellan, sending the message from the balloon without descending. We then remained up and saw our troops advance towards the enemy's works, throwing out their skirmishers and feeling their way as if expecting to meet an enemy.

    As the air grew a little clearer we could discern the rear guard of the enemy which was not more than a mile from Yorktown. We reported this and then descended and I hurried to my own headquarters to see if there were any dangerous obstacles that our army would run against and found the telegraph operator climbing poles and repairing wires towards the Yorktown fortifications. He was an expert not only in operating but in climbing and repairing and as he came down from one of the poles he stepped upon a torpedo intended to blow up anyone who made such repairs and was instantly killed before my eyes. I directed the men not to step on any new made ground as the enemy had planted an immense number of torpedoes to retard our army from reaching the great fortress.

    I shall never forget the silent movements of our great army, without a sound of any kind to notify the enemy that we were after him; and to witness in the grey of the early morning the saddling, bridling and mounting of Stoneman's ten-thousand horses with the rattling of as many sabres was a sensation never to be forgotten.