Preparation for the Peninsular Campaign - 1862

Time Magazine, The Civil War 1861-1862: An Illustrated History

    Think of it as a 19th century D-day: on March 17, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan launched one of the largest land-sea operations in the history of warfare as he led his Army of the Potomac across Chesapeake Bay and into secessionist Virginia in a sweeping left-hook assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond. The invading force was vast and mighty: an armada of some 400 ships and barges bore some 120,000 men, more than 15,000 animals, 1,200 wagons, 44 artillery batteries and a host of support personnel into the fray. (On D-day, the Allied invasion force that landed at Normandy numbered some 150,000 men, borne by more than 5,000 craft.)

    After the disaster at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln had appointed McClellan to lead the new Army of the Potomac, and the young general had bulked up Washington's defenses and shaped his novice soldiers into a proud, cohesive unit. But he seemed content to do no more. As the months dragged by, the Union's failure to launch a new attack on the Confederate capital at Richmond, only 107 miles (172 km) away, caused consternation in the North, sent signals of weakness to watching European nations - and gave Lincoln fits.

    The Commander in Chief prodded. He cajoled. He scolded. He wrote memos. Yet Lincoln could not get McClellan's vast Army of the Potomac to budge. Finally, early in 1862, McClellan unveiled his strategy for attacking Richmond. He would send his invading army by sea to the mouth of the Rappahannock River and advance on Richmond from the east. But the plan had a flaw: it would leave Washington undefended. Lincoln was quick to see that; he approved the strategy with the stipulation that McClellan leave 40,000 troops behind to guard the capital.

    The plan had another flaw: it couldn't be kept secret. When Johnston got wind of it, he withdrew from Manassas and moved his troops 40 miles (64 km) south along the river. The Union plan would have to be changed, yet Lincoln still insisted that an attack must be launched. The President favored a direct overland assault, but McClellan now argued for a seaborne invasion of the Virginia peninsula where the James and York rivers met, some 70 miles (113 km) southeast of Richmond. Lincoln finally agreed, again insisting that McClellan assign troops to guard Washington. Increasingly frustrated with McClellan, he also removed him from overall command of the Union Army, leaving him in charge only of the Army of the Potomac.

War of the Aeronauts, pages 170-177

    Under orders from Lincoln, McClellan reluctantly detached over 40,000 men under the command of General Irvin McDowell. McDowell's force was to remain behind in defense of the capital, where they became the backbone of the newly created Department of the Rappahannock. The effect was that McClellan's invasion force was reduced by approximately 25 percent.

    Regardless of the reduced manpower available, plans for the invasion carried on. Lowe received the first notice of the army's new battle plans via telegram from General Porter.

    "Have your balloon out to Fairfax Court house at as early an hour tomorrow as possible," wrote Porter. "Major Stone will give all the facilities you desire. Show this to him."

    At Fairfax the following day, Lowe was met by Stone and was presented with orders detailing the Balloon Corps' new mission.

    "You will make arrangements, without delay, to send to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, a balloon with all the requisite apparatus for inflating," Lowe was informed by Lieutenant Colonel Macomb. Macomb's orders had come directly from General McClellan.

    Lowe himself was not able to go to Fortress Monroe. By this time he had employed other aeronauts to take on the additional duties heaped on the Balloon Corps. Among these new aeronauts was Ebenezer Seaver.

    Seaver's first assignment as an aeronaut was to replace William Paullin at Budd's Ferry, Maryland, following Paullin's dismissal for dereliction. When McClellan was preparing the invasion of the Virginia peninsula, however, Seaver's  services in gathering advance intelligence at Fortress Monroe were deemed to be of greater importance.

    There was a certain amount of adventure in preparing Seaver for his journey to Monroe. Seaver was still detailed to operations with General Hooker's division at Budd's Ferry when orders were received by Lowe to send an aeronaut to Virginia. Making the trip from the capital aboard the balloon barge George Washington Parke-Custis, Lowe personally supervised Seaver's preparations.

    "I proceeded from Washington ... to Budd's Ferry (in order to ship) the balloon and apparatus ... for Fort Monroe, Virginia," Lowe later explained. "The dispatch I had sent to Mr. Seaver to get the apparatus in his charge ready to move had not been received and I found the balloon on the Virginia side of the river inflated where it had been in use."

    Lowe spent most of the evening of March 13 deflating the balloon and "getting the things together" for shipping the next morning. But the crew of the George Washington Parke-Custis, which was in tow behind a steamer tug, had difficulty maneuvering away from the makeshift wharf on the shore.

    "On examination it was found impossible to turn the balloon barge until some repairs have been made to her rudder post," stated Lowe in his report to Colonel Macomb. He went on to explain that the barge had been damaged in a recent storm and that to get the equipment moving he would unload the hydrogen generator, put it on wheels, and ship it to Fortress Monroe with Ebenezer Seaver by other means."

    On March 15, 1862, Seaver and the balloon Constitution, along with its support equipment, embarked on the journey to Fortress Monroe aboard the steam transport Hugh Jenkins and arrived the following day.

    Although Confederate army activity in the area had subsided to a great extent, a new threat was now presenting itself. It was the Rebel ironclad CSS Virginia. Rumors and false sightings of the Virginia, the South's first seagoing ironclad vessel, were running rampant all over the eastern seaboard. Rebuilt from the scuttled Union frigate Merrimack, the ship was reputed to be indestructible. During the week prior to Seaver's arrival, the Virginia had engaged several Union vessels at Hampton Roads and the results were devastating. On March 8 it had rammed and sunk the USS Cumberland and forced the frigates USS Minnesota and Congress to run aground. The Congress later burst into flames and was completely lost.

    The very next day, Sunday, March 9, the Virginia returned and moved in to finish off the Minnesota. But by this time the Monitor, the Union's first ironclad warship, had arrived. A four-hour gunbattle of shot and shell erupted between the two ships. The combat between the Virginia and the Monitor, though violent, proved inconclusive. The Virginia eventually withdrew to the Confederate-controlled shipyards at Norfolk, ceding control of Hampton Roads to the Monitor.

    In spite of its withdrawal, the threat of the Virginia remained. The Rebel ironclad still protected the river approach leading to the Confederate capital at Richmond and had the potential to menace Union shipping lanes in Hampton Roads. On his arrival at Fortress Monroe, Seaver found himself pressed into constant duty monitoring Rebel naval activity in the Roads.

    Meanwhile, Thaddeus Lowe also received new instructions. On March 23, Brigadier General Seth Williams, McClellan's adjutant general, forwarded orders to the aeronaut at his temporary residence in the National Hotel in Washington.

    "The commanding general directs that you proceed with your balloons and apparatus to Fort Monroe, Virginia," Williams wrote, adding that Lowe was to await further orders from McClellan pending his arrival in the area. Lowe would be contacted as soon as the general's floating headquarters, the Commodore, steamed into Hampton Roads. Equally as important, Williams noted that he was also including a pay voucher so that Lowe could procure necessary supplies for the journey.

    Lowe wasted little time readying himself for action. Two of the corps' balloons were already en route to Virginia with the forces of Generals Fitz-John Porter and James Samuel Wadsworth. With the help of Clovis Lowe and a newly enlisted maintenance assistant named John O'Donnell, the remaining balloons at the Columbia Armory were carefully packed aboard the George Washington Parke-Custis for transport. Food rations for the trip were also set aside - "three days' cooked provisions and three days' uncooked."

    In addition to the preparation for the Peninsular Campaign, Lowe also managed to employ other aeronauts to augment duties with the corps. Two of these new areonauts, Ebenezer Locke Mason and Jacob C. Freno, were actually signed on in January, 1862.

    There was one more individual that Lowe added to the ranks of the Balloon Corps prior to his departure to Virginia. It was a name already well known to Union aeronautics - James Allen. Although Allen had failed in his early attempts at demonstrating the military use of his balloon and gas-generating equipment at the time of the battle of Bull Run, he was nonetheless a valuable commodity as an experienced aeronaut. In February, 1862, Lowe wrote to Allen at his home in Providence, Rhode Island, asking him to join the Balloon Corps.

    Lowe and his crew arrived at Fortress Monroe during the last week of March, 1862. Seaver was already at work with daily observations around the fort and Lowe soon received orders to have himself ready to accompany General Porter on his advance towards Yorktown.