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McClellan Approaches Richmond...And Waits

McClellan's Army of the Potomac

McClellan's Army of the Potomac

From VOA Learning English, this is The Making of a Nation.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

And I’m Christopher Cruise.

In July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asked General George McClellan to build and train the main force of the Union Army.

McClellan was just 34 years old. The young general had two important tasks. One was to defend the Union capital, Washington D.C., from attack. His other duty was to strike at enemy forces in Virginia.

The general did not waste time. He placed thousands of troops around Washington. He built 48 forts to help defend the city. And he established loyalty and order in his troops.

Yet McClellan’s Army of the Potomac did not fight during the first year of the Civil War. McClellan said he would not move until he was sure his men were ready.

McClellan’s failure to act became a continuing source of trouble for President Lincoln. The public, press, and politicians in the North all demanded that McClellan do something.

In March of 1862, the Army of the Potomac finally began to move toward the Confederate capital. However, heavy spring rains turned the dirt roads into rivers of mud. McClellan's men could travel slowly, but they could not bring their heavy guns. McClellan decided to wait near Yorktown, Virginia.

By the time the Union artillery arrived and was in place, Confederate troops had withdrawn. They moved into the woods near Williamsburg. McClellan's forces chased them. The woods were so thick the two sides often could not see each other. Soldiers fired at the flash of gunpowder, at noises -- anything that moved.

Their aim was good enough. About 4,000 soldiers were killed.

McClellan claimed victory in the fighting. His army pushed on, and soon the Union force was only 15 kilometers outside Richmond.

But McClellan did not strike. He believed the Confederate force around the city was much larger than his. He asked for more men and equipment. Then, once again, he waited.

The Confederate force was, in fact, much smaller than the Union force. So Confederate leaders created a plan to prevent McClellan from attacking Richmond. They ordered General Stonewall Jackson to lead a force of Confederate soldiers through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and threaten the Union capital.

Jackson was one of the South's best generals. He was a forceful leader. And he could make his men march until they dropped.

General Jackson struck the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley hard and fast. Soon his troops controlled the valley's main towns.

The raids produced the exact effect Confederate leaders wanted: the Union feared an immediate attack on Washington. Soldiers hurried to the U.S. capital. And President Lincoln sent thousands of troops to chase Jackson instead of helping McClellan at Richmond.

Outside Richmond, McClellan’s men waited on both sides of a small river. While they waited, heavy rains began to fall. The little river rose. Soon, it cut the Union force in two.

Confederate forces seized the opening to attack. After the first few hours of battle, the Confederates were close to victory. But one bridge over the river remained. Union soldiers were able to cross it. The Confederates were forced to withdraw to their earlier positions.

Neither side gained ground. And more than 11,000 men were killed or wounded. Among the wounded was the commander of all Confederate forces, General Joe Johnston. General Robert E. Lee took his place.

General Lee took a big chance. He left only a few thousand men to defend Richmond. He moved most of his men to attack the weak side of the Union line.

Lee hoped General McClellan would be fooled by this plan. If McClellan discovered how few men were left behind, he could break through Confederate defenses easily and capture the city.

Lee's plan worked. After a day of fierce fighting, McClellan’s troops withdrew.

Lee chased McClellan for a while. They clashed at such places as Mechanicsville, White Oak Swamp, and finally Malvern Hill.

The South won the series of battles, called the Seven Days Campaign. The threat to Richmond was ended. The Confederacy was saved.

But victory came at a terrible price. Twenty thousand Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded. The Civil War was becoming more costly than either side had imagined.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

This is The Making of a Nation with VOA Learning English.


Words in this Story

costly - adj. done with heavy sacrifice

fooled - v. made someone believe something that is not true; tricked

loyalty - n. a feeling of strong friendship and support

raids - n. sudden attacks

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