When I saw this field for the first time two weeks ago, my initial reaction was "Dang, I'd give almost anything to scour that ground with a metal detector for three or four hours." In July and August 1862, 140,000 Union troops camped here at Harrison's Landing, Va., site of George McClellan's infamous "change of base" after the Peninsula Campaign debacle that summer. President Lincoln conferred with the general at Harrison's Landing on July 8, 1862, seven days after the Union army's victory at nearby Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days' battles. (See my interactive Malvern Hill panoramas here.)
|Lincoln reviews Union troops in July 1862 in this painting, part of a Civil War display in the basement |
of the Berkeley Plantation mansion. The mansion appears in the far right background of the painting.
No fan of the president's, McClellan supposedly gave Lincoln an undersized horse to make the tall chief executive look a little silly during a review of troops at Harrison's Landing. The Little Napoleon also handed Lincoln a letter that outlined his vision for how to conduct the war -- a vision that noted that "neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment."
Lincoln read the letter without comment, disappointing McClellan, who wrote to his wife that the president "really seems quite incapable of rising to the heights of the merits of the question & the magnitude of the crisis." (On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, leading to the abolition of slavery in states that were still in rebellion.)
|Marker at Harrison's Landing field in honor of Union drummer boy Willie Johnston.|
It was also at Harrison's Landing that "Taps" may have been played for the first time by a private named Oliver Norton, although that's in some dispute, and where 11-year-old Willie Johnston, the only drummer boy to retain his instrument throughout the disastrous Union retreat during the Seven Days' battles, played for a division review on July 4, 1862. For his spunk and bravery, the lad in the 3rd Vermont was awarded the Medal of Honor by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on Sept. 16, 1863, when he was 13 -- the youngest person to be awarded the honor.
By the time the Union army had arrived at Harrison's Landing, many soldiers were exhausted and ill from continuous fighting in the grim, swampy land around Richmond.
|William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the U.S., was born|
at Berkeley Plantation in 1773.
"The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects upon the health of the men," Union army medical director Jonathan Letterman wrote. "In addition to this the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog."
On July 1, 1862, Letterman established at hospital at the Berkeley Plantation mansion, also used by McClellan as a headquarters. Berkeley Plantation was the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son, William Henry, the ninth U.S. president. The mansion -- "the only available building for the purpose in that vicinity," according to Letterman -- proved "wholly inadequate."
"Only a few wall tents could be obtained at that time with which to enlarge the capacity of the hospital," Letterman wrote. "No hospital tents could be procured."
While his troops staved off disaster at Malvern Hill, McClellan found comfort aboard the gunboat Galena in the James River, near Harrison's Landing, drawing the ire of some Army of the Potomac soldiers. Private Robert Sneden disgustingly noted that "McClellan was not on the ground (as usual) until the battle was over."
Two years later, a political cartoonist used the incident to lampoon McClellan, Lincoln's Democratic opponent in the 1864 presidential election. "Fight on my brave soldiers and push the enemy to the wall," reads the thought bubble above the general, who eyes the fighting at Malvern Hill, "from this spanker boom your beloved general looks down upon you."
But not all soldiers found McClellan's behavior unsettling. Three days after Malvern Hill, on the Fourth of July, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, an officer in the 2nd Rhode Island, recalled meeting the general at Harrison's Landing:
This morning all the troops were put to work upon the line of forts that have been laid out. As I was going to the spring I met General McClellan who said good morning pleasantly and told our party that as soon as the forts were finished we should have rest. He took a drink of water from a canteen and lighted a cigar from one of the men's pipes. At Malvern Hill he rode in front of our Regiment and was loudly cheered. I have been down to the river. I rode the Adjutant's horse and enjoyed the sight of the vessels. Gun boats and transports are anchored in the stream. Rest is what we want now, and I hope we shall get it. I could sleep for a week. The weather is very hot, but we have moved our camp to a wood where we get the shade. This is a queer 4th of July, but we have not forgotten that it is our national birthday, and a salute has been fired. We expect to have something to eat before long. Soldiering is not fun, but duty keeps us in the ranks. Well, the war must end some time, and the Union will be restored. I wonder what our next move will be. I hope it will be more successful than our last.