late winter 1862, George McClellan had assembled the largest fighting
force ever seen in the Western Hemisphere-nearly 150,000 men. The army
was the product of diligent training, but "Little Mac" conspicuously kept
it out of action. While Yankee forces threatened key points on the Mississippi
River and scored victories in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas,
the mighty Army of the Potomac lay dormant. President Lincoln and Secretary
of War Stanton indulged McClellan's reluctance for months, but their tolerance
had dissolved. To them it was essential that McClellan break the hold
of the Rebel army at Manassas, and, above all, capture Richmond, the Confederate
At last, the general devised a plan that would outflank the Confederates,
an amphibious landing on the Rappahannock River east of Richmond. When
the enemy army withdrew from Manassas to the line of the Rappahannock,
however, an agitated Lincoln permitted McClellan to execute an alternative
plan of advancing on Richmond by water. McClellan would sail his army
down the Potomac River into the Chesapeake Bay and land at the tip of
the Virginia Peninsula, that piece of history-rich land framed by the
York and James rivers. There the aged Fort Monroe, still in Federal hands,
would serve as a solid base for an advance 70 miles up the Peninsula to
Throughout March, McClellan worked tirelessly to launch the operation.
He gathered a massive flotilla of some 400 ships and boats on the wharves
of the Potomac near Washington. In the next weeks, this armada transported
nearly 90,000 troops and vast numbers of animals, equipment, and artillery
to Fort Monroe. McClellan had embarked the largest amphibious operation
the world had ever seen. Private Sneden observed these events with keen
interest while continuing his regular excursions.
March 24 , 1862
. . At 3 p.m. I went over the ruins of the town and down to the
creek. A durable trestle bridge had been built by our engineers
on the stumps or spiles of the former one which had been burnt.
Army wagons were going over it in a steady stream and were winding
away up the main street to the green fields, now white with tents
in all directions. Crossing over the pontoon bridge I came upon
the remains of our old earthworks built by General Butler's troops
in April 1861 and from there made a sketch of Hampton and its ruined
buildings. Keeping through the town I came upon the ruins of St.
John's Episcopal Church. The fire had gutted it completely. The
tower had fallen down all in a heap, roofs clean gone, and nothing
but bare walls left standing. Not a piece of woodwork of any kind
could be seen but a few ends of timbers sticking up out of piles
of burnt bricks, some of the fine trees around the graveyard were
scorched black and dead, others were in full leaf. Notable a very
large willow tree whose trunk must have been eight or nine feet
at the base. Many of the marble monuments had been thrown down and
smashed. Most of these were fine monuments of white marble erected
to officers of the old Army and Navy of the United States for years
back. Other tombs of brick with sandstone or slate slabs were everywhere,
some surrounded with wooden fences, others with handsome iron fences.
Most of the wooden fences had been used as firewood by Butler's
troops when here. A low brick wall ran around the whole graveyard,
broken at the top to give room for field artillery. A deep and wide
ditch had been dug by Butler's troops on two sides of the graveyard
the size of which was about one acre. The church was built in 1660,
the bricks were brought from England. I made two sketches of the
church and copies of several tombstones. . . .
March 25, 1862
and warm. Fitz John Porter's division [of the III Corps] arrived
at Fortress Monroe on 24th marched up today and went into camp.
I revisited the ruined town and St. John's Church today, and made
several sketches. The army marched through the town until late at
night, large bonfires were made to light their way. The fire shone
on the tall burnt chimneys, making quite a theatrical effect. General
McClellan has not yet arrived from Washington. General Sumner who
is second in command is at the wharfs most of the day, directing
movements and disembarkation.
March 26, 1862
and slight snow. Our picket lines were advanced at daylight this
morning to the South West Branch and reconnoitering was had towards
Little and Big Bethel by the cavalry and some regiments of infantry.
The enemy were met in small force. We had five killed and a few
wounded. Enemy's loss unknown, as they kept in dense woods. Hundreds
of soldiers are roaming over the ruined town and churchyard. There
is nothing of any use to them to be found, but they have broken
and upset tombs in the churchyard of St. Johns and unearthed coffins
and skeletons looking for jewelry and coffin plates for relics!
Skulls, and parts of skeletons are lying among the tombs. This will