He hesitated. Although the rebel force that McClellan faced was far smaller, about 11,000 men, it held an excellent defensive position, most of it behind an impassable swamp and river, 100 to 300 feet wide. To break the Confederate line, McClellan’s men would have to funnel into a two-mile stretch of fortified land, swept from three sides by heavy artillery, without the benefit of their own heavy guns.
Fearing a slaughter, McClellan settled in for a siege. Over the next two weeks, the remainder of his force arrived, but so did another 40,000 Confederates.
He learned then that the 88,000 men left behind had been removed from his control and put under the direct command of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, a lawyer with no military experience. McClellan could no longer control the relegation of troops between his defense and offense.
Then, in a blow that affected Union commanders on every front, Stanton closed down all recruiting stations in the North. From this point on, each Union soldier who was lost — whether from combat or disease — would not be replaced. Four days after the order, 13,047 Federals fell at Shiloh. More than 70,000 would be lost before Stanton’s order was rescinded three months later.
The new strategy played directly into Confederate hands. The horrible reversals over the winter forced the Confederacy to initiate a draft, which prevented those already in the army from leaving and brought into their fold most of the remaining southerners from the ages of 18 to 35. So as the Union Army shrank, the Confederate Army grew.
Confederates also were retooling their strategy. Instead of defending every locale throughout the South, they concentrated their armies on the most important strategic points, Richmond in particular.
After one month, on the night of May 4, the siege forced the rebels to retreat, and McClellan resumed his march on Richmond. Lee stripped troops from the Atlantic coast to the Shenandoah Valley to defend his capital. Confederate records show that in one month, the number of men in front of McClellan’s now-95,000-man army swelled from about 56,000 to more than 115,000. McClellan, who thought that additional Confederates had arrived from the western theater to expand the total to 200,000, anxiously telegraphed Lincoln for reinforcements. He had been promised another 35,000 men when he reached Richmond, but barely 10,000 would ever arrive.
Lincoln and Stanton, meanwhile, failed to take advantage of the newly weakened Confederate fronts. Instead, they spent their time directing the Washington defense force as it got tangled up in a wild-goose chase pursuing Jackson’s small army through the Shenandoah Valley. Even McClellan’s rival, Gen. Irwin McDowell, could see the folly of the venture. Pleading with Lincoln not to redirect his troops from reinforcing McClellan, McDowell wrote, “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here . . . it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have all our large masses paralyzed.”