Few observers watching from the rebel earthworks at Sewell's Pointwould have noticed when the number of ships steaming in to Fort Monroe began to pick up late on March 17, 1862.
By the next morning, however, the always busy wharves at the Federal bastion on the north side of Hampton Roads bustled with uncommon commotion, straining to unload the heavily laden hulls of a fleet that would grow into dozens, then scores and finally nearly 400 vessels.
Over the course of 31/2 weeks, this enormous if motley armada of Philadelphia ferries, Long Island Sound sidewheelers and Hudson River excursion boats traveled back and forth between Old Point Comfort and the vast Union encampment at Alexandria time and again, towing long lines of barges and canal boats filled with the men, animals and guns of the Army of the Potomac.
Made up of 121,500 soldiers, 14,592 horses and mules, 1,224 wagons and 44 artillery batteries, this immense military force had spent the previous fall and winter training intently under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. And as it stepped ashore and spread across the Peninsula for what many believed would be a victorious march on Richmond, one British army observer was so awed by the display of Union might that he described it as the "stride of a giant."
"The waters around Fort Monroe were filled with so many ships and masts you almost could have gotten across by walking from one vessel to another," says J. Michael Moore, curator of Lee Hall Mansion and Endview in Newport News.
"This was the largest army in American history up to that time — and the largest amphibious operation. Hampton Roads had never seen that many vessels before."
Despite the expedition's epic scale, Fort Monroe was not McClellan's first choice as a base of operations.
Just 10 days before, he'd set his sights on the Rappahannock River hamlet of Urbanna. But the untimely withdrawal of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Northern Virginia from its positions outsideWashington, D.C., forced him to Old Point Comfort.
Organized by Asst. Secretary of War John Tucker, his make-do fleet chartered every available steamer on the Union's eastern seaboard. Steam derricks hoisted guns, wagons, supplies and horses in slings onto the decks, while the soldiers marched up the gangplanks in such steady procession that the captain of the dock at Fort Monroe was reporting the daily arrival of entire divisions.
"This was a lot of people and a lot of equipment — and moving them in such a short time was remarkable," says Paul Morando, former head of Fort Monroe's Casemate Museum and now director of the Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee.
"It really was uncharted territory — and it's pretty amazing that they actually managed to pull it off."
Disembarking at the Old Point wharves, the unending columns of men in blue flooded past the fort and up the east bank of the Hampton River, where they bivouacked in a sea of tents that soon overflowed what is now Phoebus.
As their numbers swelled, an even larger make-shift town cropped up on the other side of the river, reaching from the burned-out ruins of Hampton to form giant tent colonies that extended as far as the eye could see.
Many other troops landed at Camp Butler on Newport News Point. But the legions in Hampton were so great that already sprawling Camp Hamilton became an enormous canvas city with formal streets, a library, a photography studio and wooden stables and storage buildings that stretched from Strawberry Banks up past what is now Hampton University.
"When you add it all up, this was the largest city in the South and the sixth largest in the country," Hampton History Museum curator Michael Cobb says.
"It was a tremendous sight at night with all the camp fires — and you could see it fromSewell's Pointand Norfolk."
Only a day's march from this vast Union horde an equally herculean Confederate effort had transformed the landscape in just as dramatic fashion.
For 9 months, a small army of 13,000 troops and as many as 2,000 commandeered slaves had labored to prepare for an attack, building a massive 12-mile defensive wall that cut across the Peninsula from the York to the James rivers.
Led by Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder — the hero of the Battle of Big Bethel — rebel engineers anchored their left flank by enlarging the Revolutionary War earthworks that still ringed Gloucester Point and Yorktown.
On the York side alone, the defenders installed some 80 heavy naval guns from the former Federal Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, elevating a formidable array of water batteries and a bluff-top covering work into a near-impregnable position.
"Look at all these guns," Moore says, reviewing period photographs of the powerful rebel bastion.
"These are siege and coastal defense guns — Columbiads, 32-pounders and 24-pounders — that gave them tremendous firepower. It was the biggest and best artillery the Confederacy could get ahold of."
The rebels anchored their right flank at Mulberry Island Point on the James with newly built Fort Crafford, an imposing 8-acre stronghold protected by an 8-foot-tall outer wall and a 20-foot-tall interior rampart. At Lee's Mill — which overlooked the Warwick River and the Great Warwick Road — three robust gun positions looked down on the strategic crossing from 40-foot-high bluffs.
The earthworks at Wynn's Mill loomed even higher behind the Warwick and its boggy marshes, which — when combined with its tributary creeks — gave the Confederates both the high ground and several virtually impassable water barriers.
But still they labored to improve their lopsided odds by flooding the front of the line with three earthen dams. They also added layer after layer of rifle pits, gun positions and communicating trenches, building both defense in depth and the ability to move their much smaller numbers into position with speed and relative safety.
The advance line at Young's Mill, Howard's Bridge, Big Bethel and Ship's Point played a crucial role, too, screening all but the massive forts at York and Gloucester Point from probing Yankee patrols.
"The Federals were completely surprised," historian John V. Quarstein says, describing how McClellan's army reacted when it finally began advancing on April 4.
"Nobody had any idea they would run into anything that huge."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times