Wherein Hooker and McClellan don't really help each other
The noose was beginning to tighten around Maj. General George B. McClellan, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, and commander of the Army of the Potomac. President Abraham Lincoln had clearly become unhappy with the course of the war, appointing a new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and using his commander-in-chief powers to issue a general order for all armies to begin operations by February 22. McClellan was uncertain if Lincoln himself--who McClellan called "the original gorilla" in private, a nickname invented by Stanton a few months before he joined the administration--was the source of the pressure, or if he was responding to the Radical Republicans in Congress, who had convened the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to drum out "traitors" from the war effort, a word they considered synonymous with "Democrats". They had already claimed their first victim, Charles P. Stone, who was imprisoned without charge in Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, but McClellan knew that he was their real target.
In his own Army, there were generals conspiring to replace him. Brig. General Irvin McDowell, who had appeared to see his career as a commander of troops crushed with the loss at Bull Run, was experiencing a resurgence thanks to his willingness to tell the Joint Committee and Lincoln his proposal for a repeat attack on Manassas Junction. Another division commander, Brig. General Samuel Heintzelman, appeared to be in league with McDowell, ordering reconnaissances along his proposed lines of attack. On the distant right, the senior division commander, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, was requesting McClellan allow him to march his division from Frederick, Maryland, to Winchester, Virginia, almost daily, insisting he could bounce the Confederate force under "Stonewall" Jackson out of the Shenandoah Valley with virtually no losses. To the right of Banks, Brig. General Frederick Lander had been making similar requests with such impertinence that McClellan ordered Banks (through whom his messages were routed) to tell him that the general-in-chief "might comment very severely on the tone of his dispatches, but abstain[s]."
And worst of all for McClellan, other generals were winning successes that he didn't seem able to convince Lincoln were thanks to McClellan's leadership in Washington. His old friend Ambrose Burnside had seized Roanoke Island in North Carolina, providing another base from which to threaten Gosport Shipyard [Norfolk Naval Shipyard], the home port for the new ironclad the Confederates had built out of the scuttled remains of the U.S.S. Merrimack. McClellan might have been due some credit for that operation, but the success in Tennessee against Fort Henry and Fort Donelson by troops under the ultimate command of McClellan's top rival, Maj. General Henry Halleck, looked ominous for Little Mack's tenure.
McClellan had to somehow satisfy Lincoln's insistence, without sacrificing his grand scheme to transport the Army of the Potomac to the Rappahannock and march on Richmond directly. He would need at least a month for the troop ships from Burnside's expeditions to return in order to ferry another army. For McClellan, Joe Hooker provided the solution.
Exiled a day's journey from Washington, in Charles County, Brig. General Joseph Hooker had stared across the Lower Potomac every day thinking of ways to make himself relevant. During McDowell's mid-January semi-coup, Hooker had hatched a plan to seize the Confederate batteries opposite him at Evansport [Quantico] that would work with either McDowell in command or McClellan. McClellan was still in charge, so Hooker had thrown his weight behind a version that best helped him and the commanding general had responded enthusiastically.
On February 17, Hooker thought it was almost time to go.
The rain of today indicates that a favorable moment for my enterprise is close at hand. I must have a dark morning, for if the enemy observe my movements early, the news can be communicated to Dumfries, and I shall have a larger force thrown on me than I can conveniently handle. The snow and moon together would be fatal to my success.Hooker's plan was to move a brigade of his men (4,000) across the Potomac from Liverpool Point and seize the batteries, then cross Quantico Creek and seize the other set of batteries at Cockpit Point. The plan was certainly overly ambitious, relying on complete surprise and a massive degree of coordination. On the night of February 15, in fact, McClellan's chief of staff had sent Hooker into a panic by asking him to launch the attack immediately.
"It is out of the question to attack tonight," Hooker had protested in a response he sent just before 10 pm, and then outlined reasons that should have made McClellan and Hooker question the attack on any night.
It is not yet reported to me that the boats from Baltimore have arrived. In other respects, I am not ready. I must point out to two or three of my colonels from this shore my plan of attack, and must have daylight to do it in. I must know if I am to have the cooperation of the flotilla, and to what extent. If so, I must have an interview with the captain commanding, and have an understanding that we may act in concert. Nor is the night auspicious, for a boat is visible on the water for a greater distance than the width of this river.But two days later, Hooker had apparently satisfied himself that everything was set. "The steamer Columbia, with four barges, arrived at Liverpool Point at 9 o'clock last night," he reported back. "She reports that the remaining six barges will arrive some time to day." It still wouldn't be enough vessels, though, and both men knew it.
McClellan had turned his engineers brain to the task, and come up with a way to lash together the existing barges with logs, in order to create increased deck space. These homemade catamarans could then easily carry the 4,000 men. But when Columbia appeared with her four barges, they were nowhere to be seen. Hooker commented dryly, "as no frames have arrived for that purpose, I conclude the project has been abandoned."
If McClellan had been frustrated by Hooker on the 15th, it was Hooker's turn to be frustrated by McClellan on the 17th. Both men needed each other and a successful operation, but neither seemed able to provide what was needed at the right time to make it happen.
Hooker's frustration at the lack of transports to carry out his plan is barely hidden in his snide question about the transports being sent to him:
I request that I may be informed if it has been ascertained by experiment, or only by measurement, that ten barges of the class sent me can transport 4,000 troops. As the experiment here will attract attention I have been indisposed to make it.The attack would have to wait a little longer.