General George McClellan, commanding 400 ships, 100,000 men, 300 cannons, and 25,000 animals, prepared to execute one of the greatest invasions in the history of the American military: a plan to take the Virginia Peninsula, a perceived weak point in the Confederacy, and march on Richmond.[i] He brought hope to his men that they would be part of the greatest campaign not just of 1862 but in military history. However, President Abraham Lincoln anticipated that it would be a futile effort as the Union men would “find the same enemy, and the same, or equal [e]ntrenchments” on which they had fruitlessly tried to advance before.[ii] Worse than that, he feared that the Confederates would take advantage of the massive Union deployment on the Peninsula and march on Washington.
That fear was exacerbated when Stonewall Jackson clashed in the Shenandoah Valley at Kernstown with Nathaniel Banks.[iii] While the Union men, led by Banks, had no difficulty in repulsing Jackson’s 4,200 soldiers, Lincoln ordered that Banks keep his divisions in the Valley rather than make their way to join McClellan on the Peninsula.[iv] For McClellan, this meant a diversion of resources from his campaign and an indicator that he did not have Lincoln’s full backing. Lincoln justifiably wanted assurance that there was a defensive force in place sufficient to stop any backdoor Confederate effort at taking Washington.[v]
The Virginia Peninsula, framed on the north by the York River and the south by the James River, contained a series of towns on the path westward to Richmond. The Confederates, receiving intelligence of McClellan’s invasion and aware that they numbered fewer than the Union men, constructed three major lines of works, including rifle pits, to slow the campaign.[vi] With 55,000 troops, McClellan approached the works at Yorktown, which had 13,000 Confederates defending them under command of John Magruder, a master at theatrics.[vii] Capitalizing on McClellan’s proclivity for overestimating enemy numbers, Magruder ordered his men to march in circles and move his artillery back and forth all in an effort to have McClellan convinced he was outnumbered.[viii] McClellan concluded, despite Lincoln’s objection, that an artillery siege was necessary to smoke out the rebels and then take their works and continue the advance.[ix] However, as Lincoln had predicted, McClellan’s cowardice allowed for Confederate General Joseph Johnston to move the entirety of his army to the Peninsula to meet McClellan.[x] When the Confederate army marched through Richmond, it provided an encouraging spectacle for its residents:
“From an early hour until the sun went down in the West the steady tramp of the soldier was heard on the streets. Continuous cheers went up from thousands of voices; from every window fair heads were thrust, fair hands waved snowy handkerchiefs, and bright eyes beamed ‘Welcome!’ . . . [A]s the last regiments were passing we heard the strains of ‘Good-Bye,’ and tears were allowed to flow, and tender hearts ached as they listened to the significant tune. Soldiers left the ranks to grasp the hands of friends in passing, to receive some grateful refreshment, a small bouquet, or a whispered congratulation.”[xi]
When General Johnston made his way to the Yorktown defenses, he concluded: “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”[xii] As McClellan finally made his advance on Yorktown, Johnston evacuated his men and made his way inland and closer to Richmond, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was conferring with his newly-appointed assistant commander-in-chief Robert E. Lee.[xiii] McClellan and his men vigorously pursued the retreat but became bogged down by periods of heavy rain, ending up within six miles of Richmond by May.[xiv]
By the time that McClellan and his men were camping outside the Confederate capital—in fact close enough to hear chiming bells at the top of each hour—panic had permeated the Confederacy. On April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress created the “first conscription law in American history,” requiring all men aged between 18 and 35 to serve in the military for three years and also mandating the one-year volunteers to remain for another two years.[xv] Questions were abound as to whether the Confederate government was empowered to create such a conscription but also the Confederacy’s ability to survive McClellan’s assault.
Lee had no such doubts. On the contrary, he ordered Stonewall Jackson to take the offensive in the Shenandoah Valley and move on Irwin McDowell’s men stationed there in an effort to keep McDowell from joining McClellan near Richmond; a combined force that even McClellan would have found sufficient to launch an attack.[xvi] With a march that left at least one of Stonewall’s men with a face “as white as cotton” and pulse “so low you could scarcely feel it,” the infantry attacked and disrupted the Union men around the Shenandoah Valley.[xvii] McClellan, regardless of his fears that the Confederates could number as high as 240,000 (supported by Allan Pinkerton’s intelligence reports), would not be reinforced by any other Union men.[xviii]
Meanwhile, Johnston moved on McClellan’s camps with a force of 75,000 Confederates.[xix] While the Confederates pushed the Union men east the first day over the Chickahominy River, scattered fighting the next day resulted in the Confederates ceding their gains.[xx] In the fighting near Fair Oaks, in the thick woods, with mud under their feet, the Confederates and Union men fired on each other.[xxi] There, while riding near his troops and directing their advance, Johnston took a shell in his shoulder, guaranteeing Lee’s rise to the top of the Confederate army.[xxii] While President Davis had immense respect for Lee, others were not sure how to interpret the quiet Virginian.[xxiii] He lacked the eccentricities of his counterparts: Stonewall “constantly sucked lemons to palliate his dyspepsia and refused to season his food with pepper because (he said) it made his left leg ache.”[xxiv] More than that, he was ready to lead the newly-retitled Army of Northern Virginia and take on McClellan.
Lee ordered Stonewall to come from the Shenandoah Valley and lead the attack on McClellan, knowing that McClellan would not attack in the meantime.[xxv] The Union general had already shown the long odds of his attacking by wiring his commander-in-chief:
“The rebel force is stated at 200,000 including Jackson [it was actually less than 90,000] . . . I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds. . . . If [the army] is destroyed by overwhelming numbers . . . the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.”[xxvi]
On June 26, 1862, Lee attacked near Mechanicsville. The intensity of the fighting between both sides could scarcely be overstated, as one Union man, Oliver Norton, recorded:
“[W]hile the line was forming, a bullet laid low the head, the stay, the trust of our regiment—our brave colonel, and before we knew what had happened the major shared his fate. . . . Henry and Denison were shot about the same time as the colonel. I left them together under a tree.
I returned to the fight, and our boys were dropping on all sides of me. I was blazing away at the rascals not ten rods off when a ball struck my gun just above the lower band as I was capping it, and cut it in two. The ball flew in pieces and part went by my head to the right and three pieces struck just below my left collar bone. The deepest one was not over half an inch, and stopping to open my coat I pulled them out and snatched a gun from Ames in Company H as he fell dead. Before I had fired this at all a ball clipped off a piece of the stock, and an instant after, another struck the seam of my canteen and entered my left groin. I pulled it out, and, more maddened than ever, I rushed in again. A few minutes after, another ball took six inches off the muzzle of this gun. I snatched another from a wounded man under a tree, and, as I was loading kneeling by the side of the road, a ball cut my rammer in two so I threw that away and picked up a fourth one. Here in the road a buckshot struck me in the left eyebrow, making the third slight scratch I received in the action. It exceeded all I ever dreamed of, it was almost a miracle.”[xxvii]
While McClellan’s men fought off the rebels without significant casualties, McClellan did not contemplate how an offensive move may have stretched Lee’s men and put the Union in a superior position.[xxviii] Instead, he called for a “change of base,” which was to be nothing more than a retreat and an abandonment of the plan to siege Richmond with artillery.[xxix]
The Confederates continued to apply pressure: with McClellan camped, Magruder orchestrated his best performance yet; artillery fired round after round as rebels lined up near Union scouts and “called out orders to imaginary regiments in the woods.”[xxx] McClellan wired the War Department that his “force was too small. . . . The Government has not sustained this army. . . . You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”[xxxi] McClellan continued the retreat back to the James River. While Lee sought to strike the retreating men at Glendale and Malvern Hill, because of a lack of coordination between his subordinates, he was not able to get a clean victory over McClellan.[xxxii] In fact, at Malvern Hill, Lee’s army suffered more than double the Union casualties as Union artillery unleashed shell after shell on the attacking infantry.[xxxiii] The commander of one Confederate division, D.H. Hill, wrote that the battle “was not war—it was murder.”[xxxiv] One soldier, Thomas Livermore, witnessed the power of artillery:
“I saw a shot strike in the 2d Delaware, a new regiment with us, which threw a man’s head perhaps twenty feet into the air, and the bleeding trunk fell over toward us. The men seemed paralyzed for a moment, but presently gathered up the poor fellow’s body in a blanket and carried it away. I do not know that I have ever feared artillery as I did then, and I can recollect very well how close I lay to the ground while the messengers of death, each one seemingly coming right into us, whistled over us. . . .”[xxxv]
The semblance of victory was short-lived, however, as McClellan was already a defeated man after being pushed down the Peninsula in retreat after retreat.
Even as his protégé, Fitz-John Porter, encouraged McClellan to now mount a counter-attack and push back toward Richmond since the Confederates had lost 20,000 in the preceding week, McClellan ordered a continued retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.[xxxvi] This move, combined with McClellan’s previous lethargy in attacking, led Philip Kearny, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, to claim to officers: “Such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”[xxxvii] Nonetheless, McClellan ordered the full retreat and put an end to Lee’s extraordinary effort deemed the Seven Days’ Battles.
The Union men had one defeat in the whole stretch of the Peninsula Campaign, at Gaines’ Mill, but the total result of the campaign was a resounding Confederate strategic victory. With 30,000 men killed and wounded in the campaign, it exceeded the sum of casualties in the western theater of the war, including the Battle of Shiloh.[xxxviii] It took weeks for McClellan and his men to traverse the entirety of the Peninsula and prepare to siege Richmond, but their gains were reversed in just a week. On the Confederate side, the opportunity had presented itself for an attack; and on the Union side, there were questions as to whether McClellan was to remain Lincoln’s general.
[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 424.
[ii] See id.
[iii] See id. at 425.
[v] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 408.
[vi] See id. at 400.
[vii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 426.
[viii] See id.
[ix] See id.
[x] See id. citing Lincoln to McClellan, May 1, 1862, Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol. V, 203.
[xi] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 125.
[xii] Johnston to Robert E. Lee, April 22, 1862, War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 11, pt. 3, 456.
[xiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 427.
[xv] See id. at 430.
[xvi] See id. at 455.
[xvii] Id. at 456-57 citing Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 426.
[xviii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 416.
[xix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 461.
[xxi] Id. at 462.
[xxiii] See id.
[xxiv] Id. at 455 citing John B. Imboden, “Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah,” Battles and Leaders, II, 297.
[xxv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 464.
[xxvi] Id. quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 11, pt. 1, 51.
[xxvii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 139.
[xxviii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 466.
[xxix] See id.
[xxx] Id. at 468.
[xxxi] Id. quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 11, pt. 1, 61.
[xxxii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 468-69.
[xxxiii] Id. at 470.
[xxxv] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 141.
[xxxvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 470.
[xxxvii] Id. citing Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (Garden City, NY, 1956), 149.
[xxxviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 471.