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Peninsula Campaign of 1862

Peninsula Campaign of 1862

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Peninsula Campaign of 1862

McClellan’s Plan
Yorktown and Williamsburg
Outside Richmond
The Seven Days


The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 was probably the single most ambitious Union operation of the American Civil War. In order to outflank strong Confederate defences in northern Virginia, an army over 100,000 men strong would be transported by sea to the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers, to the east of the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Having bypassed those defences, the army, under General George B. McClellan, would be able to advance quickly against Richmond, without having to face an entrenched opponent.

The failure of the Peninsula Campaign was one of the most controversial episodes of the civil war. McClellan moved slowly, was held up by relatively small Confederate forces, and despite reaching within a few miles of Richmond never made a serious assault on the Confederate capitol. McClellan himself blamed sinister forces in Washington for failing to provide him with enough men or support, despite actually outnumbering his opponents for the entire campaign.

On the Confederate side, the Peninsula Campaign saw the emergence of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee as commanders of great stature and ability. Richmond had looked about to fall, before Jackson and Lee combined to push them away.

McClellan’s Plan

General McClellan repeatedly overestimated the number of Confederate soldiers he faced. In the aftermath of the first battle of Bull Run/ Manassas (21 July 1861), the Confederates had remained in place close to the battlefield. There they had created a fortified line, based around Centreville. McClellan’s chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, estimated the Confederate forces at Centreville at 115,500 men with 330 guns. In fact, Joseph Johnston had no more than 45,000 men to call on, and only half of them were around Centreville.

McClellan wanted to take advantage of Union sea power to bypass these defences. On 3 February 1862 he wrote to Lincoln describing his plan. His intention was to ship the army from the Potomac River to Urbana on the Rappahannock River. From there, the Union army would be able to march to Richmond virtually unopposed. Johnston at Manassas would be too far away to intervene effectively before the fall of the Confederate capital.

This was potentially a good plan, but for it to work, McClellan would have to demonstrate speed and daring. Otherwise, as Lincoln pointed out, all he would find would be the same opponents, in similar fortifications. Nevertheless, by the end of February, Lincoln had approved McClellan’s plan, and the war department had started to buy up naval transports.

The campaign was dogged by poor relationships between McClellan, Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton. McClellan had been under a great deal of pressure to use the impressive army he had created. He had responded with silence over the winter – one of his flaws was an inability (or unwillingness) to understand the political pressures that affected Lincoln. McClellan was known to favour a generous peace, leaving Southern institutions intact. There was even some concern that his Peninsula plan was designed to leave Washington vulnerable to a Confederate attack, allowing for a negotiated peace.

In some ways the fate of the Peninsula Campaign was decided on 8 March, nearly a month before the first fighting. On that day, Lincoln asked McClellan to call a meeting of his twelve divisional commanders to find out if they favoured the plan. Eight of the twelve did, and so Lincoln approved the plan. However, he issued three orders led to McClellan feeling a great deal of resentment.

First, the army was split into four corps, and corps commanders appointed (McDowell, Heintzelman, Sumner and Keyes). Three of these men had opposed the plan, while Keyes had only approved it conditionally. While the split into corps is perfectly acceptable, it is hard to understand why the corps commanders were appointed without consulting McClellan.

Second, McClellan and the corps commanders were ordered to agree how many men were needed to secure Washington, and to leave that many men to defend the capitol. This was later to cause a serious breach between McClellan and Lincoln.

Thirdly, McClellan was removed from his post as general-in-chief, on the entirely correct grounds that he could not both command an army in the field, at some distance from Washington and with the potential for communications to be cut at any moment, and also be in effective overall command of all other operations. The problem with this order was that McClellan found out that he had been removed from this post in a newspaper.

On the same day that the corps commanders were meeting and Lincoln issuing his orders, events at the Hampton Roads threatened the entire campaign. Since they captured the naval base at Norfolk, the Confederates had been working to convert the U.S.S. Merrimac, a 3,200 ton frigate, into the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Opposite Norfolk, anchored in the Hampton Roads, the United States Navy maintained a nervous blockade, dreading the day that the Virginiawould emerge.

That day came on 8 March. The Virginialived up to all expectations. She sank two Union ships – the sloop Cumberlandand the frigate Congress – without suffering any significant damage. Her iron armour protected her against Union gunfire while her own armament was more than capable of sinking wooden ships. The news soon reached Washington, and caused a feeling of almost hysterical doom.

Lincoln called an emergency cabinet meeting the next morning. Some of the cabinet members were almost expected the Virginiato appear in the Potomac at any moment! Only Secretary of the Navy Welles was calm. He knew that the Union’s own ironclad, U.S.S. Monitor, was on her way to Hampton Roads, and was confident that she would be able to fend off the Virginia.

The Monitor was a truly revolutionary warship. Her deck was almost level with the water. All that was really visible was her turret. In this rotating turret, the Monitor carried two eleven-inch guns. In comparison, the Virginia was much more heavily armed, with ten guns. However, the Monitor was far more manoeuvrable. The Virginia could take as long as forty minutes to turn round, and needed relatively deep water.

On 9 March the two ironclads met in battle. This was the first fight between two ironclad warships (although not the first time an ironclad ship had entered combat – the French had used early armoured ships in the Crimean War). The two ships turned out to be equally unable to inflict serious damage on each other. After six hours of near constant fighting, the two ships pulled apart. The first battle of the Ironclads had been a draw, but in truth that was all the Union needed. The C.S.S. Virginia continued to haunt the minds of Union men for some time (any mishap to the notoriously un-seaworthy Monitor would have left the fleet exposed again). The threat was only lifted when the Virginiawas scuttled by her crew on 10 May, after the fall of Norfolk left her without a base.

On the same day that the Monitor was fighting the Virginia, the Confederates inflicted another blow against McClellan’s plan. Deciding in February that their position around Manassas Junction was too vulnerable, General Johnston had decided to withdraw. His concern was the Union armies around Washington could march downriver along the Potomac, cross over into Virginia near Fredericksburg and place themselves between his army and Richmond. This was not far off McClellan’s original plan. Accordingly, Johnston prepared to withdraw, and on 9 March the Confederate army left their defences around Centreville.

This caused McClellan two problems. First, it meant that he had to abandon his preferred plan of a landing at Urbana, and adopt his fallback plan of a landing at Fort Monroe on the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Second, it soon became clear that the Confederate positions around Centreville were nowhere near as impressive, and the Confederate army that had been defending them not as large as McClellan had been claiming. Most of the strategic benefits McClellan had claimed for his plan disappeared with the Confederate troops. Nevertheless, any movement was better than none, and with the forces at his disposal, McClellan still had a very good chance of capturing Richmond.

Those forces were soon reduced in number. McClellan was now sure that Washington was safe, and does not appear to have taken Lincoln’s requirement that the capitol should be entirely safe as seriously as he should have. His corps commanders had recommended that a force of 55,000 men would be needed to keep Washington safe. McClellan had left around 38,000 men to defend Washington and the approaches. However, many of the 19,000 men close to Washington were new recruits, badly led and inexperienced.

McClellan’s army was moving in corps. McDowell’s corps, which had originally been intended to move first, was still close to Washington. Accordingly, at the start of April Lincoln ordered it to remain close to the capitol. McClellan learnt of this on the same day that he discovered the Confederate defences on the Peninsula were not what he had expected.

Yorktown and Williamsburg

McClellan expected to find the main Confederate force on the Peninsula at Yorktown, the site of the decisive battle of the American War of Independence. In 1781 the British had fortified Yorktown with 7,500 men. In 1862 the Confederates fortified a line across the entire Peninsula, with 11,000 men and yet McClellan hesitated. This was partly because he had expected General Magruder to copy the British and fortify the town. Faulty information was partly to blame. McClellan’s map of the Peninsula showed the Warwick River running parallel to the James, but instead it cuts almost completely across the Peninsula, providing an excellent defensive line.

The Union army began its march up the Peninsula on 4 April. The next day advanced units of the army found the Confederate defences along the Warwick River, and the advance came to a sudden halt. At this point, Magruder had around 10,000 men and McClellan over 50,000. Inside the Confederate lines an immediate assault was expected, but none came.

Instead, McClellan settled down for a regular siege. He examined the Confederate lines, and decided that they were too strong to risk an assault. One attack was launched, at Lee’s Mills (16 April), although that was more of a reconnaissance in force that developed into a minor attack after it appeared that an artillery bombardment had forced the Confederates from their positions. After that, McClellan concentrated on building up his siege guns.

The Confederates were not idle. Magruder was soon reinforced, until he was confident that he could withstand any assault. Known as ‘Prince John’ Magruder because of his theatrical tendencies, he managed to convince McClellan that he was actually outnumbered!

With the reinforcements came more senior officers. As units from his army moved to block the Union advance, General Joseph Johnston took command of the forces defending Richmond. As McClellan built up in preparation for his bombardment, Johnston prepared to fall back towards Richmond. On 4 May, just as he was about to begin his bombardment, McClellan found that the Confederate defenders of Yorktown were gone.

Map of Battle of Williamsburg

It took the rest of that day for the Union pursuit to catch up with the retreating Confederates. The next day a battle developed at Williamsburg (5 May 1862). Longstreet’s rear guard managed to hold off the Federal advance guard for long enough to allow the Confederate artillery and supply trains to retreat back to Richmond, before Brigadier-General Winfield Scott Hancock (commander of the First Brigade, Second Division of Keyes’s Fourth Corps) organised and led an attack that forced the Confederates to retreat from a defensive position that could have developed into another Yorktown.

Outside Richmond

Despite McClellan’s slowness and the reduction in size of his army, in the days after Williamsburg the Federal army was able to take up a position so close to Richmond that the men could hear the city’s church bells.

Although the Confederate position looked appalling, in fact the initiative was about to pass into their hands. This was partly due to their own efforts, but McClellan was also much to blame. In the aftermath of Williamsburg, the Union army was concentrated on the northern side of the Peninsula, near the York River, with its base at White House Landing. In his later works, McClellan makes the amazing statement that ‘The question now arose as to the line of operations to be followed’. The idea that no plans had been made for the final approach to Richmond at this late a stage in the campaign is staggering, and if true would reflect very poorly on McClellan.

He had two choices. One was to relocate to the James River, and approach Richmond along the south bank of that river. The other was to move west from White House Landing, cross the upper Chickahominy River and attack Richmond from the east. This was the most direct route, and despite McClellan’s later statements he must have been planning to use this route.

The reason for this is quite simple. Although the C.S.S. Virginia had been prevented from destroying the Union fleet, she still lurked in the James River, effectively blocking that river to Union forces, and preventing McClellan from using that route. It was only on 11 May that the Virginia was destroyed by her own crew after the loss of Norfolk, opening the James River to Union ships. McClellan can only have seriously considered moving to the James after this date, nearly a week after the battle of Williamsburg had allowed him to move to the James.

McClellan later blamed the administration for the failure of his campaign. Ironically, it was his own constant call for reinforcements that led to the events that he was to use to defend that failure. On 18 May he was informed that McDowell’s corps was about to march south from Fredericksburg to join him. McClellan was ordered to extend his right flank north to protect McDowell’s route and to prepare to supply him from White House Landing.

As a result, McClellan had to use the northern route to Richmond, due west of White House Landing. It was this choice of route that he blamed for the failure of the entire expedition. However, for all but the week after 11 May, this must have been McClellan’s planed route. It was McClellan’s lack of speed in front of the defences of Yorktown that allowed Johnston to move his army back in front of Richmond, and also gave Stonewall Jackson his chance to further disrupt the campaign.

Thomas Jackson had command of the second major Confederate army in Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. On 8 May he inflicted the first of a series of defeats on the Union forces in the valley (Battle of McDowell). On 23 May he won his second victory (Battle of Front Royal), and it began to look like he might be able to threaten Maryland and Washington. The following day, McDowell was about to move south when he received orders to move west instead. Although McDowell protested vigorously about this decision, McClellan became convinced that McDowell was yet another of his enemies. One of McDowell’s three divisions had already joined McClellan, the other two played no part in the Peninsula campaign.

Regardless of whether the decision to withhold McDowell was correct, it did leave McClellan’s army in a potentially dangerous position. His route between White House Landing and Richmond led across the swampy valley of the Chickahominy River. Wet spring weather meant that the river was running unusually high, making it hard to bridge. By the end of May, McClellan’s army straddled the river. Keyes’s and Heintzelman’s corps were on the south (right) bank of the river, the other three on the north (left) bank.

The Confederate intelligence service seems to have been little better than McClellan’s. On 27 May Johnston received news that McDowell was on his way south, and decided that he had to attack McClellan’s three corps north of the Chickahominy before the two Federal armies could combine. The next day correct information about McDowell arrived, and the Confederate plan changed. Now Johnston intended to launch his attack on the two isolated Federal corps instead.

The result was a two day battle (Seven Pines or Fair Oaks, 31 May-1 June 1862). The battle was badly handled on both sides, but especially on the Confederate side. Despite some success on 31 May, the isolated federal corps were not destroyed, and on 1 June McClellan had the best of the fighting. Federal losses were 790 killed, 3,594 wounded and 647 captured (total 5,031). Confederate losses were 980 killed, 4,749 wounded and 405 missing (total 6,134).

The Seven Days

Amongst the Confederate wounded was General Johnston. This gave President Davis a chance to replace him with his military advisor, Robert E. Lee. While McClellan sat back in his positions around the Chickahominy, calling for reinforcements and waiting for the exact right weather to launch his attack, Lee began to prepare to launch his first great offensive.

He had a remarkable source of information about McClellan’s position. On 12 June Jeb Stuart led 1,200 cavalry on a raid around McClellan’s entire army. He headed around the north flank of the Federal army, and found that Porter’s 5th corps was still north of the Chickahominy, and had no strong right flank. Having made this discovery, he continued on around the back of McClellan’s army, crossing back into Confederate territory on 16 June.

Armed with this information, Lee prepared to launch an attack on McClellan’s exposed right wing. Jackson had completed his valley campaign at Port Republic (9 June), and was now on his way to join Lee at Richmond. Accordingly, plans were put in place for a joint offensive once Jackson reached Richmond. His aim was to push McClellan’s army away from Richmond, destroying it if possible.

The resulting fighting became known as the Seven Days’ Battles (25 June-1 July 1862). Things did not go entirely as Lee had planned. The Seven Days started with fighting at Oak Grove (25 June), during a Federal reconnaissance. The second day saw the first of Lee’s attacks (Mechanicsville, 26 June). It was meant to be a joint attack, starting early in the morning with an attack by Jackson’s men from the Shenandoah. However, Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’, famous for their speed in the valley, were clearly approaching exhaustion, as was their commander. When A.P. Hill finally launched an attack late in the day, Jackson was within a few miles, but failed to send any help, and the attack was repelled with ease.

Despite winning a clear victory at Mechanicsville, McClellan now decided to move his base from White House Landing south to the James River. Porter’s corps was ordered to pull back from its strong positions at Mechanicsville. On 27 June he was attacked in his new position (Battle of Gaines’s Mill). Once again, the Confederate attack was badly organised, but this time Lee finally managed to launch a coordinated attack, and Porter’s line collapsed.

Convinced that he was now massively outnumbered, McClellan continued his retreat to the James. Gaines’s Mill had been the high point of Lee’s Seven Days. He made three more attempts to attack the retreating Federal army, but each ended in failure. A planned attack at Savage’s Station (29 June) was virtually a non-event. A complex plan for 30 June resulted in fighting so disjointed that it has at least three names (Glendale, Frayser’s Farm or White Oak Swamp). On both days Jackson’s contribution was negligible.

Finally, on 1 July, Lee launched an almost entirely futile assault on a very strong Federal position at Malvern Hill. Lee seems to have been convinced that the Federal army was demoralised and almost close to collapse. He was wrong, and on 1 July his army suffered 5,500 casualties, twice the federal numbers.

Of the six separate engagements that made up the Seven Days’ Battles, only Gaines’s Mill was a Confederate victory. Despite that, Lee had succeeded in his main aim. McClellan had been pushed away from Richmond, and for the moment the Confederate capitol was safe. The Confederate army might not have been the Union army, but Lee had certainly beaten McClellan.


All was not lost after the Seven Days’ Battles. McClellan’s army was still largely intact, and had suffered fewer losses than the Confederates. At Harrison’s Landing the army was able to recover from its exertions, resupply and reorganise after the strains of the last few weeks.

The problem that faced Lincoln was what to do next. Ideally, he could reinforce McClellan and the Army of the Potomac would resume its campaign against Richmond. However, this would only work if McClellan could be relied on to actually attack. After the events of the last few weeks, that was no longer certain. McClellan himself began by requesting 50,000 reinforcements, then 100,000.

At the start of August, General Halleck, the newly appointed General in Chief, visited McClellan. There, he offered McClellan 20,000 reinforcements. McClellan put forward a plan for an attack on Petersburg, but with so little confidence that Halleck came to the inevitable conclusion that the Peninsula Campaign had failed. On 3 August, McClellan was ordered to withdraw from the Peninsula.

The failure on the Peninsula left Washington vulnerable. Once it was obvious that McClellan was retreating, Lee was free to move his army north towards the newly formed Army of Virginia under General Pope. If McClellan moved slowly, then Pope’s army was in great danger. Ironically, Pope managed to hold off his Confederate opponents until the Army of the Potomac was beginning to reach him, before suffering a crushing defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas (29-30 August, 1862). The great Union offensive of 1862 did not only fail to capture Richmond, but also exposed the North to defeat at Bull Run, and after that to Lee’s first invasion of the north.

There are two McClellans. The first is a great general, tragically let down by enemies in Washington and in the army, never supported properly, denied the men he required, given orders that destroyed his great plans and still the saviour of his country. He created the great Army of the Potomac, saved Washington from imminent capture twice and defeated the great General Lee on northern soil. If he had been given the support he needed after the Seven Days, then the war would have been over in 1862.

The second McClellan is paranoid, sluggish, possibly even a traitor. He didn’t sympathise with Lincoln’s war aims, and wanted as moderate a victory as possible, leaving slavery intact in the south. Faced with a series of great chances to end the war, or at least to defeat Lee and capture Richmond, he missed them all. He was completely unable to move with speed. He saw his army as too small, too poorly equipped, the weather too wet, the roads too poor. He never realised that his opponents had the same problems.

The truth is of course somewhere between these two extremes. McClellan was a superb organiser. He trained the Army of the Potomac so well that it could withstand repeated defeats under less able men. He was loved by his men, and popular across the north. However, he was slow to move. Whether on the Peninsula, or moving to intercept Lee in Maryland, his armies moved too slowly.

Neither Lincoln nor McClellan handled the Peninsula campaign well. However, we should remember that neither of them had any experience of running major military operations. Lincoln’s commanders in the west were probably fortunate to be distant from Washington while he was learning how to run a war.

Peninsula Campaign

The Peninsula Campaign, fought during the spring and summer of 1862, was an attempt by Union general-in-chief George B. McClellan to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond from the southeast during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Pressured by United States president Abraham Lincoln to mount an offensive—Union forces had been dormant since the previous July—McClellan steamed his Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay, landed it at Fort Monroe , and marched it up the Peninsula between the James and York rivers. He was confronted at Yorktown by Confederates under John B. Magruder, who convinced McClellan that Confederate forces were stronger than they actually were. Consequently, on April 5 McClellan began a siege rather than attacking, providing time for Joseph E. Johnston ‘s Army of Northern Virginia to arrive. Union and Confederate forces next fought each other at Williamsburg on May 5. Then Johnston took advantage of the fact that McClellan’s army was caught on both sides of a rain-swollen Chickahominy River, attacking him at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks on May 31. Johnston was wounded in the two-day battle, and Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, attacking McClellan three weeks later and, in the Seven Days’ Campaign , driving him off the Peninsula and saving Richmond.

Peninsular Campaign of 1862

What is today referred to as the Peninsular Campaign was when the American Civil War was going on it was an attempt that was unsuccessful by the Union army as they advanced towards Richmond. The Peninsular Campaign started in April 1862, this was after General George B. McClellan decided to move his soldiers that consisted of about 110,000 men, and the troops were moved in an area that is between James and the York rivers. General McClellan response was prompted by pressure exerted to him by President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln in the previous year during the Battle of Bull Run, urged his generals to swiftly act and prepare their soldiers against the Confederate forces who were from Potomac, and they could be well prepared for an attack on Richmond, which was the then capital for the Confederate (Dougherty, 30).

General McClellan prepared a plan for the campaign which had its merits: the army he commanded would advance in the war as they were protected by the Union gunboats which guarded them, this he thought would work in weakening the strong defense of the Richmond troops (Gallagher, 77). The campaign plan had its weaknesses: it would be difficult to undertake joint maneuvers especially with the movement of a huge force troop is to be undertaken conducting of operations that were combined was to be very difficult.

Even though there were serious weaknesses to the plan, General McClellan decided to lead his troops in the month of April of 1862, they went ashore below Yorktown and within a month’s time they were able to capture the town. The Confederate general who was in charge in Richmond was General Joseph Johnston he decided to move a lot of the confederate forces south so as to ensure that he defend Richmond (Gallagher, 56). He sent troops down in the peninsular so as to halt the advance of General McClellan's army he ensured that the forces he sent were almost the same as those of McClellan. General McClellan also though that General Irvin McDowell would come to his aid and assist him with his force of 40,000 soldiers. This was not to happen as President Jefferson Davis advised General Robert Lee to send General Stonewall Jackson to Shenandoah Valley this was an act which caused the 40,000 soldiers of General McDowell to be diverted.

General Johnston from the Confederate decided to attack McClellan at Fair Oaks during the end of the Month of May and at the beginning of June in 1862, this is a place which is a small distance east of Richmond. The fighting that ensued was huge and led to the wounding of General Johnston and some of his soldiers and they were pushed in the direction of Richmond. This prompted President Davis to act, he commanded the Confederate troops to be under General Lee, and he also made a plan which led to him attacking McClellan.

This led to a battle which in Seven Days from June 26 th to July 2 nd of 1862), whereby General Lee used his 85,000 soldiers to fight General McClellan's 100,000 force (Miller, 50). The battle was aggressively fought on both sides but due to a good plan by General Lee they caused heavy casualties on General McClellan troops and led to the authorities in Washington to order the campaign to be halted due to their troops being heavily weakened. The army retreated to Union base and this meant that the campaign had ended and McClellan’s troops failed.

Wilderness Campaign of 1864

The Battle of the Wilderness was a battle that was fought in a region between the Orange County and Spotsylvania the area is expansive and has a huge thicket and very big trees. Due to its bushy environment it is the reason as to why the battle was referred to as the Battle of the Wilderness, the area is approximately 10 miles of Fredericksburg in Virginia. The battle was very savage as it led to a high mortality as huge numbers of soldiers were lost in this war. The battle was between the Union forces which were commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate Army that was led by a seasoned soldier, General Robert E. Lee. The battle took place from 5 th May to 7 th May of 1864.

With a surge in the number of troops by the Union as compared to the Confederate troops it led to the feeling that the Union troops could now be in a position to dominate the Confederates troops. The beginning of the Battle of The Wilderness was a plan that was developed by General Grant he later decided to attack the confederates with the use of the Union army which he commanded. General Grant was fighting against General Robert Lee who was an experienced general of Northern Virginia. They begun by sending on 5 th May, over 100,000 Union soldiers to fight against General Lee's army which had less than 70,000. This led to a loss of over 18,000 of General Grant’s soldiers while they were fighting, but Grant even with the huge loss ordered his troops through Meade to continue fighting and head to Spotsylvania Court House. But it did not bring better results as it led to other 14,000 losing their lives while in action by May 18. This did not discourage General Grant but he persevered, He continued fighting General Lee's army but it also led to a loss of an additional 13,000 men who died while in action between June 3rd and 12 th (Cannan, 25).

The huge losses on the troops, was a cause of huge shock in Washington, but General Grant felt that the strategy he had set for the campaign was working despite the huge losses. General Grant could afford reinforcements from the huge Union army, but General Lee could not afford any more reinforcement. Although the union army suffered huge casualties, they still continued in their campaign to capture Richmond and the campaign continued to Spotsylvania.

Similarities between Peninsular Campaign of 1862 and Wilderness Campaign of 1864

In both campaigns it was a conflict between the Confederate and the Union Armies, another similarity in the campaigns is that in both campaigns the Union attempted to capture Richmond. Also General Lee was involved in both campaigns also the Union always had huge number of troops and they in both instances suffered huge casualties compared to the Confederates as they lost most soldiers.

Like many people at the time, McClellan opposed the outright abolition of slavery, though he was committed to the preservation of the Union.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he accepted command of the volunteer army of the state of Ohio. His skill at training the Ohio Volunteers won him favor in Washington, and he was soon promoted to the rank of major general in the regular army.

In the spring and summer of 1861, McClellan won a series of small battles in western Virginia and gained the nickname “The Young Napoleon.”

But after the sobering Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run under the command of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, McClellan was called to Washington and given command of forces that he organized into the famed Army of the Potomac.

McClellan once again demonstrated his skill at marshalling his troops into a solid fighting unit, and his early command was marked by a period of high morale. By November 1861, McClellan had assembled an army of 168,000 troops and fortified the capital of Washington, D.C.

That same month, McClellan succeeded Winfield Scott as general-in-chief of the Union Army. Despite having assembled a massive fighting force, McClellan was wary of the Confederate Army—which he believed, through faulty intelligence, to be much stronger than it actually was𠅊nd was reluctant to mount a mass offensive.

His inaction annoyed President Abraham Lincoln and newly appointed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and in January 1862 they issued a general order instructing the Army of the Potomac to move south into Confederate territory. Lincoln removed McClellan as general-in-chief in March of 1862, stating that McClellan needed to focus his full attention on an attack on the South.

Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days' Battles: The Significance and Overlap

Library of Congress

The Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862 are characterized as two separate engagements during the Civil War. These two events, however, were fought as one sweeping campaign that lasted from early April to July 1st of 1862. Initiated by Union Major General George B. McClellan, the purpose of the Peninsula Campaign was to advance on and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, via the Virginia Peninsula situated between the James and York rivers.

In preparation for the offensive, McClellan had the Army of the Potomac transported by boat to Fort Monroe, Virginia in April of 1862. From the end of April and into May, McClellan moved his forces north into Yorktown, Virginia, where a small force of 13,000 soldiers were protecting Yorktown. McClellan laid siege to Yorktown and did not move forward defying President Abraham Lincoln’s orders to continue onto Richmond. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston waited to see what McClellan’s next moves would be. On May 4th, after careful consideration, Johnston ordered the 13,000 troops back toward Richmond. The next day, Union and Confederate forces clashed near Williamsburg, as the rebel forces withdrew closer to their capital.

The Virginia State Capitol had to accommodate the new Confederate Congress as well as the state legislature. The two legislative bodies met in this building until 1865, when it was captured by Union soldiers like these, who paused on the portico for a picture.

On May 31st, Johnston led Confederate forces in an attack on McClellan’s forces south of the Chickahominy River, six miles east of Richmond. General Johnston was severely injured during the two-day battle s of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. Confederate President Jefferson Davis quickly replaced Johnston with Robert E. Lee: a West Point graduate and veteran of the “Old Army.” Lee’s appointment changed the course of the campaign and the course of the war.

Lee was ready to strike at the Union hard and push them back down the peninsula. Throughout June, Lee began devising plans of counterattacks. In the meantime, Lee had his men dug defenses around Richmond and called in reinforcements from other parts of the Confederacy. Lee planned to launch his operation on June 25th, however, McClellan attacked first at Oak Grove, located west of Richmond, starting the Seven Days’ Battles.

June 26th began with Lee’s plan to split his army into four separate divisions in an attempt to overwhelm McClellan on multiple fronts, and to cutoff and destroy pieces of McClellan’s army. Lee anxiously waited for General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s divisions who were behind schedule. Lee decided to continue without Jackson, fearing that they had lost the element of surprise. Major General A.P. Hill and his men assaulted the Union and pushed them east through Mechanicsville. As the Union retreated further and further, more Confederates moved with them not giving them room to breathe. The Confederates suffered more than 1,500 casualties, while the Union losses numbered some 450 casualties.

The following days saw an unrelenting series of attacks that cost Lee dedicated soldiers and resulted in tactical defeats. However, the battles gave Lee strategic victories as McClellan continuously retreated after every battle despite having superior forces. On June 27th, the Confederates led costly and uncoordinated charges throughout the day at Gaines’ Mill, causing McClellan to begin falling back on his supply line. On June 28th, the Confederates led a failed reconnaissance mission on Golding’s Farm. On June 29th, there was a failed attempt at striking the Union’s rear at Savage’s Station. On June 30th, the Battle of Glendale was a minor Confederate victory in which a Union division and commander was captured. However, the Confederate’s advances were stopped after the Union engaged in counterattacks. With McClellan on the run, constantly falling back toward the James River and his supply base at Harrison’s Landing, on July 1st Lee was focused on destroying McClellan’s army and securing Richmond. The Battle of Malvern Hill was a tactical defeat for the Confederates. Lee ordered an all-out frontal assault on the Union position. The Confederates suffered over 5,000 casualties just on Malvern Hill alone. While again victorious, McClellan nonetheless withdrew, ending the campaign. During the Seven Days’ Battles, the Confederacy sustained 20,614 casualties, while the Union casualties numbered15,849. Combined with the casualty figures from the Confederacy suffered 50,214 casualties during the two campaigns, while the Federals suffered 39,749 casualties.

The Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles signified a turning point for the war. Where once the Confederacy had been on a moral decline in the Eastern Theater, Robert E. Lee’s appointment and overall strategic victory during the campaign secured Richmond for the short term and gave the Confederates the strategic initiative in the east. Lee earned a new reputation for audacity, and he would use this to his advantage in future engagements. The Union’s morale dampened significantly after the battles. The Union had Richmond within its grasp, and they lost it due to McClellan’s hesitation. The end of the four-month-long campaign also overshadowed Union victories in the western theater, and Lincoln began to recognize this oversight. Over the next few months, Lee carried the war away from Richmond’s back door, and to nearly the outskirts of Washington, DC.

The Peninsula Campaign

This painting shows how close the two ironclads were during their famous duel. Mariners' Museum

By early April 1862, the Army of the Potomac — over 120,000 strong — had been transported to the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers and was in position to move on the Confederate capital of Richmond. The training was over this would prove the ultimate test.

George B. McClellan Library of Congress

George Brinton McClellan, often fondly called "Little Mac" or the "Young Napoleon," seemed to have the magic touch when he arrived in Washington in August 1861 following the Union debacle at Bull Run. The 34-year old major general, fresh from his victorious campaign in western Virginia, radiated success and quickly transformed the demoralized Army of the Potomac into the most powerful army ever witnessed in America. McClellan provided his troops with the best training, armaments and organization then known to military science and had replaced the aged Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief of the Union army. Yet by late 1861, "Little Mac" had not given any indication of how or when he might strike against the Confederate army nearby at Manassas. President Abraham Lincoln, who purportedly quipped, "If General McClellan and does not intend to use his army, may I borrow it?", pressed the general into presenting some plan of action against the Confederate capital in Richmond. McClellan's response would set in motion one of the war's most pivotal events — the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan believed that Richmond held the fate of the Confederacy, yet he eschewed the notion of marching overland toward the Confederate capital. This direct approach, McClellan rationalized, would enable the Confederates to use their interior lines to develop a defensive concentration, which would result in extensive Union casualties. Instead, the Union general initially purposed an indirect strategic movement whereby he would interdict his army between the Confederate forces arrayed throughout Virginia and Richmond by way of Urbanna, located on the Rappahannock River. Before McClellan could put his plan into motion, General Joseph E. Johnston pulled his Confederate army from Manassas to Fredericksburg on March 7, 1862. Johnston's withdrawal invalidated the strategic strengths of McClellan's Urbanna plan. Nevertheless, the Union general immediately offered a second amphibious operation to strike at Richmond by way of the Virginia Peninsula.

Northern and Southern leaders alike had recognized from the war's onset the Peninsula's strategic position. The Virginia Peninsula, bordered by Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay as well as the James and York Rivers, was one of two major approaches to the Confederate capital at Richmond. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler was the first Federal commander to try to exploit this avenue of advance against Richmond. Even though Butler's troops blundered their way to defeat during the June 10, 1861 Battle of Big Bethel, Union actions had secured Fort Monroe and Camp Butler on Newport News Point. Fort Monroe, the largest moat-encircled masonry fortification in North America, was the only fort in the Upper South not to fall into Confederate hands and commanded the entrance to Hampton Roads. Even though the Confederates maintained control of Norfolk and Gosport Navy Yard, Fort Monroe became a major base almost overnight for Federal fleet and army operations.

Joe Johnston's retreat ruined the Urbanna Plan's prospects. McClellan thought that by "using Fort Monroe as a base," the Army of the Potomac could march against Richmond "with complete security, altho' with less celebrity and brilliancy of results, up the Peninsula." McClellan's plan was a sound strategic concept as it employed a shrewd exploitation of Union naval superiority gunboats could protect his flanks and river steamers could carry his troops toward the Confederate capital.

As McClellan shared the merits of his plan with Lincoln and strove to allay the President's fears for the defense of Washington, his campaign started to unhinge The emergence of the powerful ironclad ram C.S.S. Virginia on March 8, 1862, sent shockwaves through the Union command. The Virginia was converted from the U.S.S. Merrimack, scuttled when the Federal forces evacuated Norfolk in 1861. The ironclad's construction was a remarkable test of Confederate ingenuity and resources. In one day, the Virginia destroyed two Union warships, the U.S.S. Congress and U.S.S. Cumberland, threatening Federal control of Hampton Roads. Lincoln viewed the March 8 events as the greatest Union calamity since Bull Run, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton feared that the Virginia would attack the Federal capital yet, as the burning Congress brightened the harbor with an eerie glow, the novel Union 'ironclad U.S.S. Monitor entered the stage. The next day, the Southern ironclad fought the Monitor to a standstill, yet the Virginia was unable to destroy the Union fleet as anticipated. While both North and South claimed victory, the presence of the Virginia blocking the James River would continue to delay and alter McClellan's campaign.

This painting shows how close the two ironclads were during their famous duel. Mariners' Museum

Nevertheless, McClellan, confident that the Monitor could hold off any advance against his transports by the Confederate ironclad and facing Lincoln's deadline to move against the enemy, proceeded with his campaign. He began shipping his 121,500-strong army with all of its supplies and armaments to Fort Monroe on March 17, 1862, intending to move against Richmond by way of the York River. The Army of the Potomac was the largest army to conduct an amphibious operation in North America. The grand army was bigger than any city in Virginia.

Confederate prospects looked bleak as McClellan moved his massive army to the Peninsula. Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside's troops were finalizing their conquest of eastern North Carolina and Union forces appeared invincible along the Mississippi River. Many Southerners feared that if Richmond were to fall, the Confederacy might collapse. Confederate hopes were pinned on the ability of the C.S.S. Virginia to hold Hampton Roads, and Major General John Bankhead Magruder's small "Army of the Peninsula" to delay the Union juggernaut's advance toward Richmond.

On April 4, 1862, McClellan's army began its march up the Peninsula, occupying abandoned Confederate works at Big Bethel and Young's Mill. The next day, the Army of the Potomac assumed its march only to find its path to Richmond slowed by heavy rains, which turned the already poor roads into a muddy morass. The army then was blocked by Magruder's 13,000-strong command entrenched along a 12-mile front. Brigadier General John G. Barnard, the Army of the Potomac's chief engineer, called the comprehensive series of redoubts and rifle pits arrayed behind the flooded Warwick River "one of the most extensive known to modern times." The Union army halted in its tracks as "Prince John" Magruder, despite being heavily outnumbered, created an illusion of a powerful army. He "played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies," wrote diarist Mary Chesnut, "and utterly deluded him."

The events of April 5 changed McClellan's campaign. Not only were his plans for a rapid movement past Yorktown upset by the unexpected Confederate defenses along the Warwick River, but also by Lincoln's decision not to release Irwin McDowell's I Corps to his use in a flanking movement against the Southern fortifications at Gloucester Point. Lincoln feared for Washington's safety and held McDowell near the Federal capital. The U. S. Navy, too, refused to support McClellan's advance. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough thought that the C.S. S. Virginia might attack the Union fleet while it attempted to silence the Confederate guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point. Since McClellan's reconnaissance, provided by detective Alan Pinkerton and Professor Thaddeus Lowe's balloons, confirmed his belief that he was outnumbered by the Confederates, he besieged their defenses.

As McClellan's men built gun emplacements for the 103 siege guns he brought to the Peninsula, General Joseph E. Johnston began moving his entire Confederate army to the lower Peninsula. Johnston thought the Confederate position was weak, noting that, "no one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack." McClellan's men did make one attempt to break the midpoint of the Confederate line. Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith sent soldiers of the Vermont Brigade across the Warwick River to disrupt Confederate control of Dam No. 1. The poorly coordinated and supported assaults on April 16, 1862, failed to break through this Confederate weak point.

The siege continued another two weeks even though Johnston counseled retreat. Johnston advised that "the fight for Yorktown must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain the time only doubtful." Finally, just as McClellan made his last preparations to unleash his heavy bombardment on the Confederate lines, Johnston abandoned the fortifications during the evening of May 3.

Joseph E. Johnston Wikimedia Commons

McClellan was surprised by the Confederate withdrawal. The Union commander immediately attempted to cut off Johnston's retreat, ordering Brigadier General Edwin V "Bull" Sumner to attack the Confederate rearguard. The result was the bloody, indecisive May 5 Battle of Williamsburg. The battle was fought along the Williamsburg Line, a series of 14 redoubts built between Queens and College creeks. Fighting raged in front of Fort Magruder (Redoubt #6) all day. The Confederates repelled the first Union assaults and then pressed the Federals back down the Hampton Road. By mid-afternoon the Union lines were in disarray when Brigadier General Philip Kearny personally led his command into the fray shouting, "I am a one-armed Jersey Sonof- a-Gun, follow me!" While Kearny's charge stabilized the battle lines at Fort Magruder, it was Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock's flanking move into several unmanned redoubts on the Confederate left that forced the Confederates to abandon the Williamsburg Line. The Battle of Williamsburg, called by McClellan "an accident caused by too rapid a pursuit," was an opportunity to destroy Johnston's army before it could reach the Confederate capital however, success slipped away from the Army of the Potomac. The Union victory at Williamsburg was marred by the Federal command's inability to aggressively grasp the tactical opportunities made available by the Confederate retreat.

McClellan did not arrive on the Williamsburg battlefield until dark, when the engagement was ending. He had been in Yorktown supervising the embarkation of Brigadier General William B. Franklin's move up the York River, which threatened to block Johnston's withdrawal to Richmond. Although able to secure a beachhead at Eltham's Landing on May 6, Franklin's timid move inland on the next day was halted by elements of G. W. Smith's command led by William C. H. Whiting and John Bell Hood.

Lincoln, disenchanted with what he deemed McClellan's general lack of initiative, arrived at Fort Monroe May 6. Since the Confederate army was now in retreat toward Richmond, Lincoln sought to open the James River to the Union's use. The only obstacle was the C.S.S. Virginia.

The Confederate retreat from the lower Peninsula exposed the port city of Norfolk to Union capture. Lincoln directed Flag Officer Louis N. Goldsborough and Major General John E. Wool to end the Virginia's control of Hampton Roads by occupying its base. Major General Benjamin Huger, threatened by the Union advance, was forced to abandon the port city on May 9. Without its base, the ironclad's deep draught made the vessel unable to steam up the James to Richmond. Consequently, the Virginia was destroyed by its crew off Craney Island on May 11, 1862. "Still unconquered, we hauled down our drooping colors . and with mingled pride and grief gave her to the flames," Chief Engineer Ashton Ramsay reflected. The door to the Confederate capital via the James River now lay open. A Union fleet, including the ironclads Galena and Monitor slowly moved up the river to within seven miles of Richmond. On May 15, 1862, hastily constructed Confederate batteries perched atop Drewry's Bluff repelled the Union naval advance. Obstructions limited the mobility of Federal vessels as plunging shot from Confederate cannons severely damaged the Galena.

Despite the repulse given to the Federal fleet's thrust up the James River, McClellan's army neared the outskirts of the Confederate capital by the end of May. McClellan had established a major supply base near West Point and appeared ready to invest Richmond with his siege artillery. However, his delays on the lower Peninsula once again altered his plans. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's operations in the Shenandoah Valley threatened Washington, prompting Lincoln to continue to withhold McDowell's Corps at Fredericksburg. McClellan, extending his right flank to meet the expected reinforcements, found his army divided by the swampy Chickahominy River.

Taking advantage of heavy rains, which made the Chickahominy nearly impassable, Johnston attacked McClellan's army south of the river at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. The poorly coordinated assaults on May 31 failed to destroy the exposed Union corps. Johnston was seriously wounded riding across the battlefield. The next day, June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate forces around Richmond.

The Southern assaults at Seven Pines confirmed McClellan's opinion that his army was outnumbered. Rather than striking directly at the city, his primary goal was to reach Old Tavern on the Nine Mile Road and entrench. He was confident a classic siege would result in Richmond's capture. Lee, formerly Jefferson Davis's military advisor, recognized McClellan's siege mentality and transformed the sluggish, yet seemingly victorious Union advance into a vicious Confederate counteroffensive, known as the Seven Days' Battles. Lee's offensive, although costly in men, achieved its objective — Richmond was saved.

To Hell or Richmond: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign

In the spring of 1862, George McClellan and his massive army were slowly making their way up the Virginia Peninsula. Their goal: capture the Confederate capital and end the rebellion. &ldquoTo Hell or Richmond&rdquo one Federal artillery unit vowed, sewing the words onto their flag.

The outnumbered and outgunned Confederates under generals &ldquoPrince John&rdquo Magruder and Joseph E. Johnston kept pulling back, drawing McClellan away from his base at Fort Monroe and further up the peninsula&mdashexactly the direction McClellan wanted to go. But if they could draw him just far enough, and out of position, maybe they could attack and defeat him.

As McClellan approached the very gates of Richmond, a great battle was brewing. Could the Confederates save their capital and, with it, their young nation? Could the Federals win the war with a single fatal blow?

In To Hell or Richmond: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Doug Crenshaw and Drew Gruber follow the armies on their trek up the peninsula. The stakes grew enormous, surprises awaited, and the soldiers themselves had only two possible destinations in mind.

Doug Crenshaw is an Emerging Civil War Series author who has written a number of books on the Civil War in Richmond, including Richmond Shall Not be Given Up: The Seven Days Battles, a prelude to To Hell or Richmond: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign. A volunteer for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, Doug is a member of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable and a board member of the Richmond Battlefields Association. Drew Gruber is the executive director of Civil War Trails and the Interim Director of the Williamsburg Battlefield Association. He lives in Williamsburg with his wife and two cats.

  1. The Influence of Napoleon on the Civil War.
  2. Smoothbore vs Rifled Muskets
  3. The Minie Ball and the impact it and rifled muskets had on tactics —
  4. How a typical infantryman fired
  5. The role of cavalry
  6. Artillery – various types (solid shot, case shot, canister, grapeshot)
  7. Entrenchments became increasingly important.
  • Change in Command
      1. Recall that the Confederate army commanded by P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston soundly defeated the Union army under Irvin McDowell, which retreated to Washington in disarray.
      2. Beauregard was sent west to aid Albert Sidney Johnston, leaving Joseph Johnston in sole command of the Confederate army at Manassas.
      3. After the debacle at Bull Run, Irvin McDowell was demoted to a division commander.
      4. Lincoln replaced McDowell with George B. McClellan (mini bio: West Point, Mex War, observer in Crimean War, business experience, early success in WV)
      5. McClellan reorganized the army and whipped it into shape. He also renamed it the Army of the Potomac. By November the army had grown to 168,000.
      6. McClellan was extremely popular with his troops, who called him “Little Mac.”
      7. In November, Winfield Scott announced his retirement. Lincoln named McClellan as his successor, which meant McClellan was General in Chief of the entire U. S. Army as well as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
      8. When Lincoln warned McClellan that having these two jobs would be extremely difficult, McClellan replied “I can do it all.”
      • Lincoln and McClellan
          1. McClellan was a Democrat who believed in slavery and just wanted to restore the Union to the status quo ante bellum.
          2. He had no respect for Lincoln, calling him an idiot and “The Original Gorilla.”
          3. One night, Lincoln and Seward went to see McClellan. The butler told them McClellan was out. When McClellan came home, he went straight to his bedroom. When Lincoln asked to see him, the butler said “He has gone to bed.”
          4. Lincoln put up with all this because he thought McClellan would bring a Union victory.
          • Fall – Winter 1861
            1. Despite Lincoln’s urging, McClellan refused to march the army toward Johnston. The summer and fall passed, and then winter set in, when campaigning was nearly impossible.
            2. In October, McClellan sent a small force toward Leesburg. This force was defeated by a Confederate force at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
            3. As a result of Ball’s Bluff, Congress formed a Joint Committee to Investigate the War. They investigated officers, particularly Democratic ones.

            Peninsula Campaign

            "Southern Cross" Don Troiani,

            By June of 1862, following its slow advance up the Peninsula, McClellan's army was so close to Richmond Union soldiers could hear the church bells ring in the city. The end of the war seemed near at hand. But in a bold stroke, Robert E. Lee took the initiative, attacking the Union army in what would be known as the Seven Days' Battles.

            During the battle of Glendale, members of Camdus Wilcox's Alabamians took Randol's Federal battery. Don Troiani's painting, Southern Cross, captures the intensity of the fighting that was typical that day.

            "Southern Cross" Don Troiani,

            The wounding of Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston at Seven Pines signaled the start of a new era in Virginia — the Robert E. Lee years. Vigor replaced turpitude, aggression supplanted terminal caution. Within the first 100 hours of his regime, Lee unveiled his plan to break the Union grip on Richmond. Writing to President Jefferson Davis on June 5, Lee expressed his concerns about a passive defense. Instead, he explained, "I am preparing a line that I can hold with part of our forces in front, while with the rest I will endeavor to make a diversion to bring McClellan out. He sticks under his batteries & is working day & night." For the next three weeks, Lee concentrated his energy on executing that plan.

            A mile or two to the east, George B. McClellan wielded the largest army in American history With nearly 125,000 men, he outnumbered Lee almost two to one. But the Army of the Potomac struggled with an immense supply line stretching from White House Landing on the Pamunkey River to the front lines nearly a dozen miles to the west, and McClellan had so positioned his five corps that the swampy Chickahominy River bisected his front. On the other hand, McClellan had momentum he and his army had dictated the pace of events in May.

            Lieutenant General T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson Library of Congress

            Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson proved to be the key piece in Lee's plan. After mopping up three separate Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley, the singular Stonewall pointed his 20,000-man army toward Richmond. Lee hoped that Jackson's force would be the maneuver element, sweeping in upon the Federal army's exposed upper flank northeast of Richmond. To prepare for that event Lee dispatched his chief of cavalry, Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart, on an expedition around McClellan's right. Departing on June 12 with 1500 horsemen, Stuart rode a complete circle around the Union army, examining the approaches to McClellan's flank that would be so important when Jackson arrived two weeks later. His raid did much to prop up the morale of the South.

            The real fighting began two weeks later. Historians continue to argue about the correct definition of the Seven Days' battles. The traditional interpretation has the week of battles beginning on June 25 and ending on July 1. Popular Confederate historian Clifford Dowdey argued 40 years ago that the campaign as an entity more properly began on June 26 and ended on July 2. Either way, fighting certainly began on June 25. McClellan launched a local attack that day along the Williamsburg Road just east of Richmond, his stated purpose being "to drive in the enemy's pickets from the woods." This exploded into a larger affair known variously as the Battle of King's School House, Oak Grove, or French's Farm. It ended indecisively.

            The next day Lee countered with his elaborate scheme to drive off the Union army. His initial goal was to force McClellan to fight for possession of his supply line, which would entail abandonment of the lines immediately in front of Richmond. Ideally, this would lead to an open field contest away from Richmond — a circumstance infinitely more preferable to Lee than siege warfare. With Stonewall Jackson sweeping in from the northwest, Lee gathered most of his infantry on the south bank of the Chickahominy River. Jackson would clear the north bank of the river, permitting Lee to join him there and assemble a force of 60,000 troops to cut the railroad line. There were two flaws in this plan. Only 25,000 Confederates would remain in the entrenchments before Richmond (facing the bulk of the Army of the Potomac), and the success of the overall plan hinged on too much movement. It was no simple task to bring numerous columns together at a single point across miles of wooded landscape.

            Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill Library of Congress

            Lee learned this the hard way. Despite vigorous marching on the 26th, Jackson progressed slowly. Eventually division commander A. P. Hill, now recognized as one of Lee's more impetuous subordinates, crossed to the north bank of the Chickahominy River without orders, triggering the start of the Confederate plan. The Federal Fifth Corps, ably led by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, willingly abandoned Mechanicsville in favor of a superb position behind Beaver Dam Creek. Defending two miles of front from behind entrenchments, Porter welcomed Lee's twilight attack on June 26. Although Lee recognized the folly of attempting to storm across the creek, he felt obliged (as he said after the war) to do something to divert McClellan's attention from the weakness of the stripped-down Confederate defenses, east of Richmond.

            He need not have worried about McClellan. That officer determined on the night of June 26, while Porter's Fifth Corps thrashed the Confederates at Beaver Dam Creek, to abandon the supply line at White House Landing in favor of a new base on the James River. Although he inflicted 1500 casualties on the Confederate army that night, in contrast to only 300 for Porter, McClellan correctly reasoned that the arrival of Jackson above Beaver Dam Creek would signal the end of that position. Forced to either concentrate his army for a climactic fight for control of the railroad, or abandon the lines in front of Richmond altogether, McClellan took the conservative route and retreated. From that point onward the campaign consisted of the Federal army trying to save itself and its supply system from an energized Confederate army in close pursuit. June 26 decided the outcome of the campaign the next six days would determine the extent of the Union defeat.

            Ruins of White House Landing, VA, after the Federal abandonment Library of Congress

            McClellan left the trusty Fifth Corps behind when he abandoned his railroad. Porter established a powerful position behind Boatswain's Creek, just east of Gaines Mill, on June 27. There he was to hold Lee at arm's length, buying time for the withdrawal to get started south of the Chickahominy. Lee united with Jackson's army and together they assaulted Porter's line on the afternoon of the 27th. The ensuing Battle of Gaines Mill surely was one of the fiercest of the war. Repeated assaults failed to dislodge Porter. Only when Lee combined all his troops in an enormous attack was he able to fracture the Union line just before sunset, too late to achieve a total victory. John Bell Hood and his Texas Brigade won on that field the first of their many accolades. Students of the war who are unalterably critical of frontal assaults would do well to study Gaines Mill. Unable to find a flank to get around, Lee's men instead broke three consecutive Union lines by direct attack. They incurred 9000 casualties in the process (inflicting 6000 on Porter), but they also won the first full-fledged Confederate victory in Virginia since First Manassas. Gaines Mill was Lee's largest single attack of the war, and it was his first victory.

            June 28 proved to be a pivotal day. McClellan's retreat gained a head start southward because Lee could not deduce the Union army's exact intentions, and was stalled on the wrong side of the river. Once he learned of McClellan's retreat, Lee launched his pursuit. On June 29 the Federal rearguard under Edwin V "Bull" Sumner successfully repulsed a tepid attack delivered by Confederate General John B. Magruder at the Battle of Savage's Station. While Magruder and Sumner dueled, the head of McClellan's column approached the James River.

            A.P. Hill's attack at Glendale, June 30, 1862.

            Many histories of the Seven Days identify June 30 as one of the great Confederate opportunities of the war. Confederate memoirist E. Porter Alexander wrote in an oft-quoted sentence: "Never, before or after, did the fates put such a prize within our reach." Alexander referred to the bottleneck at the Riddell's Shop intersection, more commonly called Glendale or Frayser's Farm. The better part of seven Federal divisions occupied a semi-circle around the junction of four roads. Four converging Confederate columns approached the intersection that day. Viewed on a map, it seems those Southern infantrymen had a chance to insert themselves between McClellan's army and its secure base on the James River. Three of the four Confederate columns stalled — Stonewall Jackson most unexpectedly — and the resulting battle pitted only the men of James Longstreet and A.P. Hill against several Federal divisions. In the Long Bridge Road and south of it, men grappled and ducked among long lines of Federal artillery. Waning daylight ended this fight after 7500 men had fallen killed or wounded.

            Glendale ensured a successful escape for the Army of the Potomac. McClellan's divisions moved two miles farther south and established a position atop Malvern Hill, a mini-Gibraltar studded with cannon that dominated open approaches and excellent vistas. Lee saw the power of the position and did not intend to attack directly. He tried to establish an artillery crossfire to suppress the Union cannon. That ended in disaster for the Southern cannoneers, as the superior metal brought to bear by Union gunners soon silenced them. False intelligence and wishful thinking helped lure Lee into an attack anyway. Wave after wave of gray-clad infantry swept up the gentle slope of Malvern Hill to be greeted by tornadic blasts of canister and musketry. No Confederates reached the artillery, and an enormous swath of dead and dying littered the slopes. More than 8000 men fell killed and wounded at Malvern Hill, elevating the cost of the Seven Days battles to approximately 35,000 men.

            On July 2, McClellan reached his new base at Harrison's Landing on the James. Lee called off the pursuit, recognizing his inability to injure the Union army any more. The moral effect spread to the distant corners of both countries. A cheering victory that saved the capital city energized the South and gave it another hero in R. E. Lee. The Union defeat injured McClellan's standing with Lincoln, stalled the first campaign to take Richmond, and ultimately led to the evacuation of the Union army from the Richmond area. No campaign of the war before 1865 had so many consequences of such far-reaching importance.

            This article originally appeared in the Spring 1999 issue Hallowed Ground, the quarterly membership magazine for the Civil War Trust.


            PENINSULAR CAMPAIGN (1862), an advance against Richmond, began on 4 April 1862, when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan departed from Fortress Monroe with his Union army of approximately 100,000 to attack the Confederate capital by way of the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. McClellan had counted on a larger force and aid from the navy on the James River. The administration withheld 45,000 troops to protect Washington, D.C., and the navy was unable to help because of the menace of the Merrimack and Confederate shore batteries.

            The campaign unfolded in three phases. The early Union advance was marked by Confederate resistance behind entrenchments across the peninsula from Yorktown. On 5 April McClellan besieged Yorktown, which was evacuated on 3 May. He then pushed slowly forward, fighting at Williamsburg on 5 May, reaching and straddling the Chickahominy River on 20 May and facing a strengthened Confederate force under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.

            Help expected from Union Gen. Irvin McDowell's 40,000 men was lost to McClellan in May when Confederate Gen. T. J. ("Stonewall") Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign scattered or immobilized the Union armies before Washington. The first phase of the campaign ended with the indecisive two-day Battle of Fair Oaks (or Battle of Seven Pines), 31 May and 1 June. Johnston was wounded on 1 June and Robert E. Lee succeeded to his command.

            After Fair Oaks came the second phase, three weeks without fighting, marked by Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's spectacular cavalry raid around the Union army, from 11 to 13 June.

            McClellan, reinforced, intended to retake the offensive, but Lee forestalled him and opened the third phase of the campaign by attacking the Union right at Mechanicsville on 26 June. This began the Seven Days' Battles, during which McClellan changed his base to the James River, fending off waves of Confederate attacks as the Union Army retreated to its base at Harrison's Landing. With the appointment on 11 July of Gen. Henry W. Halleck to command all land forces of the United States, the Army of the Potomac began its withdrawal from the peninsula.

            Union casualties in the campaign were approximately 15,000, with 1,700 killed Confederate losses were about 20,000, with 3,400 killed. The Union forces greatly outnumbered the Confederate at the start of the campaign toward its close the opposing forces were nearly equal.

            Watch the video: Peninsula Campaign Summary (July 2022).


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