Yorktown and Williamsburg
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.
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.
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.