The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER IV
THE EASTERN THEATER: THE PENINSULA CAMPAIGN

       Following the Federal fiasco at First Manassas, Major General George B. McClellan replaced McDowell as commander of the Federal forces. He whipped the Federal Army of the Potomac into fine fighting trim, but was slow to move the army southward. After repeated urging by the Lincoln government, McClellan finally decided to move against Richmond via the Yorktown Peninsula in March, 1862. However, it would be May before the troops actually saw any action.
       From the Southern perspective, the defense of the Yorktown Peninsula was a major problem. Indeed, the overall Virginia theater had a dismal outlook, with some 70,000 Confederates facing at least 200,000 Union troops.
       The defense of the peninsula was handed to Major General John Bankhead Magruder, who, despite inadequate resources, set to work with enthusiasm. He had a long defensive line constructed with Yorktown serving as its left flank. A secondary line was built some ten miles back from the first, just in front of Williamsburg. General Robert E. Lee, serving in an advisory capacity to President Davis at that time, was afraid these lines might be outflanked, and on his advice, a third line was constructed about 10 miles in front of Richmond, with flanks anchored on the Chickahominy and James Rivers.
       Magruder used his meager resources to their maximum effect, and by bluffing with the forces he had at hand, gave McClellan cause for hesitation in attacking. However, McClellan was having problems with his own government as well. On April 4, he learned that Fort Monroe, with a 12,000 man Federal garrison, had been taken from his command authority. Also, McDowell's 38,000 man corps would not be joining him on the Peninsula, but would be kept near Washington for its defense. Finally, he also learned that a stop had been put to additional Federal recruiting efforts.
       Based on these distressing new developments, McClellan decided a siege was the solution. By early May he had set up 15 ten-gun batteries of 13" siege mortars. General Joe Johnston, now in command of Confederate field forces, did not want to face a bombardment by this heavy artillery, and ordered evacuation of Yorktown on May 3, leaving behind some 56 heavy siege guns of his own with ammunition, which McClellan added to his already plentiful supply. On May 5, the Confederate rear guard engaged the Federal advance elements in the battle of Williamsburg, and Johnston successfully pulled back even closer to Richmond.
       Lee learned on May 16 that McDowell and some 40,000 Federal troops would be moving south toward the Confederate capital. This was a disaster in the making for the Confederacy. With McClellan poised to the east, opposed only by Johnston's forces; Johnston could not move to intercept McDowell without risking the capture of Richmond by McClellan. On the other hand, if Johnston did not move, then McDowell would take the city. The solution to this problem lay in the character of President Abraham Lincoln. He was always incredibly concerned about any threat to his capital, and whenever he perceived such a threat Lincoln invariably overreacted. Thus Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was ordered to make an aggressive show in the Shenandoah Valley that would cause a perceived threat to Washington, D.C.
       This sort of independent command made Jackson very happy. After engaging a Federal force at Front Royal on May 23, he then pushed General Nathanial Banks from his supply depot at Winchester on May 25. Besides netting some 3,000 prisoners, 9,000 small arms and tons of supplies, the operation had the desired effect of causing Lincoln to order McDowell to halt his advance on Richmond and to try and intercept Jackson. Actually, Lincoln may have reacted a little too well; since he saw a chance to trap Jackson and so ordered Fremont's command from the west to take Harrisonburg and close the south end of the Shenandoah Valley.
       Jackson however, did not "rattle" easily. He realized that his present location put him in a dangerous position. He was determined to make good his escape and take all the captured Federal booty with him. Although it was a close race, Jackson broke through the closing jaws of the Federal trap that resulted in a fight at Cross Keys on June 8 and a larger battle at Port Republic on June 9. With only 17,000 men, Jackson had neutralized the threat to Richmond of some 60,000 Federal troops.
       Johnston could see that Jackson was performing splendidly. Now all he had to do was defeat the 100,000 or so Federal troops camped outside Richmond. Against this force, Johnston could bring some 70,000 Southern troops. The rain-swollen Chickahominy River offered a possible opportunity. McClellan, against his better judgment, had been ordered to split his own army across this river. Johnston saw that a rapid attack on the Federal wing on the south side of the river would give the Confederates a local numerical superiority and a good chance for success since Federal reinforcements could be brought in very slowly, at best.
       The plan Johnston formulated was a good one, and relatively simple to execute. The divisions of Longstreet, Hill and Huger would advance east along parallel roads to attack Keyes in front of Seven Pines. However, the rain and mud caused everything that could go wrong to do just that. The march was disorganized and delayed. Men were drowned in crossing White Oak Swamp. At the end of the day, the Confederates could only claim the capture of 10 artillery pieces and 6,000 rifles. They had inflicted 5,000 casualties on the Federals, but had suffered 6,000 themselves. It could hardly be called an overwhelming victory. Moreover, Johnston was badly wounded and had to be relieved of command. The man that took his place was none other than Robert E. Lee.        Lee had an uncanny ability to "get into his opponent's head", and in the case of McClellan he saw that he would use his engineering expertise and superior fire-power to move slowly forward from one entrenched position to the next until he finally took Richmond. However, before Lee could cope with this, he needed time to improve his own defenses. Fortunately for the Confederacy, the next ten days were continuous rain and McClellan's heavy artillery train was immobilized. The Confederates neutralized any attempt to bring them up by rail by their own 32-pounder artillery piece mounted on a railroad car -- the first railroad gun in history. Shovels soon replaced muskets in the troops' hands and the earth was seen flying in the construction of new fortifications.
       Lee pulled reinforcements from every quarter until he could muster an effective force of about 85,000 men. The new plan was to leave some 30,000 south of the Chickahominy in the newly-constructed entrenchments to hold McClellan's 75,000 on that side of the river and use the remaining 55,000 Southern troops to crush the 30,000 Federals on the north bank. If Lee were successful in defeating and destroying a large portion of this force, he would then capture McClellan's supply base and force him out into the open. During June 12-15, J.E.B. Stuart's Southern cavalry rode completely around the Federal army, spreading confusion and confirming the Federal dispositions. Jackson was returning from his Shenandoah Valley campaign and was due to arrive on June 25. To allow for possible delays, Lee planned the Confederate attack for June 26.
       McClellan, for his part, was now convinced that he faced a massive army of some 200,000 Confederate troops and was badly outnumbered. If he really believed this was the situation, his subsequent actions during the confusing series of battles known as the Seven Days, become somewhat more understandable. To McClellan it seemed only logical that if Lee was attacking with 55,000 on the north bank of the Chickahominy, it must be a diversionary attack and the real blow would come in the south. The only prudent thing therefore, would be to fall back on the James River and Harrison's Landing.
       The Confederates, after some minor fighting on June 25, moved north out of Richmond on June 26. Mechanicsville was taken easily, but an attempt to move east across Beaver Dam Creek was stopped by Federal forces in strong defensive positions. Jackson was supposed to have arrived and turned the flank of the position, but he did not show up that day.
       The morning of June 27, the Beaver Dam Creek position was carried but only because the Federals had fallen back to another prepared position on Turkey Hill behind the Boatswain's Swamp Creek. Fitz-John Porter's command of 35,000 Federal troops was protected by a triple line of entrenchments with artillery support and marshy ground to their front. When Jackson's troops finally arrived that evening, the position was carried but with heavy Confederate casualties.
       On Saturday, June 28, Lee spent much of the day trying to ascertain exactly where McClellan was retreating to. When Lee realized that McClellan was obviously falling back on the James River, he had to revise his earlier plans and decided to try and catch the Federals on either side of White Oak Swamp. The following day, Magruder was ordered to link up with Jackson and attack the retreating Federals. The Confederates were badly handled in a clash at Savage Station, primarily because Jackson again failed to show up on time. However, McClellan was forced to abandon much of his supplies, and an ammunition train sent forward to the Chickahominy railway bridge exploded with impressive results.
       Monday, the sixth of the Seven Days, saw a remarkable lack of cooperation among the elements of the Confederate pursuit. Huger decided to cut an alternate road through the thick forest when he found his designated road blocked by felled trees. Holmes command ran into a naval bombardment. Jackson, who had difficulty in crossing the White Oak Swamp Creek, decided to lie down and take a nap at about 3:00 p.m.! As a result, only Longstreet's and A.P. Hill's troops were really involved in any fighting that resulted in another loss of some 3,300 Confederates at Glendale.
       On July 1, the last of the Seven Days, Lee discovered that McClellan was protecting the last leg of his retreat by taking position on Malvern Hill. This defensive position was held by Porter and Keyes with two divisions each, more than one hundred artillery pieces, and a further four divisions in reserve. It looked formidable and it was. Lee first attempted to bring his artillery to bear on the position, but it soon became apparent that he was out-gunned. Lee looked for, and failed to find, a satisfactory alternative approach, but confusion in orders resulted in Huger, Magruder, and Hill launching a series of uncoordinated Confederate assaults. These resulted in nothing but another 5,500 Southern casualties. Jackson again failed to arrive in time to assist in the battle.
       The series of hammer blows Lee had delivered during the Seven Days had achieved its objective of relieving Richmond from McClellan's forces. However, this had been accomplished at a very high cost. The Confederates lost 20,614 casualties compared to Federal losses of 15,849.

This Page last updated 11/22/03

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CHAPTER V, The Eastern Theater: 2nd Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg