The 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. MORE...

 

Background

McClellan formed and took command of the Army of the Potomac in August 1861 after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21; he became general-in-chief of all Union armies in November, after the resignation of Winfield Scott. Although McClellan organized and trained the Union recruits, he proved reluctant to commit them to battle. On January 27, 1862, Lincoln issued Special Orders No. 1, which called for a coordinated land and naval attack on Confederate forces no later than by February 22; a supplemental order designated Johnston's Confederates at Manassas and Centreville as the target. McClellan immediately responded with a proposal to send Union troops down the Potomac River and then up the Rappahannock, a plan Lincoln distrusted. It placed McClellan between Johnston and Richmond, leaving Washington, D.C., exposed. The president also worried that McClellan was too intent on capturing the Confederate capital at the expense of the Confederate army.

Before their differences could be resolved, however, Johnston became suspicious of McClellan's plans and retreated, convinced his position was untenable. Rather than pursue Johnston, McClellan marched his army to inspect the abandoned entrenchments at Manassas. There he discovered so-called Quaker guns, or giant logs mounted in the fashion of artillery that had been used to convince the general that Johnston's forces were stronger than they actually were.

Pressure on McClellan to act increased, and soon he submitted a revised plan, which Lincoln approved only after stripping McClellan of his status as commander-in-chief. McClellan would transfer the Army of the Potomac by ship from Alexandria down the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe, then march it up the peninsula between the York and James rivers. (The ironclad USS Monitor neutralized the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia on March 9, making the maneuver possible.) By moving quickly, the Union general hoped to steal a march on Johnston in a race toward Richmond, where he would force a decisive battle.

The Campaign

McClellan admirably met the huge logistical challenge of transporting his army—including 130,000 troops, 15,000 horses, 1,100 wagons, and 44 artillery batteries—down the Chesapeake to Fort Monroe, but once on land he stalled. The Confederate Army of the Peninsula under John B. Magruder met him at Yorktown. Although he outnumbered Magruder four to one, McClellan began a siege on April 5 rather than attack. His concerns included the rainy weather, Confederate fortifications, the swampy terrain, and his own unreliable maps. At the same time, Magruder, an amateur actor before the war and nicknamed "Prince John," exacerbated those worries by installing more Quaker guns and marching his small force in such ways as to make it seem larger.

Lincoln was nonplussed by McClellan's decision, writing to the general on April 9 that "it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this … The country will not fail to note—is now noting—that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated." McClellan was angry that Lincoln had held back a corps under Irvin McDowell out of concern for Washington's defense, and he wrote to his wife implying that the president was one of "these traitors who are willing to sacrifice the country and its army for personal spite and personal aims."

Johnston, meanwhile, moved his army to the Peninsula, and for a month the Union and Confederate men dug in, with only an engagement at Dam No. 1 on the Warwick River near Lee's Mill in mid-April breaking the routine. McClellan was preparing an assault for May 4, but Johnston, once again convinced his outnumbered men could not hold the lines, pulled back under the cover of darkness on the night of May 3. His retreat would not end until reaching the gates of Richmond.

McClellan sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton declaring, "The success is brilliant," and on May 5, he met the Confederate rear guard at Williamsburg. Neither side gained a definite advantage, and the Confederates resumed their retreat. McClellan followed, and by the middle of May half his army had crossed the Chickahominy River, the last major natural obstacle in front of Richmond. The Confederate government and the citizens of Richmond prepared to evacuate.

The Union advance was slowed by heavy rains that swelled the Chickahominy and made it difficult to cross. Muddy roads became nearly impassable, and local residents burned farms, ran off livestock, and filled wells with stones. Still, on May 20 McClellan crossed the Chickahominy River over Bottom's Bridge, approximately fifteen miles East of Richmond, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis was forced to place his wife and children on a train out of the capital. But instead of pursuing his advantage, McClellan, who outnumbered Johnston by 40,000, stopped and requested reinforcements.

The Confederate general saw that McClellan's men were divided by the Chickahominy, with three corps on the north side and two on the south. On May 31, Johnston attacked those corps on the south side of the river, near the village of Seven Pines. The Confederate plan was complex and its execution was poor, but part of the Union line was pushed back in disorder. Timely reinforcements, which crossed the Chickahominy on a bridge only precariously connected to dry land, stabilized the Union line, and further action the next day accomplished nothing. Johnston, however, was badly wounded in the fighting. Confederate general Gustavus W. Smith briefly took control of the Army of Northern Virginia before President Davis, on hand to observe the fighting, gave command to Robert E. Lee.

The Seven Days' Battles

Fighting paused for several weeks as McClellan, hoping to lay siege to Richmond, attempted to move his big guns closer to the city. Lee, meanwhile, began to plan an offensive, convinced that any siege of the Confederate capital would be disastrous. He ordered Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops east from the Shenandoah Valley—where they had successfully prevented Union troops there from reinforcing McClellan—and sent cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart on a long ride around the Army of the Potomac to gather intelligence.

On June 25 McClellan advanced on Oak Grove south of the Chickahominy. However, the next day Lee attacked north of the Chickahominy near Mechanicsville. Union general Fitz-John Porter repulsed his assaults, and although Jackson's men arrived on the Union flank, it was too late in the day to affect the battle's outcome. Still, McClellan saw Jackson's presence as proof that his entire right flank was turned, and he ordered Porter back to a position near Gaines's Mill. Lee and Jackson finally forced Porter to retreat after a savage struggle there on June 27. That night McClellan abandoned his supply line and began to move south and east to the James.

Lee pursued. On June 29 Magruder forced a rearguard action at Savage's Station. On June 30 Lee had a chance to cut off half the Union army from its retreat route. For various reasons, including Jackson's failure to keep Union reinforcements away from the field, Lee's attack at Glendale failed to accomplish its objective despite a temporary breakthrough.

On July 1 McClellan's army reunited on Malvern Hill overlooking the James. Lee and James Longstreet saw that a successful artillery concentration might lead to a breakthrough. The artillery action failed, but through a combination of mistakes the Confederates attacked a nearly impregnable position and suffered a serious defeat. That night McClellan retreated to Harrison's Landing. Lee eventually withdrew his army to move north and confront John Pope's Army of Virginia. The Union high command brought McClellan's forces back to the Washington area to reinforce Pope in the middle of August, and the Peninsula Campaign came to a quiet end.

Aftermath

The Peninsula Campaign had two primary outcomes. The first was that Lee replaced Johnston as Army of Northern Virginia commander. Confederate fortunes in the East changed dramatically, with Lee winning several battles and even in defeat keeping his army intact for almost three years. It is impossible to know how Johnston would have fared, but it is likely he would not have followed Lee's aggressive path. The second, and more important, consequence was the failure of the Union army to capture Richmond. In the early part of the war, when politics were still in flux and before hard-war tactics had hardened the resolve of both sides, such a decisive victory might have meant an end to the war. And Union victory in 1862 would likely have been very different than Union victory was in 1865, restoring the Union to circumstances that were close to the status quo of 1860.

Time Line

  • January 27, 1862 - U.S. president Abraham Lincoln issues General War Order No. 1, which calls for a coordinated land and naval attack on Confederate forces no later than by February 22. A supplemental order designates Joseph E. Johnston's forces at Manassas as the target.
  • March 1862 - Union general George B. McClellan begins to move his Army of the Potomac by ship from Alexandria, Virginia, to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula.
  • March 11, 1862 - U.S. president Abraham Lincoln strips George B. McClellan of his status as general-in-chief of Union armies, while allowing him to retain command of the Army of the Potomac.
  • April 4, 1862 - Union general George B. McClellan's army begins its advance toward Richmond but runs into resistance from Confederate general John B. Magruder's Army of the Peninsula based at Yorktown.
  • April 5, 1862 - Despite outnumbering the Confederates four to one, Union general George B. McClellan decides to besiege Yorktown's defenses instead of assaulting them.
  • April 16, 1862 - Union troops advance on Confederate defensive fortifications at Dam No. 1 to prevent them from strengthening their position. This is the most significant skirmish of the month-long Union siege of Yorktown.
  • May 3, 1862 - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston withdraws his army from the Yorktown defensive fortifications under cover of night.
  • May 5, 1862 - Three Union divisions battle to a draw the Confederate rear guard at Williamsburg.
  • May 7, 1862 - Confederate general John B. Hood's brigade halts a flanking attempt by Union general William B. Franklin at Eltham's Landing on the York River.
  • May 15, 1862 - Confederate artillery stops a Union naval advance up the James River at Drewry's Bluff. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston orders his army to cross the Chickahominy River and retreat to the Richmond defensive fortifications. Union general George B. McClellan follows with about half his army over the next week.
  • May 31–June 1, 1862 - In the Battle of Seven Pines, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston takes advantage of a flooding Chickahominy River and attacks a split Union army under George B. McClellan. Only stubborn fighting and timely reinforcements save McClellan from disaster. Johnston is severely wounded in the fighting.
  • June 12, 1862 - Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart launches his famous "Ride around McClellan," leaving Richmond with 1,200 troopers and circling the Union Army of the Potomac in a three-day raid that supplies Robert E. Lee with critical intelligence.
  • June 25, 1862 - Union general George B. McClellan's forces advance on Oak Grove south of the Chickahominy River in the first of the Seven Days' Battles. The fighting ends with little tangible result.
  • June 26, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee attacks Union general Fitz-John Porter's lines north of the Chickahominy River near Mechanicsville but is repulsed. Confederate forces under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson arrive in the afternoon but are too late to affect the battle's outcome.
  • June 27, 1862 - After a series of assaults during the afternoon, Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee finally defeat Fitz-John Porter near Gaines's Mill. Porter crosses the Chickahominy River that night, and Union general George B. McClellan starts his retreat to the James River.
  • June 29, 1862 - After a day of confusion, Confederate general John B. Magruder attacks Union general George B. McClellan's rear guard at Savage's Station but is stopped.
  • June 30, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee's best chance to severely hurt Union general George B. McClellan is thwarted at Glendale by a combination of hard Union fighting and Confederate failures of command.
  • July 1, 1862 - Several assaults on the Union position at Malvern Hill are bloodily repulsed because of Confederate command failures. Nevertheless, Union general George B. McClellan begins his final retreat to the James River during the night.
  • July 2, 1862 - The Army of the Potomac arrives at its new base at Harrison's Landing.
  • July 4, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee decides not to attack Evelington Heights after Union general George B. McClellan belatedly occupies the bluff overlooking his base.
  • July 9, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee withdraws part of his army in preparation for a move north to confront Union general John Pope's newly formed Army of Virginia.
  • August 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee, hearing of plans to withdraw Union general George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula, moves the rest of his army northward.
  • August 1862 - Union general George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac begins the return march to Fort Monroe.
  • August 26, 1862 - The last of Union general George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac leaves the Peninsula for the Washington, D.C., area.
Further Reading
Gallagher, Gary W., ed., The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula & the Seven Days. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Miller, William J., ed., The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: Yorktown to the Seven Days (3 vol.). Campbell, California: Savas Publishing, 1993, 1995, 1997.
Newton, Steven H. Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor & Field, 1992.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Burton, B. The Peninsula Campaign. (2011, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Peninsula_Campaign.

MLA Citation:
Burton, B. "The Peninsula Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 17, 2010 | Last modified: April 5, 2011


Contributed by Brian Burton, the dean and a professor of management at the College of Business and Economics at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.