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.
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.
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.
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.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: June 17, 2010 | Last modified: April 5, 2011