In June of 1862, approximately 104,000 Union soldiers led by Gen. George B. McClellan stood waiting on the outskirts of Richmond.
In June of 1862, approximately 104,000 Union soldiers led by Gen. George B. McClellan stood waiting on the outskirts of Richmond. The only thing standing between them and the capital of the Confederacy was the Army of Northern Virginia and their new commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Taking the wounded Gen. Joseph Johnston’s command in late May, Lee had inherited quite the difficult situation. He was outmanned and couldn’t fall back any further without losing Richmond.
If there was ever a time for bold action, this was it.
Lee immediately began to strengthen the fortifications outside of Richmond as he worked on a plan to take the initiative from McClellan. Lee’s plan focused on keeping a small force in Richmond for defense, while using the large part of his army to attack McClellan and push him away from the city. The plan relied heavily on the arrival of additional troops from the Shenandoah Valley under Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Previously tasked with keeping Union troops in the valley occupied and unable to reinforce McClellan, Jackson now found himself available to assist after a series of stunning Confederate victories that forced Union troops to temporarily withdraw from the Shenandoah altogether. The ability of Jackson’s troops to maneuver and attack with such speed earned them the nickname “foot cavalry.” With a little help from the railroad, Jackson’s “foot cavalry” were on their way to Richmond and would soon help even the odds with McClellan’s superior forces.
Lee’s plan of attack focused on the north flank of the Army of the Potomac. Lee suspected it was “in the air”–meaning it was not protected by any terrain and vulnerable to attack. In order to prove this suspicion, he sent flamboyant Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to reconnoiter the flank with his cavalry and report back. Stuart, never one to pass up a good opportunity to put on a show, decided to take his surveillance a step further.
Leaving in the middle of the night on June 12th, Stuart and 1,200 cavalry rode north of Richmond to investigate the flank. Upon finding the north flank and confirming that it was, in fact, unprotected, he continued to ride further east away from Richmond. His audacious plan was to demoralize the Union enemy by riding around it entirely. Attacking supply lines, capturing prisoners, and wreaking general havoc from the rear, Stuart spent three days confounding the Union army who could never quite seem to catch him. The fact that Stuart’s cavalry could (quite literally) run circles around McClellan’s huge army was hugely popular with the Richmond press and boosted morale in the Army of Northern Virginia. Upon Stuart’s return and the confirmation of the unprotected north flank, Lee needed only to wait for the arrival of Stonewall Jackson’s troops on the morning of June 26th to begin his assault.
Things nearly went awry when McClellan, hearing reports of the imminent arrival of Jackson’s troops, attempted a maneuver to obtain some high ground closer to Richmond on June 25th. The ensuing battle, at a place called Oak Grove, would be the first of several battles to take place over the course of that week, known later as the Seven Days Battles. The fighting, which took place over most of the day, ended in little progress for the Union army. It would be the last time McClellan took the offensive in the Peninsula Campaign. While McClellan’s actions concerned Lee, he relied on his expectation that McClellan would stay on the defensive.
The next day, Lee’s plan began to unfold, albeit with little success. In the morning, Jackson was to attack the right flank from the north, while forces under A.P. Hill, Longstreet, and D.H. Hill attacked the flank head on. However, exhausted and delayed from their long marching, Jackson’s forces were several hours late to arrive and wouldn’t join the fighting that day. An impatient A.P. Hill launched an attack in the afternoon anyway, but was largely repelled by the well-entrenched Union position. Lee’s assault, meant to crush the northern flank, was ineffective due to the bad timing and poor execution. The day’s fighting, known as the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, was a Union victory.
While the attack on June 26th was mismanaged and Lee had little to show for his day of fighting, the day’s events weighed heavily on McClellan. If you’re a regular reader of the column, you should be quite familiar with McClellan’s paranoia by now. The arrival of Stonewall Jackson paired with Lee’s aggressive behavior led McClellan to believe he was facing a force at least double the size of his own. He was convinced that the Confederates would soon turn his flank and cut him off from his critical supply lines. He started making preparations for a “change of base” back to the James River from his position on the Chickahominy River. This change of base would mark the beginning of the end of the Peninsula Campaign.
On the morning of June 27th, the Union forces on the right flank had fallen back to a defensive position along a creek known as Gaines’s Mill. McClellan had ordered Gen. Fitz John Porter to hold the Union position there in order to protect his planned relocation to the James River. Lee’s forces attacked the Union position for most of the day with little success until Stonewall Jackson, who arrived late for a second day in a row, helped turn the tide and overwhelm Porter’s troops who fell back across the Chickahominy River late in the night. It was a much-needed victory for the Confederates, but it came at a heavy cost with many casualties.
The news of the loss at Gaines’s Mill basically sent McClellan into a full panic. He ordered the full retreat of the entire Union army back to the safety of a base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, giving up entirely on any chance of an attack on Richmond. He spent the next day coordinating the retreat, packing whatever could be loaded onto trains, and burning the rest. Massive plumes of smoke could be seen by Confederate soldiers who anxiously waited to see what McClellan would do next.
Once it was clear that McClellan had ordered a full retreat, Lee spent the next several days trying to capitalize on the situation and get between the retreating Union army and their destination. After several poorly organized assaults on the Union army as they fell back, Lee was unable to get the crushing victory he sought. Several days of fighting ended with the Battle of Malvern Hill, in which the Union repelled the Confederate advance with an impressive array of artillery fire. However, much like they had in the previous battles, the Union forces abandoned the positions they’d successfully held during the day, continuing their retreat back to the safety of the James River.
Realizing his window of opportunity had closed and satisfied that McClellan’s momentum was depleted, Lee sent his troops back to defend Richmond. Shortly after, Lincoln ordered the Union army back to Washington D.C. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, meant to be his grand military achievement, had ended in demoralizing failure. Despite clumsy management on both sides, it was clear that the blame lay firmly on McClellan’s shoulders. Of all the fighting of the Seven Days Battles, only Gaines’s Mill was a clear Confederate victory. The Union army had held their own and could have easily regained the initiative from Lee. The truth was that McClellan had completely lost his nerve.
Back in Richmond, steady streams of dead and wounded came into the city, Confederate and Union alike. In the hasty retreat, many Union wounded were left behind to a new fate as prisoners of war. While Lee had saved Richmond, it came at a heavy cost of approximately 3,500 Confederate dead and nearly 15,000 wounded over the course of the Seven Days Battles. Never again in the war would Lee command as large an army as he had during these battles.
The ambitious Peninsula Campaign was over. Both sides were left to plan what would happen next in the months to come.