M'CLELLAN AND HIS PENINSULAR CAMPAIGN|
BY JOHN FORMBY1
The main campaign in the Peninsula of Virginia principally consisted of about a week's heavy and continuous fighting between two large forces, in rather a small space. The Peninsula of Virginia is for the most part low and flat, with sluggish streams, large swamps, and thick woods. Only on the north of the Chickahominy, and close to Richmond, is there any extent of fairly high, clear ground. Curiously enough, there were no good maps of it, and many mistakes were due to this. Both Lee and Johnston were blamed, but neither had been much on the spot since the war began, and then had had more urgent business. Lee made arrangements for a survey, but McClellan was already on them; he was well supplied with maps, for the officers of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry had been making sketches of the ground for some weeks, from which he got a far better map than any that the Confederates had. The peninsula was bounded on the north by the estuary of the York (called the Pamunkey above tide water), and on the south by the James; was about 75 miles long, from Richmond to Fortress Monroe, and twenty less to the Yorktown lines, while the scene of the main fighting was a space about twenty miles square, to the east and southeast of Richmond.
As soon as McClellan had passed the Yorktown lines and driven Longstreet back at Williamsburg, his first care was to get his troops in hand, who were landing at different places, and to establish a proper base and lines of supply. He took West Point for his main depot, and White House for his immediate base, by orders from Washington, for he himself preferred a base on the James. By May 24th he was in possession of several bridges over the Chickahominy, and Johnston's army was all to the south of it. He heard on that day that McDowell would join him via Fredericksburg in a few days, but later was informed of the changes due to Jackson's rout of Banks, and that the President thought that the main effort must be in front of Washington. While there was any chance of McDowell's cooperation, McClellan kept to his base on the Pamunkey, but when Jackson2 appeared on the scene, and this became impossible, the base was shifted to the James, for which all preparations had been made beforehand.
The Army of the Potomac consisted of the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Corps, the cavalry being very weak, and its strength on June 20th was 105,000 men. The Confederate army was about 86,000 strong, including Jackson's command. The Confederates had a force at Hanover Court House watching McDowell, which McClellan drove in. Johnston at first brought his army to the north of the Chickahominy, and McClellan's came up slowly, seizing some bridges, and moving a part of the army to the south side on May 24th. Johnston then crossed to the south of the river, because, in the first place, McDowell was not coming, and Jackson was, and also because the Confederate defense of the River James had been so much entrusted to the Merrimac that no proper batteries had been made on that side, and when she was destroyed, it not only wanted more protection, but McClellan was more likely to try to use it. The Chickahominy has swampy banks, and is often difficult to cross, except at the bridges; on May 31st, it was swollen and unfordable, some of McClellan's bridges were destroyed, and half his army was on each side. Johnston promptly attacked the force on the south side, throwing twenty-three brigades against it, and watching the other half with only four. This was the battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, which went on for two days, the Union army being driven back some distance. On the evening of June 1st, Johnston was severely wounded, and the next day Lee was appointed to succeed him in the command of the army, while continuing to control all operations in Virginia. For the next three weeks the weather was so bad that the roads were almost useless for the movement of troops, and McClellan fortified his position, but no more; he was also waiting for reenforcements, which has been bitterly said to have been his normal position.
When Lee took command, he was still uneasy about McDowell's corps, which was watched by Stuart's cavalry, and thought it best to drive McClellan off his line of retreat by moving to the north of the Chickahominy and attacking the Union right. Stuart was ordered to make a reconnaissance in rear of the enemy's army, and rode completely around it with a cavalry brigade and two guns, from Ashland, via the Pamunkey, around to the James, and back along that river to the Confederate lines: they had little fighting, but brought much information. The principal value of the ride was the confidence which it gave to the men, for McClellan's change of base foiled Lee's plan. Lee ostentatiously sent reenforcements for Jackson to Gordonsville, which, as was intended, had a great effect on Lincoln and Stanton, and thus indirectly hampered McClellan. He actually ordered Jackson to start for Richmond on the 20th, but this march had been discust before between them.
With the arrival of Jackson begin what are called the Seven Days' Battles. On the 25th, McClellan moved to within five miles of Richmond, Jackson seemed lost, and McDowell was ordered up again, some of his troops reaching McClellan. But Jackson, then at Ashland, twelve miles away, and McClellan heard rumors which made him suspicious; his right was at Mechanicsville, and Jackson, with A. P. Hill, was to attack it on the morning; but Jackson was late, so Hill went in alone on the 26th, and was badly beaten, but Jackson's presence was now revealed, and decided McClellan to change his base to the James at Harrison's Landing.
On the 27th, Jackson, A. P. Hill, and Longstreet attacked Porter's Fifth Corps at Gaines' Mill, and drove it back, taking twenty-two guns, while Magruder maneuvered so ably on the south bank of the river, as to prevent any help being sent to Porter, who was quite overmatched. The Confederates, with a smaller army, had again succeeded in bringing greater numbers to the decisive point. Ewell was sent to break McClellan's communications with the York River, which he did, but the latter did not care, having changed his base to the James.
We now enter on the second phase of the campaign, the retreat and escape of McClellan. On the 29th, the Confederates took the initiative, attacking in various places on the south of the Chickahominy, but McClellan had had the bridges broken, which kept Jackson back that day. Lee had now found out the change of base and retreat, and tried to cut it off. On this day Keyes, with the Fourth Corps, was sent to occupy Malvern Hill, and get into touch with the gunboats. The Confederates were, pressing forward on the Glendale, Williamsburg, and Newmarket roads, but luckily for McClellan, Stuart's cavalry was following Stoneman's to White House, in a false direction. June 30th was the critical day, the Battle of Glendale and Frayser's Farm, for had Jackson, who was checked at the White Oak Swamp, got up in time, nothing could have saved McClellan's army. As it was, the pursuit was checked with the loss of a few guns, and time gained for the position of Malvern Hill to be taken up, to cover the embarkation of the army, which was a very strong artillery position.
The Confederates did not know the ground, and lost their way, throwing out Lee's plans. They could not get their guns through the thick, swampy country, the attack was disjointed, and failed, and the Union troops moved to Harrison's Landing on the night of July 1st, after the battle, getting away from Malvern Hill safely; but had Lee's troops been able to get through the mud around it, on the 2d, McClellan's army might have been destroyed, for Malvern Hill did not protect the Landing, and the disorganization was so great that ground which did do so was not fortified till Stuart, following Stoneman, came up and foolishly opened fire from thence with some horse artillery guns. This roused the Union troops to their danger, Stuart was driven off, and the ground made safe, before the Confederate infantry could get up. There was no more fighting, or hindrance to the embarkation of the Union troops, but this did not take place for some weeks.
This Peninsular Campaign is the only one in which Jackson did not come up to his reputation; he was late at Mechanicsville, and not at his best at either Frayser's Farm or Malvern Hill, but the explanation is that he was down with fever during the whole of the week. McClellan, throughout, seems to have been opprest with the "enormous forces" against him, and when he knew of Jackson's arrival from the valley, to have given up all idea of taking Richmond, and thought only of saving his own army from destruction. His change of base was a most difficult operation, carried out with consummate skill. . . .
George Brinton McClellan was educated at West Point, and distinguished himself in the Mexican War as an engineer; he was attached to the Allied Armies in the Crimean War, left the army as a captain, and became the manager of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, where his great organizing powers had full scope. On the outbreak of the Civil War he was given command of the State forces of Ohio, but soon got a larger district from Government, and was one of the four new major-generals first appointed. His campaign in West Virginia was brilliant, and the day after the Battle of Bull Run he was given the command of the Army of the Potomac, becoming Commander-in-Chief soon after, but he did not hold this office long. He raised his army to a great strength, and so thoroughly organized and trained it that it never lost the stamp of his hand, or its enthusiastic loyalty to him personally, which latter fact was, later on, embarrassing to the Government. Naturally a man of charming manners, his sudden advancement seems to have turned his head, as he posed as the savior of his country somewhat prematurely. He minded his own business and took no notice of amateur advice, especially of that of the politicians of Washington, but he went too far in the undisguised contempt and rudeness with which he treated them all.
It is difficult to understand why Lee said that McClellan was the ablest commander whom he met in the war, for his faults as a commander in the field were flagrant. He was over-cautious and dilatory, and tho able to plan, could never strike, or throw his weight on the decisive point. He was always unduly opprest with the " enormous forces " of the enemy, even when far inferior to his own, and would refuse to move till reenforced, which was curious in a man so confident otherwise. The devotion of his men was also curious, for he was hardly ever seen in battle, or seemed to influence it when it was going on; he was no conspicuous, dashing leader, as were Sheridan and Stuart. He was always laying on others the blame for any failure, and the relations between him and his Government went from bad to worse, till he became impossible.
McClellan is a striking illustration of the fact that a very great military organizer, good handler of large bodies of men, and fair strategist, may be only a mediocre commander in the field on a large scale. In the two latter ways his talents seemed to lie in a smaller compass, for his little campaign in West Virginia was most effective. Still, no account of the war can fail to acknowledge his great services, for he forged the weapon which others used with crushing effect.
1 From Formby's "Am rican Civil War." By permission of the publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons, Mr. Formby in an Englishman, his book the latest history of the Civil War and one of the best.
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2 "Stonewall" Jackson.
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THE "MONITOR" AND THE "MERRIMAC"
THE TRENT AFFAIR
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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman