The Union Army debarked onto Virginia’s southern coast at Fort Monroe on April 4-6 and commenced its glacial, hyper-cautious advance through the swamps and summer heat towards Richmond. When confronted by just 15,000 Confederates at Yorktown, McClellan, demonstrating a paralyzing timidity, opted not to take it by force but rather lay siege. This operation took a month as he soon imagined the number of enemy troops facing him to have somehow swelled to 200,000. But ever so slowly the Army of the Potomac crept towards a panicked Richmond. In an effort to halt the Yankee advance, Joe Johnston launched a violent assault at Fair Oaks from May 30 to June 1. The battle cost the combatants 11,000 combined casualties and was a tactical stalemate and Johnston was wounded in the fighting. The Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, ordered his military advisor, Gen. Robert E. Lee, to ride out from Richmond and take command of the army.
The Confederate rank and file at first was skeptical of their new commander. He brought with him a reputation for favoring entrenchments; he even had nicknames like “Granny Lee” and “The King of Spades.” But others, like Col. Joseph Ives who’d served under Lee, begged to differ, telling artilleryman E.P. Alexander that “… if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity it is General Lee! His name might be Audacity! He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any general in this country, North or South.”
At 55, Lee was two decades older than the Young Napoleon. Like McClellan, he graduated second in his class at West Point and earned a name for himself in Mexico. Son of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee, he came from a celebrated Virginia family. Although he opposed Secession, calling it “treason,” he felt obligated to go with his state when it belatedly joined the Southern Confederacy. Now he was tasked with somehow ridding that state of the massive Yankee army almost within sight of the spires of Richmond. Carefully studying McClellan’s snail’s pace advance, Lee took the measure of his timid opponent. The new Rebel commander saw only one option: attack, hit him hard, and drive him off the peninsula.
Before Lee launched his offensive, he needed two pieces to the puzzle. First, he called for reinforcements, including Stonewall Jackson and his 17,000 men currently in the Shenandoah Valley, to join him. Jackson had just concluded a brilliant campaign of maneuver and attack that kept over 50,000 Union troops chasing him to no avail up and down the valley, preventing these befuddled reinforcements from joining McClellan — much to Little Mac’s chagrin as he badly needed them to even those imaginary odds against him. Then Lee sent his dashing cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, on a celebrated ride completely around McClellan’s army and back to Richmond to provide vital intelligence. When the pieces were in place, Lee, in command of 90,000 men to McClellan’s 105,000, made his move.
Taking advantage of the bisection of McClellan’s lines positioned on either side of the swollen Chickahominy River, Lee defied military convention and divided his inferior army before the enemy. He left only a quarter of his men in front of Richmond and on June 25 launched the rest in a series of ferocious attacks that continuously hammered the Union right flank. Through one engagement after another — Mechanicsville, Gaine’s Mill, Savage’s Station, Fraysers’ Farm — he kept the pressure on in a succession of confusing and uncoordinated attacks by incohesive units not used to fighting such protracted engagements. An unnerved McClellan, unsure what to make of this unexpected onslaught from what he believed were at least 200,000 blood-thirsty Rebels, continued to pull his army back until they hunkered down under the protection of Union gunboats on the James River. During the final assault on July 1, Union cannon lined hub-to-hub on Malvern Hill mowed down the Confederate ranks like grass until finally, with 5,000 dead or wounded and nothing to show for it, Lee called off the unnecessary attack. It was a useless battle . . . yet there was a lesson here that Lee never quite internalized. Esprit de Corps cannot overcome massed artillery and solid ranks of rifled muskets aimed across open fields.
The Battle of The Seven Days, as the series of fights would be collectively remembered, was a bloodbath for both sides. It was one of the few battles in the Eastern theater where the Southern army suffered heavier losses: 20,000 to the Union’s 15,000. But the advance on Richmond was halted in its tracks.
McClellan now found himself crouched down safely behind fortifications, gunboats, and massed artillery, beset by a multitude of enemies, both to his front and to his rear. He blamed Lincoln for his reversal. The president had finally refused his endless requests for ever more reinforcements. “Sending McClellan armies is like shoveling fleas across a barn,” Lincoln said in exasperation. “Not half of them get there.” With the Peninsula Campaign in shambles, on August 3 Lincoln recalled the Young Napoleon and his force back to Washington to bolster the new Union army, the Army of Virginia under the bombastic Maj. Gen. John Pope, now taking the field. In an angry telegraph (that Lincoln never saw due to a circumspect clerk intercepting it), McClellan fumed: “I have lost this battle because my force is too small. I repeat I am not responsible for this…You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here:
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