Neil Faulkner analyses the role of Union commander George B McClellan in the failure of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
The American Civil War might easily have ended in the summer of 1862. In the event, it dragged on for three more years, eventually claiming the lives of 600,000 men, more than all of America’s other wars combined.
A strong case can be made that this outcome was the work of two very different men – George B McClellan and Robert E Lee. Both were from America’s gilded elite, one having been born into a rich Philadelphia family, the other into a rich Virginia family, and both were professional soldiers.
Both, too, were elevated to the highest command by the exigencies of the Civil War. But facing this supreme test, they were found to be of diametrically different characters.
What is the role of the individual in history? It is an old question, one of the oldest in historiography, as scholars contemplate the complex relationship between structure and agency, circumstance and volition, and try to decide where the balance of causation lies.
But in the case of the Seven Days Battle, the respective roles of George B McClellan, in command of the Union Army of the Potomac, and Robert E Lee, in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, seem to have been decisive.
Just over a year after the start of the war, mobilisation of the Union’s vastly superior manpower and industrial output was already creating a massive imbalance in all theatres of war. Pretty well everywhere, the Union had far more men, guns, and ships than the Confederacy. That imbalance, in the Eastern Theatre, was around two to one.
Two years later, in the Overland Campaign of 1864, that level of advantage would carry General Grant all the way to Richmond and Petersburg, imposing a siege on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that would eventually bring it to final defeat in April 1865. It is hard to see why it could not have played out this way in May/June 1862. And had it done so, it is hard to imagine that the collapse of the Confederacy as a whole would not soon have followed.
But McClellan was a man of exceptional insecurity and timidity, totally unfit for high command. Arrogant, vain, showy, and a braggart, his public persona turned out to be the façade behind which a frightened man found shelter. When the moment for decisive action came, he was incapable of leading; so fearful was he of the test of battle, indeed, that he shunned the battlefield itself and turned quartermaster, leaving combat command to subordinates, while he busied himself with logistical arrangements in the rear.
Robert E Lee – McClellan’s nemesis – was, in every way, the reverse. For one thing, he carried himself with aristocratic dignity, was modest in personal relationships, and was imbued with a deep sense of duty and honour.
Ironically, his fondness for entrenchment and defensive caution in early operations in West Virginia had earned him the soubriquet ‘Granny Lee’. This did not last long. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had the measure of Lee, and in the grave military emergency of summer 1862, with a Union army of 90,000 men a few miles from Richmond, he appointed him commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after Joe Johnston was badly wounded.
Defensive caution was now seen to be mixed with bold aggression – a hallmark of Lee’s strategy and tactics throughout the war – as he posted a skeleton force to hold the trenches in front of Richmond, while concentrating the bulk of his army for a succession of fierce left hooks designed to cave in McClellan’s open flank.
Casualties were heavy, but Lee saved Richmond, and perhaps added three years to the length of the war. McClellan, on the other hand, was sacked before the year was out.
McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862 was misconceived, but ought to have succeeded. This seems contradictory, but is easily explained.
The misconception was that there was any particular advantage in dividing the Union armies converging on the Confederate capital and sending the bulk of them to the Peninsula to approach Richmond from the south-east.
This involved a major naval operation and imposed a massive logistical burden but offered no specific gain over the direct approach. It could not be done quickly enough for a sudden dash on Richmond; it simply meant a change of front, as the Confederate armies covering the capital, operating on internal lines, redeployed.
It also opened the Union armies to the fate that befell them. McClellan did not simply divide the Union forces: he imposed a long maritime separation between them. This allowed the Confederates to concentrate their heavily outnumbered forces so as to defeat the Union armies in detail. Lee was enabled to bring around 85,000 men to bear on McClellan’s 90,000 during the Seven Days.
Every subsequent Union offensive in the Eastern Theatre – under Pope, Hooker, Burnside, and Meade/Grant – would take the direct line.
The former commander of the Army of the Potomac later stood against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election campaign, fighting on a Democratic anti-war ticket. The soldiers he had once led – the men who had cheered him to the rafters in 1862 – felt their cause betrayed. Historians estimate that four out of five Union soldiers voted Republican in 1864.
This is an extract from a 17-page special feature on the Seven Days Battle, published in the September 2019 issue of Military History Matters.