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Seven Bloody Days

Forgotten battlefields; monuments to vanity

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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McClellan did, eventually, use the army, moving it by water to the peninsula between the James and York rivers, hence the name of the campaign that followed. It was militarily sound enough. The Union navy could secure the flanks while the army advanced up the peninsula to Richmond, its waterborne line of supply secure. If the Confederate army came out to fight, McClellan would destroy it in an American Waterloo. If not, he would take the Confederate capital by siege. Either way, he would win the war and, at the very least, immortality.

The movement of the army by water was a vast undertaking and done handsomely. But once they were ashore, McClellan’s forces moved not just slowly, but ponderously. In part, this was because of the weather, the poor condition of the roads, and the difficulty of the terrain. But these are the ordinary givens of war and would not have hampered, say, Stonewall Jackson. The variable that in this case accounted for the hesitancy of the army’s advance was its commander’s “caution,” to use the kindest possible term.

McClellan imagined that he was outnumbered and not just marginally so. He believed at one point in the campaign that his opponent had more than 200,000 men in the field against his meager 120,000. In truth, Confederate forces never numbered much more than 85,000, and often fewer than that. During the entire campaign, McClellan always enjoyed superior numbers on the ground.

In his mind, however, it was a different story.

So he moved slowly, when he moved at all, and pestered Washington for reinforcements. When they did not come, he sulked and indulged in episodes of self-pity which bordered on paranoia. His political enemies in Washington, he hinted, wished his defeat, and by withholding from him the men that he needed, they were, he seemed to believe, conspiring to engineer his disgrace.

Lincoln attempted to reassure his petulant general of his support and to urge him to action:

And once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. .  .  . I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can; but you must act.

McClellan was not the sort of man to be consoled by a few kind words. He continued to move slowly, when he moved at all.

The Confederates, meanwhile, retreated ahead of him. Their backs were to their own capital, and they would be incapable of resisting a siege if they allowed McClellan to get that close. In what was called at the time “a battle of posts,” they would inevitably lose.

So after more than a month of steady withdrawals, punctuated by a few skirmishes, they attacked. The Confederate army was, at this time, commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. He was a capable soldier but a difficult man. He was touchy and secretive and his relations with Jefferson Davis, his civilian chief, were not much better than -McClellan’s were with Lincoln.

His plan of attack was sound. With the bulk of his army, he attacked a smaller portion of McClellan’s that was relatively isolated by its position on the south bank of a small, swampy river called the Chickahominy, which bisected the peninsula and required the extensive construction of bridges and corduroy roads by McClellan’s engineers. The river played a crucial role in what the Federals called the Battle of Fair Oaks and in every engagement for the rest of the campaign.

The battle itself was disorganized, bloody, and inconclusive. Late in the action, Johnston was severely wounded. In his place, Jefferson Davis appointed Robert E. Lee who, thus far in the war, had been a disappointment to those who had expected great things of him.

McClellan, for his part, considered Lee a lightweight: “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” he said when he heard the news. “The former is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility. Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility, and is likely to be timid and irresolute in action.”

One can almost hear the voice of some modern wise guy saying, after hearing those last phrases, “Hey, man, project much?”

There were doubters in Lee’s own ranks. In a famous episode, one of them asked an officer who might know if he thought Lee possessed the necessary audacity. He answered,

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