Question of the Week: 7/11-7/17/16


Did Abraham Lincoln’s view of not using the Tidewater Peninsula as an invasion route unnecessarily prolong the war?

Did McClellan’s mismanagement keep Union forces from using it, and thus allow Lee to operate in Northern Virginia where the Confederate commander wanted to?

5 Responses to Question of the Week: 7/11-7/17/16

  1. Wow, these are intricate questions. I considered both to one degree or another in my writing of THE VIRGINIA CAMPAIGNS OF 1862 for the US Army (due out shortly). I’ll take them one at a time.

    The first question points the finger partly in the wrong direction. Lincoln was ambivalent about coming up the Peninsula, but he was more concerned about the safety of Washington, which McClellan’s arrangements did not (in the President’s view) adequately provide for. This caused him to hold back troops, most notably McDowell’s large corps, which fed McClellan’s tendency to be dilatory and screech at a perceived lack of support.

    That brings me to the second question, and the short answer is YES. McClellan’s operational passivity after Seven Pines gave Lee the opening to strike in the Seven Days. McClellan’s idleness at Harrison’s Landing handed Lee the strategic initiative in Virginia, and the Army of the Potomac’s slow movement to Northern Virginia left Pope vulnerable to a Confederate concentration.

    Overshadowing both questions is this: operating on the Peninsula meant a joint Army-Navy advance from Fortress Monroe/Hampton to Richmond. This had never been tried before in American military history with anything more than 15,000 men (Henry and Donelson to Nashville), and until the battles in the Pacific during WWII was a nearly unique example. Frankly, I’m not sure most officers on either side in 1862 had the experience and education to think in terms of executing a campaign of that scale and complexity. To his everlasting credit, Grant in 1864 understood the value of the Chesapeake Bay as a logistical and maneuver corridor in a way no Eastern general had; of course, he had the advantage of experiencing the joint river campaigns of 1862 and 1863.

  2. I tend to agree with Chris. I would only add that a better avenue might well have been what Grant proposed to Halleck in January of 1864: Strike SE from Norfolk towards Raleigh. There is virtually no force to oppose such a move (thus Lee must detach) and breaking the rail links in North Carolina severs Richmond from the rest of the Confederacy. In a sense (to return to the point of the original questions) I think it can be said that McClellan “soured” Lincoln on using an indirect approach in the East, though.

  3. Gee, Chris – what about (1) the too-narrow confines of the Peninsula; (2) Magruder’s/Johnston’s/Lee”s 200,000 troops; (3) the weather; (4) the nasty roads; (5) the weather; (6) all of the inaccessible troops at Fort Monroe. 🙂

    Seriously, this is good analysis. As for McDowell, I’ve always wondered why McDowell’s additional 30,000 would have influenced McClellan any differently. He still would have been “outnumbered” 2:1.3 as the attacker, even without accepting his creative math in later years which left him with only “75,000” for the Seven Days.

    1. Haha nice. I appreciate that compliment in the second paragraph, John. Here’s something to think about: 30,000 Yanks marching south from Fredericksburg in late May 1862 is a threat Johnston cannot ignore. McDowell would have cut the Virginia Central Railroad (which the Army of the Valley would need to combine with the Army of Northern Virginia before Richmond) and been squarely on the Confederate northern flank. At minimum, Johnston would have had to detach significant forces to stop McDowell, which almost certainly short-circuits his Seven Pines attack plans and results in unknowable but important effects if that battle is not fought.

      To me, the important of McDowell’s planned move is not what or how many, it is where and when.

      1. Chris: I agree. The problem I’m (not subtly) alluding to was in the head of the guy in charge down there. What you’ve laid out is highly plausible and probably would have short-circuited Johnston’s SP/FO plans (which were pretty much short-circuited in any event by his “half-a—d” verbal directions given to his subordinates, the rain gods, Longstreet’s bizarre insistence on certain prerogatives, etc.) I think the question is whether McDowell’s presence would have caused any major change post-Fair Oaks. McDowell himself would have had Jackson operating in his rear and I’m not sure a mobile operation on the VCRR would have altered that. IMHO we’d still have the “2”:1.3 problem.

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