Earlier this month, I had the chance to interview Dough Crenshaw and Drew Gruber about their new ECW Series title To Hell or Richmond: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign for the Emerging Civil War Podcast. During our conversation, this question came up, which I thought was an especially thought-provoking one.
The actions we tend to associate with “The Peninsula Campaign” on the James Peninsula in Virginia began in March 1862 when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan landed his 120-thousand-man army at Fort Monroe. In early April, began marching northwest toward the Confederate capital in Richmond. With several actions along the way, including confrontations at Yorktown and Williamsburg, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston slowly gave ground as McClellan advanced.
Then, of course, came the battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines on May 31–June 1. Johnston sustained a pair of injuries that not only knocked him out of the fight but also knocked him out of the leadership of what then became the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Gen. Robert E. Lee to command the army, which is now seen by many as a major turning point of the war.
After strengthening the fortifications around Richmond, Lee launched a series of attacks on June 25, 1862, that became known as the Seven Days’ Battles. The first, at Beaver Dam Creek, began the proves of driving McClellan away from the gates of Richmond. They concluded on July 1, 1862, at Malvern Hill. McClellan’s army hunkered along the banks of the James River under the protection of Union gunboats until he received an order from Washington on August 4 to withdraw from the Peninsula.
Historically, we tend to divide the actions with the change in Confederate command. So, everything from McClellan’s arrival on the Peninsula through the battle of Seven Pines is “The Peninsula Campaign.” We might also throw in those weeks of waiting that follow as McClellan brought up his siege guns.
But during that time, Lee began to draw up his plans for command, so that period might also be included with the Seven Days. They serve as the prelude for the fighting.
The Seven Days’ Battles themselves are pretty clear-cut: Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’s Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. McClellan’s “change of base” to Harrison’s Landing on the James, and his long time sitting there, serves as the postscript to the fighting.
And he sits there for a long time.
My ECW colleague Mike Block argues—convincingly, I think—that the battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9 is actually the final battle of the Seven Days’ campaign.
But it’s that historically neat-and-tidy change in command that most often serves as the dividing line between Peninsula and Seven Days. But as Doug and Drew and I spoke, it occurred to me that the dividing line is only a dividing line from a Confederate perspective.
From a Federal perspective, McClellan is still maneuvering on the peninsula. He has marched to Richmond, won several engagements, knocked out a Confederate commander, and are awaiting the change to continue the offensive once the guns are in place—and then, pow!, Lee socks the Federals on the nose.
The Federals reel, they move, they shift, they retreat, they fight, they win—there’s a fluidity that feels like the culmination of events, not necessarily a discrete set of events themselves.
So maybe, we wondered as we thought out loud, perhaps the Peninsula Campaign doesn’t end at Seven Pines. Perhaps it goes all the way until August, depending on who’s perspective you consider.
Of course Lee’s almost always wins out because he’s been so idolized in the last 161 years, while McClellan has become one of those generals almost all of us love to mock. But those views have evolved with the benefit of historical hindsight. We know how events turned out. In the summer of 1862, participants were still living through events. Did anything feel discrete and neat and tidy?
When we consider the Peninsula Campaign, whose perspective do we take and why? And how does that help—and hinder—our understanding of those events?
List to the podcast episode here.
To Hell or Richmond: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign is available now from Savas Beatie here.
The companion volume, Richmond Shall Not Be Given Up: The Seven Days Battles, is available from Savas Beatie here.