Kearny vs. McClellan: Frustration on the Peninsula

by Brett Schulte on July 19, 2012 · 2 comments

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts by Greg Quinion.  In addition to being an avid history reader and world traveler, Greg works as a freelance travel and history writer and Information Analyst in Washington DC.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.  Many of his free hours are spent wandering Revolutionary, Civil War, and WW2 battlefields.  I hope you enjoy reading Greg’s articles as much as I did.

Kearny vs. McClellan:  Frustration on the Peninsula

On June 22nd, 1862 Brigadier General Philip Kearny sat near his headquarters at Seven Pines on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, writing a letter to his wife Agnes.  He concluded with words which over the next week would prove stunningly prophetic:  “…McClellan has proven by fortifications that he is feeble. It is true they [the Rebels] will fail if they attack us; but if they do not do that, they will leave enough troops in our front, and crossing the Chickahominy, cut us off from our lines of communication and sustenance.”

In the idle period that had followed the bloody battle of Seven Pines (aka Fair Oaks) on May 31st -June 1st, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac sat within sight of the city of Richmond.  They fortified, observed, and planned the final moves that would conquer the Confederate Capital and end the rebellion in its second summer.  Officers took turns observing the front lines in Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloon, adding visual intel to that being gathered by Allen Pinkerton’s agents on the ground.  All signs indicated to General McClellan that General Robert E. Lee (who had replaced the grievously wounded Joseph E. Johnston after Seven Pines) was gathering reinforcements, and maneuvering for some hidden purpose.

Philip Kearny’s impressions of George McClellan left much to be desired.  Boastful as any General, Kearny considered himself and his Division slighted when General McClellan failed to mention their epic performance in rescuing the army’s left flank at the battle of Williamsburg on May 5th.  In the commander’s report, and by extension that of the newspapers, it was General Winfield Scott Hancock and General Joseph Hooker who drew the praise, not to mention new sobriquets: “Hancock the Superb” and “Fighting Joe Hooker” respectively.  When McClellan (popularly dubbed “The Young Napoleon”) seemed to ignore his role in saving the Federal left flank once again at Seven Pines, Kearny’s attitude towards his commanding general soured considerably.  He even had a nickname of his own for his commander, mockingly dubbing him: “The Virginia Creeper” due to the less than audacious pace of his march on Richmond.

It could be said that Kearny, who had fought under the martial likes of Winfield Scott and Napoleon III, had a problem respecting his superiors, especially if they didn’t measure up to the high standards to which he held himself.  “I can do a better job at division, corps or even army level than any man now holding higher rank than mine” he once told an aide.  He referred to his III Corps commander, General Saumuel P. Heintzelman as “a very commonplace individual of no brains.”   During the later Second Manassas campaign he would respond to marching orders with “Tell General Pope to go to Hell.  We won’t march till morning.”  Never a fan of McClellan’s leadership, he once quipped that his promotion to Division command was “…the first sound move George McClellan has made since he took over the Army of the Potomac.”  His letters to his wife from the Richmond front reveal much of his contempt: “We advance, not as fierce invaders, but like timid trespassers. I know not what the Young Napoleon has in mind…The hour calls for audacity…instead we are offered timorousness…”

In those indolent weeks since Seven Pines, Phil Kearny had not been idle.  Taking red flannel cloth, he had diamond shaped patches cut out and affixed to the caps of every man in his III Corps Division.  In the confused fighting amid the woods and swamps around Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, Kearny had found it difficult to identify his men as they fell in alongside other units in the smoke and fog of battle (Perhaps this was why, when a Colonel approached him at Seven Pines and inquired where to take his regiment, the General replied ambiguously:  “Oh, anywhere!  T’is all the same, Colonel, you’ll find lovely fighting along the whole line.”).   Kearny’s Division had prevailed at Seven Pines, but he determined to set his men apart in the future.  “The enemy will quail when he sees that scarlet patch,” he told them.  Little did he know, but his red “Kearny Patches” would become the first of many division patches used in the US Army.

By June Kearny had tired of the sound of Richmond’s church bells.  He wrote to a friend:  “If only the Young Napoleon gathered his nerve and loosed one tremendous blow … I can promise that we would take Richmond at our ease.”  By June 24th, McClellan himself had decided the time was ripe to make his move, and he moved to advance his lines towards Richmond, starting with a limited attack led by III Corps divisions under Kearny and Joseph Hooker.  It wasn’t the “tremendous blow” he had called for, but forward was forward and Kearny threw himself into the attack with energy.  Riding to the brigade of John C. Robinson, he cried out:  “This is the hour for which we have been longing!”  From the ranks a voice cried:  “We’ll see you in Richmond, General Phil!”  “That’s the spirit!” he cried as he finally ordered them forward.

As the brigades advanced, they couldn’t realize that between them and Richmond the Confederates had but three brigades.  Leaving General John Magruder to man the entire defense of Richmond, General Lee was transferring the bulk of his army to the other side of the Chickahominy River in preparation for an audacious attack on the isolated V Corps of General Fitz John Porter, who commanded the Federal right flank.  It was to be Seven Pines in reverse, an attack on Federal infantry stranded on the north side of the river, isolated from their comrades on the south.  As the III Corps Divisions struck Magruder’s line at Oak Grove, Lee must have wondered if he had gambled away the Confederacy’s last chance by handing Richmond to a suddenly more bellicose McClellan.

Yet a decisive Union victory was not to be that June 25th.  The three rebel brigades of Generals Wright, Armistead and Ransom belied their true weakness with aggressive counter attacks, turning a spirited skirmish at Oak Grove into a pitched battle that bewildered and sowed doubt in the head of the Young Napoleon, who watched the proceedings from a nearby redoubt.  By nightfall, the commanding general had called off the attack, content with the gain of near 600 yards of ground.  He didn’t know it yet, but he would not take the offensive again for the rest of the campaign.  For Phil Kearny, the fact that the attack had never been pressed with any real fervor was curious.  He still believed that the trenches before them were lightly held.  The next day, Lee struck Porter hard near Mechanicsville.

While battle raged north of the Chickahominy on June 26th, John Magruder, whose hobbies included producing amateur theater in peacetime, presented his greatest performance for McClellan near Oak Grove.  He marched the same group of infantry in a loop, appearing to Federal observers as an endless line of reinforcements.  Behind the lines men beat drums raised dust and made a colossal racket.  The Pinkerton men had a field day.  McClellan now envisioned rebel hordes striking north and south of the river in tandem, and spent the day in indecisiveness, neither reinforcing the hard pressed Porter, nor resuming his attack on the thin enemy lines guarding Richmond.  76,000 Federals were held in awe of 28,900 Confederates.  Fuming at the inaction, Phil Kearny implored Heintzelman to attack again at Oak Grove.  “I know Magruder”, he said.  “He’s a faker, an actor.  Let me call his hand!”  His pleas were ignored.

The next day, Lee struck again, shattering Porter’s line at Gaines Mill, and throwing V Corps back towards the river.  Lee had been battered terribly at Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill, but after two days of relentless rebel attacks McClellen had seen enough.  He resolved to withdraw Porter back across the river, abandon his attempt on Richmond, and retreat to the James River, where he would establish a new base of supply at Harrison’s Landing.  Though his Corps commanders concurred with his decision to change base, some of them, including Porter and Heintzelman, did so reluctantly.  Seeing no reason to abandon the attempt on Richmond, the III Corps commander returned to HQ on the night of the 27th with his two feisty division commanders, Joe Hooker and Phil Kearny.  Both had sat out the battles of the 26th and 27th, and were convinced that Lee had only thin lines fronting Richmond south of the Chickahominy.

Kearny was impatient to speak, bordering on insubordination as he bellowed: “ The enemy lines around Richmond are thin.  They can and must be broken.  An order to retreat is wrong!  Wrong sir!  I ask permission to attack Magruder at once.”  General McClellen had little to say, other than a curt “Denied”.  Baffled, Kearny continued: “I can go straight into Richmond!  A single division can do it, but to play safe, use two divisions, Hooker’s and mine.”  He argued that even should the attack not take the city, it would no doubt spoil Lee’s plans.  South of the Chickahominy, 64,000 fresh bluecoats still stood facing Richmond.  “It will be a glorious stroke, a brilliant thrust!” he implored.  The commanding General had heard enough.  “Nothing has changed, General, the retreat will be made on schedule.”  There was a moment of silence while Kearny’s rage boiled over.  Hiram Berry, one of his brigade commanders recalled: “Phil unloosed a broadside. He pitched into McClellan with language so strong that all who heard it expected he would be placed under arrest until a general court-martial could be held. I was certain Kearny would be relieved of his command on the spot”

Miraculously, he was not relieved, and the retreat continued unabated, with Kearny’s division posted to the “rear guard of all God’s creation” as he scornfully referred to his place at the rear of the retreat.  Close behind was General Lee, who struck at Savage’s Station, Glendale (where Kearny’s determined stand bought him a promotion to Major General), and in the grisly finale at Malvern Hill, where Federal Artillery tore attacking rebel infantry to ribbons.  For those officers and men who thought the slaughter at Malvern Hill might herald a renewed assault on Richmond, any hope was in vain.  McClellan only saw another narrow escape from a superior enemy force.  He would retreat further, settling in a defensive position at Harrison’s Landing on the James.  For soldiers like Philip Kearny, this latest insult was too much.  A staff officer recalled the General “carried on like a madman … he cried out that it was criminal for a triumphant army to leave the field to a flying foe. His language grew so intemperate that I tried to calm him, but he would not listen. Never had I seen any man that angry ”

Later, in the presence of other officers he tossed his cap into the mud and cursed into the rain “I, Philip Kearny, an old soldier, protest this order for retreat. We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. And in full view of all the responsibility of such a declaration I say to you all, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason!”  These were strong words, yet few of the men who stood at Malvern Hill or waited earnestly in Washington could disagree.

That August, as he sat idle at Harrison’s Landing, Phil Kearny wrote home, pining for service in the new Army of Virginia, forming near the capital under Major General John Pope.  “With Pope’s army I would breathe again” he wrote.  “McClellan is the failure I ever proclaimed him. He will only get us into more follies – more waste of blood – fighting by driblets. He has lost the confidence of all…”  Impatient for action he signed off:  “Adieu.  Get me and my fighting division with Pope.”  He would have his wish.  But with Pope he would find only frustration, defeat, and his death.

Greg Quinion
July 19, 2012


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Fox July 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Brett, Thanks for posting this great article by Greg. I continue to be amazed by the ineptitude of McClellan. Kearny also wrote a friend in early 1862 – “He has not the remotest aptitude for war. I sometimes fear, from his management of this war, that he regards it more in a political than a military point of view.” McClellan seemed to invite an attack against his right flank until the attack came on June 26. Even after Jeb Stuart’s 100 mile ride along the right flank and around the Union army showed McClellan [and Lee] how vulnerable the Union right flank and White House supply line really was – McClellan still did nothing to strengthen the area. McClellan suffered from an overarching ego and belief that he was right – always. When proven wrong he always grabbed at scapegoats to take the blame.

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Bryn Monnery July 13, 2014 at 4:47 am

The strange thing about the quotes about the council of war above. They don’t seem to exist before Werstein’s 1962 hagiography “Kearny the Magnificant”, at least as best I can tell. They aren’t in earlier hagiographies (Marks or Kearny).

The other thing, they contradict the sworn testimony of Heintzelman to the JCCW. Heintzelman testified McClellan announced there were two options, and he preferred to throw everything into one battle south of the Chickahominy, but his corps commanders (all of them from my reading, except Keyes who was absent) objected because of the risk. See https://archive.org/stream/reportjointcomm02wargoog#page/n357/mode/2up

It always seems to me that Kearny was not quite in focus, as there is no work about him that isn’t hagiographic.

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