Confederate Tide Rising, Part 4

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

Chapter 3 – “How do we get at those people?”: Lee’s Strategy in the Seven Days Campaign, June 1-July 2, 1862

In Chapter 3, Harsh narrows focus even more to take a look at Lee’s strategy during the Seven Days Campaign, a personal favorite of mine and Lee’s first as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederacy was at a low point in the war, and Lee needed to go on the offensive to turn the tide. His government did everything in their power to help him, assembling the largest Confederate Army ever to take the field (112,220 PFD according to Harsh) for the start of the Seven Days. While Lee’s first campaign saw many tactical failures and did not feature “easy fighting and heavy victories”, it did give him some breathing room and “suggested his grand strategy for achieving Confederate independence could succeed.”

The Confederates knew they had to push McClellan and his Army of the Potomac back from the outskirts of Richmond, but they did NOT want to have to charge his breastworks to do so. Lee needed to come up with a plan that would take care of the former while avoiding the latter. He saw two weaknesses in the Federal lines, according to Harsh. First, and less important, was the fact that the Union troops were still divided by the Chickahominy River. Lee liked the idea of hitting one of these forces as it lay, but he did not want to attack head-on as Johnston had at Seven Pines. Lee also saw that the Federal ability to bridge the Chickahominy made each wing less isolated than they appeared. Second, Lee believed that Johnston had attacked the wrong end of the Union line. Harsh says Lee believed this was so due to a STRATEGIC, and not tactical reason. McClellan’s supply line ran east to West Point and then down the York River. Lee had much easier access to this line by attacking on the north side of the Chickahominy. An important part of the campaign’s equation was time. Lee had to attack as quickly as he could, because Harsh says the North could take counteractions to void his plans. First, McClellan could build entrenchments further to the north to make Lee’s access to his supply line much more difficult. Second, McClellan could also consolidate his army south of the Chickahominy. While this would lengthen McClellan’s supply line, Harsh points out that it would also make the distance Lee had to march much greater. Third, and this was Lee’s biggest worry, McClellan could abandon his present supply line and move to a new one based on the James River to the south. This would give McClellan an entirely water-based supply line that Lee had no way of cutting. Taking all of the above into consideration, Harsh concludes that “Lee determined the basic elements of his first campaign–a turning movement against McClellan’s communications that would in some manner make use of Jackson’s forces in the Valley–as early as June 5, three days after he took command.”

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As this was going on, Harsh relates that Lee was also offered another option. Jackson had said that if he could be given 40,000 troops, he could cross the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania, hoping to pull Union troops away from their field armies situated in front of Richmond and elsewhere in Virginia. Davis was skeptical of the plan, but Harsh makes the important point that Davis was not averse to sending troops into enemy territory, and never had been. Lee liked the idea, but he did not want to weaken his force in front of Richmond. Instead, he proposed rounding up troops from North & South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama to be forwarded to Stonewall. This was simply not possible, and Jackson was soon driven south up the Valley to Port Republic. Hence this diversion died a stillborn death.

Lee instead on June 8th asked Jackson of the possibility of his Valley Army leaving the Shenandoah and helping Lee drive McClellan from in front of Richmond. Initially, Lee’s plan was to reinforce Jackson with several brigades from around Richmond and have him attack McClellan’s supply line farther to the east. As McClellan left his entrenchments to deal with this threat, Lee intended to attack him. This was Lee using what became a standard pattern for him: a turning movement. Harsh has two observations on this version of Lee’s plan. First, Lee was accepting the fact that Jackson’s portion of the army would be separated from the main group. Second, Lee’s statement “while I attack in front” was a little unclear. Harsh doesn’t know how Lee could “attack in front” without having to face those dreaded Federal earthworks. On June 11th, Lee set his campaign in motion. He sent orders to Jackson to defeat the forces facing him and then move to cut McClellan’s communications. Then, he ordered “Jeb” Stuart and his cavalry to see what preparations McClellan had made to protect his supply line. After Stuart’s reconnaissance, which showed the Union communications to be vulnerable, and also after Jackson replied that the time wasn’t good for a Valley offensive, Lee modified his plan. He ordered Jackson to immediately bring his army to Richmond. By June 16th, Lee’s first plan had taken shape.

Harsh says that Lee’s campaign had one large weakness: Lee didn’t have enough men to do everything he wanted to do. Lee began to support concentration strongly where he had once not seen its importance. Joe Johnston had always seen the need for more men, and now Lee and Davis put into effect what Johnston had been asking for up to his wounding at Seven Pines. The stats of the Lower South did not want to give up troops and essentially abandon part of their territory, but after much pushing and prodding troops began to flow into the Confederate capital. At Seven Pines, Johnston had 74,000 men PFD in 129 regiments of all arms, or 22% of the total regiments the South had available. He faced 92,000 men PFD in the army if the Potomac, for overall odds of 4 to 5. In comparison, at the beginning of the Seven Days, Lee had 112,220 men PFD in 215 regiments facing McClellan’s force of 101,444 PFD. The Confederates now had odds of 11.2 to 10.1, and fielded the largest army the Confederacy ever assembled in one place. Lee had 9.4% of all available white men aged 18 to 45 in the Confederacy. McClellan had 2.3% of the North’s manpower pool in his Army of the Potomac.

Lee decided on a turning movement almost immediately upon assuming command, but the tactical operations took three weeks to hammer out. Lee needed to make sure he could hold Richmond while sending forces to attack McClellan north of the Chickahominy, and he ordered entrenchments dug south of the river to make sure the Confederate lines there could be held with a minimum number of men. He also believed labor instilled discipline in an army. Lee’s troops were unused to labor, and they felt it beneath them. It is amusing to read accounts of troops calling the general “Granny” or “Spades” Lee with the knowledge I have of the things he would later accomplish. Harsh agrees to some extent with Lt. Col. Robert Chilton that in the few weeks prior to the Seven Days, Lee started to instill more discipline into his army, and made it a better fighting force than it had been previously. On June 15, Lee still planned to have Jackson hit McClellan’s supply line while he attacked in front, but Harsh says that this last part still annoyed Lee. He simply did not feel comfortable attacking prepared positions. James Longstreet provided the solution. In a meeting with Lee on June 16, Longstreet proposed that Jackson attack McClellan’s right flank instead of his rear. He pointed out that Jackson would be dangerously exposed otherwise, and that Lee would be forced to attack McClellan in those ever-present earthworks. This jump started Lee’s thinking, and at a meeting between Lee and A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, Jackson, and Longstreet on June 23, Lee revealed his plan. He would have Jackson attack the Federal right flank from the north, and as they reacted to this threat he would attack them from the west with the divisions of Longstreet and both Hills. Harsh maintains that this version of the plan fixed three things. First, Jackson was not isolated and in danger of being attacked alone. Second, Lee could avoid attacking entrenchments. And lastly, Lee would have a strong numerical advantage at the point of attack. Lee would have 67,000 men PFD to attack around 18,000 men in Porter’s V Corps. Lee had one final problem to solve. All the bridges crossing the Chickahominy were held by the Yankees. This meant Longstreet and both Hills could have trouble crossing the river to support Jackson. Lee planned to have one brigade ford the river near Mechanicsville, and in tandem with Jackson’s flanking move, cause the Union troops at Beaver Dam Creek to uncover Meadow Bridge. Lee’s men would then sweep forward and overwhelm the Union troops. Harsh has two problems with this plan. First, what would happen if McClellan didn’t want to fight for his supply line on the York River? What if he instead decided to change his base of operations to the James? This would be precisely what Lee DIDN’T want to happen. Second, what would happen if McClellan took advantage of the absence of 67,000 Confederates from the vicinity of Richmond and attacked the Confederate capital?

In the last part of the chapter, Harsh examines Lee’s thought process through the week long campaign. While Lee used an excellent strategy according to Harsh, the author maintains that “the tactical plan…was unworkable and even naive”, with complicated and vague orders. Lee did not know the region very well, and he also expected his division commanders to work miracles. The worst oversight says Harsh, was that “nowhere did Lee build into his plan a way to assess and respond to McClellan’s reaction to the threat to Federal communications, and this in spite of the fact that the whole point of the operation was to strike McClellan after the Army of the Potomac had been brought out of its entrenchments”. Harsh believes the tactical plan was destined to fail, but he finds the “how” to be “both curious and ironic”.

At Mechanicsville, Jackson was late and A.P. Hill attacked the Federal entrenchments, exactly what Lee wished to avoid. Harsh blames Hill for the failure on June 26, and says Jackson’s late arrival had nothing to do with it. Harsh says that Mechanicsville was not only not not a turning movement; it wasn’t even a flank attack. Unfortunately for him, Lee tried to reinforce Hill’s mistake rather than call the attack off. Harsh makes two points to end the discussion of this day. First, McClellan had already decided not to defend his base of operations at the White House, so no matter what the Confederates did Lee couldn’t succeed in the way he thought he could. Second, even though the Confederates had failed on the tactical level, Lee’s strategic success was only temporarily delayed. If McClellan had decided to abandon his old supply line, he had to find a new one. As he attempted this, Lee could still attack him in the open. At Gaines’s Mill on June 27, A.P. Hill again set things in motion prematurely. He attacked the Federal line behind Boatswain’s Swamp and Lee was again forced to reinforce a potential failure. Jackson was again late on the right flank, but when he did finally arrive, the Confederates launched an attack across the whole line which broke Porter’s Union V Corps as night was falling. In two days of heavy fighting, Lee had change the tactical situation, but he still had not affected things strategically because McClellan had not yet reacted. On June 28, Lee believed McClellan would do one of three things:

1. He could “recross the lower Chickahominy and reestablish communications with the White House.”
2. He could “retreat down the Peninsula and use Fort Monroe as a base.”
3. He could “switch rivers and open a base at some point on the James.”

Harsh believes Lee did not believe McClellan would retreat to the James because it offered Lee the easiest chance to catch Little Mac out in the open. He would have to retreat across Lee’s front. Yet that is exactly what he ended up doing. By June 29, Lee realized he was succeeding in his goal because the Army of the Potomac started to move. Over two days, the Confederates pursued and launched several piecemeal attacks that caused some heavy fighting at Savage Station and Glendale. In the end, McClellan managed to reach the James. Lee then used a frontal attack on McClellan at Malvern Hill and lost heavily. Harsh believes that Lee was simply frustrated because he had failed to catch the Yankees in the open. The author maintains that this attack went against everything Lee had set out to accomplish. Harsh says that Lee’s first Campaign “failed to achieve its main tactical objective, the destruction of the enemy army.” But he says that this was because Lee had required too much from leaders and troops unused to each other and to fighting in general. Despite these failures, Harsh believes that Lee accomplished much. McClellan was twenty-five farther south and east than he had been and was now forced to assume a defensive posture. Southern morale improved greatly. Lee had been able to “baffle” and “frustrate” his enemy, but he had made tactical mistakes in the three frontal attacks at Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, and Malvern Hill. His losses were greater numerically (20,135 to 15,849) and proportionately (1.68% of total Confederate manpower to .36% of Union manpower), something he could not afford on even a sporadic basis. Harsh concludes the chapter by saying, “in spite of his first campaign’s many tactical failures, Lee’s use of concentration, initiative, and the turning movement had completely dominated the enemy.” He says that this showed the Confederates that their grand strategy had a chance of succeeding after all. Times were certainly brighter on July 2 than they had been on June 25.

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