Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 1

Before The Seven Days – The Advance to the Chickahominy.

The Peninsula Campaign has been subject to much interest among Civil War fans. The design of the campaign and the reaction to it make for an excellent study in command philosophies and military decision making. The armies that fought during this campaign were far from experienced warriors and the commanders, for the most part, had yet to prove themselves. There were mistakes at all levels as the soldiers and their leaders learned the lessons of war the hard way. This training process turned the campaign into one of the bloodiest of the war.

The Seven Days battles and the ascension of Robert E. Lee to command of the Confederate defense of Richmond garners the bulk of the attention for this campaign. Somewhat lost in this focus is the advance of the Army of the Potomac to the Chickahominy River. The two months that led up to the climatic series of battles should not be ignored. The period featured an amphibious operation that brought nearly 100,000 men into enemy territory, a fabulous ruse by a badly outnumbered enemy that delayed the advance while defenders for Richmond could be organized, a siege, a series of small battles, and the second bloodiest battle of the entire campaign at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). In the end one leader rose to prominence while another fell. It all began in the period of 4 April to 24 June.

Designing the Campaign.
The basic premise of MG George McClellan’s proposed move into Virginia was that the best way to protect Washington was to force the Confederate troops to defend their own capital. The defense of their capital would lead to one grand battle that would settle the issue of the rebellion. The concept was fundamentally opposed by the administration who feared that Washington was under imminent threat from Confederate hordes emerging from the Shenandoah Valley. They demanded that the capital be defended by large formations of troops. The mention of marching off to Virginia with the bulk of the Union forces originally raised a charge of traitorous from the President, who thought the idea would leave Washington defenseless. The administration felt the only way to get at Richmond was the overland route that would leave the Army of the Potomac interposed between the city and the Confederate army. An irate McClellan proposed that the plan be reviewed by twelve general officers and their recommendations on the plan be given to the President. The meeting of the commanders was held on 7 March,1862 at Army headquarters in Washington. After being given their charge by Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy the plan was briefed by McClellan. The men listened intently and formed their opinion of the plan. The final result was four opposed but a solid majority of 8 in favor. There were still many aspects of the plan ( transportation availability, logisitics, and security for the capital among the most important) that troubled the commanders but later in the day they presented their vote to the President. Despite the reservations the opportunity to finally get McClellan on the move against the enemy pleased Lincoln. The plan was approved with some provisos and the presidential appointment of Corps commanders to lead the enterprise.

Unfortunately for McClellan, the viabilty of this plan to introduce his troops against the Confederate capital by way of Urbana was destroyed on the same day that it was approved. MG Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces, withdrew from Manassas and stole away any advantage that might be gained by a move in this area. By moving closer to an available railroad transportation hub there was no chance of stealing a critical march on them. After a short period of pusrsuit McClellan realized the Urbana plan was dead. Undeterred McClellan offered up a new design to enter the Virginia Peninsula. Insisting that the indirect approach of a turning movement would spare unnecessary casualties and catch the enemy off guard the new plan was formulated. They would now enter the Peninsula at the tip from Fort Monroe. Again a council of war was called with the presidentially appointed Corps commanders (Sumner, McDowell, Heitzelman, and Keyes) and the chief engineer (Barnard) to brief the new design. This time in a spirit of cooperation there was no dissent. The plan was approved by the President on 13 March 1862.

The concentration of forces for the campaign at Fort Monroe began immediately. In three weeks the chartered fleet (389 vessels) had staged over 100,000 men, 14,000 animals, 1200 wagons and 44 artillery batteries for the campaign. Waiting for him was Confederate MG John Magruder with about 13,000 troops of the Army of the Peninsula stretched over a 14 mile line. Forward of the main line of defense Magruder created a series of posts that would provide early warning and prevent observation of the main line that ran from the James River north to Yorktown on the the York River.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)





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