Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Conclusion

Conclusion and Assessment
The early stages of the Peninsula Campaign was a study in contradictions. Writing to Secretary of War Stanton on March 19th, 1862 to explain the concept behind his proposed campaign McClellan stated:

“The proposed plan of campaign is to assume Fort Monroe as the first base of operations… Richmond being the objective point… We shall fight a decisive battle between West Point and Richmond.”

He also included a list of two elements that were essential to that end.
1. We should collect all available forces
2. That no time should be lost in reaching the field of battle.

Speed to the objective point was critical here for several reasons. The plan assumed that the enemy would react by concentrating “all their available forces” to meet the threat. This movement would take time and if the Army of the Potomac could beat the Confederate concentration to the area selected by McClellan for his “decisive battle” they would gain the defenders advantage by choosing the field. Also it was essential that a rapid movement be made up the Peninsula to avoid terrain restrictions. The narrowness of the peninsula lent itself to defense against the very thing that McClellan was attempting. The thin avenues of approach (only 3-5 miles wide in some places) would allow a much smaller force to conduct a defense. To take the fullest possible advantage McClellan needed to move quickly through the small existing force (Magruder) in the earliest stages of the campaign.

McClellan, however, forgot this self proclaimed edict at first contact with the enemy. Although in his defense he was denied one element of his plan when the Navy would not cooperate in the expected manner. Nevertheless, He had the opportunity to punch through the thin line of Magruder’s defense but declined to do so. Instead he initiated a siege of Yorktown. While siege operations can be successful they are time consuming affairs. McClellan failed to recognize that the momentum lost at Yorktown was the real enemy. The time spent at Yorktown allowed the Confederates to execute their concentration and steal the initiative from the Army of the Potomac.

While it may appear that the early phases of the campaign were successful several key factors actually doomed the operations from successful completion of the original intent from the start.

1. Failure of Intelligence. McClellan never had an accurate picture of the enemy situation. He either believed exaggerated estimates without confirmation or ignored accurate reports (Wool). Based on poor intelligence evaluation his decision making process could not help but be flawed.

2. Leadership. For much of the early going McClellan held the manpower advantage at the point of contact but never managed to use it. Failure to reinforce successful movements or attack points of weakness in the Confederate defense illustrate a general lack of aggressiveness. Important leaders failed at key points (Sumner). Important decisions were flawed. This is most evident in the decision to put only III and IV Corps over the river when McClellan noted that “the entire Army could probably have been thrown across the Chickahominy immediately after our arrival.” Isolated these two Corps suffered badly when Johnston turned aggressive.
In comparison the enemy leadership was decisive at almost every point.

3. Poor Timing. The impatience of the administration to engage the Confederates probably pushed this operation forward about a month too early. The spring rains should have been considered, particularly if speed of movement was a critical factor.

4.Lack of Adaptability. Despite the rapidly changing circumstances McClellan displayed a remarkable lack of imagination. This is best demonstrated in the deployment of Franklin’s division. It was clearly too late to be of any value but was executed anyway. When other opportunities arose they were discounted or ignored.

The Peninsula Campaign had great promise if executed to the full extent of the original design. It was not and the Army of the Army of the Potomac paid price for it. In the end McClellan became a victim of his own tentativeness.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)





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