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Civil War

The Peninsula Campaign

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From Hampton Roads to Seven Pines

By early April 1862, the Army of the Potomac — over 120,000 strong — had been transported to the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers and was in position to move on the Confederate capital of Richmond. The training was over; this would prove the ultimate test.



George B. McClellan
Library of Congress

George Brinton McClellan, often fondly called "Little Mac" or the "Young Napoleon," seemed to have the magic touch when he arrived in Washington in August 1861 following the Union debacle at Bull Run. The 34-year old major general, fresh from his victorious campaign in western Virginia, radiated success and quickly transformed the demoralized Army of the Potomac into the most powerful army ever witnessed in America. McClellan provided his troops with the best training, armaments and organization then known to military science and had replaced the aged Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief of the Union army. Yet by late 1861, "Little Mac" had not given any indication of how or when he might strike against the Confederate army nearby at Manassas. President Abraham Lincoln, who purportedly quipped, "If General McClellan and does not intend to use his army, may I borrow it?", pressed the general into presenting some plan of action against the Confederate capital in Richmond. McClellan's response would set in motion one of the war's most pivotal events — the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan believed that Richmond held the fate of the Confederacy, yet he eschewed the notion of marching overland toward the Confederate capital. This direct approach, McClellan rationalized, would enable the Confederates to use their interior lines to develop a defensive concentration, which would result in extensive Union casualties. Instead, the Union general initially purposed an indirect strategic movement whereby he would interdict his army between the Confederate forces arrayed throughout Virginia and Richmond by way of Urbanna, located on the Rappahannock River. Before McClellan could put his plan into motion, General Joseph E. Johnston pulled his Confederate army from Manassas to Fredericksburg on March 7, 1862. Johnston's withdrawal invalidated the strategic strengths of McClellan's Urbanna plan. Nevertheless, the Union general immediately offered a second amphibious operation to strike at Richmond by way of the Virginia Peninsula.


Northern and Southern leaders alike had recognized from the war's onset the Peninsula's strategic position. The Virginia Peninsula, bordered by Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay as well as the James and York Rivers, was one of two major approaches to the Confederate capital at Richmond. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler was the first Federal commander to try to exploit this avenue of advance against Richmond. Even though Butler's troops blundered their way to defeat during the June 10, 1861 Battle of Big Bethel, Union actions had secured Fort Monroe and Camp Butler on Newport News Point. Fort Monroe, the largest moat-encircled masonry fortification in North America, was the only fort in the Upper South not to fall into Confederate hands and commanded the entrance to Hampton Roads. Even though the Confederates maintained control of Norfolk and Gosport Navy Yard, Fort Monroe became a major base almost overnight for Federal fleet and army operations.


Joe Johnston's retreat ruined the Urbanna Plan's prospects. McClellan thought that by "using Fort Monroe as a base," the Army of the Potomac could march against Richmond "with complete security, altho' with less celebrity and brilliancy of results, up the Peninsula." McClellan's plan was a sound strategic concept as it employed a shrewd exploitation of Union naval superiority; gunboats could protect his flanks and river steamers could carry his troops toward the Confederate capital.


As McClellan shared the merits of his plan with Lincoln and strove to allay the President's fears for the defense of Washington, his campaign started to unhinge The emergence of the powerful ironclad ram C.S.S. Virginia on March 8, 1862, sent shockwaves through the Union command. The Virginia was converted from the U.S.S. Merrimack, scuttled when the Federal forces evacuated Norfolk in 1861. The ironclad's construction was a remarkable test of Confederate ingenuity and resources. In one day, the Virginia destroyed two Union warships, the U.S.S. Congress and U.S.S. Cumberland, threatening Federal control of Hampton Roads. Lincoln viewed the March 8 events as the greatest Union calamity since Bull Run, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton feared that the Virginia would attack the Federal capital; yet, as the burning Congress brightened the harbor with an eerie glow, the novel Union 'ironclad U.S.S. Monitor entered the stage. The next day, the Southern ironclad fought the Monitor to a standstill, yet the Virginia was unable to destroy the Union fleet as anticipated. While both North and South claimed victory, the presence of the Virginia blocking the James River would continue to delay and alter McClellan's campaign.




The CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor
This painting shows how close the two ironclads were during their famous duel.
Mariners' Museum




Nevertheless, McClellan, confident that the Monitor could hold off any advance against his transports by the Confederate ironclad and facing Lincoln's deadline to move against the enemy, proceeded with his campaign. He began shipping his 121,500-strong army with all of its supplies and armaments to Fort Monroe on March 17, 1862, intending to move against Richmond by way of the York River. The Army of the Potomac was the largest army to conduct an amphibious operation in North America. The grand army was bigger than any city in Virginia.


Confederate prospects looked bleak as McClellan moved his massive army to the Peninsula. Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside's troops were finalizing their conquest of eastern North Carolina and Union forces appeared invincible along the Mississippi River. Many Southerners feared that if Richmond were to fall, the Confederacy might collapse. Confederate hopes were pinned on the ability of the C.S.S. Virginia to hold Hampton Roads, and Major General John Bankhead Magruder's small "Army of the Peninsula" to delay the Union juggernaut's advance toward Richmond.


On April 4, 1862, McClellan's army began its march up the Peninsula, occupying abandoned Confederate works at Big Bethel and Young's Mill. The next day, the Army of the Potomac assumed its march only to find its path to Richmond slowed by heavy rains, which turned the already poor roads into a muddy morass. The army then was blocked by Magruder's 13,000-strong command entrenched along a 12-mile front. Brigadier General John G. Barnard, the Army of the Potomac's chief engineer, called the comprehensive series of redoubts and rifle pits arrayed behind the flooded Warwick River "one of the most extensive known to modern times." The Union army halted in its tracks as "Prince John" Magruder, despite being heavily outnumbered, created an illusion of a powerful army. He "played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies," wrote diarist Mary Chesnut, "and utterly deluded him."


The events of April 5 changed McClellan's campaign. Not only were his plans for a rapid movement past Yorktown upset by the unexpected Confederate defenses along the Warwick River, but also by Lincoln's decision not to release Irwin McDowell's I Corps to his use in a flanking movement against the Southern fortifications at Gloucester Point. Lincoln feared for Washington's safety and held McDowell near the Federal capital. The U. S. Navy, too, refused to support McClellan's advance. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough thought that the C.S. S. Virginia might attack the Union fleet while it attempted to silence the Confederate guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point. Since McClellan's reconnaissance, provided by detective Alan Pinkerton and Professor Thaddeus Lowe's balloons, confirmed his belief that he was outnumbered by the Confederates, he besieged their defenses.


As McClellan's men built gun emplacements for the 103 siege guns he brought to the Peninsula, General Joseph E. Johnston began moving his entire Confederate army to the lower Peninsula. Johnston thought the Confederate position was weak, noting that, "no one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack." McClellan's men did make one attempt to break the midpoint of the Confederate line. Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith sent soldiers of the Vermont Brigade across the Warwick River to disrupt Confederate control of Dam No. 1. The poorly coordinated and supported assaults on April 16, 1862, failed to break through this Confederate weak point.


The siege continued another two weeks even though Johnston counseled retreat. Johnston advised that "the fight for Yorktown must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful." Finally, just as McClellan made his last preparations to unleash his heavy bombardment on the Confederate lines, Johnston abandoned the fortifications during the evening of May 3.


Joseph Johnston
Joseph E. Johnston
Wikimedia Commons


McClellan was surprised by the Confederate withdrawal. The Union commander immediately attempted to cut off Johnston's retreat, ordering Brigadier General Edwin V "Bull" Sumner to attack the Confederate rearguard. The result was the bloody, indecisive May 5 Battle of Williamsburg. The battle was fought along the Williamsburg Line, a series of 14 redoubts built between Queens and College creeks. Fighting raged in front of Fort Magruder (Redoubt #6) all day. The Confederates repelled the first Union assaults and then pressed the Federals back down the Hampton Road. By mid-afternoon the Union lines were in disarray when Brigadier General Philip Kearny personally led his command into the fray shouting, "I am a one-armed Jersey Sonof- a-Gun, follow me!" While Kearny's charge stabilized the battle lines at Fort Magruder, it was Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock's flanking move into several unmanned redoubts on the Confederate left that forced the Confederates to abandon the Williamsburg Line. The Battle of Williamsburg, called by McClellan "an accident caused by too rapid a pursuit," was an opportunity to destroy Johnston's army before it could reach the Confederate capital; however, success slipped away from the Army of the Potomac. The Union victory at Williamsburg was marred by the Federal command's inability to aggressively grasp the tactical opportunities made available by the Confederate retreat.


McClellan did not arrive on the Williamsburg battlefield until dark, when the engagement was ending. He had been in Yorktown supervising the embarkation of Brigadier General William B. Franklin's move up the York River, which threatened to block Johnston's withdrawal to Richmond. Although able to secure a beachhead at Eltham's Landing on May 6, Franklin's timid move inland on the next day was halted by elements of G. W. Smith's command led by William C. H. Whiting and John Bell Hood.


Lincoln, disenchanted with what he deemed McClellan's general lack of initiative, arrived at Fort Monroe May 6. Since the Confederate army was now in retreat toward Richmond, Lincoln sought to open the James River to the Union's use. The only obstacle was the C.S.S. Virginia.


The Confederate retreat from the lower Peninsula exposed the port city of Norfolk to Union capture. Lincoln directed Flag Officer Louis N. Goldsborough and Major General John E. Wool to end the Virginia's control of Hampton Roads by occupying its base. Major General Benjamin Huger, threatened by the Union advance, was forced to abandon the port city on May 9. Without its base, the ironclad's deep draught made the vessel unable to steam up the James to Richmond. Consequently, the Virginia was destroyed by its crew off Craney Island on May 11, 1862. "Still unconquered, we hauled down our drooping colors ... and with mingled pride and grief gave her to the flames," Chief Engineer Ashton Ramsay reflected. The door to the Confederate capital via the James River now lay open. A Union fleet, including the ironclads Galena and Monitor; slowly moved up the river to within seven miles of Richmond. On May 15, 1862, hastily constructed Confederate batteries perched atop Drewry's Bluff repelled the Union naval advance. Obstructions limited the mobility of Federal vessels as plunging shot from Confederate cannons severely damaged the Galena.


Despite the repulse given to the Federal fleet's thrust up the James River, McClellan's army neared the outskirts of the Confederate capital by the end of May. McClellan had established a major supply base near West Point and appeared ready to invest Richmond with his siege artillery. However, his delays on the lower Peninsula once again altered his plans. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's operations in the Shenandoah Valley threatened Washington, prompting Lincoln to continue to withhold McDowell's Corps at Fredericksburg. McClellan, extending his right flank to meet the expected reinforcements, found his army divided by the swampy Chickahominy River.


Taking advantage of heavy rains, which made the Chickahominy nearly impassable, Johnston attacked McClellan's army south of the river at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. The poorly coordinated assaults on May 31 failed to destroy the exposed Union corps. Johnston was seriously wounded riding across the battlefield. The next day, June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate forces around Richmond.


The Southern assaults at Seven Pines confirmed McClellan's opinion that his army was outnumbered. Rather than striking directly at the city, his primary goal was to reach Old Tavern on the Nine Mile Road and entrench. He was confident a classic siege would result in Richmond's capture. Lee, formerly Jefferson Davis's military advisor, recognized McClellan's siege mentality and transformed the sluggish, yet seemingly victorious Union advance into a vicious Confederate counteroffensive, known as the Seven Days' Battles. Lee's offensive, although costly in men, achieved its objective — Richmond was saved.