In the spring of 1862, Union armies invaded the South on nearly every front. General George B. McClellan’s army, however, was the largest and most dangerous. His massive movements on the Virginia Peninsula were opposed by smaller but equally dangerous Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee.
On March 8-9, the ironclad CSS Virginia engaged the Federal blockading fleet at Hampton Roads and defeated several Union vessels before the USS Monitor halted her attack. Forced to seek shelter in the James River, the Virginia no longer posed any threat to Federal ships supporting the Union army’s advance.
With his supply line secure, McClellan began his movement “On to Richmond!” Confederate forces conducted a stubborn fighting withdrawal, pulling back from Yorktown in the face of Federal siege operations, and delaying the Federals in bloody combat at Williamsburg. At the outskirts of Richmond, Johnston halted his retreat and attacked. The Battle of Seven Pines was one of the most consequential of the war. During the fight, Johnston was wounded, and command of his army given to General Robert E. Lee.
The first year of the war had not been kind to Lee. He suffered a defeat at the hands of McClellan in a small campaign in Western Virginia, served as commander of the South’s defenses along the Atlantic, and finally became Jefferson Davis’ military advisor. With a field army at his command, however, Lee proved his capabilities. In the last week of June he launched an aggressive campaign against McClellan. Over the course of seven days, Lee attacked the Union army at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Glendale and finally at Malvern Hill. Lee’s offensive drove the army farther from the capital, saved Richmond and ushered in an era of Southern dominance in the East.