Home / American Civil War / The Marble Man and Mac: Theories of Victory and Peninsula Campaign of 1862
The Marble Man and Mac: Theories of Victory and Peninsula Campaign of 1862
By Patrick Smith

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign could have been the decisive campaign of the American Civil War. As General-in-Chief of all Union Armies, McClellan proposed a national strategy that embraced joint and coordinated operations complementing President Lincoln’s wartime policy. His theory of victory was the product of a comprehensive understanding of both combatants, geographic and operational challenges, and tactical realities of mid-19th century war. Nevertheless, interference at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels by President Lincoln ultimately disrupted the execution of the campaign. Lincoln’s meddling was informed by a limited understanding of military operations, an impatience to end the war quickly, and goading from his political backers. As McClellan’s command was dissolved, strategic priorities changed. Operational support, muddled by military amateurs, ground the campaign to a tragic halt on the banks of the James River.

To understand the events of the Peninsula Campaign we must first examine Lincoln and McClellan’s theories of victory, respectively. What was truly the political objective in the minds of the President and of the nation’s premier soldier? What were the strategic concepts they advocated to usher-in this policy? And what were the attendant operational courses of action that defined their strategies?

First, Lincoln’s political object was preservation of the status quo ante bellum. The maintenance of federal law, the restoration of federal property—coastal fortifications, ships, arsenals, weapons, equipment—the cessation of hostilities, and the dispersal of rebel governing bodies. In short, Lincoln desired a political outcome that reestablished national power. As he remarked to Horace Greely of the New York Tribune, “The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’”[1] While a general manumission of slaves drifted in the political offing, it was not a component of Lincoln’s initial political calculus. Federal manumission would quickly scatter the amassing Union Army near Washington, whose members volunteered to preserve the Union, above all else. Conversely, emancipation would push multitudes of Southerners, lukewarm to secession (it was believed), into the ranks of its own gathering armies.

The President precariously balanced a coalition of war and peace Democrats, conservative and Radical Republicans. As the dynamic base of the new party, Lincoln had to accommodate the patronage of this latter group to remain in power. “Lincoln had to listen to them” explains Ethan Rafuse. The Radicals were “the driving force in the party,” and “held influential positions in Congress.” The Radical Republicans lobbied for a hard-war policy. In their view, the conflict was “an opportunity to chastise the Slave Power and expunge the great evil.”[2] The Radicals would influence and ultimately drive Lincoln’s strategic approach.

Lincoln’s strategic concept and operational course of action were linked. The President’s strategic model was concentrated to a single sharp action oriented at Virginia: a quick decisive victory. Developing, equipping, and deploying armies across large expanses of the American interior would be avoided. He was at once influenced by Radicals—who favored a violent rush upon the Confederate Army at Manassas—and the desire to effect prompt war termination. As he surmised to Greely, a “sooner” restoration of federal authority would precipitate the end of the rebellion. For one, Lincoln enjoyed the political capital before and after Bull Run, as the Northern masses incessantly roared for a march “On to Richmond.” Second, an immediate battlefield triumph, “was the best guarantee for preserving the status quo ante bellum.”[3] If the war continued to drag on in fits and small actions, it was “impossible to foresee all the incidents…which may follow.” If the rebel army was not attacked and driven back, the consequences seemed endless. As the complexity of the war magnified, the cost—in blood, treasure, and political capital—would likewise increase. “Broken eggs can never be mended,” he stated before Bull Run, “and the longer the breaking proceeds, the more will be broken.”[4]

Lincoln’s strategic assumptions informed his proposed blitz into Virginia. An immediate clash would only serve his policy aims if the tactical outcome was decisive. Given the North’s preponderance in manpower and determination (this last was confirmed when the states outmatched their pledges in militia numbers in the summer of 1861), the result would hardly be left in doubt. Lincoln viewed the Confederates as “blow-hards, not die-hards.”[5] The men who fired on Fort Sumter, occupied the Confederate Congress, and marched in rebel armies were part of the fanatical minority of Southern fire-eaters. The majority of Southerners either sat on the fence or waited for the victory Lincoln was primed to deliver. The extremists who challenged the National Government lacked adequate leadership and could neither train, arm, nor “put substantial and respectable armies into the field.”6 The Union needed only marginal skill and effort to obliterate the insurgents near Manassas.

Lincoln’s operational thinking was too, influenced by his Radical Republican base, who “envisioned victory over the South coming in a single battle decided by grand assaults in which soldiers, possessing the proper martial spirit that came from knowing they were fighting for a righteous cause, would determine the outcome.”[7] The radicals argued that Federal soldiers who jumped to the offensive, infused with the zeal of national might, and animated with righteousness, could tactically devastate Confederate formations in a single, grand stroke. This approach largely germinated from previous challenges to Federal authority. Secession, Lincoln’s cabinet advised, could be snuffed out “in much the same manner.” Montgomery Blair, an early supporter of Lincoln, suggested that a short-term militia force with “a ‘whiff of grapeshot’ had been all that was required to disperse the insurrectionary followers” of Daniel Shay in 178[6] and the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.[8] Why should the secession crisis be any different? A rapid dispersal of the Confederate army threatening Washington remained the only way to convince the Confederate upstarts, and millions of otherwise loyal Southerners, that to challenge national power was hopeless.

General McClellan shared the same policy aims as Lincoln in 1861. Both were products of Whig conservatism, and naturally gravitated to maintaining the status quo ante bellum. To validate the President’s political objectives, McClellan drafted an August 1861 memorandum that confirmed the administration’s aims. The Bull Run fiasco had nearly uprooted Lincoln’s political designs. Lincoln himself lamented that he had “no policy”[9] and sought McClellan’s counsel. The young general buoyed the administration’s initial war aims, endorsing the “preservation of our institutions” and the “real and entire restoration of the Union.”[10] McClellan, rushed to Washington to coral and lead the scuttled masses of the defeated Union Army in Summer of 1861, was not out of his depth to recommend these policy aims.

While Lincoln remained fixated on Virginia in the Spring and Summer of 1861, a political and military void affected the borderlands to which McClellan was assigned. In both Kentucky and western Virginia, McClellan was given full reign. Federal authorities and local governors stepped aside to give the Young Napoleon unrestricted political and military powers in areas on the precipice of internecine chaos. As the region’s statesman-general, his efforts were instrumental in preserving Kentucky’s political status in the Union and bolstering West Virginia’s autonomy.

Lincoln now had an officer who brought his proof of concept to the war’s preeminent theatre. McClellan was intensely committed to doing the “least possible damage” to the American “constitutional framework.”[11] To those ends, he opposed confounding the political aims of unity with slave emancipation. Like Lincoln, he saw the uprooting of slavery as an eventual moral necessity, but not a genuine war object. Military means should be directed at rebel resistance, not to promote a revolution that might embolden the Confederacy and undercut Northern support. Nor should abolitionism dictate battlefield tactics. McClellan spurned Radicals who maintained that frontline success was contingent on elan and the spirit of the offensive; the martial expression of righteous abolitionism.

McClellan’s strategic concept differed completely from the righteous, singular grand assault proposed by Lincoln and his Radical supporters. The Union Army he found cowering on the banks of the Potomac could not be redeployed for another lunge at Joseph E. Johnston. In his view, the strategy of limited battle to disperse the enemy was “entirely insufficient for the emergency.”[12] Even if the nascent Army of the Potomac could be marshalled to confront the

Confederates hovering near Manassas, McClellan was concerned with “ultimate victory and not immediate success.”[13]

McClellan’s strategic concept was as grand as it was comprehensive, and he proposed overwhelming strength and pressure. “We not only have to defeat their armed and organized forces in the field, but to display such an overwhelming strength as will convince out antagonists…of the utter impossibility of resistance.”[14] This called for the expansion of all federal armies, particularly the Army of the Potomac, the development of rail and depot facilities responsive to the armies, reorganization and thorough training of regiments, and most interestingly, the enlargement and deployment of the Navy.

Rowena Reed observes that the “most important influence on McClellan’s thinking was his appreciation of sea power.”[15] McClellan witnessed the value of combined operations in Mexico. While General Taylor’s column “wasted away in the desert,” General Winfield Scott quickly seized the vital city of Vera Cruz in a joint operation. Several years later, McClellan, as an observer during the Crimean War, discerned that sea power allowed Britain and France to “select the theatre of operations, forcing the Russians to fight,” in places of their choosing instead of being “swallowed up in the Russian hinterland.”[16]

Likewise, McClellan sought to rupture the South’s internal lines of communication--Goldsborough, Charleston, Augusta, Nashville, Decatur, Corinth, Selma, Richmond, and Petersburg—all of which were accessible by water.[17] The seizure of these hubs would disrupt all rail movement, and “fragment Confederate armies into small detachments,” unable to supply themselves or support each other. Regionally-aligned federal armies would then move by water to siege, threaten, or fight the isolated Confederate detachments. Following the fall of their capital and systematic attrition of their armies, the South, McClellan reckoned, “would convince their leaders to return to the Union.”[18]

The crowning operational concept in McClellan’s theory of victory was the Peninsula Campaign. Similar to Lincoln, McClellan saw Virginia as the main theatre of the war. However, the rout of a single rebel army in Northern Virginia would not result in a cataclysmic collapse of the rebellion. Rather, McClellan viewed Richmond as the center of gravity for the Confederacy. Destruction of Confederate forces defending its capital city; and the seizure and occupation of Richmond would ultimately knock other pockets of resistance out of the Confederate orbit. There were several reasons why McClellan viewed Richmond as the locus of Confederate power.

Primarily, Richmond housed a central, functioning government. This indicated legitimacy in the eyes of Europe. McClellan, aware of the recent Trent affair, assumed that the dissolution of the Confederate Congress would subtract British and French intervention from rebel strategy. Moreover, if Confederate political power was put to flight, secessionist solidarity would splinter among member states. Second, Richmond and Petersburg functioned as the rail and maritime terminus of men and materiel from points South. Remove Richmond and the Crescent City from rebel hands, and remove the physical menace of invading armies to Washington. Third, the loss of Virginia’s capital would be a blow to Confederate morale. The prestige of the South’s most populous state, and home to Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Madison would result in a tremendous psychological shock.

Lastly, the logistical worth of the city was invaluable to Confederate means. Straddling the James River, Tredegar Iron Works and its accompanying dock facilities was “the most important industrial facility of the South.” Tredegar “gave the Confederacy its only significant internal means to produce the types of munitions and military grade ordnance that it would need to adequately supply its armed forces.”[19] The fall of Richmond would crack the Clasuewitzian triad in a single campaign. The fissures to that trinity would set in motion an end to the war.

Tactically, the Army of the Potomac would avoid a direct confrontation with Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia. It would proceed by water to the York-James Peninsula and disembark at Hampton Roads. The Union Navy would fill two critical roles: protect the seaborne flanks of the army and rapidly land specially trained amphibious divisions ahead of the main body. Meanwhile, Major General Ambrose Burnside’s 15,000-strong expedition would march north after seizing Hatteras Inlet. Burnside’s small army would affect a junction with the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg; effectively blocking the vital lines of communication from the South. For its part, the 150,000 strong Army of the Potomac would lurch into siege range of Richmond.

The approach to Richmond was as extension of McClellan’s strategy of seizing small strategic points, but with the intent of inducing the Confederate Army of attacking him. McClellan was one of the few officers on either side that appreciated the capabilities of rifled munitions. From his encounters in Crimea, particularly during the Siege of Sevastopol, he was impressed by the spectacular lethality of both artillery and troops fighting behind breastworks. Stirring bayonet charges that swept the enemy from the field was fantastical. Modern ordnance promised the “destructive effect on the assailant”[20] - a rude awakening in military capabilities. Cut off from its supplies by land, rail, and sea, the Confederate Army numbering of about 65,000 would be compelled to attack an entrenched Union Army double its size. Johnston, if he decided to fight, “would be smashed by superior artillery emplaced behind strong entrenchments.”[21]

There were secondary reasons to forgo “grand assaults.” For one, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton closed all recruiting stations in the North.[22] For every soldier lost to injury, death, disease, or desertion, there was no replacement. Keeping casualties to a minimum would also buttress Lincoln’s public approval. In the egalitarian North, McClellan realized that high body counts on the battlefield could yield regrettable results at the ballot box, especially once fighting “to preserve the Union” lost its luster with the rank and file.

Why did McClellan’s grand campaign ultimately fail? Were any the components of his—or Lincoln’s—theory of victory flawed? Did the fog of war ultimately obscure the strategic and operational visions of these two men? Did friction arrest the irresistible momentum of McClellan’s columns on Richmond?

There are several reasons for the failure of the campaign, but most of them can and should be placed at the feet of Lincoln. One of the most shocking political moves made by the administration was suspending McClellan as General-in-Chief on the eve of the campaign. Lincoln maintained that the young general’s energies were best focused on the performance of the nation’s grand army. Yet the operational success of the campaign was contingent on the success of Union military and naval movements across the map. Na on a guiding hand to supervise those movements. The Peninsula Campaign relied on concert of action over land, rail, and water of two armies and elements of the Navy. Taking the reins out of McClellan’s hands days before execution was hazardous in the extreme. From then on, the success and failure of Union arms rested with two Illinois lawyers—Lincoln and Stanton—who’s military bona fides were dubious at best.

The reorganization, training, and equipage of the nation’s armies months after Bull Run produced a sense operational inertia in the North. As the Radicals’ howls for renewed action grew louder, Lincoln doubled down on his original operational outlook. He would implore McClellan to go on the attack. As the Army of the Potomac wound up the Virginia Peninsula, Lincoln began piecemealing it for various operations across the theatre. Chief among them was the detachment of an entire infantry corps. With McClellan’s army in contact with the enemy, Lincoln unwisely backtracked on his support of a Richmond-centric siege. As the Potomac Army staggered through the swampy approaches to Richmond, an independent Confederate detachment menaced the Shenandoah Valley. While capability led by Stonewall Jackson, the element was too small to seriously threaten the capital. Nonetheless, military amateurs surrounding Lincoln panicked for Washington’s safety. Despite the capital’s generous garrison of 55,000 troops ensconced in mutually supporting fortifications, the President withheld McClellan’s 35,000 strong I Corps to operate against the Confederates.[23]

Lincoln also removed the 10,000 strong garrison of Fort Monroe from McClellan’s tactical control. (To both McClellan and his Confederate rivals, the Norfolk’s strategic and operational value was worthless). [24] As Christianne niDonnel observes, “at a time when unified military coordination was vital, McClellan was relieved of command of not only other forces but also of all Virginia armies except the three corps he had with him.”[25] The President impulsively decided to use the garrison for operations on Norfolk instead of supporting the colossal movement and deployment of the Army of the Potomac.

These operational and tactical oversights greatly endangered the campaign. First, disembarkation timelines were critically extended, as McClellan’s forces trickled instead of surged onto the Virginia shores. Second, the army’s specially trained divisions for amphibious operations, all part of the I Corps, were withheld. Third, McClellan lost tactical overmatch as over a fifth of his army was subtracted. “Since making his plans for the Peninsula campaign, he had lost 50,000 men; he now would have only 85,000 when all arrived.”[26] McClellan’s Army could not at once defeat the Army of Northern Virginia, execute siege operations, occupy the capital, and pursue the remnants of Johnston’s Army if its combat power was cut in half. More importantly, it could not operate independent of simultaneous operations McClellan had set in to motion as General-in-Chief.

With nearly half of the forces he hoped to bear upon Richmond, the Young Napoleon confronted a second misfortune. In June 1862, the meager Confederate army, reeling from Manassas to meet the new threat to its capital, ballooned to 115,000.[27] Men and materiel were rushed to Richmond from across the South. This included Jackson’s valley contingent, who outwitted Lincoln’s every attempt to crush it with elements of McClellan’s I Corps. Johnston’s Army, initially strung out between Manassas and Yorktown, was now concentrated, resupplied, and substantially reinforced in front of its capital. Strategically, McClellan had been correct.

Richmond was invaluable to the South, and the Confederacy would bear a high cost to maintain it, even if it meant forfeiting adjacent theatres.

Burnside’s expedition, the critical supporting move in the campaign, was ordered to mark time in New Berne. Because Lincoln and Stanton assumed the mantle of command, “Union strategy was altered.”[28] “Had McClellan retained command of the whole Union Army,” Rowena Reed maintains, the Burnside operation alone “would have prevented any large-scale operations by the Army of Northern Virginia.” Converging on Richmond and Petersburg, the combined armies would have compelled Confederate forces “to evacuate the entire state, including their capital.”[29]

The third series of strategic, operational, and tactical friction came from mismanagement of joint operations. At the strategic level, the Navy Department “promised unconditional cooperation” with McClellan’s forces.[30] The reduction of the York and James River batteries, shuttling of amphibious forces, and flank protection were key to the success of the campaign. However, on the day McClellan was relieved from overall Army command, Secretary of War Stanton immediately informed Secretary Welles that the Navy was free to operate at its own discretion.[31] Confusion quickly cascaded from this edict.

Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron found themselves in a dilemma. Secretary Welles advised maintenance of the blockade. Goldsborough’s captains favored a cordon of Norfolk to foil any attempt by the CSS Virginia to attack the wood-hulled Federal fleet. Meanwhile, McClellan’s tactical pleas to support the reduction of the Yorktown batteries and provide army transport persisted. The Army of the

Potomac’s chief engineer, General William Barry, quickly summed up the distressful chain of events: “we cannot count upon the Navy…by their independent efforts, and we must therefore be prepared to do it by our own means.”[32] As a consequence, McClellan’s army, as it sluggishly disembarked, relied on its organic vertical fire to fractionally degrade Peninsula strongpoints threatening the army’s axis of advance. “The Navy’s fear of the Virginia, inflamed by administrative overreaction, distracted Flag Officer Goldsborough at a time when his personal intervention in the York River might have proved decisive,”[33] Reed observes.

The most consequential drawback of meager Naval support came on May 13, 1862. As the Army of the Potomac marched to within 20 miles of Richmond, elements of the North Atlantic Squadron sortied as far west as City Point. This triggered a panic in the Confederate government. An order to “evacuate both Richmond and Petersburg” was prepared, and the city’s provost marshal was directed to “destroy all tobacco, cotton, and public property” if the vessels moved closer to the city’s wharves.[34] However, the movement of this flotilla was immediately recalled as Goldsborough, in an order from President Lincoln, was directed to break off cooperation with McClellan and secure Fort Monroe. As it drew closer to contact with the Richmond defenses, the administration feared that a reverse of the Army of the Potomac would place Washington in immediate danger. The Navy needed to be prepared to transport the army from where it could interdict an assault on the national capital. As a result, “confused strategic priorities” permitted the Army of Northern Virginia and Confederate leadership to “recover its confidence, strengthen its defenses, and seize the strategic initiative”[35] in front of Richmond. As the Army of the Potomac trudged closer to the city, it was Lincoln who proved to be operationally cautious.

The Administration categorically failed to support its General-in-Chief and the promising campaign he proposed as the stepping stone to ending the Civil War. While Lincoln embraced a sensible policy, his strategy was “strangely hollow.” In short, Lincoln’s concept “emphasized the timing of military action and ignored method and location.”[36] He wrongly assumed, or hoped, that Confederate resistance was limited to small, turbulent pockets that could be politically assuaged by a singular victory in Virginia. McClellan, having served in secondary theatres before coming East, understood that the Confederacy was a skillfully led and organized movement with national capabilities that rivaled the Union. Victory had to be geographically, militarily, and politically irresistible.

Lincoln’s chief political backers informed his strategic vision. Unfortunately, the Radical Republicans were “woefully ignorant of military matters.” Lacking military service and training, they held “simplistic, amateurish, and unrealistic views on warfare.”[37] Their hatred of the of the slave holding South was matched by their intolerance of West Point-trained officers, whom they viewed as lukewarm Democratic enablers of the Confederacy. The Radicals thought men like McClellan lacked the killer instinct and, as Stanton described, “the warm impulses of right”[38] to bury the rebels by frontal assault. They, and by extension Lincoln, believed McClellan placed too high a premium on “training, logistics, fortifications, and proper lines of operations.”[39] But advances in military and naval lethality, organization, and professionalism, witnessed by McClellan in places like Crimea and Mexico, made these characteristics indispensable.

After McClellan was cashiered by the administration in November of 1862, Lincoln’s confrontation strategy rapidly fell apart. Confederate armies successfully parried Union drives across all theatres. The Army of the Potomac, heeding the administration’s wishes for grand charges, was bloodily repulsed in a series of frontal assaults at Fredericksburg. The political upshot of Fredericksburg was shocking. Nearly a third of the Army of the Potomac deserted. As lengthy casualty lists splashed across Northern newspapers, support for the war waned. Even after the dramatic victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in Summer of 1863, draft riots erupted across the North.

McClellan’s operational stance, on the other hand, favored ways of preserving life and limb while doing maximum damage to the enemy. Employing a waterborne deployment of the army also secured its lines of communications. McClellan was wary of the risk posed from delivering successive blows as the Confederate Army withdrew closer to its capital. As the enemy’s lines of communication contracted, the Union Army’s would lengthen, dangerously exposing it to rebel raiders. The army needed to traverse a lattice of streams and rivers to deploy and fight, each of which served as a defensive barrier for the defenders. Johnston’s army, if initially beaten, “could fall back upon other positions, and fight us again and again,”[40] McClellan noted.

McClellan had presaged the military misfortunes of the Eastern Theatre. Even the indomitable U.S. Grant, with nearly boundless conscripted manpower, would come to grief waging an overland strategy in the unforgiving terrain of northern and central Virginia. Not until sufficient resources, manpower, naval cooperation, and a cordon of Peterburg was achieved, did Union Arms advance the end of the Confederacy. McClellan rightly saw that Richmond and

Peterburg was principal to Confederate power and legitimacy. Once Richmond fell, Confederate military power in the East deteriorated, triggering successive capitulation of Confederate armies in secondary theatres.

The undermining of naval support also endangered McClellan’s campaign before a single soldier embarked on the Peninsula. McClellan “built his grand strategic design around interservice cooperation.”[41] To supplement the blockade, McClellan sought naval power to paralyze Confederate means in a series of joint operations supporting his main effort. Raids of inland railheads would arrest the cotton trade, curb Confederate commerce, and stall military supply to areas under Union assault. As soon as McClellan’s position was relinquished to Lincoln and Stanton, however, each military and naval “department commander was permitted to define his own objectives and all competed for necessary resources.”[42] Even as the Army of the Potomac came to grips with the Confederate Army, a Naval sortie threatened the upper James, and the Confederate government prepared to evacuate its capital, a deficiency in strategic and joint operational command, and changes in operational priorities dangerously isolated Union armies operating in Virginia.

In conclusion, McClellan’s strategy of overwhelming the enemy with irresistible forces at critical points, in concert, proved to be the winning formula for the preservation of the Union. As Lincoln and his Radical base clung to the idea of single annihilating battles, the war in the East developed into a dismal record of bloody defeats, or limited territorial gain at best. Lincoln ultimately turned to Grant to continue using the Army of the Potomac as blunt force object against Confederate Armies. Yet the reality of modern tactics, a capable enemy, and a growing appreciation for the defense brought a costly butcher’s bill to the door of the White House.

Grant’s campaign ground down in the mud of the Cold Harbor crossroads. Only when multiple armies, naval support, siege operations, and unity of command were oriented at the Confederate center of gravity did Grant break through the gates of Richmond.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an Army Logistics Officer and a student at the Naval War College (College of Naval Command and Staff). He holds a B.A. in History from Johns Hopkins University, and lives with his wife and two daughters in Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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