Peninsula Campaign


The Peninsula Campaign (also known as the Peninsular Campaign) was a major Union operation launched in southeastern Virginia from March through July 1862, the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theater. The operation, commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, was an amphibious turning movement intended to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by circumventing the Confederate States Army in northern Virginia. McClellan was initially successful against the equally cautious General Joseph E. Johnston, but the emergence of General Robert E. Lee changed the character of the campaign and turned it into a humiliating Union defeat.

The following are the most notable battles (A and B rated) of the campaign:

Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8–9) - March 8, 1862 marked the first combat of ironclad ships as the new CSS Virginia made its entrance before the wooden Union warships blockading the entrance from the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads and wreaked devastation upon them. However, the next day, Virginia was met by the new Union ironclad USS Monitor. The two ironclads fought an inconclusive battle, with each retreating at the end of the day. The Battle of Hampton Roads is best experienced by visiting The Mariners' MuseumThe Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA is home to the U.S.S. Monitor Center. The Center presents the battle of Hampton Roads between the Monitor and CSS Virginia through wonderful exhibits and a "battle theater." Visitors can see  the living quarters of the sailors, see inside the real turret or walk on the deck of a full-scale reproduction of the vessel that changed naval warfare.

Hampton Roads caused a newfound sense of concern because the Army's transport ships could be attacked by this new weapon directly in their path. And the U.S. Navy failed to assure McClellan that they could protect operations on either the James or the York, so his plan of amphibiously enveloping Yorktown was abandoned, and he ordered an advance up the Peninsula to begin April 4. On April 5, McClellan learned that McDowell's corps would not be joining him at Fort Monroe. In addition to the pressure of Jackson's Valley Campaign, President Lincoln believed that McClellan had left insufficient force to guard Washington and that the general had been deceptive in his reporting of unit strengths, counting troops as ready to defend Washington when they were actually deployed elsewhere. McClellan protested that he was being forced to lead a major campaign without his promised resources, but he moved ahead anyway.

Battle of Yorktown (April 5 – May 4) - The Union army advanced to Yorktown, where Magruder's 11–13,000 men had constructed defenses stretching almost completely across the Peninsula. McClellan decided to capture Yorktown and he spent almost a month assembling the heavy artillery and supplies he felt necessary for the task. Magruder, an amateur actor, fooled McClellan into believing he faced a larger force by marching small numbers of troops past the same position multiple times. McClellan suspended the march up the Peninsula toward Richmond, ordered the construction of siege fortifications, and brought his heavy siege guns to the front. In the meantime, Johnston brought reinforcements for Magruder. On April 16, Union forces probed a weakness in the Confederate line at Lee's Mill or Dam No. 1. Failure to exploit the initial success of this attack, however, held up McClellan for two additional weeks, while he tried to convince the U.S. Navy to bypass the Confederates' big guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point and ascend the York River to West Point, thus outflanking the Warwick Line. McClellan planned for a massive bombardment to begin at dawn on May 5th, but the Confederate army slipped away during the night of May 3 toward Williamsburg. During McClellan's lengthy delay, caused in part by weather, logistical difficulties, and McClellan's apparent lack of nerve, Johnston had adequate time to redeploy his army in defense of Richmond. Elements of James Longstreet's wing, deployed as the rear guard for the withdrawal, occupied some of Magruder's entrenchments. On May 4th, a minor skirmish occurred between the two armies. Stoneman's Union cavalry also skirmished with JEB Stuart. The National Park Service provides a description of Civil war activities at Yorktown. (See Yorktown, VA page for location and more information.)

Williamsburg (May 5) - The first pitched battle of the campaign included nearly 41,000 Union men and 32,000 Confederates. Joseph Hooker's division encountered the Confederate rear guard near Williamsburg. Hooker assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road (from Yorktown), but was repulsed. Longstreet counterattacked and threatened to overwhelm the Union left flank, until Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny's brigade arrived to stabilize the Federal position. Brig. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's brigade then moved to threaten the Confederate left flank, occupying two abandoned redoubts. The Confederates counterattacked unsuccessfully. Hancock's localized success was not exploited. The Confederate army continued its withdrawal during the night. Although the battle was essentially inconclusive—and a disappointment for the Union because it failed to destroy the much smaller force in front of it—McClellan cabled the War Department, claiming a victory. There are numerous Civil War markers in Williamsburg, but the best site is Redoubt No. 1. (See Williamsburg, VA page for location and more information.)

Drewry's Bluff (May 15) - With Yorktown in Union hands and Virginia scuttled, the James River was now open to Federal gunboats. On May 15th, five gunboats of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, including the ironclads USS Monitor and USS Galena, steamed up the James to test the defenses of Richmond. Upon reaching a bend in the river above Dutch Gap, about 7 river miles from Richmond, the five gunboats encountered submerged obstacles and fire from the batteries of Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff, which inflicted severe damage on the Galena. The Confederate guns, situated 600 feet above the river, were so high that the naval guns could not be elevated enough to engage them. The Navy suffered at least 14 dead and 13 wounded and was turned back. Commander John Rodgers of the Galena reported to McClellan that they would be able to land the Union troops within 10 miles of the Confederate capital, but McClellan never took advantage of that ability during the campaign.

Denied his coveted approach to Richmond via the James River, McClellan established a supply base on the Pamunkey River (a navigable tributary of the York River) at White House Landing where the Richmond and York River Railroad extending to Richmond crossed the river. He commandeered the railroad, transporting steam locomotives and rolling stock to the site by barge.

Over the next three weeks. the Union army moved cautiously toward Richmond. The army had 105,000 men in position northeast of the city, outnumbering Johnston's 60,000, but faulty intelligence from the detective Allan Pinkerton on McClellan's staff caused the general to believe that he was outnumbered two to one. Numerous skirmishes between the lines of the armies occurred from May 23 to May 26. Tensions were high in the city, particularly following the earlier sounds of the naval gun battle at Drewry's Bluff.

Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) (May 31 – June 1) - On May 31, Johnston attempted to capitalize on the Union Army's straddle of the rain-swollen Chickahominy River by attacking the two corps (Heintzelman's III Corps and Keyes's IV Corps) south of the river, leaving them isolated from the other three corps north of the river. The Confederate attack plan was complex and not well coordinated, resulting in misdirected movements and delayed attacks, but it succeeded in driving back the IV Corps and inflicting heavy casualties. Both sides fed more troops into the action, although the Confederates never achieved the concentrated mass necessary to prevail; of the thirteen brigades on their right flank, no more than four were engaged at once. Supported by the III Corps and John Sedgwick's division of Edwin V. Sumner's II Corps (which crossed the river on Sumner's initiative), the Federal position was finally stabilized before the IV Corps could be routed. Gen. Johnston was seriously wounded during the action, and permanent command of the Army of Northern Virginia was assumed by Gen. Robert E. Lee.  On June 1st, the Confederates renewed their assaults against the Federals who had brought up more reinforcements, but they made little headway. Both sides claimed victory with roughly equal casualties, but neither accomplished much in the battle. George B. McClellan's advance on Richmond was halted, and Johnston's army fell back into the Richmond defensive works.

This battlefield has lost its integrity.

The last part of the Peninsula Campaign is referred to as the Seven Days Battles. The Seven Days Battles were a series of six major engagements near Richmond over the seven days from June 25 to July 1, 1862. In these battles General Robert E. Lee drove  McClellan's invading Army of the Potomac away from Richmond and into a retreat down the Virginia Peninsula.

The Seven Days Battles began with a Union attack in the minor Battle of Oak Grove on June 25th. However, McClellan quickly lost the initiative as Lee began a series of attacks at Beaver Dam Creek on June 26th, Gaines' Mill on June 27th, Garnett's and Golding's Farm on June 27th and June 28th, and Savage's Station on June 29th. The Army of the Potomac continued its retreat toward the safety of Harrison's Landing on the James River. Lee's final opportunity to intercept the Union Army was at the Glendale on June 30th, but poorly executed orders allowed his enemy to escape to a strong defensive position on Malvern Hill. At the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1st, Lee launched futile frontal assaults and suffered heavy casualties in the face of strong infantry and artillery defenses.

The Seven Days ended with McClellan's army in relative safety next to the James River, having suffered almost 16,000 casualties during the retreat.  Lee's army, which had been on the offensive during the Seven Days, lost over 20,000. When Lee was convinced that McClellan would not resume his threat against Richmond, he moved north for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Maryland Campaign.

The following are the major Seven Days Battles:

Beaver Dam Creek (June 26) Beaver Dam Creek, or Mechanicsville, was the first major battle of the Seven Days. Jackson moved slowly without contact, and by 3 p.m. A. P. Hill grew impatient and began his attack without orders. Two hours of heavy fighting between Hill and McCall's division resulted. Porter reinforced McCall with the brigades of Brig. Gens. John H. Martindale and Charles Griffin, and he extended and strengthened his right flank. He fell back and concentrated along Beaver Dam Creek and Ellerson's Mill. Jackson and his command arrived late in the afternoon but, unable to find A.P. Hill or D.H. Hill, did nothing. Although a major battle was raging within earshot, he ordered his troops to bivouac for the evening. A.P. Hill, with Longstreet and D.H. Hill behind him, continued his attack, despite orders from Lee to hold his ground. His assault was beaten back with heavy casualties. Despite being a Union tactical victory, it was the start of a strategic debacle. McClellan, believing that the diversions by Huger and Magruder south of the river meant that he was seriously outnumbered, withdrew to the southeast and never regained the initiative. There is a nice site at Beaver Dam Creek  (Mechanicsville) with descriptions of the fighting.  (See Beaver Dam Creek, VA page for location and more information.)

Gaines' Mill (June 27) - Lee continued his offensive by launching the largest Confederate attack of the war.  The Union forces were concentrated into a semicircle with Porter collapsing his line into an east-west salient north of the river and the corps south of the river remaining in their original positions. McClellan ordered Porter to hold Gaines' Mill at all costs so that the army could change its base of supply to the James River. Several of his subordinates urged him to attack Magruder, but he still feared the vast numbers of Confederates he believed to be before him. A.P. Hill resumed his attack across Beaver Dam Creek early in the morning but found the line lightly defended. By early afternoon, he ran into strong opposition by Porter, deployed along Boatswain's Creek, and the swampy terrain was a major obstacle against the attack. As Longstreet arrived to the south of A.P. Hill, he saw the difficulty of attacking over such terrain and delayed until Jackson could attack on Hill's left. Once again, however, Jackson was late. D.H. Hill attacked the Federal right and was held off by Sykes; he backed off to await Jackson's arrival. Longstreet was ordered to conduct a diversionary attack to stabilize the lines until Jackson could arrive and attack from the north. In that attack, Pickett's brigade was beaten back under severe fire with heavy losses. Jackson finally arrived at 3 p.m. and was completely disoriented following a day of pointless marching and countermarching. Porter's line was saved by Slocum's division moving into position. Shortly after dark, the Confederates mounted another attack, poorly coordinated, but this time collapsing the Federal line. Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade opened a gap in the line, as did Pickett's Brigade on its second attempt of the day. Once again, Magruder was able to continue fooling McClellan south of the river and occupying 60,000 Federal troops while the heavier action occurred north of the river. By 4 a.m. on June 28, Porter withdrew across the Chickahominy, burning the bridges behind him. That night, McClellan ordered his entire army to withdraw to a secure base at Harrison's Landing on the James. His actions have puzzled military historians ever since. He was actually in a strong position, having withstood strong Confederate attacks, while having deployed only one of his five corps in battle. Porter had performed well against heavy odds. Furthermore, McClellan was aware that the War Department had created a new Army of Virginia and ordered it to be sent to the Peninsula to reinforce him. But Lee had unnerved him, and he surrendered the initiative. He sent a telegram to the Secretary of War that included the statement: "If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army." (The military telegraph department chose to omit this sentence from the copy given to the Secretary.) McClellan ordered Keyes's IV Corps to move west of Glendale and protect the army's withdrawal, and Porter was to move to the high ground at Malvern Hill to develop defensive positions. The supply trains were ordered to move south toward the river. McClellan departed for Harrison's Landing without specifying any exact routes of withdrawal and without designating a second-in-command. For the remainder of the Seven Days, he had no direct command of the battles.

The Gaines Mill Battlefield has a nice walking tour showing both Confederate and Union positions. (See Gaines' Mill, VA page for location and more information.)

Glendale (June 30) - Lee ordered his army to converge on the bottlenecked Union forces between the White Oak Swamp and the crossroads at Frayser's Farm. Unfortunately, Lee's plan was poorly executed. Huger was slowed by obstructions along the Charles City Road and failed to participate in the battle. Magruder marched around indecisively and eventually joined Holmes in an unsuccessful maneuver against Porter at Malvern Hill. Jackson again moved slowly and spent the entire day north of the creek, making only feeble efforts to cross and attack Franklin (the Battle of White Oak Swamp). Lee, Longstreet, and visiting Confederate President Jefferson Davis were observing the action on horseback when they came under heavy artillery fire, and the party withdrew with two men wounded and three horses killed. Because of the setbacks, only A.P. Hill and Longstreet were able to attack in the battle. Longstreet performed poorly, sending in brigades in a piecemeal fashion, rather than striking with concentrated force in the manner for which he was known later in the war. They struck George McCall's division and forced it back, but the penetration was soon sealed off by Union reinforcements.

Malvern Hill (July 1) - The final battle of the Seven Days was the first in which the Union Army occupied favorable ground. Malvern Hill offered good observation and artillery positions. The open fields to the north could be swept by fire from the 250 guns placed by Col. Henry J. Hunt, McClellan's chief of artillery. Rather than flanking the position, Lee attacked it directly, hoping that his artillery would clear the way for a successful infantry assault. The Union artillery was superior in position and expertise, and their counterbattery fire disabled numerous Confederate guns. Lee canceled his attack, but late in the afternoon he observed Union troop movements and, assuming that they were part of a withdrawal, ordered another attack which was repulsed. Lee's army suffered over 5,000 casualties (versus 3,200 Union) in this wasted effort and withdrew to Richmond, while the Union Army completed its retreat to Harrison's Landing. The Malvern Hill Battlefield has a walking tour with description of Confederate and Union actions. (See Malvern Hill, VA page for location and more information.)

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Revised 03/08/2013