One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 9, Number 2
February 2001

The popularity and proliferation of books on the great American conflict show no signs of fatigue. Like many people, I also seem to have an insatiable appetite for yet another interpretation of a battle or personality, and as long as my credit card stays within its limits, I’ll probably be right in there with the rest buying more books.

I am often asked: “What else is there to write about?” The answer, of course, is “a lot!” Even after all these years, new material keeps surfacing, and new interpretations of information are the lifeblood of history and a vital component of human learning.

The Holiday Season gave me a chance to read several new books: The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula & The Seven Days is one. This seventh volume in Gary Gallagher’s Military Campaigns of the Civil War series consists of nine essays that focus on discrete parts of the somewhat historically neglected clash between Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan in front of Richmond during the last week of June 1862.

William J. Miller, one of our favorite Roundtable speakers, writes a chapter on McClellan and his problems during the campaign. With elegant and polished prose, Bill sums up the “little Napoleon’s” campaign: The world turned thirty-five times while George McClellan stood on the banks of the Chickahominy. The rains came and went, the sun and the stars smiled in turn from the Virginia sky, the swamp grass grew long, the honeysuckle bloomed, boys became men, men fell and died, and spring turned to summer. On the thirty-six day, Robert E. Lee attacked. McClellan withdrew his army from the Chickahominy, not the author of victory, but the victim of circumstances.

Bob Krick follows with an essay on the eternal problem of “what happened to Stonewall Jackson in the Seven Days?” Krick concludes, with what I think is compelling logic, that “Old Jack,” even though a young man of 38 at the time, simply collapsed from physical exhaustion as the results of days without sleep. Without the Jackson of the Valley, Lee’s grand strategy to destroy McClellan’s army in this pivotal battle failed. Krick also attributes much of Jackson’s problems, and indeed a major problem for all of Lee’s new army, to the absence of proper staff work.

I devour everything Bob writes, and his endnotes are always a source of a barbed comment or two. For example, in perhaps a veiled reference to Bud Robertson’s contention that Jackson’s supposed infatuation with lemons was a myth, Bob pointedly says; For some unaccountable reason, it has become popular to debunk Jackson’s fondness for lemons. In this instance, multiple witnesses recorded the general’s indulgence. Zap!

Other essays in the book deal with General John B. Magruder, sometimes better known as “Prince John,” the artillery at Malvern Hill, an assessment of the fighting’s impact on black and white civilians, and R. E. L. Krick’s review of the decisive charge of Whiting’s Division at Gaines’s Mill on June 27. According to Krick, Gaines’s mill was the “first real victory in the Confederate career of R. E. Lee.” Not only that, the heroic charge of the Georgia and Texas regiments that day across Boatswain’s Creek was “the birth of the Army of Northern Virginia as a great fighting organization.” The legendary bond between Lee and his army was born that afternoon.

Finally, the political significance of the campaign is discussed in a thoughtful chapter by William A. Blair. He makes the point that the Seven Days battles cemented the image of Confederates as a united, determined enemy who would not come back into the Union unless beaten. The chances of reconciliation and reunion were nil, and Northerners were convinced that a harder of brand of war would now have to be waged. There appeared to be no hope for a diplomatic settlement. Viewed from this perspective, in winning the battles, Lee had lost the war.

On the other side of the coin, some perceptive historians have suggested that Had Lee won a decisive victory and destroyed McClellan’s 100,000 man army, the North’s enthusiasm for conflict would have been sorely tested, and a negotiated peace might have come about. E. P. Alexander makes that cogent point in his classic Fighting for the Confederacy. Alexander speculates that June 30th ’62 represented the best chance that the Confederacy had to achieve a decisive military success which would then have led to a negotiated peace.

Another series of books about the same battles are the 3 volumes The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 published in 1995, and edited by William J. Miller. For a more comprehensive book, Gallagher suggests that the best narrative treatment of the campaign is in Stephen Sear’s To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign.

Lastly, another promising new book that I acquired over the Holidays is Eye of the Storm. It is a newly discovered collection of drawings, paintings, and a diary-memoir authored by a Union private named Robert Knox Sneden. Not discovered until 1994, this priceless collection was purchased recently by the Virginia Historical Society, and has been published in book form. Many of the paintings and sketches are also on exhibit at the Historical Society in Richmond and well worth the trip to see them.