Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce

CHAPTER V
PENINSULA CAMPAIGN

WHILE Lee was engaged in the useful but not very conspicuous task of extending and strengthening the South Atlantic coast defenses, no events of great importance had been taking place in the military theatre of Virginia. As we have seen, the opportunity to strike an effective blow immediately after the Federal rout at Manassas had been lost by an unwarranted exaggeration of the difficulties to be overcome; and a second opportunity had been permitted to pass because Mr. Davis refused to consent to the proposed invasion of Maryland. In the interval between July, 1861, when the battle of Manassas was fought, and March, 1862, when General Lee again became Mr. Davis’s chief military adviser at Richmond, the Confederate armies in the East had taken part in but one small battle; McClellan had been suffered, without the slightest attempt at interfering, to form, equip, and drill a force of 150,000 men at Washington; and with this body of thoroughly organized troops, a second body of 30,000, stationed in western Virginia under Frémont, and a third of the same number, under Banks in the Shenandoah Valley, were, at a single word of command from him, ready to coöperate. Against this formidable host, the Coofederate government could marshal only 60,000 men, armed with muskets and artillery of a far inferior pattern, and in possession of a far smaller proportionate quantity of war materials and ordinary supplies.

McClellan’s original plan was to place himself at the head of 273,000 men, and while the Federal gunboats and transports moved down the coast and disembarked, at the most eligible points, large bodies of troops for the invasion of the interior, he himself was to march southward from Washington, and driving the Confederate forces before him, capture in turn Richmond, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile and New Orleans. It was a grandiose conception worthy of the “Young Napoleon” of the Northern imagination. Who, however, can assert with confidence that it could not have been realized, had McClellan been in a position of supreme military power? The subordinate plan of seizing points along the seacoast was, as already stated, carried out until checked by the newly fortified line raised by General Lee; but the advance of the military avalanche overland, with the intention of not halting until New Orleans was reached, was abandoned even before the Confederate army, in expectation of its approach, retreated southward from Manassas. Mr. Davis, greatly alarmed by the fall of Forts Donelson and Henry in the West, ordered Johnston to retire behind the Rappahannock, as the most certain means of protecting Richmond, whether the enemy should descend by way of Manassas or Fredericksburg. It was a lowering moment for the Confederacy in both the eastern and the western fields of operation; everywhere, the Southern armies were falling back discouraged, and with every mile of retrogression, the hope of foreign intervention declined.

It was in this depressing posture of affairs that General Lee, under the supreme control of the Confederate President, undertook the duty of directing the general movements of all the Confederate forces both in the Western and Eastern Departments; but necessarily his attention was chiefly engaged with the theatre of operations close at hand. It had been at first suggested that he should be appointed Secretary of War, a position for which his talents for organization and administration were thought especially to fit him. But this purpose if ever seriously entertained was soon abandoned.

When Johnston retreated behind the natural bulwark of the Rappahannock, McClellan decided to transfer his army by water to the Peninsula as the first step toward an attack on Richmond from that quarter. This change of plan was superinduced by the fact that it would do away with a long and perhaps exposed line of land communications; and, by allowing the close coöperation of the fleet, assure a safe refuge from pursuit in case of defeat. It also would permit the transportation to a point not very far from Richmond of the heavy ordnance designed for the formal siege of that city. To this new plan, Mr. Lincoln, already apprehensive for Washington’s safety because of “Stonewall” Jackson’s first operations in the Valley, refused his consent unless a large force of troops were left behind in a position to come quickly to the capital’s defense if necessary.

The military situation on May 1st was as follows: McClellan was moving slowly up the Peninsula in the track of the retreating Confederates; McDowell was marching even more slowly southward from Washington, with the intention, if the Federal capital remained unthreatened, of ultimately uniting with McClellan on the Chickahominy in an assault on the entrenchments of Richmond; Banks was encamped in the Valley, and Frémont in western Virginia.

Lee perceived that should these four separate armies, which embraced 200,000 men, be suffered to combine, their strength would be irresistible, and the Confederacy would be destroyed perhaps in a single battle. How were they to be kept apart until the Confederate forces had had a chance of defeating them in detail? It was now that Lee’s great strategical ability came to his assistance. He was perfectly aware that the power moving the Federal armies was centred in the President, and that Mr. Lincoln’s first consideration, like Mr. Davis’s, was to protect the safety of his capital. Nor was this unwise, for at this time, the North was beginning to grow restive under the extraordinary taxation, and England and France, irritated by the cotton famine, and perhaps secretly anxious to break up the Union, were ready to take advantage of Washington’s capture to recognize the Confederacy, and throw open the Southern ports to the importation of gold, munitions, and mercenary troops. Correctly anticipating the extent to which the Federal President would allow his well-grounded fears to govern his actions, Lee determined to inaugurate a vigorous offensive in the Valley at the very time that he concentrated every available man in the lines confronting McClellan on the Chickahominy. With Jackson thundering down the Shenandoah, and threatening to cross the Potomac for a march upon Washington, it was not probable that Mr. Lincoln would permit McDowell, at the head of 40,000 men, to descend below Fredericksburg to join hands with the right flank of McClellan’s army; still less probable was it that Banks and Frémont would be ordered to move eastward to positions where they also would be directly in touch with the Federal forces entrenched on the Chickahominy. In the meanwhile, an opportunity might be presented to Johnston to strike the latter a blow which might at least cause McClellan to raise the siege of Richmond.

Robert E. Lee Philip Alexander Bruce CHAPTER V PENINSULA CAMPAIGN

Robert E. Lee Philip Alexander Bruce CHAPTER V PENINSULA CAMPAIGN
MAP OF GENERAL LEE’S CAMPAIGNS

As early as April 21st, Lee, having informed Jackson of McDowell’s advance Southward, had urged him to march against the enemy immediately confronting him in the Valley, as a means of creating a diversion, and although unable to send him reinforcements for that purpose, had permitted him to retain the troops belonging to Ewell’s and Johnston’s commands. Again on May 16th, Lee wrote: “Whatever movement you make against Banks, do it speedily, and, if successful, drive him back toward the Potomac and create the impression as far as possible that you design to threaten that line.” The battle of Winchester soon following, Banks was pressed in confusion across that stream, and Mr. Lincoln was made too apprehensive for the safety of Washington to permit McDowell to unite with McClellan. Thus with the aid of his energetic lieutenant, Lee, without quitting his desk in Richmond, had relieved that city of the impending presence of 100,000 additional Federal invaders, and had lured McClellan into a position of extraordinary difficulty and danger. All this had been accomplished by the strategical use of the 17,000 Confederate soldiers stationed in the Valley, the first conspicuous illustration in practice of that audacious spirit which Lee was to display throughout the remaining years of the war, and upon which he was to rely, and to rely successfully so long as Jackson lived, as the only means of equalizing the chances in contending with such superiority in numbers. This spirit was confirmed by the sympathy and coöperation of Jackson, a man fully capable of entering into all Lee’s designs, and just as able to carry them out in the field.

The Federal delay at Yorktown had given Lee time to play on Mr. Lincoln’s fears by the active use of the Confederate troops on the Shenandoah. Before the Federal army could reach even Williamsburg, McDowell had been ordered, not only to stop his movement southward, but also to dispatch one half of his force to the assistance of Banks and Frémont in the Valley. As McClellan approached Richmond, he was far from sure that he could rely in the future on being reinforced by even the 20,000 men still left under McDowell’s immediate control. He possessed, however, one great advantage: Johnston’s retreat from the fortified line on the Lower Peninsula having opened the James River as far as Drewry’s Bluff, the Federal commander, as his convenience required, either could adopt that stream as a new base of supply, or retain the York River, the old base. By May 24th, he had succeeded in concentrating 105,000 troops on the Chickahominy. Two corps were posted on the stream’s south bank, and three on the north; of which latter, one, under Fitz-John Porter, had been sent forward to Hanover Court-House to drive off a Confederate brigade entrenched there to oppose McDowell’s expected advance.

The Federal army’s position astride a swampy river, crossed by few bridges, and flowing through a densely wooded region, was a dangerous one, and justified only by McClellan’s hope that Porter, on his extreme right flank, would soon join hands with McDowell’s vanguard. At this season, the first heavy rain would flood the streams and make the roads nearly impassable. The meadows on which the camps were pitched were already sodden with moisture; while the jungles and morasses along the Chickahominy and its tributaries were masses of damp luxuriant vegetation. In a few days, the miasmatic atmosphere and the polluted drinking water were certain to prostrate many thousand Federal soldiers with fever and diarrhœa.

Porter’s success having, for the moment, secured his line of communication with the “White House” on York River, McClellan put off consideration of the question whether it would not be safer to transfer his base to Harrison’s Landing on the James. However, before he could either reinforce or withdraw the two corps posted on the Chickahominy’s south bank, under the command of Keyes and Heintzelman respectively, a copious rain began to fall; and so rapidly did the flood in the stream rise, that all the bridges connecting the separated Federal wings were threatened with destruction. Johnston, perceiving his adversary’s predicament, determined to take advantage of it. On the 31st, he attacked Keyes at Seven Pines, in the hope of crushing him and throwing Heintzelman into a panic before reinforcements could cross the river. The actual assault did not begin until two o’clock in the afternoon because his principal lieutenant, Longstreet, waited for Huger to come up, although aware that every hour lost would further increase the fall in the Chickahominy’s waters, and thus augment the chances of a large addition from the other side to the Federal forces. When once in action, Longstreet and Hill succeeded in driving Keyes back upon Fair Oaks, where Heintzelman was stationed. Taking up a new position about six o’clock, the Federals were able to hold it until darkness ended the battle in that part of the field. In the meanwhile, the Confederate right, led by Johnston in person, had vigorously assaulted the Federal left, but without success, as by this time, Sumner’s corps had crossed the river and joined their hard pressed comrades on the south bank.

Johnston having been severely wounded, General G. W. Smith assumed command of the Confederate troops next day. Longstreet was ordered to attack Sumner, but not approving his superior’s plan of battle, failed to show energy or promptness; indeed, on his own responsibility, he sent forward only three brigades, thus precisely anticipating his action on the third day at Gettysburg, just as he, before Seven Pines, had, by his delay, anticipated his action on the second day of the same great battle. Had he advanced on May 31st without stopping a moment for support, Keyes and Heintzelman could have been struck in detail before reinforcements could have crossed the swollen Chickahominy; and had he, on June 1st, set himself at work in earnest to carry out General Smith’s instructions, Keyes’s ruin could have been completed. As it was, the victory of the first day was, on the second, by his half-hearted conduct, converted into a repulse. The failure at Fair Oaks, like the for more momentous failure at Gettysburg later on, was directly attributable to one man’s obstinate opinionativeness, amounting practically to insubordination and disaffection.

Informed of Johnston’s inability to retain command, Mr. Davis appointed General Lee in his place. The latter arrived on the field the afternoon of the battle of Fair Oaks; and without endeavoring to recover the lost ground, he, that night, drew back the Confederate army to the position which it had occupied on the morning of Seven Pines. The Federals, advancing their outposts nearer the beleaguered city, were soon so close to its confines that its church bells and striking clocks could be easily heard in their camps.

At this moment, the Confederate troops were greatly depressed. The discouragement caused by the apparently needless retreat up the Peninsula had been somewhat lightened by the success won at Seven Pines, but this new elation had been dashed by the upshot of Fair Oaks. Nor was this despondency dispelled by General Lee’s appointment to supreme command. His talent as an engineer and organizer was acknowledged, but his capacity for military operations in the field on a large scale was supposed to have been permanently discredited by the history of his campaign in western Virginia. His principal officers were now in favor of drawing back still nearer the city, but as he regarded this as the first step toward the capital’s abandonment, which, at that moment of general discouragement, would perhaps have been fatal to the Confederacy, he determined to hold his more advanced position. The impression soon spread that there would be no further orders for retreat; that the next step indeed, would be one of firm resistance, if not of bold aggression.

Lee’s first act was to employ the 64,000 troops now under his command in throwing up a strong earthwork along his whole line, extending from Drewry’s Bluff on James River to New Bridge on the Chickahominy, and thence up that stream’s south bank as far as Meadow Bridge. As this long fortification rose, the spirits of the troops grew more cheerful. The General personally supervised the work, and before many days had passed, had won his soldiers’ confidence by his imposing presence, and careful attention to their wants,—a confidence confirmed by the skill and energy which he was so soon to show on the battle-field.

At this time, but one corps of the Federal army was posted on the Chickahominy’s north bank; this was Fitz-John Porter’s, which was retained there to protect the line of communication with the Federal base on the York River, formed by the York River Railroad. From the beginning, Lee had determined not to await an assault in his entrenchments, but instead to take offensive aggressive action, in the hope, not simply of forcing the Federal army to abandon the siege, but also, if possible, of breaking it up in its present complicated position. He saw at a glance that the object of attack promising the greatest success was Porter’s corps, first, because it was separated from its companions by the Chickahominy; and secondly, because its defeat would signify the rupture of the Federal line of communication, a result that would force the Fedeal army to retreat under hazardous circumstances.

Before startup upon this bold movement, Lee took two important steps: he hurried up heavy reinforcements from Georgia and the Carolinas, and he dispatched Stuart on a raid to discover Porter’s exact defenses on his right flank. Stuart, after a romantic circuit of McClellan’s entire army, reported that this flank had not been fortified, and that it was unprotected by any natural bulwark, such as stream or swamp. In order to divert the Federal commander’s suspicions, Lee had already sent two brigades in the most public manner, ostensibly to reinforce Jackson in the Valley, but really to convey instructions to him to march to Ashland with the main body of his troops as rapidly and as secretly as possible. From that point, he was to sweep down into the region between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Rivers, and while Lee, concentrating on the north bank of the latter stream, should attack Porter’s front, Jackson was to assault his unprotected right flank.

It was of prime importance that Jackson should advance so fast that McDowell would not have time to recall the troops dispatched to the Valley, and then, with his army reunited, reinforce Porter. Pressing on ahead alone, Jackson arrived at Lee’s headquarters on June 23d, and at a conference of generals, all the details of the projected attack were arranged. The plan adopted was not to be carried out until the 26th, by which day it was expected that Jackson would be able to strike Porter’s right flank and break his line of communication with the White House. In the meanwhile, A. P. Hill was to take a position opposite the Meadow Bridge; and D. H. Hill and Longstreet were to post themselves opposite the Mechanicsville Bridge, one and a half miles below. Magruder, with 28,000 men, was to continue to hold the entrenchments in front of McClellan’s main line on the south bank. The active movement on the 26th was to begin with the advance of Jackson’s troops, which would clear the Meadow Bridge of its Federal defenders; A. P. Hill would then cross, and marching down stream en enchelon to Jackson, would in his turn clear the Mechanicsville Bridge; D. H. Hill and Longstreet would follow, the former to support Jackson, the latter, A. P. Hill.

It was anticipated that these combined forces would drive Fitz-John Porter from in front of New Bridge, and thus bring the Confederates once more in immediate touch with their comrades behind the adjacent entrenchments on the south bank, now demonstrating with great zeal in order to discourage McClellan from sending reinforcements to his lieutenant on the north bank. The restoration of the connection with Magruder would remove the only dangerous feature of the movement; namely, the weakening of the earthworks opposite Richmond. If McClellan intended to take advantage of the withdrawal of the great body of the Confederate troops to break through these earthworks with an overwhelming force, he must do so before the Confederate detachments had assaulted Porter; for if they succeeded in crashing that officer, their line would be a mere extension of the line south of the Chickahominy.

Lee’s ultimate object was, by the destruction of Porter’s corps, and the severance of the Federal army from its base of supply, to force McClellan to retreat down the Peninsula to Fortress Monroe, a difficult country to traverse, and one from which, if vigorously pursued, he might be unable to extricate his troops. The whole plan was attended with great risks. If McClellan threw his main force on Magruder and drove him out of his entrenchments, Porter’s defeat would be no compensation to the Confederates, for the Federal army would be very much nearer to Richmond, and James River would serve as a base of supply even more convenient than the York. But Lee was compelled to run this hazard. A frontal attack was not to be thought of; nor would supineness improve his situation. He felt himself fully justified, by his personal knowledge of McClellan’s character, in taking so risky a step. He was perfectly aware that, while his antagonist was bold in conception, he was slow in execution, and disposed to exaggerate an opponent’s strength; and that if the attack on Porter was sudden and well sustained, the Federal commander’s overcautious nature woold prove deaf to aggressive counsels. Lee’s judgment of his adversary was soon shown to be correct.

Jackson, when he withdrew from the conference on the 23d, rode back in haste to rejoin his troops, but owing to obstructions in the way, and constant brushes with the enemy, was unable to advance quickly enough to perform the part assigned to him for the 26th. The night of that day, he bivouacked without having attacked Porter’s right flank, or brought himself in touch with A. P. Hill, although that officer was operating only a few miles away. As the pre-arranged plan required, Hill had taken position opposite Meadow Bridge. With great impatience, he awaited, on the 26th, the sound of Jackson’s guns, which was to be the signal for his own advance. So such sound came; and finally at three o’clock in the afternoon, fearing lest the whole scheme should miscarry, he boldly, and perhaps rashly, assumed the responsibility of moving forward without any assurance of Jackson’s assistance. To bring these officers in touch, General Branch had been ordered to post his troops at a point equally distant from each of the two places where their respective attacks were to begin, and as soon as Jackson arrived on the ground, to inform Hill. But this, Branch, though he knew of Jackson’s approach, failed to do; and instead moved toward the enemy entrenched on Beaver Dam Creek. Having forced his way across Meadow Bridge, Hill advanced rapidly toward the same spot; and although still unsupported by Jackson, and lacking in artillery, endeavored to storm that strongly fortified position, an act that ended in a costly repulse.

During the night, Porter fell back to Gaines’ Mill. Here he received additional troops from McClellan, which brought his total force to 36,000 men; and moreover, he was now in touch with the main army by means of two protected bridges across the Chickahominy. The new position taken up by the corps was one of great natural strength; it consisted of a plateau sinking down by a very abrupt slope to a sluggish ditch-like stream at its base, beyond which opened out a valley, from five hundred to one thousand yards in width, and timbered here and there. The slope was occupied by three lines of infantry, with numerous batteries behind them; while the crest of the plateau was crowned with heavy artillery. To capture this formidable position, the Confederates would have to charge across the valley, leap over, wade, or bridge the swampy stream, and then carry the slope at the point of the bayonet. The whole movement would be exposed to a heavy fire.

Lee, unaware that McClellan had already determined to change his base to James River, expected that Porter, assaulted on the right flank by Jackson, would be compelled to weaken his centre and left in order to protect the Federal line of communication with the White House. As this would diminish his power of resistance on the plateau, Lee decided to attack that position in spite of the formidable character of its defenses. A. P. Hill led the assault, and as he was soon checked, Longstreet came forward to his support. In the meanwhile, Jackson, who had been joined by D. H. Hill, thinking that the enemy, hard pressed in front, would be led to retreat into his jaws, in the effort to preserve their White House communications, remained quietly in his first position; but the sound of the cannonade from the direction of Gaines’ Mill becoming heavy and continuous, he began to suspect that the plan of attack had been changed. No sooner was this conclusion reached, than be advanced at quick step with his whole force, and rushing with characteristic ardor into the battle, turned the swaying tide in favor of the Confederates. The slope and plateau were carried, and Porter was saved from complete destruction only by the confusion into which the pursuit threw the Confederate army; by the approaching fall of darkness, which made it impossible to follow the retreating Federals into a heavy wood where they had taken refuge; and finally, by the arrival of two fresh Federal brigades, which, forming a line of steel, enabled the fugitives to cross the river in safety.

Lee had succeeded in nearly disrupting one Federal corps, and in striking that blow had weakened the morale of the entire Federal army. At the moment too, he supposed that the interruption of the White House communications was of far more sinister consequence to McClellan than it really was. He, however, was fully aware that Gaines’ Mill was only the beginning of operations. Should the enemy be permitted to get away in safety, either to James River or to Fortres Monroe, they would soon be reinforced, and perhaps return in greater strength.

So for Lee had conducted the campaign with much energy and ability. From this time to its close at Harrison’s Landing, a series of mistakes occurred, for which he can only in part be held responsible. In the first place, he did not show great discernment in weighing the probabilities as to what line of retreat McClellan would take. He thought that the chances were better that the enemy would retire to the distant Fortress Monroe rather than to the James River, barely fourteen miles away; and he even imagined that McClellan might seek to maintain his hold upon the old base at the White House. While the Federal commander was actually engaged in burning the bridges across the Chickahominy and clearing the road to Harrison’s Landing, with a view to immediate retirement, Lee was keeping his troops stationary on the river’s north bank as more convenient for the enemy’s interception in their expected march to Fortress Monroe. He even sent Stuart and Ewell to watch the lower bridges to prevent the Federals from retreating toward York River. Stuart was now tempted to make an ill-considered dash upon the White House for the destruction of the supplies there,—not the last time that he was to disconcert his commander’s plans by an unseasonable love of adventure. Instead of advancing with a rush to break the line of Federal withdrawal to the James, he failed to join the main body of the Confederate army until after the battle of Malvern Hill, thus anticipating the fatal error committed by him in the campaign of Gettysburg.

General Lee did not overlook the possibility that McClellan might withdraw to the James. He perhaps relied with too great confidence on Magruder to inform him of the enemy’s first movement. Late on the afternoon of the 28th, the Federal entrenchments were reported to be fully manned, while the roads leading across the Chickahominy were still protected by Federal batteries. It was not until the morning of the 29th that the Confederates started in pursuit, and by that time McClellan had gained an advance of one day and two nights. Lee, however, was still hopeful of striking the Federal army a heavy, if not a fatal, blow before it could find a refuge behind its gunboats in the James River.

The plan which he now adopted was full of promise, and had there been perfect concert of action would have proved successful. The route followed by McClellan in seeking his new base was broken by only one obstruction, namely, White Oak Swamp, but a serious one, because it was intersected by a single highway. Lee ordered Magruder to march down the Williamsburg Road and assault the retreating Federals in the rear; while Jackson and D. H. Hill, having passed over the Chickahominy by the Grapevine Bridge, were to support the attack. Longstreet and A. P. Hill were to cross higher up by New Bridge, and then to move down the Darbytown Road until they should come upon the right flank of the Federal army at some point between White Oak Swamp and James River. Struck on one side of the swamp by Magruder, Jackson, and D. H. Hill, and on the other by Longstreet, A. P. Hill and Huger, Lee was justified in expecting that the enemy, broken into fragments by the two impacts, would lose all power of further combined resistance.

Success could be secured only by the closest coöperation, and this turned out to be impossible. First, Jackson and D. H. Hill lost a day in reconstructing Grapevine Bridge, and in consequence left Magruder to attack the Federal rear alone, a fact that resulted in his repulse at Savage’s Station. The enemy’s rear was thus able to make the dangerous passage of White Oak Swamp unmolested, and as soon as it had crossed and destroyed the bridge, McClellan posted there two divisions under Franklin to stop the Confederate pursuit from that direction. In the meanwhile, the 4th and 5th Federal corps had halted on Malvern Hill in sight of James River, while five divisions, under Sumner and Heintzelman, were stationed between Malvern Hill and White Oak Swamp in order to protect the trains from an assault by Longstreet and A. P. Hill, advancing down the Darbytown and Charles City Roads.

When Jackson arrived at White Oak Swamp, he found it impossible to rebuild the bridge in the face of a hot fire from Franklin’s batteries. Instead of marching around the south end of the swamp and joining A. P. Hill and Longstreet in attacking the Federal flank, he, contrary to the ordinary impulses of his energetic character, deemed it wisest to carry out Lee’s first orders by remaining quietly in the enemy’s rear; and he was the more disposed to do this, as Lee was now so near at hand that, had he desired, he could easily have instructed his lieutenant to move around to Hill’s and Longstreet’s assistance. No such orders came, and Jackson’s whole force was thus rendered useless at the moment when those two officers were, in succession, assaulting the Federal lines at Frazier’s Farm. Huger was also unable to come up owing to the obstructions in his way. Magruder, marching and countermarching between Holmes on the extreme right, and Longstreet in the centre, gave support to neither. Holmes himself had been driven off by the fire of the Federal gunboats, anchored in the James River, and the Federal corps entrenched on Malvern Hill. Instead of Jackson, D. H. Hill, Longstreet, Huger, Holmes, A. P. Hill and Magruder, simultaneously in rear, centre, flank, and front, launching, as Lee intended, a combined force of 75,000 men against McClellan’s retreating army, A. P. Hill and Longstreet alone assaulted that army with only 20,000 troops. Nor were even these led as one body into battle; the number attacking together did not exceed 10, 000. The Confederates were unable to plant themselves athwart the Quaker Road, the Federal line of retreat, and with this failure, Lee’s chance of breaking up the Federal army was lost, and at the same time the most promising opportunity presented to the South during the whole war, with the exception of the early morning of the second day at Gettysburg, of winning its independence by a single stroke.

By the dawn of the next day, July 1st, the Federals were concentrated on the slopes and crest of Malvern Hill, a position of greater natural strength than the plateau of Gaines’ Mill. It was defended by 250 pieces of artillery, among which were the siege train’s heavy guns; and in addition, the Federal flanks were protected by the cross fire of the gunboats in James River. As the approaches to the Hill were obstructed by swampy and densely wooded ground, the Confederates could not expect their artillery to be of much service, should an assault be made. Lee hesitated to order an advance. The only hope of success by a fronted attack lay in the use of the whole army supported by all the cannon. Jackson urged a flank movement even after the order for an assault in front had been sent out. Lee adopted the suggestion; but by an error of the staff, the order for the frontal assault was not rescinded; and before they could be halted, 10,500 men advanced unsupported to attack the entire Federal army. The onset of battle, according to a Federal officer present, was made with the precision of a review, but against a position rendered by nature and art so strong, and defended by a force so overwhelming, that the Confederates’ courage and resolution proved unavailing. They were finally driven back with a loss of 5,000 of their number. But the Federals were too exhausted to make a counterstroke, and after nightfall, withdrew to Harrison’s Landing.

Shrinking from an immediate advance through the deep mud of the rain-swept roads, the overworn Confederates did not attempt at once to pursue the retiring foe. Had they promptly seized Erlington Heights, situated in the rear ot the Federal camp at Harrison’s Landing, and at first unfortified, they would have had McClellan in a dangerous corner, for their artillery could have fired directly down upon his position, while the Federal cannon would have been compelled to shoot upward with a necessarily less accurate aim. Stuart, pushing ahead of the Confederate main body, ascended the Heights, and having planted one howitzer, and thinking that reinforcements would soon arrive, rashly opened fire with this single piece of ordnance; but he was soon driven off by a Federal detachment, and the position rendered impregnable against attack. Lee, deeming it unwise to assault the Heights, withdrew his troops to Richmond. Thus ended the Peninsula Campaign.

If we consider the Valley and Peninsula Campaigns together, it will be clearly perceived that the general result was highly favorable to the Confederate cause, although Lee had signally failed to accomplish all that he had hoped, not so much in consequence of McClellan’s great skill in directing his retreating columns, as of his own inability to control the movements of his own forces. The large armies which the Federal government had summoned to the field had been struck, as Lee had originally designed, in detail: Banks, Frémont and Shields had been defeated; McDowell had been prevented from coming to McClellan’s assistance; McClellan himself had, after the partial destruction of one corps, been compelled to retire from a point in sight of Richmond’s steeples to the protection of his gunboats many miles away, no longer the confident invader, but the anxious pursued, sacrificing in his withdraval fifty-two pieces of artillery, thirty-five thousand rifles, and a vast quanitity of ammunition and stores of all kinds. By these various captures, the Confederate army had added enormonsly to its effective equipment for battle. Hardly less useful, from a military point of view, was the establishment of Lee’s reputation as a capable strategist, and a resolute and even audacious leader in the field.

The Confederate operations in this campaign, however, are open to severe criticism from several points of view. The strategy was undoubtedly superior to the execution. The combinations were correct and far-seeing, but the manner in which they were carried out was halting and disjointed. There had been only one distinct success,—the victory of Gaines’ Mill, which was but the natural result of pitting over 50,000 men against 36,000. Lee showed defective reasoning upon probabilities when he allowed himself to think that his antagonist would retreat to Fortress Monroe. Why should that commander do this when James River, patroled by the Federal fleet, was but fourteen miles away to serve as a new base? Retreat to Fortress Monroe not only would have been more dangerous, because more prolonged, but also a confession of absolute failure on McClellan’s part, which the condition of his army with 75,000 fresh men did not justify Lee in imagining his opponent would make. At Harrison’s Landing, that army would still be practically in sight of Richmond, and McClellan might not incorrectly assert that his withdrawal from the Chickahominy was merely “a strategic change of base.” The expectation that, in retreating to the James, instead of to Fortress Monroe, he could advance such a claim, no doubt largely influenced a man of his self-esteem in taking that step; and knowledge of this side of his character in itself should have served more than it did to guide his opponent in divining his next movement.

Had Lee, as he should have done, deemed it more probable from this, as well as from every other point of view, that McClellan would withdraw to James River rather than to Fortress Monroe, he would have earlier devised means for the rupture of the Federal right flank at Frazier’s Farm; and might perhaps have blocked altogether the line of retreat to James River, thus forcing McClellan to recross the Chickahominy, with Jackson, D. H. Hill, and Stuart in front, and Magruder, Huger, A. P. Hill, Longstreet, and Holmes behind. Had McClellan begun his retreat to Harrison’s Landing one day sooner, as he might have done, he would doubtless have reached that point without finding the necessity to fight a single,—certainly not more than one,— rear-guard action; and this at Malvern Hill, a position of extraordinary strength, as shown by the battle which took place there.

But even the error of supposing that McClellan would retreat to Fortress Monroe rather than to Harrison’s Landing would not, from the Confederate point of view, have affected the campaign’s issue so seriously had Lee’s carefally weighed plan for a concerted pursuit of the enemy, when their line of withdrawal was known, been carried out. For this he cannot be held strictly accountable beyond his failure to summon Jackson to Frazier’s Farm, barely four miles away, when it was seen that that officer could not make the direct passage of White Oak Swamp in the teeth of Franklin’s batteries. The lack of combination on that day over the whole field of operations was due primarily to the Confederate army’s imperfect staff service. The region in which the several detachments were marching was overgrown with dense woods and penetrated by few roads. It would have been difficult for the coöperating columns to converge with perfect accuracy as to hour and place even if the staff had possessed good maps, or been led by reliable guides; but as both were lacking, divergence and confusion resulted, increased by the staff’s own practical inexperience at this time, when so many of the Confederate officers trained in military schools for this branch of service had been drawn away for the performance of regimental duty.

That the Federal army finally escaped with the loss of 16,000 men was not entirely due to the erroneous or defective tactics of its opponent. Throughout the campaign, the Federal troops had fought with extraordinary courage and tenacity. They showed just as much bravery and staunchness at Malvern Hill as at Gaines’ Mill. The root and demoralization of Bull Run were conditions of the past, a fact that might well have dashed the satisfaction which the Confederates derived from the general results of their operations.

 

Return to Robert E. Lee