To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

The best study of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign

150 years ago two armies -one Union, one Confederate- squared off with each other outside the capitol of the Confederate States of America in Richmond, Virginia. This chapter in the saga of the American Civil War was known the Peninsula Campaign because operations took place on the Virginia Peninsula which stretches between Fort Monroe and Richmond bordered by the James River on its southwest side and the York River on its northeastern side; with Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay at its base.

The objective was the capture of Richmond.  However, as Sears vividly narrates, it was a campaign that would fail to achieve that object due in large part to the hyper-cautious approach taken by Major General George B. McClellan, commander the fabled Army of the Potomac.

Ironically enough, when the campaign first began in March of 1862 McClellan faced the equally cautious Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston. Only the bold bluff by Confederate General John B. "Prince John" Magruder at Yorktown, Virginia that he had more men than he did in reality compelled McClellan to lay siege to the line of defenses Magruder had built along the Warwick river from Yorktown to the James. Buying time for Johnston to be prodded by both President Jefferson Davis and his military adviser Robert E. Lee to send reinforcements down to hold McClellan there for as long as possible so nearby Norfolk and its naval base could remain open to support operations of the ironclad Virginia.

McClellan fumbled the ball when Johnston finally slipped away from the Warwick line early in May of 1862, only clashing with hiom in an indecisive rearguard action at Williamsburg. Finally, on May 31st, Johnston attacked "Little Mac" McClellan at the confused and equally indecisive battle of Seven Pines which saw two signal events: Johnston's wounding and the post-battle appointment by Davis of General Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia.

After that, things would change in a hurry for Confederate fortunes. While McClellan began the Seven Days battles with a cautious probe of the Richmond defense at Oak Grove on June 25th, 1862, Lee attacked McClellan again and again starting at Mechanicsville the next day. Lee did not let up until after the battle of Malvern Hill on July 1st. While the Confederates only won one of these fights (the June 27th clash at Gaines Mill), McClellan's nerve was shattered by the attacks launched by what he always assumed were vastly superior forces. With the inevitable result being he retreated, and retreated. He would later boldly claim in an address to his army after he had taken it to Harrison's Landing on the James after giving Lee a sharp repulse at Malvern Hill that it had been merely a "change of base." This fancy literary footwork caused the Southerners no end of merriment when they read it.

Sears narrates the entire sweep of the campaign from conception to failure with a crisp prose that seamlessly weaves into it the words of those who were there, from generals to privates, and private citizens to presidents. In fact, his text is so good it is hard to tell you are reading a history book! Nevertheless, his bibliography is extensive and his footnotes well detailed.

My only complaint is how whenever he describes a certain battlefield like, say, Seven Pines, the maps related to those clashes of arms are not hard on the heels of the description. Making it somewhat hard to follow just who was going where and what the deployments were. I also do not agree with his verdict that James Longstreet was responsible for the Confederate mix-up at Seven Pines; but that is a matter of opinion, and so it is not a flaw in the book.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a must read for Civil War buffs, especially those who want to deepen their understanding of the events that took place on the Virginia Peninsula 150 years ago.