Today’s installment concludes McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign,
our selection from History of the War of Secession by Rossiter Johnson published in 1895. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of six thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Place: Eastern Virginia
Darkness put an end to the ﬁghting, and that night McClellan’s army continued its retreat to Malvern Hill, where his advance-guard had taken up the strongest position he had yet occupied. The battle just described has several names — Glendale, Frayser’s Farm, Charles City Cross Roads, Newmarket, Nelson’s Farm. McClellan here lost ten guns. The losses in men can not be known exactly, as the reports group the losses of several days together. Longstreet and the two Hills reported a loss of twelve thousand four hundred ﬁfty-eight in the ﬁghting from the 27th to the 30th.
The last stand made by McClellan for delivering battle was at Malvern Hill. This is a plateau near Turkey Bend of James River, having an elevation of sixty feet, and an extent of about a mile and a half in one direction and a mile in the other. It is so bordered by streams and swamps as to leave no practicable approach except by the narrow northwestern face. Here McClellan had his entire army in position when his pursuers came up. It was disposed in the form of a semicircle, with the right wing “refused” (swung back) and prolonged to Haxall’s Landing, on the James. His position was peculiarly favorable for the use of artillery, and his whole front bristled with it. There were no intrenchments to speak of, but the natural inequalities of the ground afforded considerable shelter for the men and the guns. It was as complete a trap as could be set for an army, and Lee walked straight into it. Under ordinary circumstances both commander and men would properly hesitate to attack an enemy so posted. But to the conﬁdence with which the Southerners began the war was now added the peculiar elation produced by a week’s pursuit of a retreating arrny; and apparently it did not occur to them that they were all mortal.
In the ﬁrst contact seven thousand Confederates, with six guns, struck the left of the position. They boldly advanced their artillery within eight hundred yards of the cliff; but before they could get at work a ﬁre of twenty or thirty guns was concentrated upon their battery, which knocked it to pieces in a few minutes; and at the same time some huge shells from a gunboat fell among a small detachment of cavalry, threw it into confusion, and turned it back upon the infantry, breaking up the attack.
Lee was not ready to attack with his whole army till the afternoon of July 1st. An artillery duel was kept up during the forenoon; but the Confederate commander did not succeed in destroying the National batteries as he hoped to do; on the contrary, he saw his own disabled, one after another. The signal for the infantry attack was to be the usual yell, raised by Armistead’s division on the right and taken up by the successive divisions along the line. But the Confederate line was separated by thick woods, there was long waiting for the signal, some of the generals thought they heard it, and some advanced without hearing it. The consequence was a series of separate attacks, some of them repeated three or four times, and every time a concentrated ﬁre on the attacking column and a bloody repulse. The men themselves began to see the hopelessness of it, while their officers were still urging them to renewed efforts.
“Come on, come on, my men,” said one Confederate colonel, with the grim humor of a soldier; “ do you want to live forever P ” There were some brief counter-charges, in one of which the colors were taken from a North Carolina regiment; but in general the National troops only maintained their ground, and though ﬁghting was kept up till nine o’clock in the evening, the line — as General Webb, then assistant chief of artillery, tells us — was never broken or the guns in danger. This battle cost Lee ﬁve thousand men, and at its close he gave up the pursuit. The National loss was less than one-third as great. That night McClellan withdrew his army to Harrison’s Landing, on the James, where he had ﬁxed his base of supplies and where the gunboats could protect his position. This retreat is known as the Seven Days, and the losses are ﬁgured up at ﬁfteen thousand two hundred forty-nine on the National side, and somewhat more than nineteen thousand on the Confederate.
From this time there was an angry controversy as to the tary abilities of General McClellan and the responsibility for the failure of the campaign, and partisanship was never more violent than over this question. The General had won the highest personal regard of his soldiers, and they were mostly unwilling or unable to look at the matter in the cold light of the criticism that simply asks, What was required ? and, What was accomplished ? The truth appears to be that General McClellan, like most men, possessed some virtues and lacked others. He organized a great army, and to the end of its days it felt the beneﬁt of the discipline with which he endowed it. But with that army in hand he did not secure the purpose of its creation. He was an accomplished engineer and a gigantic adjutant, but hardly the general to be sent against an army that could move and a commander that could think.
There can be no doubt that the Administration was over anxious about the movements in the Shenandoah, and should have sent McDowell’s corps to McClellan at once; but neither can there be much doubt that if Little Mac, the Young Napoleon, as he was fondly called, had been a general of the highest order, he would have destroyed Lee’s army and captured the Confederate capital with the ample forces that he had.
This ends our series of passages on McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign by Rossiter Johnson from his book History of the War of Secession published in 1895. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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