In the early spring of 1862, the Army of the Potomac invaded Virginia in the hopes of capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond and ending the war. Led by the lauded Gen. George McClellan, the Union forces landed in March—and the Confederates led by Joseph E. Johnston slowly but surely retreated toward Richmond. Defeat seemed inevitable.
But when Johnston was wounded and taken out of action, an intelligent but little-considered officer named Robert E. Lee replaced him—and nothing would ever be the same.
Taking advantage of McClellan’s slow reactions and overconfidence, Lee went on the attack, turning the tide with a combination of feints, harassing attacks, and tactical genius that soon had the Union army falling back. Over the course of one week, during which six battles were engaged, Lee outfought and out-thought his opponent at every turn, turning the great Peninsular Campaign into a humiliating defeat for the Union, proving his brilliance as a military leader—and dooming the nation to three more years of bloody warfare.
Here, those fateful days and Lee’s astounding generalship are explored as are the actions in military and political circles that ended the Union’s hope for quick victory, and unleashed one of the most brilliant military minds of all time onto the Civil War battlefields—and into history.
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The Seven Days
The Emergence of Robert E. Lee and the Dawn of a Legend
By Clifford Dowdey
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2012 Clifford Dowdey
All rights reserved.
"Passion Spins the Plot"
When thirty-four-year-old General George B. McClellan arrived in Washington on July 26, 1861, after the debacle of First Manassas, the streets, bars and hotel lobbies were clogged with soldiers wandering aimlessly in defeat. Five days after the battle, demoralized federal officers and men continued to limp across the bridges into the city. Across the river on the rolling plains of Northern Virginia, the Confederates had advanced outposts to within ten miles of the bridges to Washington. Upstream, cavalry patrols had appeared near the river, led by a red-bearded, twenty-eight-year-old colonel — lately a lieutenant in the U. S. Army — J. E. B. Stuart. The troopers were fine-looking outdoorsmen, mounted on blooded horses and lounging carelessly in the saddles as if watching a sporting event instead of surveying a system of forts.
These were the results of Lincoln's attempted quick suppression of the "combination" of seceded states when McClellan was enthusiastically welcomed as the savior of the nation. Fresh from his triumph in Virginia's western mountains and, as was said, "a gallant figure," the handsome young general fitted the image of a man of destiny. Unawed by public adulation and the deference of Washington leaders, he showed only confidence when conferring with President Lincoln, the venerable general in chief Winfield Scott, cabinet members, senators and swarms of highly placed opportunists who saw the nation's first hero of the war as the architect of the future.
Though outwardly unimpressed, McClellan was by no means unaffected. A shining success both in the army and in civilian life, McClellan recognized that circumstances had given him the greatest opportunity that could come to any man in his generation. "By some strange magic I seem to have become the power of the land" he wrote his wife. "All tell me that I am responsible for the fate of the nation, and that all its resources shall be placed at my disposal."
McClellan assumed his role with the conviction that the nation's resources were indeed at his disposal and that he could use them in his own way. Lincoln gave tacit support to this attitude when he accepted without comment the general plan McClellan submitted on August 2. This paper was a development of a plan McClellan had submitted to Scott in May, and which had attracted the old general's attention to him.
McClellan's suggestion held the same military objectives and political purposes as Scott's own disregarded Anaconda Plan. Both plans aimed at a settlement between the dissidents by building a broad-fronted military force beyond the capacity of the Confederates to resist. While Scott's emphasis was on an interior blockade — with control of the Mississippi a primary objective so as to exploit the rivers that sliced into Confederate territory — McClellan's emphasis was on the strength of the ground forces. Both planned a concentration of power capable of overwhelming any resistance with a minimum of fighting on the Southerners' land. Both felt that defense of their homes would harden the spirit of dissidence and, as General Scott, the old Virginian, warned, "If you invade the South, 1 guarantee that at the end of a year you will be further from a settlement than you are now."
In calling for nearly three hundred thousand men for the main army in the East, McClellan justified the immensity of his project by saying, "I understand it to be the purpose of this great nation to reestablish the power of the Government and restore peace to its citizens in the shortest possible time."
While Lincoln evidently did not then accept the necessity for this grand scale advance, he showed a desire to support McClellan as far as he possibly could. In those midsummer days the President sought McClellan's company, appeared often at his house on H Street, and offered "George" every evidence of support. The men had been acquainted before the war when Lincoln was attorney for the railroad of which McClellan was president. Lincoln's attitude of trust and approval caused McClellan to assume that lack of comment on the plan implied acquiescence. He could do what he wanted.
While George McClellan believed his plan was accepted, his own motives were not restricted to restoring peace by amassing an irrestible force. By his method, McClellan risked no defeat himself. His plan was a perfect product of a union of conviction and ambition, and McClellan had a habit of success.
Born of a Philadelphia family of modest means, he had been blessed by good looks, a brilliant mind and a charming personality. Directed by ambition and supported by energy, McClellan's native gifts formed a quality at once colorful and dynamic, a force which opened the way all his life. He received special dispensation to enter West Point two years before the prescribed age and graduated before twenty at the head of his class. Brevetted in the Mexican War, where he served with Lee as an engineer on Scott's staff, he was appointed by Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, to a commission of military scientists to study the Crimean War. Leaving the army to enter the lucrative field of railroad engineering, at thirty-four he was earning the impressive salary of $10,000 a year as railroad president.
He came into the war as major general in charge of Ohio volunteers and was soon promoted to major general in the U. S. Army. For his first campaign in western Virginia, McClellan had organized his force of twenty thousand with characteristic attention to detail. The deliberate advance of his compact forces, superbly equipped and supplied and avoiding all risks, had proven irresistible. In contrast to the luckless General Irwin McDowell's campaign in the environs of Washington, McClellan's decisive victory caused him to be hailed as the "Young Napoleon." The significance of his victory appeared greater at the time than it does today: he had conquered a part of Virginia and had freed it from the Rebels.
The public was ignorant both of the small numbers of crudely equipped and poorly organized Confederates opposing McClellan and of the deep-seated political disaffection in the region that was to become West Virginia. Native loyalist leaders in the northwest counties seized the opportunity to sever ties with the Old Dominion (an antisecession convention in Wheeling would lead to the formation of a separate state) and formed alliances with the Union forces in Ohio to clear the way for McClellan's advance. Until the scattered Confederates, totaling not more than five thousand, neared the area in the Alleghenies which is now the border between the two states, they had been fighting in country at best neutral and at worst more hostile to them than to McClellan's soldiers. McClellan naturally did not emphasize the enemy's deficiencies in his dispatches, but he could not have been unaware of the weak opposition he had faced.
In the main theater, McClellan obviously planned to repeat on a larger scale the methods that had worked so well in western Virginia. Nevertheless, he recognized that a Confederate army entrenched on Virginia's homeland would be a different proposition from the bands in the western mountains.
Having known Southerners intimately at the Military Academy and in the Old Army, he appreciated the passion with which they would defend their land. He was personally acquainted with many of the officers, whom he knew to be soldiers of skill and courage. The Confederates were comparatively well armed — partly owing to the rifles, ordnance and equipment captured at Manassas — and at least as well trained. Their ranks contained a high proportion of hardy, self-reliant country types who had been familiar with weapons all their lives. Then, too, the army commanded by Johnston possessed the morale created by victory.
McClellan had inherited some fifty thousand infantry, whose state of morale, discipline and training was indicated by the need to dismiss more than two hundred officers. In forming his troops, including fresh recruits, into twelve divisions, McClellan could appoint only novice generals to command. Scarcely half of these were potentially more than adequate, and at least two were unfit. McClellan himself had been no more than a captain of engineers and had as much to learn as his subordinates about coordinating large bodies in battle and in maneuver. Little more than half the men he requested came to him, and by the end of the year he could not have fielded more than one hundred thousand combat troops.
Though these were enough to drive Johnston's army, which numbered less than fifty thousand of all arms, it was unlikely that a decisive battle could be won. No more impetuous than McClellan, Johnston was not apt to commit his troops to battle against unfavorable odds, Johnston had one hundred miles behind him in which he could withdraw by stages. In that withdrawal would come the skirmishes, the rear guard actions, the small battles, which would take McClellan deeper and deeper into the enemy's country, until the Confederates could turn to fight on conditions of their choosing. This, above all, was what McClellan wished to avoid. Even if his career had not been at stake, McClellan could not have justified an advance on solely military grounds for at least three months.
During those three months until November I, while Johnston showed no aggressive intent, McClellan's personal ambitions became more involved with the retirement of General in Chief Scott. Seventy-five-year-old Scott should have retired without any prodding. His huge body, once an impressive monument to his pride, was wracked by disease and infirmities of age, and, unable to mount a horse, he could only spend his time propped on a sofa at army headquarters. In no condition to direct the details of proliferating armies, the vain former hero clung to his nominal authority and refused to leave the scene of his triumph. After briefly bearing the indignity of McClellan's making minor dispositions without consulting him, in early August he had exploded when his subordinate sent a memorandum on the Washington defenses directly to Lincoln.
Scott wrote the President an outraged letter, accusing McClellan of having continually operated as if he, Scott, did not exist. The accusation was apparently justified. McClellan did regard the ancient Virginian as an "incubus" from another age. But Lincoln did not know what to do with him. Nobody did. When McClellan continued to disregard him, and when the embittered old man could rally no support for his case, Scott made use of a new law which permitted him to retire on November i with full honors. Not until then did the "Young Napoleon" assume the title and full duties of general in chief.
Before this immediate ambition was fulfilled, McClellan began to be criticized for not taking action against Johnston's army. Both Radical politicians and segments of the public had grown impatient for McClellan to drive the Confederates away. In their growing security from the Confederate threat, and having learned nothing from McDowell's defeat, the civilians began to stress the element of time which McClellan had ignored in the statement of his plans.
While Scott remained general in chief and in command of the Federal forces on the South Atlantic and in the West, no significant action had been taken anywhere. But McClellan was the new hero to whom the government and the public looked for action, and Virginia was then the all-important front. By the end of October, just before Scott retired, Radical leaders visited McClellan at his house to try to persuade him to move out against Johnston. They also attempted to force Lincoln into ordering McClellan to advance.
At that stage, Lincoln refused to be a party for a second time to forcing a general to mount an offensive before he was ready. He did remind McClellan that the public could not be ignored indefinitely. Evidently he did not then, or ever, point out the peculiar sensitivity of Republican politicians to the presence of Rebel soldiers within marching distance of Washington. As it was the Republican Party's responsibility to suppress the secessionists, each day the proximity of the Southerners' army mocked the administration's power.
Besides the indignity of their presence, Lincoln and his advisers were haunted by the threat of the Confederates' capturing Washington, If the Rebels ever took the capital, Lincoln could foresee the quick collapse of the war and, with it, the Republican Party.
It was not that McClellan was insensitive to political considerations, or that, as accused, he was politically purblind. McClellan played small politics when it suited his purpose, but he was thinking in the larger political meaning of restoring peace to a united nation and that objective was the star to which he hitched his wagon. With this purpose, he was not so unmindful of party politics as he was indifferent to the political future of the Radicals. He certainly had no intention of risking his own future to secure the tenure of the Republican Party in Washington.
This was not something he could explain to the President, nor to anyone else, even if he articulated it to himself. So, as Lincoln had not committed himself to McClellan, in turn the general did not tell the President the reasons for his slowness — what his critics were beginning to call his "procrastination" — in attacking Johnston, Instead of explaining why he was preparing a campaign that contained no margin for error, the new general in chief developed the habit of demanding more men, more material, and more time for preparation.
Most of what McClellan asked for was necessary, and was certainly necessary to his plan. The misunderstanding between McClellan and the government, as well as the public, arose partly over the contradiction between his deliberate methods and the impression he gave of the man of action. It was a time of romantic concepts, and the dark young general with the dramatic movements and the flash in his eyes captured the essence of the prevailing ideal.
A vigorous and graceful rider, accompanied by a resplendent entourage, he personified the image of boldness when he galloped by on a black horse, even on his way to a social function looking as if about to rise in his stirrups, swing a saber over his head and call, "Follow me!" In those days people envisioned a general leading troops, sword in hand, in the glory of a charge. No soldier ever glimpsed in Washington so suggested the heroic dream of the assault, its awful beauty and its predestined victory as George McClellan.
While the aura of his presence, the attitude by which men knew him, epitomized the ideal of the era, McClellan was in fact the most modern of generals then active: he was an executive. His talents were in organization and administration. This accounted for his quick rise in industry, his postwar success as a state government executive, and the organizational structure he built in the Army of the Potomac. This structure permitted the army to continue functioning through successive failures in command, changes of command, inner political divisions and crushing defeats inflicted by a physically inferior enemy. But, as a combat general, McClellan hated to go near a battlefield.
This dynamic soldier who disliked battles obviously was unaware of the contradiction between his "image" and the reality. Very much of his own time in expressing its sentiments, McClellan loved to speak and write in a charged prose that evoked deeds of valor, and no other Federal general ever stirred men's hearts as did "Little Mac."
Perceiving no contradiction between his attitude and his methods, McClellan did not see that his promises and his demands were partially becoming excuses for a reluctance to commit himself. He did know that everyone assumed he would advance against Johnston during the fall, before winter weather made the Virginia roads impassable. It is possible that McClellan was preparing a tentative advance in late October. Then occurred one of those actions whose importance now seems small, but whose effect at the time, particularly on McClellan, was immeasurable.
A lull descended upon Confederate military operations after First Manassas. Johnston's forces were no more than observers of McClellan's preparations for overwhelming them. The future leaders of the Army of Northern Virginia held subordinate ranks, some no more than obscure colonels of volunteer regiments, and Lee was off in the western mountains on the bootless assignment of creating harmony between several politically appointed generals. In the bleak isolation, Lee let his beard grow and wrote his wife of the depressing effects of the rain. In Richmond the first discord arose in the government as cabinet members resigned and the President grew resentful of P. G, T, Beauregard, one of the five full generals, for advocating an offensive to break the inactivity. On the plains south of the Potomac, Johnston's idle troops enjoyed the mild September days by extending outposts from Fairfax Court House to within seven miles of the Long Bridge across the Potomac into Washington.
Excerpted from The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey. Copyright © 2012 Clifford Dowdey. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: The Year of the Settlement,
The Divided Command,
I. "Passion Spins the Plot",
II. "We Are Betrayed by What Is False Within",
The Johnston Era,
III. Lee Plays at Machiavelli,
IV. Seven Pines,
V. Fair Oaks,
A Single, Controlling Hand,
VI. End of Retreats,
VII. "General Orders No. 75",
VIII. The Early Work of a Master,
IX. A Study of Stress,
X. Gaines's Mill; Battle of Decision,
XI "Gone Away",
XII. The Day of "Prince John",
XIII. Between the Plan and the Execution,
XIV. The Last Day,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have only read the introduction and half of the first chapter. The author provides extremely interesting insights into the motivations of Lincoln, Davis, McClellan, and Lee at the outset of the Civil War. The maps are good and can be zoomed in on my tablet. I'm reading the Nook version on a Samsung tablet. My only criticism of the book so far is the large quantity of typos. You quickly learn that an "i" represents the numeral one, but the date "i86r" is harder to fathom. If you can ignore the occasional misplaced letter or punctuation mark popping up in the middle of a sentence, the grammar is good. I can only assume the book was converted from another format to the Nook version without proper proofreading. I'm only knocking off one star for this reason.
I found that except for the broad statements regarding the significance of the emergence of Lee, which led me to buy and read the book, the book and the theme were drowned in an endless battery of detail. In addition, as I read the book on my Nook and found that the maps were pretty much unreadable.
Enjoyed the book overall, but hated the quagmire of typographic errors that leads me to believe that the book was not proof read after text imported. I would be weary of buying any futher book from Skyline.
This Nook Book contains a significant number of typos, such as incorrectly spelled words and odd or random punctuation. The quanity of errors is distracting and certainly takes away from the story.