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Seven Days to Decision
At ten o'clock on the clear, cold morning of Friday, March 7, 1862, an even dozen brigadier generals assembled at army headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue at Jackson Square in Washington. To a man they were startled to be told that forthwith they would act as a council of war. None had played the role before. Only three or four had even a vague notion of what plans the army might be considering, for General McClellan was notoriously secretive about his intentions. They had supposed they were being called to headquarters that morning to receive orders for an attack on the Confederate batteries blockading the Potomac below the capital. Instead, without preamble, they learned they would be deciding how and where and when to launch the Army of the Potomac's grand campaign to end the war.
A council of war had in fact been the furthest thing from General McClellan's mind when he scheduled the meeting the day before. The newspapers called him the Young Napoleon, and like the first Napoleon he had only contempt for generalship by committee. At age thirty-five George Brinton McClellan was at once the youngest and the senior major general in the United States army. He had commanded the Army of the Potomac for seven and a half months now, and, as general-in-chief, all the Union's armies for the last four of those months, and he appeared well cast for the part: short and broad-shouldered, with a quick eye and a jaunty confidence, he never displayed anything less than a commanding presence. He was tremendously popular with his soldiers, but in recent months his popularity with major figures in the government had plummeted almost to the vanishing point. Once he had been the toast of Washington. Now opponents in growing numbers noisily snapped at his heels.
In part this was due simply to frustration. For more than half a year the Army of the Potomac had drilled and paraded and by report been brought to the peak of military efficiency, yet in all that time McClellan had done nothing about the Confederate army camped just twenty-five miles from the capital, and nothing had stopped Confederate batteries from closing the Potomac to commercial shipping. The Rebels held the capital of the United States hostage to a partial blockade, and it was a national humiliation. In part too the outcry against McClellan was a matter of politics, for while serving a Republican administration the general made no secret of his allegiance to the Democratic opposition.
And in part it was a matter of virulent, ugly suspicion in a time when suspicion ruled the emotions of many. It was recalled that in the peacetime army George McClellan had been the protégé of Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, now president of the Confederate States of America. It was said that in the 1850s McClellan had ties to the filibusters, the private armies that menaced Central and South America and sought the expansion of slavery. Prominent abolitionists pointed out that in taking command of the Army of the Potomac the general had said to them that he would not fight either for the Republican party or for the abolition of slavery, but only for the restoration of the old Union. "I do not believe McClellan's heart is in the right place," a newspaper editor wrote early in 1862; during the secession crisis the general had reportedly declared that "the country must be ruled by the Southern Democracy." The editor asked, "Can the ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?"
As a consequence, a small army of critics — especially radical Republican critics — attacked McClellan for his inaction and his excessive caution and suspected him of worse. It was just these critics who had forced him to convert the present gathering of his generals into a council of war. He acted on the spur of the moment, impelled by a suddenly imperative need to save both his command and his grand campaign.
For General McClellan the crisis had come to a boil some three hours earlier that same morning, when he was summoned to the White House by President Lincoln. The two met alone in the president's office, and exactly what passed between them is not fully known. Only McClellan's later and self-serving recollection is on record, but it is at least certain that it was a stormy confrontation in which Mr. Lincoln carried out his vow, made a few days before, "to talk plainly" to his general. Lincoln was quoted by McClellan as raising "a very ugly matter" in regard to the proposal then current for taking the army southward against Richmond by way of Chesapeake Bay. It looked to some in the government, the president said, as if General McClellan had conceived the plan with the traitorous intention of leaving Washington unprotected and exposed to capture by the Rebels.
By McClellan's account, at the word traitorous he leaped to his feet and hotly demanded the president retract the charge. It was not his own view, Lincoln assured him, but he repeated that by the worst interpretation the scheme did have "an ugly look" about it. If that was the case, McClellan said, he would settle any doubts both about his plan and his loyalty at one stroke. Let the plan be judged solely on its merits by the army's general officers, he said. It so happened that most of the brigadiers commanding divisions would be meeting that very morning at his headquarters on another matter; he would appoint them a council of war with authority to decide all questions of grand strategy by majority vote. He would remove himself from their deliberations, and afterward send them with their decisions to the president for review.
This must have left Mr. Lincoln at once relieved and resigned. All through the winter he had tried with scant success to pin General McClellan down to some concrete plan and schedule of action, and now it appeared he had finally succeeded. Yet there was every chance that the plan was going to run counter to his own best judgment.
At the ten o'clock meeting at headquarters Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy announced to the twelve surprised generals that they would be passing judgment on grand strategy. General McClellan was proposing, he said, to change the Army of the Potomac's base of operations from Washington to the lower Chesapeake — specifically to Urbanna, a little tobacco port on the Rappahannock, fifteen miles upriver from the bay. Rather than attack the Rebel batteries on the lower Potomac as planned, the army would bypass them; it would avoid the Potomac entirely and instead embark at Annapolis, directly on the Chesapeake. The movement might begin as soon as the next week. When Marcy finished this preliminary briefing, he went around to individual generals and confided to them that what was really at stake at the war council was General McClellan's future. "Gen. Marcy ... took me aside," General Samuel P. Heintzelman recorded in his diary, "& said that there was a strong effort to have him superceded & that he would be unless we approved his plans."
General McClellan himself then joined the conference and, spreading out a large map of eastern Virginia, explained the Urbanna plan in more detail. His debate with the government over grand strategy had begun some time since, and by now his arguments were practiced. The movement to the Rappahannock by water, he pointed out, would take advantage of Federal seapower to put the army just fifty miles from Richmond. The only defenders in the landing area were reported to be a few local militia. One "long march" from Urbanna to the York River would cut off the enemy forces holding the lower Virginia Peninsula between the York and the James; then two more days' march up the Peninsula would bring the army to the gates of Richmond.
Most important strategically, the movement would turn the flank of the main Rebel army entrenched at Manassas Junction and Centreville, forcing it to give up this position threatening Washington in order to counter the threat to its own capital. The idea, one of his listeners quoted McClellan as saying, "was to leave the enemy where he was, and fight him where he was not." The Rebel army, he said, would receive no reinforcements from the rest of the Confederacy. He would have Federal forces in Tennessee cut the South's main east-west rail line to prevent help from reaching Richmond from that direction, and the force under Ambrose Burnside, recently landed on the North Carolina coast, would strike inland against Richmond's rail connections with the South Atlantic states. When the climactic battle for Richmond was fought — the battle McClellan had assured a newspaperman would be remembered as the Waterloo of the Civil War — it would be on his terms and on ground of his choosing.
The council of war had two central questions to decide, McClellan said: whether the army should change its base from Washington to the Rappahannock, as he proposed; and whether any action need be taken against the Potomac batteries. He and Marcy then left the room, and the twelve generals took up their deliberations.
The council of war divided sharply on the wisdom of McClellan's plan. The three senior generals, Edwin V. Sumner, Irvin McDowell, and Samuel Heintzelman, opposed the change of base, and they were joined by John G. Barnard, the army's chief engineer. Barnard was one of the few with any previous knowledge of the commanding general's ideas. Several months earlier McClellan had sketched out for him the Urbanna scheme, and Barnard raised objection to it as impractical and even dangerous. He doubted the Federals could transport enough men to the Rappahannock by water, land them, and fortify a new base on hostile ground before the Rebels reached the scene from Manassas and assaulted the bridgehead. In any case, he said, they could hardly march from Urbanna to Richmond before the enemy arrived there by rail. Barnard and the other generals opposing the Urbanna plan urged instead a much shorter turning movement by land to the Occoquan River, hardly two days' march south of the present Washington lines, to threaten the Confederates' railroad lifeline to Manassas. As Heintzelman argued it, in that event "the enemy must come out of his entrenchments & meet us in the open field, or have his communications fall into our hands."
The eight other generals — Andrew Porter, Fitz John Porter, Louis Blenker, William B. Franklin, William F. Smith, Erasmus D. Keyes, George A. McCall, and Henry M. Naglee — were unmoved by these arguments and voted their support for the Urbanna plan. Most owed their positions to McClellan and made loyalty to the commanding general their first priority. If any among the eight gave a good reason for the army's going to Urbanna, Barnard commented, "it is more than I heard." He described the decision as cut and dried. The council reminded McDowell of a political caucus in which "the question was determined on personal grounds, not on the merits of the case," and in this General McClellan's mastery of army politics was evident. A majority also agreed with McClellan that destroying the Potomac batteries as a preliminary to the change of base was unnecessary. Before the council took its findings to the White House, the majority tried to dramatize the army's support for General McClellan by urging the votes be made unanimous. "This excited considerable feeling," Heintzelman noted dryly, and the minority indignantly rejected the idea.
It was late afternoon when the twelve generals were ushered into the president's office to report on their deliberations. McDowell thought Lincoln's face fell when the eight-to-four vote to change the army's base was announced. Unknown to the generals, the president himself had proposed the Occoquan turning movement to McClellan some months earlier. (This was one reason General McClellan became so adamant about his Urbanna plan. He was not one who welcomed advice on military matters, and certainly not advice from the president.) Whatever his private thoughts, however, Lincoln expressed himself pleased that there was finally a definite plan of campaign. "Napoleon himself could not stand still any longer with such an army," he observed.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton now joined the conference and began a vigorous interrogation of the generals. Stanton was a lawyer by profession and renowned for his bristling cross-examinations, and he gave the McClellan majority some uncomfortable moments. Like the president, Stanton was greatly concerned about the safety of Washington; if the Army of the Potomac sailed off down the Chesapeake, he said, it would be leaving behind, by McClellan's own admission, a very powerful Rebel army posted just twenty-five miles from the capital.
Gustavus V. Fox, the assistant secretary of the navy, was called in and asked if the navy could assist in opening the Potomac, the most direct route between Washington and the Rappahannock, should the army have to be recalled in an emergency. Fox agreed to take two big frigates off blockade duty so that they, in company with the new ironclad warship Monitor, then en route from New York, might silence the Potomac batteries long enough for the army to capture them. Only Sumner and McDowell argued for the army to march immediately against the batteries, before anything else was done, which moved the bellicose Stanton to complain afterward, "We saw ten Generals afraid to fight." The war council's sole unanimous vote came in approval of the president's proposal to organize the present divisions into army corps for the campaign. It was evening now, and after the last argument was exhausted Lincoln told the generals to return at ten o'clock the next morning when he would announce his decision.
At the appointed hour on Saturday, March 8, the twelve generals once again assembled at the White House. The president told them he was giving his approval to General McClellan's Urbanna plan and how greatly relieved he was to see the campaign at last going forward. "He urged us all to go in heartily for this plan," Heintzelman noted in his diary. The point of this call for unity was soon evident, for Lincoln then announced the corps commanders for the field army, chosen "according to seniority of rank." Of the four generals he named — Sumner, McDowell, Heintzelman, and Keyes — only Keyes was on record as favoring the Urbanna movement. (A fifth corps, under Nathaniel P. Banks, would remain behind as a guarding force.) "There were some blank faces, as I am confident some others expected a place," Heintzelman remarked.
Lincoln went on to list certain qualifications to his approval. No more than two corps were to sail from Annapolis until the Potomac was cleared of the enemy batteries. The capital must be left "entirely secure," with its defenders determined jointly by McClellan and the new corps commanders. Finally, there was to be no further delay: the movement must begin by March 18, ten days hence. These instructions would be incorporated in presidential war orders, he said, and with that he adjourned the council of war and sent the generals back to their commands.
General McClellan professed himself fully satisfied (he later wrote) that as a result of the war council's decisions "the Presdt dismissed from his mind the idea that I was a traitor." He was surely just as well satisfied with the council's display of support for his strategic plan, and with how nicely he had gauged the loyalty of his lieutenants. (He would later condemn the choice of corps commanders forced on him, but in fact of the president's selections only Erasmus Keyes was not duplicated on a proposed corps listing of his own, drawn up several months before.)
All in all, McClellan's gamble of calling a war council had paid off handsomely, and he could mark the date — March 8, 1862 — as the official birth of the Peninsula campaign. To be sure, circumstances would soon enough force him to alter his plan, yet its basic concept would remain intact. The Young Napoleon was going to lead his grand army to the Virginia Peninsula and to the gates of Richmond and toward his vision of an American Waterloo.
President Lincoln's war orders officially gave life to the Peninsula campaign, but it was actually conceived some four months earlier, in November 1861, when McClellan was named general-in-chief. In its conception the plan was perfectly characteristic of George McClellan — strategically innovative, well thought out logistically, immensely ambitious in scope and aimed at nothing less than "the heart of the enemy's power in the East," yet for all that rooted in a total misconception of the enemy he faced.
At the time he was made general-in-chief, McClellan supposed General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army in front of Washington to be 150,000 strong, "well drilled & equipped, ably commanded & strongly intrenched." That, he claimed, was almost exactly twice the size of any force he could bring into action, making it imperative that he find some way to outmaneuver this host and fight it on better terms. (In fact — but a fact beyond McClellan's imagining — it was he who outnumbered Johnston two-to-one.) Soon he was telling the president that rather than offer battle against the Rebels near Washington, as the president urged him to do, "I have now my mind actively turned towards another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy...."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To the Gates of Richmond"
Copyright © 1992 Stephen W. Sears.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
THE GRAND CAMPAIGN,
Seven Days to Decision,
Stride of a Giant,
ENEMY AT THE GATES,
A Fighting Retreat,
March to the Chickahominy,
Battle at the Seven Pines,
Lee Takes Command,
THE SEVEN DAYS,
"Stonewall Is Behind Them!",
Opportunity at Glendale,
The Guns of Malvern Hill,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just finished reading this book and it was probably the the best Civil War book I've ever read. Sears has a balanced, clear, insightful style that far surpasses his too-partisan or too-dramatic predecessors. I'd never read about this incredibly influential campaign that basically set the stage for the rest of the war. HIGHLY recommended.
Sears presents a readable and understandable review of the events and main characters of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. The Peninsula Campaign led Lee to decide to cross the Potomac into Maryland in late 1862. This book leaves many doubts in my mind about General McClellan. General Lee comes to the head of the Confederate army at Richmond. The battle of the Seven Days and related battles of the Peninsula campaign are tied together in a clear fashion. This book clarifies the main events of the Eastern Theater that determined the course of the war in the East in 1862.