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Other names: Peninsular Campaign
The first major campaign for the Army of the Potomac, the Peninsula Campaign was the concept of George B. McClellan, who felt the best way to end the rebellion was to capture the Confederate capital. With Joe Johnston in a line along the Rappahannock River, McClellan transported more than 100,000 men, artillery, quartermaster wagons and stock to Fortress Monroe on the coast of Virginia. The strategy called for McClellan to advance from Fort Monroe to West Point on the Pamulkey River. From here the Union Army could move siege guns with ease along the Richmond and West Point Railroad.
First word of the Army of the Potomac's movements came from General Benjamin Huger in Norfolk on March 24, 1862, when he reported to Jefferson Davis's chief-of-staff Robert E. Lee. Uncertain at first if the target of the movement was the peninsula or Norfolk itself, plans were made for both eventualities. It didn't take the Confederates long to realize the target of the invasion was Richmond and not Norfolk.
Moving inland from Fortress Monroe, the first roadblock to McClellan's advance came at Yorktown, the city where George Washington defeated British forces under Lord Cornwallis. Flamboyant showman John Bankhead Magruder, known as "Prince John" because of his over-the-top theatrics, held a line from the York River to the Warwick River with 13,000 men.
As McClellan advanced to Rebel entrenchments, Magruder began marching his men back and forth in drill formation. Fake conversions, additional movements and guard replacements made it seem, at least to some, that Magruder's forces numbered at least 40,000 men. McClellan watched the show and called for the seige guns to be brought up. This gave Johnston the time he needed to return to Richmond and advance down the peninsula to reinforce Magruder. The Siege of Yorktown lasted 30 days.
Johnston decided to withdraw up the peninsula to Richmond. An earthen fort that Magruder had prepared as his fallback position became the center of the rear-guard duty that Johnston to James Longstreet. With less than 3 miles of land to defend, Longstreet found Hooker's unprotected left flank and attacked, turning the rear guard duty into the Battle of Williamsburg, which Longstreet nearly won. He routed the Yankees at the start but by the end of the day the lines had stabilized and Longstreet was force to withdraw towards Richmond.
Two days later Union forces under William B. Franklin landed just south of West Point, Virginia, at Eltham's Landing, in an attempt to cut Joe Johnston off from Richmond. The plan was a failure, since Johnston was already closer to Richmond than the Union force, just a few miles south of Franklin. Protecting Confederate supplies, John Bell Hood and his Texas Brigade skirmished with Franklin on May 7. Johnston used McClellan's gunboats on the York as an excuse for his unwillingness to launch an all-out attack against the Union forces at West Point.
West Point gave McClellan a port 40 miles from Richmond and a railroad that could carry heavy siege guns, munitions and supplies to his army. Richmond had already begun preparations to evacuate and some of the residents were leaving. In the North, Lincoln closed some recruiting centers, feeling the loss of Richmond was eminent and that the Confederacy would topple.
One of the toughest problems facing the Confederates on the retreat was feeding troops. The Confederate quartermaster had to deal with the same muddy roads that the Union Army was trying to advance across. They were not very successful and most food that got into the soldiers' stomachs was either bought or impressed from farmers on the peninsula.
Joe Johnston began to form his demoralized troops in defense of the Confederate capital and Jefferson Davis demanded action. The action he got was not what he wanted. Union troops from Fort Monroe crossed Hampton Roads and seized Norfolk. The first good news in a month for the Rebels came on May 15.
George McClellan decided a river approach to Richmond would make it easier for his troops in the long run. Just a few weeks earlier Commadore Farragut had sailed into New Orleans and forced the largest city in the Confederacy to recognize the American flag. Conquering the James fell to Commadore John Rodgers, but Richmond was no New Orleans and Rebel gunners on Drewry Bluff turned back Rodgers' squadron. When McClellan took the White House, a stop on the York River Railroad, that became his headquarters, just over 20 miles from Richmond.
Events elsewhere began to play havoc on the Peninsula Campaign. In the Shenandoah Valley, Stonewall Jackson had been confounding Yankees, and as a result General Irvin McDowell's advance over land to the Army of the Potomac had been on-again, off-again. He was suppose to leave on May 26, but on May 24 came bad news from President Abraham Lincoln - McDowell had to stay and defend Washington from a possible attack.
As work began on crossing the Chickahominy River, McClellan heard of a sizable Confederate contingent in Hanover Court House and dispatched Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter to protect the Union's right flank. Opposing him was Brigadier General Lawrence Branch [CS]. Porter and his men were in such a hurry to engage the Rebels that they marched past Branch's position. Luckily, Porter had posted a rear guard so when Branch ordered five regiments forward they actually had an enemy to engage. Pretty soon, though, Porter realized his rear guard was under attack and he turned his corps around, easily driving off the outnumbered Rebels. McClellan's line was extended to the point that a mere 30 miles separated the Army of the Potomac from McDowell's 1st Corps, at least according to Jeb Stuart. The men Stuart saw at Guiney Station were actually a cover, masking McDowell's move to the Shenandoah Valley to engage Jackson.
The battle of Hanover Court House gave McClellan a reason to delay crossing the Chickahominy River for a week, but the time had come to move his men across. McClellan tapped Major General Erasmus Keyes 4th Corps to lead the crossing. Narrowing to cross the bridges, the corps moved west on a spider web of roads leading to Richmond west of the Chickahominy River. Between Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, two small Virginia towns, General Joseph Johnston decided to attack. Keyes and Samuel Heintzelman had been cut off from the main body of McClellan's force by a rise in the Chickahominy following a rainstorm and the opportunity had been what Johnston was waiting for.
A battle Joe Johnston wanted to begin at dawn got under way at 1:00 pm, and the Confederate attack was not co-ordinated - in fact, only Daniel Harvey Hill's division contributed to the initial effort. His men drove the Union line back to Seven Pines, then a secondary attack at Fair Oak Station was just getting underway when Edwin Sumner's lead division under John Sedgwick, reached the depot and engaged Whiting's Confederates. Whiting's men were badly beaten by the Yankees and Johnston, watching from a nearby hill took a bullet in the shoulder seconds before an artillery shell exploded in front of him.
Major General Gustavus Smith continue the fight the next day, but broke off the engagement before noon. The outcome of the battle is considered to be inconclusive. Later that day, Robert E. Lee was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia as McClellan repositioned his men across the Chickahominy River. Jeb Stuart rode around McClellan's Army for three days during the middle of the month. On June 27, Lee began his first offensive, known as The Seven Days or The Seven Days Retreat.
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Peninsula Campaign was last changed on - June 17, 2006
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