Standoff on the Peninsula

July 4, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln worked to funnel more reinforcements to Major General George B. McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula, and General Robert E. Lee decided that the Federal positions were too strong to attack.

The Federals and Confederates both celebrated Independence Day, and with the pickets stationed so close to each other, a Confederate soldier wrote that “our boys and the Yanks made a bargain not to fire at each other, and went out in the field, leaving one man on each post with the arms, and gathered berries together and talked over the fight, traded tobacco and coffee and exchanged newspapers as peacefully and kindly as if they had not been engaged for the last seven days in butchering one another.”

From Washington, Lincoln answered McClellan’s request for another 100,000 men by writing that collecting such a number “within a month, or even six weeks, is impossible… Under these circumstances the defensive for the present must be your only care. Save the army–first, where you are, if you can; secondly, by removal, if you must. P.S. If at any time you feel able to take the offensive, you are not restrained from doing so.”

McClellan did not feel able to take the offensive. Instead, he issued a proclamation to the officers and men of his army:

“Under every disadvantage of numbers, and necessarily of position also, you have in every conflict beaten back your foes with enormous slaughter. That your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history, no one will ever question; then each of you may always say with pride, ‘I belonged to the Army of the Potomac.’”

Declaring that his men “shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy” yet, McClellan insisted that his army’s performance in the Seven Days Battles would be “acknowledged by all competent judges” as “unparalleled in the annals of war.” But this did little to change the fact that McClellan’s “retrograde movement” had been a demoralizing retreat for his men.

The Lincoln administration reacted to McClellan’s withdrawal by transferring a portion of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federals stationed in North Carolina to the Peninsula. Burnside left with about 7,000 of his 15,782 men, leaving Brigadier General John G. Foster in charge of the Department of North Carolina with the remaining 8,782.

With such a small force, Foster could not capitalize on the coastal gains made earlier this year. And the railroad between Richmond and Wilmington, North Carolina, remained open to supply Lee’s army with necessities. The vital railroad junction at Goldsborough also remained in Confederate hands. Foster could now only garrison Beaufort, Fort Macon, Hatteras Inlet, New Bern, and Plymouth.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Closer to Richmond, the Confederates continued regrouping and reorganizing after the terrible fighting. Lee personally inspected McClellan’s positions and reported to President Jefferson Davis:

“The enemy is strongly posted in the neck formed by Herring creek and James River… The enemy’s batteries occupy the ridge along which the Charles City road runs, north to the creek, and his gunboats lying below the mouth of the creek sweep the ground in front of his batteries. Above his encampments which lie on the river, his gunboats also extend; where the ground is more favorable to be searched by their cannon. As far as I can now see there is no way to attack him to advantage; nor do I wish to expose the men to the destructive missiles of his gunboats… I fear he is too secure under cover of his boats to be driven from his position…”

Lee officially reported that during the Seven Days Battles, his men had captured 52 guns, 10,000 prisoners, and almost 31,000 small arms. The Confederates had also driven McClellan back 25 miles and secured the safety of Richmond, regaining control of the railroad system outside the capital and forcing McClellan to abandon his sick and wounded soldiers in the process.

Lee added, “The siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of the (Federal) campaign, which had been prosecuted after months of preparation at an enormous expenditure of men and money, completely frustrated.” However, Lee had lost about 11,000 men of the “first line,” and he acknowledged, “Under ordinary circumstances, the Federal army should have been destroyed.”

Davis responded the next day: “I fully concur with you as to the impropriety of exposing our brave and battle-thinned troops to the fire of the gunboats.” Confederate conscripts began arriving in Richmond to fill Lee’s depleted ranks, and Davis expressed gratitude to Lee’s “Army of Eastern Virginia” in an address to the officers and men:

“I congratulate you on the series of brilliant victories which, under the favor of Divine Providence, you have lately won, and, as the President of the Confederate States, do heartily tender to you the thanks of the country, whose just cause you have so skillfully and heroically served… The fortitude with which you have borne toil and privation, the gallantry with which you have entered into each successive battle, must have been witnessed to be fully appreciated; but a grateful people will not fail to recognize you, and to bear you in loved remembrance…

“Let it be your pride to relax in nothing which can promote your future efficiency; your one great object being to drive the invader from your soil, and carrying your standards beyond the outer boundaries of the Confederacy, to wring from an unscrupulous foe the recognition of your birthright, community independence.”

Lee began pulling his army back closer to Richmond, leaving Brigadier General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to continue observing Federal activity. Lee reported that he could not get any closer to the Federal army because of the gunboats on the James River:

“After a thorough reconnaissance of the position taken up by the enemy on James River, I found him strongly posted and effectually flanked by his gunboats… I caused field batteries to play on his forces, and on his transports, from points on the river below. But they were too light to accomplish much, and were always attacked with superior force by the gunboats…”

Colonel Garnet J. Wolseley, a British army observer with the Confederate army, wrote that he “noted with some interest the superstitious dread of gunboats which possessed the Southern soldiers. These vessels of war, even when they have been comparatively harmless, had several times been the means of saving northern armies.”

Davis wrote his wife Varina:

“McClellan certainly showed capacity in his retreat, but there is little cause to laud a general who is driven out of his entrenchments by a smaller and worse-armed force than his own and compelled to abandon a campaign in the preparation of which he had spent many months and many millions of dollars and seek safety by flying to other troops for cover, burning his depots of provisions and marking his route by scattered arms, ammunition, and wagons.”

A report from Richmond stated that “thousands of fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters of the wounded are arriving in the city to attend their suffering relations, and to recover the remains of those who were slain.” The standoff on the Peninsula continued.



Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1951), p. 143; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39, 84; (5 Jul 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16998-7006; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 191-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 518-19, 530; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 179; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4164-88; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 237; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 282, 536; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 95; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362; Wikipedia: Seven Days Battles

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