Standoff on the Peninsula

Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac settled into new camps near Harrison’s Landing on the James River in Virginia. McClellan had asked for 100,000 reinforcements, but the Lincoln administration did not have that number to give. President Abraham Lincoln told McClellan that gathering that many men “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:

“Attacked by vastly superior forces, and without hope of reinforcements, you have succeeded in changing your base of operations by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients. You have saved all your material, all your guns, except a few lost in battle…; and 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.’”

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

McClellan declared that his men “shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy… cost what it may in time, treasure and blood,” and he 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. Yet they maintained their undying affection for “Little Mac.”

For many officers, however, that affection had been lost. Colonel Francis Barlow wrote, “You have no idea of the imbecility of management both in action & out of it. McClellan issues flaming addresses though everyone in the army knows he was outwitted.” The general’s conduct during the battles “more & more convinces me that McClellan has little military genius & that he is not a proper man to command this Army. I think the Division Genls & about everybody else here have lost confidence in him.”

Independence Day was sunny and warm, and both Federals and Confederates took a day of rest and celebration. A Federal soldier wrote, “All our banners were flung to the wind. A national salute was fired. The music played most gloriously. Gen. McClellan came around to see us & we all cheered most heartily for country, cause & leader.” 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.”

The Lincoln administration reacted to McClellan’s withdrawal by ordering Major General David Hunter to send 10,000 men from his department based in South Carolina to the Peninsula. Also, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was directed to transfer a portion of his army in North Carolina. 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 remainder.

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 as a key supply line for Lee’s army. 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.

When McClellan was informed of these reinforcements, he told Lincoln, “I will do the best I can with such force as I have and such aid as you can give me… If the capital be threatened, I will move this army at whatever hazard in such direction as will best divert the enemy.”

Closer to Richmond, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued regrouping and reorganizing after the terrible fighting. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the army, 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…”

Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

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 J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry to continue to observe 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.”

On the Federal side, McClellan reported that his men were now behind strong defenses that “enables me at any time to resume the offensive, which I hope soon to be in a condition to do.” Expecting Lee to attack at any time, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen on July 6, “I go into this battle with the full conviction that our losses make it necessary for me to chance the fate of my army. My men are confident & I have no doubt as to our success unless the Creator orders otherwise. I believe we will give them a tremendous thrashing… Tomorrow will probably determine the fate of the country.” But Lee had no intention of attacking such strong positions.

Jefferson Davis once had a very high opinion of McClellan while serving as U.S. secretary of war, but now he 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.”

The misery that went with such a horrible campaign continued. From Richmond, a report 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.” Meanwhile, the standoff on the Peninsula continued.


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