Peninsula Campaign

From Academic Kids

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Eastern Theater operations in 1862
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Map of the events of the Peninsula Campaign

The Peninsula Campaign (also known as the Peninsular Campaign) of the American Civil War was a major Union offensive operation launched in southern Virginia in March through July of 1862. The operation, commanded by Major General George McClellan, was a roundabout amphibious attempt to capture Richmond by circumventing the Confederate Army in northern Virginia. The operation began with the conveyance of Union Army troops down the Potomac River and south through Chesapeake Bay to land at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. After landing, the forces were to advance along the narrow strip of land between the James and York rivers.

The first part of the plan was successful. After landing, the Union forces advanced to Yorktown (site of the 1781 surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington) and defeated the Confederates in a skirmish at Yorktown. During the campaign, the Union Army also seized Hampton Roads and occupied Norfolk.

Union forces advanced to within several miles of Richmond, but progress was slow. McClellan had planned for massive siege operations and brought immense stores of equipment and siege mortars. Poor weather and inadequate roads kept his advance to a crawl. And McClellan was by nature a cautious general. He was nervous about attacking a force he believed was twice his in size. In fact, his imagination and his intelligence operations failed him; the proportions were roughly the reverse of that. During Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's slow retreat up the peninsula, his forces practiced deceptive operations. In particular, the division under John B. Magruder, who was an amateur actor before the war, was able to fool McClellan by ostentatiously marching small numbers of troops past the same position multiple times, appearing to be a larger force.

As the Union Army drew towards the outer defenses of Richmond, it became divided by the Chickahominy River, weakening its ability to move troops back and forth along the front. The Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks) took place on June 1, 1862, as the Confederates struck at the smaller Union force north of the river. The battle was tactically inconclusive, but there were two strategic effects. First, Johnston was wounded during the battle and was replaced by the more aggressive General Robert E. Lee, who would lead this Army of Northern Virginia to many victories in the war. Second, General McClellan chose to abandon his offensive operations to lay siege and await reinforcements he had requested from President Abraham Lincoln. He never regained his strategic momentum (for his involvement in the entire war, in fact).

Lee used the month-long pause in McClellan's advance to fortify the defenses of Richmond and extend them south to the James River at Chafin's Bluff. On the south side of the James River, defensive lines were built south to a point below Petersburg. The total length of the new defensive line was about 30 miles. To buy time to complete the new defensive line and prepare for an offensive, Lee repeated the tactic of making a small number of troops seem larger than they really were. McClellan was also unnerved by Confederate J.E.B. Stuart's audacious (but otherwise militarily pointless) cavalry ride completely around the Union army (June 1315).

The second phase of the Peninsula Campaign took a decidedly negative turn for the Union when Lee launched fierce counterattacks just east of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles (June 25July 1, 1862). Although none of these battles were significant Confederate tactical victories (and the Battle of Malvern Hill on the last day was a decisive Confederate defeat), the tenacity of Lee's attacks unnerved McClellan, who pulled his forces back to a base on the James River. Lincoln later ordered the army to return to the Washington, D.C. area to support General John Pope's army in the Second Bull Run campaign. The Virginia Peninsula would be relatively quiet until 1864, when Benjamin Butler again invaded as part of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.

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