One-hundred-and-forty years ago this very month, General Robert E. Lee embarked on the military actions which would, three months later, find the Army of Northern Virginia on the very door-step of the state of Pennsylvania. From a truly desperate situation in early June, 1862 where it was expected the capital of the Confederacy would be lost to early September, 1862 when the Confederate army stood poised to enter upon its First Maryland Campaign, much had happened. So much happened in that short span of time that it is impossible in these few paragraphs to adequately describe.
However, one thing is very clear: the tide of the Confederacy was rising and would, with the movement into Maryland, crest at flood tide. Dr. Joseph Harsh, a former head of the Department of History at George Mason University in Virginia, has put together a most welcome and excellent treatment of the entire Confederate strategy which led up to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and culminating in the horribly bloody one-day battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam. That is not the object of this particular essay.
Lee's opponent during the Seven Days' Battles was Maj. General George Brinton McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and, until earlier that spring, General-in-Chief of all the Federal armies. Mac started the campaign on the Peninsula well and with characteristic engineering mind-set, build up his force until it pretty much outnumbered the Confederate defenders, but not by much. A faulty intelligence system operated by Alan Pinkerton of detective agency fame consistently over-estimated Confederate strengths, prompting panicky telegrams back to Washington begging and beseeching more troops. Lincoln and Stanton had had their hands full trying to get Mac to move the vast Army of the Potomac out after the rebels but with little success. Now, with the Army of the Potomac so close to ultimate victory before Richmond, even that prize was fast slipping from Mac's grasp.
What went wrong?
Well, many would say that Mac simply "had the slows". "Mac did not have the heart of a killer." It is true Mac hated to put in harm's way that very army he'd spent so many months molding, drilling and building in the months following the Union defeat at First Manassas. However, armies are created precisely for that purpose, are they not? To fight and kill the enemy and to suffer loss at the same time.
To be fair to Mac, he was oft times quite sick during the Seven Days and unable to exercise competent field leadership when it was most needed. But did he have a second in command to whom the Army could be temporarily turned over until his health improved? It appears not, even though Union General Edwin Vose Sumner, "Old Bull Head", appears during the early battles of the Seven Days to be a quasi-commander of the Army.
What many casual students of the Civil War do not realize adequately about the period of the Seven Days Battles is the effect of the weather on troop movements, battle plans and the execution of those plans. Those two months of May and June 1862 were among the wettest the Virginia Tidewater peninsula had experienced in many years. Virginia dirt is well known for its two qualities it assumes with the presence of major amounts of water. Either it can become a quicksand type of mud or a mud so thick one might as well call it glue. Add the combination of weather, ill-conceived operational plans for command leadership, an intelligence structure totally unprepared to accurately estimate enemy strengths and very poor maps of the available roads, the wonder should not be whether Mac had the "slows" during the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days but that the Army of the Potomac was able to fight and move and fight again as well as it did! It should not be surprising that Union planning to resist Confederate attacks during the Seven Days' Battles was as disjointed as Confederate plans to defeat their enemy.
The question of whether Mac had "the slows" is one that has been debated since the very dates of the Seven Days themselves and will probably continue to be debated for another one-hundred-forty years. The question of whether Federal response to Confederate attacks during the Seven Days can be construed as a "retreat" or "change of base" is another hot topic of debate. This writer remembers well his surprise at reading in "Confederate Tide Rising" of Dr. Harsh's statement of Lee's anxiety of where Mac finally established a base for the Army of the Potomac to rest itself following the failure of the Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days. Mac, by placing the army around his headquarters at Harrison's Landing (also known as Berkeley Plantation and home of Wm. Henry Harrison), placed the Army of the Potomac square on the James River. The river was the "back door" approach into Richmond and Lee and Davis no doubt shared many an anxious discussion over what Mac would do next. Not until Grant besieged Petersburg in 1864 was a Federal army able to be so close to Richmond.
Did Mac have "the Slows"? While he certainly did not move with the lightning speed of Jackson or take audacious risks like Lee, the argument could be made he was being a prudent army commander operating under very adverse conditions: ill health, poor weather conditions, poor intelligence estimates of his enemy and poor information of the topography around him. However, one thing is also clear. Napoleon once said the victory goes to the side that takes the initiative and holds on to it. Mac clearly let Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia take the initiative and hold it during the Seven Days. For that, he deserves censure.
Let me know by contacting me directly on what you think about Mac's actions during the Seven Days. Did he have "the Slows"? (Your comments might help with another article!)