Saturday, June 30, 2012

Flashback, June-July 1862: Lee Takes Command

The creation of the Robert E. Lee legend in the collective mind of the South was hardly preordained. Many in the Confederacy—including the common soldiers he would call on, time and again, to perform extraordinary deeds on the battlefield—were apt to write him off in the early part of 1862 because of a poor showing in western Virginia over the winter.  And his visibility was not high, because of his largely behind-the-scenes role as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

But by mid-year 1862, several factors led Lee on a course with destiny:
           *   Union General George B. McClellan’s amphibious Peninsula Campaign represented the most serious threat to the Confederate capital, Richmond, up to that point.
·         * The wounding in late May 1862 of General Joseph E. Johnston, at the Battle of Seven Pines, necessitated that Lee take the field himself as his replacement.
·         * Lee’s determination to take the offensive, in a series of short, savage engagements known as the Seven Days Campaign, electrified the South—even though, in strategy and long-term results, it was more flawed than many realized at the time.

Lee had many gifts—resolution, daring, an aristocratic dignity that made men look up to him in absolute loyalty—but he was gifted in nothing so much as his early Union opponents. Generals as different as John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker were nettled when he did something unexpected. The first of these commanders, McClellan, represented the most stunning example of how he could throw a Union commander way off guard.

“The Young Napoleon” had come to Washington with tremendous faith placed in him by the republic. In late 1861, he had begun raising, outfitting and training the Union’s Army of the Potomac, but still had to be prodded by President Abraham Lincoln to take the offensive against the Confederates.

The President, with good reason, wasn’t terribly keen on “Little Mac’s” eventual plan: to ship his 122,000 troops by sea to the tip of the York-James peninsula, then fight his way to Richmond. The campaign threatened to expose Washington to a Confederate attack, and one of its reasons for being—the supposed huge army obstructing the way to the rebel capital—already hinted at the tendency to see phantoms that plagued McClellan throughout the rest of his service as commander.

But Lincoln was happy at this point to get his general moving at all, and the plan did have two advantages: it exploited Union naval superiority and it sidestepped the problem of rebel concentration of forces behind interior lines, McClellan's principal objection to an overland campaign against Richmond. Lincoln, then, allowed the plan to move forward, and on March 17 McClellan began shipping his army—the largest ever to conduct an amphibious operation in North America—to Fort Monroe, guarding the way to Hampton Roads. Thus began the Peninsula Campaign, a 3½-month nightmare of feints, bad weather, muddy roads, badly coordinated attacks, and missed opportunities.

One of these was the Battle of Williamsburg, fought on May 5. Things had not been going well at all for the Federals until General Phil Kearny rallied his men with perhaps my favorite battle cry of the war: "I am a one-armed Jersey Son-of- a-Gun, follow me!"  Winfield Scott Hancock’s flanking maneuver then forced the Confederates to abandon the Wiliamsburg Line. But instead of seeing it as an opportunity to exploit, McClellan regarded it as "an accident caused by too rapid a pursuit."

Even before he assumed Johnston’s command, Lee had already made a significant contribution to the Confederate attempt to drive away the enemy. He suggested to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that activity in the Shenandoah Valley would make the administration in Washington fearful of an attack against the Union capital. Jackson’s lightning-fast campaign in the region made his reputation in the Confederacy.

When Johnston fell wounded, Lee faced a desperate situation. The Union seemed to be pressing the Confederacy on every front: with Ambrose Burnside in North Carolina, with Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, with naval control of New Orleans—and now, an enemy so close to Richmond that Davis was seriously considering withdrawing from the capital. 

Moreover, the costs of war began to come home to Richmond for the first time, with the dead and wounded being brought into the city. As Constance Cary Harrison recalled the atmosphere a half century later in Recollections Grave and Gay (1911): “During the night began the ghastly procession of wounded brought in from the field. Every vehicle the city could produce supplemented the military ambulances. Many slightly wounded men, so black with gunpowder as to be unrecognizable, came limping in on foot. All next day, women with white faces flitted bareheaded through the street and hospitals, looking for their own.”

Once taking charge in the field, Lee issued one set of orders that seemed to confirm Johnny Reb's early misimpression: to dig extensive entrenchments outside Richmond. Soldiers would rather shoot than dig, especially in the hot early-summer sun, and it wasn't long before Lee was christened "The King of Spades." But the move gave him a foothold as he began to formulate a characteristically audacious strategy. 

In addition to Jackson in the Shenandoah, Lee made effective use of another subordinate, General J.E.B. Stuart, by ordering reconnaissance of the Union forces. Stuart’s implementation of the mission was daring (he rode completely around the Union forces) and, in contrast with his later performance in the Gettysburg campaign (when he did not provide Lee with adequate knowledge of Union troop movements just before the campaign), gave the commander serviceable intelligence: McClellan’s right flank was exposed.

Beginning on June 25, Lee attempted a series of frontal assaults, along with an envelopment of the Union right. At this point, the campaign became more than a clash of thousands of men, even of creative use of the latest military technology (ironclad warships, 200-pounder rifled cannon, battlefield telegraph, and aerial reconnaissance,) but instead boiled down to a contest of two commanders’ wills.

Key to Lee’s strategy was Johnston’s perception of the early days of the Peninsula Campaign: "no one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack." In one of the great intelligence failures of Army military history, McClellan’s intelligence adviser, Allan Pinkerton (yes, future head of the famed detective agency), advised the Union leader that he was facing 200,000 men.

Lee had nothing like these forces at hand—in fact, he had about 65,000 when he took control of operations—but what he had, he would use. From June 25 to July 1, he ordered several major battles that put McClellan back on his heels--Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill, Savage's Station, Frayser's Farm, and Malvern Hill.   

About 10 years ago, I visited the Richmond National Battlefield Park. What impressed me about the park was its sheer size. The National Park Service advises to spend 1 to 1 1/2 days to visit the site. Even this feels inadequate. In these now-peaceful rural areas, the Union and Confederate armies squared off in some of the most intense fighting of a war filled with them.

Though he won all but one of these engagements, McClellan was rattled enough to withdraw to a defensive position on the coast, from which he withdrew a month later. The entire campaign demonstrated that McClellan had, as historian Stephen W. Sears noted in his fine history of the Peninsula campaign, To the Gates of Richmond, lost “the courage to command.”

In his perceptive study, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, the British Major General J.F.C. Fuller put the reason why Lee won so much acclaim for this campaign in as crisp a form as possible: “it was he and he alone who saved Richmond.” Immediately,  however, in the very next sentence, he qualifies that assessment: “His conceptions were brilliant, his executions faulty and unnecessarily costly.” 

In the century after the war, Ulysses S. Grant came in for much criticism as a “butcher” with his men’s lives. But it is hard to see how he can be faulted on this count more than Lee, and in another crucial respect—one that applies to the Seven Days and subsequent campaigns—he was the Confederate’s superior: Grant’s orders were crisply written, while Lee’s were oral and sometimes garbled. You'd be hard pressed to find a subordinate in any doubt what Grant wanted them to do, but Lee’s sometimes misconstrued his orders—and that can be seen in this particular campaign, when poorly coordinated Confederate attacks resulted from Lee's lieutenants not being in position to attack when he wanted them to do so.

In the confusion of war, even Lee could confuse what he wanted done. Appalled at the grim slaughter at Malvern Hill, he asked General John Magruder why he had pressed on with the attack in the face of McClellan’s strong defensive position. “Because of your orders, twice repeated,” Magruder responded. (Those Lee apologists who still blame James Longstreet for the failed Pickett’s Charge on the third, decisive day at Gettysburg might want to look to the earlier exchange with Magruder and reconsider their position.)

The talk with Magruder also raises the issue of casualties. Lee was already facing an overall numerical disadvantage in terms of manpower, and his predeliction for the grand offensive didn’t help matters. As Alan T. Nolan pointed out in Lee Considered (1991), throughout the Seven Days campaign, McClellan lost approximately 9,800 soldiers killed and wounded, or 10.7% of his force; Lee lost 19,700 men, or 20.7% of his army.

Similar numbers recurred throughout the rest of his campaigns. From McClellan through Hooker, Northern commanders were knocked so silly by Lee’s blows that they never really recovered their equilibrium after the first strike. In Grant, however, Lee faced a leader who, after agreeing with Sherman that they had had “the devil’s own day” in their first 24 hours at Shiloh, continued: “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

If he could, Grant would stick with his initial tactics; if not, he would try another. But, whether inVicksburg or Northern Virginia, he would continue the campaign. Lee had never faced anyone quite like him before. The losses he sustained in offensive operations now came back to haunt him, as he had no men to spare for either other fronts or even his own offensives.

In the Seven Days, Lee had driven the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond, making him the victor of the campaign. The Confederacy could ill afford his kind of bloody victories in the future, though.

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