When General Johnston was severely wounded at Fair Oaks, President Davis assigned command of the Confederate army in front of Richmond to Robert E. Lee. Lee had already surmised that McClellan intended to repeat his tactics before York- town and make the battle for Richmond one in which artillery and engineering would determine the outcome. “McClellan,” he anxiously predicted, “will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position, under cover of heavy guns, & we cannot get at him without storming his works, which with our new troops is extremely hazardous. . . . It will require 100,000 men to resist the regular siege of Richmond, which perhaps would only prolong not save it.”
Lee brought to his new command several advantages that his predecessor had not enjoyed. Unlike Johnston, Lee possessed Davis’s full trust and respect. Consequently, Davis let Lee formulate and implement his plans free from the sort of constraints and interference that hampered McClellan. Lee also had authority over all Confederate troops in Virginia and North Carolina and was able to quickly concentrate or disperse forces as he saw ¤t to meet the particular situation. And as he saw it in June 1862, McClellan’s threat to Richmond demanded concentration of force there. Thus, he and Davis abandoned the policy of dispersing troops they had been following prior to June 1 (a policy that had been no small source of friction between them and Johnston, who had been advocating concentration of force for some time) and sent orders to commanders along the south Atlantic coast to send troops to Virginia.
In addition, unlike the Northern government, which closed recruiting offices at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign, the Davis administration was at that point maximizing the mobilization of Southern manpower. (McClellan would later rue that “Common sense and the experience of all wars prove that when an army takes the field every possible effort should be made . . . to collect recruits and establish depots, whence the inevitable daily losses may be made good. . . . Failure to do this proves either a desire for the failure of the campaign or entire incompetence. Between the horns of this dilemma the friends of Mr. Stanton must take their choice.”) On April 16, the Confederate Congress had passed the first national conscription law in American history. Conscription and concentration would enable Lee to command the largest army ever assembled by the Confederacy. When the Seven Days’ Battles commenced on June 25, Lee would enjoy numerical superiority with 112,220 men present for duty to McClellan’s 101,434.
If he hoped to save Richmond, Lee recognized he had to change the contest from a “battle of posts,” in which Northern superiority in artillery and engineering would be decisive, to a war of maneuver, where the odds would be more favorable to the Confederacy. The condition of the Union right, which Lee gained a full appreciation of as a consequence of a spectacular cavalry raid led by Jeb Stuart on June 12-14 that rode all the way around McClellan’s army, gave him the opportunity to do this. To exploit it, Lee constructed strong defensive works around Richmond that would allow him to shift the bulk of his army north of the Chickahominy. Then, on June 15 he ordered Jackson to bring his army from the Valley to get into position to “sweep down between the Chickahominy and Pamunkey, cutting up the enemy’s communications.” Lee believed this would compel McClellan “to come out of his intrenchments” and fight in the open field.
As McClellan was completing preparations for the advance to Old Tavern, which he informed Heintzelman would “be chiefly an Artillery and Engineering affair,” on June 24, “a very peculiar case of desertion” informed McClellan of Jackson’s planned attack. The next day, after personally supervising a successful advance to Old Tavern, McClellan advised Washington that “several contra- bands just in give information confirming the supposition that Jackson’s advance is at or near Hanover Court House.” He also confided to Stanton, and later to his wife, his expectation that Jackson would “soon attack . . . to take us in rear.”
On June 26, Lee attacked just as McClellan expected. Jackson, however, failed to make the planned move on Porter’s rear, and the Confederate offensive degenerated into a series of frontal assaults on Porter’s position behind Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville that were easily repulsed. Nonetheless, McClellan, “satisfied that Jackson would have force enough next morning to turn Porter’s right,” decided to extricate himself from his soon to be untenable position on the Chickahominy by retiring to a new base on the James. He directed Porter to send his wagons and heavy guns to the other side of the Chickahominy and fall back to a position closer to the forces on the south side of the river. A concern that “the abandonment of [Porter’s] position at that time would have placed our right flank and rear at the mercy of the enemy” induced McClellan to keep Porter north of the Chickahominy on June 27. This would buy time “to perfect the arrangements for the change of base to the James.” Orders were then given to quartermasters to “throw all our supplies up the James as fast as possible” and prepare for the evacuation and destruction of the White House depot.
Lee renewed his attack the next day at Gaines’ Mill, and in the evening a brigade commanded by John Bell Hood achieved a breakthrough, but Union reinforcements managed to contain the damage. When Jackson’s participation in the fighting at Gaines’ Mill indicated he might be abandoning, or at least suspending, his move on the supply line to White House, McClellan briefly considered a counterattack. At the end of the day, however, he reported a “severe repulse today, having been attacked by greatly superior numbers, and I am obliged to fall back between the Chickahominy and the James River.” That night, he called together his corps commanders and informed them of his intention to re- treat to the James. Then, with his patience and moderation exhausted, he sent an insubordinate telegram to Stanton stating: “the Government has not sustained this army. . . . If I save this army now . . . I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
McClellan would later claim that he had actually given up hope of McDowell’s arrival and decided to abandon the base at White House and take up a new one on the James on June 25, the day before the exact nature of Lee’s attack had been established. This is contradicted by the fact that even after being informed the day before of Jackson’s coming attack he persisted in carrying out plans on June 25 for the advance to Old Tavern. Had McClellan already decided to change his base it is unlikely that he would have persisted in planning and carrying out this operation.
Clearly, however, a move to the James was on McClellan’s mind before Jackson’s attack. From the time he captured Yorktown, McClellan had pondered the possibility of changing his base to the James. These, however, appear to have been solely contingency plans due to his orders to cooperate with McDowell. On June 25, when McClellan was convinced of Jackson’s coming attack on his right and rear, it began to look like the army would probably, but not necessarily, have to make a move to the James. Not until late on June 26, when it was clear Jackson would be able to cut the line to White House, did McClellan make the actual decision to change his base. McClellan was, after all, still under orders from Washington to maintain White House as his base. To have disobeyed these orders and moved to the James before it was absolutely necessary would surely have exacerbated doubts in Washington regarding McClellan’s willingness to follow the directions of his civilian superiors and might well have cost him his command.
In assessing McClellan’s decision to change his base to the James it is useful to consider the other options that were open to the general when Lee attacked. The first, to stand and fight on the Chickahominy for his communications, if successful, would have kept the army in a position closer to Richmond than the one his move to the James put him in. Yet to maintain this position, McClellan would have had to keep White House as his base and the York River Railroad as his supply line. He could not have shifted his base to the James and maintained his position on the Chickahominy. From a base on the James he would not have had any means for transporting his heaviest siege artillery through White Oak Swamp. Thus, remaining on the Chickahominy would have necessitated keeping the army in the same vulnerable position it was in on June 26 in order to protect the railroad.
A second option would have been to follow the advice of John Pope, who on June 26 was placed in command of Union forces in the Valley and Northern Virginia, and retreat in the direction of the York River. This was what Lee hoped McClellan would do, and he kept his force north of the Chickahominy after Gaines’ Mill to counter such a move. In response to the threat to his communications, Lee anticipated McClellan “would be compelled to retreat” in the direction of the York and “give battle out of his intrenchments.” To pull back to the York would have forced McClellan to march his army east down the Peninsula in the open, and with Lee and Jackson on his left flank, which would have been just the sort of operational situation that played to Confederate superiority in open warfare. Moreover, even if McClellan was able to make such a move safely, once back at the York River his army would have been at a greater distance from Richmond than it was after the move to the James.
The limited options open for future operations had McClellan been able to reach a secure position on the York also support the decision not to pursue this course of action. One option would have been to rest and refit his army in preparation for another advance over the same ground he had already passed and retreated over once. Another would have been to wait until it was determined how he could cooperate with Pope from that position. This would have required time, for until June 26 planning for overland operations in support of the Army of the Potomac had been based on McClellan’s being on the Chickahominy. From a position on the York McClellan might also have transferred the army to the James. Had such a move been made, however, it is unlikely that the army could have placed itself in a more favorable position on the James than the one it had after the Seven Days’ Battles.
Another option available to McClellan on June 26 and 27 was to use the left wing of the Army of the Potomac to attack south of the Chickahominy, where Union forces enjoyed a two-to-one advantage. While this might have enabled McClellan to seize the Confederate capital, the problem of supplying the army, both during the assault and once it had reached Richmond, made the success of such a move less than certain. To attack Richmond would have meant not making an all-out defense of the line to White House and operating without a secure base of supplies. Then, in the best-case scenario, before what supplies the army had on hand ran out, McClellan could have assaulted and quickly carried the Confederate defenses, disposed of the other forces protecting the capital, seized Richmond, and then, upon clearing the James of defensive works and obstructions, reestablished communications with the navy and a new line of supplies on the river.
This plan could have worked. Yet a staff blunder carrying out orders for the assault on the lightly held but well-prepared rebel works, a breakdown in troop discipline upon occupying Richmond, difficulty reducing the river defenses, or anything else that may have prevented the rapid occupation of Richmond and reestablishment of a new base, could have left the Army of the Potomac destitute of rations and supplies with no base from which it could draw new ones. From the time he reached the Peninsula McClellan had seen his best-laid plans upset by factors outside his control; would it have been reasonable to take this action hoping that luck might finally swing back in his favor? After all, had McClellan taken this gamble and lost, in order to resupply his army he would have been forced to make operational decisions that might have provided Lee the opportunity to force a battle under circumstances disadvantageous to the Union army.