During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, both Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan led their armies west toward Richmond on this road. Johnston evacuated Yorktown on 3-4 May and withdrew up the Peninsula, with McClellan in pursuit. On 5 May, two Federal divisions clashed with the Confederate rear guard east of Williamsburg in a bloody but indecisive battle. Johnston’s army continued its march west and on 6-7 May eluded McClellan’s forces at Eltham’s Landing on the York River opposite West Point. By mid-month the Confederates were secure behind the Richmond defenses.
The Peninsula Campaign took place during the American Civil War as a major Union operation in southeastern Virginia from March 1862 through July 1862. The first large-scale offensive, the campaign was head by Major General George B. McClellan and was an attempt to capture Richmond. While at first successful against Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee soon emerged and the campaign turned into an Union defeat.
McClellan’s Army of the Potomac consisted of 50,000 men in the beginning but quickly grew to 121,000 before the campaign took place (Sears 361). The amphibious campaign started in Alexandria on March 17 (Sears, 168). In response to McClellan’s campaign, Magruder set up deceptive defenses, which were actually weaker
than they appeared. In response, McClellan began the siege preparations at Yorktown with a variety of heavy artillery (Sears, 58). It continued to be a constant battle of the Confederates improving their defenses and McClellan increasing his artillery. In early May, McClellan found out that the Confederate defenses were deceiving and thus McClellan began to pursue Johnston up the York River (Salmon, 80).
The Peninsula Campaign also included the Battle of Williamsburg, which occurred on May 5, 1862. This was the first battle of the Peninsula Campaign, which was spearheaded by Major General George B. McClellan. This battle was the result of General Joseph E. Johnston’s shocking evacuation of the Yorktown-Warwick River line just two days prior (Salmon, 80). As a result of Johnston’s evacuation, McClellan hastily pursued him. McClellan sent Brig. General George Stoneman to pursue Johnston’s rear guard, which was headed by Brig. General J.E.B. Stuart’s Calvary and with whom his men skirmished many times. Furthermore, McClellan had ordered Brig. General William B. Franklin to sail up the York River to cut Johnston off and thus prevent him from escaping. Weary because of foul weather, Johnston decided to wall up his troops at Fort Magruder. While McClellan considered this battle as an amazing victory, many southerners saw it as allowing the Confederate army to escape towards Richmond (Sears, 82).
The campaign continued to Etham’s Landing where McClellan hoped that Franklin would hinder Johnston’s escape. However, it turned out that the Confederates were prepared and Union troops were forced to seek cover in the woods. Franklin could not intercept the Confederates and thus allowed them to pass (Salmon, 85). The next event to mark
the Peninsula Campaign occurred at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. This amphibious battle resulted in the stagnation of the Union advance and took place on May 15, 1862 at Fort Drewry (Sears, 94). The armies converged in Richmond but the next major battle did not take place until May 27. Also known as the Battle of Slash Church, the Battle of Hanover Court House resulted in a small Union victory but allowed for McClellan to be more prepared at Seven Pines or Fair Oaks. Furthermore, McClellan’s reactions made him look like a weak target to Johnston (Sears, 117). The final battle occurred at Seven Pines on May 31 and June 1. It was the end effect of the offensive by McClellan when he finally reached the outskirts of Richmond. This battle is considered the biggest battle of the time with both sides attempting to claim victory. Union soldiers called it the Battle of Fair Oaks because that’s where they were most successful whereas Confederates fought best at Seven Pines, hence the name (Sears, 149). However it was not long before Robert E. Lee drove McClellan from the Peninsula and it took around three more years before the Union army finally captured Richmond.
Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Miller, William J. The Battles for Richmond, 1862. National Park Service Civil War Series. Fort Washington: U.S. National Park Service and Eastern National, 1996.
Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
Warner, Erza J. Generals In Blue: Lives of Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Historical Marker “Peninsula Campaign W-37,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
“Major General George Brinton McClellan,” Civil War Trust: The Peninsula Campaign, www.civilwar.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Joseph E. Johnston,” Civil War Trust: The Peninsula Campaign, www.civilwar.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“The Peninsula Campaign,” Lee Hall Mansion: 1862 Peninsula Campaign, www.leehall.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Map of Peninsula Campaign,” Civil War Trust: Maps of the Peninsular Campaign 1862, www.civilwar.org (accessed May 2, 2012).