Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

So, what do we do with the Peninsula Campaign?  In a recent interview historian Ed Ayers summed it up this way:

World history would have been different if (the Union) had come a few more miles into Richmond; we would not have had the end of slavery in any way like it happened. Slavery had been damaged, but it was not official federal policy to end slavery. If the Union had come back together with slavery in place, I think world history would have been different.

It’s an important point.  It gives us a sense of just what was at stake at this point in time and reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about the end of slavery during the early phase of the Civil War.  Finally, it satisfies that urge to reduce everything that happened in the Civil War to the broader theme of emancipation and freedom.  Of course, we could try to apply Glenn Brasher’s recent interpretation of the campaign – instead of Antietam – as the true turning point in what would eventually become a war to end slavery, but that seems like a tough nut to crack.  I have no doubt that subsequent history would have been different had slavery remained intact, but we should remember that Congress had already taken steps to outlaw slavery in the territories, in the nation’s capital and McClellan’s advance had done serious damage to the institution in eastern Virginia.

My bigger concern is with Ayers’s conditional statement re: the consequences of a Union victory outside of Richmond.  Though I know this is not his intent, it’s hard not read Ayers as expressing a sense of relief that the United States was not victorious.  After all, it would have brought about the end of the war without the end of slavery, which does not fit into our moral calculus or emancipation-centric memory of the war.  That, however, tells us much more about our own attitudes and values than it does about how most Americans would have reacted to news of a decisive victory.  The Union would have been preserved and Lincoln would have achieved what he set out to accomplish.  [McClellan would probably have given Lincoln a much better run for the presidency in 1864.]  At the least, Ayers seems to be suggesting that a Union victory would have been hollow.

Building on a counterfactual that includes a Union victory and an end to hostilities in the summer of 1862, perhaps we assume that the eventual end of slavery and move toward a more inclusive society would have been an even more tortured process.  A very good case could be made for such an outcome.  In the end, we can’t know.  At the same time such an interpretation of the campaign may reflect our continued need to view the scale of violence and destruction as both necessary and justified.

17 comments… add one

  • Mike Gorman May 6, 2012

    There’s the old problem with counterfactual arguments – they quickly spiral out of control. The Peninsula Campaign certainly shows the primacy of the course of military events in shaping war policies, and that’s about as far as we can factually go. However, I do think it is worth at least dancing on the edges of a counterfactual argument to consider the contingencies: if Union gunboats silence the fort at Drewry’s Bluff and take Richmond (to pick one moment in time), could Johnston’s army have survived? If so, any future land battles would necessarily shift south and west, into increasingly less industrialized lands. If not, the largest army of the Confederacy would cease to be, and land battles in the East (as we know them) simply can’t and don’t happen. What would a largely Democratic army – victorious and heroic in the public eye – do presiding over whatever form an early Reconstruction might take? What would that have done to the Republican party? Could emancipation have been a political reality under those circumstances? That’s a lot on the table, and it is worth considering how a few more yards of ground would have affected the course of the war and our post-war direction. Of course, anything more than contemplating the contingencies is carrying counterfactualism too far. What someone WOULD do is shaped by the events that precede it, which we simply can’t know, so we have to stop after merely posing the questions to ourselves. But by doing so, and surveying the contingencies of the time, it is hard to imagine another event in the war with so many potentially different outcomes, and its just a fascinating thing to study.

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2012

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I completely agree that we can take counterfactual scenarios too far, but I also believe they can be instructive for pointing out certain salient aspects of what, in fact, happened. My concern in this post is more with what our counterfactual scenarios tell us about how we choose to remember the past. Ayers’s scenario satisfies our preoccupation (rightly or wrongly) with a narrative of the war that locates emancipation at its center and its most important outcome.

      • Mike Gorman May 6, 2012

        You’re correct, and I’ll predict that for the 200th Anniversary of the Civil War, that will be the chief critique of the 150th commemorations. The Union narrative is virtually absent from most commentaries these days(though I often try to put it in when I can). The Peninsula campaign, I think, gets such short shrift precisely because of the ambiguity of possible outcomes. That’s why I like it – but perhaps it is our need to put our finger on one theme or conclusion that is at fault here. We’ll probably keep doing it though. Nuance and ambiguity aren’t comfortable territories for many folks (sometimes myself included). I hope I’m around for the 200th to see how wrong we all were (and consider how wrong they are)!

  • Will Hickox May 6, 2012

    It seems unlikely to me that capturing Richmond or even destroying Johnston’s army would have ended the war in the spring of 1862. Yes, it would have been yhe latest and greatest in a string of Union successes, but there would still have been rebel armies in the field and a strongly supportive populace, factors that were much less evident in the spring of 1865. It took four years of grinding war for the Union to defeat the hungry and exhausted (and at that point rapidly shrinking) Confederacy.

    • James Harrigan May 6, 2012

      That sounds right to me, Will. Before the Seven Days, the Confederate government was preparing to evacuate Richmond, and it is likely that an uninjured Johnston would have led his army in retreat (as he had all the way up the Peninsula) rather than surrender. Even if he’d captured Richmond, is it plausible that McClellan would have hotly pursued a retreating Johnston?

      As for the future of slavery if the war had ended in June 1862, of course we can’t know. But I tend to think that the secessionists of 1860 were right in believing that slavery was under severe long-term threat in the United States. With secession hypothetically defeated in 1862, what bargaining power would the slaveocracy have had with the Republican President and Congress? I can easily imagine a political dynamic that would have led to a modified 13th Amendment, perhaps with some sort of gradual and/or compensated emancipation.

  • GDBrasher May 6, 2012

    My two cents on this: yes, Congress had already begun to take steps to end slavery in the territories and in DC, and Lincoln was working hard to get the Border States to accept compensated emancipation. But these activities fit very nicely into the Republican party’s long standing policy of trying to undermine slavery by taking away the federal government’s support of it and in fact making the government its enemy. (Their “Freedom National” strategy). Had the war been won at this point, Northerners would have been largely united in celebrating the saving of the Union even with slavery intact. With that accomplished by war (which was its primary purpose), Lincoln and the Republicans would then have moved on to trying to eventually eliminate slavery via the Freedom National strategy. We can’t forget that this was the very reason and primary purpose for which the party existed (which accounts for the failure of all the attempts at compromise in the days after the election and before Fort Sumter). How successful that policy would have been, we can’t know. But as Ayers is indicating here, the path to ending slavery would have been much different had the Union been saved in the spring of 1862.

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Glenn.

      But as Ayers is indicating here, the path to ending slavery would have been much different had the Union been saved in the spring of 1862.

      That point is clear. I know I come close to putting words in Ayers’s mouth, but what I am interested in is our apparent need to use this point to suggest that the war would have been an incomplete victory without the end of slavery. The rub for me is what I see as an implicit assumption that the remaining years of war were necessary to end slavery and place the nation on its eventual path toward civil rights. We don’t seem willing to consider that perhaps it would have been easier had the war ended in the summer of 1862.

      • GDBrasher May 6, 2012

        The Radicals didn’t think it would be easier. As I discuss in my book, as the Army of the Potomac was advancing up the Peninsula 150 years ago this month, the Radicals became desperate to make sure that as many slaves as possible would be liberated by the war before it ended. Which appeared to be happening in the very near future. When the campaign failed, they made statements that many at the time took as expressing relief that the war had not ended with slavery still intact (which mirrors your comments about Ayer’s words). It is interesting to consider whether the Freedom National policy would have been a less bitter, and less destructive path to ending slavery. But obviously it did not turn out that way, and the Peninsula Campaign’s military events are one of the primary reasons why. I’m not sure how acknowledging that is a product of an emancipation-centric view of the war.

        • Kevin Levin May 6, 2012

          Good point, but how representative of the general public were the Radical Republicans in the summer of 1862? I have no doubt that they would be disappointed had the war ended without emancipation, which I see as reflective in Ayers’s comment. Most Americans would have celebrated the end of the war without giving much thought to the fact that slavery remained intact in a reunited nation. I guess I have Gary Gallagher’s recent interpretation of the importance of Union in the back of my mind, though I do think he draws to artificial a distinction between that and slavery.

          • GDBrasher May 6, 2012

            They were probably not very representative, but they remain significant because of how much power they wielded and because of the increasing pressure they were putting on Lincoln (which he himself acknowledged during the Peninsula Campaign). Of course Lincoln was not of their elk, preferred the Freedom National strategy, and most likely would have preferred to see slavery end in the way that you suggest. But his famous “events controlled me” quote comes to mind here. As to Gallagher, although my own book’s emphasis may seem at odds with his emphasis on the Union cause, I agree with him, and you, and Gorman (as he stated above). Namely, that the cause for which most people at the time felt was the primary purpose of the war (as distinguished from its causes), and for which they felt was worth the sacrifices, is too frequently lost today in our interpretations of the war. Which I gather is why you are uncomfortable with Ayer’s statement. But as you know, I maintain that the Peninsula Campaign was significant in causing a significant amount of northerners to come to believe that emancipation was required in order to save the Union (their #1 objective). Can such an interpretation still be seen as Union-centric?

            • GDBrasher May 6, 2012

              And by “elk,” I obviously meant “ilk.” I wasn’t trying to label Lincoln or the abolitionists as a type of deer! Although doubtless many southerners then and now would like to have hunted them down as such. :-)

            • Kevin Levin May 6, 2012

              Namely, that the cause for which most people at the time felt was the primary purpose of the war (as distinguished from its causes), and for which they felt was worth the sacrifices, is too frequently lost today in our interpretations of the war. Which I gather is why you are uncomfortable with Ayer’s statement.

              Only uncomfortable to the extent to which the point is to make us feel relieved that the war did continue.

  • Bob Pollock May 6, 2012

    I am reminded of Grant’s conversation with Bismark as recorded by John Russell Young in “Around the World with General Grant.” To wit:

    B: “What always seemed so sad to me about your last war was that you were fighting your own people. That is always so terrible in wars, so very hard.”
    G “But it had to be done.”
    B: “Yes, you had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany.”
    G: “Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery.”
    B: “I suppose, however, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment.”
    G: “In the beginning, yes, but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
    B: “I suppose if you had had a large army at the beginning of the war it would have ended in a much shorter time.”
    G: “We might have had no war at all, but we cannot tell. Our war had many strange features – there were many things which seemed odd enough at the time, but which now seem Providential. If we had had a large regular army, as it was then constituted, it might have gone with the South. In fact, the Southern feeling in the army among high officers was so strong that when war broke out the army dissolved. We had no army – then we had to organize one. A great commander like Sherman or Sheridan even then might have organized an army and put down the rebellion in six months or a year, or, at the farthest, two years. But that would have saved slavery, perhaps, and slavery meant the germs of a new rebellion. There had to be an end to slavery. Then we were fighting an enemy with whom we could not make a peace. We had to destroy him. No convention, no treaty was possible – only destruction.”

  • Brad May 6, 2012

    From a post war perspective, some but not all see the end of slavery as worth the sacrifice although it has taken more than a hundred years to achieve political and economic freedom for African Americans.

    Had the war ended in 1862, the sacrifice would have been less great but the emancipationists would not have been appeased, those who lost family members would have questioned whether it was worth the sacrifice and what would the political structure of the country had been (status quo ante I assume). In all likelihood the issues that may have brought civil war might not have been resolved and a true reckoning pushed off for several years. On top of all that, the long night of African Americans would have continued.

    Although one can argue whether it was best the way it turned out, we don’t what really would have happened had it ended earlier.

  • TF Smith May 6, 2012

    Great comments; I think there are a couple of ways to look at the Peninsula Campaign. One aspect worth considering is that if Richmond had fallen to the Army of the Potomac in 1862, would it have really been a war-winning stroke by the US?

    Losing the Tredegar works in 1862 would have hurt to CSA’s ability to mobilize, but the USN blockade was quite permeable in 1862, and I think it is quite reasonable the loss of Richmond would in 1862 would not have had a decisive impact on the Confederate military economy. Politically, it would have hurt the CSA cause in Europe, but since holding Richmond did not lead to European recoignition, I don’t know that losing Richmond would have made a huge difference.

    In some ways, given that Atlanta was probably the best location for the CSA in terms of a “central” point between the eastern and western theaters, it might have actually made life easier for the CSA logistics effort and the ability to balance the needs of the two theaters.

  • Dudley Bokoski May 6, 2012

    Ayres comments seem based on the idea the war would have ended in a relatively short time had Richmond been taken. McClellan surely did have enough men to take Richmond, but the destruction of an opposing force was something rarely achieved in this war.

    It is likely the fighting around Richmond’s defenses would have been bloody and difficult (look at the Battle of Williamsburg as an example). A good portion of the Confederate army would likely have gotten off to Danville and it would have required another battle there at least. All the while Union supply lines would be stretched further and further and casualties would have mounted over the summer. This is no small point because as you move forward you require more and more men to be left in the rear to garrison the defeated territory.

    Much of what happened then would have come down to the reaction of civilians on either side. Would Virginians stay with the army on the hope they would reclaim the state? Would northern civilians grow weary of the casualty lists (keeping in mind the psychological difference between being asked to defend against a threat on the borders (which Lee posed in 1862) and sending men to die in order to reclaim territory at an exchange of 20,000 men every 100 miles.

    If you view the Civil War in the context of the Revolutionary War (and I believe many Southerners did), the idea of losing and regaining territory against an invading army was not something out of the ordinary. It is also a reason I believe the Union generals and troops deserve more credit than they receive for their ultimate victory. Taking and holding the amount of territory they were required to capture was no small thing.

  • Pat Young May 6, 2012

    McClellan was initially a formidable candidate in 1864 because of Union military problems in the summer of that year. A successful conclusion of the war in 1862 would likely have forestalled Democratic congressional gains in Nov. 1862 and placed Lincoln in a strong position for re-election in 1864. Also presidential reconstruction would have taken place under Lincoln rather than Johnson.

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