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.