Harrison's Landing at 150

Article excerpt

July 2nd marks the 150th anniversary of the withdrawal of MG George B. Mclellan's demoralized Army of the Potomac into Harrison's Landing along the banks of the James River in Virginia. This brought the ambitious Peninsular Campaign of 1862 to an inglorious end, forcing more years of Civil War fighting. The Peninsular Campaign featured larger forces used timidly and incoherently and smaller forces employed aggressively and decisively. The Confederate strategy and the collateral Shenandoah Valley Campaign remain case studies in effective active operational defense. The twin campaigns also marked the rise of two American military icons, Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson.

Shortly after the Union disaster at Bull Run in July 1861, as discussed in the July 2011 issue, McClellan assumed command of what became the Army of the Potomac. He proved an able organizer, trainer and administrator, and within a few months fielded a well-equipped and capable force of over 150,000. McClellan proved less capable as an operational commander. Although actually outnumbering Confederate BG Joseph E. Johnston's forces at Centreville by more than three-to-one, in his own mind he inflated Johnston's strength to the point that he dared not attack him. Instead, he proposed to outflank Johnston with an ambitious amphibious operation that would march on Richmond from the Atlantic rather than from Washington, D.C.

President Lincoln reluctantly agreed to McClellan's seaborne turning movement with the significant caveat that Washington would always remain adequately protected. This effectively reduced the force potentially available to deploy with McClellan by about a third. Various plans existed for the 30,000-40,000 men left behind with MG Irvin McDowell's Washington-based I Corps to later come to McClellan's assistance, but these were recurrently disrupted by Jackson's brilliant campaign up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson's small but capable army of less than 18,000 drew in and tied up more than 70,000 Federal troops, largely to ensure he did not march on the national capital. Jackson himself marched and countermarched to win striking victories over fragments of the forces opposing him at McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Harpers Ferry and Port Royal.

Beginning on March 17, McClellan's Army of the Potomac, less McDowell, deployed by sea to Fort Monroe. A preliminary clash between the innovative ironclad vessels USS Monitor (for the Union) and CSS Virginia (for the Confederacy) left the waters off Hampton Roads in Union hands. McCIeIlan began an advance up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in early April, only to encounter an entrenched line extending across the peninsula from Yorktown to the Warwick River and along that river to the James. McClellan outnumbered BG John B. Magruder's 15,000 defending Confederates by seven-to-one, but didn't know it. Magruder kept up an impression of greater strength by shuttling forces along the front, conducting feints and employing such devices as dummy guns made from felled trees painted black. Rather than take a chance, McClellan called for reinforcements, amassed a huge stockpile of artillery and artillery ammunition, conducted formal siege operations and prepared for a massive bombardment focused on Yorktown. A day-and-a-half before this massive bombardment was to begin, Johnston pulled Magruder out, leaving a delaying force about eight miles farther up the peninsula under MG James Longstreet while retiring with his main body to the outskirts of Richmond.

Longstreet's delaying force gave a good account of itself, inflicting a sharp repulse of an initial Union assault near Williamsburg on May 5 before retiring under the cover of darkness rather than allowing itself to be enveloped. Meanwhile, a division-sized Union amphibious thrust up the York River was attacked and defeated at West Point, Va., by Confederates operating on interior lines. McClellan slowly and laboriously pursued Johnston, impeded by rains, muddy roads and his own anxieties. …