Peninsular campaign, in the American Civil War, the unsuccessful Union attempt (Apr.–July, 1862) to capture Richmond, Va., by way of the peninsula between the York and James rivers.
Early in 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan, who had kept the Army of the Potomac inactive through the winter, proposed a plan for transporting his troops by sea to Urbana, near the mouth of the Rappahannock River, and from there advancing on Richmond. This plan was soon rendered unfeasible by the advance of the Confederate army under Joseph E. Johnston to the Rappahannock, so McClellan chose Fort Monroe (at the tip of the peninsula between the York and James rivers) as the debarkation point for his offensive. President Lincoln, who preferred an overland advance, reluctantly agreed to McClellan's plan, provided that a force was left behind to protect Washington. The 1st Corps, under Irvin McDowell, was detached from the Army of the Potomac for that purpose.
Evacuation of Yorktown
Early in Apr., 1862, McClellan had about 100,000 men at Fort Monroe. Instead of trying to break through the Confederate line across the peninsula, he prepared to besiege Yorktown, the strongest point in the line. General Johnston evacuated Yorktown (May 3) just as McClellan had completed his preparations. An indecisive, though severely contested, rear-guard action was fought at Williamsburg (May 5) as the Confederates retired toward Richmond. The evacuation of Yorktown opened up the York River to the Union fleet, and on May 16, McClellan established his base at White House Landing (c.20 mi/32 km east of Richmond) on the Pamunkey River.
Union Advance and Jackson's Diversion
At the same time as Yorktown, the Union advance into the interior forced the Confederates to abandon Norfolk (May 10) and to scuttle their formidable ironclad, the Virginia (see Monitor and Merrimack), thus opening up the James as far as Drewry's Bluff (9 m/14 km south of Richmond), where Confederate batteries repulsed them on May 15. McClellan soon had his army encamped on both sides of the Chickahominy River near Richmond: the 3d and 4th corps were on the south side; the 2d, 5th, and 6th on the north. Irvin McDowell's corps (now called the Army of the Rappahannock) was to march south from its position near Fredericksburg and unite with the right wing north of the Chickahominy. McClellan would then move against the inferior forces of Johnston. However, the brilliant campaign of Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley caused the diversion of McDowell's corps from the army threatening Richmond.
The End of the Campaign
Late in May heavy rains swelled the Chickahominy so that communication between the two wings of McClellan's army became precarious. On May 31, Johnston moved against the left wing (on the south side of the river), where the lines extended to Fair Oaks, a railroad station c.6 mi (9 km) east of Richmond. In the ensuing battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines (May 31–June 1, 1862), the Confederate attack, led by James Longstreet, was badly executed. With the help of some divisions of the 2d corps, which managed to cross the river, the Union left wing held its ground. Johnston, severely wounded on May 31, was succeeded on June 1 by Gen. Robert E. Lee, who withdrew the Army of Northern Virginia to Richmond. Lee's subsequent counteroffensive in the Seven Days battles led to McClellan's withdrawal and the close of the campaign. Union forces did not again come so close to Richmond until 1864.
See study by J. P. Cullen (1973).