Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862)

Also Known As: Peninsular Campaign

Updated: January 07, 2017

The Peninsula Campaign, also known as the Peninsular Campaign, was an ill-fated Union offensive launched by Major General George B. McClellan in 1862 that was intended to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and bring a quick end to the American Civil War.

Within twenty-four hours of the Union's defeat at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), the Lincoln administration called upon George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort. McClellan spent the first few months of his command fortifying Washington, DC and reorganizing Federal forces. The Northern public and politicians, however, wanted action. Accordingly, McClellan devised plans for an offensive to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia and bring a quick conclusion to the war. McClellan incorrectly believed that the main Confederate army, entrenched near Manassas Junction, outnumbered the Union Army of the Potomac. Eschewing a major battle, he planned to use the Union's superior naval resources to transport his army down the Chesapeake Bay, outflanking the Rebels and capturing Richmond.

The offensive began on March 17, when McClellan began transporting his army of approximately 120,000 men to Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in southeastern Virginia. On April 4, the Army of the Potomac began its advance up the peninsula toward Yorktown. The next day, the advance came to a halt when the Federals encountered Confederate forces of about 10,000, dug in along the Warwick River. Once again, erroneously believing that his army was outnumbered, McClellan settled in for a siege, rather than attack. The resulting one-month delay enabled Confederate General Joseph Johnston to redeploy troops from northern Virginia to the peninsula.

On May 4, McClellan finally launched an assault on Yorktown, only to find that the Confederate defenders were moving back toward Richmond. McClellan sent his army in pursuit of the retreating Rebels, and on May 5, the first major encounter of the Peninsula Campaign occurred near Williamsburg. The results of the Battle of Williamsburg, also known as the Battle of Fort Magruder, were inconclusive, but Confederate General James Longstreet's rearguard was able to hold off the Union attack long enough to enable Johnston's main army to establish new defensive lines protecting Richmond.

Once again, McClellan's offensive stalled as he awaited reinforcements and devised his plans for capturing Richmond. As McClellan lingered at the gates of Richmond, General Stonewall Jackson inflicted a series of defeats on Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. President Lincoln, perceiving Jackson's actions as a threat to Washington, recalled the reinforcements McClellan expected on the peninsula. Meanwhile, McClellan had encamped his army on both sides of the Chickahominy River, east of Richmond. When heavy spring rains flooded the Chickahominy, Johnston seized the opportunity to attack McClellan's army while it was split by the swollen river. The Federals were able to repel the Rebel attack at the Battle of Seven Pines, also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31 to June 1, 1862), but McClellan lost his initiative. Johnston was severely injured during the battle and was replaced by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee.

Following the Battle of Seven Pines, McClellan redeployed most of his army south of the Chickahominy, and continued to plan for a siege of Richmond. Taking advantage of McClellan's inactivity, on June 25, Lee launched the first of six assaults on Federal troops in seven days, collectively known as the Seven Days Battles (June 25 to July 1, 1862). Although the Battle of Gaines Mills was the only engagement in the series that produced a tactical Confederate victory, the battles did achieve Lee's strategic objective of driving McClellan away from Richmond. The Army of the Potomac retreated down the peninsula until President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck recalled it on August 3, to support the Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28 to 30, 1862).

No exclusively Ohio units participated in the Peninsula Campaign, although McClellan, the Union's commanding general, was an Ohioan.

The failure of the Peninsula Campaign was a critical turning point in the war. In May, the Army of the Potomac was only six miles from the Confederate capital. By July, with McClellan's army in retreat, Lee was able to turn his attention to the Union Army of Virginia, less than thirty miles from Washington, and to inflict another disastrous Federal defeat at the Battle of Bull Run II, opening the way for a Confederate invasion of the North.

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"Peninsula Campaign," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 17 Oct 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=213>

APA Style

"Peninsula Campaign." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved October 17, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=213

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Ohio Civil War Central: An Encyclopedia of the American Civil War