American Civil War: The Peninsula Campaign


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Peninsula campaign was a sprawling military operation that had enormous significance in the greater sweep of the war. However, George B. McClellan’s infamous penchant for procrastination was in evidence during this campaign as well. Let’s take a look at how the Peninsula campaign played out on the ground.

Map of Southeastern Virginia illustrating the approaches to Richmond, on the top left, and Petersburg, on the bottom left, with the James River flowing at the bottom of the map and the York River flowing on the right.
The Peninsula campaign was a military operation planned by George B. McClellan to capture Richmond, Virginia, which was the capital of the Confederacy. (Image: United States, War Department/Public domain)

The word ‘peninsula’ relates to the finger of land in between the York River and the James River in Virginia. That’s the Virginia Peninsula. There are other peninsulas in the state, too. There’s one between the York River and the Rappahannock, for example, and one between the Rappahannock and the Potomac. The farthest north is the Northern Neck. The one between the James and the York is the Peninsula and that’s the piece of land that gives its name to this campaign.

McClellan’s Plan to Capture Richmond

By the end of 1861, McClellan actually had a plan to capture Richmond. It was a turning movement. He proposed taking his troops down the Potomac River and then moving them along the Rappahannock River to come in behind Joseph Johnston’s forces in northern Virginia.

He would then force Johnston to either try to get around him and flee to the south or turn and attack McClellan’s army, which would give McClellan’s army the advantage. If Johnston did nothing, McClellan would be closer to Richmond than Johnston was, and he would simply march against the Confederate capital.

It was a good plan. McClellan actually shared his plan with Lincoln, and Lincoln said, good, execute it, put it into motion. But McClellan did not. An exasperated Lincoln finally ordered McClellan to advance. Very unusual. On January 27, 1862, he ordered McClellan to advance directly against Joseph Johnston’s army. He said, I want this advance to begin on February 22, George Washington’s birthday. Advance against the Rebels.

Lincoln’s peremptory order for an advance jolted McClellan into a momentary sense of reality in terms of his relationship with civilian authorities. He explained his plan in detail now. He said, we’re going to go by water, and we’re going to get behind the Rebels, and these are all the good things that can come from that. But he still managed to procrastinate.

February 22 came and went, and, in March, an exasperated Lincoln ordered him again to advance. Finally Lincoln lost patience with McClellan, and he said, look, I’m going to leave you in the command of the Army of the Potomac, but you’re not going to be General-in-Chief anymore. You’re in command of your army, but you’re not in overall command.

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Over 100,000 Federal Soldiers Move Into Virginia

Well, while all this is going on, Joseph Johnston drops back to the Rappahannock River from his position up near Washington, so the notion of McClellan’s coming to the Rappahannock won’t work anymore because Johnston is already there.

What McClellan decided on was a wider turning movement by water. This time he would go clear down to the Peninsula, and he would land troops on the Peninsula, and he would use the Union navy to secure his supply lines, and he would advance against Richmond up the Peninsula.

In late March, 70,000 Federal troops got on vessels and headed for Fort Monroe, a Federal installation right at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, a piece of ground that the United States had held onto. Another 35,000 troops under Irvin McDowell shifted down to Fredericksburg, Virginia, 50 miles north of Richmond. So there are going to be two threats coming against Richmond.

There were also about 25,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley under Nathaniel P. Banks, a former governor of Massachusetts, one of the political generals that Lincoln named as successor to old Robert Patterson, who’d been pushed off to the side. Finally, John C. Frémont, who had been shifted to the Eastern Theater after his sojourn in Missouri early in the war, commanded a few less than 10,000 men in western Virginia, out in the Allegheny region.

So you have all these Federals mustering and getting into position in Virginia, on the Peninsula at Fredericksburg, in the Shenandoah Valley, and in the Allegheny Mountains. Now let’s look at what the Confederates decided to do to react to this looming threat against their capital.

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The Confederate Counter

The Confederates enjoyed interior lines between Johnston’s army and the Peninsula, and what they did was use those interior lines to shift Joseph Johnston’s forces down to reinforce Confederate troops on the Peninsula who would be blocking McClellan’s main advance, the advance of that big Union army that had landed at Fort Monroe. Johnston pulled back from Fredericksburg. McDowell would follow him after he pulled out, and Johnston joined two smaller forces already on the Peninsula.

In the Shenandoah Valley, a very small force, about 5,000 men commanded by Stonewall Jackson, moved against a Union force in their front. Jackson fought a small battle in March, the Battle of First Kernstown, as it was called, just south of Winchester, Virginia.

It was a defeat for Jackson, a tactical defeat. He made contact with the Federals, they fought, and Jackson retreated. But he accomplished his goal. What he had hoped to do with this battle was gain the attention of the Federals and make them commit to leaving troops in that part of the valley so those troops wouldn’t be shifted to reinforce those approaching Richmond.

Jackson succeeded in that when he attacked a piece of Banks’s army in the Battle of First Kernstown. There aren’t going to be troops shifted now to McClellan from that arena. It was just what Jackson and his superiors in Richmond hoped he would accomplish.

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Confederates Bluff McClellan

Federal soldiers standing beside artillery batteries in Yorktown.
In April 1862, George McClellan had assembled over 70,000 troops on the old revolutionary battleground at Yorktown, and they were expected to be joined by an additional 30,000 Federal troops. (Image: James F. Gibson/Library of Congress/Public domain)

By early April, McClellan had 70,000 troops, or a few more, perhaps, in position at Yorktown on the old revolutionary battleground at Yorktown. There were about 20,000 Confederates opposing him. He had at least a three-to-one advantage. Thirty thousand more Federals would soon arrive to reinforce McClellan.

But the man opposite McClellan here, an officer named John Bankhead Magruder, did a very good job of bluffing his Federal opponent. Now, he has the perfect foil in this sense because McClellan loves to be bluffed. He already thinks there are more Confederates than there ever are. There are three behind every tree and two behind every rock, and God knows where else they are.

John Bankhead Magruder used a number of devices to convince the Federals that he had more men than he had, and McClellan decided to wait and to take his time. So he decided to lay siege to Yorktown. He brought up huge siege mortars, and he wasted a month at Yorktown getting everything just right for his attempt to reduce this Confederate stronghold, all the time sending complaining messages to Washington.

“Let McDowell come and reinforce me,” he said. “I need McDowell’s troops. No, we want McDowell where he is. But I need McDowell’s troops.” Well, there may be other Confederate threats somewhere else.

The Confederates Call in Reinforcements

McClellan was working himself into quite a state at Yorktown and eating up time in the process as day after day after day passed. Two hundred thousand seemed to be the figure he’d settled on as to how many Confederates there were in his front. It was fantasy, actually. Confederates had far fewer than half that many, even after some reinforcements came.

Slowly the Confederates fell back. There was no firing at Yorktown. They spent about a month there, and then the Confederates just left, and McClellan started to follow them very slowly toward Richmond.

April was gone. The month of May came and went as the armies, amid quite heavy rains for much of the month, very deliberately made their way toward Richmond: Joseph Johnston in command on the Confederate side retreating, retreating, retreating, and George B. McClellan on the Union side following very cautiously, gaining ground but following very cautiously.

All the while Confederates are calling in reinforcements from the South Atlantic Coast and from elsewhere. This army eventually outside Richmond would become the largest army the Confederate States ever fielded. Well, those reinforcements are coming in as McClellan’s moving slowly forward and Joseph Johnston is retreating.

Common Questions about the Peninsula Campaign

Q: What was the goal of the Peninsula campaign?

The Peninsula campaign was a military operation planned by George B. McClellan to capture Richmond, Virginia, which was the capital of the Confederacy.

Q: What happened in the Peninsula campaign?

George McClellan had come up with a great plan to capture the Confederate capital, and Lincoln had given it a thumbs up. However, McClellan’s infamous penchant for procrastination was in evidence during the Peninsula campaign as well. The campaign was supposed to begin on 27th January, 1862, but McClellan first delayed it till 22nd February, and then further delayed it till late-March. This gave the Confederates ample time to come up with a counter plan of their own, and call in reinforcements from the South Atlantic Coast and from elsewhere.

Q: Who led the Peninsula campaign?

The Peninsula campaign was led by General-in-Chief of the Union armies, George B. McClellan.

Q: What side did Joseph Johnston fight for?

General Joseph Johnston fought for the Confederacy against the Union armies, during the Peninsula campaign. He played an important role in the Confederate counter to the Union’s plan to capture Richmond.

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