The Peninsula Campaign

by Glenn David Brasher

Peninsula Campaign | General George B. McClellan | General Robert E. Lee | General John B. Magruder | Drewry’s Bluff | General Joseph E. Johnston | J.E.B Stuart’s Ride Around McClellan | Seven Days’ Battles

During spring 1862, Major General George Brinton McClellan’s Union army advanced up the Virginia Peninsula toward the Confederate capital. The campaign involved the largest amphibious operation of the war and saw perhaps Robert E. Lee’s best chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac. Arriving just outside Richmond, the Federals enjoyed superior numbers, yet during a week of almost continuous fighting the Rebels used aggressive attacks to drive the Yankees away. Northern armies would not get as close to Richmond for two more years, and Southerners discovered the leader whose subsequent victories helped build and sustain Confederate nationalism. Most important, the campaign helped lead to the decision to use emancipation as a means of saving the Union.

Historians have long underappreciated the campaign’s role in emancipation. Typically, the best works on the subject focus mainly on the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia, arguing that the campaign’s largest impact was the rise of the commander who would allow the South to fight on for three bloody years. This interpretation unfortunately still dominates popular perceptions, as a quick review of online sources such as Wikipedia attests. The most comprehensive book on the subject, Stephen Sears’s To the Gates of Richmond, adds a well-supported analysis of George McClellan, demonstrating him as politically at odds with the Lincoln administration. Nevertheless, only more recently have scholars such as Mark Grimsley, Gary Gallagher, and myself, stressed the campaign’s critical role in emancipation.[1]

At the start of the war, Lincoln repeatedly insisted that his only war aim was the preservation of the Union. His Republican party aimed for the extinction of slavery, but understood that the Constitution protected it in the states where it existed. Therefore, their anti-slavery strategy was to prevent the institution from spreading to the western territories, stop using the government to support the system, and to encourage gradual and compensated emancipation. This platform led to Lincoln’s 1860 election victory (and to the secession of the Confederate states in reaction) and he consistently maintained this position until the aftermath of the Peninsula Campaign.

Military events quickly challenged the North’s commitment to not touch slavery in the southern states. In July 1861, Union troops were repulsed at Manassas in their first big movement into Virginia. Northern newspapers quickly pointed out that slave-built fortifications there had slowed the northern advance, and most shockingly, they claimed that blacks had been seen fighting alongside their masters. These concerns played a large role in Congress’s passage of the First Confiscation Act, allowing Union armies to confiscate slaves that the Confederates had used in their military efforts.

Subsequently, emancipationists increasingly insisted that beyond the moral imperative to free the slaves, the government should do it as a “military necessity” under constitutionally granted war powers.[2] They pointed out that Southerners were forcing slaves to build entrenchments and that some were being coerced into combat. If the war continued, they maintained, the South would continue to use their enslaved population in these capacities in ever-growing numbers. Additionally, if the North were to free the slaves, it would not only take a strength away from the South, it would add that strength to the Union cause.

Still, most Northerners believed that twenty-one million Yankees could defeat nine million Southerners even if they were using their slaves in military roles. In 1861 there was little reason to believe otherwise. Lincoln’s December address to Congress indicated that he was also not ready to accept the “military necessity” argument. These sentiments were widely praised across the North.

Meanwhile, the loss at Manassas led Lincoln to promote George B. McClellan. The cocky thirty-four-year-old officer had recently cleared the western part of Virginia of Rebel forces and now Lincoln needed him to whip the Army of the Potomac back into shape and restore its morale. McClellan competently accomplished these tasks, leading to his promotion to general-in-chief of all Union armies.

The new commander began planning a campaign to capture the Confederate capital. Rather than advance over the same ground on which they had already been repulsed, McClellan decided to float the Army of the Potomac down river around the southern defenses in northern Virginia and land the troops at Urbanna, a coastal town on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. From there, his army would capture West Point and then use the York River railroad to advance to the outskirts of Richmond. As a backup, McClellan envisioned landing farther south at Fort Monroe and marching up the Virginia Peninsula to get to West Point.

In early March 1862, however, Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston unexpectedly abandoned his lines at Manassas, re-concentrating south of the Rappahannock River. Learning of the movement, McClellan’s characteristic paranoia caused him to suspect that Johnston had discovered the Urbanna plan and thus he settled on landing at Fort Monroe. At the end of the month, the Army of the Potomac began its amphibious shift to the Virginia Peninsula.

  • [1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1996); Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Gary W. Gallagher, The Richmond Campaign of 1862; The Peninsula & the Seven Days (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation; African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
  • [2] Abolitionists and many radical Republicans insisted that the Constitution’s emergency war powers gave the president the authority to emancipate slaves as a means of winning the war, and thus they often described emancipation as a “military necessity.” This position heavily depended on arguments made by John Quincy Adams twenty years earlier. For a detailed discussion of the origin, legal justification, and evolution of this principle, see James Oakes, Freedom National; The Destruction of Slaver in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014).
  • [3] George B. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story; the War for the Union, the soldiers who fought it, the civilians who directed it and his relations to it and to them (New York: C. L. Webster and Company, 1887), 151.  
  • [4] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion:  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, volume 11, part 1, p. 512(hereafter cited as O.R., I, 11, pt. 1, 512).
  • [5] Glenn Tucker, Hancock the Superb (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960), 89.
  • [6] O.R., I, 11, pt. 1, 32.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Boston Daily Journal, July 12, 1862; Washington Chronicle, July 13, 1862.
  • [9] New York Commercial Advertiser, quoted in Cincinnati Gazette, July 15, 1862.
  • [10] Cong. Globe, 37th Cong., 2d Sess. 3198-9 (1862).
  • [11] Charles Sumner, The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner. 2 vols. Edited by Beverly Wilson Palmer (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), 2:122.
  • [12] Rachel Sherman Thorndike, ed., Correspondence Between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 156-7.
  • [13] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson. 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 1:70-71.
  • [14] Ibid; Gideon Welles, "The History of Emancipation." In The Galaxy, 14 (Dec. 1872), 842-3.
  • [15] Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Lincoln .9 vols. Edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), 7: 506-7.
  • [16] Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Six Months in the White House with Abraham Lincoln (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 77.  

If you can read only one book:

Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1996.


  • Brasher, Glenn D. The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

  • Burton, Brian K. Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

  • Coski, John. The Army of the Potomac at Berkeley Plantation: The Harrison’s Landing Occupation of 1862. Richmond, VA: privately printed, 1989.

  • Dougherty, Kevin and J. Michael Moore. The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: A Military Analysis. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

  • Dowdey, Clifford. The Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee. Boston, MA/Toronto, ON: Little Brown, 1964.

  • Dubbs, Carol Kettenburg. Defend This Old Town: Williamsburg During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

  • Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula and the Seven Days. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

  • Miller, William J., ed. The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: Yorktown to the Seven Days. 3 vols. Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing, 1997.

  • Quarstein, John V. The Civil War on the Virginia Peninsula. Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1998.

  • Quarstein, John V. and J. Michael Moore. Yorktown’s Civil War Siege: Drums Along the Warwick. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.

  • Wheeler, Richard. Sword over Richmond: An Eyewitness History of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.


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Web Resources:

  • This is a good overview essay from the Civil War Trust by one of the campaign’s foremost historians, John V. Quarstein.

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  • This website provides information from Virginia Civil War Trails on touring the campaign’s sites.

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  • This is the Encyclopedia Virginia entry on the campaign by Brian Burton.

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  • This essay for the Civil War Monitor by Glenn Brasher summarizes the role of African Americans at the Battle of Williamsburg.

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  • This New York Times article by Glenn Brasher discusses the rise of the reputation of Winfield Hancock at the Battle of Williamsburg.

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  • This New York Times article by Glenn Brasher analyses the role of an African American sailor in the planning of the Campaign.

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  • This is a video interview on The Civil War Monitor with Glenn Brasher discussing the campaign’s role in Emancipation.

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  • This is a radio interview with Glenn Brasher discussing the campaign’s role in Emancipation for the Civil War Talk Radio Companion.

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  • This websites includes a good campaign map from the Ken Burns PBS Civil War series.

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  • Richmond National Battlefield Park preserves and protects 1,938 acres of historic ground around Richmond and consists of 13 Civil War sites. There are five visitor centers that orient and interpret the stories of the tragic events of the American Civil War. Park battlefields are open sunrise-sunset. Visitor centers at Tredegar Iron Works, Chimborazo and Cold Harbor are open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visitor centers at Glendale and Fort Harrison are open daily June through August, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (804) 226-1981.

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Other Sources:

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