To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. SearsIt really isn’t fair that I read this book – and am now rating it – after having read Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Stephen Sears’ To the Gates of Richmond, about George McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign of 1862, is not a bad book. To the contrary, it is sturdy and dependable, just like the Honda Civic you drove back in high school. But when compared with Guelzo’s bracing new history (and yes, I know, the books were written at different times, about different battles), it’s hopelessly old fashioned.
So no, it’s not fair at all. But life is not fair. If it were, I would be living in a lighthouse and would spend my days on the beach being handfed éclairs by tuxedo-clad monkeys while reading Civil War books. My wife, meanwhile, would be painting this scene in watercolors.
But enough about me and my totally normal conception of fairness.
The Peninsula Campaign was General George McClellan’s ill-fated and tragicomic attempt to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. It was the largest campaign of the war, and comprised some of the bloodiest fighting. (Nearly a quarter of the men involved were killed, wounded or missing).
In his ponderous, plodding style, McClellan was able to get his Army of the Potomac to within sight of the church spires of Richmond. (No mean feat, since McClellan – ignoring basic demographic information – was absolutely convinced that the Confederates had hundreds of thousands of men at their disposal). At the battle of Seven Pines, Confederate General Joseph Johnson was wounded, and in a stroke of fortune, Robert E. Lee took command. During the subsequent Seven Days battle, Lee hammered McClellan’s men (and more importantly, McClellan’s fragile psyche), forcing the Army of the Potomac to retreat.
This is a fascinating and often overlooked story of the Civil War. I’ll admit, I often gloss over the Peninsula Campaign in favor of more famous engagements, such as Shiloh, Antietam, or Gettysburg. Thus, I picked up this book with some anticipation. I’d already read three of Sears’ other Civil War titles – Landscape Turned Red, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg – so I was looking forward to tweaks to the conventional wisdom, along with precise insights into the major players.
To the Gates of Richmond falls short of those other works, and was to me a mild disappointment. That is not to say it’s a bad book. Indeed, I don’t think I could actually define a complaint that anyone else would notice. But I know what excites me, and this isn’t it.
Sears’ account of the Peninsula Campaign is sturdily constructed, chronologically straightforward, and utterly unadorned. It tells a methodical tale: a plan is created; a plan is put in motion; some battles take place; the plan goes to hell. Intermixed with the marching and the maps are the usual (and often nondescript) first-person reminisces of the men involved.
It was all frankly underwhelming.
I’m not asking for a reinvention of the wheel. I do not base my enjoyment of Civil War literature on whether or not the author was able to uncover the Templar plot that I know was actually behind everything.
What I wanted, though, was for Sears to be as good as Sears can be.
In Chancellorsville, for instance, Sears has a fantastically nuanced take on General Joseph Hooker. Rather than reflexively damning the man for being at the butt-end of Lee’s greatest victory, Sears takes the time to discuss the man’s positive attributes, his organizational flair, and his strategic concepts. But he’s also able to take Hooker to task for his glaring failures, both broad-based and tactical.
There is nothing resembling that in To the Gates of Richmond. Most of the major actors in the drama are persons in name only. We do not get to know any of them to any degree. This is especially frustrating since the Peninsula Campaign took place early in the war; accordingly, many of the familiar corps and division commanders were then leading brigades or even regiments.
Surprisingly, Sears devotes precious little time to the
To the Gates of Richmond satisfies at the most basic level. It is easy to follow. It is well researched. It is plainly written. A newcomer to the Civil War certainly will not get lost in the thickets of company-level minutiae.
It is a good book. Unfortunately, I was looking for a great one.
The Peninsula Campaign Animated Map
The Peninsula Campaign, fought during the spring and summer of , was an attempt by Union general-in-chief George B. He was confronted at Yorktown by Confederates under John B. Magruder , who convinced McClellan that Confederate forces were stronger than they actually were. Johnston 's Army of Northern Virginia to arrive. Union and Confederate forces next fought each other at Williamsburg on May 5. Johnston was wounded in the two-day battle, and Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, attacking McClellan three weeks later and, in the Seven Days' Campaign , driving him off the Peninsula and saving Richmond.
As envisioned by General George McClellan, the Union grand strategy for defeating the rebellious states called for three simultaneous overland assaults combined with a blockade of southern ports and naval thrusts up and down the Mississippi. Instead of advancing through northern Virginia, where he was sure huge rebel armies lurked, Union Major General George McClellan, proposed instead to ship his ,man Army of the Potomac to the tip of the York-James Peninsula by sea, then fight his way west to Richmond. Grant's encampment around Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, beginning the bloodiest battle of the war. It would be remembered by the name of the little whitewashed church around which some of the fiercest early fighting swirled—Shiloh, a Hebrew word meaning "place of peace. Banks lost so many supplies to Jackson's lightning raiders that Confederates took to calling him "Commissary Banks. The bloody sequence of battles around Richmond, Virginia began on June 26, , and lasted for a week.
The American Battlefield Trust's map of the Peninsula Campaign of Civil War. Overview. Yorktown. The CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor. Civil War. Feature.
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In the spring of during the American Civil War, Union armies invaded the South on nearly every front. General George B. His massive movements on the Virginia Peninsula were opposed by smaller but equally dangerous Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. By June , following its slow advance up the Peninsula, McClellan's army was so close to Richmond that Union soldiers could hear the church bells ring in the city. The end of the war seemed near at hand. But in a bold stroke, Robert E.