Unknown Hero

The world really can pivot on great men

By Dave Kopel, NRO Columnist

National Review Online, February 17-19, 2001

The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula & Seven Days, Edited by Gary W. Gallagher

It's fashionable these days for historians to reject the "great man" thesis. Rather than thinking that great men like Winston Churchill or George Washington can change the world, college students are told either that 1) Everything is determined by economic forces (according to the older, Marxist professors) or 2) Everything is determined by artificial cultural constructs (by the younger, post-modernist professors). But in fact, you need only read The Richmond Campaign of 1862to see that, as important as economics and culture can be, the world really can pivot on great men, on men who could be great but fail, and on unsung, ordinary men who do their duty.

In the spring of 1862, General George McClellan landed an invasion force on the James Peninsula, in southern Virginia. His objective was the Confederate capitol of Richmond. The Richmond Campaign of 1862 offers nine excellent essays about different aspects of the campaign. The book is not a narrative history, but rather a study of selected issues.

The book's best essay is the first, by editor Gary W. Gallagher, a history professor at the University of Virginia, explaining the ultimate, and surprising, historical importance of McClellan's failed invasion. In the first months of 1862, the war was going terribly for the Confederate States of America. The worst part was Grant's victories in Tennessee, coupled with the capture of New Orleans. From New Mexico to Virginia, almost all the rest of the news was bad, too. Had the Union captured Richmond, it is very possible that a demoralized South would have given up.

If secession had been crushed in June 1862, the Confederate states would have rejoined the Union with slavery intact. As other essays in the book detail, McClellan was in sync with the majority of Congress, and the majority of the North, in scrupulously avoiding turning war into a conflict over slavery. As he advanced along the James Peninsula, capturing Jamestown, Norfolk (a major harbor on the other side of the tip of the peninsula), Williamsburg, and Yorktown, he scrupulously protected Confederate civilian property — partly in the expectation that there was large Unionist silent majority in the South, which would assert itself if treated fairly.

Shortly before McClellan landed, the federal Army of the Potomac clashed with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the Wilderness Campaign, in northwestern Virginia. The Confederate commander, Joseph E. Johnston, was seriously wounded by an unknown Union soldier. As a result, Robert E. Lee, whose military achievements in 1861 had been disappointing at best, was rushed from southwestern Virginia to take command. Lee fought the Yankees to a draw at Wilderness, thus allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to move down to Richmond, to take on McClellan.

McClellan had assembled a large army, and if Johnston (who, like McClellan, was cautious) had been in command at Richmond, he probably would have ordered a retreat into the city. McClellan would have besieged it, and, given the large Union advantage in supply and men, eventually captured Richmond.

Robert E. Lee, though, believed that the best defense is a good offense. He struck hard at McClellan, defeating him in a series of encounters known as the Seven Days Battles (June 26 - July 1). Indeed, as another essay in the book details, if Stonewall Jackson had not been suffering from a stupor induced by sleep deprivation, Lee's army might have destroyed McClellan's.

Another essay explains that the Seven Days defeat was the beginning of a downward spiral from which McClellan — the great hope of the Union in early 1862 — never recovered. And it was the beginning of the apotheosis of Lee as the great commander of the Confederacy. Southern morale recovered from the losses of early 1862, and the South believed that it could fight and win the war. Because Lee's superb leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia over the next two years, the war probably continued much longer than it would have had a less capable general, like Johnston, been in charge.

The Seven Days Battles also precipitated a sea change in opinion in the North. Seven Days taught a lesson — reinforced by Confederate victories that summer at Bull Run and Antietam — that there would be no easy conquest of the rebellious states. There was no silent majority in the South which desired re-union, nor would conquest of the South be accomplished without a great deal of toil and bloodshed.

An essay by Penn State historian William Blair details how the Radical Republicans used these facts to good advantage. Holding "secret" committee hearings — with numerous items leaked to the press — the Republican publicity machine portrayed the Confederates as just the opposite of southern gentlemen: the Confederates stripped clothing from Yankee corpses, used slave labor to build fortifications, and in general were so implacably bad that nothing but a very hard war would ever subdue them.

As a result, the sentiment of many northern moderates began to shift towards the Radical agenda. Lincoln began to see that for the North to win, slavery would have to be destroyed. So in September 1862, he issued the "Little Emancipation Proclamation," warning the seceded states that unless they returned to the Union by 1863, their slave property would be lost. When no state returned, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Now, Union victory, if it came, would bring the end of slavery throughout the South. By the time the North finally won in 1865, even the Union border states were ready for abolition. The Civil War's cost in northern blood had grown far too high for the North to win without insisting on the destruction of the most important single cause of the sectional conflict.

And thus, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the United States. This happy result would certainly not have come so soon if the Union had captured Richmond, and won the war in the summer of 1862.

So ironically, Robert E. Lee's victory in the Seven Days battles set in motion the events that would lead to far more radical changes in the South than would have taken place if Lee had lost and Richmond had fallen. Perhaps Lee wouldn't have minded, even if he could have foreseen the results of his victory; after all, he disliked slavery. (In contrast to Ulysses Grant, who owned slaves, because, he said, it was hard to find cheap help.)

It's not just General Lee who changed the course of history. So did that unknown Union soldier who wounded General Johnston at the Wilderness. Thanks to him, the slaves were freed years earlier than they would have been otherwise. His shot wasn't heard round the world, but it was probably the most significant shot fired during the Civil War.

Military history isn't very popular today among the mandarins of the history profession. The Organization of American Historians is reluctant even to allow professors to organize panels on military history at the OAH annual meeting. So the authors of The Richmond Campaign of 1862deserve credit not only for producing a fine book, but also for defying political correctness.

Besides the essays mentioned in this review, the book also contains essays on John Magruder, how slaves dealt with opportunity and risks offered by the Union advance on the peninsula, the battle of Gaine's mill, and the role of artillery at Malvern Hill.

If you're interested in the Civil War — but don't want to read yet another book about Gettysburg — The Richmond Campaign is a very fine choice.

Share this page:

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's articles.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Kopel's Law & Liberty News. Twice-daily web newspaper collecting articles from Kopel and those whom he follows on Twitter.

Author page on Amazon.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

Copyright © 2018