American Civil War: War in the East, 1862-1863

The Rise of Robert E. Lee

George McClellan
Major General George B. McClellan. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
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George B. McClellan and the Birth of an Army

Following the defeat at Bull Run, the Union troops around Washington were reorganized into a new command known as the Army of the Potomac. Officially created on August 20, 1861, the Army of the Potomac would be the primary Union fighting force in the East for the duration of the war.

To lead this army, Lincoln selected Major General George B. McClellan. A West Point graduate, McClellan had seen service as an engineer in the Mexican-American War before leaving the army to pursue a career in railroads.

A superb organizer, McClellan built the army's structure and inspired the men through frequent reviews and visits. This attention earned him the loyalty of the troops which was to endure even after his removal from command. Though he was adored by the men, McClellan clashed with Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott over strategic matters, preferring to seek a deciding battle with the enemy than implement the Anaconda Plan. This issue was decided on November 1, when Scott retired and McClellan briefly ascended to the post. Shortly after taking command, another issue arose with regard to McClellan, that of a constant belief that his army was outnumbered. This led to extremely overcautious behavior and a lack of initiative in the field when, in fact, rarely during his tenure of command did he enjoy less than a two-to-one advantage in manpower.

Operations in Carolinas

In the late summer of 1861, amphibious operations began to secure bases for enforcing the Union blockade along the coasts of North and South Carolina. Attacking in August 1861, troops under Major General Benjamin Butler captured Hatteras Inlet. That November, Union troops occupied Hilton Head Island, which would become a vital base with a full military hospital and repair facilities for US Navy warships.

The following February, Major General Ambrose Burnside occupied Roanoke Island and New Berne, NC.

Moving to the Peninsula

After prodding from Lincoln, McClellan planned to move his army by water to Urbanna on the Rappahannock River. This would allow him to land south of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Northern Virginia and march on Richmond against minimal opposition. This plan was abandoned after Johnston withdrew his forces south to Culpeper. In its place, McClellan decided to embark the majority of his army and transport them to the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. From there he would march up the Peninsula and into Richmond. The Army of the Potomac began boarding steamers and moving south down the Chesapeake Bay in mid-March.

Duel Between the Ironclads

As McClellan's men were preparing for the new campaign, history was made near their future point of disembarkation. Following the burning of the Norfolk Navy Yard in 1861, the Confederates had constructed an ironclad warship from the remains of the steam frigate USS Merrimack. Mounting ten guns and an iron ram, the newly christened CSS Virginia was designed to break the Union blockade. Steaming out of Norfolk on March 8, 1862, Virginia moved directly for the Union ships in Hampton Roads.

Singling out USS Cumberland, Virginia opened fire and attacked with its ram. The crew of Cumberland fought bravely, but their shells bounced off of Virginia's armor plating. After sinking Cumberland, Virginia turned its attention to the frigate USS Congress and reduced it to a flaming wreck.

On the night of March 8/9, the Union Navy's salvation arrived in the form of the ironclad USS Monitor. Designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson, Monitor sat low in the water and was armed with two guns mounted in a rotating turret. The next morning Virginia returned to finish off the Union fleet and encountered Monitor in Hampton Roads. The two ironclads battled for several hours with neither inflicting significant damage on the other. Unable to defeat the Union ship, Virginia withdrew to Norfolk where it was destroyed two months later to prevent capture.

The contest had signaled the rise of armored warships and spelled doom for the "wooden walls" of the world's navies.

Jackson in the Valley

In the spring of 1862, General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was ordered by Johnston to operate in the Shenandoah Valley with the goal of preventing the Union troops there from reinforcing McClellan on the Peninsula. On March 23, he attacked a Union force under Major General Nathaniel Banks at Kernstown. Though Jackson lost the battle, it proved to be a strategic victory as Lincoln ordered Banks to remain in the Valley to deal with the threat. In May and early June, Jackson, operating with 17,000 soldiers, managed to win five battles over multiple Union opponents whose combined number was over 60,000. The campaign provided a tremendous boost to Southern morale and made Jackson one of the most famous soldiers in the Confederacy. In addition, his actions prevented significant reinforcements from joining McClellan's army.

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The Peninsula Campaign

Arriving on the Peninsula with 121,500 men, McClellan slowly began his advance towards Richmond. Upon reaching Yorktown, he found that the Confederates had built a fortified line from the York River in the north to the James River in the south. Tricked by Confederate General John Magruder into believing the line was heavily manned, McClellan paused and ordered heavy siege guns to be brought up from his base at Fortress Monroe.

After taking a month to prepare his assault, McClellan learned that the Confederates had fallen back to Williamsburg. The Union army pursued them and won a minor victory outside the colonial town on May 5.

Continuing the march towards Richmond, McClellan's army became divided by the Chickahominy River. Seeing an opportunity to isolate part of the larger Union force, Johnston moved forward to attack on May 31. Striking near Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), the battle was tactically inconclusive but did see Johnston badly wounded. He was replaced by the more active General Robert E. Lee. In addition, the fight caused McClellan to pause again and wait for further reinforcements.

The Seven Days' Battles

While McClellan remained inactive for three weeks, Lee worked frantically to improve Richmond's defenses. On June 25, he began a series of battles designed to push McClellan away from the city. Striking first at Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville) on June 26, and again at Gaines' Mill the next day, Lee seized the initiative and put the cautious McClellan on the defensive.

Believing Lee to significantly outnumber him, McClellan began to fall back towards his base at Harrison's Landing on the James River. In the process his troops fought at Glendale (Frayser's Farm) on the 30th, and required heavy artillery support to stop Lee at Malvern Hill on July 1. Blaming Lincoln's unwillingness to send more troops for his defeat, McClellan and the Army of the Potomac were effectively cornered at Harrison's Landing.

The Second Battle of Manassas

While McClellan was retreating on the Peninsula, the Union troops around Washington were reorganized into the Army of Virginia with Major General John Pope in command. Charged with protecting Washington and advancing on Richmond from the north, Pope moved towards Gordonsville, but found that Confederate troops under Jackson had arrived there first. Lee, no longer feeling that the timid McClellan was a threat and seeing that the Union army was evacuating the Peninsula, began shifting his men north hoping to destroy Pope.

Assuming a position along the Rappahannock River, Pope was soon forced to retreat toward Manassas after Jackson's troops and Confederate cavalry under General J.E.B. Stuart marched around his flank. While Pope retreated towards Centreville, Jackson took a defensive position behind an unfinished railroad cut on the old Bull Run battlefield. On August 28, Jackson attacked Pope, hoping to hold him until the rest of Lee's army could arrive. Over the next two days the sides exchanged punches until a flanking movement by General James Longstreet drove the Union troops from the field.

Antietam and Emancipation

In September, 1862, Lee decided to attempt an invasion of the North with the goal of cutting the rail lines to Washington and securing supplies for his army.

To counter this move, Lincoln recalled McClellan and gave him command of all Union forces in the area. While marching north, Lee divided his 45,000-man army sending Jackson to capture Harpers Ferry and Longstreet to occupy Hagerstown, MD. McClellan slowly pursued with 87,000 men and arrived at Frederick, MD on the 13th. While there a copy of Lee's operations orders were found by Union soldiers. Despite knowing that Lee's army was separated, McClellan waited over eighteen hours before moving west to engage the enemy. On the 14th, McClellan's men forced their way through the mountain passes causing Lee to order his army to concentrate at Sharpsburg, MD.

On the morning of the 17th, McClellan began assaulting Lee's lines around Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek. The Union attacks through the day lacked coordination, allowing Lee to shift his outnumbered men along the line to meet each threat.

In addition, McClellan, believing that Lee's force was superior, refused to commit his reserves to exploit Union successes. When the fighting ended late in the day, McClellan had lost a golden opportunity to crush Lee. That night the Confederates withdrew across the Potomac to the Shenandoah Valley. The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history with the two sides suffering over 23,000 casualties. In the wake of McClellan's victory, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves in Confederate-held territory. This document signaled a major shift in Union war aims from fighting to preserve the nation to fighting to free the slaves.

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The Battle of Fredericksburg

Much to Lincoln's annoyance, McClellan failed to pursue Lee following Antietam despite the relative health of his army. In response to this inactivity, Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, and appointed Major General Ambrose Burnside two days later. Urged to take action by the President, Burnside planned to quickly move south towards Richmond via Warrenton and Fredericksburg.

As the army moved, the plan quickly began to deteriorate. Arriving at Fredericksburg in mid-November, Burnside found that the pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock had not arrived. Despite the requests of his subordinates to ford the river, Burnside sat still afraid that if they crossed they would be cut off by the rising waters.

By the end of November, Lee's army had begun to arrive and occupied the heights to the west of the town. On December 13, Burnside's men finally crossed the river to attack. Through the course of the day, Burnside launched a series of fruitless frontal assaults on the Confederates fortified on Marye's Heights. At the end of the day Burnside had lost over 12,000 men, compared to less than half that number for the Confederates.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

In January 1863, following a failed attempt by Burnside to restart the offensive, he was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker.

An able and aggressive corps commander, Hooker spent the winter reorganizing and re-supplying the army, as well as planning his campaign for spring. To end the stalemate at Fredericksburg, Hooker proposed sending his cavalry under Major General George Stoneman deep into the Confederate rear to disrupt their lines of communications while he made a fast flanking march with the main body of the army.

One corps would remain opposite Fredericksburg to hold Lee in place.

Moving at the end of April, Hooker was able to deceive Lee, circle his flank, and cross the Rappahannock in his rear. The Confederate general was badly outnumbered having sent Longstreet's corps south to the Norfolk area. On May 1, Hooker's men began to advance out of the woods known as the Wilderness toward Lee's position. Though all was going according to plan, Hooker began to lose his nerve and ordered his troops to assume a defensive position around the hamlet of Chancellorsville. Realizing that his situation was desperate, Lee and Jackson planned an audacious attack for May 2. Splitting his inferior force, Lee sent Jackson on a 12-mile march around the Union right flank.

Storming out of the woods at 5:30pm, Jackson's men smashed into the unprotected flank of the Union XI Corps routing them and rolling up the Union line. As Jackson pressed on, the Union forces fell back to defensive positions near Chancellorsville. That night, while scouting the lines, Jackson was shot by friendly fire. The following day, Hooker repulsed numerous attacks by Lee and began to withdraw his forces back over the Rappahannock. While Chancellorsville was one of Lee's greatest victories, it cost him his ablest subordinate, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

After having his arm amputated, Jackson died of pneumonia on May 10.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: War in the East, 1862-1863." ThoughtCo, Feb. 18, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, February 18). American Civil War: War in the East, 1862-1863. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: War in the East, 1862-1863." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).