One hundred and fifty years ago this month, the Peninsula Campaign was raging across the swamps of Tidewater Virginia. After the debacle at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, Abraham Lincoln had made George B. McClellan general-in-chief and demanded a plan by which he would attack the Confederates and take their capital at Richmond. The plan that McClellan eventually implemented involved sailing his Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay, landing at Fort Monroe. He would then march his men up the peninsula formed by the James and York rivers, taking Richmond from the southeast.
That was the plan, anyway. And by May 31, McClellan had indeed reached the gates of Richmond, but he stalled at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks, during which the Confederate commander, Joseph E. Johnston, was wounded. The relatively untested Robert E. Lee took over and, with McClellan already on retreat, beat him back over the week-long Seven Days’ Battles.
Except for McClellan’s defeat, the war might have been over—and quickly! What would that have meant? And what does it mean that this didn’t happen? These are the questions that, in a thoughtful post, Kevin Levin says interfere with our ability to make sense of the Peninsula Campaign during this Sesquicentennial:
So, what do we do with the Peninsula Campaign? In a recent interview historian Ed Ayers summed it up this way:
World history would have been different if (the Union) had come a few more miles into Richmond; we would not have had the end of slavery in any way like it happened. Slavery had been damaged, but it was not official federal policy to end slavery. If the Union had come back together with slavery in place, I think world history would have been different.
It’s an important point. It gives us a sense of just what was at stake at this point in time and reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about the end of slavery during the early phase of the Civil War. Finally, it satisfies that urge to reduce everything that happened in the Civil War to the broader theme of emancipation and freedom. Of course, we could try to apply Glenn Brasher’s recent interpretation of the campaign—instead of Antietam—as the true turning point in what would eventually become a war to end slavery, but that seems like a tough nut to crack. I have no doubt that subsequent history would have been different had slavery remained intact, but we should remember that Congress had already taken steps to outlaw slavery in the territories, in the nation’s capital and McClellan’s advance had done serious damage to the institution in eastern Virginia.
Levin goes on to wonder whether Ayers is actually relieved that Lee triumphed before Richmond, lest the war end there and with it the hope of a quick end to slavery. After all, the Civil War, for many people, is indistinguishable from the emancipation it wrought. What if that hadn’t happened? What on earth would it mean then?