McClellan's Peninsula Campaign



From Rossiter Johnson's History of the War of Secession (New York: Bryan, Taylor and Company, 1895), by permission.

A.D. 1862


When the dismal news of the defeat and retreat at Bull Run spread through the North, after the first shock of surprise and mortification the general sentiment was tersely expressed by a Methodist minister, the Reverend Henry Cox, who was conducting a camp-meeting in Illinois. The news of the battle came while he was preaching, and he closed his sermon with the words, "Brethren, we'd better adjourn this camp-meeting, and go home and drill." Everybody recognized that nothing was lacking for the National troops in the way of courage and patriotism, but much was wanting in the way of organization and discipline. For the acquisition of these, probably the best man was chosen in General George B. McClellan; and while he organized and drilled the great Army of the Potomac to the entire satisfaction of Government and people, they, on the other hand, gave him their boundless confidence and showed remarkable patience in waiting for him to use the instrument he had prepared. How he did it is told in this chapter. When his army returned fruitless from its promising march up the Peninsula, and this was closely followed by a second defeat on the battle-ground of Bull Run, the war spirit at the North reached its lowest ebb, and one result was seen in the autumn elections, which went heavily against the Administration. It was relieved somewhat by McClellan's victories at South Mountain and Antietam, and, more than many expected, by President Lincoln's proclamation of emancipation.

WITHIN twenty-four hours after the defeat of McDowell's army at Bull Run (July 21, 1861) the Administration called to Washington the only man that had thus far accomplished much or made any considerable reputation in the field. This was General George B. McClellan. He had been graduated at West Point in 1846, standing second in his class, and had gone at once into the Mexican War, in which he acquitted himself with distinction. After that war the young captain was employed in engineering work till 1855, when the Government sent him to Europe to study the movements of the Crimean War. He wrote a report of his observations, which was published under the title of The Armies of Europe, and in 1857 resigned his commission and became chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, and afterward president of the St. Louis and Cincinnati. He had done good work in northwestern Virginia in the early summer, and now at the age of thirty-five was commissioned Major-General in the regular army of the United States, and made commander of all the troops about Washington.

For the work immediately in hand this was probably the best selection that could have been made. Washington needed to be fortified, and McClellan was a master of engineering; both the army that had just been defeated and the new recruits that were pouring in needed organization, and be proved preeminent as an organizer. Three months after he took command of fifty thousand uniformed men at the capital he had an army of more than one hundred thousand, well organized in regiments, brigades, and divisions, with the proper proportion of artillery, with quartermaster and commissary departments going like clockwork, and the whole fairly drilled and disciplined. Everybody looked on with admiration, and the public impatience that had precipitated the disastrous "On to Richmond" movement was now replaced by a marvellous patience. The summer and autumn months went by, and no movement was made; but McClellan, in taking command, had promised that the war should be "short, sharp, and decisive," and the people thought, if they only allowed him time enough to make thorough preparation, his great army would at length swoop down upon the Confederate capital and finish everything at one blow.

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“If God give thee not only earth but heaven, that thou shouldest rule over sun, moon, and stars, and have rule over the highest of the sons of men, it would not be enough to satisfy thee, except thou hadst God himself.”
–Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment