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 By Jerad W. Alexander

Nov. 8, 2011

            Above all else, Stephen W. Sears’ 2001 account To The Gates Of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign demonstrates the power of resolute combat leadership.  The book shows how determined, decisive action can often trump a larger opponent when willful leadership is applied. 

            The subject, as represented by the title, focuses on the drive toward Richmond in southeast Virginia between the York and James rivers.  In mid-March of 1862, under pressure from President Lincoln, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan landed the more than 100,000-man Army of the Potomac at Fort Monroe and began cautiously working his way northwest against the much smaller Confederate force under Gen. Joseph Johnston.  McClellan, convinced through a combination of faulty intelligence on behalf of his chief of intelligence Allan Pinkerton, skillful battlefield ruses of Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, and McClellan’s own overcautiousness, believed he was greatly outnumbered and not eager to bring a general fight to the thin forces arrayed in front of him stalling his advance toward Richmond. 

            Sears illustrates that this belief in his own numerical inferiority serves to guide much of McClellan’s decisions throughout the campaign, almost to the point of sounding as if McClellan’s dogged reliance on misinformation was a cloak to hide a larger, more damaging understanding of McClellan’s lackluster constitution as a wartime commander.  All of McClellan’s self-proclaimed victories, such as at Yorktown where Magruder was ordered out by Johnston ahead of Union siege operations, were not the result of any serious decisive action on his part or of his orders to his lieutenants, but rather a result of decisions made by his Rebel opponents. 

McClellan’s inability to exert any command presence is nowhere better illustrated than during the Battle of Seven Pines and subsequent Seven Days Battles where Sears continually shows the commanding general far from the front, notionally leading through telegraph lines while his lieutenants such as Brig. Gen.’s Erasmus Keyes, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Fitz-John Porter make independent on-scene command decisions that manage to forestall disaster.  Furthermore, McClellan’s security-blanket reliance on misinformation of enemy strength completely prevents the Army of the Potomac to capitalize on potential gains made by exploitative attacks with uncommitted Union corps.  At no time in the history of the Civil War was the Union army presented with more opportunities to sack Richmond than during the Peninsula Campaign, and Sears’ book demonstrates that in every case they were squandered by McClellan’s own inability to bottle his fear and simply lead. 

The Confederates, too, were not without their own problems, and Sears provides examples of this.  Aside from a genuine lack of manpower, the fledgling Army of Northern Virginia was put through operational and logistical trials which nearly caused the army to suffer defeat in many of its actions later in the campaign.  At nearly every major engagement, Sears shows how a lack of coordination and overly complicated maneuver schemes caused Confederate attacks to commence piecemeal and in some cases not at all. 

It’s interesting to see how the Army of Northern Virginia of victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville came to be such a powerful force on the battlefield.  First and foremost, this as much of a result of the Union as the Confederacy as it was Union fire that took Joe Johnston out as commander during the Battle of Seven Pines and opened a door for Gen. Robert E. Lee to step in to as commander.  Sears, however, doesn’t let the reader view Lee with rose-colored glasses.  Though brilliant and an ultimate producer of success, Lee’s complex concept of operations over partially unknown roads with subordinate commander’s inexperienced to complicated maneuvering left many opportunities squandered.  He held high expectation of commanders who had little experience in offensive operations and as a result cashiered two generals from the Army of Northern Virginia – one justly, one arguably unjustly.  Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, however, was virtually a non-entity during the campaign and yet somehow managed to be spared from Lee’s wrath.  On more than one occasion, Sears points to Jackson sleeping or appearing sluggish in decision making, not at all like the striking commander who had just come off a string of dazzling victories in the Shenandoah Valley.  It’s refreshing to see Jackson not viewed with such typical aggrandizement. 

Despite the shortcomings of Lee and his lieutenants, Sears through example points to one key factor that generated victories for Southern troops – Lee lead, McClellan did not.  This simple fact is what surrounds every action taken by both armies and is the driving, though underlying, theme of the campaign.  Lee was simply capable of making decisions McClellan was not.  Everything in the campaign hinged on that reality. 

Throughout the book it’s evident Sears spent a great deal of time researching the Peninsula Campaign.  There is a considerable amount of detail presented in the book but manages to avoid being bogged down in extraneous information.  The level of detail is showcased in the various orders of battle presented in the appendix, which incidentally takes up nearly a quarter of the 512 pages in the Mariner Books edition.  One thing the book does need, however, and is a common need among battlefield histories, is a concept of scale.  There are scant few maps in the book which illustrate the major engagements and the ones that exist fail to show the scope of the fighting, or showed the terrain.  There are photos of a number of key leaders and a few artist interpretations of the fighting in the center of the book, but some of them are hard to distinguish and do little to bring the campaign to life.  It is on the imagination of the reader to see the battle.  That said, however, the book is a great chronicle of what is arguably an overlooked aspect of the Eastern Theater campaigns.