1862 in the East: 150 Years Later…

Sketch from Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1862

In 1862, the American Civil War entered its second year, and the conflict went into full swing. In both theaters of the war, Confederate and Union forces would struggle in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. By the end of the year, two things would be made clear to all who were involved. First, the war was not going to be a short one. For either side to win, a long and bloody struggle was necessary, and countless lives would be lost in achieving success. Secondly, the weaponry being used was far more advanced than that used in previous conflicts. Rifled Muskets, pistols and artillery all had a more effective range than before. However, the tactics being used were still those familiar to the likes of Washington, Napoleon and Wellington, meaning that casualties would be much higher than any previous war in American military history.

In the eastern theater of the war, Union forces faced formidable odds despite heavily outnumbering their enemy. Union General George B. McClellan had successfully organized the Army of the Potomac into a major fighting force, but was slow to put them onto the field of battle. When he finally did, his penchant for moving slowly proved to be a detrimental to the army. The infamous Peninsula campaign got bogged down in front of the Confederate defenses at Yorktown, Virginia in April of 1862. Although he heavily outnumbered his opponent’s forces, McClellan always feared the opposite. When the army finally moved, he realized he had been duped by the enemy into thinking they had more troops and artillery than they actually had. McClellan began to move the army closer and closer toward Richmond, fighting battles at Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, Drewry’s Bluff, Hanover Courthouse and Seven Pines.

It was at Seven Pines on May 31st that the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Joseph E. Johnston, was severely wounded. In his place, Jefferson Davis chose his military adviser, General Robert E. Lee, to take over command of the army. Johnston would later comment that his being wounded was the best thing that could happen for the army. Lee wasted no time preparing for the defense of Richmond. But knowing that McClellan was slow to act, and very cautious, Lee chose to move on the offensive. Calling on the forces of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, whose force of fewer than 18,000 men had successfully driven a large Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley, to come to Richmond, Lee consolidated his army, and prepared to attack the enemy. In what became known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lee would drive his men into several battles between June 25th and July 1st. Although only successful at one of these battles (Gaines’s Mill on June 27th), the offensive strategy worked, and successfully drove McClellan off the Peninsula.

Following this defeat, Union President Abraham Lincoln gave command of the army to General John Pope. Pope proved to also be a failure in commanding an army. On August 29th-30th, his men were defeated at the Battle of Second Manassas. Following this battle, Virginia was briefly free of Federal troops, and Lee chose to move his army into Maryland, hoping to secure a major victory that could help to end the war, and gain the Confederacy some legitimacy in Europe. On September 4th, his men began crossing the Potomac River. Jackson’s Corps was sent to take care of the Federal garrison at Harper’s Ferry, while the rest of the army moved along the South Mountain range.

However, it was at this moment that disaster struck the Confederates. A copy of Lee’s orders were found by Union troops, and sent to George B. McClellan, who was once again in command of the army. With this knowledge, the cautious McClellan moved quickly, attacking and driving the Confederates out of the South Mountain gaps on September 14th. The Confederates pulled back to a defensive position overlooking Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.  McClellan chose not to attack, giving Lee the time to consolidate his forces. Jackson, having successfully forced the garrison at Harper’s Ferry to surrender, was able to join the rest of the army before the battle on September 17th. In what became the bloodiest single day in American history, 23,000 Confederate and Union troops were killed, wounded or captured, with neither side gaining a clear advantage. The battle became a tactical draw. However, with Lee having lost a third of his army, the Confederates were forced to return to Virginia. McClellan chose not to pursuit the enemy, thus enraging President Lincoln.

However, with the Confederate invasion thwarted, Lincoln chose to deal a crippling blow to the rebels. On September 22nd, five days after Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, giving the army a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and free any slaves in bondage. With this document, Lincoln stated that all slaves in the Confederacy were to be free on January 1st, 1863. This not only robbed the Confederates of their labor force, but also helped to keep European countries, which had already emancipated their slaves, from recognizing the Confederacy. Although Lincoln did not see it as a moral cause at first, issuing this proclamation would change the face of America for the better.

But the military situation in the east was very precarious. Weeks passed before McClellan began to move the army back into Virginia, but his case of the slows prevented any strategic successes from occurring. In November, following the mid-term elections, Lincoln removed him from command of the army, and named Major General Ambrose Burnside as his successor. McClellan decided to take his army on a winter campaign, something considered dangerous at the time. His plan called for a crossing of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and a move toward Richmond from there. However, when the army arrived across from the town, the pontoon bridges necessary for a river crossing were late in arriving. Although a portion of the river could be forded easily, Burnside chose to wait for the pontoons to arrive. By the time they did, Lee and the Confederates arrived, and began preparing strong defenses on the heights beyond the town. But instead of adapting his plan to the changing strategic situation, he instead chose to go ahead with the crossing at Fredericksburg, and drive through the Confederate defenses. In the battle on December 11-13, the army was successful in pushing Confederates out of the town, but failed to dislodge the enemy from the heights beyond, resulting in a major defeat for the Union forces, with 13,000 men becoming casualties. Burnside then moved the army to Stoneman’s Switch, where it would bivouac for the rest of the winter.

The Army of the Potomac began moving in the spring of 1862 with great enthusiasm, and the objective to end the war. However, by the year’s end, the army had suffered serious losses, while achieving one real success at Antietam, and even that battle was a tactical draw. Three commanders, McClellan, Pope and Burnside, had failed to prove a serious threat to Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. However, with the changing war aim of freeing the slaves, European involvement in the war was kept at bay, and in the long run, Confederate chances at winning the war were slim at best. Even though the strategic situation favored the Confederates, victory for the Union was almost assured by the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd, guaranteeing freedom for the slaves at the war’s conclusion.

Works Consulted

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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