Critical Months In War

Events in April and June 1862 may have steered the Civil War to its ultimate conclusion.
By Ned Harrison
Date published: 5/30/2009

IN HISTORICAL analysis of our Civil War, the months of April and May 1862 have to rank in the top tier for events that ultimately decided the outcome.


April 1862: By April 1, Gen. George B. McClellan has been fired as general in chief of the Union armies, and, with command of only the Army of the Potomac, moves that army to Virginia’s Fort Monroe in an attempt to drive up the peninsula between the York and James rivers. His orders from his president: Capture Richmond.

April 6-7: In the west, the Battle of Shiloh is a watershed event in the war. Some 109,000 men fight in the battle, with a determination and a ferocity that convince Gen. Ulysses Grant, the Union commander, that the war will be long and hard and deadly beyond comprehension.

Deadly, indeed: The Confederate commander, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, is killed in action. It is an irreparable loss to the South. His replacement: second-tier Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.

Before Shiloh, the numbers of dead have been to a degree "rational"–if Killed in Action can ever be called such. At First Bull Run, in July 1861, the Union lost about 460 dead; the Confederates lost about 387. But at Shiloh, although the numbers killed are about even, the totals are a staggering 1,700 on each side.

It is the first example of what our Civil War will become: an industrial killing ground.

And there are additional ominous results for the South: The Union victory is a major step in the Anaconda Plan to cut the Confederacy in two. Moreover, from Shiloh emerge Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman, two of the four Union generals who eventually form the Union high command that will defeat the Confederacy.

April 29: Gen. Benjamin Butler of the Union army takes military control of New Orleans, effectively shutting down Confederate commerce on the Mississippi River.

May 1862: By May 1, Yorktown has been under siege for almost a month. On May 4, McClellan begins his assault on Yorktown’s defenses–and finds no defenders. Confederates under command of Gen. Joseph Johnston have withdrawn farther up the peninsula.

May 3-June 9: Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign has the goal of creating such pressure on the North that reinforcements from the Valley will be prevented from joining McClellan in his assault on Richmond.

Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign is one of the most brilliant in the history of warfare. He ties up 34,000 soldiers in three Union armies when he has at most 16,000 men. They are superbly mobile, and are known as "Jackson’s foot cavalry." In a later century, German staff officers will research Jackson’s use of mobility to structure a new form of warfare called "blitzkrieg," or "lightning war."

May 5: Fighting on the peninsula moves to Williamsburg, 10 miles closer to Richmond.

May 9: President Abraham Lincoln, meeting with McClellan in the field, urges greater speed in attacking Richmond. McClellan feels he has too few soldiers for the job, although his force of well over 100,000 men is far superior to the number the Confederacy can field for its defense.

May 15: Heavy fighting takes place at Drewry’s Bluff, a mere seven miles from Richmond. Union naval units are forced to retreat, but the danger to Richmond is considered so grave that Confederate first lady Varina Davis has already left the Southern capital.

May 20: Union troops are only eight miles from Richmond.

May 23: President Lincoln orders 20,000 more Union soldiers into the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to defeat Jackson, who is not at all distressed by the additional Union soldiers. Moreover, the order prevents transfer of those soldiers to McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.

 May 31: In a definitive day for the Confederacy, McClellan finally engages major Confederate forces at the Battles of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines. But Johnston is wounded at Fair Oaks, and President Davis names  his personal military adviser, Gen. Robert E. Lee, to command the defense of Richmond in the newly formed Army of Northern Virginia.

Thus in April and May 1862, the war assumed new proportions: It would continue unabated until one side could no longer field an army. The Confederate high command was severely depleted by the loss of A.S. Johnston, although in Lee the South found a new leader. He was reluctant to accept at first, but eventually was revered as the greatest Confederate of them all.

Washington finally understood that McClellan, although a superb organizer, was not a combat commander. But his replacements were already in sight: Grant’s victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, combined with the victory by Grant and Sherman at Shiloh, meant that half of the eventual Union high command, with two of the best military minds the nation has ever produced, stood ready to carry the war to the South.

Copyright 2009, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

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