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Ups, downs of Gen. George McClellan

On this day (July 1) in 1862, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. George B. McClellan fought the Battle of Malvern Hill, which took place north of the James River some 8 miles east of the Confederate capital at Richmond.

For seven consecutive days, there was continuous fighting. This battle was the last of the seven fought between June 25 and July 1. The six others were Oak Grove (June 25), Mechanicsville (June 26), Gaines’ Mill (June 27), Garnett’s Farm (June 28), Savage’s Station (June 29) and White Oak Swamp (June 30).

This Seven Days Battle was the last military engagement in McClellan’s ill-conceived and ill-executed Peninsula Campaign, during which he had failed completely to achieve his overly ambitious goals of destroying Lee’s army and capturing Richmond.

Total casualties for the seven days of fighting were appallingly high. The Confederates lost more than 20,000 men (3,286 killed, 15,909 wounded and 946 missing), whereas the Union Army of the Potomac lost nearly 16,000 men (1,734 killed, 8,062 wounded and 6,053 missing).

The Seven Days Battle has been considered as a costly Confederate victory, primarily because the Confederates were able to completely thwart McClellan’s plans to bring to a successful conclusion the war, a war that was becoming bloodier and was lasting longer than initially anticipated.

McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln often were at loggerheads on a number of issues regarding military strategy and Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s alleged nonsupport of “Young Napoleon’s” army. Always believing that Lee’s army was much bigger than his, McClellan wired Lincoln, in late June, that he was facing a Southern army of more than 200,000 men. In reality, Lee’s force was about 85,000 (compared with well over 115,000 Federals) during the Seven Days Battle.

McClellan (called affectionately Little Mac by his troops) repeatedly claimed, in official communications to Washington, that the Lincoln administration was not supportive. For example, after the Union defeat June 27 at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, McClellan wired his superior Stanton, “I have lost this battle because my force is too small. The Gov has not sustained this Army. . . . I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other person in Washington – you have done your best to sacrifice this army.”

The next day, he wired the president that if he was not reinforced, a “disaster” will occur and “the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders.” Lincoln, for his part, patiently continued to support McClellan even for his growing obvious insubordination, mainly because he thought Little Mac, unlike many other Union generals, was greatly beloved by his troops and would faithfully, if not eagerly, follow his orders.

After the Battle of Malvern Hill, McClellan slowly retreated toward Washington to join Gen. John Pope’s army in the defense of the nation’s capital. On the Confederate side, Lee considered the July 1 Battle of Malvern Hill to be his last chance to decisively defeat or even destroy “those people” (his term for the Federals). To his credit, McClellan, having learned that Lee was following his retreating army and would be attacking his forces as they withdrew, assumed a strong defensive posture on Malvern Hill, where he successfully thwarted Lee’s repeated suicidal assaults against his entrenched troops.

The Battle of Malvern Hill, although considered a Northern victory, emboldened Lee to take the offensive and invade the North. This led to the disastrous Confederate defeat at the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam Creek.

Although a glorious Union victory, Antietam led to McClellan being relieved of his command on Nov. 5, 1862, primarily because Lincoln finally tired of McClellan’s insubordination, his reluctance to take the offense against Lee’s outmanned Confederate army, and his public criticisms of the Lincoln administration.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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