To the Gates of Richmond

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In April of 1862, President Lincoln demanded that McClellan do something with the Army of the Potomac other than watch what McClellan said was a huge Confederate force entrenched in impregnable fortifications. McClellan, taking advantage of the Union’s naval superiority to transport his army to the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, promised a swift march on Richmond which would result in a “Waterloo.” Unhappily, it was McClellan who was lionized as the “Little Napoleon.”

Historians have traditionally blamed McClellan’s failure on his penchant for avoiding casualties and his preference for a war of position-characteristics made worse by the credence he placed in inflated intelligence estimates of Confederate numbers. Sears’s McClellan is a pro-slavery democrat who fears victory as much as defeat, whose goal is to end the Rebellion (by negotiation if possible) before it becomes an anti-slavery revolution. He is also a liar and a coward.

Sears dwells on McClellan’s supply problems, explaining better than any previous author why relying on the York River base caused him to station so many troops north of the Chickahominy although his principal thrust was south of that river. It was this isolated force that Lee attacked at the beginning of the Seven Days. Sears argues that Lee’s plans were frustrated only because of poor maps and misunderstandings among his commanders (partly the result of Lee’s own poor staff work). Overwhelming one Union position after another, Lee had victory within his grasp. At Malvern Hill Lee encountered a leaderless Union force entrenched in a position similar to one he had overwhelmed at Gaines’s Mill, but this time Lee’s officers were unable to organize a concerted attack. After this defeat Lee was vulnerable to a counterattack, but all McClellan could think about was saving his army and his reputation.