The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: The eastern theater as of May 7-13, 1862

Now that the Peninsula Campaign is going, I’m getting a bit lost with all the place names, since I’m not from that area. If you are, then you certainly already know more about its Civil War history than I could ever tell you here. This is the for the rest of us, just to get used to where things are and their relationships to each other.

Peninsular campaign area Google map.

When you click to enlarge this map, probably the first thing you will notice is that the capitals are very close together. This explains President Lincoln’s emphasis on having enough troops left to defend Washington, if needed, while US General McClellan was “off to Richmond.”

It also shows the context in which some Confederate leaders showed true genius, not only in the way CS General Magruder held off and confused the oncoming Union forces that greatly outnumbered his (buying time for CS General Joseph Johnston to move into place to protect the capital), but also in President Davis’s and General Lee’s decision to activate General Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley to worry and distract Lincoln.

Their stratagem worked – we will be hearing about Harrisonburg, Luray, Front Royal, Strasberg and Winchester throughout the month, but as this week starts off, Jackson has just fooled Yankee observers by sending some troops out of the Valley toward Richmond and then secretly turning them around at Charlottesville to return by train and rejoin him at Staunton, where Jackson is about to move northward on the attack. (McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom)

Some of the main rivers shown leading away from Chesapeake Bay on this map will be mentioned, too. The Potomac isn’t one of them, but there it is, winding its way up past Washington. Lincoln was worried that the CSS Virginia (called the Merrimack by his side) would come chugging up it and take the US capital all by itself.

The next big river down from the Potomac is the Rappahannock, and the peninsula it and the Potomac make is called the Northern Neck. This is not the peninsula featured in McClellan’s campaign, but if you followed the Rappahannock upstream in early 1862, you would run into US General McDowell’s forces around the town of Fredericksburg, facing CS General J. R. Anderson.

The York is the big river south of the Rappahannock, and that’s the Middle Peninsula in between. Again, it’s not “the” peninsula of the campaign, but we’re getting close.

The next peninsula down is the Virginia Peninsula, bounded to the north by the York River and to the south by the James River. This is the one. It’s interesting not only for the events of 1862: it is also the site of two places that resonate in American history.

Yorktown, where the British surrendered at the end of our revolution, isn’t marked on this map, but there it is just across the York River from Gloucester Point. As of this week, 150 years ago, it was in Federal hands.

Jamestown – yes, that one – isn’t marked here, either, but it was on that little neck of the north bank of the James River that juts out just to the southwest of Williamsburg. Williamsburg was where pursuing Union forces clashed last week with General Johnston’s rear guard, resulting in either a draw or a Union victory, depending on the sources I consulted.

The mouth of the James River is blockaded by Union forces at Hampton Roads, and two new ironclads have joined their fleet. As a matter of fact, President Lincoln, the US secretaries of defense and war, and other dignitaries are also there this week, at Fortress Monroe. The Confederacy has the James River Squadron, a fleet of wooden warships as well as the CSS Virginia, based in Norfolk, on patrol. With the two naval forces so close, there have been clashes, and this week it will come to a head.

But first, if you were General Robert E. Lee, how would you defend Richmond? If you were General McClellan, how would you attack it? If you were President Lincoln or President Davis, how would you run the show?

Categories: American Civil War

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