This proud claim greets visitors on an interpretive sign as they arrive on the Gaines' Mill Battlefield. In this post we will consider the merits of the statement.
|The Watt House - located on a plateau above Boatswain's Swamp, served as Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's headquarters during the Battle of Gaines' Mill.|
I viewed the statement yesterday, as I made my first trek to the battlefields of Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill. The Richmond National Battlefield unit of the National Park Services operates both sites, and maintains nice hiking trails with interpretive signage. Gaines' Mill - the third of the Seven Days' battles - took place on June 27th, 1862. After establishing a strong defensive position along the slopes of Turkey Hill overlooking Boatswain's Swamp, the Army of the Potomac's 5th Corps Commander Fitz John Porter beat back successive assaults against his position throughout the afternoon. Finally, in the growing dusk, Robert E. Lee unleashed more than 30,000 men in a final assault that broke the federal lines. Darkness allowed Porter to safely withdraw his forces across the Chickahominy River.
The Army of the Potomac continued its retreat toward the James River over the next several days, finally halting on July 1st to occupy a strong position on the slopes of Malvern Hill. The federal position offered excellent fields of fire for artillery, and also received support from gunboats located in the James River. Despite the strength of George B. McClellan's position, Lee launched a series of disjointed, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful assaults. This failure brought the Seven Days' battles to an end.
|The Union gun line atop Malvern Hill.|
Let's return to a consideration of that interpretive sign - "No military campaign had more influence on the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles." Freeman Tilden would smile reading this lead sentence. It's a provocative statement, and as Tilden set down in his six principles, "the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation." I've spent a good deal of time since analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.
For context, let's look at the entire statement (courtesy of the Historical Marker Database):
No military campaign had more influence on the course of the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles. George B. McClellan's army of more than 100,000 Union soldiers landed at Fort Monroe in spring of 1862, and fought its way up the peninsula. By mid-May the Army of the Potomac lay on the outskirts of Richmond, hoping to capture the capital of the Confederacy and perhaps end the war. If that strategy succeeded the nation might be reunified, but without abolition of slavery. Confederate General Robert E. Lee chose not to wait for the Federal army's next move. Instead, he seized the initiative, and on June 26 advanced across the Chickahominy River with nearly 45,000 soldiers. That action opened a week-long series of battles that resulted in the Union army retreating to the banks of the James River. With Richmond secure, Lee's army moved north, defeating Union forces at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas (Bull Run), and then marched toward Maryland and the first invasion of the North.A historian could advance any number of campaigns as "most influential" on the course of the war, and make a compelling argument supported by evidence. Rather than engaging in such a debate, I want to look more closely at the evidence that supports Richmond National Battlefield's claim. How did the Seven Days' Campaign influence the war? The marker provides us with two primary examples:
Altering the Military Situation: While he had held several important posts already during the war, the Seven Days' battles introduced the world to Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In Gaines' Mill, Lee achieved his first significant victory of the war. And the results of the Seven Days' not only neutralized McClellan's threat to the Confederate capital, they also gave Lee an opening which he used to transfer the seat of war from the gates of the Confederate capital to the banks of the Potomac River, and beyond.
Emancipation: Against the backdrop of the Seven Days' battles, President Abraham Lincoln continued to grapple with the issues of slavery and emancipation. He wasn't the only one. During the first half of 1862, Congress had debated the Second Confiscation Act, which extended the power of the Union military to free Confederate slaves. The act passed on July 17th, 1862 - just a few short weeks after the battle of Malvern Hill. A few days before the act passed, Lincoln first consulted with a few members of his cabinet on issuing an Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William Seward eventually convinced Lincoln to await a Union victory before issuing such a document, but Lincoln's mind on emancipation had been set.
|The crest of Malvern Hill viewed in the distance from the perspective of the Confederate advance.|
Glenn David Brasher's recent book The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation argues that "the contributions that African Americans had made to both armies, coupled with the failure of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, played a role in turning many Northerners in favor of emancipation." Throughout the campaign army officers and the northern press noted, and abolitionists highlighted, the invaluable support roles that the Confederacy's enslaved labor force filled for its armed forces. An increasing awareness of how African Americans could support the Union war effort, coupled with the lack of success in securing victory in a limited war, changed many hearts.
The first half of 1862 had brought encouraging signs for the Union war effort. Victories in the west and McClellan's slow but seemingly unstoppable march to the outskirts of Richmond signaled a swift end to the rebellion. Yet by July stalled progress in the west, and McClellan's defeat changed the outlook dramatically. The end of the war appeared farther away than ever before, and support for the type of limited war favored by McClellan waned. Most importantly, the President of the United States no longer believed in the success of a limited war that reunified the nation but left slavery in tact. The aftermath of the Seven Days' battles brought a new commander to Washington - Henry Halleck. It brought a call for 300,000 more troops to swell the ranks of federal armies. And it caused the Lincoln administration to settle on a new a war policy, one that coupled victory with emancipation.
Did the Seven Days' battles have the greatest influence on the direction and outcomes of the Civil War? It's a debatable statement, but also one that has a lot of evidence to support it. What do you think?