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Background For Crisis

March 2023
2min read

Naturally, Mr. Dowdey addresses himself to the question of how it all happened. Here, although he is working ground familiar to most Civil War students, he brings to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the facts a freshness of insight that makes the story seem new. If the tale has been told before it easily bears retelling, and although he does not labor his point unduly Mr. Dowdey never loses sight of the fact that behind his account of troop movements, bloody combats, and the errors of commanding generals there lies a picture of the nation’s greatest war reaching and passing its high moment of change. Here, not quite recognized at the time, was the moment of crisis. After McClellan’s beaten army retired to Harrison’s Landing, there was a different kind of war.

It was different chiefly because it was going to be longer. If McClellan had dispersed Lee’s army the war would have ended then in a final Northern victory, and if Lee had destroyed McClellan’s army there would have been a Southern victory, but either way the war would have been over. The revolutionary overturn that always lay just beneath the surface could have been averted, or at least muffled, and whether they remained one country or split into two, the people of America might have gone on much as they had gone before. But the thing had to end. If it went on, the war (having generated its own terrible pressures) would become harder, grimmer, more all-consuming, turning into something that could not be settled by a compromise but that must be fought out to a finish, continuing until one side or the other could fight no longer. The steamy June days that made soldiers of both sides so uncomfortable in the Chickahominy swamps were probably the last days in which the Civil War could have been kept an incident rather than an explosion.

Mr. Dowdey traces it from the beginning. Early in the spring of 1862 McClellan had taken his army to the tip of the Virginia peninsula and had begun to move up toward Richmond. Opposing him was the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston-courtly, winsome, able to get along with everybody except his lawful superiors—commanding a much smaller army. Like McClellan, Johnston distrusted his government and was by it distrusted, and he faded back before the invasion without bothering to tell Jefferson Davis what he finally proposed to do. At the beginning of June, with his army arrayed along the Richmond suburbs, Johnston lashed back in the dual battle of Seven Pines-Fair Oaks: a bungled battle that settled nothing, its chief result being that Johnston was wounded in action and was replaced by General Lee.

Lee was no man for a passive defensive. He was as savagely aggressive as any soldier America ever produced, and when he took over, his one thought was to find the best way to smite this Yankee army where it would hurt most. McClellan, who was no more aggressive than Johnston had been, played into his hands. His army of more than 100,000 men was arrayed with 70,000 south of the Chickahominy, facing Richmond, and 3o,ooo-and-odd resting on the north side of the river protecting the right flank and the supply line, and for the rest of June this host remained more or less inert. Some day-when the roads dried, when reinforcements arrived, or when the phase of the moon was propitious—McClellan would mass everybody, wheel up his siege guns, and break a hole in the Confederate defenses. Meanwhile he would wait until all things were ready.

The Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee , by Clifford Dowdey. Little, Brown and Company. 265 pp. $6.75.

Lee refused to wait. He struck first, on June 26, hitting McClellan’s right at Mechanicsville. Lee had perhaps 75,000 men in all; he left between 20,000 and 25,000 south of the Chickahominy, to contain three times their number, and took everybody else across the river to crush McClellan’s right wing. The danger, of course, was that McClellan would catch on, break through Lee’s defenses south of the river, and bring the whole scheme to disaster. But McClellan let himself be deceived, and although Lee’s assault at Mechanicsville was beaten back, Lee attacked next day at Gaines’ Mill and carried the field. Now McClellan had neither a right flank nor a supply line, and since he was unable to see that what lay between his main body and Richmond was no more than a screen there was nothing for him to do but flee to the security of Harrison’s Landing and hope for the best. This he immediately proceeded to do.

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