Oral History, Interviewing, and Cultural Sensitivity

About a year ago, I was researching a topic for another course and I reached out to two members of the community in an attempt to get their insights into the subject. I knew nothing about oral history or interviewing techniques, but based on my prior study, I had a good idea of what information I was looking for from my interview subjects. I compiled a list of about a dozen questions and sat down with each of the interviewees. I began both sessions by briefly explaining to each person what I was researching, and they immediately launched into long (around three hours each) meandering soliloquies about a wide variety of topics. Some of the things they spoke about were related to the subject at hand, but much of it was tangential at best. In one of the interviews, the narrator did manage to answer the bulk of my questions, although I asked very few of them directly; he simply did not stop talking long enough to allow me to make my inquiries. The other person, however, seemed to have a specific agenda, one that did not have very much to do with my research interests. In the end, I came away from both interviews with interesting information, but a good deal of it was only marginally useful for the project on which I was working. I only vaguely understood it at the time, but I needed a better plan.

Any plan, of course, starts with extensive research. As Donald Ritchie explained it, research “is the only way to determine what questions to ask…Interviewees become impatient with interviewers whose questions show they do not know the subject matter.”[1] If I do not beforehand absorb as much as I can about the context surrounding the interviewee’s life and times, I simply will not have the knowledge needed to ask probing questions. That background knowledge is also vital to my ability to ask unscripted follow-up questions in response to the narrator’s previous answers. That flexibility, it seems to me, is one of the keys to conducting a successful interview, one in which both the researcher and the narrator come away feeling as if they have accomplished something individually and collectively. There is no way I can anticipate every answer my interviewee will give, and even if I could, such anticipation would most likely lead to the sort of loaded questions warned against by Ritchie.[2] Rather my goal should be to go into the interview armed with as much research as possible, and of course “it is safer to have too many questions than too few.”[3] From there it is only possible to react as well as I can to unexpected twists and turns in the interview, for as the Prussian strategist Helmuth von Moltke stated, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”[4]

My biggest fear concerning the interview I will conduct is that my inquiry will be seen as culturally insensitive by my interviewee. Vine Deloria, Jr. offered a withering assessment of academics who descended on Indian Country every summer so that they could poke and prod their subjects for reasons all their own and which did not offer any tangible results or benefits to Native Americans.[5] Deloria’s indictment may have been only his personal view, but I must recognize that my status as an “outsider” may hinder even my most well-intentioned attempts to elicit information from the narrator. Oral history interviewing certainly requires a good deal of research and preparation, but it also demands a certain level of cultural sensitivity.

[1] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 86.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Helmuth von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes (New York: Presidio Press, 1993), 92.

[5] Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. Reprint, originally published New York: Macmillan, 1969), 78-101.

The Primacy of Place in Cultural Identity


In her essay “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” Maria Nugent described a project she and her colleagues undertook to understand the importance of place in the individual and collective memories among Aborigines along the eastern coast of Australia.[1] I was intrigued by this particular essay because of the way in which the spatial experiences of Nugent’s interviewees corresponded to the primacy of place and homeland within the cultural memories of many Native American tribes. As Vine Deloria, Jr. has pointed out, his own “Sioux people cherished their lands and treated them as if they were people who shared a common history with humans.”[2] The Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, in recounting the oral histories that detail his tribe’s migration across the Great Plains, meditated on the ways in which the journeys of a people through space and time are collective examples of the individual journeys we all undertake as human beings.[3]

Nugent began her essay by noting the way in which the Australian government has privileged the memories of its white citizens in choosing which sites are deserving of recognition, preservation, and interpretation. The study of Aboriginal historical locations, by contrast, has largely been confined to pre-contact archaeological sites. Nugent’s goal was to record the stories and memories of contemporary Aborigines in order to demonstrate the continuing vitality of Aboriginal cultural identity. The predominance of white historical sites in Australia could easily lead one to believe “that Aboriginal people had simply left the scene the moment ‘whites’ arrived. But in many parts of…Australia, Aboriginal people have remained a vital local presence, albeit one that has been diminished through frontier violence, disease and starvation, dispossession from land, forced dispersals from one place to another, and the removal of children from families.”[4] In exploring the memories of Aborigines about segregated movie theaters, favorite fishing spots, and secluded beaches and campsites, Nugent revealed that the dominant narrative in Australian cultural heritage is not “as complete or as certain as professional practices and bureaucratic processes suggest.”[5] The stories told to Nugent and her colleagues reveal a marginalized but continuing Aboriginal presence in a land “owned” by white newcomers.

In many ways, contemporary Westerners have abandoned a sense of attachment to place. The ease with which we are able to undertake intercontinental travel, the globalization of culture and economies, and the relentless quest for material gain have reduced our sense of belonging to a particular people in space and time. For many indigenous cultures, this idea of belonging to their community and to the land they inhabit is central to their shared identity. Oral history is exquisitely positioned to explore the memories and shared identity of a community through its collection of stories, myths, and legends. Traditional documentary history is undoubtedly better at producing incontrovertible facts and figures and at narrating the broad sweep of history. But individual human identity, and its connection to a shared community identity, is about much more than historical facts. There is an overarching spiritual component to these connections, a history that can only be gleaned from the legends of a tribe and the stories of its people.

[1] Maria Nugent, “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, ed., Oral History and Public Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 47-63.

[2] Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994), 1.

[3] N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969), 4.

[4] Nugent, “Mapping Memories,” 48-9, quote on 49.

[5] Ibid., 61.

Lincoln’s Strategic Vision

Abraham Lincoln’s vision for restoring the Union and the means he used to achieve victory evolved over the course of the war, and he skillfully wove together numerous military and political threads to attain his objectives. It took some time for the commander-in-chief to find army commanders who shared his vision and had the audacity to pursue the necessary means to Lincoln’s ends, but when Grant and Sherman were brought east, they engaged in a relentless pursuit of the enemy. Finally, in these two men Lincoln had found commanders who were willing to do what needed to be done to win the war and restore the Union.

Lincoln made it clear from the outset that he “was an intense nationalist and that he regarded the Union as indestructible.”[1] In his first inaugural address, he told the nation “that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States or insurrectionary or revolutionary.”[2] He also assured southern slave owners, however, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”[3] Lincoln’s overriding concern was restoring to the Union those states that had seceded, and at this point of his presidency abolition and emancipation were not among his primary goals. Although he hated slavery and wished to see its eventual extinction, Lincoln was not interested in forcing a premature emancipation as part of his wider military goals. Indeed, as late as August 1862 when he was considering an emancipation proclamation, Lincoln stated that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” and that if he could “save the Union without freeing any slave,” “save [the Union] by freeing all the slaves,” or “save it by freeing some and leaving others alone” then he would be obligated to pursue whichever course provided the best means for achieving his primary goal.[4]

In pursuing his primary goal, Lincoln met resistance from all sides, and he deftly maneuvered political minefields as the war dragged on. He was assailed by abolitionists who felt he was not adequately committed to their cause and attacked by copperheads and border-state slaveholders who believed he was threatening the property rights of southerners. Lincoln struggled to find an army commander who was willing to take the fight to the enemy and destroy the military capacity of the Confederacy to wage war on the North. Both sides came to understand that the war would not be quick or painless, and Lincoln began to realize that only by waging total war on the Confederacy could a final victory be achieved. Daniel Sutherland argued that despite historians’ insistence on crediting Grant and Sherman with inaugurating total war in 1864, the policy was inaugurated two years earlier. Unfortunately, “it failed miserably, largely because Lincoln selected the wrong general, John Pope, to engineer the plan.”[5] It was not until the spring of 1864 that Lincoln found the man who would apply his strategic vision to the battlefield, when he brought Ulysses Grant from the western theater and named him general-in-chief. Grant named William Sherman his successor as commander of the western armies, and brought Phil Sheridan east with him to command the cavalry in that theater. “With the Union’s three best generals…in top commands, the days of the Confederacy appeared numbered.”[6] As Grant kept Lee bottled up in Richmond, Sheridan wreaked havoc in the Shenandoah Valley. Simultaneously, Sherman tore through Georgia and up into the Carolinas. The exceptional coordination of these campaigns helped ensure a string of Union successes, and Lincoln’s goals of restoring the Union were at last being realized.

Lincoln had handed the initiative to the South, telling them, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” But he also warned them, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.” [7] When war came, however, Lincoln understood that it needed to be pursued vigorously, and he found in Grant and Sherman men who agreed. In the end, though, Lincoln believed wholeheartedly in a peaceful reconciliation with his straying southern Americans. His humanitarian sentiments—“with malice toward none, with charity for all”[8]—was shared by his eastern commanders, despite their willingness to engage in ruthless total war against their enemies.

[1] Kenneth M. Stampp, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Defense in the Crisis of 1861,” Journal of Southern History 11, no. 3 (August 1945): 298, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/stable/2197810.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, Monday, March 4, 1861,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 150.

[5] Daniel E. Sutherland, “Abraham Lincoln, John Pope, and the Origins of Total War,” Journal of Military History 56, no. 4 (October 1992): 567.

[6] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 718.

[7] Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address.”

[8] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865),” The Miller Center, University of Virginia, http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3512.

A Confederate Insurgency

It is difficult to imagine how a legitimate, sustained guerrilla campaign could have been undertaken by remnants of the defeated Confederate army after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It is true that irregulars fighting for the Southern cause had scored some moderate successes throughout the war, perhaps most notably in Missouri, which was wracked with partisan bloodshed across the state.[1] Farther east, “Confederate guerrilla leader John S. Mosby and his troopers continued to be a constant thorn in Sheridan’s side” during the latter’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign.[2] But these successes were fairly isolated and dependent on numerous factors that would not have been present in a post-war insurgency.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to such a partisan campaign was the question of where to base and wage an insurgency. Many leading military thinkers of the nineteenth century believed that guerrilla warfare could only be successful in the mountains.[3] This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, especially in a rural region such as the American South. Indeed, perhaps the most successful guerrilla fighters of the last four decades have been those fighting in the forbidding terrain of Afghanistan. Without the benefit of large urban areas in which to blend into the civilian population, Confederate guerrillas would have been forced to seek shelter in the southern Appalachians. From the outset, therefore, those fighters would have been confined to a relatively small strip of territory. The issue then would have become one of local loyalties. Guerrillas need support from the population they are based in, and the upland regions of the Confederacy had been among the most Unionist areas in the South. With little room to maneuver and little support from the local population, Confederate guerrillas operating in the Appalachians would have had an uphill climb (no pun intended).

Another significant problem for Confederate partisans would have been coordination of such a campaign. Although the guerrillas who fought in Jackson County, Missouri, during the war were among the most successful, “there is little evidence that these guerrillas ever sought or had the capability to coordinate their efforts with similar uprisings in other parts of the state or other border states (notably Kentucky).”[4] Again calling on modern examples of insurgencies, the partisan fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq have access to all modern methods of communication, and they have been able to sustain global operations with a high degree of sophistication and coordination. In an era when telegraphs and railroads were still relatively cutting-edge technology, post-Civil War insurgents would have been very hard-pressed to mount or maintain a coordinated campaign.

Both of these issues could have been ameliorated with the presence of a regular Confederate army, which would have acted as a supply base and communications hub. Ultimately, this would have been the conundrum faced by those former Confederates contemplating a guerrilla campaign: with the regular armies defeated and disbanded, there was a need for partisans to carry on the fight; without a regular army to support them, the partisans could not have succeeded.

[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 784-8.

[2] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 309.

[3] Walter Laqueur, “The Origins of Guerrilla Doctrine,” Journal of Contemporary History 10, no. 3 (July 1975): 353, 373, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/260153

[4] Don R. Bowen, “Quantrill, James, Younger, et al.: Leadership in a Guerrilla Movement, Missouri, 1861-1865,” Military Affairs 41, no. 1 (February 1977): 42, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/discover/10.2307/1987096?uid=3485568&uid=3739960&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=3485120&uid=67&uid=62&uid=3739256&sid=21101708660993.

Civil War IEDs

I came across this in the memoirs of William T. Sherman. He was describing a scene on his famous (or infamous, if you’re from the South) march to the sea in November and December 1864.

“On the 8th, as I rode along, I found the column turned out of the main road, marching through the fields. Close by, in the corner of a fence, was a group of men standing around a handsome young officer, whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road. He was waiting for a surgeon to amputate his leg, and he told me that he was riding along with the rest of his brigade-staff of the Seventeenth Corps, when a torpedo trodden on by his horse had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. I saw the terrible wound, and made full inquiry into the facts. There had been no resistance at that point, nothing to give warning of danger, and the rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry.”

I was struck by how this scene has repeated itself over and over in the past decade, with a HMMWV or MRAP in place of the horse. When faced with a superior enemy force, an insurgency is of course forced to adopt irregular tactics.

Sherman continued with his solution to the problem, and the route-clearance procedures he implemented:

“I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode, but they found no other torpedoes till near Fort McAllister.”

I’m really beginning to like Sherman.


Grant: Butcher of the Wilderness?

When Ulysses Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the spring of 1864, Lincoln at last had found the aggressive leader he had needed and wanted. Frustrated by the failures of McClellan, Meade, and Halleck to prosecute the war in a vigorous and aggressive manner, Lincoln was very pleased with Grant’s plans to take the fight to the enemy throughout all theaters. Grant believed that all the Union armies needed to go on the offensive simultaneously and in a coordinated manner in order to keep the Confederacy from utilizing its interior lines of defense and communication to reinforce its disparate elements. Grant’s plan called for Nathaniel Banks to operate on the Gulf Coast, Benjamin Butler to move on Richmond from the Peninsula, and Franz Sigel to harass Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, meanwhile, would move overland from Washington to Richmond, with Grant accompanying. Lincoln agreed that pressuring the enemy at multiple points was ideal, stating that “those not skinning can hold a leg.”[1] Unfortunately for Grant and his plans, “the leg-holders bungled their jobs.”[2] Banks’s Red River campaign in Louisiana was a disaster, and he never moved on Mobile as planned, while Sigel did little more than display his “skill at retreating” in the Shenandoah Valley.[3] Butler’s expedition up the James River got off to an encouraging start, but ended with his army trapped between the James and the Appomattox River.[4] These failures would put additional—and certainly unneeded—pressures on Meade’s Army of the Potomac, but Grant surely understood and accepted Moltke’s admonition “that no plan survives contact with the enemy.”[5]

Grant’s decision to travel with the Army of the Potomac was controversial and probably created confusion about who was actually in charge, both inside and outside the chain of command.[6] Grant, however, shared the frustration of Lincoln and others in Washington at the unwillingness of Union commanders to pursue the enemy and destroy them after victories at Antietam and Gettysburg. Union armies in the eastern theater had repeatedly disengaged after both victories and defeats to return to Washington and lick their wounds. In accompanying Meade, Grant intended to ensure that the Army of the Potomac would pursue and engage Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a thoroughly aggressive manner. These tactics would lead to more casualties, but Grant believed that such a strategy would end the war and ultimately lead to fewer lives lost.[7]

As the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, Lee correctly ascertained Grant’s intentions and began moving his forces into blocking positions in the tangled brush of the Wilderness. Fighting was intense, and the thick scrub forest ensured that Federal forces could not maneuver well enough to bring their superior numbers to bear. As the fighting raged on throughout the fifth and sixth of May, neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage. Grant continued to press the fight despite the “defeatist attitudes” of his troops, and upbraided his subordinates for presuming to know Lee’s intentions. “’Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do,’ he barked. ‘Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time.’”[8] Grant eventually recognized the Wilderness as the “meat grinder” that it was, and moved his army to the east and around Lee’s left flank. The Army of the Potomac had suffered more casualties than the Army of the Northern Virginia, but the Union army was larger and “could afford this. Lee could not.”[9]

Grant’s tactics were called into question by Northern Democrats appalled by the casualties his aggressiveness had caused. They “began denouncing [him] as a ‘butcher,’ a ‘bull-headed Suvarov’ who was sacrificing the flower of American manhood.”[10] Two months of awful campaigning had indeed produced horrific carnage, with “some 65,000 northern boys…killed, wounded, or missing since May 4.”[11] But these charges against Grant were patently unfair. Grant understood better than any of his civilian critics that war was an awful business, and that “its glory,” as Sherman put it, “is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentation of distant families.”[12] Both Grant and Sherman understood that in order to end the war, it needed to be fought with utmost vigor, and that only aggressive campaigning would put an eventual stop to the bloodletting. Furthermore, the tactics employed by both sides did not keep pace with advances in technology. Each side suffered correspondingly higher casualties when it was on the offensive, the Confederates losing more men in its offensive campaigns of 1862 and 1863 than the Union. Grant’s 1864 campaign reversed the offensive situation and the casualty count.[13]

The soldiers of the Army of the Potomac did not seem to agree with the critics, for even “with their extremely close-up perspective on the battle they had just fought, the combat…did not seem all that much different from that of Chancellorsville or any of the other bloody and indecisive defeats the army had suffered at Lee’s hands.”[14] The difference under Grant, however, was that after receiving some knocks from the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union soldiers did not retire from the field, but kept pressing the attack. As the men emerged from the Wilderness, they approached a crossroads that offered a choice to go back north or head south. As the column turned south toward Richmond, and “despite the prospect of another immanent bloody meeting with Lee’s army, the men of the Army of the Potomac waved their caps and cheered at the realization that they had fought a battle and were still advancing.”[15]


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 721-2; Donald Stoker, Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 351-2, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/docDetail.action?docID=10395937; Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 250-1.

[2] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 722.

[3] Ibid., 722-4, quotation on 724.

[4] Ibid., 723-4.

[5] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 251.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “U.S. Grant and the Union High Command during the 1864 Valley Campaign,” in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 37, http://www.netlibrary.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/urlapi.asp?action=summary&v=1&bookid=174041; Robert N. Thompson, “The Folly and Horror of Cold Harbor,” Military History 23, no. 8 (November 2006): 40-1, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/212610881/abstract?source=fedsrch&accountid=8289.

[7] Stoker, Grand Design, 368.

[8] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 254.

[9] Ibid., 256.

[10] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 742.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sherman quoted in Stoker, Grand Design, 358.

[13] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 476-7.

[14] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 256.

[15] Ibid.

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign

After spending the winter of 1861-1862 preparing his Army of the Potomac, all the while being prodded by Lincoln to advance on the rebels, General George B. McClellan finally agreed to take action. Lincoln had wanted McClellan to attack Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army at Centreville and then push straight on through to Richmond. McClellan resisted, claiming that the Rebel defenses at Centreville were too stout and that an assault would merely be a disastrous repeat of Bull Run. McClellan presented an alternative plan that involved shipping troops down to Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, and then speeding the army up the Peninsula to attack Richmond from the southeast, behind Johnston’s lines. Lincoln feared that this was simply another McClellan delay, and he directly ordered the general to probe the rebel defenses at Centreville. To Lincoln’s dismay and McClellan’s embarrassment, Johnston had already evacuated his army to Richmond, and the fortifications left behind indicated that the Confederate position had never been as large or imposing as McClellan had claimed.[1] Artillery emplacements were discovered to contain “Quaker guns”—logs painted black to resemble cannons—and “there had clearly been no more than 45,000 rebels on the Manassas-Centreville line, fewer than half the number McClellan had estimated.”[2]

Johnston’s retreat to Richmond negated McClellan’s plan to come in behind him up the Peninsula, but McClellan continued to press for this option. Lincoln was skeptical, and insisted that McClellan would “find the same enemy, and the same, or equal intrenchments” whether he attacked up the Virginia Peninsula or overland from Washington.[3] Lincoln was also concerned that the Peninsula plan would leave Washington undefended should Johnston decide to make a move in that direction, and though the president “did not quite share [the abolitionists’] darkest suspicions” that such a move was deliberate on McClellan’s part, “he did find the matter troubling.”[4] McClellan promised to leave enough troops behind to defend Washington, though Lincoln detached more soldiers than McClellan had wanted, and the Army of the Potomac embarked for Hampton Roads, Virginia.[5]

In early April 1862, McClellan pushed up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe and approached Yorktown, where Confederate General John B. Magruder and thirteen thousand rebel soldiers hunkered down behind extensive defensive lines. McClellan was convinced that Magruder had far more troops than he actually had and that the fortifications would make a frontal assault far too costly. McClellan opted to besiege Yorktown and spent nearly a month preparing trenches and bringing up heavy guns with which to pound the rebel defenses. Lincoln was irritated by this delay, but McClellan insisted that it was necessary, writing “to his wife that if Lincoln wanted to break the rebel lines, ‘he had better come & do it himself.’”[6] While the Army of the Potomac toiled in the expanding trenches around Yorktown, Johnston exploited the delay and moved his entire army to the Peninsula. Finally, on the night of May 3-4, and just as McClellan was ready to begin his bombardment, the Confederates evacuated Yorktown and headed back up the Peninsula. Jefferson Davis was angry with Johnston over this surrendering of territory, but no more so than Lincoln was with McClellan for the delay that allowed so many rebel troops to escape and prepare defenses farther up the Peninsula and closer to Richmond.[7]

McClellan pursued the fleeing Confederate army, and by May, his “army of 100,000 had advanced to within hearing of Richmond’s church bells.”[8] Confederate morale was understandably low, and Jefferson Davis pleaded with Johnston to attack McClellan’s army while McClellan dawdled outside Richmond. Johnston finally acted on May 31, and the indecisive Battle of Seven Pines inflicted a combined eleven thousand casualties on the two armies, including Johnston himself.[9] General Robert E. Lee was selected by Davis to command Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia, and the “quiet Virginian” quickly began to take the offensive.[10] In a series of engagements known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lee pushed McClellan and his army south to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. The Army of Northern Virginia was ably assisted in this endeavor by Jeb Stuart’s excellent cavalry and reinforced by Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley army. Despite the fact that the Army of the Potomac more than held its own against the Confederates during much of the fighting, McClellan continued to issue orders to withdraw, prompting General Phil Kearny to remark, “Such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason…We ought instead of retreating to follow up the enemy and take Richmond.”[11] McClellan wanted to remain at Harrison’s Landing, but because of mounting disease casualties in the hot and humid swamps, Lincoln ordered McClellan to evacuate in July 1862.[12]

Whether McClellan’s caution was attributable to the prudence of a wise commander or, as some radical Republicans suggested, to sympathy with the Confederate cause, it is nonetheless clear that the commander of the Army of the Potomac allowed numerous opportunities to pass by him. Russel Beatie is obviously an admirer of McClellan’s, and his conclusion was that the Peninsula Campaign failed because of Lincoln’s micromanaging and unwarranted intrusions into day-to-day operations. There is no doubt some truth to Beatie’s assessment, but his defense of McClellan often feels like an armchair general’s after-the-fact rationalization, full of unnecessarily inflammatory accusations directed toward Lincoln and his administration and endless excuses for McClellan’s obvious failures.[13] Had McClellan attacked overland to Centreville when Lincoln wanted him to, it is quite possible that the Army of the Potomac would have succeeded in smashing through defenses that were not as formidable as McClellan estimated them to be. At Yorktown, McClellan, in keeping with the standard doctrinal admonition never to leave the enemy in your rear, chose not to bypass Magruder and instead undertook a time-wasting siege. McClellan could have left a sizeable force capable of hemming Magruder in and keeping reinforcements out while navy gunboats bottled up the York River approaches. Thus free to resume his campaign, McClellan could have raced up the Peninsula and arrived at Richmond before Johnston had a chance to fully strengthen his positions and the city’s defenses. Once at Richmond, McClellan could have quickly assessed the situation and formulated a plan to assault the city, but he once again insisted on a siege. When Lee assumed command, he at once went on the offensive and pushed the Army of the Potomac back down to the James River and eventually back to Washington. McClellan was understandably worried about excessive casualties, in part because he had a habit of vastly overestimating his enemy’s strength of numbers. But as Stonewall Jackson was proving in the Shenandoah Valley, speed of maneuver could often negate numerical superiority, and even if McClellan’s army was outnumbered (which it was not), his constant delays did nothing but allow the Confederates to reinforce their troop strength and prepare their physical defenses. In the end, McClellan himself, whether through prudential caution or treasonous delay, was the reason the Peninsula Campaign failed.

[1] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 112-3.

[2] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 424.

[3] Lincoln quoted in McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 424.

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 104.

[5] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 424-5.

[6] Ibid., 426.

[7] Ibid., 427.

[8] Ibid., 454.

[9] Ibid., 462.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Quoted in ibid., 470.

[12] Ibid., 488.

[13]Russel H. Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan’s First Campaign, March-May 1862, Vol. III (Havertown, PA: Savas Beatie, 2007), 629-56, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/docDetail.action?docID=10498896&p00=10498896.