Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Booknotes: Decisions of the Seven Days

New Arrival:
Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles by Matt Spruill (UT Press, 2021).

From the description: "From June 25 to July 1, 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia engaged Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in a series of battles at the end of the Peninsula Campaign that would collectively become known as the Seven Days Battles. Beginning with the fighting at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, Lee consistently maneuvered against and attacked McClellan’s Army of the Potomac as it retreated south across the Virginia Peninsula to the James River. At the conclusion of the Battle of Malvern Hill, Lee’s second most costly battle, where McClellan’s strong defensive position of infantry and artillery repelled multiple frontal assaults by Lee’s troops, the Federal army slipped from Lee’s grasp and brought the Seven Days to an end. The Seven Days was a clear Confederate victory that drove the Union army away from the capital at Richmond, began the ascendancy of Robert E. Lee, and commenced a change in the war in the Eastern Theater. It set the stage for the Second Manassas Campaign followed by the Maryland Campaign of 1862."

That critical week of fighting is now the subject of the latest volume in University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series. Authored by series developer Matt Spruill, Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles "explores the critical decisions made by Confederate and Union commanders during the Seven Days Battles and how these decisions shaped the outcome. Rather than offering a history of the battles, Matt Spruill hones in on a sequence of critical decisions made by commanders on both sides of the contests to provide a blueprint of the Seven Days at its tactical core. Identifying and exploring the critical decisions in this way allows students of the battles to progress from knowledge of what happened to a mature grasp of why events happened." If you're new to the series, you can examine any number of reviews on this website to get an impression of what's involved. To read my reviews of two other Spruill volumes go here and here.

Though the decision analysis format is pretty much set in stone, series authors have a great deal of freedom when it comes to organizational grouping and in identifying decision types that range among "strategy, operations, tactics, organization, logistical, and personnel" considerations. Spruill arranges his sixteen Seven Days decisions into four time frames: "Before the Battles" (6), "Mechanicsville and Gaines' Mill" (3), "White Oak Swamp and Glendale" (4), and "Malvern Hill and Retreat" (3). Three of these are strategic, four are operational, eight tactical, and one personnel related. As with the other volumes, there are numerous maps sprinkled throughout (mostly brigade and division scale here), and decision identification and analysis are accompanied by an extensive battlefield guide based upon them. Detailed orders of battle are also included.


  1. And yet the wait continues for an updated Seven Days campaign study or even insightful books on the individual battles. The Western Theater is now blessed with excellent authors such as Dave Powell, Tim Smith, and Earl Hess. Where did all the Eastern Theater authors go? Scott Hartwig is supposed to come out with Volume 2 of his large Antietam campaign study next year. At this stage of his career with his Overland Campaign study completed, it may be too much to expect Gordon Rhea to tackle this subject. Who else has the gravitas, skill and experience to have a go at the Seven Days campaign?

    1. As has been the "word" for several (9?) years, Bobby Krick is supposed to be turning out a study of Gaines's Mill and Frank O'Reilly is working on Malvern Hill. If those ever get completed, that's a couple of A-Teamers. To date, neither battle has gotten a competent stand-alone treatment.

    2. Who knows if he's even interested in the topic, but I think Jeff Hunt could do a great job. He's finishing up his 4-Vol. fall campaigns in VA series and has certainly demonstrated the ability to do a big series project. With volumes released every other year, he's also able to complete the whole thing in a timely fashion.

    3. I would consider Burton's Seven Days book as an "updated" Seven Days campaign study, considering it was published in 2010 and we really only had Sears and Dowdey to go on for many years prior to that.

  2. Drew: Based on my reading of selected portions, I like the author's analysis of possible options and his evaluation of the choices made. I think the recent tendency is to assume that McClellan, for example, had no plausible options once things started, and I disagree.

  3. I should have added that (while not part of the "Seven Days"), we really need an updated study of Seven Pines. Steve Newton's H.E.Howard book is the best but it's succinct and dated. He'd be a great candidate to produce an expanded and revised edition.


If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.