Monday, September 20, 2021

Review - "Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles" by Matt Spruill

[Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles by Matt Spruill (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Softcover, 23 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xvii,229. ISBN:978-1-62190-674-2. $29.95]

With the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia heavily reinforced to its peak fighting strength, the series of battles fought outside Richmond from June 25 to July 1, 1862 (the "Seven Days") were collectively epic in scale. Spatially and temporally close enough together to arguably be regarded as a single running battle, the costly nature of these actions was stunning by early-war standards, with over 20,000 Confederate losses weighed against over 16,000 Union casualties. The vast differential in killed and wounded (a much higher proportion of Union losses were in battle prisoners and scooped up stragglers, all eligible for later exchange) was not what the Confederate high command had in mind for their offensive, which was designed to destroy all or part of the Army of the Potomac. Nevertheless, the strategic results of the campaign, which transferred the theater's active front from the gates of one capital to the other, significantly altered the course of the war in the East.

The standard history of the Seven Days is Brian Burton's now two-decade old study Extraordinary Circumstances. That critical week of fighting between the well-matched armies of Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan is now the subject of the latest volume in University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series. Supplementing Burton's fine narrative account of the campaign, Matt Spruill's Decisions of the Seven Days: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battles uses the well-honed critical decision system developed for the series to go from describing and analyzing "what happened" during a particular event to answering the question of "why did it happen, or what caused it to happen?"

For the uninitiated, the series defines a critical decision as one that is "of such magnitude that it shaped not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle from that point on" (xiv). More about this (including the full range of decision categories) can be read in the following CWBA reviews of earlier Spruill series entries linked here and here.

Spruill's sixteen critical decisions of the Seven Days are distributed among four key time intervals: "Before the Battles" March 17-June 15, 1862 [6], "Mechanicsville and Gaines' Mill" June 26-27 [3], "White Oak Swamp and Glendale" June 29-30 [4], and "Malvern Hill and Retreat" July 1 and Beyond [3]. While the June 25 battle at Oak Grove is understandably not involved in a critical decision and arguably lacked much in the way of meaningful impact, it remains a bit odd that the reader is not given notice of it in the book. Three of the decisions are strategic, four are operational, eight tactical, and one (Confederate president Jefferson Davis's decision to appoint Lee to lead the Army of Northern Virginia) personnel related. Nine are Confederate decisions and seven Union, a balance perhaps indicative of the campaign's back and forth shuffling of opportunities for seizing the operational initiative.

In Decisions of the Seven Days, analysis of each critical decision closely follows the standard organizational format developed for the series. Discussion proceeds through five subheadings—Situation, Options, Decision, Result/Impact, and Alternate Decision/Scenario. The first and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a crossroads moment in the campaign or battle. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (in this case, two to four in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Result/Impact section recounts what happened and how those events shaped the rest of the battle and beyond. The Situation and Result/Impact sections quite often reference other decisions in a meaningful way, further reminding readers of their interconnectivity and the cascading consequences of critical decisions made earlier. Not present for every decision, the optional Alternate Decision/Scenario section delves into alternative history conjecture based on choices not made.

For the purposes of the review, we'll look at one decision from each of the four groupings. Having six of sixteen decisions in the pre-Seven Days period serves as yet another reminder that the course and outcomes of major campaigns are greatly affected by the top-level decisions that precede them by days, weeks, or months. In this example, that involved the critical decision of the Lincoln administration to divert General Irvin McDowell's large First Corps from its movement to join McClellan and instead redirect it to the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to trap Stonewall Jackson's small army there. It's a common observation among wags, and even otherwise thoughtful historians, that sending McDowell to McClellan would not have mattered because he wouldn't have done anything with it anyway, but Spruill sagely points out that McDowell's presence north of Richmond alone would have imposed tremendous challenges to an enemy earnestly seeking to avoid a siege. Such a movement, by both greatly extending and massively strengthening the Army of the Potomac's right, would have rendered infeasible Lee's most favored plan (that being a turning movement against the enemy's only open flank). McDowell's march south would interpose his large command between Jackson and Lee, preventing a junction advantageous of maneuver similar to the combined effort undertaken historically. Of course, as the author correctly observes, that alternative decision would not have guaranteed Union victory, but it would have unquestionably led to a very different continuation of the campaign. How Jackson might have been used in that situation is interesting to reflect upon.

From the second group, the decision surrounding McClellan's next course of action after his defeat at Gaines's Mill is one of the rare four-option discussions. Both of the first two retreat options, toward the then current forward supply base of White House Landing or further down the Peninsula to Fort Monroe, would involve recrossing the Chickahominy River in the face of an aggressive enemy. McClellan's historical choice of a rapid retreat to the James River was safer, but the road network formed choke points of potential usefulness to the enemy. The final alternative, that of launching an all-out offensive toward Richmond while the bulk of Lee's army was temporarily isolated north of the Chickahominy is the big 'What If' of the campaign that has been endlessly debated ever since that time. Arguably, it is too often presented as a sure thing leading to the fall of Richmond, but it is clear to the author (and nearly everyone else) that it was a lost opportunity that McClellan, rendered entirely defensive-minded by Gaines's Mill, never really seriously considered. That it would have involved a commitment of the army to an assault on a fortified city without first having secured a new line of supply and communications is a matter worthy of some consideration, although it should be said that McClellan had already set in motion contingency plans for a change of base prior to the Seven Days.

The third decision involves Robert E. Lee's critical decision over where to use his reserve, General John B. Magruder's command, to best effect during the June 29-30 fighting period. By the 30th, McClellan's army occupied a long, and in places somewhat thin, line stretching from Malvern Hill to White Oak Swamp. On the other side, Lee's army had three divisions (James Longstreet's, Benjamin Huger's, and A.P. Hill's) converging on McClellan's center at the Glendale crossroads and Theophilus Holmes's division marching down the River Road toward the steep western face of Malvern Hill. Magruder was his reserve and Lee had to decide which attack it would back up, Glendale or Malvern Hill. In the author's view this was a critical decision that would greatly impact the fighting on June 30th, a day of combat that some consider to have been Lee's best opportunity to cripple or destroy the Army of the Potomac. Initially ordered to support Holmes, an act that violated the principle of war dictating that the reserve should be used to support operations along the main axis of attack (in this case, the assault on the Union center), Magruder ended up, through a series of orders that sent his men marching and countermarching about, influencing events on neither part of the field. In Spruill's judgment, Magruder could have had a decisive impact on the Glendale battlefield, though the fact that Huger never got into the action there already significantly lessened the chances of achieving a major break in McClellan's line there.

The 'July 1 and beyond' period decision sampled here examines the order from army general in chief Henry Halleck to evacuate the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula and bring it back to the US capital front. Weighing the three options of (1) remaining north of the James to renew the advance on Richmond, (2) crossing the army to the south side of the James and attacking Richmond's lifeline through Petersburg, and (3) ordering McClellan to evacuate his army from the Peninsula and return to the Washington front, the section cogently summarizes the advantages and disadvantages each option held for continuing the campaign in Virginia for the balance of the season. While the first two options both required levels of command and movement coordination hitherto absent from operations in the East if resumption of the campaign against Richmond was to continue, the third option clearly conceded the initiative to Lee, who took full advantage of the opportunity to attack John Pope's Army of Virginia during its brief period of isolation. On paper, this can be regarded as one of the worst decisions of the war, but that must be balanced against the complete absence of trust and confidence that existed by that time between the Lincoln administration and the commander of its top army.

The volume's over two-dozen maps are mostly brigade and division scale. While that lack of small-unit detail present in the author's other books might disappoint some readers, the higher scale does fit within the level of decision-making addressed in the study. As is the case with all series volumes, an extensive driving tour (complete with orientation, documentary support in the form of official reports, and context specifically tied to the decision analyses explored in the main body) is provided along with orders of battle for both armies.

In Decisions of the Seven Days, Matt Spruill once again demonstrates a keen eye for identifying and exploring the type and character of critical decisions that shaped the course of Civil War campaigns. The Seven Days possesses perhaps more than its share of grand lost opportunities that have been heatedly debated over the past century and a half. McClellan's controversial decision to retreat after Gaines's Mill and questions surrounding June 29-30 being Lee's greatest opportunity to destroy the Army of the Potomac comprise two of the war's greatest 'what-if' moments, and Spruill handles those and more with well-informed and admirably level-headed understanding. Recommended.


  1. Glad to see your review, Drew. This is the first book in this series I've read and I found it illuminating and just the right level of detail for me. I will certainly want to explore more entries in the series. As always, your review adds perspective. One quibble I would make is that the book, for a university press product, had a disappointing number of typos, but not enough to detract from an otherwise positive experience.

    Tom Jones

  2. That the author thinks McClellan didn't seriously consider an offensive north of the Chickahominy after Gaines Mill is a pretty standard mistake. Heintzelman's journal records that McClellan came to the council-of-war proposing exactly that (as he'd put in writing earlier that day). Heintzelman and the Corps Commanders all argued against this and convinced him to withdraw.

    Magruder would have made no difference at the Glendale Crossroads, because he couldn't have gotten into action. As it was, AP Hill's division barely got into action before nightfall and not all of it. Magruder would simply have been backed up behind AP Hill.

  3. Drew: I concur with your assessment. I actually found this volume to be one of the best in the series (Dave Powell's Chickamauga book is another that comes to mind). Spruill has done a nice job of coming up with plausible options, especially at the tactical level. I see the comment about typos. I agree with the commenter that they do not affect the value of this book. I would only add that unfortunately typos in a university press book are hardly unusual these days.


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