Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Review - " From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862 " by Ethan Rafuse

[From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862 by Ethan S. Rafuse (University Press of Kansas, 2023). Hardcover, 15 maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxi,266/421. ISBN:978-0-7006-3353-1. $49.95]

The Peninsula Campaign was unquestionably the central military event of the first half of 1862 in the Civil War's eastern theater. Inextricably tied to a series of smaller-scale, yet critically important, operations conducted across the state of Virginia on land and water, a truly comprehensive study of that momentous time period would require multiple volumes. Such ambitions are yet to be fulfilled, though numerous book-length works have carved out some very impressive niches on their own. The latest contribution to that large body of work, a fine new military and political synthesis of events spanning the first five months of the year, is Ethan Rafuse's From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862.

Utilizing a strong mix of primary and secondary sources, among the former a very substantial collection of manuscript materials, Rafuse crafts a very incisive overview of events between January's Romney expedition and the moment in late May when the Confederate commands of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah and Joseph E. Johnston on the upper Peninsula were both finally poised to truly seize the initiative and turn the tables on their foes [first at Front Royal (May 23) and Winchester (May 25), then at the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines (May 31-June 1)]. His narrative flowing back and forth between the five major fronts where both sides faced off during this five-month period—up and down the Shenandoah Valley, into the mountains beyond, and along the James, Chickahominy, and Rappahannock rivers—Rafuse supplies his readers with excellent summaries of the Romney Expedition, the battles of Kernstown and McDowell, siege operations along the Yorktown-Warwick River line, the large clash at Williamsburg, and everything in between. The military and political factors involved in the high command decision-making of both sides is expertly chronicled, and the strong emphasis placed on their interconnectivity is elucidated to great satisfaction.

Historians arguably make too little of the negative consequences of the Lincoln administration imposing a four-corps structure on the Army of the Potomac against McClellan's wishes. In and of itself that move and its timing were not egregiously problematic, but the president's decision to install at the head of three of these new corps a senior major general who openly opposed McClellan's Urbanna Plan (and a fourth that only reluctantly approved) certainly raises large concerns. Rafuse rightly frames this outcome to have been a mistrustful administration's undisguised attempt to install a heavy counterweight to McClellan's position within his own army. What no one in Washington seems to have fully considered was the degree to which this oppositional command dynamic they created might adversely affect concert of action as the ensuing campaign unfolded. In other words, what might have seemed like a masterful political move proved to be a potentially disastrous military one. Indeed, in Rafuse's discussion of the aftermath of the Battle of Williamsburg, when bickering jealousies and hostilities broke out between a raft of generals, one Army of the Potomac observer justifiably wondered whether cooperative offensive action was even possible with the Army of the Potomac's high command structure as internally divided as it was. Of course, it was McClellan's job to make the best of the hand he was dealt, and he did so by increasing the power and responsibilities of more junior officers he did trust (ex. generals Fitz John Porter and William Franklin). However, such overt acts of favoritism only offended those generals outside that circle and widened preexisting divisions. As Rafuse details, even as the Army of the Potomac closed in on Richmond and the enemy gave up yet another forward position for fear of a waterborne turning movement, McClellan was still wrestling with his senior corps commanders. Lincoln begged McClellan to tread lightly, questioning whether the commander could afford to step "upon the necks of Sumner, Heintzelman, and Keyes all at once." What a mess.

Another example of political considerations trumping military ones during this period involved Lincoln's untimely detachment of Blenker's division from General Irvin McDowell's large corps and its reassignment to General John C. Fremont's Mountain Department. Rafuse likely concurs with the argument that Blenker's poorly executed odyssey into the mountains can be best described as a militarily unsound exercise designed to pad Fremont's command in a way that would bring it up to numbers commensurate with the general's lofty military rank and Radical Republican party influence. The author cautions against overexaggerating its significance as a factor on the Peninsula line of operations, or if kept with McDowell, but does persuasively determine that Blenker's absence was keenly felt in the Valley, where Banks could clearly have used his large division to greatest effect against Jackson's countermove there.

Opinion remains divided on the matter of President Lincoln detaching McDowell's corps from McClellan's army upon deeming the latter's agreed upon provisions for leaving the national capital fully defended to be a promise dangerously unfulfilled. Rafuse is very sympathetic to Lincoln's (over)cautious position. Though McClellan was subsequently vindicated by events as they unfolded during the week following McDowell's detachment and beyond, the author joins other writers in heavily criticizing McClellan for employing "sloppy accounting," and, just as important, neglecting to clearly communicate his creative bean counting to his superiors before departing to the front. McClellan's alleged underhandedness in this sensitive arena needlessly gave his growing enemies more ammunition to use against him. Rafuse justifiably questions whether anything McClellan could have said might have mollified Lincoln's extreme skittishness over the safety of the capital, but he suggests that McClellan's failure to even try was a "gross error" (pg. 116) in judgment that further damaged the already crumbling relationship between the two. Undoubtedly, that was so.

However, that would not be the only time McDowell's attachment/reinforcement would be denied. Later, when assigning blame for the Peninsula Campaign's unfavorable outcome, Lincoln's last-second decision to withhold from McClellan, whose army was divided in anticipation, the full power of McDowell's divisions would prove to be a large bone of contention. While that controversial decision on the part of the administration is beyond the scope of this study, an aspect of it relevant to this time period involves unjust accusations levied against McDowell himself by McClellan's supporters. They believed that McDowell conspired with his administration allies to carve out a large independent command for himself  rather than work toward assisting the Army of the Potomac near Richmond (a perception furthered by Lincoln's creating for McDowell the short-lived Department of the Rappahannock). There's no evidence to support this, however, the truth being quite the opposite. As was also revealed in Simione and Schmiel's recent McDowell biography, Rafuse convincingly portrays McDowell as being just as frustrated as McClellan was in being constantly held back from rejoining the Army of the Potomac for its (presumed) climactic assault on Richmond.

Of course, the other side experienced problems of their own. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston's negative assessment of the line of fortifications stretching from Gloucester Point and Yorktown south to the James River is well documented. He even went so far as to say that the line benefited McClellan more than it did his own army, citing its alleged poor engineering, vulnerability to the enemy's superiority in heavy artillery, and the ease with which it might be turned by Union amphibious capabilities. To be fair, Johnston was not the only Confederate officer to complain about it, but it would have been interesting to know the author's opinion regarding whether Johnston had better options available beyond rapid retreat back to the gates of Richmond. We know that Robert E. Lee, President Davis, and Secretary of War Randolph urged that a forward defense of the Peninsula should be maintained as long as possible to buy time and save irreplaceable war materiel. On the other hand, given what we also know about weather and road conditions on the Peninsula, Johnston's fears of being trapped seem more rational than they might initially appear. Indeed, as part of the recent surge in environmental history studies, a number of works have explored how the extraordinary weather events of 1862 impacted economic and military activity along the entire breadth of the North American continent. Military historians have long acknowledged that incessant rains and primitive, poorly draining roads had an impact on McClellan's movements on the lower Peninsula, but Rafuse incorporates more recently revealed insights into a narrative that more fully appreciates and properly contextualizes the havoc this exceptional weather pattern played upon each side's plans, movements, and health, not only on the Peninsula but across the central Virginia and Shenandoah Valley fighting fronts.

From the Mountains to the Bay ends at a natural transition point. At its late-May 1862 conclusion, Rafuse's book leaves the reader with a Confederate cause seemingly on the brink. That would all change over the next six weeks. Jackson routed Banks in the Valley, confounded further efforts bent on his destruction there, and critically aided the Confederate Seven Days offensive outside Richmond. Though Johnston's May 31-June 1 counterpunch resulted in his untimely wounding and failed to deal a telling blow to McClellan's army, the ensuing Seven Days offensive led by his successor saved Richmond and dramatically altered the course of the war in the East.

Tradition has placed blame for Union inability to capture Richmond in early to mid 1862 almost entirely at the feet of McClellan, his lack of moral leadership and mishandling of his army during the Seven Days snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (the common implication being that any other reasonably competent commander would have succeeded where McClellan failed). Rafuse, however, adds an important element to the equation. In the author's view, by late May Union forces in Virginia had arguably reached their "culmination point," the moment in time described by Clausewitz in which the factors inherently advantageous to the attacker during the early stages of any offensive campaign (among them having the operational initiative and the ability to decide where to land the principal blow) diminish and the balance shifts toward the defender. According to Rafuse, evidence of this transition can be seen in the Union pull back after the Battle of McDowell, the unsuccessful naval attack at Drewry's Bluff, and the Army of the Potomac's stalled advance astride the Chickahominy in anticipation of General McDowell's approach from the north. None of that endangered the overall campaign in a way that made Union failure inevitable (culmination points are still subject to contingency), but it's a worthwhile matter to take under consideration when seeking to understand how and why such a promising campaign crumbled into embarrassing failure.

From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862 is highly recommended. Though no hints toward any follow-up titles are offered in the book, one or more additional volumes along this line that would extend the narrative through July and August would be a very welcome contribution. Absence of a modern standard history of this critically important phase of the Civil War in the East is keenly felt, and, by all indications (here and elsewhere), Ethan Rafuse is among those best equipped to produce one.

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