Through May 1862, Robert E. Lee seemed destined to end up a footnote in Confederate history. Bickering subordinates and the deaths of two staff officers marked his dismal campaign in western Virginia the summer of 1861. There was one bright spot, however: At Sewell Mountain Lee first saw Traveller, the Confederate gray colt that would become his constant companion. Lee followed his three-month stint in the Virginia mountains with a posting to South Carolina to reorganize the Atlantic coastal defenses. He quickly realized the impossibility of his assignment. Securing the entire coastline was, Lee said, “another forlorn hope expedition,” even more futile than his efforts in Virginia, so he concentrated his forces at strategic locations and sacrificed others to Union capture. Since March 1862, he’d ridden a desk in Richmond as President Jefferson Davis’ military adviser, and finally found success there with his plan for Stonewall Jackson’s strike in the Shenandoah Valley that spring.
Lee star was rising as confederate fortunes waned. Losses mounted in the West in early 1862—the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, Nashville, New Orleans, Shiloh. For one month, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia had retreated up the Virginia Peninsula, leading General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to the Chickahominy River, within a few miles of Richmond. Incessant rain swelled the river and stranded Union forces on opposite shores, giving Johnston an offensive opening at Seven Pines on May 31. But the attacks were uncoordinated, Johnston was seriously wounded and his unreliable second in command, Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, inspired confidence in no one. So Davis turned to Lee, a general as yet untested at the highest level of battlefield command, to defend the capital and put the Confederacy’s largest army back on track.
McClellan licked his chops at the news. Lee, he believed, was “too cautious & weak…& is likely to be timid & irresolute in action,” an assessment many in the Union would have applied to McClellan himself. Lee, however, had no intention of letting McClellan lay siege to Richmond. There was nothing to be won by simply evading the enemy. Unlike Johnston, Lee would engage the Yankees, whenever and wherever he could, on his terms.
It was a daunting task. The army Lee inherited was disorganized and undisciplined, and the recently enacted draft guaranteed an influx of untrained men as well. “We cannot get at [McClellan] without storming his works, which with our new troops is extremely hazardous,” Lee informed Davis on June 5. “It will require 100,000 men to resist the regular siege of Richmond, which perhaps would only prolong not save it.”
Lee immediately ordered earthworks to be dug on Richmond’s perimeter, much to the consternation of his troops. They didn’t want to be entrenched with this “King of Spades,” they grumbled. They wanted to fight.
The grumblers didn’t fully appreciate why they were digging in. Lee strategized that the Richmond defenses could be held by a small portion of his army. The rest, with reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley, would attack McClellan’s right flank.
Less than two weeks after taking command, on June 12, Lee sent Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and 1,200 cavalrymen on an intelligence-gathering mission. With typical bravado, and a bit of luck, Stuart rode 100 miles around McClellan’s entire army in three days. It embarrassed the Union but boosted the spirits of Southerners well aware that the barbarians were at the capital gates. Most important, Stuart confirmed that McClellan’s supply and communication lines on the north side of the Chickahominy were vulnerable. If Lee took the initiative, he stood a good chance of forcing McClellan away from Richmond to protect his base of operations at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River.
On June 23, Lee met with his subordinates, Maj. Gens. Stonewall Jackson (who had ridden more than 50 miles in the previous 12 hours), James Longstreet, D.H. Hill and A.P. Hill, to lay out his plan: In three days, about a third of Lee’s army would man the Richmond defenses. Jackson would sweep down from the northwest and pull Union Brig. Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s troops away from the north side of the Chickahominy. Longstreet, Hill and Hill would cross the river and keep the remaining Yankees east of Beaver Dam Creek at Mechanicsville. It was a bold strategy, but its complications were legion: Jackson’s exhausted men were bogged down on their long march from the Valley. Success hung on effective communication and precise coordination, two things that had eluded the Army of Northern Virginia in the past. And unbeknownst to Lee, his staff was saddled with inaccurate maps of the area.
The ensuing battles—the seven Days’—were fraught with mistakes and missed opportunities. Even so, they erased any lingering doubts about Lee’s ability to lead an army. As June 1862 bled into July, the Confederacy found new reasons to be hopeful. Lee saved the capital and stifled the Union’s best chance so far to win the war. He hoped an offensive strategy with Southern victories and costly Union defeats would bolster Southern morale and blunt the Northern appetite for more fighting. That remained to be seen. For now, Robert E. Lee had turned the tide.
As Union war correspondent Joel Cook observed, “The wounding of General Johnston was one of the best things for the enemy which had ever happened.”
Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.