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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on the “Seven Days,”
June 25–July 1, 1862, and Emancipation

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

On June 25, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac clashed outside Richmond, Virginia, and continued to do so for a week. The series of engagements that followed has become known as the Seven Days, and at their conclusion, Robert E. Lee had succeeded in driving George B. McClellan’s bluecoats from the outskirts of the Confederate capital. For the next twelve months, Lee and his army would achieve a series of magnificent victories in Virginia, reviving hopes for a Confederate triumph on the battlefield; it would be a year to the day of the final engagement of the Seven Days that lead elements of that army would encounter two brigades of bluecoat cavalry outside a small town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg.

McClellan refused to accept responsibility for the outcome of the Seven Days. Ever desirous of more men, he declared to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he had lost one battle “because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this & I say it with the earnestness of a General who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today.” This assertion was not enough to satisfy his sense of grievance: “If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.” Fortunately for McClellan, a War Department telegraph operator struck the offensive sentence; it says something about the general’s forthrightness (or cluelessness) that he reprinted it in full in his report of operations, published in 1864.

Lincoln pondered the significance of the setback to Union fortunes. Initially he thought it would be best to continue to press forward in the western theater along the Mississippi River and into Tennessee while raising reinforcements for McClellan to renew his offensive. Now was no time to show the white feather. “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me,” he informed his secretary of state, William Henry Seward. However, as McClellan’s men rallied and drove off Lee’s final determined assault at Malvern Hill on July 1, it seemed that perhaps things were not as desperate as they first appeared. It was time to consider what to do next.

Lincoln visited McClellan’s command at Harrison’s Landing along the James River a week after the Seven Days ended. The general handed the president a letter outlining his views on the proper policy to pursue. The conflict “should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization,” he opined; it “should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any State, in any event.” Enemy armies, not populations, remained the appropriate objective of military operations: “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Indeed, he warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.” Military victories over enemy armies would lead to the collapse of the effort for southern independence. In this last observation McClellan was doubtlessly correct. However, he had failed to achieve that victory, and in coming up short he had set the stage for a reconsideration of means and ends as the United States pondered how to wage war in the summer of 1862.

Lincoln pocketed McClellan’s advice, but he would not follow it. For over a year he had stayed his hand when it came to slavery. He had hoped that holding forth olive branch as well as sword would induce white southerners to have second thoughts about secession. Defeat had convinced him it was time to wage war in earnest. Dissatisfied with the unwillingness of southern unionists to seize the opportunity to restore loyal governments, he began to consider tougher measures. “What would you do in my position?” he asked one Louisiana unionist. “Would you drop the war where it is? Or, would you prosecute it in future, with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones?” By mid-month, he had already answered his own question. A proposal striking directly at slavery remained in a desk drawer, in large part because Seward and other had suggested it was not the right time to issue it. Had McClellan defeated Lee and taken Richmond, there would have been no need to consider issuing such a document.

At the end of July Lincoln took stock of how public perception of military progress shaped his opportunities. “The moral effect was the worst of the affair before Richmond, and that has run its course downward,” he told a foreign observer. “We are now at a stand, and shall soon be rising again, as we hope. I believe it is true that, in men and material, the enemy suffered more than we in that series of conflicts, while it is certain that he is less able to bear it.” But it was precisely how the public interpreted success and failure on the battlefield that puzzled him: “it seems unreasonable that a series of successes, extending through half a year, and clearing more than 100,000 square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt us so much.” In the months to come prospects for the North did not improve. It would not be until September that at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of combat in the American Civil War, McClellan and Lee fought to a draw. Two days later the Confederate leader pulled his command back over the Potomac, leaving the impression in the public mind that he had admitted defeat and had abandoned his invasion of the North. Lincoln seized the opportunity. Just as a McClellan defeat pushed the president to renew his thinking about emancipation, ten weeks later a McClellan victory would provide the perfect pretense to issue a preliminary proclamation of limited emancipation.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It; The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865

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