Peninsula, Seven Days, Fortnight for Freedom

I don’t drink tea, so I’m not really sure how much it costs. But I guess a person could pay $10/lb. for tea these days.

As it happens, that is also how much it cost exactly 150 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. Shortages led to outrageous price inflation.

But let’s back up…

Countless eons ago, the water came down and filled up the oceans. Some of it became the York and James Rivers. Between these rivers: a peninsula.

John Smith & Co. made camp on this peninsula back in May of 1607. Later, colonists built Williamsburg on it, and from there the statesmen governed the vast Commonwealth that extended to the Ohio River basin and gave homesteads to countless Scotch-Irish families.

Thomas Jefferson studied on the peninsula.

Then he and some others signed the Declaration of Independence, and war ensued.

After an inconclusive battle campaign, the British, under Lord Cornwallis, holed-up in a town on the north side of the peninsula, a town named for the river on which it sat. Their king had the best navy on earth, so it made sense to secure a sea port. Yorktown offered an ideal situation.

To defend the town from land attack, Cornwallis and his army piled up enormous earthen tranches around the town.

But they never counted on the French navy fighting for the Americans, keeping mother England’s ships at bay at the mouth of the river. Nor did they anticipate that the French army would attack their stronghold, alongside George Washington’s Continentals.

The British did not bring siege cannon for their campaign. They travelled with only portable field cannons. The French and Americans showed up with long-range siege artillery. Cornwallis could not answer fire. The British surrendered.

…Eighty years later, Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. The city between the James and the tributaries of the York had more wealth and power then any other southern town.

If you wanted to defend Richmond from invasion from the sea, from the Chesapeake—you might well decide to garrison an army at Yorktown. You could easily build up the trenches. Much of the earth that the British shoveled still remained in big piles around the town. From Yorktown, your Confederate army could cover the river with batteries of artillery and prevent Federal ships from sailing up close to Richmond via the Pamunkey, which fed the York.

If you thought along these lines, you would be thinking like Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor thought in 1861. Namely, Robert E. Lee.

The following spring, if you were like U.S. General-in-Chief George McClellan, you might decide to get the meddlesome, apish chief executive off your back by formulating a grand plan to ferry all your troops down the Potomac, to the storied peninsula. Then you could slowly lay an elaborate siege on Yorktown. Once it fell, on to Richmond!

Honest Abe, a prudent man if ever there were one, did not think that this made for a very good plan. Why not just march south to Richmond over land? But the President was desperate for McClellan to something, anything. ‘Okay. Go for it.’

So: Once again, eighty-one years after Cornwallis, the besiegers of Yorktown outgunned the besieged. Massively.

But, this time, the besieged had somewhere else to go. Confederate General Joe Johnston didn’t even wait for the shooting to start. He craftily allowed McClellan and Co. to spend weeks lining everything up for an extended siege. Then Johnston evacuated Yorktown under cover of night and retreated to trenches around Richmond. (George Armstrong Custer, scouting from a hot-air balloon, was the first Federal to learn that Johnston had cleared out.)

A battle between the Federal vanguard and the Confederate rear erupted just south of sleepy old Williamsburg. They re-enacted the battle nine days ago. (Your servant had the pleasure of encountering one of the re-enactors.)

You may be wondering, does Father have a point here? Do I need one? Listen:

McClellan moved his armies up towards the Confederate capital. He planned to besiege it with all the might he could muster. He had plenty of guns and troops to beat the Rebs. But a pathological timidity would soon overcome him.

In a battle east of Richmond on May 31, Johnston suffered severe wounds. Who would replace him in command of the army defending Richmond? Jefferson chose to put his military advisor in command. Robert E. Lee.

It rained and rained. Lee knew that he did not have time on his side. If he faced a more reasonable man than McClellan, then the Confederate capital almost certainly could have been taken during the summer.

So Lee planned a dangerous, complicated offensive maneuver. It required Stonewall Jackson to come east from the Shenandoah Valley.

Jackson had just conducted a campaign with the dexterity of a magician, keeping Federal troops occupied to the west, making McClellan crazy that he couldn’t have a juggernaut as big as he wanted for the peninsula.

Jackson’s biographer James “Bud” Robertson titles his chapter on this phase of the war “Fatigue.” Jackson managed completely to bungle his role in Lee’s plan. Stonewall never really even understood Lee’s orders. Robertson recounts how Jackson was fighting off sleep when Lee was explaining his plan.

What ensued has come to be known as “The Seven Days.” Bloody battle after bloody battle, every day for a week, June 25 to July 1.

Panicky, paranoid McClellan ran for a secure route of retreat. He did this even though he had more men and much more firepower. Lee again and again tried and failed to make himself understood by his generals—men who would eventually become legends right alongside him: “Pete” Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, John Bell Hood, and Jackson.

Tiny twists of fate could have changed things so that July 1862 could have seen Abraham Lincoln walking the streets of Richmond—almost three years before he actually did. Or July 1862 could have seen the Federal war machine ruined, for all intents and purposes. Such a victory lay within Lee’s grasp. But he could not get his generals to do what he thought he had told them to do.

In other words, the war could have ended, with either side the victor, but for a few details one way or the other. If Little Mac weren’t there, and Grant was: Richmond taken and war over in 1862. Or: if Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson really understood what they were saying to each other: Federal army crippled, Northern morale crushed, and war over in 1862.

Instead, it all came to nothing in the short run. By the end of the summer, the Union army was back in Washington.

I really do have a point. Kind of.

I would like to be the first blogger on the interwebs to point out that: The “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by our Bishops coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days battles.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret the significance of this fact.