Then the tables turned.
By the end of August, the Confederates were in central Kentucky driving hard for Louisville. In the East, not only had the Federal army been thrown back from Richmond, but it also had been driven all the way to the Washington defenses.
Who or what was responsible for such a startling reversal?
Besides the brilliant maneuvering of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, conventional wisdom has pinned the blame mainly on Gen. George B. McClellan, who led the Union offensive on Richmond.
His over-cautious approach, the story goes, kept him bottled up at Yorktown for a month conducting siege warfare on a rebel army one-fifth the size of his. He vastly overestimated the strength of the enemy and made irrational calls for reinforcements. When the rebels finally retreated to Richmond, he did not pursue quickly enough. After Jackson joined Lee in Richmond and drove back the Union soldiers, McClellan withheld reinforcements from Gen. John Pope for petty political reasons, contributing to his army’s defeat.
But there is another way to look at the spring and summer of 1862, and in this version, the strategic mistakes are Lincoln’s.
In early March, McClellan told the president of his plan to capture Richmond. His offensive force would steam down the Chesapeake Bay to the peninsula between the York and James rivers and assault the rebel capital. His defensive force would man the forts surrounding Washington and guard the two main approaches from the south — the Piedmont and the head of the Shenandoah Valley. At the start of the campaign, McClellan had almost 190,000 men at his disposal.
How much of McClellan’s army should be allocated to defense became a serious point of contention with Lincoln, who was fixated on Washington’s security. McClellan’s lieutenants recommended 55,000 men, leaving the main assault force with 135,000 soldiers. The number could always be adjusted by McClellan, depending on Confederate actions. On April 1, McClellan sailed down the Potomac to prepare his assault.
Three days later, without McClellan’s knowledge, Lincoln held back an additional 33,000 men from McClellan’s attacking force. McClellan, who had already written orders for those men, was not aware of the new arrangement until he had reached the front.
He pleaded with Lincoln to release the troops. “I beg that you will reconsider the order . . . the success of our cause will be imperiled by so greatly reducing my force when it is actually under the fire of the enemy and active operations have commenced.”