A new birth of freedom

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Article Highlights

  • From George McClellan’s retreat until Lee’s final attack at Gettysburg, the fate of the American continent hung by a thread.

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  • Lincoln understood and deeply lamented that as long as Lee remained in the field, the war would continue.

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  • Ironically Lee is commemorated more in the “tragic” defeat at Gettysburg than for his rather grim victory in the Seven Days.

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Geoffrey Norman’s lovely piece on the Seven Days Battles of June 1862 in this week’s edition of the magazine needs no glossing, but the fights that brought Confederate General Robert E. Lee to the fore also marked the beginning of a period where the future of the United States was increasingly in doubt. From the moment George McClellan retreated from the gates of Richmond until the repulse of Lee’s final attack at Gettysburg on July 3 a year later, the course of the war, the fate of the American continent, and the prospects for human liberty hung by a thread.

The last shots of the Seven Days campaign rang over Malvern Hill about 10 p.m. on July 1, fittingly fired by the Union artillery that had finally overwhelmed the zeal of Lee’s infantry. But what followed in the immediate aftermath was a strategic stalemate. In Washington, Lincoln was furious at McClellan’s failure to smash his way into the Confederate capital; in Richmond, Lee despaired that McClellan had escaped, preserving the army that Lee was determined to destroy.

In response, the Federals dithered. McClellan was disgraced and under assault from the “Radical” Republicans in Congress, who wanted an aggressive prosecution of a war not simply to restore the Union and the status quo but also to abolish slavery and reconstruct the southern “slavocracy.” From their perch leading the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War they fulminated over Lincoln’s weakness. As a halfway measure, Lincoln divided McClellan’s giant force, promoting Republican favorite Maj. Gen. John Pope to command the Federal Army of Virginia. In return, McClellan schemed with northern Democrats against the president, the radicals, and Pope, both publicly in the newspapers and privately within the army.

In August, Lee seized what seemed to him an opportunity to attack Pope’s force in central Virginia. Even while much of McClellan’s army camped along the James River not too far from Richmond, Lee detached first Stonewall Jackson and then James Longstreet to engage Pope at Cedar Mountain and then maneuver northward toward Washington. Longstreet leapfrogged Jackson, and then Jackson circled west of the Blue Ridge to fall onto Pope’s rear at Manassas. As McClellan raced to redeploy his trailing corps by water back to Washington, all of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia – though not much more than 50,000 men – closed on the hapless Pope, forcing a headlong retreat back to the Washington fortifications. Now it was the Federal capital that was threatened, and Lincoln, against the desires of both his Cabinet and the Congress, returned McClellan to supreme command.

Instead of assaulting the Washington citadel, Lee led a further shrunken force across the Potomac into Maryland, hoping, he stated, to encourage secessionists in Maryland – though he had little luck with Barbara Fritchie and her free-soil, German-immigrant neighbors – and the “international community” – particularly the British whose mills relied on “King Cotton” – to intervene. Lee was also driven by his own desire to retain the military initiative he had won at such cost. The ultimate result, determined at the battle of Antietam, was a narrow escape, retreat to Virginia and, in short order, another stalemate as the armies stared at one another across the Rappahannock River outside Fredericksburg.

Lincoln’s response after Antietam was not only to cashier McClellan for good but to gamble on the Emancipation Proclamation. The president risked his fragile domestic coalition – and the 1862 elections would see Democratic gains in Congress – to transform the purpose of the war. Confederates had been fighting for their independence; Federals now fought not for a sacred “Union,” but for a larger American liberty, a “new birth of freedom.”

The year had been a very good one for the Federal cause in the other theaters of war, in trans-Appalachia and along the Mississippi River. In material terms, the North was winning the war, beginning to close a noose on the South; but in political and grand strategic terms, Lee’s 1862 victories – culminated in December by the slaughter at Fredericksburg – provided a seeming path to independence for the Confederate states. When the fighting resumed at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee believed he was but one step away from the decisive battle.

Thus, at Gettysburg, Lee would not retreat until he had committed every unit he could command. Despite the fact that he was out-generalled by the cautious George Meade – who managed his army more adeptly – it was a narrowly-run thing. And, as Lincoln immediately understood and deeply lamented, as long as Lee remained in the field with any sort of force, the war would continue. Lee was ultimately beaten back to trench-lines around Richmond and staved off defeat until April 1865; he again became the “King of Spades” that he had been prior to the Seven Days.

Ironically, as Norman observes, Lee is commemorated more in the “tragic” defeat at Gettysburg than for his rather grim victory in the Seven Days. The massive equestrian statute of Marse Robert atop Traveller looks across from Seminary Ridge to the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge where the southern tide ebbed and began to slip away, but not at those points where it first began to surge.

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