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Places in Civil War History: Maps of the Peninsula Campaign, Part 1

This is part of a series of posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis.

One of the grand Union strategies of the Civil War came to be known as the “Peninsula Campaign,” an ultimately failed attempt to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, by landing troops at Fortress Monroe in March 1862 and attacking northwest up the peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers.

Under the command of Major General George B. McClellan, the Union’s Army of the Potomac made slow progress up the peninsula, in large part due to McClellan’s extreme cautiousness in engaging his troops in battle against Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston. For most of April 1862, Union troops laid siege to Yorktown, as depicted in the C.H. Worret panoramic map shown below. The view presents the embattled city of Yorktown with more than 23 Union troop and artillery positions firing on the walled fortress.

Panoramic view of siege of riverside fort.

“The siege of Yorktown, April 1862,” C.H. Worrett, c1862. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Confederate forces finally evacuated Yorktown and the siege concluded on May 5, 1862, when McClellan’s and Johnston’s forces entered into pitched battle at Williamsburg. Miles D. McAlester, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac’s III Corps, drew the below sketch of Union and Confederate positions at Williamsburg. The map shown here was published in 1872 by the office of the Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army as part of post-war reports documenting the conflict. As for the battle itself, the Union army incurred more casualties than the Confederates (2,283 soldiers killed to the Confederates’ 1,682), but Johnston’s forces were again forced to retreat further west.

Map of Union and Confederate positions at Battle of Williamsburg, including forest and roads.

“Sketch of the battlefield and Confederate works in front of Williamsburg, Va., May 5th 1862” by Lt. Miles D. McAlester, Chief Engineer 3rd Corps, Army of the Potomac, 1862. Published 1872, U.S. Army. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Despite McClellan claiming victory at Williamsburg, the battle’s ultimate impact was in delaying the Union march and allowing Confederate forces to firm up defenses of Richmond. In early May, the Battle of Eltham’s Landing proved inconclusive and the Union Navy was outright repelled at Drewry’s Bluff, where a naval assault on Fort Darling along the James River was attempted. The stereograph, below, of a Columbiad gun in Fort Darling was taken at some point during the war and published in the 1880s as part of The War for the Union, Photographic War History, 1861-1865, a photography collection. Titled “One Reason why we did not go to Richmond,” the stereograph offers a telling account of the difficult fighting of the Peninsula Campaign from the Union perspective. On the back of the stereograph is the following description, which includes references to Confederate generals:

There were many reasons why we did not go to Richmond as soon as we expected to. This is one of the reasons; there were lots of just reasons as this all along up the James River. This is one of the many guns which the Rebels had in Fort Darling, which commanded the river approaches for a long distance. The Rebels used to shout across to our pickets, that before we could get to Richmond we had a LONGSTREET to travel, a big HILL to climb, and a STONEWALL to get over; but we “got there just the same.”

Stereograph of cannon facing James River

“One reason why we did not go to Richmond,” published by the War Photograph & Exhibition Co. in The war for the union, 1861-1865 photographic history c1880s. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

By late May, Union forces were gradually approaching Richmond on the peninsula, but in failing to take full advantage of Confederate retreats, the campaign would soon turn in the Rebels’ favor. The events of the second half of the Peninsula Campaign, covered in our next post in this series, would have significant impacts on the course and duration of the war.

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