Peninsular Campaign in 1862: History & Summary

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Peninsular Campaign of 1862 was a Union attempt to capture Richmond, Virginia, from March to early August 1862. Despite coming close to their goal, Union troops were stopped by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In the summer of 1862, Union forces made a bold move to capture Richmond, Virginia, and win the Civil War. This offensive is known as the Peninsular Campaign, and it was a major turning point in the American Civil War.

George McClellan's Plan

In the summer of 1861, after the Union defeat at the Battle of First Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln needed a new officer to take command of Union forces in Washington. In western Virginia, Major General George B. McClellan had achieved several battlefield victories. At 34 years old, he was an impressive figure. He was also Lincoln's choice to take the place of the defeated Brigadier General Irvin McDowell.

When McClellan arrived in Washington, he began building an army. Organization was McClellan's specialty, and his creation in the second half of 1861 became one of the most famous armies in American history: the Army of the Potomac. Yet, while McClellan built this army, many began to wonder if it would ever see fighting in the field. In November of 1861, McClellan was promoted to general-in-chief, commander of all Union forces. However, this did not prompt any quick movements.

Major General George Brinton McClellan

By early 1862, the pressure on McClellan to move was too great. In February, Lincoln ordered McClellan to take the army out into the field. Confederate forces under the command of General Joseph Johnston were still camped near Manassas, the site of their victory the summer before. McClellan's desire was not to simply achieve a victory at Manassas. He wanted to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. McClellan viewed the war as a chess match of sorts. His opponent's king was Richmond. By capturing this city, McClellan believed he could end the war quickly and without any great loss of life or bloodshed. He was terribly wrong.

McClellan's initial plan was to transport his army on boats along the Atlantic Coast to Urbanna, Virginia. There, he would disembark behind Joseph Johnston's army, allowing him to march the rest of the way to Richmond unmolested by the Confederates. Once Johnston caught wind of this, he quickly began to fall back toward Richmond, complicating McClellan's intended movement. Now, McClellan would have to take his men along the coast all the way to the Virginia Peninsula, disembarking at Fort Monroe and advancing up the Peninsula against Richmond from the east. On March 11, Lincoln removed McClellan from his post as general-in-chief so as to prevent him from being distracted from the task at hand; namely, defeating the Confederates and taking Richmond, not overseeing all Union armies.

Once McClellan arrived in Virginia, he found Johnston's army standing in his way. Johnston was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. army to resign and join the Confederacy. He had a long and distinguished military career before the war broke out, and thus was one of the most experienced generals on either side. Johnston had graduated from West Point in 1829 when George McClellan was just two years old. Johnston was a defensively-minded general who would do everything possible to stop the Union advance.

General Joseph Johnston

The Campaign Begins

The movement began in March, with Federal forces landing and beginning their advance by April 4. Moving up the Peninsula proved problematic in several ways. McClellan tried to proceed by advancing along the York River. This first led his army to Yorktown, where instead of trying to attack through Confederate defenses, a siege began, taking several weeks for Federal forces to get past the obscuring Confederates. By early May, Union forces reached Williamsburg, where on May 5 a pitched battle was fought, leading to several thousand casualties and further delaying McClellan's advance. After several more weeks of cautiously advancing up the Peninsula, McClellan found his army just seven miles away from Richmond by the end of May. However, it was at this moment, when success appeared most likely, that everything changed.

Seven Pines and Robert E. Lee

Under great pressure from Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government in Richmond, Joseph Johnston decided to launch an attack against McClellan's forces at the crossroads of Seven Pines, just outside of the Confederate capital. Both armies were spread out on both sides of the Chickahominy River at this point, and Johnston wanted to hit Union forces who were relatively isolated south of the river. On May 31, he launched his assault.

The Battle of Seven Pines is also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks by some. The fighting took place almost exclusively on the southern side of the Chickahominy River. While there were no major breakthroughs for the Confederates, the attack did cause heavy losses on both sides. Among those was Johnston himself, who was wounded late in the day and taken into Richmond.

On June 1, the fighting continued for several hours until Confederates withdrew from the field. The battle was inconclusive, costing over 10,000 combined casualties. Most importantly, however, was that in Johnston's stead, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was given command of the army defending Richmond, the Army of Northern Virginia.

General Robert E. Lee

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