Historic America Reviews

To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears


In To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.

Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?

Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”

To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.

Sears makes a compelling case that George McClellan, though young, was a general whose mind was trapped in another era. He sought a decisive battle outside Richmond, one that would force the warring parties to the peace table. There he would negotiate concessions and save the Union, as happened in the past. But this was a new kind of war, and after the  Peninsula Campaign there was no going back. What began as a war to preserve the Union became a revolution to remake America.

Stephen Ward Sears (born July 27, 1932), of Norwalk, Connecticut, is a graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College. He began his writing career in the 1960s as a World War 2 historian but later found a niche writing about the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War, and particularly its most famous commander, General George B. McClellan. His other books include Gettysburg (2003) and George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (1988).

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears was published by Ticknor & Fields (Boston, Massachusetts) in 1992. The 468-page hardcover edition retails for $24.95. A 512-page softcover edition, published by Mariner Books in 2001, retails for $29.95. The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.

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