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The Lost Opportunity

July 2024
3min read

Lee had the game in his hand. McClellan’s army was penned in between the James and the Chickahominy, and on the map—and if Lee’s army had been what it was a year later—Lee had it in his power to destroy him. He could hang on McClellan’s rear, send his advance around to block his retreat, hit him in the flank as he moved, and win a shattering, conclusive victory. He saw it, planned it, ordered it—and learned that as things then stood he could not quite do it.

Part of the fault, as Mr. Dowdey points out, was Lee’s. He had commanded this army for less than a month and maneuvering a large army deftly was a skill he simply had not acquired. He had a staff that was almost wholly incompetent for this kind of operation, and he had not yet learned how to make certain that his principal lieutenants actually did the things they were ordered to do. Between army headquarters and the separate divisional commands there was a great deal of slippage; the Lee of the Seven Days had not become the Lee of Chancellorsville.

But most of the trouble came farther down the line. Lee’s army was not yet organized in army corps; everything depended on the work of the men who commanded divisions, and some of them just were not up to their jobs. (A singular fact, in this connection, is that the Federal government had enforced a corps command system on an unwilling army commander, but the Richmond government had refused to let its army commander have one. Some of McClellan’s corps commanders did their jobs poorly, but Lee had none at all.)

In James Longstreet and A. P. Hill, Lee had two division leaders who worked competently and aggressively. He also had such men as General Benjamin Huger, atrophied by age and long years of old-army routine; John B. Magruder, too excitable to understand what he was up against or to execute his orders properly; Theophilus Holmes, even more atrophied than Huger; and, last but not least, the famous Stonewall Jackson, who brought to the Seven Days a towering reputation and somehow failed to take advantage of any of his opportunities. Among them, the generals let McClellan get away. They made his retreat costly, they fought him in the swamps and on the hills, they left him feeling that he was lucky to be alive—but they did not destroy him, and the chance to destroy him was there.

The most spectacular failure, because it was the most unlikely, was that of Jackson. He was late in getting to the scene, and his tardiness made Mechanicsville a Confederate setback. His troops went into action piecemeal at Gaines’ Mill and failed to strike the hammer blow that was expected. He failed abysmally to hit the Federal flank at White Oak Swamp, letting a large part of the Federal army retreat unmolested across his front; the savage battle of Glendale was fought without him; and at Malvern Hill his men did not pull their weight. If Jackson were judged solely on his performance in the Seven Days he would have to be written off as a soldier of very moderate attainments.

His trouble, as Mr. Dowdey sees it, was simply that he was physically exhausted. He suffered from “stress fatigue” to an extent that temporarily robbed him of his mental and physical powers. Lee apparently recognized this. When he shook up his command after the Seven Days, exiling the Magruders and Holmeses and Hugers to distant fields, he retained Jackson, although for a time he reduced the size of the man’s command. But there is no disguising the fact that in this campaign Jackson was a bitter disappointment to him.

And, in the end, the seven-day battle was a disappointment also. Here was the one great opportunity to wind things up, and it came to General Lee before his army was able to take advantage of it. Winning a victory, he did not also win the war; he simply prolonged it; and because it was prolonged it became a very different war than it had been in the beginning. Abraham Lincoln had remarked, not long after the war started, that if it lasted long enough it would probably become “a remorseless revolutionary struggle,” and that is precisely what happened; after the summer of 1862 it had to be fought to a finish, so that at last it involved not merely a decision about continued union but a complete reshaping of American society. The Seven Days marked the turning point in the war, and the war itself became a turning point in American history.

So this book is more than just one more account of a bloody battle. It is an examination of one of those critical moments when history goes off on a new course. The Army of Northern Virginia was born then, tested and tempered so that it became an incomparable military instrument—in a war which it could no longer hope to win.

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