Malaria and McClellan Doom the Peninsular Campaign to Failure for the Union Army - 1862


Malaria became a major problem for the Union Army during the Peninsular campaign

War of the Aeronauts, pages 237-238

    In the weeks prior to the start of the Seven Days' battles, Lowe had witnessed the buildup of Confederate strength and the gradual degeneration of the Union army's momentum. Severe rainstorms throughout the month of June continued to bog down Union operations, and the heavy rains and warm weather combined to provide the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

    "The unhealthy swampy bottom lands of the Chickamominy were full of malaria, striking down large numbers of the troops," Lowe observed. "At one time two thousand men were invalided home because of this pestilential fever."

    According to Lowe, McClellan planned to attack Richmond in the early part of June. But the incessant rains kept his corps of engineers from completing the bridges over the Chickahominy that would unite the separated parts of his army into one attack force. As the Union army grew more enfeebled before Lowe's eyes, the Rebels were busy fortifying themselves in anticipation of a breakout against their invaders.

War of the Aeronauts, page 245

    While McClellan's "strategic withdrawal" was soundly criticized in the North, in Virginia the action signified a temporary respite from war. Both Union and Confederate forces had suffered considerable losses, but the psychological damage inflicted by General Lee's fierce counterattack was a shock to the system as far as the Army of the Potomac was concerned. Moreover, the unseasoned Yankees proved to be even more vulnerable to the native maladies of the Virginia peninsula, such as salmonella from contaminated food and water, dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria. As a casualty of this latter group, Thaddeus Lowe returned to the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., to recover from the malarial fever he contracted in the weeks prior to the Seven Days' battles.

War of the Aeronauts, page 332

    Maladies associated with the environment surrounding the Chesapeake Bay region were not limited to humans. The Union army's cavalry and draft horses also suffered mightily. Virginia farmers were often quoted as saying they would never work a Northern horse during its first summer in the region, for they invariably died before they could be acclimated.

Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 142-144

JUNE 27, 1862---8.15 a.m.

        The heaviest cannonading at this time is near where the last headquarters were, between Doctor Gaines' house and Mechanicsville. We have large reserves across the river; our forces are in line of battle. On our left the enemy appear to be in large force in and about their entrenchments on this side of the river in the vicinity of. Doctor Friend's, and on this side very large.

        The dense smoke prevents me from seeing to Richmond. I am very unwell, and think it advisable for some good person to be constantly up.

T. S. C. LOWE.


JUNE 27, 1862--11 a.m.

Brigadier-General HUMPHREYS, or
General MARCY,
Chief of Staff:

        There is no firing on either side at this time. In a northerly direction, and about three or four miles from Woodbury's Bridge, there is a long line of dust running toward the York River Railroad. Quite a large body of the enemy are visible in the field where General Smith was camped, near the old headquarters. The rebel balloon suddenly disappeared about one hour since.
        The enemy in front of here remain silent in and around their earth-works and rifle-pits.

T. S. C. LOWE.

        P. S.--Can Major Webb come over and ascend?


On the evening of the 28th I received orders to pack up everything pertaining to the aeronautic department and to be ready to move. Owing to the want of transportation to carry material for gas, the balloons were not put in use again until we reached Harrison's Landing. Here I was taken very ill with fever, which had been gradually coming on me for two or three weeks, and I was compelled to leave the army, placing the management of the aeronautic operations in charge of Mr. C. Lowe, who kept the balloon in use during the time the army remained at that place. On one occasion Commodore Wilkes had the balloon taken on the river, and while at an elevation of 1,000 feet was towed by a steamer, while the banks and country for miles back were examined.

To the Gates of Richmond, page 141

    General McClellan had meanwhile risen from his sickbed at army headquarters at New Bridge and ridden five miles closer to the battle, to Second Corps headquarters north of the river. Exhausted from the effects of his malaria, he lay on a cot there and attempted to follow events by telegraph. (webmaster note: After the Intrepid was filled at Gaines Mill, Thaddeus Lowe with Park Spring, the Chief Telegrapher, ascended to a height of a thousand feet and constantly sent telegraphic reports until darkness fell.) In his journal the Comte de Paris recorded how painful it was to watch the general trying to marshal his remaining energy to chart a course and issue orders. McClellan's primary concern that night was bridging the Chickahominy so as to link his divided army. He roused himself to ride in the darkness to Dispatch Station on the railroad to meet Heintzelman for a first-hand account of the fighting, then returned to the Second Corps camp.

To the Gates of Richmond, pages 163-164

    The worst scourges were dysentery and chronic diarrhea, and what everyone called simply the Chickahominy fever, which might be malaria or typhoid or typhus or some other of the numerous fevers of the time and place. The constant diet of salt pork and salt beef and hardtack produced outbreaks of scurvy. Rank was no guarantee of good health. General McClellan was felled by malaria and attacks of acute neuralgia. Nine other Union generals were seriously ill of disease at one time or another during the campaign, and one of them, William H. Keim, died of the Chickahominy fever.


Major General George B. McClellan was the major problem for the Union Army during the Peninsular campaign.

1) Major General George B. McClellan believed all reports coming to him except aerial reconnaissance.


 To the Gates of Richmond, pages 189-190


    Shortly before 5:30 on the afternoon of the twenty-fifth, while he was watching Heintzelman's advance with satisfaction from Redoubt No. 3, General McClellan was handed a dispatch from Fitz John Porter. Porter reported that a contraband had just come into his lines from Richmond with important intelligence. The man claimed to have seen "a large portion" of Beauregard's western army arrive in the capital the day before "and heard the cheering welcome to them." He also heard that there were now 200,000 Confederate troops at hand, "and that Jackson is to attack in the rear." Officers there "expected to fight today or tomorrow and fight all around ..." McClellan immediately called for his horse and rode hard for the Trent house.

    The contraband's fantastic story was just the latest of numerous fantastic stories reaching Army of the Potomac headquarters in these days. Rumors of Beauregard's impending arrival from Mississippi had been circulating for weeks. Rumor had Jackson threatening the Potomac army well before young Rean put him within striking distance; another contraband had described "an almighty lot of the enemy" somewhere north of Hanover Court House. Detective Pinkerton's June "general estimates" of the enemy's strength had ranged as high as 200,000 and beyond; the next day he would set the figure at 180,000 but warn that this was "probably short of the real strength of their army..."

    It was the consistency and the pattern of all these stories that gave weight to the contraband's story and turned fantasy to reality in General McClellan's mind. All the pieces now fitted together and fulfilled all his self-fulfilling prophecies, and he lost all composure. As soon as he reached his headquarters he sent a despairing telegram to Secretary Stanton in Washington.

    "I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds," He announced. The Rebels would attack him 200,000 strong, "including Jackson & Beauregard." He had repeatedly warned Washington this would happen if he were not reinforced; if the consequence shold be disaster, "the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders - it must rest where it belongs." He anticipated calamitious defeat and martyrdom. "I will do all that a General can do with the splendid Army I have the honor to command & if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers can at least die with it & share its fate." He then set to work frantically to try to save his splendid army. His first thought was not of seeking victory in the coming battle but of salvaging what he could from defeat.


2) Major General George B. McClellan never counter-attacked with available corps when part of his army was attacked.


Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 137-138

Near Doctor Gaines' House, June 1, 1862--11 a.m.

Brigadier-General HUMPHREYS, or
General R. B. MARCY,
Chief of Staff:

        My ascent and observations just completed show the firing of the enemy to be in the same position. The road in the rear of the firing is filled with wagons and troops. About two miles still farther to the rear of Fair Oaks Station, and on the Williamsburg stage road, Charles City road, and Central road, are also large bodies of troops; in fact, I am astonished at their numbers compared with ours, although they are more concentrated than we are. Their whole force seem to be paying attention to their right. A regiment has just marched to the front, where we are preparing a crossing. Their large barracks to the left of Richmond is entirely free from smoke, and, in fact, the whole city and surroundings are nearly free from smoke, which enables me to see with distinctness the enemy's earth-works. Quite a large body of troops are on the other side of the river, about two miles from here, to our left.

        The weather is now calm, and an excellent opportunity is offered for an engineer officer to accompany me.

        The balloon at Mechanicsville is constantly up.

Your very obedient servant,
T. S. C. LOWE.


 To the Gates of Richmond, pages 149-150


    For a time on June 1, However, he did give thought to an immediate counterattack toward Richmond by the right wing of his army. By the account of the Comte de Paris, the two corps commanders on that wing, Fitz John Porter and William Franklin, "judged the passage impracticable" and discouraged the idea. The young Frenchman watched the general read their dispatch and then crumple it in his fist, "but he limited himself to this gesture of impatience." McClellan's critics would contend that by failing to override his lieutenants he thereby missed a golden opportunity to win his grand campaign.

    Yet such a counterstroke would have required of General McClellan a fundamental change in the way he viewed his situation on the Peninsula. Convinced beyond all doubt that he had been attacked at Seven Pines by an army much larger than his own - Keyes, Heintzelman, and Sumner, he told Washington, had "engaged greatly superior numbers" - he was well satisfied simply to have fought off this host and lost no more than 5,000 men in the process. "I have to be very cautious now," he said in reporting his situation to President Lincoln on June 4. "...I mention these facts now merely to show you that the Army of the Potomac has had serious work & that no child's play is before it."


 To the Gates of Richmond, page 195


    Like Joe Johnston at Seven Pines, Lee lacked detailed intelligence on the numbers in the Federal force he would face, but like Johnston he determined to make his turning movement strong enough to overwhelm whatever it might encounter. Against Porter's Fifth Corps - which in fact numbered 28,100 - he massed 55,800 men in the combined forces of Jackson, A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, Longstreet, and a part of Jeb Stuart's cavalry brigade. To achieve this margin, Lee was risking a counterstroke directly on Richmond by the four corps of McClellan's army - 76,000 men - posted south of the Chickahominy. The Yankees there were less than six miles from Capitol Square.

    Such a counterstroke greatly worried President Davis, for Lee would be marching most of the army well away from the city's defenses. "The stake is too high to permit the pulse to keep its even beat ..., " Davis told his wife in describing the plan. (Joe Johnston also worried. He was still disabled by his Seven Pines wounds, and when he learned of Lee's turning movement he had a special train readied to take him south to safety should McClellan storm the city.) Left to defend Richmond would be only 28,900 men in the commands of Magruder and Huger. Holding the James River flank, and serving as a general reserve, was another 7,300, under Theophilus Holmes.

    Lee had surely thought of Austerlitz, where in 1805 an ill-conceived turning movement by the Allies opened the way for Napoleon's most brilliant victory. However, he did not believe the Young Napoleon a bold enough general to seize that sort of opportunity (the word Lee used for his opponent was timid); McClellan would only think of defense, not offense. Indeed, Robert E. Lee's entire scheme for capturing the initiative was based squarely on that reading of his opponent.


3) Major General George B. McClellan had no courage during a battle and was a coward at heart.


To the Gates of Richmond, page 145


    After inspecting some of the troops and consulting briefly with his lieutenants, McClellan returned to headquarters in a state of near collapse. His command role in the battle had been as slight as Joe Johnston's or G.W. Smith's, but he told his wife that what he saw that day at the front disturbed him deeply. "I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded!" he wrote. "Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost."


To the Gates of Richmond, page 281


    The truth of the matter is that George McClellan had lost the courage to command. With each day of the Seven Days his demoralization had increased, and each day his courage to command decreased accordingly. By Day Six the demoralization was complete; exercising command in battle was now quite beyond him, and to avoid it he deliberately fled the battlefield. He was drained in both mind and body. Brigadier Andrew A. Humphreys of his staff (webmaster note: Thaddeus Lowe was placed under the command of Humphreys on May 26th) saw him the next morning aboard the Galena and, Humphreys wrote his wife, "never did I see a man more cut down than General McClellan was ... He was unable to do anything or say anything."

    When he rode off toward the James at noon on June 30, General McClellan, as he had done the day before at Savage's Station, failed to appoint anyone to command in his stead. Once again, the three corps commanders, as Heintzelman put it, "fought their troops entirely according to their own ideas." McClellan also left the forces there in a considerable tangle, which made directing them even more difficult.


To the Gates of Richmond, pages 330-331


    When seeking the presidency in 1864, General McClellan would suffer the charge, from editorial writers and cartoonists, of dereliction of duty at Malvern Hill, of taking safe haven aboard the Galena while his army fought for its life. William Brickham of the Cincinnati Commercial, for example, wrote that "McClellan on gunboats during the battle of Malvern Hill was the meanest picture that this bloody rebellion has painted." The charge was misdirected. Although McClellan boarded the Galena on the morning of July 1 with the all-but-certain knowledge that his army would be attacked that day and then steamed away ten miles downriver, at the time that attack finally came he was back on the field - if as far as possible from the scene of combat.

    Yet McClellan was reluctant to correct the record, for in doing so he risked having his excursion aboard the Galena during the Glendale battle on June 30 revealed, an excursion that by any definition was a true dereliction of duty. Testifying before a congressional committee, McClellan said he simply could not remember whether or not he was on a gunboat.


Critical book review of "TO THE GATES OF RICHMOND - THE PENINSULA CAMPAIGN" by Stephen W. Sears