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

by Lance S. Ferm, great great grandson of Thaddeus Lowe


1) Stephen W. Sears quotes liberally from a young foreign nobleman from France by the name of Comte de Paris. This young French nobleman was in awe of the Young Napoleon and enjoyed being in McClellan's company.

    At about the time Hancock was repulsing the attack of Early's brigade, there was an outburst of cheering at General Sumner's headquarters back on the Yorktown Road. The commanding general had reached the battlefield. An admiring Comte de Paris marveled at the impression created by General McClellan's arrival. page 81.

    Exhausted from the effects of his malaria, he lay on a cot there and attempted to follow events by telegraph. 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. page 141.

    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 French man watched the general read their dispatch and then crumple it in his fist, "but he limited himself to this gesture of impatience." pages 149-150.

    To be sure, he would not call it a retreat but rather a change of base - in the presence of a powerful enemy, he said, "one of the most difficult undertakings in war" - yet in truth he was quitting his grand campaign, surrendering the initiative, and giving up all hope of laying siege to Richmond from the line of the Chickahominy. Confiding his decision to his staff but not to his generals, he issued a barrage of orders. The Comte de Paris noted in his journal that the decision to retreat reflected "a firmness of decision" the general had seldom displayed during the campaign. page 211.

    Among general and staff, the Comte de Paris reported, each one expressed great pleasure "upon seeing with his own eyes the goal of our efforts, the end of our retreat." At four o'clock that afternoon, distancing himself even further from the responsibilities of command, General McClellan boarded the gunboat Galena, and forty-five minutes later, with McClellan aboard, the Galena steamed off upriver to shell an enemy column sighted on the River Road west of Malvern Hill. That evening the general would dine at Commander John Rodger's table aboard the Galena where, the Comte de Paris noted appreciatively, the linen was white and there was "a good dinner with some good wine." page 280.


2) Stephen W. Sears failed to quote adequately from field Union generals. For example, he mentions Generals Stoneman and Humphreys only three times each.

    Only Stoneman's cavalry managed to close with Stuart's rear guard, and late in the afternoon there was sharp skirmishing between the opposing troopers. Once his sorties began to draw fire from Confederate infantry, General Stoneman prudently withdrew until his own infantry could come up. page 69.

    By May 20 he was operating from an area near Seven Pines, a small crossroads on the Chickahominy River, only seven miles from the Confederate capital. Stoneman, who had originally predicted that the balloon would accomplish little beyond drawing enemy fire, had come to appreciate the value of aerial reconnaissance during the siege of Yorktown. Between May 21 and 25 Lowe and Stoneman made a number of joint ascensions, observing the Confederate strong points blocking the advance and directing artillery fire to cover the movement of Union troops toward nearby Mechanicsville. Following one of these flights, the general was heard to remark "that he had seen enough to be worth a million dollars to the government." The Eagle Aloft, pages 386-387.

    On July 1, for the first time in the Seven Days, the entire Army of the Potomac was united on the same ground. There was scarcely a man in the army who doubted that the fighting would soon resume; these Rebels, it was agreed, were relentless in their attacks. There was also a sense of the last ditch about this place. The river was at their backs and the enemy would soon enough be in front. Veterans looked around them and remarked that at least this Malvern Hill looked like a good place to fight. Andrew A. Humphreys, the army's chief topographical engineer, posted many of the troops that morning, and he wrote his wife, "There was a splendid field of battle on the high plateau where the greater part of the troops, artillery, etc. were placed. It was a magnificent sight ..." page 310.

    General Joseph E. Johnston quickly grasped the opportunity to move against the two corps isolated south of the river. Ascending with the balloon Washington at Mechanicsville on May 31, Lowe saw Confederate troops streaming toward Fair Oaks. It was apparent that Johnston was launching his massive attack on the Union troops south of the Chickahominy. With the telegraph lines down, the aeronaut sent a messenger to inform his new commanding officer, Bridiger General Andrew A. Humphreys, chief topographical engineer for the the Army of the Potomac. The Eagle Aloft, pages 388-389.


3) Stephen W. Sears and General George B. McClellan discounted information received from the Balloon Corps.

    McClellan was taken quite unawares by Johnston's withdrawal. When the Comte de Paris awakened him at six o'clock that morning to report Yorktown evacuated, he refused to credit the news and went back to sleep. page 67.

    I did not sleep any more, however, that night, and got the balloon ready for another ascension, which I made before daylight; but, as formerly, at this time in the morning I could see no camp-fires. As soon as it became a little lighter I discovered that the enemy had gone. This I immediately communicated to General Heintzelman, who on learning it ascended with me, satisfied himself of the fact, and reported it by telegraph to General McClellan, sending the message down from the balloon without descending. Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, page 120.

    From above, Lowe and Heintzelman saw the rear guard of Magruder's army at a position one mile distant of Yorktown. The Rebels were falling back in anticipation of an attack on Richmond. "At first the general was puzzled on seeing more wagons entering the forts than were going out," Lowe observed. "But when I called his attention to the fact that the ingoing wagons were light and moved rapidly, while the outgoing wagons were heavily loaded and moved slowly, there was no longer any doubt as to the object of the Confederates." "It (was) fair to presume that the first reliable information given on the evacuation of Yorktown was that transmitted from the balloon to General McClellan by General Heintzelman and myself," Lowe said. War of the Aeronauts, pages 212-213.


4) Stephen W. Sears refused to recognize Thaddeus Lowe and the Balloon Corps as the first Union troops to arrive at White House Landing.

    White House was the plantation of William H.F. "Rooney" Lee, General Lee's son, and a hundred years or so earlier it had been the site of George Washington's courtship of the widow Martha Custis. General Lee's wife was a Custis and had been staying at White House until just a few days before the Yankees came. Their advance guard (no mention of Thaddeus Lowe) found a note from her pinned to the front door: "Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, - property of his wife, now owned by her descendants. - A Grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington." General McClellan obligingly posted a guard on the house and prohibited its use by the army. page 104.

    The balloon boats were the first to reach the White House landing and were even some distance ahead of the gunboats and so the first night, the balloon guard was the advance picket on the river bottom. Instantly I realized my precarious situation. My outfit consisted of the balloon boat, a steam tug, one hundred and fifty men with muskets, a number of wagons, horses, and gas generators for three independent balloon outfits. We arrived at the Lee Mansion, known as the White House, at six o'clock, and found the bridge crossing the Pamunkey on fire, which fully convinced me that I was well into enemy's country. This house was the residence of W.H. Lee, son of General R.E. Lee and the tents of McClellan's headquarters a little later surrounded it. With his usual fine feeling McClellan refused to make use of it. Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 123-124.


5) Stephen W. Sears claims that the Balloon Corps' chief aeronaut made false statements and was derelict in his duties. His basis for his false conclusions were based on the George B. McClellan's papers, and a comment by a young foreign nobleman named Comte de Paris.

    Lowe's later claim that his balloon rose at noon on May 31 and "I descended at 2 o'clock," and that his observations thus shaped the battle (OR, Ser. 3, 3, p. 280), is a falsification - almost surely a deliberate one. The original of this dispatch (McClellan Papers (A-59:23), LC) reads, "I ascended at two o'clock ..."  page 412.

Rebuttal: Stephen W. Sears overlooked the fact that Lowe descended at 2:00 from Mechanicsville and re-ascended from Gaines Hill shortly thereafter. Thaddeus Lowe turned in all of his available dispatches in July 1863 and had no time to screw the facts that later biographies tended to do. In McClellan's situation, his papers had to be falsified since he had political aspirations and an ego to protect.

    The journal of the Comte de Paris confirms that because of high winds the balloons had not ascended earlier; Lowe, he wrote, was "too late to boast of his exploits": Fondation Saint-Louis. None of Lowe's later dispatches that afternoon, in the Official Records or the McClellan Papers, contains intelligence useful to battlefield commanders. page 412.

Rebuttal: Stephen W. Sears relied on a false statement by the youthful Comte de Paris as the storm and winds had died down by the morning of May 31st. Additionally, photographs from May 31st did not show any signs of wind.

    A soldier who fought at Seven Pines on May 31 wrote: "The preceding night had been one of great storm. The streams were flooded." In the "murky morning" of the next day, musket smoke only slowly "curled up through the damp trees." Civil War Weather in Virginia, page 56.

Note: Interestedly, McClellan began to curtail the use of the balloons by his officers on May 27, 1862 just days before the battle of Fair Oaks.

    By May 22 the number of applicants requesting permission to fly with Lowe was growing to serious proportions. McClellan ordered that henceforth no officer go aloft without his specific approval. The Eagle Aloft, page 387.


General George B. McClellan began to curtail use of the balloons by Union officers just before the start of the battle of Fair Oaks.


A Junior officer desperately tried to convince McClellan's staff of the importance of aerial reconnaissance on June 15, 1862


6) Stephen W. Sears claims that the Balloon Corps provided no useful information during the Peninsular Campaign.

    Professor Lowe had two balloons stationed north of the Chickahominy on May 31, with a good view of the Richmond suburbs, but because of high winds aloft neither got into the air before two o'clock in the afternoon, well after the fighting had started. Even then the countryside south of the river was too heavily wooded for Lowe to see anything of the battlefield maneuvers, and Federal commanders on the ground gained nothing of value from the Balloon Corps that day. page 125.

Rebuttal: Thaddeus Lowe did warn of a Confederate buildup to the left of the New Bridge Road or in front of Fair Oaks on May 29th to General Humphreys. Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 132-133.

    While Porter anticipated an attack, he gained no advance notice that morning on the direction of the enemy's approach. Repeating his Seven Pines failure, Professor Lowe did not have an observation balloon in the air that morning, and contributed no useful sightings all that day. page 196.

Rebuttal: Fitz-John Porter was a supporter of aerial reconnaissance and was ready for Lee's attack at Mechanicsville though greatly outnumbered.

    When Lee's army began to make its move in late June, Lowe was among the first to witness it. "On the 26th I reported verbally to General Humphreys that the enemy had crossed the Chickahominy in large force," Lowe said. "(And it) was engaging our right wing at Mechanicsville." In response to the Rebel movement, Humphreys ordered Lowe to remain airborne and to report everything he could see. War of the Aeronauts, page 238.


Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter commenting on the importance of aerial reconnaissance in April 1862.


7) Stephen W. Sears should have concluded that General George B. McClellan was a horrible commander given the advantage of aerial reconnaissance.

    Brigadier Andrew Humphreys of the staff thought McClellan would at least go himself to the battlefield. "We waited for him expecting every moment to mount," Humphreys confided to his wife. The general commanding, however, had now done everything he would do in regard to the Battle of Gaines's Mill. page 234.


Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 142-143

FRIDAY, June 27, 1862.

Professor LOWE:

        DEAR SIR: Ascensions must be made throughout the day, if practicable, at short intervals and reports made of what is seen.


    Other reports were made at short intervals during the rest of the day, and at 6 o'clock I reported that the enemy on Gaines' Hill were making a desperate advance, while a large column was moving to outflank our forces on the extreme right, and evidently intended to intercept our crossing at Woodbury's Bridge. Soon after this report was made our reserves were sent to protect the crossing and to relieve those troops who had been engaged for two days.

    I have no doubt that the information given in the above reports (from what I saw myself and have since learned) saved a large portion of our troops then engaged from being taken prisoners, and also caused a strong guard to be placed at Bottom's Bridge and other crossings below, which prevented the enemy from getting into our rear.


Battle of Gaines's Mill map, page 231


8) Stephen W. Sears in his rush to judgment contradicts himself.

    Fitz John Porter arranged his Fifth Corps on the plateau that morning facing west and north in the shape of an archer's bow a mile and three-quarters long, with George Morell's division of three brigades covering the left or western flank, with George Sykes's division - two brigades of regulars and one of volunteers - on the right, looking north. They were posted in a first line in and behind Boatswain's Swamp and in a second line halfway up the hillside. McCall's division, which had fought the day before at Mechanicsville, was in reserve in a third line on the crest of the plateau. Porter did not regard himself as strong enough to extend the line back to the Chickahominy on the right, trusting instead to the broken, boggy ground there, called Elder's Swamp, to discourage a flanking movement. As posted, he could count 27,160 men of all arms in the Gaines's Mill position. page 214.

    Lee concluded that his opponent was making a showdown fight of it, apparently with the largest part of his army, and he accepted the challenge. All told, Lee mustered 54,300 men in six divisions north of the Chickahominy that afternoon. page 223.   

    Fitz John Porter, committed like his chief to the delusion that he was hugely outnumbered, fought the battle not to win but only in the hope of not losing, and only darkness and the last-minute arrival of the two Second Corps brigades saved his command from being driven against the Chickahominy and shot to pieces as it tried to escape across the narrow bridges. page 249.



9) Stephen W. Sears should have quoted more from French Admiral Prince de Joinville's narrative of the Peninsular Campaign.

    The Federal columns, whichever White Oak Swamp crossing they used, all had to funnel through Glendale. From there, except for a few of Keyes's men and later some of Baldy Smith's who discovered the nearby woods road, the entire Army of the Potomac followed the Quaker Road toward the James. Glendale was therefore a place the Yankees had to defend at any cost if their army was to escape. The Prince de Joinville of General McClellan's staff carefully studied the map and pointed this out to the general, who, it was said, grasped his point at once. page 279.

    It was not till one in the afternoon that the battle began. Some time had been lost under the impression that the attack on the right bank might be a feint to draw over the federal troops while the main body of the confederates was preparing to debouch upon the left bank. An end was soon put to all doubts on the subject by the vehemence of the attack, and by the aeronauts who reported the whole confederate army moving to the scene of action. It was then that Sumner received the order to pass the river with his divisions. The Army of the Potomac by Prince de Joinville, page 75; Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, page 135.


10) Stephen W. Sears is under-educated compared to other historians.

    Sears graduated from Oberlin College (major unknown) who is a great storyteller and writes books for a living. Sadly, Sears did not use Dr. Tom D. Couch's book "The Eagle Aloft" as a reference. Dr. Couch is the chief curator for the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. A graduate of Ohio University and Miami University, Dr. Crouch received a Ph.D. in history from the Ohio State University in 1976. Additionally, Sears did not quote at all from Robert K. Krick for his To The Gates of Richmond book. Robert K. Krick is the former chief historian of the battlefield park that preserves the sites of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He is author of 14 books and more than 100 published articles. Widely regarded as the top historian in modern times on the Army of Northern Virginia and the foremost authority of Chancellorsville, Krick is a popular lecturer and battlefield tour guide. Battlefield preservation is a prime concern for Krick, who has pushed tirelessly for legislation and federal funding for Civil War sites.