Read letters in the collection with news about the battles of Chickahominy and Fair Oaks during General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862. Research McClellan's strategy during the Peninsula Campaign. What was McClellan's plan? How did General Robert E. Lee counter McClellan's troops? Many historians say that, had McClellan's plan succeeded, the course of U.S. history might have been significantly altered. In what ways might this have been true? For example, consider that the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863.
Following the Union's failure to take Richmond in the summer of 1862, the Confederate army launched an invasion of Maryland. In September 1862, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union forces under McClellan fought a bloody battle with thousands of casualties on both sides. The Confederate force withdrew from Maryland; McClellan was slow to pursue, however, and was relieved of his command. Shortly after the battle of Antietam, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, followed the Confederates to Fredericksburg. Read the letter John Smith wrote to his sister on November 25, after the Union loss at Antietam but before the confrontation at Fredericksburg.
- What battle or battles do you think Smith was referring to when he talked about soldiers being "slaughtered upon the battle field"? According to Smith, what other problems added to the "uncertainty" of camp life?
- What did Smith predict would happen if Union forces failed to take Richmond in their next attempt? What would have been the significance of such a development?
Mrs. Reynolds received a letter addressed to "Dear Friend" and dated January 11, 1863, a month after the Army of the Potomac suffered a major defeat at Fredericksburg in western Virginia:
Well we have had the anticipated battle of Fredricksburg and it proved like many others have done a perfect failure, with a terrible loss of life. And now we are having the scene re-enacted in the Southwest but with what affect we are not positively certain, but I hope and pray the result will be favourable to our arms, but I have almost come to the conclusion that the Southern Confederacy is an established thing, it seems that Heaven Itself is against us for we have never had an expedition start out yet that didn't encounter a terrific storm attended with some unlooked for casualty, but perhaps when we are sufficiently scourged we shall come out victorious.
Read the letter from John Smith to his sister dated February 7, 1863, for a discussion of the course of the war and the change in command of the Army of the Potomac, including the problems General Ambrose Burnside faced making a crossing of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Smith expressed a sense of extreme disillusionment about the war, remarking
…Our prospects now are not as good as they were one year ago and it looks to me as though our case was hopeless. I believe the result of this cruel and bloody war will be a division of the Union but still I may be mistaken matters must assume a different aspect before I can think we will be successful.
- How did the authors of these two letters evaluate the chances of a Union victory in the war?
- What was the basis for their disillusionment with the war effort?
- To what extent were the views expressed in these letters shared by others?
- Why did John Smith believe that General McClellan should have retained command of the army? What was the basis of his criticism of General Burnside and of General Joseph Hooker, who was given command of the army after Fredericksburg?
Tilton Reynolds wrote his mother several letters from a camp near Richmond, providing sketchy details of battles around Petersburg during the Army of the Potomac's campaign in 1864. General Ulysses Grant was relentless in his campaign outside Richmond, winning the reputation among Confederates as "Old Universal Slaughter." Use the Keyword full text search to find letters about the battles at Petersburg and Grant's reputation.
- How are Tilton's letters written in June 1864, during the battles around Petersburg, different from other letters you have read? What do you think accounts for the difference?
- What can you learn about the morale of Confederate troops from Tilton's letter of September 21, 1864? How had his attitude toward the enemy changed since his letter of June 20, when he reported firing 40 to 50 rounds at the Confederate pickets? What circumstances may have contributed to the apparent camaraderie among combatants?
In the closing month of the war, Tilton wrote his mother, mentioning the victories of Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan.
- How would you describe Tilton's attitude toward the Confederacy after three and a half years in the Union army?
- Tilton was made an officer—a captain—in late 1864. What evidence do you find in the March 1865 letter of any new duties as an officer?
- What evidence do you find in the letter that Tilton believed victory was near?