Book Review: From the Mountains to the Bay: The War in Virginia, January-May 1862


by Ethan S. Rafuse

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2023. Pp. xxiv, 400. Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $49.95. ISBN: 0700633537

The Union's 1862 Offensive in Virginia

During the first five months of 1862 the fortunes of the Union war effort had rebounded from its earlier defeat at First Bull Run in July 1861. Victories at Shiloh, Island #10, Forts Henry and Donelson, Mill Springs, as well as the capture of New Orleans had resulted in Confederate military retreats not only in the Western Theater, but also in the Eastern Theater, particularly in Northern Virginia. Indeed, after a promising start, the Confederacy had ceded operational control of the Civil War to Union forces.

Ethan S. Rafuse, Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, focuses his attention on these first five months of 1862 when Union military efforts seem so close to ultimate victory and the end of the Confederacy seemed attainable.

Rafuse represents a new generation of Civil War scholars who utilize numerous primary sources to re-examine the events of that war and provide a fresh assessment of those momentous events. Rafuse is a prolific researcher and author of numerous books on the Civil War, including updated biographies of Robert E. Lee, George Gordon Meade, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as travel guides to the battlefields of Bull Run, Antietam, and the Richmond and Petersburg battlefields. However, it’s his widely acclaimed re-examination of the career of Maj. Gen. George McClellan in his book McClellan’s Way that elevated him to the upper ranks of Civil War scholarship.

This book examines a series of events which took place in Virginia from its western mountains to its coastal shores in the early months of 1862. Beginning with Stonewall Jackson’s initial actions in the Shenandoah Valley and the Union response under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks and continuing on to the evolution and conduct of the Peninsula Campaign and the subsequent naval confrontation between the Ironclads CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor and concluding on the eve of the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Rafuse introduces with critical and balanced backgrounds such well known Civil War figures as generals George McClellan, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, and Irvin McDowell, as well as lesser known, but no less important figures as John Rodgers, Louis Goldsborough, and Franklin Buchanan. The latter three individuals being important Union and Confederate naval commanders. In doing so the author makes naval operations during this time a central part of his narrative and the potential of combined arms operations in aiding primarily the Union war effort.

While other Civil War authors have covered separately the events focused on in Rafuse’s book, his work connects all of these events and personalities in one sweeping narrative. He makes the argument that, regardless of the events in other theaters of the war, Virginia was still the most strategic and politically relevant to the survival of the Confederacy. It was the south’s most populous state, provided more soldiers than any other southern state, contained some of the Confederacy’s most important industry, and was the location of its political center in Richmond.

Rafuse begins his narrative with the elevation of George McClellan as Commander of Union forces around the Washington D.C. area and later promotion as commander of all Union armies, and proceeds to outline the evolution of the eventual Peninsula Campaign with the growing frustration of President Abraham Lincoln with him in his seemingly slow movements.

Each chapter incorporates chronologically the actions of the Union and Confederate military leadership with that of the corresponding political thinking and actions of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis supported by accounts of northern and southern media, citizens and rank and file soldiers. Each chapter is also supplemented with informative footnotes which provide greater understanding to the reader.

Rafuse gives revealing descriptions of how consistent heavy rains, logistical problems and the environment in general on the peninsula contributed to McClellan’s difficulties in advancing toward Richmond despite overwhelming numbers of soldiers. He further provides thought provoking analysis of how the appearance and lingering threat of the Confederacy’s first ironclad, the CSS Virginia (the former Merrimac) contributed to U.S. Naval fears and interfered with potential Union army and navy combined operations which may have made a difference in the failures on the peninsula. Rafuse speculates that McClellan’s order of Ambrose Burnside’s troops to North Carolina may have prevented a joint naval and army operation against the Confederate naval base at Norfolk in early March 1862, which may have caused the capture of the CSS Virginia before it could be launched.

Rafuse has an eye for small details often overlooked in other Civil War books which have greater significance in the entire war effort. These include his discussion of the advent of Jonathan Letterman’s initial reforms of the army’s medical operations, as well as Herman Haupt’s beginning actions in coordinating the army’s railroad management which will play a major role in the success of the movement of Union troops throughout the war.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book deals with the growing frustration of President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton with McClellan’s failure to move quickly against Confederate forces. The author details how Lincoln and Stanton empaneled a group of other Union generals to act as another source of information as to McClellan’s strategic operations. This includes the designation of the little known Maj. Gen. Ethan Hitchcock to act as Lincoln and Stanton’s eyes and ears in McClellan’s headquarters.

This book is a masterful retelling of the momentous events of early 1862 in Virginia and concludes at the point where the Union Army’s momentum appears to project the possible capture of the Confederate capital of Richmond and the subsequent collapse of the Confederacy. Standing in the background is Gen. Robert E. Lee acting as President Jefferson Davis’s advisor and his imminent accession to command of the Army of Northern Virginia. But then, that is the story for potentially another book by Professor Rafuse.

This work is a must read for all Civil War students and buffs.


Our Reviewer: A former captain in the Army Reserve, Prof. William "Pat" Schuber is on the faculty of the School of Public and Global Affairs (SPGA), at Fairleigh Dickinson University, teaching leadership, government, homeland security, law, ethics, and communication, and is also an instructor in the Police Executive Leadership Course, sponsored by the New Jersey Association Chiefs of Police and the New Jersey State Police (NJSP). The author of An Open Door to History a Guide to Historic Sites in Bergen County and many articles in journals and books, he has conducted Leadership Staff Ride Seminars at Gettysburg, Antietam, Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth Courthouse, and Brandywine, as well as in Normandy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands



Note: A volume in the UPK series "Modern War Studies," From the Mountains to the Bay is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: William "Pat" Schuber    

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