Richmond Falls, 1862: So What?

Commenter Shek asked:

Would the capture of Richmond in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign have ended the war? The thrust of the question is two-fold. First, would the Confederacy have simply surrendered or would it have moved the capital and carried on the fight. Second, pre-supposing that it would have resulted in surrender, since Union policy at the time was conciliation, the root cause of the war (slavery) would have remained, and so what would have prevent a renewal of hostilities in the future over some later spark?

There are a lot of what-ifs in that one, but one must consider them if one is to assess the importance of the Seven Days and Lee’s repulse of McClellan/McClellan’s change of base to the James.

Would the Confederacy have collapsed? I’m not sure. An evacuation of the capital elsewhere was possible. The capture of a capital does not always mean defeat or victory. Otherwise the United States would have been in a great deal of trouble, and the example of the Mexicans after the capture of Mexico City also stands out.

Would slavery have remained in place had the Confederacy surrendered in 1862? In the short term, yes. In the long term? Well, that’s where one’s imagination grounded in various assumptions takes flight. I also think one might ponder what a surrender would have looked like and what restoration would have looked like under those circumstances. I can see the Confederacy collapse and conflict continue, for example, at least for a while. Perhaps colonization takes hold as the best option under the circumstances … but a relatively intact southern interior might set the stage for a second conflict. Again, we don’t know.


15 thoughts on “Richmond Falls, 1862: So What?

  1. M.D. Blough October 14, 2013 / 11:16 am

    I think a critical elements would be whether the Confederate government could have been evacuated to safety prior to the surrender of the city and how many Confederate armies remained in the field and what shape they were in, including resources and command structure. They were able to evacuate the government from Richmond in 1865. The problem in 1865 was that (1) there was no safe place for the government to be reconstituted and (2) the ANV had already surrendered and not much remained elsewhere.

    In 1862, Richmond was the relatively new SECOND capital of the Confederacy. Its fall may have made determination of the rest of the Confederacy more intense, not less.

    As for the fate of slavery if there was a sufficient drop in support for the Confederacy for its government to sue for peace, that is the big imponderable. There is the fact that there were loyal slave states to consider. There wasn’t the impact on Union thinking of the Emancipation Proclamation as a military measure and the realization even among those who weren’t pro-Emancipation in peacetime that the country would continue to lurch from one crisis to another so long as slavery remained. If the rebels resumed their proper position in the Union with slavery still a factor, there’s simply no way of knowing what would have happened.

    One thing I am sure of is that there was little likelihood that the fall of Richmond would have automatically meant the peace and the Union restored.

    • Nick Fry October 14, 2013 / 11:40 am

      Weather or not the ANV is still in the field is an important component to this question. I could not see Davis surrendering if Lee was still in the field with an effective fighting force even if Richmond was evacuated.

      • John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 1:52 pm

        And I don’t see Richmond being evacuated if we’re looking at June/July. For Richmond to be captured at that point requires, in my opinion, the assumption that McClellan have thrashed the ANV with overwhelming numbers (substantially above what he ever had). He never got those numbers and in any event Lee went after him with (probably) a slight numerical edge before the hypothetical reinforcements could arrive.

  2. Tony October 14, 2013 / 11:47 am

    The Confederates didn’t surrender after the fall of Richmond in 1865, why would they have done so in 1862?

  3. John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 11:49 am

    Trying to keep the focus on questions about campaigns, I’ll stay away from the slavery issue, which is really a different matter in my opinion. Speculating on the consequences of the federals capturing Richmond requires speculation about several other subsidiary facts – notably when and how. Had Richmond fallen in April/early May, hard on the heels of New Orleans and Shiloh, that could have had a dramatic impact on the Confederate will to continue the war. Militarily, I think the consequences would have been less (if the CSA could overcome the morale/will issue) because McClellan would have defeated a relatively smaller, less organized force. By the time of the Seven Days, things were different. Then, McClellan confronted a force which was in all likelihood slightly larger than his own. To defeat that force could in my opinion only mean that the administration had given Mac McDowell’s 30,000+, at the least. That would have been a significant military defeat of a large Confederate army – and it would necessarily have to have been a decisive defeat. I think that’s the real issue by June/July, 1862. As Brooks points out, simply losing a capital by itself isn’t necessarily fatal (although 1814 essentially was a raid with only a temporary occupation and which did not involve the destruction of a major force). Wrecking the ANV would probably have had a major impact on the rest of the war because it essentially could have meant that Virginia was gone.

    • M.D. Blough October 14, 2013 / 1:56 pm

      The Confederates loved citing George Washington and the American Revolution. The Continental Congress was in frequent motion in order to avoid capture when the then capital, such as Philadelphia, fell to the British.

      • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 7:06 am

        True, although in a recent revised edition of his (excellent) book on Washington as a strategist, Dave Palmer makes a good argument that there was no true “capital” in the colonies and that Philadelphia was more a convenient meeting place for the Congress. In fact, that was part of the problem with one of the “strategies” pursued by the Crown in the AWI.

        • M.D. Blough October 15, 2013 / 9:52 am

          Good point, since the choice of a permanent capital after the war would prove to be a very contentious issue. Philadelphia worked for a number of reasons until it fell to the British. However, the important thing was to avoid the capture of a significant number of the members of the Continental Congress.

  4. TF Smith October 14, 2013 / 8:19 pm

    Even if McClellan blows past Magruder (very unlikely, given GBM’s caution) and the CSA government evacuates south (Raleigh? Atlanta?) AND Johnston’s Army of Virginia retreats toward the southside, I think the CSA is in serious trouble – with Nashville and Richmond gone (I think Tredegar was about it in terms of heavy industry in the CSA after mid-1862) is there even a foundry worth the name left in CSA control?

    Atlanta is about all that’s left in terms of a manufacturing center, I think.

    • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 7:07 am

      Good points. And it highlights the fact that in some respects the CSA was an 18th-century economy fighting a 19th-century war.

  5. Tony October 15, 2013 / 7:29 am

    Selma was a manufacturing center. I’m assuming if the Confederates are forced out of Richmond it would be the result of siege and not because McClellan magically stormed the permanent (read: not field) fortifications surrounding Richmond … in which case, wouldn’t the Confederates be able to evacuate some of the machinery of Tredegar?

    Jackson, MS also forged a handful of cannon. Not sure if enough to warrant mention 🙂

    • SF Walker October 16, 2013 / 6:07 am

      I agree. In this scenario, we probably would have seen Selma, AL and Atlanta and Columbus, GA become the chief military manufacturing centers–most likely with some equipment saved from the Tredegar Ironworks. As Jerel mentioned below, the loss of Richmond would still have put a crimp in the production of naval/coastal guns and iron plate for warships and boilers. The printing of Confederate currency would have been largely moved to Columbia, SC, where many CSA notes were already being cranked out. I think the Richmond Depot, which produced many Confederate uniforms, would likewise have been moved entirely to the Carolinas.

      I wonder if the Confederates would have re-located their capitol back to Montgomery in such an event? In any case, the Union capture of Richmond would have vastly changed the war–the Eastern theater would have been widened by new Union threats to southern VA and NC. The war would have been shortened.

  6. Patrick Young October 15, 2013 / 8:00 am

    New Orleans was a much more important city to the South before 1861 than Richmond. The South fought on for three years after its fall.

    Would the combination of the fall of both cities have undermined the South’s will to fight?

    Confederate ideology did not equate Southern identity with urban centers. The average Southern white did not work in urban pursuits. And Richmond had only been the capital for a little over a year when Little Mac threatened it in 1862. It may not have been invested with the same talismanic qualities that it later had after years of fighting in its environs sacrilized its soil. And it is useful to recall that it was the South’s second capital and that the change of capitals a year earlier had been accomplished without an existential crisis.

    Unlike salt licks and niter mines, everything in Richmond of use to the war effort could be moved.

    I am not saying the capture would not have ended the war, I’m just throwing in a few doubts of own.

    • Nick Fry October 15, 2013 / 6:32 pm

      Here’s another part to the question, if Richmond falls…do you as McClellan bother to try and keep it?

      Taking Richmond is one thing, keeping it is another. Is it worth keeping? Keep in mind you’ll have some supply issues to maintain a garrison and you’ll have to appropriately fortify it if you’re going to keep a prestige target like Richmond for good.

      If the government leaves Richmond, other than taking out Tredegar, the ammunition works, the railroads and the logistical warehouses there, there’s not much else worth bothering about. And you still have a political and military leadership group that is now mobile and moving further into the interior of the Confederacy.

  7. Jerel C. Wilmore October 15, 2013 / 8:02 pm

    The loss of the Tredegar Iron Works would have crippled the Confederacy. In addition, the loss of Richmond would have also probably resulted in the loss of the Bellona Arsenal in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

    The Confederacy may not have collapsed overnight, but the loss of the Tredegar Iron Works would have shut down production of large caliber cannon–especially the superlative Brooke rifle–and would have severely limited the South’s production of armor plate for ironclads.

    Many of the Southern ironclads that delayed the end of the war could not have been built if Tredegar had been lost in 1862.

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