Robert E. Lee was a new commander in June 1862, when he looked out on Chickahominy River with the expectation that Confederate troops would be arriving to help bring the rest of his army across the river to face the Army of the Potomac–the largest army ever to assemble in North America, poised to take Richmond. None came, and so Lee acted. Acclaimed historian Bert Dunkerly, who leads “The Federals Meet Robert E. Lee: The Battles of Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill” tour on February 24, 2019, provides insight into this battle that first showed the world the audacity and strategic acumen of one of history’s greatest generals.
BGES Blog: Give us the three-sentence description of what your tour will cover.
Bert Dunkerly: This program will explore the decisions of commanders during these battles, examining the challenges they faced. I think examining the ground is important; we’ll look at terrain and deployment. We will also visit some areas not open to the public.
BGES Blog: The Seven Days Battle featured six different battles along the Virginia Peninsula. What is the importance of highlighting Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill?
Bert Dunkerly: These two battles were Lee’s first as an army commander, and in studying them we get a glimpse into his style and growth as a leader. As the opening battles of what would be a week-long campaign, what happened–or did not happen–here influenced everything that happened afterwards that week.
BGES Blog: In what ways does General Lee show his genius as a general during these battles?
Bert Dunkerly: Lee intends to maneuver his opponent to his advantage, he also intends to use maximum force at key locations. Lee hopes that aggressive action will reverse the course of events.
BGES Blog: What was the key/keys to the Confederates’ success?
Bert Dunkerly: Deception and timing. The Confederates had success with one, less so with the other.
BGES Blog: What’s the importance of the Seven Days Battle in the greater context of the Civil War?
Bert Dunkerly: These battles are where many units in both armies gain their first combat experience. Everything they would know about skirmishing, fighting, maneuvering, etc., they learned here. The campaign lengthens the war, by turning the Union army away from Richmond. It also strengthens the resolve of both sides: the Confederacy instituted conscription, the Union would follow. Both sides geared their economies for a long war. The Union also began to shift its conduct of the war from a lenient, forgiving posture to a harsher one.
BGES Blog: What is your personal interest in telling the story of these battles?
Bert Dunkerly: This is early in the war, so there are many inexperienced units and commanders, and on the Confederate side, a cumbersome command structure. It is fascinating to see how the armies perform during this intense week. It is also a time where there is a lot in flux, politically. The Confederates are having an internal discussion about conscription and the power of its federal government to conduct the war. The Union government is facing the issue of emancipation and coming to realize that it must conduct a harsher war to succeed.
The battles have also not received a lot of attention from scholars or the general public, and there are many incredible stories that deserve to be told.