May 27, 1862 – A small engagement on the Virginia Peninsula secured Major General George B. McClellan’s right flank and increased the Federal threat to Richmond.
When Major General Richard Ewell’s division had gone to reinforce the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, one brigade under Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch stayed behind. Branch’s Confederates were at Hanover Court House, a village just south of the Pamunkey River, about 15 miles north of Richmond. Their mission was to protect the vital Virginia Central Railroad, which linked eastern Virginia to the Valley.
McClellan had learned from locals that a force of 17,000 Confederates was moving toward Hanover to get into the Federal rear. He dispatched cavalry to confirm the news. The troopers reported just 3,000 Confederates there, but that could be enough to threaten McClellan’s right flank.
General Fitz John Porter, commanding V Corps on the right flank, directed Colonel Gouverneur Warren’s brigade to scout in more detail. The Federals advanced on Hanover in heavy rain and mud, unaware that Branch had pulled his pickets back. Some Federals stumbled upon the new Confederate camp and were fired on around 12 p.m.
Branch tried attacking the Federal front based on his cavalry’s report that it was weak. It was not. The Confederates were repulsed, as Federals in other sectors hurried to shore up that point. Both sides scrambled for cover and continued exchanging fire. The Federals began running low on ammunition when the rest of the division arrived to reinforce them.
Unable to hold off a division with his lone brigade, Branch fell back at dusk. Porter tried pursuing, but the Confederate rear guard held him off. The Federals suffered 365 casualties (62 killed, 233 wounded, and 70 captured). The Confederates lost about 1,000, including 730 taken prisoner during the withdrawal. The Federals tore up railroad tracks and burned bridges as they returned to their lines.
McClellan wrote his wife that evening:
“We are getting on splendidly. I am quietly clearing out everything that could threaten my rear and communications, providing against the contingency of disaster, and so arranging as to make my whole force available in the approaching battle. The only fear is that Joe’s (Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston) heart may fail him.”
McClellan also held high praise for this engagement after the war, calling it “one of the handsomest things of the war, both in itself and in its results.” To him, this was “a glorious victory over superior numbers,” even though the Federals vastly outnumbered the Confederates in the fight. Also, this engagement did nothing to change the situation on the Peninsula except to assure McClellan that his right flank remained secure. Meanwhile, his left (and weaker) flank remained isolated on the other side of the Chickahominy River.
Meanwhile, Johnston received intelligence that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals, advancing from near Fredericksburg, were now within 30 miles of reaching Porter’s flank, with advance elements within 30 miles of Hanover Court House. To the Confederates, the engagement at Hanover indicated that McClellan was extending his flank to meet McDowell’s. It seemed that the noose around Richmond was tightening.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (27 May 1862); Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 443; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 158; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3466