Battle Looms on the Peninsula

June 24, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee issued written orders for his new Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to launch an attack on Major General George B. McClellan’s right flank on June 26.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Lee set up headquarters at the Dabbs’ House, a mile and a half northeast of Richmond, where he held a council of war at 3 p.m. Attendees included Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, having ridden 52 miles on relays of commandeered horses, also attended, to the surprise of the others who thought he was still in the Shenandoah Valley.

Lee announced that after assessing the conditions and positions of both armies, he had come to several conclusions:

  • Richmond could not withstand a siege, therefore the Confederate army had to take the offensive
  • The Confederates could not attack frontally due to their lack of experience and superior Federal numbers, therefore they had to try turning the enemy’s flank
  • McClellan had the bulk of his army on the south side of the Chickahominy River, therefore the Federals north of the river should be targeted for attack
  • Lee needed to attack with the bulk of his army if he hoped to turn the Federal right, which could either drive the Federals north or force them to set up a new supply base on the James River.

Thus, the Confederates would target General Fitz John Porter’s 30,000-man V Corps, north of the Chickahominy. According to Lee’s plan:

  • Jackson would begin the assault by moving south and attacking Porter’s right and rear.
  • A.P. Hill would cross to the north side of the Chickahominy and clear the bridge at Mechanicsville for Longstreet and D.H. Hill to cross and join the attack.
  • The 56,000 Confederates would “sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position… They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy.”
  • The rest of the Confederate army under Generals John B. Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes would guard Richmond from a counterattack.

Because the movement of such a massive amount of troops involved leaving the road to Richmond open, Lee stressed the need for secrecy. The plan also relied on all its parts (and commanders) working in concert, especially Jackson, who had to start the attack for the others to follow. The commanders agreed that the attack would begin on June 26.

When the general plan was decided upon, Lee left the room to allow his subordinates to work out the details. This was the first and last time that Lee would do this. The commanders returned to their men after the meeting; Jackson rode back to rejoin his three divisions on their way from the west. The next day, Lee drafted the results of the meeting into written orders and distributed them to the commanders.

Meanwhile, McClellan wrote his wife that Confederate activity seemed “mysterious.” The uncomfortably hot, wet weather was improving, and McClellan hoped “to be able to take a decisive step in advance (the) day after tomorrow.” McClellan envisioned a scenario where “the operations would resolve themselves into a series of partial attacks, rather than a general battle.” McClellan added, “I have a kind of presentiment that tomorrow will bring forth something–what I do not know–we will see when the time arrives.”

Deserters and fugitive slaves informed McClellan that Jackson intended to attack his right. He responded by sending Federals to obstruct the roads that Jackson would use to get there. He also continued inching closer to Richmond, with skirmishing taking place around Mechanicsville.

Initiating his “series of partial attacks,” McClellan directed Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps south of the Chickahominy to advance on the Williamsburg road and seize an unoccupied area between the armies on the edge of White Oak Swamp. This would set the stage for a general advance by the entire army, as McClellan intended to attack before Jackson arrived.


References; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 476; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 171; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3710-21, 3743; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 229; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 465; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-31; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 541

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