June 25, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac tried inching closer to Richmond as Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to drive the Federals off the Virginia Peninsula.
On June 23, Lee conferred with his top commanders and resolved to attack Federal Major General George B. McClellan’s army before it could advance on the Confederate capital. Lee intended to assault McClellan’s right wing, which was isolated on the north side of the Chickahominy River, on the 26th.
However, McClellan learned of Lee’s plan and resolved to attack first. Leaving his right wing north of the river, McClellan moved with his left. He targeted Oak Grove, which commanded the high ground south of the Chickahominy, a mile and a half closer to Richmond. McClellan hoped to clear that area for his heavy guns to put Richmond under siege. This was intended to be a preliminary movement before a general army advance.
Federal artillery opened on a rainy June 25, and then a division of General Samuel Heintzelman’s III Corps, led by Brigadier General Joseph Hooker, moved forward, supported by Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division. Skirmishing ensued as Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates blocked their path.
Huger had just 6,000 men, but he was soon reinforced by another 3,000 led by General Robert Ransom. The Federals struggled through the swampy terrain, and a heavy volley suddenly sent the Federals in Hooker’s lead brigade under Brigadier General Daniel Sickles running in what Sickles later called “disgraceful confusion.” Kearny sent reinforcements to secure Hooker’s left.
Heintzelman wired McClellan, who was at his headquarters three miles away, for reinforcements. But McClellan, through his chief of staff Brigadier General Randolph B. Marcy, ordered a retreat just as fresh troops came up, to the dismay of subordinates at the scene. Hooker hesitated, neither attacking nor retreating, and the battlefield went temporarily quiet.
McClellan then rode to the front two and a half hours later, inspected the lines, and ordered Hooker and Kearny to resume the assault. The Federals were reinforced by a brigade from II Corps and an artillery battery. Fighting occurred at several points, including Oak Grove, King’s School House, French’s Field, and the Orchard.
Charges and countercharges took place on the Williamsburg road until the Federal guns and reinforced infantry pushed the Confederates back to their main defenses. Nightfall gradually stopped both the firing and the rain. The Federals could not penetrate the Confederate line, but McClellan was pleased that they moved about 600 yards closer to Richmond. The Federals suffered 516 casualties (51 killed, 401 wounded, and 64 missing), and the Confederates lost 316 (40 killed, 263 wounded, and 13 missing).
Lee determined that this engagement did not expose his plan to attack McClellan’s right the next day, so that operation remained intact. The main Confederate attack force under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson continued moving into positions. Receiving news of Jackson’s impending arrival, McClellan suspended another scheduled attack and ordered his right wing, consisting of General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, to slow Jackson’s forces.
This action marked McClellan’s first (and last) tactical offensive against Richmond since the beginning of his Peninsula campaign. Although he deemed Porter’s positions acceptable, and although his left was now within five miles of Richmond, McClellan returned to headquarters on the night of the 25th and notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he faced “vastly superior odds.” This was based on an erroneous report that the Confederate Army of Mississippi had come to Richmond from the West, giving Lee up to 200,000 men (he really had no more than 70,000 versus McClellan’s 130,000). McClellan wrote Stanton:
“I incline to think that Jackson will attack my right and rear. The rebel force is stated at 200,000… I regret my great inferiority in numbers, but feel that I am in no way responsible for it, as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements; that this was the decisive point, and that all the available means of the Government should be concentrated here. I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers, can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action which will probably occur tomorrow, or within a short time, is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.”
Later that night, McClellan wrote, “I feel that there is no use in again asking for reinforcements,” but then did exactly that in requesting “some new regiments… another division of old troops… also, a couple of new regiments of cavalry.” McClellan concluded, “Every possible precaution is being taken. If I had another good division I could laugh at Jackson… Nothing but overwhelming forces can defeat us.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (25 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 477, 480; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 171-72; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3710-21, 3743, 3750-63; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 229-30; 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. 30-33; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 295-96, 541, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Oak Grove