June 26, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee launched his planned assault on the Federal Army of the Potomac to drive the Federals off the Virginia Peninsula and away from Richmond.
According to Lee’s battle plan:
- Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates would advance and attack General Fitz John Porter’s 28,000-man V Corps isolated from the rest of the Federal army north of the Chickahominy River.
- Jackson would turn the flank and sweep into the Federal rear while the Confederate divisions led by Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill would cross the Chickahominy and clear the Federals out of Mechanicsville.
- Hill and Jackson would then join to destroy the Federals north of the river and capture the Federal supply depot at White House Landing.
- Confederates under Major Generals John B. Magruder and Benjamin Huger would demonstrate against the Federal left south of the river and guard Richmond. The Confederates north of the river would push the Federals south until they linked with Magruder and Huger.
Lee wrote specific instructions for Jackson, which may have been too detailed to be fully understood. Jackson’s assault was supposed to begin at 3 a.m., but he did not move forward to attack until 9 due to confusion and Federal artillery firing on his troops. Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill, who needed Jackson to begin the attack before they went into action, waited nearly 12 hours outside Richmond for the battle to begin.
Meanwhile, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal army, continued lamenting that he was facing nearly 200,000 Confederates. In reality, Lee had only about 70,000 men, 56,000 of which were to attack V Corps. Most of McClellan’s almost 130,000 men were south of the Chickahominy.
The Confederates waiting behind the lines sprang into action when they finally heard the sound of battle to their northeast around 3 p.m. However, the sound did not come from Jackson attacking, it came from A.P. Hill pushing forward on Mechanicsville. Jackson still had not yet arrived to attack the Federal right, and Hill was tired of waiting.
Hill’s men crossed the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and advanced through heavy artillery fire, driving the heavily entrenched enemy through Mechanicsville. But Porter extended his right and fell back to strong positions about a mile east, behind Ellerson’s Mill and Beaver Dam Creek, which emptied into the Chickahominy.
Expecting Jackson to come up on his left, Hill reformed his ranks and advanced against Brigadier General George McCall’s division of Porter’s corps around 5 p.m. With Jackson still not in place, Hill launched a frontal attack across an open field, sending his men through swamps and creeks up to the Federal entrenchments. As the Confederates advanced, 36 Federal cannon fired into them.
McClellan observed the fighting and left the tactical decisions to Porter, who readied his troops for an assault of their own. Lee, finally realizing that Hill was fighting alone, sent in reinforcements from D.H. Hill, but the Federals repulsed these attacks and inflicted severe losses.
The bulk of Jackson’s force finally arrived, but when Jackson could not find A.P. Hill, he ordered his men to bivouac for the night about three miles northeast of Mechanicsville. Jackson, who was on the brink of exhaustion due to sleep deprivation, had no communication with Lee or the other commanders.
The major fighting ended around 9 p.m., with intermittent fire continuing. McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “The firing has nearly ceased… Victory of today complete and against great odds. I almost begin to think we are invincible.” McClellan also wrote to his wife, “We have again whipped the Secesh. Stonewall Jackson is the victim this time.” Apparently McClellan was unaware that Jackson, his former West Point classmate, did not take part in the action.
The Federals suffered 361 total casualties in the fight, while Confederates lost 1,484. Lee’s attack was a failure, partly due to Jackson’s uncharacteristic tardiness. Only one-fourth of Lee’s army (roughly 14,000 men) had been engaged, and 10 percent of them were lost in attacking Porter frontally rather than on his flank. Lee also fell far short of his goal to link with the Confederates south of the Chickahominy. While he drove the Federals out of the Mechanicsville, Lee lost the element of surprise and gave McClellan the options to either reinforce his right or attack with his left.
McClellan chose neither. Despite Lee’s failure, he had been withdrawing Porter’s supplies all day to protect them from Jackson’s impending attack and to better concentrate the Army of the Potomac south of the Chickahominy. Also, the demonstrations by Magruder and Huger, the sight of Confederate observation balloons on the Federal left, and Pinkerton’s inflated estimate of enemy strength convinced McClellan that he was hopelessly outnumbered, despite urgings from subordinates to attack with the bulk of his army on the left.
During the night, McClellan ordered Porter to withdraw eastward from Beaver Dam Creek to positions around Boatswain’s Swamp. McClellan also ordered his supply base transferred from White House on the York River to Harrison’s Landing on the James, asking Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to begin sending supplies there. This was a significant move because there were no railroads on the James to transport McClellan’s heavy artillery, so he could not lay siege to Richmond as originally planned.
This was an inauspicious start to Lee’s combat career as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. But while he had tactically lost this fight, McClellan still retreated and lost the initiative on the Peninsula. Thus, Lee gained a psychological edge over McClellan that he would never relinquish.
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