June 27, 1862 – The third in a series of battles on the Virginia Peninsula occurred at Gaines’s Mill.
By daybreak, General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps of the Army of the Potomac had withdrawn from Beaver Dam Creek and established a semicircular defensive line behind Boatswain’s Swamp, southeast of Gaines’s Mill. Artillery covered all Confederate approaches. Pursuing Confederates took several prisoners in the Federals’ rear guard as they fell back to this new line.
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal army, ordered Porter to hold his position at all costs while the Federals transferred their supply base from White House to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“This change of position was beautifully executed under a sharp fire, with but little loss. The troops on the other side are now well in hand, and the whole army so concentrated that it can take advantage of the first mistake made by the enemy.”
Having failed to turn the Federal right in yesterday’s engagement, Confederate General Robert E. Lee resolved to attack again. This time, Lee assembled some 57,000 men, or a force four times larger than that of the previous day. The plan once again called for Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to attack the Federal right flank, supported by Major General D.H. Hill’s division. Meanwhile, Major General A.P. Hill’s Confederates would assault the center. A.P. Hill opened the fighting at 12 p.m. by once again attacking before Jackson’s men could get into place.
The battle intensified when A.P. Hill’s Confederates attacked Porter behind Boatswain’s Creek around 2 p.m. Federals repulsed the attacks, with Hill losing 2,000 of his 13,200 men. After repelling Hill, the Federals also fought off a diversionary attack by Major General James Longstreet’s division as Confederate President Jefferson Davis observed the combat. Confederates on the other side of the Chickahominy could see the action less than two miles away, but an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented them from hearing it.
Like the day before, A.P. Hill expected Jackson to come up on his left, but Jackson had taken the wrong road and had to countermarch, once again putting him several hours behind schedule. D.H. Hill, on the extreme Confederate left, expected to move around the Federal right but was surprised to be stopped by Brigadier General George Sykes’s Federal division in his path; Hill and Sykes had been West Point roommates.
When Jackson’s advance units finally arrived, they launched failed assaults and suffered heavy losses. Several more piecemeal Confederate charges along the line, including a diversionary assault by Brigadier General George E. Pickett’s brigade on the right, failed to break the Federal defenses.
After the bulk of Jackson’s forces finally arrived, Lee concentrated the men for a massive three-mile-wide assault at 7 p.m. The Federals numbered some 34,000, but most were exhausted and isolated from each other. General John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade, supported by Colonel Evander Law’s brigade, pierced the Federal center at Turkey Hill as the sun began setting. A battalion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry and part of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry countercharged but failed to close the gap and was forced to surrender.
During the fighting on Turkey Hill, McClellan telegraphed the War Department, still requesting reinforcements and command consolidation: “I will beg that you put some one general in command of the Shenandoah and of all troops in front of Washington for the sake of the country. Secure unity of action and bring the best men forward.”
Throughout the day, McClellan refused to mobilize his 70,000 men south of the Chickahominy, leaving Porter to fend for himself. McClellan also would not launch a counterattack against Richmond with his overwhelming numbers, as the Confederates south of the river fired on them with artillery and staged mock demonstrations to make the Federals think that they would be attacked at any time.
The Federals instead conducted an orderly retreat, holding off the advancing Confederates with artillery. Despite another poorly coordinated attack, Lee won his first victory. He broke the Federal line, but he could not exploit the advantage due to the heavy casualties he sustained. The Confederates lost 8,751 men in six hours, or almost the same number of Confederates lost in two days at Shiloh. These losses included many valuable officers. The Federals lost 6,837 (894 killed, 3,107 wounded, and 2,836 missing or captured).
Nevertheless, the Confederates scored a crucial victory as the Federal V Corps withdrew under cover of darkness. Lee telegraphed President Davis: “Profoundly grateful to Almighty God,” the Army of Northern Virginia had won its first victory, taking 22 guns and over 2,000 prisoners with a clear road eastward to the Federal supply base at White House. Lee closed, “We sleep on the field, and shall renew the contest in the morning.”
Meanwhile, McClellan wired the War Department at 8 p.m., before he even learned of the battle’s result: “Have had a terrible contest. Attacked by greatly superior numbers in all directions on this side… The odds have been immense. We hold our own very nearly.”
Even though only one of his five army corps had been heavily engaged in any of the fighting on June 26 or 27, and even though Federals had repelled the diversionary attacks south of the Chickahominy at Garnett’s Hill and Golding’s Farm, McClellan decided that he could not defeat Lee’s smaller army.
At 11 p.m., McClellan held a council of war with his corps commanders and announced that he planned to abandon the advance on Richmond and withdraw to the James River, where the troops would be protected by Federal gunboats while awaiting reinforcements. McClellan directed General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps to move west of Glendale to cover the Federal withdrawal while Porter withdrew to the high ground at Malvern Hill.
In the North, McClellan supporters applauded the “change of base,” calling it a strategic withdrawal and not a retreat. Others, including many Lincoln administration officials, called it a “great skedaddle.” At any rate, the Federal move away from Richmond ended any hope of McClellan launching an offensive on the Peninsula. It also relieved the Confederate capital of imminent danger, which had been one of Lee’s objectives when planning the offensive.
Learning that McClellan planned to move to the James, Lee now set his sights on his other objective–destroying McClellan’s army.
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