The Seven Days Battles: McClellan’s Withdrawal

June 28, 1862 – The struggle on the Virginia Peninsula continued with sporadic fighting, as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing his Federal Army of the Potomac toward the James River.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces
Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Shortly after midnight on the 28th, McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about yesterday’s defeat at Gaines’s Mill:

“I now know the full history of this day. I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this, and I say it with the earnestness of a general who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed to-day. I still hope to retrieve our fortunes, but to do this, the government must view the matter in the same earnest light that I do. You must send me very large reinforcements, and send them at once.

“I only wish to say to the President, that I think he is wrong in regarding me as ungenerous, when I said that my force was too weak. I merely reiterated a truth, which to-day has been too plainly proved. If, at this instant, I could dispose of 10,000 fresh men, I could gain a victory tomorrow. I know that a few thousand more men would have changed this battle from a defeat to a victory. As it is, the Government must not and cannot hold me responsible for the result. I feel too earnestly tonight. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost.

“If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”

When this message reached the War Department in Washington, Colonel Edward S. Sanford, the chief censor of the Military Telegraph Service, considered the last two sentences so treasonous and insubordinate that he directed his staff to delete them before sending the edited message to Stanton and then to President Abraham Lincoln. The sentences were eventually published months later.

McClellan, a Democrat, blamed the Republican administration for supposedly withholding resources for him to adequately wage war on the Peninsula. Later on the 28th, Lincoln replied to what he saw of McClellan’s message: “Save your Army at all events… If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington.”

By 4 a.m., General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was across the Chickahominy River, and McClellan was pulling his army south toward the James River. He directed his commanders to issue three days’ rations to their men and send all their wagons to Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad. He further directed that “all tents and all articles not indispensable to the safety or the maintenance of the troops must be abandoned and destroyed,” and “the sick and wounded that are not able to walk must necessarily be left.” Two corps withdrew, and the other three guarded the western flank against a Confederate attack.

As Federals burned what supplies they could not carry, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, learned that they had abandoned their positions north of the Chickahominy River and destroyed the bridges. Confederate cavalry under General Jeb Stuart arrived at White House Landing, the former Federal supply depot on the York River, and found it evacuated. Federals burned the historic home of Martha Custis, wife of George Washington and now owned by Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

McClellan’s withdrawal after one major battle astonished Lee, who determined that the Federals must be concentrating south of the Chickahominy. Federals covered the approaches to the burned bridges with massed artillery, and Federal naval vessels at Fort Monroe began moving up the James to link with McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. Meanwhile, Lee prepared for another battle.

Fighting resumed from the previous day near the Golding farm, as Confederates under General John B. Magruder advanced on the presumption that the Federals were withdrawing. However, the Federals made a stand and drove the Confederates back. The Confederates lost 438 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Federals lost 189.

By this evening, Lee was poised to attack the concentrated Federal force south of the Chickahominy. However, he did not secure the road to Turkey Island Bridge, which McClellan used to withdraw his troops (Lee may have been able to destroy the Federals had he blocked that road). McClellan met with his commanders and informed them that since he believed an attack on Richmond would destroy the army, he would retreat to Harrison’s Landing. With the Confederate capital now out of imminent danger, Lee again resolved to resume the offensive the next day.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7558; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 492-93; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 174-75; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3893-3905; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Hoffsommer, Richard D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 745; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 232-33; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342-43; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 51; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8; Wikipedia: Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Battle of Garnett’s and Golding’s Farm


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