June 29, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula once more, targeting the rear guard as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing.
Action on the Peninsula, which had been north of the Chickahominy River for the past three days, now shifted to the south. On the morning of the 29th, the Federals abandoned their fortifications around Golding’s Farm, giving up any chance to attack Richmond. Three of McClellan’s five corps concentrated near Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the Richmond & York Railroad. There they prepared the difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp on their way to the James River. Federal morale dropped, as McClellan put nobody in charge of the disorganized retreat.
Confederate pickets on the Nine Mile Road found the Federal works deserted and informed Lee. Hoping to catch and destroy the Federal army before it reached the James, Lee quickly devised a complex strategy for an all-out pursuit:
- Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would move toward Glendale
- Major General John B. Magruder’s 11,000 Confederates would attack the Federal rear guard on the Williamsburg road paralleling the Richmond & York River Railroad
- Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would move toward Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad and link with Magruder’s left
- Major General Benjamin Huger’s division would move along the Darbytown road to Magruder’s right
Executing this plan depended mainly on Magruder, who had taken morphine for acute indigestion and was not fully coherent. His men began marching around 3:30 a.m. down both the Nine Mile and Williamsburg roads. Magruder expected Jackson to quickly cross Grapevine Bridge spanning the Chickahominy and come up on his left.
Combat opened around 9 a.m., with Magruder’s Confederates attacking two withdrawing Federal corps near Allen’s Farm. Federal cannon responded, killing Brigadier General Richard Griffith. Jackson was delayed once again, first by rebuilding Grapevine Bridge and then by a vague order from Lee directing him to stay where he was. Magruder mistakenly believed that Huger would support his right from the Charles City road, not the Darbytown road farther south. So he suspended hostilities and awaited the arrival of both Jackson and Huger. Lee responded by sending him two of Huger’s brigades as reinforcements.
During this lull, Federal General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps left Savage’s Station without notifying either of the other two corps commanders at the scene. This enraged General Edwin V. Sumner, the ranking commander. Sumner withdrew his corps around 11 a.m. to Savage’s Station, three miles south of the Chickahominy.
Near 5 p.m., Magruder launched a general assault that featured the first armored railroad battery ever used in warfare. Magruder directed his men to “attack the enemy in whatever force or works he might be found.” This vague order resulted in the general assault breaking down. He also committed only two and a half of his six brigades, making the attack ineffective. However, Sumner could not overwhelm the attackers because he only deployed 10 of his 26 regiments. The arrival of night and thunderstorms ended the fighting in stalemate.
Sumner continued withdrawing the Federals toward the James. At 10 p.m., he abandoned the Federal field hospitals in accordance with McClellan’s order to leave anyone behind who could not walk. Jackson’s Confederates finally crossed the Chickahominy around 2:30 on the morning of the 30th, too late to help Magruder. Lee admonished Magruder:
“I regret much that you have made so little progress today in the pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory that pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no more time or he will escape us entirely.”
Lee also explained to Magruder that Jackson was not supposed to stay where he was, but was supposed to support Magruder’s left: “On the contrary, he (Jackson) has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.” Jackson visited Magruder’s headquarters around midnight and assured him that his forces would be up and ready for action in the morning.
Each side suffered about 1,500 casualties. The Federals also lost 2,500 of their sick and wounded by abandoning their hospitals, along with medical personnel and supplies. Federals withdrawing from around White House Landing were covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Marblehead and Chocura on the Pamunkey River. Federal supply transports escorted by gunboats also began arriving at Harrison’s Landing on the James.
Lee failed to stop the Federal army from crossing White Oak Swamp, but he planned to concentrate his forces for another attack the next day.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (29 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 186; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 175; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3917-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 233-34; 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. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 52; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8-9, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Savage’s Station