June 30, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee made another attempt to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, this time attacking at Glendale, Frayser’s Farm, and White Oak Swamp.
After failing to prevent the Federals from reaching White Oak Swamp on the 29th, Lee still believed that a maximum effort could capture or destroy Major General George B. McClellan’s army. Thus, he developed another complex plan:
- Major General Benjamin Huger would start the fight by leading 12,000 men in a direct advance on Glendale, a town at the important crossroads of the Charles City, Long Bridge, and Quaker roads.
- Another 45,000 Confederates under Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would advance on parallel roads toward Glendale
- 25,000 Confederates under Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and D.H. Hill (now under Jackson’s command) would move south through White Oak Swamp to catch the Federals in a pincer by attacking the Federal right flank and rear
The Federals continued their retreat down the Peninsula toward their new supply base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. With the army spread out over 10 miles, V Corps took positions on Malvern Hill while the other four corps stretched from that point to White Oak Swamp. Most Federals had crossed the swamp by 10 p.m. on the 30th, with about a third of the army reaching the James River.
Jackson’s advance was halted at Savage’s Station by Federal stragglers and supplies left behind. The hungry Confederates collected all the food, uniforms, blankets, ammunition, and other items they could carry, and resumed the march near mid-morning. They reached the edge of White Oak Swamp around noon and saw that the Federals had burned the bridge.
The Confederates traded artillery fire with the retreating Federal VI Corps while Jackson’s men tried building a new bridge. Federal artillerists drove the Confederates off. General Wade Hampton then informed Jackson that a new bridge could be built to the west, out of Federal gun range. Jackson said nothing, instead sitting under a tree and falling asleep.
Huger advanced on the Charles City road and deployed a brigade to guard against an attack from the north while discovering that the retreating Federals had obstructed the road. The Confederates were delayed several hours while forming a new road through the woods. Huger then decided that it was too late to attack, so he kept his troops back while exchanging artillery fire with the enemy.
Lee, with Longstreet’s men at the intersection of the Darbytown and Long Bridge roads, heard the cannons and, thinking the battle had begun, sent two divisions into action. Separated by a swamp and dense woods, Longstreet could not tell whether Huger was advancing on his left. Longstreet deployed his men to attack, but Lee ordered him to wait until Jackson came up.
Learning that the Federal army was assembling in disarray at Malvern Hill, Lee called on his two southernmost divisions under Generals Theophilus H. Holmes and John B. Magruder to attack, which would prevent the Federals from sending reinforcements to hold off Longstreet. Holmes and Magruder attacked the Federal left at Turkey Bridge and Malvern Hill.
Lee then ordered Longstreet to attack. Longstreet sent six brigades in two rows against a stronger Federal force in the process of retreating near Glendale. The Federals consisted of all or parts of divisions and brigades led by Generals George A. McCall, George G. Meade, Joseph Hooker, Philip Kearny, and John Sedgwick. Part of the fight took place in a pine grove called Frayser’s Farm. The Confederate assaults were poorly coordinated:
- Huger withdrew most of his troops to prepare for a counterattack that never came.
- Lee ordered Magruder to pull out of the attack on the Federal left and help Longstreet, so Magruder’s men spent most of the day marching. This weakened Holmes, whose attack was checked by Federal gunboats on the James.
- Jackson accomplished little at White Oak Swamp, as Federals prevented him from linking with the rest of the Confederate army.
- There was a general lack of communication between Lee and his commanders, causing confusion among the ranks.
Around 4 p.m., some 20,000 Confederates under Longstreet and A.P. Hill assaulted 40,000 Federal defenders near Willis Church, where brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Confederates routed McCall’s division and even captured the commander. However, stiff Federal resistance led by Hooker and Kearny stabilized the defenses. Federal artillery also tore holes into the Confederate attack lines.
Longstreet committed nearly every brigade in his command, while the Federals threw reinforcements into the fight piecemeal. Around 8:30 p.m., Confederates captured the Federal cannon, but within an hour more Federal artillery arrived to drive the Confederates back. Jackson’s inactivity at White Oak Swamp enabled Federals from that sector to be transferred to bolster defenses at Glendale and repel the main Confederate attack.
The fight ended inconclusively, as Lee failed to stop the Federals from withdrawing to Malvern Hill on the Quaker road. Only one of Lee’s four attacks–that of Longstreet and Hill–actually happened as planned. Jackson was ineffective for the fourth consecutive day, and two-thirds of the Confederate army did not join the main fight. This became one of the Confederacy’s greatest lost opportunities.
On the Federal side, some accused McClellan of dereliction of duty for staying aboard the U.S.S. Galena on the James and not taking part in any of the fighting or exercising any type of overall command. His army fended off another Confederate attack, but without orders, the troops just assumed that they should continue retreating and did so.
McClellan’s line of retreat remained secure, but his repeated withdrawals clearly indicated that he was defeated and the Federals would no longer threaten the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps established defenses at Malvern Hill, five miles in front of Harrison’s Landing. Three other corps formed in that area during the night. General Erasmus D. Keyes’s corps and the enormous Federal supply train arrived safely at Harrison’s Landing, protected by gunboats on the James.
The Confederates sustained 3,673 casualties (638 killed, 2,814 wounded, and 221 missing). Three generals were among the wounded, and over 25 percent of Longstreet’s division sustained casualties. The Federals lost 3,797 (297 killed, 1,696 wounded, and 1,804 missing or captured). Generals George G. Meade and Edwin V. Sumner were among the wounded, and those captured included McCall.
That evening, as two Federal corps assembled on Malvern Hill, McClellan received a message from President Abraham Lincoln, who was dismayed by the Federal reverses and McClellan’s charges that the administration was to blame for them:
“Save your army at all events. Will send reinforcements as fast as we can… If you have had a drawn battle or a repulse it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington… It is the nature of the case, and neither you nor the Government are to blame.”
With no firsthand knowledge of the day’s events, McClellan telegraphed the War Department on the night of June 30: “My Army has behaved superbly and have done all that men could do. If none of us escape we shall at least have done honor to the country. I shall do my best to save the Army. Send more gunboats.” Lincoln confided in a letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward, “The loss of enemies does not compensate for the loss of friends.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 310-11; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161, 164; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (30 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 187; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 508; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 176; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4033-45; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 123-24, 267; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 234; 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. 419-20; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 821; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52, 60; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 471, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Glendale, Battle of White Oak Swamp