July 3, 1862 – Both Federals and Confederates regrouped as General Robert E. Lee probed the Federal defenses and Major General George B. McClellan issued yet another plea for more men.
Heavy rain drenched the Virginia Peninsula as the Federals began withdrawing from Malvern Hill between 2 and 3 a.m. on the 2nd. During that time, President Abraham Lincoln telegraphed McClellan, “If you think you are not strong enough to take Richmond now, I do not ask you to try just now. Save the army, material, and personnel, and I will strengthen it for the offensive again as fast as I can.” McClellan reported:
“As usual, we had a severe battle yesterday and beat the enemy badly, the men fighting even better than before. We fell back to this position during the night and morning… I have not yielded an inch of ground unnecessarily, but have retired to prevent the superior force of the enemy from cutting me off and to take a different base of operations.”
The Federals fell back eight miles from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing, a wharf on the three-mile-wide Berkeley Plantation, birthplace of 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison. Naval Commander John Rodgers had chosen this site for the army because it was the closest point to Richmond where the troops could be easily supplied by water. Also, Rodgers’s gunboats could protect the army’s flanks, both of which were anchored on creeks.
The Federals retreated despite winning a resounding victory the previous day. Many generals, including Fitz John Porter, one of McClellan’s favorites, opposed withdrawing and unsuccessfully urged McClellan to counterattack. During the retreat, discipline broke down and morale sunk to a new low. McClellan reported:
“My men are completely exhausted, and I dread the result if we are attacked today by fresh troops… I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world, but they are worn-out… We have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”
McClellan still failed to realize that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was much smaller than his.
At Confederate headquarters on Poindexter farm, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson urged General Lee to attack again, believing the Federals to be so demoralized that one more assault might finally destroy them. But the rain had turned the roads to mud, and Lee was not yet sure exactly where the Federals went.
President Jefferson Davis and his brother, Colonel Joseph Davis, visited Lee’s headquarters to offer encouragement and suggestions. Lee then introduced Davis to Jackson, and when Davis asked Jackson’s opinion on what should be done, the general replied, “They have not all got away if you go immediately after them.” But Davis ultimately sided with Lee that the rain was too heavy and the men too exhausted to continue fighting.
Lee dispatched Brigadier General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to find and pursue the Federal army. Lee also directed a portion of his army to move farther down the Peninsula to guard against any Federal counterattack, and he sent General Theophilus H. Holmes’s division to Drewry’s Bluff to stop any Federal effort to cross the James River and join the Federals in North Carolina.
Throughout the 2nd, both Federals and Confederates buried the dead. General Jubal Early, whose Confederates had just arrived to reinforce Lee the night before, reported:
“The parties from both armies, in search of the dead and wounded, gradually approached each other, and continued their mournful work without molestation on either side, being apparently appalled, for the moment, into a cessation from all hostile purposes, by the terrible spectacle presented to their view.”
In the Seven Days Battles, the Confederates sustained a horrific 20,204 casualties (3,494 killed, 15,758 wounded, and 952 missing), or nearly 25 percent of the army’s total. The division of Major General James Longstreet lost 40 percent of its strength. The Federals, who had won almost every battle but retreated after each one, lost 15,853 (1,734 killed, 8,066 wounded, and 6,053 missing). Porter’s V Corps sustained over half those casualties.
Southerners hailed Lee as a new hero who saved Richmond from Federal conquest. Davis issued a proclamation of thanksgiving for driving the Federals away from the capital. However, some criticized Lee’s heavy losses and loose management style, and Lee himself expressed great disappointment over missing so many opportunities to destroy McClellan’s army in the campaign.
Several reasons contributed to Lee’s failure to destroy the Federals, including a lack of adequate maps, the failure of subordinates to carry out his orders, and poor employment of his artillery and cavalry. However, he still drove McClellan off due to superior strategy, his troops’ willingness to sustain heavy losses to achieve their mission, and McClellan’s refusal to counterattack.
The next morning, the rain stopped and Lee resumed his pursuit of the retreating Federals. As he began probing for a weakness in the defenses, Stuart reported that most of the enemy had already reached Harrison’s Landing. Stuart also refuted rumors that McClellan was planning to cross the James. Meanwhile, wounded Confederates continued pouring into Richmond.
In the North, newspapers began publishing reports of McClellan’s “Great Skedaddle,” which dealt a blow to morale and brought intense criticism upon both McClellan and Lincoln. McClellan reported, “It is of course impossible to estimate as yet our losses, but I doubt whether there are to-day more than 50,000 men with their colors.” In reality, McClellan probably had about 90,000 effectives.
McClellan then amended his July 1 request for 50,000 men (which Lincoln had called “simply absurd”): “To accomplish the great task of capturing Richmond and putting an end to this rebellion, re-enforcements should be sent to me rather much over than much under 100,000 men.” McClellan asked his superiors to “be fully impressed by the magnitude of the crisis in which we are placed.”
Lincoln had previously asked Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding in the Western Theater, to send 25,000 troops to reinforce McClellan, but Halleck reported that it would be impossible without losing the ground they had gained in Tennessee and Mississippi. Lincoln then reminded McClellan that he had refused the president’s offer to send him the Federals stationed in North Carolina under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. Now Lincoln ordered Burnside to bring his troops to the Peninsula, along with another 10,000 men from Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 189-90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 515, 517, 530; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 178; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4128-40, 4152, 4164-88; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 236; 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. 470-71, 490; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 73, 93; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346; Wikipedia: Battle of Malvern Hill, Seven Days Battles