As General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army held a thin defensive line east of Richmond on the Virginia Peninsula, a brigade led by Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch was stationed at Hanover Court House, a village just south of the Pamunkey River, about 15 miles north of Richmond. Their mission was to protect the vital Virginia Central Railroad, which linked eastern Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley.
McClellan had learned from locals that a force of 17,000 Confederates was moving toward Hanover to get around the Federal right flank and into the rear. He dispatched cavalry to confirm this news. The troopers reported just 6,000 Confederates there, but McClellan determined that to be a large enough force to threaten his right. In reality, Branch had just 4,000 troops with orders to just guard the railroad. They had no intention of attacking such a large enemy.
McClellan directed Brigadier General Fitz John Porter to lead a force of some 12,000 men against the Confederate outpost. Porter moved out in a driving rainstorm on the morning of May 27. Porter’s lead elements clashed with a Confederate patrol and sent it running. Porter ordered most of his remaining forces to pursue, and in so doing, they inadvertently passed Branch’s main position at Peake’s Crossing, not at Hanover Court House as Porter had thought.
As the Federals passed, Branch ordered an attack on their rear guard. Branch had mistakenly believed the Federal force to be roughly equal in size to his, but it really was three times larger. The Confederates were repulsed, as Federals ahead of the rear guard turned about to join the attack. Unable to hold off such a large force, Branch fell back near dusk to Ashland. Porter tried to pursue, but the enemy rear guard held him off.
The Federals suffered 365 casualties (62 killed, 233 wounded, and 70 captured). The Confederates lost about 1,000, including 730 taken prisoner during the withdrawal. The Federals tore up railroad tracks and burned bridges as they returned to their lines.
McClellan wrote his wife that evening: “We are getting on splendidly. I am quietly clearing out everything that could threaten my rear and communications, providing against the contingency of disaster, and so arranging as to make my whole force available in the approaching battle. The only fear is that Joe’s (Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston) heart may fail him.”
McClellan also had high praise for Porter’s victory, calling it “a glorious victory over superior numbers… one of the handsomest things of the war, both in itself and in its results.” But the Federals outnumbered the Confederates in this engagement. And it did nothing to change the fact that McClellan’s left wing was still isolated on the other side of the Chickahominy River. Even worse, it may have delayed reinforcement of that highly vulnerable wing.
That same day, Johnston received word that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federal army was coming down from the Rappahannock River to link with McClellan’s right wing. This was erroneous, as McDowell’s men were instead en route to the Shenandoah Valley. Nevertheless, Johnston interpreted the engagement at Hanover Court House to mean that McClellan was trying to extend his flank to meet McDowell’s. With the noose around Richmond seemingly tightening, Johnston resolved to attack the Federals before McDowell could arrive.
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