General Robert E. Lee, the new commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, took stock of his force following the Battle of Seven Pines. He had returned the men to the defense lines they held prior to the battle, while the men of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac remained where they had been as well. The Confederates had failed to drive McClellan away from their capital of Richmond, but McClellan’s tendency toward cautiousness meant that Lee probably had some time to try again.
Lee held a meeting with his top commanders on June 3 to get better acquainted with them and hear their opinions regarding the Confederate army’s condition and its situation outside Richmond. When Major General W.H.C. Whiting doubted that the troops could stop the Federals from capturing Richmond because they were so outnumbered, Lee cut him off. “If you go to ciphering,” he said, “we are whipped beforehand.”
The Confederate cavalry commander, Brigadier General James E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, urged Lee to attack McClellan’s left flank at White Oak Swamp “with a crushing force.” Stuart said, “Let us fight at advantage, before we are forced to fight at disadvantage.” Lee tended to agree, but he had Stuart’s cavalry take a closer look at McClellan’s right flank, which remained isolated north of the Chickahominy River.
McClellan, still convinced that he was heavily outnumbered (though he held a clear numerical advantage), opted to stay put and wait for reinforcements. He wrote to President Abraham Lincoln on the 4th, “I have to be very cautious now… I mention these facts now merely to show you that the Army of the Potomac has had serious work & that no child’s play is before it.”
The long-awaited troops of Major General Irvin McDowell’s command would be coming down from Fredericksburg to bolster McClellan’s army, starting with Brigadier General George A. McCall’s 9,500-man division. McClellan informed the War Department on the 8th that he stood “in perfect readiness to move forward and take Richmond the moment McCall reaches here and the ground will admit the passage of artillery.”
McClellan received another boost when the Lincoln administration placed the Department of Virginia under his command. This department included the Federal garrison at Fort Monroe, which McClellan had wanted to guard his rear at key points such as Yorktown and Williamsburg. Major General John E. Wool, commanding at Fort Monroe, had refused to give any of his troops to McClellan, but Wool was replaced by Major General John A. Dix, and the department, representing two-thirds of Dix’s command, was now at McClellan’s disposal.
Despite these reinforcements, McClellan became hesitant yet again when old rumors reemerged that General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of Mississippi was coming up to reinforce Lee. McClellan advised his superiors that they should be “detaching largely” from Major General Henry W. Halleck’s Federal armies in the Western Theater and sending them to the Peninsula. Halleck refuted the rumors and asserted (correctly) that Beauregard remained a dangerous threat in his sector. This did not deter McClellan’s fears that Lee was somehow being heavily reinforced.
On the 11th, McCall’s division began landing at White House, McClellan’s supply base on the Pamunkey River. The rest of McDowell’s force was headed eastward from the Blue Ridge to reinforce the Federals on the Peninsula as well. McDowell wrote McClellan, “McCall goes in advance by water. I will be with you in 10 days with the remainder by land from Fredericksburg.” McClellan wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I shall attack as soon as the weather and the ground will permit.”
McClellan moved his headquarters to the south bank of the Chickahominy River, where three of his five corps were now stationed:
- Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps held the railroad on the right (north)
- Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps guarded the Williamsburg road in the center
- Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps was at White Oak Swamp on the left (south)
The Fifth and Sixth corps under Generals Fitz John Porter and William B. Franklin respectively remained on the north bank, with Franklin nearest the river and Porter composing the army’s extreme right (i.e., northern) flank. McCall’s Federals began arriving on the 12th to reinforce Porter. The improving weather on the Peninsula seemed to indicate that McClellan would be launching his long-awaited attack soon.
Finally, two weeks after the Battle of Seven Pines, McClellan reported, “After tomorrow we shall fight the Rebel army as soon as Providence will permit.” He would not divulge any specifics to his superiors, but he told his wife Ellen that he would be targeting Old Tavern, a strategic point south of the Chickahominy just five miles from Richmond. He wrote, “If we gain that the game is up for Secesh–I will have them in the hollow of my hand.” From this high point, McClellan could assemble up to 200 cannon and “sweep everything before us,” after which he could “shell the city & carry it by assault.”
But then McClellan hesitated yet again. His chief intelligence officer, Allan Pinkerton, who had long provided him with erroneous information about enemy strength, now reported, “It is variously estimated that the Rebel army at Richmond and vicinity numbers from 150,000 to 200,000 men.” Pinkerton later settled on 180,000 men but warned that this was probably a low estimate. The Confederate army actually numbered no more than 70,000 men, while McClellan had at least 120,000.
McClellan again reported to Washington that Beauregard’s Confederates must be reinforcing Lee, despite Halleck’s continued assertions otherwise. The end result to all this speculation was that McClellan’s planned attack would be delayed once more, thus giving Lee plenty of time to plan a counteroffensive.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1992.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 11, Part 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.