Battle Looms on the Peninsula

General Robert E. Lee set up headquarters at the Dabbs’ House, a mile and a half northeast of Richmond, where he held a council of war at 3 p.m. on June 23. Attendees included Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, having ridden 52 miles on relays of commandeered horses, also attended, to the surprise of the others who thought he was still in the Shenandoah Valley.

Lee announced that after assessing the conditions and positions of both armies, he had come to several conclusions:

  • Richmond could not withstand a siege, therefore the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had to take the offensive.
  • The Confederates could not attack frontally due to their lack of experience and superior Federal numbers, therefore they had to try turning the enemy’s flank.
  • McClellan had the bulk of his Federal Army of the Potomac on the south side of the Chickahominy River, therefore the Federals north of the river should be targeted for attack.
  • Lee needed to attack with the bulk of his army if he hoped to turn the Federal right, which could either drive the Federals north or force them to set up a new supply base on the James River.

Thus, the Confederates would target Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s 30,000-man Fifth Corps, north of the Chickahominy. According to Lee’s plan:

  • Jackson would begin the assault by moving south and attacking Porter’s right and rear.
  • A.P. Hill would cross to the north side of the Chickahominy and clear the bridge at Mechanicsville for Longstreet and D.H. Hill to cross and join the attack.
  • The 56,000 Confederates would “sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position… They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy.”
  • The rest of the Confederate army under Generals John B. Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes would guard Richmond from a counterattack.

Because the movement of such a massive number of troops involved leaving the road to Richmond open, Lee stressed the need for secrecy. The plan was also dependent on all its parts (and commanders) working in concert, especially Jackson, who had to start the attack for the others to follow. The commanders agreed that the attack would begin on June 26.

Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

When the general plan was decided upon, Lee left the room to allow his subordinates to work out the details. This was the first and last time that Lee would do this. The commanders returned to their men after the meeting; Jackson rode back to rejoin his three divisions on their way from the west. The next day, Lee drafted the results of the meeting into written orders and distributed them to the commanders.

Meanwhile, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen that Confederate activity seemed “mysterious” as the uncomfortably hot, wet weather was improving. McClellan hoped “to be able to take a decisive step in advance (the) day after tomorrow… & if I succeed will gain a couple of miles towards Richmond… It now looks to me as if the operations would resolve themselves into a series of partial attacks, rather than a general battle.” He added, “I have a kind of presentiment that tomorrow will bring forth something–what I do not know–we will see when the time arrives.”

Deserters and fugitive slaves informed McClellan that Jackson intended to attack the Federal right, probably on the 28th. He responded by sending Federals to obstruct the roads that Jackson would use to get there. He also continued inching closer to Richmond, with skirmishing taking place around Mechanicsville.

McClellan’s “series of partial attacks” was to begin on the 25th. He directed Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps (which included the seasoned divisions of Brigadier Generals Philip Kearny and Joseph Hooker) to advance and seize Old Tavern, which was on high ground between the opposing lines south of the Chickahominy. McClellan stated, “It will be chiefly an Artillery & Engineering affair. Keep your command as fresh as possible, ready for another battle–I cannot afford to be without Heintzelman, Kearny & Hooker in the next effort.” This would set the stage for a general advance by the entire army, as McClellan intended to attack before Jackson arrived.


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