General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia outside Richmond, had resolved to attack Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac before it could advance on the Confederate capital. Lee targeted McClellan’s right wing, which was isolated on the north side of the Chickahominy River, and the assault was set to take place on June 26.
However, McClellan was planning to advance south of the Chickahominy, and his move was scheduled to take place on the 25th. Leaving his right wing north of the river, McClellan moved with his left. He targeted Oak Grove, which commanded the high ground south of the Chickahominy, a mile and a half closer to Richmond. It also included the crossroads of Old Tavern, west of Golding’s farm. McClellan hoped to clear that area for his heavy guns to put Richmond under siege. This was intended to be a preliminary movement before a general army advance.
Federal artillery opened on the drizzling morning of the 25th, and then a division of Major General Samuel Heintzelman’s Third Corps, led by Brigadier General Joseph Hooker, moved forward. Hooker was supported by Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division. Skirmishing ensued as Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates blocked their path.
Huger had just 6,000 men, but he was soon reinforced by another 3,000 led by Brigadier General Robert Ransom. The Federals struggled through the swampy terrain, and those in Hooker’s lead brigade under Brigadier General Daniel Sickles were hit with a heavy volley. The men fled in what Sickles later called “disgraceful confusion.” Kearny sent in reinforcements to secure Hooker’s left.
Heintzelman wired McClellan, who was at his headquarters three miles away, for reinforcements. But McClellan, through his chief of staff Randolph B. Marcy, ordered a retreat just as fresh troops came up, to the dismay of subordinates at the scene. Reluctant to obey, Hooker stayed put, neither attacking nor retreating, and the battlefield went temporarily quiet.
McClellan rode up to the front two and a half hours later, inspected the lines, and ordered Hooker and Kearny to resume the assault. The Federals were reinforced by a brigade from the Second Corps and an artillery battery. Fighting occurred at several points, including Oak Grove, King’s School House, French’s Field, and the Orchard.
Charges and countercharges took place on the Williamsburg road until the Federal guns and reinforced infantry pushed the Confederates back to their main defenses. As night came, both the fighting and the rain gradually stopped. The Federals could not penetrate the Confederate line, but McClellan was pleased that they moved about 600 yards closer to Richmond. The Federals suffered 516 casualties (51 killed, 401 wounded, and 64 missing), and the Confederates lost 316 (40 killed, 263 wounded, and 13 missing).
Lee determined that this engagement did not expose his plan to attack McClellan’s right the next day, so that operation remained intact. The main Confederate attack force under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson continued moving into positions. Receiving news of Jackson’s impending arrival, McClellan suspended another scheduled attack and ordered his right wing, consisting of Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, to slow Jackson’s forces.
As the fighting died down, McClellan informed Washington that “we have gained our point fully and with but little loss,” and added, “It will be a very important advantage gained.” But things changed around 5:30 p.m., when McClellan received a message from Porter. The message contained a warning from a contraband that “a large portion” of General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of Mississippi “arrived yesterday and that the army expected to fight today or tomorrow and fight all around… He saw the troops arrive and heard the cheering welcome to them. They say we have one hundred thousand (100,000) men and they two hundred thousand (200,000) and that Jackson is to attack in the rear.”
In reality, there was never any intention to bring the Army of Mississippi up to Richmond. And Lee had no more than 70,000 men against McClellan’s 130,000. Nevertheless, this unsubstantiated claim was enough to put McClellan into despair. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true; but this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack. I regret my great inferiority in numbers, but feel that I am in no way responsible for it, as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements; that this was the decisive point, and that all the available means of the Government should be concentrated here. I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers, can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action, which will probably occur tomorrow, or within a short time, is disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.
“Since I commenced this I have received additional intelligence confirming the supposition in regard to Jackson’s movements and Beauregard’s arrival. I shall probably be attacked tomorrow, and now go to the other (north) side of the Chickahominy to arrange for the defense on that side. I feel that there is no use in again asking for reinforcements.”
But this did not stop McClellan from hinting that reinforcements might give him the edge in another message sent to Stanton at 10:40 p.m.:
“The information I received on this side tends to confirm impressions that Jackson will soon attack our right and rear. Every possible precaution is being taken. If I had another good division I could laugh at Jackson. The task is difficult, but this army will do its best, and will never disgrace the country. Nothing but overwhelming forces can defeat us. Indications are of attack on our front tomorrow. Have made all possible arrangements.”
President Abraham Lincoln responded to McClellan’s messages early the next day: “Your three dispatches of yesterday in relation to the affair, ending with the statement that you completely succeeded in making your point, are very gratifying.” Lincoln went on:
“The later one of 6:15 p.m. suggesting the probability of your being overwhelmed by 200,000, and talking of where the responsibility will belong, pains me very much. I give you all I can, and act on the presumption that you will do the best you can with what you have, while you continue, ungenerously I think, to assume that I could give you more if I would. I have omitted and shall omit no opportunity to send you re-enforcements whenever I possibly can.”
The 600-yard advance to Oak Grove marked McClellan’s first (and last) tactical offensive against Richmond since the beginning of the Peninsula campaign. From this point forward, the initiative would permanently shift to Lee.
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