General Robert E. Lee had set June 26 as the date for his all-out assault on the right wing of the Federal Army of the Potomac. This wing was held by the 28,000 men of Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, and it was positioned north of the Chickahominy River. The remaining 100,000 men of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal army were stationed south of the river. Lee looked to hurl 56,000 of his 70,000 men against Porter’s isolated command. According to his plan:
- Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates would lead the attack on Porter. Jackson would turn his right flank and sweep into his rear while the Confederate divisions of Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill would cross the Chickahominy and clear the Federals out of Mechanicsville.
- Hill and Jackson would then join to and capture the Federal supply depot at White House Landing.
- Confederates under Major Generals John B. Magruder and Benjamin Huger would demonstrate against the Federal left south of the river and guard Richmond. The Confederates north of the river would push the Federals south until they linked with Magruder and Huger.
A correspondent from the Richmond Dispatch got wind of Lee’s plan and wrote, “It is generally expected that operations of great moment will take place today.” Residents gathered on the hills outside the town, hoping to get a glimpse of the Confederate army driving off the Federal invaders.
Lee wrote specific instructions for Jackson, which may have been too detailed to be fully understood. Jackson’s assault was supposed to begin at 3 a.m., but he did not move forward to attack until 9 due to logistics problems and Federal artillery fire. The other Confederate divisions under Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill needed Jackson to start before they could go into action, so they waited nearly 12 hours outside Richmond for the battle to begin.
Meanwhile, McClellan remained at his headquarters at the Trent House, south of the Chickahominy. He made one more appeal to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to send him more men: “There is no doubt in my mind now that Jackson is coming upon us, and with such great odds against us we shall have our hands full. No time should be lost if I am to have any more reinforcements.” Around noon, McClellan assured Stanton that even if reports came in that his army was being defeated, he should “not be discouraged… I shall resort to desperate measures & will do my best to out manoeuvre & outwit & outfight the enemy.”
A.P. Hill finally ran out of patience and led his Confederates forward at 3 p.m. They crossed the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and advanced through heavy artillery fire, driving the heavily entrenched enemy through Mechanicsville. But Porter extended his right and fell back to strong positions about a mile east, behind Ellerson’s Mill and Beaver Dam Creek, which emptied into the Chickahominy. The Confederates waiting behind the lines sprang into action when they finally heard the sound of battle to their northeast, unaware that it was Hill’s men and not Jackson’s who had initiated the fight.
Porter’s Federals were heavily entrenched, and McClellan was confident that they could hold their ground. He wrote his wife Ellen around 4:30 p.m., “I think the enemy are making a great mistake, if so they will be terribly punished… I believe we will surely win & that the enemy is falling into a trap. I shall allow the enemy to cut off our communications in order to ensure success.” McClellan told Stanton that “my men are behaving superbly, but you must not expect them to contest too long against great odds.” McClellan observed the fighting and left the tactical decisions to Porter, who readied his troops for an assault of their own.
President Jefferson Davis and a small party observed the fighting from a nearby hill, well within range of Federal cannon. When Lee noticed them there, he rode up and asked Davis to confirm that Lee was in command of this battle. Davis did so, prompting Lee to respond, “Then I forbid you to stand here under the enemy’s guns. Any exposure of a life like yours is wrong. And this is useless exposure. You must go back.” Davis backed up, but not far enough to stay out of harm’s way.
Expecting Jackson to come up on his left, Hill reformed his ranks and advanced against Brigadier General George McCall’s division of Porter’s corps around 5 p.m. With Jackson still not in place, Hill launched a frontal attack across an open field, sending his men through swamps and creeks up to the Federal entrenchments. As the Confederates advanced, 36 Federal cannon fired into them.
Lee, finally realizing that Hill was fighting alone, sent in reinforcements from D.H. Hill, but the Federals repulsed these attacks and inflicted severe losses. The bulk of Jackson’s force finally arrived, but when Jackson could not find A.P. Hill, he ordered his men to bivouac for the night about three miles northeast of Mechanicsville. Jackson, who was on the brink of exhaustion due to sleep deprivation, had no communication with Lee or the other commanders.
The major fighting ended around 9 p.m., with intermittent fire continuing. McClellan wired Stanton: “The firing has nearly ceased… Victory of today complete and against great odds. I almost begin to think we are invincible.” McClellan also wrote his wife, “We have again whipped the Secesh. Stonewall Jackson is the victim this time.” Apparently McClellan was unaware that Jackson, his former West Point classmate, did not take part in the action.
The Federals suffered 361 total casualties in the fight, while Confederates lost 1,484. Lee’s attack was a failure, partly due to Jackson’s uncharacteristic tardiness. Only one-fourth of Lee’s army (roughly 14,000 men) had been engaged, and 10 percent of them were lost in attacking Porter frontally rather than on his flank. Lee also fell far short of his goal to link with the Confederates south of the Chickahominy. While he drove the Federals out of Mechanicsville, Lee lost the element of surprise and gave McClellan the option to either reinforce his right or attack with his left.
McClellan chose neither. Despite Lee’s failure, Jackson was now north of Porter’s right flank, and as Porter wrote, it was time “to select which side of the Chickahominy should be held in force…” McClellan had been withdrawing Porter’s supplies all day to protect them from Jackson’s impending attack and to better concentrate the Federal army south of the Chickahominy. Also, the demonstrations by Magruder and Huger, the sight of Confederate observation balloons on the Federal left, and Pinkerton’s inflated estimate of enemy strength convinced McClellan that he was hopelessly outnumbered, despite urgings from subordinates to attack with the bulk of his army on the left. According to Porter:
“McClellan left me after 12 o’clock that night to decide, after returning to his head-quarters, whether I should remain at Beaver Dam & be reinforced or move as quick as possible to the selected position at Gaines’ Mill where I would be reinforced from the right bank, or he would attack Richmond and I resist Lee’s attack even to my destruction, & thereby to prevent Lee going to the defense of Richmond.”
McClellan chose to move Porter to positions around Gaines’ Mill and Boatswain’s Swamp. Because this would cut the Federals off from their supply base at White House Landing on the York River, McClellan arranged with the navy to transfer the base to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. This was a fateful decision because there were no railroads near this new base to transport McClellan’s heavy artillery. This meant he could not lay siege to Richmond as originally planned.
This was an inauspicious start to Lee’s combat career as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. But while he had tactically lost this fight, McClellan still retreated and lost the initiative on the Peninsula. Thus, Lee gained a psychological edge over McClellan that he would never relinquish.
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