The Seven Days’ Battles: Gaines’s Mill

As June 27 dawned, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac remained divided by the Chickahominy River on the Virginia Peninsula east of Richmond. Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps was north of the river, while the rest of the army was south. For General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, the situation was nearly opposite: the bulk of the force was north of the Chickahominy with just a token force guarding the roads to Richmond to the south.

Gen Fitz John Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Porter complied with McClellan’s order to withdraw from Beaver Dam Creek. He set up a semicircular defensive line behind Boatswain’s Swamp, southeast of Gaines’s Mill. Artillery covered all Confederate approaches. Pursuing Confederates took several prisoners in the Federals’ rear guard as they fell back to this new line. McClellan ordered Porter to hold his position at all costs while the Federals transferred their supply base from White House to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “This change of position was beautifully executed under a sharp fire, with but little loss. The troops on the other side are now well in hand, and the whole army so concentrated that it can take advantage of the first mistake made by the enemy… Success of yesterday complete.”

Having failed to turn Porter’s right (northern) flank the previous day, Lee resolved to attack again, this time with 57,000 men, or four times the size of yesterday’s attacking force. The plan once again called for Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to attack the Federal right flank, supported by Major General D.H. Hill’s division. Meanwhile, Major General A.P. Hill’s Confederates would assault the center. A.P. Hill opened the fighting at 12 p.m. by once again attacking before Jackson’s men could get into place.

McClellan reported that heavy fighting had begun north of the Chickahominy, with an assault expected south of the river as well. He added, “If I am forced to concentrate between the Chickahominy and the James I will at once endeavor to open communication with you…”

Gen A.P. Hill | Image Credit:

The battle intensified when A.P. Hill’s men attacked the Federals behind Boatswain’s Creek around 2 p.m. These attacks were repulsed, with Hill losing 2,000 of his 13,200 men. Confederates on the other side of the Chickahominy could see the action less than two miles away, but an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented them from hearing it.

After repelling Hill, the Federals also fought off a diversionary attack by Major General James Longstreet’s division. According to Longstreet, Porter’s “guns had become so foul from steady protracted fire that his men had difficulty in ramming their cartridges to the gun-chambers, and that in some instances it could only be accomplished by putting the rammers against trees and hammering them down.”

Like the day before, A.P. Hill expected Jackson to come up on his left, but Jackson had taken the wrong road and had to countermarch, once again putting him several hours behind schedule. D.H. Hill, on the extreme Confederate left, expected to move around the Federal right but was unexpectedly stopped by Brigadier General George Sykes’s division; Hill and Sykes had been West Point roommates. The men fighting in that sector got bogged down in Boatswain’s Swamp and lost all semblance of formation.

Porter notified McClellan at headquarters around 4 p.m. that the situation was “most satisfactory… Our men have behaved nobly and driven back the enemy many times, cheering them as they retired.” But then Jackson’s advance units finally came up, and now men from the divisions of Jackson, Longstreet, and both Hills were in the fray. Porter wrote an hour later, “I am pressed hard, very hard. About every Regiment I have has been in action… I am afraid I shall be driven from my position” if McClellan did not send help.

Although he had plenty of troops south of the Chickahominy to send to Porter, McClellan was busy transferring his supply base to the James. He told Porter, “Hold your own… You must beat them if I move the whole Army to do it & transfer all on this side.”

South of the Chickahominy, the bulk of the Federal army faced just 20,000 Confederates under Major General John B. Magruder. Magruder resorted to the same theatrics that had kept the Federals from attacking him at Yorktown: moving men in and out of clearings and sporadically firing into the Federal lines to make his force appear much larger. McClellan, having been erroneously informed that he was facing 200,000 men, chose not to risk a breakthrough in this sector and instead continued withdrawing his entire army toward the James.

North of the river, the combined Confederate forces launched several piecemeal assaults that resulted in heavy losses. After the bulk of Jackson’s forces finally arrived, Lee concentrated the men for a massive three-mile-wide assault at 7 p.m. The Federals numbered some 34,000, but most were exhausted and isolated from each other. Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade, supported by Colonel Evander Law’s brigade, pierced the Federal center at Turkey Hill as the sun began setting. A battalion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry and part of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry countercharged but failed to close the gap and was forced to surrender.

During the decisive fighting on Turkey Hill, McClellan was more concerned about a diversionary attack on a Federal brigade south of the Chickahominy. This was the only show of aggression made by Magruder that day, but it was enough to convince McClellan that the Confederates had overwhelming forces bearing down on him on both sides of the river. He telegraphed the War Department, still requesting reinforcements and command consolidation: “I will beg that you put some one general in command of the Shenandoah and of all troops in front of Washington for the sake of the country. Secure unity of action and bring the best men forward.”

Porter’s Federals conducted an orderly retreat, holding off the advancing Confederates with artillery and some brigades from the Second Corps that had finally come up in support. Despite another poorly coordinated attack, Lee won his first victory. He broke the Federal line, but he had sustained so many casualties that he could not exploit the breach. The Confederates lost 8,751 men in six hours, or almost the same number of Confederates lost in two days at Shiloh. These losses included many valuable officers. The Federals lost 6,837 (894 killed, 3,107 wounded, and 2,836 missing or captured). This would be the bloodiest single day of the Peninsula campaign.

Lieutenant Colonel E. Porter Alexander, artillery chief under Longstreet, wrote, “Had Jackson attacked when he first arrived, or during A.P. Hill’s attack, we would have had an easy victory–comparatively, & would have captured most of Porter’s command.” Nevertheless, driving the Federals to the south side of the Chickahominy represented a crucial victory for Lee. He telegraphed President Jefferson Davis, “Profoundly grateful to Almighty God,” the Army of Northern Virginia had won its first victory, taking 22 guns and over 2,000 prisoners with a clear road eastward to the Federal supply base at White House. Lee closed, “We sleep on the field, and shall renew the contest in the morning.”

Meanwhile, McClellan wired the War Department at 8 p.m., before he even learned of the battle’s result:

“Have had a terrible contest. Attacked by greatly superior numbers in all directions on this side; we still hold our own, though a very heavy fire is kept up on the left bank of the Chickahominy. The odds have been immense. We hold our own very nearly. I may be forced to give up my position during the night, but will not if it is possible to avoid it. Had I 20,000 fresh and good troops we would be sure of a splendid victory tomorrow.”

McClellan then notified Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the Federal naval fleet patrolling the James and Virginia coast, “We have met a severe repulse today, having been attacked by greatly superior numbers, and I am obliged to fall back between the Chickahominy and the James River. I look to you to give me all the support you can in covering my flank as well as in giving protection to my supplies afloat in the James River.”

Even though only one of his five army corps had been heavily engaged in any of the fighting on June 26 and 27, and even though Federals had repelled the diversionary attacks south of the Chickahominy at Garnett’s Hill and Golding’s Farm, McClellan decided that he could not defeat Lee’s smaller army.

At 11 p.m., McClellan held a council of war with all his corps commanders (except Major General Erasmus Keyes, who was coordinating the Federal withdrawal). He initially said that he was considering making a final stand north of the Chickahominy, but the commanders agreed that it was not worth the risk. Thus, McClellan got his subordinates to agree to what he had decided upon all along: a withdrawal to the James. Keyes’s Fourth Corps was to move west of Glendale to cover the retreat while Porter withdrew to the high ground at Malvern Hill.

Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, heading the Third Corps, returned to his command and was met by Brigadier Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny, two of his division commanders. They asserted that the Confederate line south of the Chickahominy could be easily broken and convinced Heintzelman to take them to argue that point to McClellan.

But McClellan would have none of it. A witness to the meeting said that Kearny criticized McClellan’s decision “in language so strong that all who heard it expected he would be placed under arrest until a general court martial could be held, or at least he would be relieved of his command.” McClellan took no action against Kearny, who later said, “That battle should have been won. It was lost by imbecility.”

In the North, McClellan supporters applauded the “change of base,” calling it a strategic withdrawal and not a retreat. Others, including many Lincoln administration officials, called it a “great skedaddle.” At any rate, the Federal move away from Richmond ended any hope of McClellan launching an offensive on the Peninsula. It also relieved the Confederate capital of imminent danger, which had been one of Lee’s objectives when planning the offensive.

Learning that McClellan planned to move to the James, Lee now set his sights on his other objective–destroying McClellan’s army.


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