For Major General George B. McClellan, June 28 was to be spent withdrawing his Federal Army of the Potomac and its supply base to the James River, on the south side of the Virginia Peninsula. The previous day, only one of his five army corps had fought the bulk of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, but rather than bring his other four corps up to face the numerically inferior Confederates, he decided to pull back.
McClellan did this because he believed that the Confederates had more men than they truly did, and he blamed the Lincoln administration for his defeat on the 27th because it had failed to heed his repeated calls to send him more men. Shortly after midnight on the 28th, McClellan sent Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton one of the most remarkable telegrams in American military history:
“I now know the full history of this day. I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this, and I say it with the earnestness of a general who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed to-day. I still hope to retrieve our fortunes, but to do this, the government must view the matter in the same earnest light that I do. You must send me very large reinforcements, and send them at once. I shall draw back to this (south) side of the Chickahominy, and I think I can withdraw all our material.
“I only wish to say to the President, that I think he is wrong in regarding me as ungenerous, when I said that my force was too weak. I merely reiterated a truth, which to-day has been too plainly proved. If, at this instant, I could dispose of 10,000 fresh men, I could gain a victory tomorrow. I know that a few thousand more men would have changed this battle from a defeat to a victory. As it is, the Government must not and cannot hold me responsible for the result. I feel too earnestly tonight. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost.
“If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
When this message reached the War Department in Washington, the chief censor of the Military Telegraph Service, Colonel Edward S. Sanford, considered the last two sentences so treasonous and insubordinate that he directed his staff to delete them before sending the edited message to Stanton and then to President Abraham Lincoln. The sentences were not published until the following year.
Later that day, Lincoln replied to what he saw of McClellan’s message: “Save your Army at all events. Will send re-enforcements as fast as we can. Of course they cannot reach you today, tomorrow, or next day… If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington… It is the nature of the case, and neither you nor the Government are to blame.” Lincoln wired Major General John A. Dix, commanding at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula, to communicate with McClellan to get a clearer picture of what was happening.
Stanton contacted Major General Ambrose Burnside, commanding Federal occupation forces on the North Carolina coast, to send as many troops as he could to bolster McClellan’s army. Major General Henry W. Halleck at Corinth, Mississippi, was told to send 25,000 troops “by the nearest and quickest route by way of Baltimore and Washington to Richmond… a serious reverse suffered by General McClellan before Richmond yesterday, the full extent of which is not known.”
By 4 a.m., Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, which had borne the brunt of the last two days’ fighting, had crossed to the south side of the Chickahominy River, and McClellan was pulling his army south toward the James River. He directed his commanders to issue three days’ rations to their men and send all their wagons to Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad.
McClellan further directed that “all tents and all articles not indispensable to the safety or the maintenance of the troops must be abandoned and destroyed,” and “the sick and wounded that are not able to walk must necessarily be left.” Subordinates pleaded with McClellan to revoke this order because it would tell the men “that they were a defeated army, running for their lives.” McClellan agreed, but enough copies of the order got circulated for many Federals to go through with the destruction anyway. Two corps withdrew, and the other three guarded the western flank against a Confederate attack.
As the Federals conducted their retreat, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, learned that they had abandoned their positions north of the Chickahominy River and destroyed the bridges. Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Jeb Stuart arrived at White House Landing, the former Federal supply depot on the York River, and found it evacuated. Federals burned the historic home of Martha Custis, wife of George Washington and now owned by Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
McClellan’s withdrawal after one major battle astonished Lee, who determined that the Federals must be concentrating south of the Chickahominy. Federals covered the approaches to the burned bridges with massed artillery, and Federal naval vessels at Fort Monroe began moving up the James to link with McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. Meanwhile, Lee prepared for another battle.
Fighting resumed from the previous day near the Golding farm, as Confederates under Major General John B. Magruder advanced on the presumption that the Federals were withdrawing. However, the Federals made a stand and drove the Confederates back. The Confederates lost 438 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Federals lost 189. This made up the most of the hostilities on the 28th, making this the least hazardous day since fighting started on the 25th.
By this evening, Lee was poised to attack the concentrated Federal force south of the Chickahominy. However, he did not secure the road to Turkey Island Bridge, which McClellan used to withdraw his troops (Lee may have been able to destroy the Federals had he blocked that road). McClellan met with his commanders and informed them that since he believed an attack on Richmond would destroy the Federal army, he would retreat to Harrison’s Landing. He set up headquarters at Savage’s Station on the railroad. With the Confederate capital now out of imminent danger, Lee again resolved to resume the offensive the next day.
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