On the Virginia Peninsula, action that had taken place since June 25 now shifted to the south side of the Chickahominy River. On the morning of the 29th, troops of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac abandoned their fortifications around Golding’s Farm. This ended any chance McClellan may have had to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond.
By this time, McClellan had no thoughts about taking the offensive, as all his efforts were devoted to getting his army to safety on the James River. But he had not stopped blaming the Lincoln administration for his setbacks. He wrote to Major General John A. Dix, the Federal commander at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula: “I for one can never forgive the selfish men who have caused the lives of so many gallant men to be sacrificed.” He asked Dix to keep the message to himself, but “if I lose my life make such use of it as you deem best.”
Three of McClellan’s five corps concentrated near Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the Richmond & York Railroad. There they prepared to fend off General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia while the rest of the Federals made the difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp on their way to the James River. McClellan set up headquarters south of the swamp and put nobody in command of the operation; this may have been because Major General Edwin V. Sumner was the ranking officer on the scene, and McClellan distrusted his judgment. Federal morale dropped as a result.
Confederate pickets on the Nine Mile road found the Federal works deserted and informed Lee. Hoping to catch and destroy the Federal army before it reached the James, Lee quickly devised a complex strategy for an all-out pursuit:
- Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would move toward Glendale
- Major General John B. Magruder’s 11,000 Confederates would attack the Federal rear guard on the Williamsburg road paralleling the Richmond & York River Railroad
- Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would move toward Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad and link with Magruder’s left
- Major General Benjamin Huger’s division would move along the Darbytown road to Magruder’s right
Executing this plan depended mainly on Magruder, who had taken morphine for acute indigestion and was not fully coherent. His men began marching around 3:30 a.m. down both the Nine Mile and Williamsburg roads. Magruder expected Jackson to quickly cross Grapevine Bridge spanning the Chickahominy and come up on his left.
Combat opened around 9 a.m., with Magruder’s Confederates attacking two withdrawing Federal corps near Allen’s Farm. Federal cannon responded, killing Brigadier General Richard Griffith. Jackson was delayed once again, first by rebuilding Grapevine Bridge and then by a vague order from Lee directing him to stay where he was. Magruder mistakenly believed that Huger would support his right from the Charles City road, not the Darbytown road farther south. So he suspended hostilities and awaited the arrival of both Jackson and Huger. Lee responded by sending him two of Huger’s brigades as reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the three Federal corps held their ground while the other two continued withdrawing toward the James. A Federal officer recalled:
“Long trains of wagons were still coming from the woods in front and columns of troops in motion filled the fields in front of Savage’s. Amid cracking of whips and braying of mules, all were hurrying to ‘the swamp road.’… Generals Heintzelman, Sumner, Sedgwick, Franklin, and their staff officers were consulting and giving orders. All were taking the situation coolly. No excitement showed itself on their faces, though all were more or less anxious.”
Near 5 p.m., Magruder launched a general assault that featured the first armored railroad battery ever used in warfare. This was designed to stop McClellan from using the railroad to bring up siege artillery, and Confederates nicknamed it the “Land Merrimack,” after the ironclad warship of the same name (also known as the C.S.S. Virginia).
Magruder directed his men to “attack the enemy in whatever force or works he might be found.” This vague order resulted in the general assault breaking down. He also committed only two and a half of his six brigades, making the attack ineffective. However, Sumner could not overwhelm the attackers because he only deployed 10 of his 26 regiments. The arrival of night and thunderstorms ended the fighting in stalemate.
Sumner believed that he had victory within his grasp when a courier delivered an order from McClellan to withdraw with the rest of the army. He protested, “I never leave a victorious field–why, if I had 20,000 more men I could crush this rebellion.” A messenger was sent to appeal to McClellan to change the order.
Word came back reiterating the order, with the addendum, “If he (Sumner) fails to comply with the order you will place him in close arrest and give the necessary orders to Genl Richardson & Sedgwick and tell them that the orders must be complied with at once.” Sumner sadly told his staff, “Gentlemen, you hear the orders; we have nothing to do but obey.” “General McClellan did not know all the circumstances when he wrote that note,” Sumner insisted. “He did not know that we would fight a battle and gain a victory.”
Sumner ordered the withdrawal, and at 10 p.m., he abandoned the Federal field hospitals in accordance with McClellan’s order to leave anyone behind who could not walk. Around this time, Colonel W.W. Averell of the Federal cavalry reported to McClellan that the roads to Richmond were cleared of Confederates, and the Federals could march into the city with ease. But Lee was quickly bringing his men up to chase the Federals down. McClellan told Averell, “If any army can save this country it will be the Army of the Potomac, and it must be saved for that purpose.”
Jackson’s Confederates finally crossed the Chickahominy around 2:30 on the morning of the 30th, too late to help Magruder. Lee admonished Magruder: “I regret much that you have made so little progress today in the pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory that pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no more time or he will escape us entirely.”
Lee also explained to Magruder that Jackson was not supposed to stay where he was, but was supposed to support Magruder’s left: “Since the order was written, I learn… that you are under the impression that General Jackson has been ordered not to support you. On the contrary, he has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.” But in reality, the failures were due to Lee’s poor communications and Jackson’s inability once again to get into the action when needed. Jackson visited Magruder’s headquarters around midnight and assured him that his forces would be up and ready for action in the morning.
Each side suffered about 1,500 casualties. The Federals also lost 2,500 of their sick and wounded by abandoning their hospitals, along with medical personnel and supplies. Federals withdrawing from around White House Landing were covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Marblehead and Chocura on the Pamunkey River. Federal supply transports escorted by gunboats also began arriving at Harrison’s Landing on the James.
A correspondent for the New York Tribune compared the Federal withdrawal to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow and wrote of “this herd of men and mules, wagons and wounded, men on horse, men on foot, men by the roadside, men perched on wagons, men searching for water, men famished for food, men lame and bleeding, men with ghostly eyes, looking out between bloody bandages…”
At Washington, President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton tried to put a positive light on this turn of events. They studied the maps and believed that McClellan still had a good chance to regroup, counterattack, and capture Richmond. Lincoln said, “I think we have had the better of it,” while Stanton predicted that the Federals “will probably be in Richmond within two days.”
Lee had other ideas. He may have failed to stop the Federal army from crossing White Oak Swamp, but he planned to concentrate his forces for another attack the next day.
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