As June 30 began, Major General George B. McClellan was still in the process of withdrawing his Federal Army of the Potomac southward across the Virginia Peninsula. His goal was to position his troops near his new supply base at Harrison’s Landing, where they would be under the protection of Federal gunboats on the James River. To get there, McClellan needed to hold off the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for one more day.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, had hoped to catch the Federals as they crossed White Oak Swamp, but that opportunity was missed. Nevertheless, Lee still believed that a massive thrust by the bulk of his troops could capture or destroy McClellan’s army before it reached the James. He therefore developed another complex plan of attack:
- Major General Benjamin Huger would start the fight by leading 12,000 men in a direct southeastern advance on Glendale, a town at the important crossroads of the Charles City, Long Bridge, and Quaker roads.
- Another 45,000 Confederates under Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would advance eastward, to Huger’s right, on parallel roads toward Glendale
- 25,000 Confederates under Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and D.H. Hill (now under Jackson’s command) would move south, on Huger’s left, through White Oak Swamp to catch the Federals in a pincer by attacking the Federal right flank and rear
The Federal army was spread out over 10 miles, from White Oak Swamp on the north to Malvern Hill on the south. The Federals had crossed the swamp by 10 a.m. on the 30th, with about a third of the army reaching the James. Those units still on their way to the James would have to pass through Glendale, which meant that the Federals had to hold this town at all costs. This was also where Lee hoped to cut them in half.
Just like previous days, the Confederate assault was delayed. Jackson’s troops were stopped at Savage’s Station by Federal stragglers and discarded supplies. The hungry Confederates spent several hours rounding up prisoners and collecting all the food, uniforms, blankets, weapons, and ammunition they could carry. They resumed their southward march near mid-morning.
Around noon, Jackson’s men reached the edge of White Oak Swamp and found the bridge there burned. They traded artillery fire with retreating Federals of the Sixth Corps while they tried to build a new bridge. Federal gunners finally drove the Confederates off. Brigadier General Wade Hampton informed Jackson that a bridge could be built further west, out of Federal gun range, but instead of ordering it be done, Jackson went under a tree and fell asleep.
Meanwhile, McClellan met with the commanders of the three corps holding Glendale (Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes) and then, as he did the previous day, left the scene to oversee operations on the James. He left no one in overall command, so the men would have to fend for themselves. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen that he was exhausted, adding, “We have been fighting for many days & are still at it. I still hope to save the army.”
At the James, McClellan went aboard the U.S.S. Galena, where a staff officer noted, “Never did I see a man more cut down than Genl. McClellan was when I visited him on board Com. Rodgers’ vessel… He was unable to do anything or say anything.” McClellan later met with Commander John Rodgers to discuss gunboat protection for the army.
Back on the field, Huger advanced on the Charles City road and deployed a brigade to guard against an attack from the north while discovering that the retreating Federals had obstructed the road. The Confederates were delayed several hours while forming a new road through the woods. Huger then decided that it was too late to attack, so he kept his troops back while exchanging artillery fire with the enemy.
Lee, with Longstreet’s men at the intersection of the Darbytown and Long Bridge roads, heard the cannons and, thinking the battle had begun, sent two divisions into action. Separated by a swamp and dense woods, Longstreet could not tell whether Huger was advancing on his left. Longstreet deployed his men to attack, but Lee ordered him to wait until Jackson came up.
Learning that the Federal army was assembling in disarray at Malvern Hill, Lee called on his two southernmost divisions under Major Generals Theophilus H. Holmes and John B. Magruder to attack, which would prevent the Federals from sending reinforcements to hold off Longstreet. Holmes and Magruder attacked the Federal left at Turkey Bridge and Malvern Hill.
Lee then ordered Longstreet to attack. Longstreet sent six brigades in two rows against a stronger Federal force in the process of retreating near Glendale. The Federal defense line consisted of all or parts of divisions and brigades under Generals George A. McCall, George G. Meade, Joseph Hooker, Philip Kearny, and John Sedgwick. Part of the fight took place in a pine grove known as Frayser’s Farm, which gave the battle one of its many names. The Confederate assaults were poorly coordinated:
- Huger withdrew most of his troops to prepare for a counterattack that never came.
- Lee ordered Magruder to pull out of the attack on the Federal left and help Longstreet, so Magruder’s men spent most of the day marching. This weakened Holmes, whose attack was checked by Federal gunboats on the James.
- Jackson accomplished little at White Oak Swamp, as Federals prevented him from linking with the rest of the Confederate army.
- There was a general lack of communication between Lee and his commanders, causing confusion among the ranks.
Around 4 p.m., some 20,000 Confederates under Longstreet and A.P. Hill assaulted 40,000 Federal defenders near Willis Methodist Church, where brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Confederates routed McCall’s division and even captured McCall himself. However, stiff Federal resistance led by Hooker and Kearny stabilized the defenses. Federal artillery also tore holes into the Confederate attack lines.
Longstreet committed nearly every brigade in his command, while the Federals threw reinforcements into the fight piecemeal. Around 8:30 p.m., Confederates captured the Federal cannon, but within an hour more Federal artillery was brought up to drive the Confederates back. Jackson’s inactivity at White Oak Swamp enabled Federals from that sector to be transferred to bolster defenses at Glendale and repel the main Confederate attack.
The fight ended inconclusively, as Lee failed to stop the Federals from withdrawing down the Quaker road to Malvern Hill. Only one of Lee’s four attacks–that of Longstreet and Hill–actually happened as planned. Jackson was ineffective for the fourth consecutive day, and two-thirds of the Confederate army did not join the main fight. This became one of the Confederacy’s greatest lost opportunities. Lieutenant Colonel E. Porter Alexander later wrote that there were only a few times in which the army was “within reach of military success so great that we might have hoped to end the war with our independence… This chance of June 30th ’62 impresses me as the best of all.”
On the Federal side, some accused McClellan of dereliction of duty for staying aboard the Galena and not taking part in any of the fighting or exercising any type of overall command. His army fended off another Confederate attack, but without orders, the troops just assumed that they should continue retreating and did so. They were unaware that McClellan had informed Washington that he intended to make a stand at Glendale. When McClellan learned that the Federals had abandoned the town, he simply reported, “I have taken steps to adopt a new line.”
McClellan’s line of retreat remained secure, but his repeated withdrawals clearly indicated that he was defeated and the Federals would no longer threaten the Confederate capital of Richmond. Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps established defenses at Malvern Hill, five miles in front of Harrison’s Landing. Three other corps formed in that area during the night. Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps and the enormous Federal supply train arrived safely at Harrison’s Landing, protected by gunboats on the James.
The Confederates sustained 3,673 casualties (638 killed, 2,814 wounded, and 221 missing). Three generals were among the wounded, and over 25 percent of Longstreet’s division sustained casualties. The Federals lost 3,797 (297 killed, 1,696 wounded, and 1,804 missing or captured). Generals Meade and Sumner were among the wounded, and those captured included McCall.
Few details on this battle reached Washington, which President Abraham Lincoln took to mean that things were going well. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton informed Major General John Wool at Baltimore that the Federal “position is favorable and looks more like taking Richmond than any time before.” He then told Major General Henry W. Halleck, who was in the process of sending 25,000 men from Mississippi, to cancel the transfer. But this changed when McClellan, having no firsthand knowledge of the day’s events, wired at 7 p.m.:
“Another day of desperate fighting. We are hard pressed by superior numbers. I fear I shall be forced to abandon my material to save my men under cover of the gunboats. You must send us very large re-enforcements by way of Fort Monroe, and they must come very promptly. My army has behaved superbly, and have done all that men can do. If none of us escape, we shall at least have done honor to the country. I shall do my best to save the army. Send more gunboats.”
Lincoln confided in a letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward, “The loss of enemies does not compensate for the loss of friends.”
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