The fight at Malvern Hill on July 1 ended the Seven Days’ Battles on the Virginia Peninsula. Following this, a torrential rain fell as Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac completed its withdrawal to the James River. Colonel William W. Averell, leading the last Federal cavalry unit on Malvern Hill, observed the Confederate dead and wounded at the base of the hill and wrote, “A third of them were dead or dying, but enough of them were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.”
The new Federal base would be eight miles from Malvern Hill at Harrison’s Landing, a wharf on the three-mile-wide Berkeley Plantation, birthplace of 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison. Naval Commander John Rodgers had chosen this site for the army because it was the closest point to Richmond where the troops could be easily supplied by water. Also, Rodgers’s gunboats could protect the army’s flanks, both of which were anchored on creeks.
McClellan set up headquarters near the Berkeley estate. Of his men, he wrote his wife Ellen that “they began to cheer as usual, and called out that they were all right and would fall to the last man for ‘Little Mac.’” Of the past week, he wrote, “You can’t tell how nervous I became; everything seemed like the opening of artillery, and I had no rest, no peace, except when in front with my men. The duties of my position are such as often to make it necessary for me to remain in the rear. It is an awful thing.”
The continuous retreat of the past week had demoralized the Federal army. A newspaper reporter noted that the men seemed “more dead than alive.” The Berkeley house and grounds had been commandeered as a field hospital, and as such had become “a gruesome place.”
Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had set up headquarters on Poindexter farm and began pondering his next move. Nearly every day of the Seven Days’ Battles had been a failure for him, but thanks to McClellan’s unwillingness to fight, they achieved Lee’s initial goal of driving the Federals away from Richmond. But Lee did not achieve his ultimate goal of destroying the Federal army.
Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who had been uncharacteristically sluggish throughout the week, urged Lee to attack again, believing the Federals to be so demoralized that one more assault might finally destroy them. But the rain had turned the roads to mud, and Lee was not yet sure exactly where the Federals went.
President Jefferson Davis and his brother, Colonel Joseph Davis, visited Lee’s headquarters to offer encouragement and suggestions. Jackson was still there, and when Davis asked his opinion on what should be done, Jackson replied, “They have not all got away if you go immediately after them.” But Davis ultimately sided with Lee that the rain was too heavy and the men too exhausted to continue fighting.
Lee dispatched Brigadier General James E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry to find and pursue the Federal army. Lee also directed a portion of his army to move farther down the Peninsula to guard against any Federal counterattack, and he sent Major General Theophilus H. Holmes’s division to Drewry’s Bluff to stop any Federal effort to cross the James River and join the Federals in North Carolina.
Throughout July 2, both Federals and Confederates buried the dead. Brigadier General Jubal Early, whose Confederates had just arrived to reinforce Lee the night before, reported, “The parties from both armies, in search of the dead and wounded, gradually approached each other, and continued their mournful work without molestation on either side, being apparently appalled, for the moment, into a cessation from all hostile purposes, by the terrible spectacle presented to their view.”
In the Seven Days’ Battles, the Confederates sustained a horrific 20,204 casualties (3,494 killed, 15,758 wounded, and 952 missing), or nearly 25 percent of the army’s total. The division of Major General James Longstreet lost 40 percent of its strength. The Federals, who had won almost every battle but retreated after each one, lost 15,853 (1,734 killed, 8,066 wounded, and 6,053 missing). Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps sustained over half those casualties.
Southerners hailed Lee as a national hero who saved the Confederate capital from Federal conquest. According to the Richmond Dispatch, “No captain that ever lived could have planned or executed a better plan.” Davis issued a proclamation of thanksgiving for driving the Federals away. However, some criticized Lee’s heavy losses and loose management style, and Lee himself expressed great disappointment over missing so many opportunities to destroy McClellan’s army. He confided to his wife, “Our success has not been as great as I could have desired.”
Several reasons contributed to Lee’s failure to destroy the Federals, including a lack of adequate maps, the failure of subordinates to carry out his orders, and poor employment of his artillery and cavalry. However, he still drove McClellan off due to superior strategy, his troops’ willingness to sustain heavy losses to achieve their mission, and McClellan’s refusal to counterattack with his superior numbers.
The next morning, the rain stopped and Stuart resumed his pursuit of the retreating Federals. As he began probing for a weakness in the defenses, Stuart reported that most of the enemy had already reached Harrison’s Landing. Stuart also refuted rumors that McClellan was planning to cross the James. Meanwhile, wounded Confederates continued pouring into Richmond.
The Federals quickly set to work obstructing the roads and building defenses in case of attack. They were unaware that the main roads were too muddy for Lee to use and therefore had no plans to do so. Nevertheless, McClellan wrote his wife, “I am ready for an attack now–give me 24 hours even & will defy all Secessia…”
In the North, newspapers began publishing reports of McClellan’s “Great Skedaddle,” which dealt a blow to morale and brought intense criticism upon both McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln. McClellan reported, “It is of course impossible to estimate as yet our losses, but I doubt whether there are to-day more than 50,000 men with their colors.” In reality, McClellan probably had about 90,000 effectives.
Lincoln issued a strong response to McClellan’s wire asking for 50,000 more men. The president explained that since there were no more than 75,000 men in the entire theater east of the Alleghenies:
“… The idea of sending you fifty thousand, or any other considerable force promptly, is simply absurd. If in your frequent mention of responsibility you have the impression that I blame you for not doing more than you can, please be relieved of such impression. I only beg that in like manner you will not ask impossibilities of me. If you think you are not strong enough to take Richmond just now, I do not ask you to try just now. Save the Army, material and personal; and I will strengthen you for the offensive again, as fast as I can. The Governors of 18 states offer me a new levy of three hundred thousand, which I accept.”
On the same day that Lincoln called 50,000 reinforcements an impossibility, McClellan’s chief of staff Randolph Marcy delivered a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton doubling that number: “To accomplish the great task of capturing Richmond & putting an end to this rebellion reinforcements should be sent to me rather much over than much less than 100,000 men.” McClellan asked his superiors to “be fully impressed by the magnitude of the crisis in which we are placed.”
Marcy explained that the troops were exhausted, “but I assured him they were not disheartened or demoralized in the least.” But if not reinforced, the army ran the risk of “being attacked by an overwhelming force, our communications cut off, and a series of battles fought in which we should be defeated, that we might be forced to capitulate.” This panicked Stanton enough to bring Marcy before Lincoln, who told him, “General, I understand you have used the word ‘capitulate’–that is a word not to be used in connection with our army.” Marcy said that it was just meant to show a worst-case scenario that had very little chance of happening.
Once this meeting ended, Lincoln received yet another plea from McClellan: “The enemy may attack in vast numbers and if so, our front will be the scene of a desperate battle which if lost will be decisive.”
Lincoln quickly looked for opportunities to transfer troops from other commands to McClellan, especially in the Carolinas. Perhaps more importantly, Lincoln decided that it was time to go to the Peninsula and see the situation for himself.
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