Tag Archives: Peninsula Campaign

The Seven Days Battles: Malvern Hill

July 1, 1862 – The last of a week-long series of battles on the Virginia Peninsula took place at Malvern Hill.

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, continued his retreat toward Harrison’s Landing on the James River after yesterday’s engagement. McClellan believed his men were in dire need of rest after six days of fighting; he wrote Major General John A. Dix, commanding Federals at nearby Fort Monroe, “I pray that the enemy may not be in condition to disturb us today.” McClellan also wrote his superiors at Washington, “My men are completely exhausted, and I dread the result if we are to-day attacked by fresh troops.”

Despite McClellan’s prayers, Confederate General Robert E. Lee resolved to try destroying the Federals one last time before they reached the safety of the James. To do this, Lee targeted the Federals on Malvern Hill. General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps took up strong defensive positions on this 150-foot-high slope, flanked by swamps and other natural obstructions. Federals also established defenses at Ellerson’s Mill and Boatswain’s Swamp.

McClellan placed most of his men on the right flank to protect the line of retreat to Harrison’s Landing. He then returned to the U.S.S. Galena on the James, leaving Porter in command. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt massed 250 cannon on the slopes of Malvern Hill, supported by Federal gunboats on the river. Some 17,800 infantry guarded the Quaker road, the main approach to the hill.

Lee, frustrated by the failures of the past six days to fully engage the enemy, was determined to take Malvern Hill. He said to a staff officer, that if “those people” (i.e., the Federals) escaped from the Peninsula, it would be “because I cannot have my orders carried out!”

But Lee could not use the divisions of Major Generals James Longstreet or A.P. Hill because they had taken such heavy losses the previous day. Thus, Lee would deploy the divisions of Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, John B. Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes. Some commanders expressed reluctance to attack such a strong enemy position, but Longstreet argued that the Federals were so demoralized that breaking them should be easy.

One of Lee’s staff officers wrote the formal orders for the attack, which Lee did not read for himself. They simply stated that the battle would begin with an artillery barrage. Then, after the Federal lines had been softened, the brigade under Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, “who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same.” A plan to begin a 15-brigade infantry attack with a single brigade was unusual.

Longstreet and Jackson found an excellent position to mass their artillery, but the batteries were assigned to brigades and too spread out to concentrate. Both sides began trading cannon fire around 1:30 p.m., but the Federal guns were much more accurate and concentrated, while the Confederates futilely scrambled to match them. Within an hour, Federals had silenced every Confederate battery in a clear demonstration of artillery superiority.

Battle of Malvern Hill | Image Credit: elgrancapitan.org

Battle of Malvern Hill | Image Credit: elgrancapitan.org

Armistead, taking casualties from Colonel Hiram Berdan’s top sharpshooters, ordered his men forward at 4 p.m.; they were joined by General A.R. Wright’s brigade. But the Confederates were quickly isolated at the foot of Malvern Hill and had no choice but to await support.

Magruder took a wrong road and was late in getting to the battlefield. By the time he arrived, Lee had received an erroneous report that the initial attack was a “success.” Having planned a flanking movement around the hill, Lee now directed Magruder to “advance rapidly” and join Armistead and Wright in attacking the position frontally.

Magruder’s men joined the other two brigades and began advancing up Malvern Hill around 5:30 p.m. However, Federal grapeshot and canister tore the men to pieces. Naval Commander John Rodgers directed fire from the Federal gunboats U.S.S. Aroostook, Galena, and Jacob Bell that also wreaked havoc on the attackers. A correspondent from the National Intelligencer wrote:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon the gunboats Galena, Aroostook, and Jacob Bell open from Turkey Island Bend, in the James River, with shot and shell from their immense guns. The previous roar of field artillery seemed as faint as the rattle of musketry in comparison with these monsters of ordnance that literally shook the water and strained the air… The fire went on… making music to the ears of our tired men… (Confederate) ranks seemed slow to close up when the naval thunder had torn them apart.”

Men from a South Carolina regiment used their dead comrades as breastworks against the heavy Federal fire. Magruder’s refusal to commit all his brigades at once also weakened the assault. Jackson ordered D.H. Hill to join the advance, but the new Confederate line was repulsed as well. Jackson then directed the rest of his men to advance, but by that time D.H. Hill’s Confederates were retreating.

A final charge by two brigades under General Lafayette McLaws reached the Federal defenses, but without support they could not hold that position. The fight ended by around 8:30 p.m., with the Confederates unable to dislodge the Federals from Malvern Hill or cut them off from the James. They retreated in what was Lee’s greatest military blunder. Incorrect placement of Magruder and Hill’s men contributed to the defeat, as did Holmes’s refusal to take part.

Lee asked Magruder why he attacked, and Magruder replied, “In obedience to your orders, twice repeated.” Hill later said of this battle, “It was not war, it was murder.” The Confederates sustained 5,650 casualties (869 killed, 4,241 wounded, and 540 missing). The Federals lost 3,214 (397 killed, 2,092 wounded, and 725 missing). Federal artillery inflicted over half the Confederate casualties, more than any other battle in the war.

The heavy losses at Malvern Hill proved unnecessary, as McClellan continued withdrawing to Harrison’s Landing despite scoring a major victory. Many of McClellan’s subordinates, emboldened by this success and in better position to judge the morale of their men, protested the withdrawal. Porter wanted to continue making a stand at Malvern Hill, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny boldly declared:

“I, Philip Kearny, an old soldier, enter my solemn protest against this order for retreat. We ought instead of retreating to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. And in full view of the responsibility of such a declaration, I say to you all, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”

McClellan continued asserting that he lacked the manpower to take Richmond, despite having nearly twice as many men as Lee. He wired Washington on July 1, “I need 50,000 more men, and with them I will retrieve our fortunes.” President Abraham Lincoln, who had been battling with McClellan over manpower, called the request “simply absurd.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 164-65; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (1 Jul 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 47-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 188; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 525, 530; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 177-78; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4057-4128, 4164-88; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 172, 227; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 235-36; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 469-70; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 423-26; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72-73, 93; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 471, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Malvern Hill

The Seven Days Battles: Glendale

June 30, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee made another attempt to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, this time attacking at Glendale, Frayser’s Farm, and White Oak Swamp.

After failing to prevent the Federals from reaching White Oak Swamp on the 29th, Lee still believed that a maximum effort could capture or destroy Major General George B. McClellan’s army. Thus, he developed another complex plan:

  • Major General Benjamin Huger would start the fight by leading 12,000 men in a direct 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 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 through White Oak Swamp to catch the Federals in a pincer by attacking the Federal right flank and rear

The Federals continued their retreat down the Peninsula toward their new supply base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. With the army spread out over 10 miles, V Corps took positions on Malvern Hill while the other four corps stretched from that point to White Oak Swamp. Most Federals had crossed the swamp by 10 p.m. on the 30th, with about a third of the army reaching the James River.

Jackson’s advance was halted at Savage’s Station by Federal stragglers and supplies left behind. The hungry Confederates collected all the food, uniforms, blankets, ammunition, and other items they could carry, and resumed the march near mid-morning. They reached the edge of White Oak Swamp around noon and saw that the Federals had burned the bridge.

The Confederates traded artillery fire with the retreating Federal VI Corps while Jackson’s men tried building a new bridge. Federal artillerists drove the Confederates off. General Wade Hampton then informed Jackson that a new bridge could be built to the west, out of Federal gun range. Jackson said nothing, instead sitting under a tree and falling asleep.

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 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 Federals consisted of all or parts of divisions and brigades led by Generals George A. McCall, George G. Meade, Joseph Hooker, Philip Kearny, and John Sedgwick. Part of the fight took place in a pine grove called Frayser’s Farm. 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 Church, where brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Confederates routed McCall’s division and even captured the commander. However, stiff Federal resistance led by Hooker and Kearny stabilized the defenses. Federal artillery also tore holes into the Confederate attack lines.

Fighting near Willis Church | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fighting near Willis Church | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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 arrived 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 to Malvern Hill on the Quaker road. 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.

On the Federal side, some accused McClellan of dereliction of duty for staying aboard the U.S.S. Galena on the James 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.

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. General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps established defenses at Malvern Hill, five miles in front of Harrison’s Landing. Three other corps formed in that area during the night. General Erasmus D. Keyes’s 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 George G. Meade and Edwin V. Sumner were among the wounded, and those captured included McCall.

That evening, as two Federal corps assembled on Malvern Hill, McClellan received a message from President Abraham Lincoln, who was dismayed by the Federal reverses and McClellan’s charges that the administration was to blame for them:

“Save your army at all events. Will send reinforcements as fast as we can… 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.”

With no firsthand knowledge of the day’s events, McClellan telegraphed the War Department on the night of June 30: “My Army has behaved superbly and have done all that men could 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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 310-11; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161, 164; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (30 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 187; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 508; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 176; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4033-45; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 123-24, 267; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 234; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 419-20; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 821; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52, 60; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 471, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Glendale, Battle of White Oak Swamp

The Seven Days Battles: Savage’s Station

June 29, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula once more, targeting the rear guard as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing.

Action on the Peninsula, which had been north of the Chickahominy River for the past three days, now shifted to the south. On the morning of the 29th, the Federals abandoned their fortifications around Golding’s Farm, giving up any chance to attack Richmond. Three of McClellan’s five corps concentrated near Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the Richmond & York Railroad. There they prepared the difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp on their way to the James River. Federal morale dropped, as McClellan put nobody in charge of the disorganized retreat.

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.

The fight at Savage's Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The fight at Savage’s Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this lull, Federal General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps left Savage’s Station without notifying either of the other two corps commanders at the scene. This enraged General Edwin V. Sumner, the ranking commander. Sumner withdrew his corps around 11 a.m. to Savage’s Station, three miles south of the Chickahominy.

Near 5 p.m., Magruder launched a general assault that featured the first armored railroad battery ever used in warfare. 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 continued withdrawing the Federals toward the James. At 10 p.m., he abandoned the Federal field hospitals in accordance with McClellan’s order to leave anyone behind who could not walk. 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: “On the contrary, he (Jackson) has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.” 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.

Lee 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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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (29 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 186; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 175; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3917-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 233-34; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 52; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8-9, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Savage’s Station

The Seven Days Battles: McClellan’s Withdrawal

June 28, 1862 – The struggle on the Virginia Peninsula continued with sporadic fighting, as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing his Federal Army of the Potomac toward the James River.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Shortly after midnight on the 28th, McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about yesterday’s defeat at Gaines’s Mill:

“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 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, Colonel Edward S. Sanford, the chief censor of the Military Telegraph Service, 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 eventually published months later.

McClellan, a Democrat, blamed the Republican administration for supposedly withholding resources for him to adequately wage war on the Peninsula. Later on the 28th, Lincoln replied to what he saw of McClellan’s message: “Save your Army at all events… If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington.”

By 4 a.m., General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was across 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. He 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.” Two corps withdrew, and the other three guarded the western flank against a Confederate attack.

As Federals burned what supplies they could not carry, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, learned that they had abandoned their positions north of the Chickahominy River and destroyed the bridges. Confederate cavalry under 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 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.

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 army, he would retreat to Harrison’s Landing. With the Confederate capital now out of imminent danger, Lee again resolved to resume the offensive the next day.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7558; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 492-93; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 174-75; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3893-3905; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Hoffsommer, Richard D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 745; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 232-33; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342-43; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 51; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8; Wikipedia: Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Battle of Garnett’s and Golding’s Farm

The Seven Days Battles: Gaines’s Mill

June 27, 1862 – The third in a series of battles on the Virginia Peninsula occurred at Gaines’s Mill.

By daybreak, General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps of the Army of the Potomac had withdrawn from Beaver Dam Creek and established 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.

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal army, 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.”

Having failed to turn the Federal right in yesterday’s engagement, Confederate General Robert E. Lee resolved to attack again. This time, Lee assembled some 57,000 men, or a force four times larger than that of the previous day. 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.

The battle intensified when A.P. Hill’s Confederates attacked Porter behind Boatswain’s Creek around 2 p.m. Federals repulsed the attacks, with Hill losing 2,000 of his 13,200 men. After repelling Hill, the Federals also fought off a diversionary attack by Major General James Longstreet’s division as Confederate President Jefferson Davis observed the combat. 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.

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 surprised to be stopped by Brigadier General George Sykes’s Federal division in his path; Hill and Sykes had been West Point roommates.

When Jackson’s advance units finally arrived, they launched failed assaults and suffered heavy losses. Several more piecemeal Confederate charges along the line, including a diversionary assault by Brigadier General George E. Pickett’s brigade on the right, failed to break the Federal defenses.

Federals repulsing Confederate attacks at Gaines's Mill | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federals repulsing Confederate attacks at Gaines’s Mill | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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. 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 fighting on Turkey Hill, McClellan 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.”

Throughout the day, McClellan refused to mobilize his 70,000 men south of the Chickahominy, leaving Porter to fend for himself. McClellan also would not launch a counterattack against Richmond with his overwhelming numbers, as the Confederates south of the river fired on them with artillery and staged mock demonstrations to make the Federals think that they would be attacked at any time.

The Federals instead conducted an orderly retreat, holding off the advancing Confederates with artillery. Despite another poorly coordinated attack, Lee won his first victory. He broke the Federal line, but he could not exploit the advantage due to the heavy casualties he sustained. 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).

Nevertheless, the Confederates scored a crucial victory as the Federal V Corps withdrew under cover of darkness. Lee telegraphed President 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… The odds have been immense. We hold our own very nearly.”

Even though only one of his five army corps had been heavily engaged in any of the fighting on June 26 or 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 his corps commanders and announced that he planned to abandon the advance on Richmond and withdraw to the James River, where the troops would be protected by Federal gunboats while awaiting reinforcements. McClellan directed General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps to move west of Glendale to cover the Federal withdrawal while Porter withdrew to the high ground at Malvern Hill.

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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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 158-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 1; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 484, 490-91, 526; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 173-74; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3893; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 115-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 231-32; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 466-67; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 414-16; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-40, 47-48; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 295-96, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Battle of Garnett’s & Golding’s Farm; Seven Days Battles

The Seven Days Battles: Beaver Dam Creek

June 26, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee launched his planned assault on the Federal Army of the Potomac to drive the Federals off the Virginia Peninsula and away from Richmond.

According to Lee’s battle plan:

  • Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates would advance and attack General Fitz John Porter’s 28,000-man V Corps isolated from the rest of the Federal army north of the Chickahominy River.
  • Jackson would turn the flank and sweep into the Federal rear while the Confederate divisions led by Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill would cross the Chickahominy and clear the Federals out of Mechanicsville.
  • Hill and Jackson would then join to destroy the Federals north of the river and capture the Federal supply depot at White House Landing.
  • Confederates under Major Generals John B. Magruder and Benjamin Huger would demonstrate against the Federal left south of the river and guard Richmond. The Confederates north of the river would push the Federals south until they linked with Magruder and Huger.

Lee wrote specific instructions for Jackson, which may have been too detailed to be fully understood. Jackson’s assault was supposed to begin at 3 a.m., but he did not move forward to attack until 9 due to confusion and Federal artillery firing on his troops. Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill, who needed Jackson to begin the attack before they went into action, waited nearly 12 hours outside Richmond for the battle to begin.

Meanwhile, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal army, continued lamenting that he was facing nearly 200,000 Confederates. In reality, Lee had only about 70,000 men, 56,000 of which were to attack V Corps. Most of McClellan’s almost 130,000 men were south of the Chickahominy.

The Confederates waiting behind the lines sprang into action when they finally heard the sound of battle to their northeast around 3 p.m. However, the sound did not come from Jackson attacking, it came from A.P. Hill pushing forward on Mechanicsville. Jackson still had not yet arrived to attack the Federal right, and Hill was tired of waiting.

Hill’s men crossed the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and advanced through heavy artillery fire, driving the heavily entrenched enemy through Mechanicsville. But Porter extended his right and fell back to strong positions about a mile east, behind Ellerson’s Mill and Beaver Dam Creek, which emptied into the Chickahominy.

Expecting Jackson to come up on his left, Hill reformed his ranks and advanced against Brigadier General George McCall’s division of Porter’s corps around 5 p.m. With Jackson still not in place, Hill launched a frontal attack across an open field, sending his men through swamps and creeks up to the Federal entrenchments. As the Confederates advanced, 36 Federal cannon fired into them.

Battle sketch by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Battle sketch by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikipedia

McClellan observed the fighting and left the tactical decisions to Porter, who readied his troops for an assault of their own. Lee, finally realizing that Hill was fighting alone, sent in reinforcements from D.H. Hill, but the Federals repulsed these attacks and inflicted severe losses.

The bulk of Jackson’s force finally arrived, but when Jackson could not find A.P. Hill, he ordered his men to bivouac for the night about three miles northeast of Mechanicsville. Jackson, who was on the brink of exhaustion due to sleep deprivation, had no communication with Lee or the other commanders.

The major fighting ended around 9 p.m., with intermittent fire continuing. McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “The firing has nearly ceased… Victory of today complete and against great odds. I almost begin to think we are invincible.” McClellan also wrote to his wife, “We have again whipped the Secesh. Stonewall Jackson is the victim this time.” Apparently McClellan was unaware that Jackson, his former West Point classmate, did not take part in the action.

The Federals suffered 361 total casualties in the fight, while Confederates lost 1,484. Lee’s attack was a failure, partly due to Jackson’s uncharacteristic tardiness. Only one-fourth of Lee’s army (roughly 14,000 men) had been engaged, and 10 percent of them were lost in attacking Porter frontally rather than on his flank. Lee also fell far short of his goal to link with the Confederates south of the Chickahominy. While he drove the Federals out of the Mechanicsville, Lee lost the element of surprise and gave McClellan the options to either reinforce his right or attack with his left.

McClellan chose neither. Despite Lee’s failure, he had been withdrawing Porter’s supplies all day to protect them from Jackson’s impending attack and to better concentrate the Army of the Potomac south of the Chickahominy. Also, the demonstrations by Magruder and Huger, the sight of Confederate observation balloons on the Federal left, and Pinkerton’s inflated estimate of enemy strength convinced McClellan that he was hopelessly outnumbered, despite urgings from subordinates to attack with the bulk of his army on the left.

During the night, McClellan ordered Porter to withdraw eastward from Beaver Dam Creek to positions around Boatswain’s Swamp. McClellan also ordered his supply base transferred from White House on the York River to Harrison’s Landing on the James, asking Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to begin sending supplies there. This was a significant move because there were no railroads on the James to transport McClellan’s heavy artillery, so he could not lay siege to Richmond as originally planned.

This was an inauspicious start to Lee’s combat career as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. But while he had tactically lost this fight, McClellan still retreated and lost the initiative on the Peninsula. Thus, Lee gained a psychological edge over McClellan that he would never relinquish.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 159; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (26 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 483-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 172-73; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3797-3809; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 178-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 230-31; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 465-66; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 415-16; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 483-84; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33, 36; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 295-96, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, Battle of Gaines’s Mill

The Seven Days Battles: Oak Grove

June 25, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac tried inching closer to Richmond as Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to drive the Federals off the Virginia Peninsula.

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On June 23, Lee conferred with his top commanders and resolved to attack Federal Major General George B. McClellan’s army before it could advance on the Confederate capital. Lee intended to assault McClellan’s right wing, which was isolated on the north side of the Chickahominy River, on the 26th.

However, McClellan learned of Lee’s plan and resolved to attack first. Leaving his right wing north of the river, McClellan moved with his left. He targeted Oak Grove, which commanded the high ground south of the Chickahominy, a mile and a half closer to Richmond. McClellan hoped to clear that area for his heavy guns to put Richmond under siege. This was intended to be a preliminary movement before a general army advance.

Federal artillery opened on a rainy June 25, and then a division of General Samuel Heintzelman’s III Corps, led by Brigadier General Joseph Hooker, moved forward, supported by Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division. Skirmishing ensued as Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates blocked their path.

Huger had just 6,000 men, but he was soon reinforced by another 3,000 led by General Robert Ransom. The Federals struggled through the swampy terrain, and a heavy volley suddenly sent the Federals in Hooker’s lead brigade under Brigadier General Daniel Sickles running in what Sickles later called “disgraceful confusion.” Kearny sent reinforcements to secure Hooker’s left.

Heintzelman wired McClellan, who was at his headquarters three miles away, for reinforcements. But McClellan, through his chief of staff Brigadier General Randolph B. Marcy, ordered a retreat just as fresh troops came up, to the dismay of subordinates at the scene. Hooker hesitated, neither attacking nor retreating, and the battlefield went temporarily quiet.

McClellan then rode to the front two and a half hours later, inspected the lines, and ordered Hooker and Kearny to resume the assault. The Federals were reinforced by a brigade from II Corps and an artillery battery. Fighting occurred at several points, including Oak Grove, King’s School House, French’s Field, and the Orchard.

Charges and countercharges took place on the Williamsburg road until the Federal guns and reinforced infantry pushed the Confederates back to their main defenses. Nightfall gradually stopped both the firing and the rain. The Federals could not penetrate the Confederate line, but McClellan was pleased that they moved about 600 yards closer to Richmond. The Federals suffered 516 casualties (51 killed, 401 wounded, and 64 missing), and the Confederates lost 316 (40 killed, 263 wounded, and 13 missing).

Lee determined that this engagement did not expose his plan to attack McClellan’s right the next day, so that operation remained intact. The main Confederate attack force under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson continued moving into positions. Receiving news of Jackson’s impending arrival, McClellan suspended another scheduled attack and ordered his right wing, consisting of General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, to slow Jackson’s forces.

This action marked McClellan’s first (and last) tactical offensive against Richmond since the beginning of his Peninsula campaign. Although he deemed Porter’s positions acceptable, and although his left was now within five miles of Richmond, McClellan returned to headquarters on the night of the 25th and notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he faced “vastly superior odds.” This was based on an erroneous report that the Confederate Army of Mississippi had come to Richmond from the West, giving Lee up to 200,000 men (he really had no more than 70,000 versus McClellan’s 130,000). McClellan wrote Stanton:

“I incline to think that Jackson will attack my right and rear. The rebel force is stated at 200,000… I regret my great inferiority in numbers, but feel that I am in no way responsible for it, as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements; that this was the decisive point, and that all the available means of the Government should be concentrated here. I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers, can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action which will probably occur tomorrow, or within a short time, is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.”

Later that night, McClellan wrote, “I feel that there is no use in again asking for reinforcements,” but then did exactly that in requesting “some new regiments… another division of old troops… also, a couple of new regiments of cavalry.” McClellan concluded, “Every possible precaution is being taken. If I had another good division I could laugh at Jackson… Nothing but overwhelming forces can defeat us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (25 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 185; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 477, 480; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 171-72; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3710-21, 3743, 3750-63; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 443-44; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 229-30; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 465; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-33; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 295-96, 541, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Oak Grove