Tag Archives: Virginia

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 Battle of Bull Run

July 21, 1861 – The first major battle of the war took place in northern Virginia.

Major General Irvin McDowell’s 30,000-man Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia, the largest force ever assembled on the continent, began advancing around 2 a.m. Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s division took the lead, with the men struggling to march in the dark. The force included the 12,000 Federals moving from their camps at Centreville southwest down the Warrenton Pike to launch a surprise attack the Confederate left flank.

McDowell had a solid battle plan, but exhaustion, lack of discipline, rough roads, and obstructed night vision impeded its execution. Moreover, McDowell was unaware that spies had informed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac, of the Federal advance. This had enabled Beauregard to send for Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah to reinforce him.

Before dawn, McDowell sent troops to feint toward the Stone Bridge over Bull Run, a tributary of the Potomac River. Meanwhile, the two Federal flanking divisions conducted a roundabout march toward Confederates along the Sudley Springs Road. At 5:15 a.m., Tyler’s artillery opened fire on Confederates behind the Stone Bridge, initiating the contest. Confederate Colonel Nathan G. Evans responded by moving his small force to meet the threat.

Beauregard’s army held a line along Bull Run and guarded the vital intersection at Manassas Junction, with most of his troops on the right. Johnston’s reinforcements continued arriving from the Shenandoah Valley, and although Johnston outranked Beauregard, he approved the latter’s plan to attack the Federal right. The plan was based on Napoleon’s tactics at Austerlitz, but misinterpreted orders and a lack of coordination among inexperienced troops prevented the Confederates from attacking first. Thus, the Confederates were compelled to take the defense, which virtually negated Beauregard’s plan.

In Washington, Congress adjourned to allow members to stroll out to Centreville and witness the battle. Politicians, ladies, adventurers, newspaper correspondents, and many other spectators clogged the roads from the capital with carriages, gigs, omnibuses, and other conveyances that interfered with Federal operations. Some witnesses brought picnic baskets, wine, and binoculars with them, eager to see a decisive Federal victory.

When the artillery barrage subsided, McDowell issued orders for the Federals to assault the enemy left. Two Federal brigades under General Samuel P. Heintzelman did not arrive at Sudley Ford until 9:30 a.m. This gave Evans time to assemble about 900 Confederates to meet the Federals’ advance. Meanwhile, Federals feinted as planned toward the Stone Bridge and Mitchell’s Ford.

Evans’s men held strong against the Federals at Matthews Hill, where the war’s first heavy fighting took place. Confederate reinforcements from Bull Run led by General Barnard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow soon arrived to strengthen the defense. However, Heintzelman’s third brigade came up with other reinforcements around 12 p.m., and the Confederate line wavered. The Confederates were then flanked and compelled to withdraw. McDowell rode along his lines, standing in his stirrups and hollering, “Victory! Victory! The day is ours!”

Battle of Bull Run | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Battle of Bull Run | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

McDowell sent telegrams to Washington proclaiming a Federal victory. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott expressed satisfaction to President Abraham Lincoln, who took his customary Sunday carriage ride with his son Tad and attended church. Lincoln visited Scott’s office later that afternoon, where Scott woke from a nap and reassured Lincoln that the Federals would be victorious. Late editions of northern newspapers reported a great victory.

Meanwhile, Confederates under Evans, Bee, and Bartow fell back to Henry House Hill, a key position on the field. Confusion over Beauregard’s orders had nearly left the hill undefended until Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s five Virginia regiments took it. Jackson employed tactics used in the Battle of Waterloo by placing his men just below the hill’s crest so they could fire over it without being exposed to enemy fire.

Evans, Bee, and Bartow joined Jackson on the hill after two hours of hard fighting on Matthews Hill. Jackson withstood an onslaught from some 18,000 Federals, enabling the other three commanders to rally their forces behind him. Bee hollered to his men, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally on the Virginians! Let us determine to die here and we will conquer!” Bee fell mortally wounded soon afterwards, but the nickname “Stonewall” stuck for Jackson.

The Confederates held firm against the attacks. McDowell, personally directing troop movements, deployed his men piecemeal rather than in one main thrust, which could have dislodged the Confederates. Meanwhile, Johnston’s Shenandoah Valley reinforcements continued arriving on the field.

While the Federals could not take the hill, more hard luck befell them at around 2:30 p.m. when they had two of their artillery batteries near Henry House Hill captured by the 33rd Virginia, a Confederate unit wearing blue coats. The Federal gunners, mistaking them for comrades, had held their fire until the enemy was upon them. This turned the battle’s tide.

McDowell committed more Federal reinforcements, but they could not break the enemy line. Around 4 p.m., a Confederate brigade led by Colonel Philip St. George Cocke arrived and helped drive the remaining Federals from Henry House Hill. Meanwhile, a separate struggle developed west of the hill along Chinn Ridge. Colonel Oliver O. Howard’s Federal brigade, McDowell’s last fresh unit, stormed the ridge in hopes of flanking the Confederates on Henry House Hill. However, they were soon outflanked themselves by Confederates attacking from the southwest under Generals Arnold Elzay and Jubal A. Early.

The Federals, stunned by their reversal of fortune and exhausted in the sweltering heat, began an orderly withdrawal around 4:30. Beauregard sensed victory and ordered an attack all along the line. The Federals began breaking when the enemy advanced upon them hollering the “Rebel yell” for the first time. When a Confederate artillery shell destroyed a wagon to block Cub Run Bridge, the withdrawal became a chaotic rout, as panicked soldiers crashed into the civilian spectators in a mad dash back to Washington.

Many soldiers returned to Washington within a day, which was a day and a half quicker than it had taken them to march to the battlefield. Confederates captured some troops as well as some spectators, including Congressman Albert Ely of New York, who was hiding behind a tree. A Confederate soldier quipped, “The Yankee Congressman came down to see the fun, came out for wool and got shorn.” President Jefferson Davis sent Ely blankets in a gentlemanly gesture toward a prisoner of war.

Davis took a train from Richmond and Manassas to join in the fight, arriving in mid-afternoon. He tried to rally the remaining Confederates on Henry House Hill, many of whom were wounded: “I am President Davis! All of you who are able follow me back to the field!” Jackson also urged a renewal of the attack and an advance all the way to Washington. But rain began falling, turning roads to mud. Moreover, Johnston explained that the Confederates were just as disorganized and exhausted as the enemy. This evening, McDowell finally managed to establish a defensive line at Centreville made up of reserves.

This battle was enormous compared to the war’s earlier engagements in western Virginia and Missouri. Federals suffered 2,896 casualties (460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing). The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment suffered 180 killed or wounded, the highest casualty count of any Federal regiment. Even so, the Minnesotans had refused to retreat until ordered to do so three times. Confederates lost 1,982 (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing). They captured 28 cannon, 37 caissons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and nine regimental flags. While Confederates brimmed with confidence after the victory, the defeated Federals realized this would not be a “90-day war.”

When news of the defeat reached Washington, shock and panic prevailed, especially considering McDowell’s earlier assurances of victory. Lincoln returned from his carriage ride after 6 p.m. and read a message Secretary of State William H. Seward had left him from McDowell stating that the army was falling back in defeat. Lincoln hurried to the War Department, where a telegram awaited: “General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centreville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army… The routed troops will not re-form.”

Lincoln and his cabinet met in Scott’s office to review the details of the disaster as they trickled in. Scott ordered reinforcements to defend the capital. Later that evening, they met with eyewitnesses who relayed horrific accounts of what had happened. But after further assessment, a glimmer of hope came when the War Department reported: “Our loss is much less than was at first represented, and the troops have reached the forts in much better condition than we expected… the capital is safe.” Nevertheless, Lincoln did not sleep.

In Richmond, citizens celebrated victory as the official dispatches arrived. One dispatch came from the president himself: “We have won a glorious though dear-bought victory. Night closed on the enemy in full flight and closely pursued. JEFFERSON DAVIS.”

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Sources

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 46-49; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 94-95, 102, 104-05, 108; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 40-43; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6177-87; Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29, 133-35, 141, 146-48, 150; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 59-60; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6444-55; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 84-85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 47-49; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2675-87; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 73; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 97-100; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498, 675; 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. 345; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 105, 107, 130; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 62-69; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 90-92, 537