The Seven Days Battles: A New Man on the Scene

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It is a wonder Abraham Lincoln had any hair left after June of 1862. The Civil War would take a physical and mental toll on the man. His generals, mainly George McClellan, used their ineptitude to great extremes in 1861 and 1862. Lincoln would not find solace in a commander until he placed Ulysses S. Grant in charge in 1864. In 1862, George McClellan was in charge of the Army of the Potomac. His task was to advance from Washington to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. It was there that McClellan would strike the death blow to the Confederacy and end the war….or so McClellan thought.

The problem for McClellan was that he admired himself too much. He considered himself a Napoleonic type of general.

McClellan in his best Napoleonic pose

Unfortunately, he forgot one thing. Napoleon liked to attack. McClellan did not.

After the Battle of Bull Run, McClellan was placed in command. McClellan began by reorganizing the army, its habits and training regimens. He did have good organizational skills. On the other hand, McClellan believed a bit too much in his own skill set. In letter to his wife, McClellan saw himself as the savior of the Union Army.

I find myself in a new and strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me—by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. … I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!

However, despite his hubris, McClellan sat in the fall of 1861. While he sat, Lincoln steamed. So much so that Lincoln issued General War Order Number One.

Executive Mansion,
Washington, January 27, 186
Ordered that the 22nd. day of February 1862, be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.
That especially –
The Army at & about, Fortress Monroe.
The Army of the Potomac.
The Army of Western Virginia
The Army near Munfordsville, Ky.
The Army and Flotilla at Cairo.
And a Naval force in the Gulf of Mexico, be ready for a movement on that day.
That all other forces, both Land and Naval, with their respective commanders, obey existing orders, for the time, and be ready to obey additional orders when duly given.
That the Heads of Departments, and especially the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, with all their subordinates; and the General-in-Chief, with all other commanders and subordinates, of Land and Naval forces, will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities, for the prompt execution of this order.

McClellan had no choice to stop evading an invasion. In January 1862, McClellan did not invade the south. He feared that Washington was under imminent attack by overwhelming numbers. McClellan wanted to stay and protect the capital. Lincoln would later add about McClellan’s indecision, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” Lincoln stripped McClellan of command and left him only in charge of the Army of the Potomac.
That March McClellan finally began to carry out a plan to invade Virginia and take Richmond. Known as the Peninsular Campaign, the Union Army would sail down the coast from Washington and land south of the Rappahannock near Fort Monroe and make its way up the Peninsula to Richmond. McClellan did every thing he could to achieve failure the next four months of 1862.

There were two main reasons for McClellan’s failure. First, he always thought he was facing superior numbers. He continually called for reinforcements when he, in fact, far out numbered the enemy. He landed in Virgina with over 100,000 men and 15,000 horses. Second, there was a new man on the scene for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee was placed in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia in June of 1862 after Joseph Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Unlike McClellan, Lee was not afraid to attack. Lee did so at will against McClellan that June and July.

McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign in 1862

Upon landing in Virginia, McClellan slowly made his way toward Richmond. One of four commanders in the field for the Union, the campaign began by laying siege to Yorktown. There facing General Joseph Johnston, McClellan hesitated early and often. The result was Johnston’s forces escaped, all 57,000 of them. McClellan believed there to be 120,000. McClellan began to pursue Johnston cautiously on the muddy trails of Virginia.

At Williamsburg, on May 5, a month long engagement and attack and retreat began for Johnston. McClellan, although in pursuit, fought a hesitant campaign. Had McClellan attacked, chances were good that he could have advanced to Richmond easily. Instead, McClellan wavered early and often. In late May, McClellan was near the objective of Richmond. Only four miles separated him from the capital. To McClellan, it was glorious and daunting at the same time. At the Battle of Seven Pines, McClellan’s fate changed when a major turning point occurred in the war. Johnston was wounded on May 31 and replaced by Robert E. Lee.

The next month would be hell for McClellan. There would be victories for the Union, but it would be a major humiliating retreat back to the James River for the Union. Lee, was not afraid to engage the Union. In late June, Lee did so in what has become known as the Seven Days Battles. Six engagements from June 25 to July 1, resulting in McClellan’s, and the Union’s, misfortune.

Lee stated the following upon taking command:

After the battle of Seven Pines the Federal Army, under General McClellan, preparatory to an advance upon Richmond, proceeded to fortify its position on the Chickahominy and to perfect the communications with its base of supplies near the head of York River. Its left was established south of the Chickahominy, between White Oak Swamp and New Bridge, defended by a line of strong works, access to which, except by a few narrow roads, was obstructed by felling the dense forests in front. These roads were commanded for a great distance by the heavy guns in the fortifications. The right wing lay north of the Chickahominy, extending beyond Mechanicsville, and the approaches from the south side were strongly defended by intrenchments. Our army was around Richmond, the divisions of Huger and Magruder, supported by those of Longstreet and D. H. Hill, in front of the enemy’s left, and that of A. P. Hill extending from Magruder’s left beyond Meadow Bridge.
The command of General Jackson, including Ewell’s division, operating in the Shenandoah Valley, had succeeded in diverting the army of McDowell at Fredericksburg from uniting with that of McClellan. To render this diversion more decided, and effectually mask his withdrawal from the valley at the proper time, Jackson, after the defeat of Frémont and Shields, was re-enforced by Whiting’s division, composed of Hood’s Texas brigade and his own, under Colonel Law, from Richmond, and that of Lawton, from the south.
The intention of the enemy seemed to be to attack Richmond by regular approaches. The strength of his left wing rendered a direct assault injudicious, if not impracticable. It was therefore determined to construct defensive lines, so as to enable a part of the army to defend the city and leave the other part free to cross the Chickahominy and operate on the north bank. By sweeping down the river on that side and threatening his communications with York River it was thought that the enemy would be compelled to retreat or give battle out of his intrenchments. The plan was submitted.to His Excellency the President, who was repeatedly on the field in the course of its execution.
While preparations were in progress a cavalry expedition, under General Stuart, was made around the rear of the Federal Army to ascertain its position and movements. This was executed with great address and daring by that accomplished officer. As soon as the defensive works were sufficiently advanced General Jackson was directed to move rapidly and secretly from the valley, so as to arrive in the vicinity of Ashland by June 24.
The enemy appeared to be unaware of our purpose, and on the 25th attacked General Huger on the Williamsburg road, with the intention, as appeared by a dispatch from General McClellan, of securing his advance toward Richmond. The effort was successfully resisted and our line maintained.

Ironically, the battles began when McClellan attempted to advance against Lee. He did so near Oak Grove. McClellan gained 600 yards. It cost the lives of over a 1000 dead on both sides. The next day, Lee attacked near Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville. Lee had it planned perfectly. It was not executed perfectly. Stonewall Jackson’s failure to follow the plan resulted in a Union victory.
Lee wrote:

According to the general order of battle, a copy of which is annexed, General Jackson was to march from Ashland on the 25th in the direction of Slash Church, encamping for the night west of the Central Railroad, and to advance at 3 a.m. on the 26th and turn Beaver Dam. A. P. Hill was to cross the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge when Jackson’s advance beyond that point should be known and move directly upon Mechanicsville. As soon as the Mechanicsville Bridge should be uncovered Longstreet and D. H. Hill were to cross, the latter to proceed to the support of Jackson and the former to that of A. P. Hill. The four commands were directed to sweep down the north side of the Chickahominy toward the York River Railroad, Jackson on the left and in advance, Longstreet nearest the river and in the rear. Huger and Magruder were ordered to hold their positions against any assault of the enemy, to observe his movements, and follow him closely should he retreat. General Stuart, with the cavalry, was thrown out on Jackson’s left to guard his flank and give notice of the enemy’s movements. Brigadier-General Pendleton was directed to employ the Reserve Artillery, so as to resist any approach of the enemy toward Richmond, to superintend that portion of it posted to aid in the operations of the north bank, and hold the remainder ready for use when it might be required.
In consequence of unavoidable delays the whole of General Jackson’s command did not arrive at Ashland in time to enable him to reach the point designated on the 25th.
His march on the 26th was consequently longer than had been anticipated, and his progress being also retarded by the enemy, A. P. Hill did not begin his movement until 3 p.m., when he crossed the river and advanced upon Mechanicsville. After a sharp conflict he drove the enemy from his intrenchments, and forced him to take refuge in his works on the left bank of Beaver Dam, about 1 mile distant. This position was a strong one, the banks of the creek in front being high and almost perpendicular, and the approach to it over open fields, commanded by the fire of artillery and infantry intrenched on the opposite side. The difficulty of crossing the stream had been increased by felling the woods on its banks and destroying the bridges.
Jackson being expected to pass Beaver Dam above and turn the enemy’s right, a direct attack was not made by General Hill. One of his regiments on the left of his line crossed the creek to communicate with Jackson and remained until after dark, when it was withdrawn. Longstreet and D. H. Hill crossed the Mechanicsville Bridge as soon as it was uncovered and could be repaired, but it was late before they reached the north bank of the Chickahominy. D. H. Hill’s leading brigade, under Ripley, advanced to the support of the troops engaged, and at a late hour united with Pender’s brigade, of A. P. Hill’s division, in an effort to turn the enemy’s left; but the troops were unable in the growing darkness to overcome the obstructions, and after sustaining a destructive fire of musketry and artillery at short range were withdrawn. The fire was continued until about 9 p.m., when the engagement ceased. Our troops retained the ground on the right bank, from which the enemy had been driven.
Ripley was relieved at 3 a.m. on the 27th by two of Longstreet’s brigades, which were subsequently re-enforced. In expectation of Jackson’s arrival on the enemy’s right the battle was renewed at dawn, and continued with animation for about two hours, during which the passage of the creek was attempted and our troops forced their way to its banks, where their progress was arrested by the nature of the stream. They maintained their position while preparations Were being made to cross at another point nearer the Chickahominy, Before they were completed Jackson crossed Beaver Dam above, and the enemy abandoned his intrenchments and retired rapidly down the river, destroying a great deal of property, but leaving much in his deserted camps.

Lee had shown a penchant for planning. However, his subordinates were struggling to carry out his plans.

On May 27, Lee attacked again near Gaines’s Mill. Although a tactical victory, he did take heavy casualties. But the constant attacks were beginning to have an effect on McClellan and the Union. On June 27, McClellan fell back and withdrew to a position near the James River. After reconnaissance confirmed McClellan’s withdrawal, Lee stepped up the pressure. Battles at Garnett’s & Golding’s Farm continued the persistent annoyance.

McClellan entrenched himself near Savage Station. A former federal depot that had two railroads converging was not be a permanent place to stay but rather a place to re-gather himself and make sense of the constant pestering by Lee. Lee, attacked McClellan again. Lee describes the action:

Early on the 29th Longstreet and A. P. Hill were ordered to recross the Chickahominy at New Bridge, and move by the Darbytown to the Long Bridge road.
Maj. R. K. Meade and Lieut. S. R. Johnston, the Engineers, attached to General Longstreet’s division, who had been sent to reconnoiter, found, about sunrise, the work on the upper extremity of the enemy’s line of intrenchments abandoned. Generals Huger and Magruder were immediately ordered in pursuit, the former by the Charles City road, so as to take the Federal Army in flank, and the latter by the Williamsburg road, to attack its rear. Jackson was directed to cross at Grapevine Bridge and move down the south side of the Chickahominy. Magruder and Huger found the whole line of works deserted and large quantities of military stores of every description abandoned or destroyed.
The former reached the vicinity of Savage Station about noon, where he came upon the rear guard of the retreating army. Being informed that the enemy was advancing, he halted and sent for re-enforcements. Two brigades of Huger’s division were ordered to his support, but subsequently withdrawn, it being apparent that the force in Magruder’s front was covering the retreat of the main body. Jackson’s route led to the flank and rear of Savage Station, but he was delayed by the necessity of reconstructing Grapevine Bridge.
Late in the afternoon Magruder attacked the enemy with one of his divisions and two regiments of another. A severe action ensued and continued about two hours, when it was terminated by night.
The troops displayed great, gallantry and inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy; but, owing to the lateness of the hour and the small force employed, the result was not decisive, and the enemy continued his retreat under cover of darkness, leaving several hundred prisoners, with his dead and wounded, in our hands.
At Savage Station were found about 2,500 men in hospital and a large amount of property. Stores of much value had been destroyed, including the necessary medical supplies for the sick and wounded. But the time gained enabled the retreating column to cross White Oak Swamp without interruption and destroy the bridge.

A weeks worth of fighting that was a turning point in the war

While a military stalemate, Lee had hoped to crush McClellan at Savage Station. It was not to be. However, psychologically, it was the beginning of the end for the Peninsular Campaign. At Glendale and White Oak Swamp, and later Malvern Hill, Lee’s actions resulted in McClellan’s psyche being damaged. Lee’s constant attacks only fed McClellan’s beliefs that the Confederates had him outnumbered despite the Union’s ability to repel the attacks, which McClellan attributed to his sheer genius. McClellan encamped himself at Berkeley Plantation with his back to the James River and Union gunboats stationed there. Lee would not attack. In August, McClellan and the Union Army left Berekely to reinforce a second attack at Bull Run.
Lee knew he had blown an opportunity. He stated

Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed. Its escape was due to the causes already stated. Prominent among these is the want of correct and timely information. This fact, attributable chiefly to the character of the country, enabled General McClellan skillfully to conceal his retreat and to add much to the obstructions with which nature had beset the way of our pursuing columns; but regret that more was not accomplished gives way to gratitude to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe for the results achieved. The siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of a campaign, which had been prosecuted after months of preparation at an enormous expenditure of men and money, completely frustrated. More than 10,000 prisoners, including officers of rank, 52 pieces of artillery, and upward of 35,000 stands of small-arms were captured. The stores and supplies of every description which fell into our hands were great in amount and value, but small in comparison with those destroyed by the enemy. His losses in battle exceeded our own, as attested by the thousands of dead and wounded left on every field, while his subsequent inaction shows in what condition the survivors reached the protection to which they fled.

That summer and fall of 1862 saw Lee attack the Union, even invading Maryland. The war in the East turned from the Union being on the offensive to the Union being on the defensive as a result of Lee’s charge. For the next year, Lee would attack, invading the Union twice. Lincoln would continue to search for one person to take charge and attack Lee. It would not happen until 1864.

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2 thoughts on “The Seven Days Battles: A New Man on the Scene

    [...] Major General John Pope was set to join with McClelland and strike down the Confederacy. It had not been a good summer for the Union Army in Virginia and on the Peninsula. Things would not get any better for the Union [...]

    [...] September of 1862, Robert E. Lee was fresh from hammering Union Armies across the Virginia peninsula and northern Virginia. For Lee and the Confederacy, a bold move was needed. A win on northern soil [...]

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