The War in the East, May 1862
Unlike Grant, George McClellan was not a general who moved
immediately on the enemy's works. Arriving in front of Yorktown, McClellan's
army spent three weeks digging trenches and parallels, roads, bridges, and
approaches to the enemy's main batteries located at the east side of the town.
These were the most heavily armed and bore on both water and land. McClellan, a
fine engineer, built a network of trenches and planted batteries to get to the
neck of land between Wormley Creek and the Warwick River reaches. On May 1, 1862, his batteries opened with effect upon the wharf and the town. At the same
time as this, the army built roads of logs over the marshes and erected
batteries to silence the enemy's guns and drive him from his works at Lee's
Mill. During this build-up, the Confederate forces attempted to overrun
McClellan's rifle pits edging close to the town, but were repeatedly driven
back to their defenses.
Just when McClellan's operations had reached the point of
using the heavy Parrott guns, Johnston withdrew his forces in the night and
retreated up the Peninsula to another line of entrenchments at Williamsburg.
The morning of May 4, McClellan sent Stoneman's cavalry,
with horse artillery, in pursuit, and followed with his infantry. At the same
time, he put Franklin's division, which was on boats in the York River, in
motion up the river, to disembark on the right bank high enough up to get
position to cut off the Confederate retreat.
The roads the infantry columns moved on converged a short
distance in front of a substantial field fortification called Fort Magruder. The fort's parapet was six feet high, the walls nine feet thick and a deep, wide
ditch filled with water obstructed access to its front. On either side were a
series of redoubts showing forty foot fronts, with rifle pits in between. Here,
Johnston made a stand, inflicting some pain on McClellan's lead divisions,
but he then abandoned the Williamsburg line in the night and moved on, because Franklin's division, having reached the mouth of the Pamunkey River, was getting into his
Stoneman, on May 7, followed the Confederate rear guard as
far as Providence Forge, then turned to the east and connected with Franklin's division. Over the next several days, in difficult weather, the rest of the
Union army moved up and went into camps between Providence Forge and the Lees'
White House Plantation situated at the point the York River Railroad crosses
Forge to the White House
On May 12, as the advance of McClellan's army was reaching
Providence Forge, the Confederates abandoned Norfolk Navy Yard which required
the destruction of the ironclad gunboat Virginia. With
the Virginia now gone from the scene, the James River was open to
Union navigation and gunboats steamed up it as far as Drewy's Bluff, a few
miles below Richmond. There further progress was stopped by the gun batteries
commanding a great bend in the river.
At Providence Forge, McClellan now had two choices: he might
move his army southwest, across fifteen miles of slash country, cross the
Chickahominy close to its mouth, and take up position at Malvern Hill, using
Harrison's Landing as his base of operations; or he might move northeast to the
White House Plantation and, using it as his base, move toward Richmond on the
line of the York River Railroad. With him at this time was Secretary of State
William Seward, who reported to Lincoln what McClellan meant to do next.
Providence Forge, May 14, 1862
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President
We think that you should order whole or
major part of General McDowell's, with Shields, up the York River as soon as
possible, and order Whyman's flotilla up the James River. General McClellan
moves to White House tomorrow morning.
Note: Who Seward is referring to
as "we" is probably Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase. Lincoln,
Chase, and Stanton had been present in Hampton Road, from May 5 to about May
11. Lincoln did not see McClellan nor did he go ashore. It would have been easy
for Chase, or Lincoln for that matter, to have gone by water to the White House
and met personally with McClellan.
In his Memoirs (You would have to look at the
original manuscript to know whether he wrote it) McClellan takes the position
that he first moved to the White House and then, only after reaching there,
considered the question which way to approach Richmond. Here is how the memoirs
"Two courses were considered:
first, to abandon the line of the York, cross the Chickahominy in the lower
part of its course, gain the James, and adopt that as the line of supply;
second, to use the railroad from West Point to Richmond as the line of supply,
which would oblige us to cross the Chickahominy somewhere north of White Oak
Swamp. The army was perfectly placed to adopt either course."
Note: This being published in
1885, just after McClellan's death, it is difficult for a trial lawyer to rely
upon the text as proof of the matter stated. The fact is that Mac was, if nothing
else, the general commanding the Army of the Potomac in the field. When he
reached Providence Forge, knowing at that time that the James River was open, a
reasonable person in his shoes would have decided right then, if at all, to
turn toward the lower reaches of the Chickahominy, cross that river, and gain
the supply route provided by James River. Given other evidence available, it
seems reasonable to conclude that he did voice an interest in doing this at
that time, but was talked out of it by Seward who was there as Lincoln's
mouthpiece. (By May 11, Mac was already moving part of his force by water, from
the Yorktown docks up the Pamunkey to White House; the rest marching overland.)
"Making the movement (to James
River), the army could have easily crossed the Chickahominy by Jones's bridge,
and at Cole's ferry and Barret's ferry by pontoon bridges, while two corps
crossed at Long's bridge, covered by White Oak Swamp on their right, and
occupied Malvern Hill, ready either to advance upon Richmond by the roads near
the left bank of the James, or to cross that river and place itself
between Richmond and Petersburg."
Note: Assuming McClellan wrote
this, he is suggesting that at or near the time he moved from Providence Forge
to White House, he was actually thinking about the idea of crossing James River. As he expressed it, the initial idea was to place the army between Richmond and Petersburg, an idea, given the circumstances, that seems farfetched. The
objective would necessarily have to be, to take possession of the
Petersburg-Richmond Railroad and move up the railroad (with the city of Petersburg in his rear) to the James River and cross it.
There are several reasons why Mac's idea of approaching
Richmond from the right bank of the James, as the Memoirs express
it, seems unsound: First, Mac would have to occupy Petersburg, for if he did
not he would have a large city, defended with fortifications, in his immediate
rear; second, he would have to cross James River twice. The first crossing, at Tar Bay, would be covered by the U.S. Navy without much problem, but at the second crossing
he would be on his own. Third, his line of communication via the
Petersburg-Richmond Railroad would be just as much exposed to an attack in his
rear as would the York River Railroad.
Note: That Mac was indeed thinking about the possibility
of establishing his base at James River is shown by the fact that, as his front
approached the Chickahominy on the line of the York River Railroad, he had sent
cavalry to reconnoiter the roads leading to the James and Harrison's Landing.
Choice of Base
If he had moved across the James River, one way McClellan
might have eliminated the threat to his communications would have been to get
possession of the three railroads that come together from the south at Petersburg.
In such a campaign, James River would be his base of supply,
and he would move west from that point and get on each of the three railroads.
But, what effect this would have had upon either Petersburg or Richmond, in 1862, is difficult to fathom. All during the time McClellan was working his
forces to get across the southern railroads, supplies would still be reaching Richmond by way of the James River Canal and the Virginia Central Railroad; perhaps, too, supplies
might be transported to Richmond on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Petersburg could be supplied through Richmond. While these means of Richmond communicating
with the South might well have proved in time inadequate to keep the two cities
afloat, it would have taken McClellan a long, long time―certainly at
least as long as it took Grant to get possession of the three railroads in 1864-65—to
starve Richmond into submission.
Thus, it cannot reasonably be denied that, at least from the
Union President's point of view, there seemed to be good reason to be concerned
for Washington's security, if McClellan put James River between the Union
capital and the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln's concern was that, putting James River between the Army of the Potomac and Washington would make it impossible for McClellan
to hold the Confederate army at Richmond. Given the relative positions of the
two armies, if Mac did that, the Confederate army could easily detach forces
from the Richmond defenses to march north and threaten the capture of Washington. How could Mac stop it?
Note: From a strictly professional
military point of view, Lincoln's layman's concern for the security of Washington lacked reasonable foundation. If a substantial part of the Confederate army had
marched north away from Richmond, McClellan's army probably would have been able
to quickly break through the city's defenses. This would have put the
Confederates' base of supply in McClellan's hands, and he could then follow
them north and sandwich them between his army and the forts of Washington.
Logistics simply would have not
allowed the Confederates to do this. They might detach a small force, to
operate independently of Richmond, living off the countryside as best it could,
but a large force―of sufficient size to seriously threaten the security
of Washington—required the support of Richmond as a base.
Without a base, pursued by
McClellan, the Confederate army would have been operating at great risk to its
own security. To avoid being caught on the Manassas plain, it would have to
turn and fight McClellan head on, or march west, cross the Blue Ridge and turn
up the Valley, hoping by maneuver to regain its base, or establish a new one at
Staunton. In the meantime Richmond is lost and, with it, Virginia.
It is true that, in 1863, the
Confederate army did abandon its communications with Richmond and advance
northward, but it operated this way for only three weeks, supporting itself off
the Pennsylvania farms while avoiding the Washington forts; its objective being
to attack the Union army in pursuit.
With McClellan's army approaching Richmond from the
direction of the York River Railroad, though, it would be much more difficult
for the enemy to do this, since Mac could easily move parallel with such a
movement and either cut it off or quickly pursue; either way it is doubtful
whether the enemy could get beyond the Rappahannock before Mac brought it to a
stand for a battle, either at Hanover Courthouse, Ashland, or the North Anna.
If the Confederate force moved north by way of Gordonsville and Culpeper, Mac
could get ahead of it by way of Fredericksburg and a general battle would occur
on the Manassas plain.
Whether or not the issue of which direction to take in
approaching Richmond was actually entertained by McClellan when he was at
Providence Forge, or discussed between him and Seward, it was settled when
Secretary of War Stanton wired McClellan this.
Washington, May 18, 1862
In order to increase your strength,
McDowell has been ordered to march upon Richmond by land. He is ordered to keep
himself always between Richmond and Washington and so operate as to put his
left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to
cooperate by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond. He will move
with 40,000 men. And you will give no order which can put him out of position
to cover Washington. The President desires that McDowell retain the command of
the Department of Rappahannock (which extends to and includes the north suburbs
of Richmond) and of the forces with which he moves forward.
M. STANTON, Secretary of War
So much for Mac's supposed idea of moving to James River.
Mac was incensed by Stanton's telegraph and rightly so. At
the same time Lincoln told Stanton to send this telegram, Henry Halleck was
moving at a snail's pace, from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth, a distance of
twenty miles. He had with him all of the organized forces in the
West—what had been operating in his vast department as three independent armies
were now consolidated into one army operating under his command. 125,000 men
brought together to laid siege to Corinth under the command of one general.
The situation for Halleck was that of a classic unity
of command, but for McClellan Lincoln provided something distinctly
different. Lincoln gave McClellan about 80,000 men to capture the Confederate
capital while holding back almost 100,000. Fremont had 20,000, Banks had
20,000, McDowell had 40,000, and there were at least another 20,000 manning the
Washington defenses, not to mention the regiments in camps at Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.
Now, Lincoln was proposing to allow McClellan the use, sort
of, of McDowell's force, if, but only if, he did not try to command
McDowell. Whatever order McClellan might give McDowell, and no matter what the
circumstances under which the order might be given, McDowell retained the
authority―direct from the President—to ignore McClellan. Just an
impossible situation. The exigencies of war require that there be one general
in command of all the forces committed to a siege operation, otherwise at a
critical moment, when unity of action is required, it may not be forthcoming.
It must be wondered why, at this point in time, McClellan
did not take a tight-fisted intractable attitude toward Lincoln and either
insist that he be relieved of command of the operation, or be given full
control of McDowell's troops, to use them as he saw fit. It was simply
ridiculous to go on to Richmond with the command arrangement as Lincoln ordered it.
The reason why this is so McClellan well knew. Any Union
army that appeared in front of Richmond on the east side of the Chickahominy had
no choice but to rely upon the York River Railroad to support its position. The
tracks of the railroad, which run fifteen miles from White House to the
Chickahominy bridge crossing, would have to be entirely secure,
when the front of the Union army began extending itself on the opposite side of
the river, or it would be in the situation the Confederate army would be in, if
it had cut loose, as Lincoln apparently feared, from Richmond.
The obvious way to prevent the Union army from getting into
position on the right bank of the river, to conduct siege warfare tactics that
would inevitably lead to Richmond's surrender, was to challenge its possession
of the railroad. Forcing it to fight for its communications would make it
impossible, unless it was heavily reinforced, for the Union army to
simultaneously fight for possession of the right bank of the river. The only
way McClellan's army could both defend its communications and operate
offensively to gain control of the right bank of the Chickahominy, was to have
McDowell's force available to either block any Confederate effort to attack
McClellan's right flank and rear, or to attack the attacker's left flank and
rear as the battle for the railroad unfolded.
Means McDowell cannot Attack The Rebel Force Threatening McClellan's
Communications With The White House As That Would Take It
Out of Position
to Protect Washington.
Here's how George's Memoirs put the problem:
"The order obliged me to extend
and expose my right in order to secure the junction (with McDowell). As it was
impossible to get at Richmond without crossing the Chickahominy, I was obliged
to divide the army into two parts, separated by that stream."
Note: McClellan is mixing two
separate problems. Yes, Lincoln's order certainly required him to extend his
right in the direction of McDowell's line of march (Fredericksburg to Richmond),
but it was the direction in which the Chickahominy ran that forced him, for a
time, to divide his army into two parts, separated by that stream. Until
McDowell was actually in the area and subject to Mac's command, Mac had no
choice but to leave a substantial force on the left bank of the Chickahominy to
guard his right flank and rear.
Needed McDowell's corps To Do What Porter's corps Did.
McClellan rightly complained to Lincoln about this, but when
he did not receive a reasonable response, he should have resigned and walked
away from what was in point of military fact a most ridiculous position. Why
Mac swallowed the bile and pressed on, escapes intelligence completely. He
wrote Lincoln about this but to no avail.
near Tunstall's Station, May 21, 1862
I regret the state of things as to Gen.
McDowell's command. We must beat the enemy in front of Richmond. I most
respectfully suggest the policy of your concentrating here by movements by
water. I have no idea when McDowell can start, what are his means of
transportation, or when he may be expected to reach this vicinity. I regret
also the configuration of the Department of Rappahannock. It includes a portion
of the city of Richmond. I think that my own department should embrace the
entire field of military operations designed for the capture of that city. Further,
I do not comprehend your orders. If a junction between McDowell and myself is
effected before we occupy Richmond it must necessarily be east of the line
Fredericksburg-Richmond and within my department. This fact, my superior rank,
and the express language of the Articles of War will place McDowell under my
command. Put McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way.
B. McClellan, General Commanding
For Lincoln's part, it must be said, his mind obviously had
not accepted the idea that the capture of Richmond justified his full
commitment to McClellan's operation. What was it that drove Lincoln's mind at
this time, to refuse to support McClellan with all the Union forces available?
Was it truly the issue of security for Washington? Or was it Lincoln's appetite
for territory which required spreading his forces to hold it? Or was it
something else, politics perhaps?
The paramount criticism of Lincoln's conduct is his use of
John Fremont's force of 23,000 men. It simply defies rational explanation, why Lincoln would insist at this time that Fremont take 23,000 men and march them into the Alleghany Mountains. There was no reasonable chance that Fremont might actually be able to
move these men south, through the mountain valleys, two hundred miles to
Knoxville, much less get them in possession of the Tennessee-Virginia Railroad,
because there was no way to supply them.
Assuming Lincoln to have been a reasonably intelligent
person, then, we must look for an explanation by identifying a different motive
for his behavior than sheer stupidity. History teaches that, in wars generally,
governments tend to think first of holding territory as the means
of measuring who is winning and who is losing. Western Virginia was Union
territory, the argument might have gone, and, therefore, it had to be kept
secure; and Fremont's force was in place to do it. Lincoln thought holding territory was more important than capturing the enemy's capital. But,
if he actually believed this, he was being stupid, because the
capture of Richmond necessarily meant that Virginia, the most important State
in the Confederacy, was out of the war.
As with the capture of Corinth, the capture of Richmond, would result in the field of military operations shrinking into the Confederate
heartland of Georgia and the midlands of the Carolinas, Alabama and Mississippi. More territory would be gained for the Union, if Richmond was captured than
The only reasonable explanation, then, for Lincoln's refusal
to fully support McClellan's operations, as he was supporting Henry Halleck's
in the West, must be found in the fact that in McClellan's theater of
operations, unlike in Halleck's, there was the Union capital.
Rational minds can hardly disagree that the worst thing that
could have happened to the Lincoln Government, in its prosecution of the war,
was the failure of its naval blockade. From the day he started the war, Lincoln must have known that the only way he could lose it―aside from his generals bungling—was
if the Government of Great Britain decided to ignore the Union blockade of
Confederate ports. In the spring of 1862, as far as Lincoln could see, there
were strong personalities in the majority party controlling the British
Government who leaned toward adopting such a policy. If, in this context,
Washington were to be occupied by the enemy, even if it were just for a few
days, Lincoln had good reason to worry the British Government might seize upon
the event as the excuse to force entrance for its commercial fleet into
Charleston Harbor. If that happened, it is impossible to doubt, the Confederacy
would have gained independence.
Sees Into Lincoln's Mind
So Lincoln held back 100,000 men from McClellan's command,
to make absolutely certain, no matter what might happen, Washington would be
safe. Or was it that Lincoln wanted to show Great Britain's government that the
Union was clearly well on the way to crushing the resistance of the
Confederacy by force of arms. Whichever motive it was, General Lee, President
Davis's general-in-chief, understood Lincoln's state of mind completely and
played upon it, to save the Confederate capital from the tightening grip of
McClellan's brilliant siege operation.
The Key Point,
If McClellan Could Gain it, is Old Tavern;
From This Point
The Shells From McClellan's 30 pounder Parrott Guns
Demolish The Confederates Outer Lines.
Just as Halleck
did at Corinth, and Grant did at Vicksburg,
Dig His Way Right Up To The Rebel Lines
And Then Mount
Charges To Break Through.
The challenge for General Lee was how to take advantage of
Lincoln's legitimate concern for the security of Washington, as the means of
preventing McClellan from getting his right wing across the Chickahominy and
gaining possession of Old Tavern. Once McClellan had Old Tavern, Lee would have
been put in the position of Beauregard at Corinth and Pemberton at
Vicksburg―the enemy horde would be right up against the barricades and it
would eventually (whether it took months or a year) become impossible to keep
All through May General Lee was working behind the scenes to
get the Confederacy's available troops into the best position possible to turn
the table on Lincoln. The first thing he did was to organize troops for an
offensive through East Tennessee into Kentucky, with the idea of its drawing
enemy troops from Virginia. The second thing he did was to reinforce Stonewall
Jackson and send him down the Shenandoah Valley to attack Nathaniel Banks at Winchester, to draw McDowell's corps away from Richmond.
Richmond, May 8, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding
I understand that the enemy has built a
bridge of boats across the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg, but has not
yet occupied the town, his strength estimated at 15,000 to 20,000.
General Ewell at last reports was at
Swift Run Gap. General Jackson was at Staunton, with a view of uniting with
General Edward Johnson and attacking Fremont's advance, under Milroy, who is
not far from Buffalo Gap. General Banks has left Harrisonburg and passed down
the valley, his main body being beyond New Market.
In The Valley, Early May 1862
It has occurred to me that Banks's
object may be to form a junction with General McDowell on the Rappahannock. Two
brigades, one from North Carolina and one from Norfolk, have been directed to
proceed to Gordonsville, to reinforce that line, which at one time was
threatened by a column from Warrenton, the advance of which entered Culpeper
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Richmond, May 8, 1862
General Thomas J. Jackson:
From the retrograde movement of Banks
down the Valley, and his apparent intention to leave it, it is presumed he
contemplates a move in the direction of Fredericksburg for the purpose of
forming a junction with the column of General McDowell in front of that city.
Should it be ascertained that this is his intention, I have suggested to
General Ewell the practicability of striking Banks a blow while enroute to Fredericksburg.
General Ewell states in his letter that he will not leave Swift Run Gap until
the enemy have entirely left the Valley, or until he has orders to that effect
respectfully, your obedient servant, R.E. Lee, Genl.
Note: At the time this message
was sent, Jackson, in conjunction with Edward Johnson's command, had engaged Fremont's advance at the town of McDowell, causing it to withdraw northward to Fremont's main body which at that time was at the town of Franklin.
Now, Jackson began to press for authority to move again down
the Valley, and Lee readily facilitated the movement, at the same time dealing
with issues similar to those Lincoln had to deal with regarding McClellan.
New Kent Courthouse, May 9, 1862
General R.E. Lee, C.S.A.
Sir: Longstreet and G.W. Smith are two
officers necessary to the preservation of anything like organization in this
army. The troops, in addition to the lax discipline of volunteers, are
partially discontented at the conscription act and demoralized. Stragglers
cover the countryside, and Richmond is no doubt filled with the absent without
leave. It has been necessary to divide the army into two parts, one under Smith
on one road, the other under Longstreet on another. This army cannot be
commanded without these officers; indeed, several more major-generals like them
are required to make this an army. It is necessary to unite all our forces now.
All that I can control will be concentrated. Nothing is more necessary to us
than a distinct understanding of every officer's authority.
Most Respectfully, your
obedient servant, J.E. Johnston, General
Richmond, May 10, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnston, General
The enemy has crossed over the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg a regiment, perhaps more. General Patrick, brigade commander
at Fredericksburg, reports the enemy's strength there as 40,000 men.
Most Respectfully, R.E.Lee
Richmond, May 12, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding
Army of Northern Virginia
General: General Jackson is in the
valley, General Ewell in the direction of Gordonsville, and General J.R.
Anderson, with the troops near Fredericksburg, in the vicinity of that city.
General Jackson has been moved to General Edward Johnson, and General Ewell has
been called by him to Swift Run Gap.
The enemy is in front of these
divisions, and reported to be in greater strength than either. As our troops
recede the enemy will naturally follow.
Very Respectfully, R.E.
Richmond, May 16, 1862
General Thomas J. Jackson:
Banks has fallen back to Strasburg and
the Manassas Gap Railroad is in running order. Banks may intend to move his
army to the Manassas Junction and march thence to Fredericksburg. It is very
desirable to prevent him from going either to Fredericksburg or to the Peninsula. A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving
to either place. General Ewell telegraphed yesterday that in pursuance of
orders from you, he was moving down the Valley, and had ordered his troops at
Gordonsville to cross the Blue Ridge by way of Madison Court House and Fisher's
Gap. Whatever you do against Banks, do it quickly. Create the impression that
you design threatening the line of the Potomac.
I am general very respectfully your
obedient servant, R.E. Lee General
On May 20, McClellan's advance guard—Silas Casey's division
of Keyes's corps, marching on the Williamsburg Road, reached the Chickahominy
at Bottom's Bridge, ten miles due east of Richmond. Casey's men waded the
river and moved forward a mile and began digging fortifications. The next day,
more men crossed here, and a mile up the river at the York River Railroad Bridge. On a mile wide front, the Union troops moved westward, about four miles, to
the vicinity of Seven Pines, on the Williamsburg Road, and to near Fair Oaks
Station, on the railroad. At the same time, conforming to Lincoln's order to
reach out to McDowell, who was supposed to be moving southward, McClellan sent
Porter's corps to Mechanicsville, five miles up stream from the railroad
bridge, with cavalry and a division moving toward Hanover Courthouse. Heintzelman's
corps followed Keyes's across the river and the men of the two corps commenced
constructing three successive lines of defenses between the north edge of White Oak Swamp and the river.
Army Moving Forward Toward Seven Pines
It was now time for action on both sides: McClellan needed
McDowell's corps to arrive and cooperate with his evolving siege operation and
the Confederates needed Joe Johnston to at least stop Mac's forward progress.
To encourage action on Johnston's part, President Davis wrote him a personal
letter as McClellan's army was coming up..
Richmond, May 17, 1862
General: There is much
determination that the ancient and honored capital of Virginia, now the seat of
the Confederate Government, shall not fall into the hands of the enemy. Many
say rather let it be a heap of ashes.
To you the defense must be made outside
the city. The question is where and how? If the enemy proceed directly here
your policy, as you stated it in our last interview, seems to me to require no
modification. But, if, as reported here, the enemy should move toward James River you may meet him as he moves. My design is to suggest, not to direct,
recognizing the impossibility of any one to decide in advance; and reposing
confidently as well on your ability as on your zeal, it is my wish to leave you
with the fullest powers to exercise your judgment.
respectfully, yours, JEFFERSON DAVISI
Note: How George McClellan would
have wished to receive such a letter from his president. For a moment he
thought he did, but, instead, he received a great disappointment.
Washington, May 24, 1862
Maj. Gen. G.B. McClellan
I left General McDowell's camp at dark
last evening. Shield's command is there, but it is so worn out he cannot move
before Monday morning, the 26th. We have so thinned our line to get troops for
other places, that it was broken yesterday at Front Royal, putting General
Banks in some peril. McDowell and Shields both say they can, and positively
will, move Monday morning. You will have command of McDowell after he joins
Note: Lincoln's reference to his
"line" being broken hardly carries the weight that it would, if the
line broken was the Kentucky Line, or the Tennessee Line. He's talking about
the "line" between Strasburg and Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley,
about 80 miles from Washington.
Washington, May 24, at 4:00 p.m.
Maj. Gen. Geo. B. McClellan:
In consequence of General Banks's
critical position, I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell's
movements to join you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper's
Ferry, and we are trying to throw General Fremont's force and part of General
McDowell's in their rear.
Division Gone to Fredericksburg, Banks Is Routed,
And Runs For
The Potomac. Jackson Occupies Winchester And Sends a Brigade
To The Vicinity
Of Harper's Ferry.
Despite strong written objection from General McDowell, Lincoln orders him to march two divisions of his corps to Front Royal, to block Jackson's retreat up the Valley, and he orders Fremont to march to Harrisonburg and down
the Valley pike to Strasburg to meet Jackson as he retreats.
Plan To Rid The War of Jackson
Lincoln followed his May 24 message to McClellan with
another one on May 25.
Washington, May 25, 1862
Maj. Gen. Geo. B. McClellan:
On the 23rd a rebel force of 10,000
fell upon one of Bank's regiments at Front Royal, destroying it entirely, and
pushed on to Winchester. General Banks ran a race with them, beating them into Winchester yesterday evening. This morning a battle ensued, in which Banks was beaten back
in full retreat towards the Potomac, and is probably broken up into a total
rout. Stripped bare as we are here, I will do all that we can do to prevent
them crossing the Potomac at Harper's Ferry or above. McDowell has 20,000 of
his forces moving back to Front Royal, and Fremont, who is at Franklin, is
moving to Harrisonburg, both these movements intended to get in Jackson's rear. Do the best you can with the forces you have.
Two hours later Lincoln sent this to McClellan.
Washington, May 25 at 2:00 p.m.
I think Jackson's movement is a general
and concerted one, such as could not be made if he was acting upon the purpose
of a very desperate defense of Richmond. I think it is time that you must
either attack Richmond or give up the job, and come back to the defense of Washington. Let me hear from you instantly.
Just amazing. Ten thousand Confederate soldiers have routed
Banks's force of similar size, and are marching, it seems, toward the upper
Potomac River, having "broken the line" at Strasburg and Front Royal;
and because of this Lincoln thinks McClellan's 80,000 soldiers
must come back to Washington, instantly? Just amazing! Of course, had Lincoln had Fremont's 23,000 men where they should have been in the first place―at Winchester in the Valley, with Banks at Manassas—Jackson would not have attempted the
extremely dangerous endeavor of marching to the Potomac.
There is only one rational explanation for Lincoln's
behavior here: the problem was not the fact that Jackson had "broken the
line," or that he objectively poised a real threat to the
security of Washington―it was the public perception. That
is what General Lee expected Lincoln to react to.
The political situation Lincoln was in with Great Britain,
in his mind at least, made it impossible for him to simply ignore Jackson's
presence in the lower Shenandoah Valley and press McDowell's corps on to join
with McClellan. But his second message of May 25 defies explanation entirely;
it reveals the mind of a commander-in-chief in very high and irrational excitement
indeed. (What role Lincoln's so-called "War Board" played in all
this, the record does not say.)
The Battle of Seven Pines
At this time, in an incessant deluge of rain storms, the men
of McClellan's army were as busy as a hive of bees; building log roads and
ramps across the half mile wide swath of swamp that borders the Chickahominy,
building eleven bridges, each a quarter mile from another, along the four miles
of river front, from Bottom's Bridge to a point opposite Old Tavern called New
Bridge; and building a system of fortifications composed of redans, redoubts,
ramparts, and artillery battery lunettes, all the while pushing their lines
forward closer and closer toward the counterworks of the Confederates behind
During the day and night of May 30th a crashing thunderstorm
bore down on Richmond, dumping so many inches of rain that torrents of water
rushed into the Chickahominy bottomland, flooding the whole range to such an
extent that roads became useless and putting the bridges on the verge of being
washed away. At this point, Joe Johnston, having waited until the advance of
McClellan's left wing was several miles distant from the river, concentrated
almost his entire army against the front of Keyes's corps and attacked it in
.Little Mac was in the saddle, on May 31,
wearily leading Dan Webster into the bottomland opposite the bluffs in front
of Old Tavern. A whooshing wind whipped at the canopy of trees on the slope
behind him, driving a drenching rain squall toward the northwest. As the black
storm clouds barreled by, Mac bent his head under the drooping brim of his
high-crowned hat, and a rivulet of rain water streamed to the ground down the
skirt of his coat. A slight shutter from a malarial fever shook his solid frame. As the
big black stallion paddled through the slush, sniffing the air, McClellan
cupped his forehead in one hand and pressed his fingers against his temples to
repress a feeling of wooziness. Since bringing his army to the Chickahominy, Lincoln's young general had lost his appetite and was racked by dreams in his fitful
sleeps, of dead bodies of his soldiers floating like logs in the swampy ponds
and gullies, clogging the rivulets that streamed into the river.
The stallion's tight
haunches gave slightly as McClellan led him onto a water-logged knoll beyond
the tree line, and reined him to a stop. Feeling the slight pressure of
McClellan's bit, Big Dan stood still in water up to his shanks, his roman nose
thrust out, nostrils open, rain water dripping from his muzzle. He flicked his
pricked ears nervously one way, and then another, until they came sharply
forward and froze.
McClellan dropped his
hand to his thigh and straightened his body; extending himself in the saddle,
he scanned the opposite bank, shrouded in trees and tangled undergrowth, and he
listened. Across the river, the storm clouds were moving off, and patches of
pale blue were peeking through thin cracks in the steely southeastern sky. The
noise of the storm was falling off in the distance, and McClellan could hear
clearly now a muffled, rumbling sound, like heavy furniture being dragged
across a wooden floor. It was the sound of artillery booming in battery
somewhere in the forest across the river.
Turning in the saddle,
McClellan looked behind him. A group of horsemen were huddled on an elevation
underneath a clump of dripping trees. The French princes were there with two of
McClellan's corps commanders. Seeing McClellan raise his hand and beckon,
Fitz-John Porter and William Franklin nudged their horses into a walk. Holding
their reins high against their chests, the two major-generals guided their
horses gingerly down the boggy slope, the plopping hoofs of the animals making
sucking noises in the spongy ground.
Throughout the night and
into the morning of May 31, rain storms had been raging over the Virginia tidewater. When McClellan arrived at the river bank late in the morning, water,
black with iron, was surging out of the Chickahominy's main channel and
flooding the wide marshy bottomland of the river basin in confluence with the
storm water overflowing the ravines in the surrounding swamps. A hundred yards
to the north of where McClellan sat his horse waiting for Porter and Franklin
to come up, a corduroy wagon road came out of the forest and ran over the
bottomland to the main channel of the river. The road was elevated on an
embankment that wound through the swamp from the direction of Gaines Mill, two
miles east of the river. A plank bridge, known as the "New Bridge," that spanned the main channel was gone; it was swept away by the morning
flood. On the opposite bank beyond the main channel, the road from the New Bridge crossing continued through a series of farm fields which a man named Garnett had
cleared from the bottomland. Past the fields, where the slope of the steep
bluffs began, the ruts of the wagon road tracked into a ravine in the bluff
wall and climbed to the plateau alongside a brawling streamlet which emptied
into the Chickahominy basin; reaching the plateau at a point where the thick
forest along the rim gave way to more of Garnett's farmland, the road ran a
half mile west to intersect with the bend of the Nine Miles Road at Old Tavern.
The Highland Springs Ravine
commanders sidled their horses to stand on opposite sides of him, as a
feathering cascade of rain, dropping from the tail of the last squall like a
curtain, moved off beyond the river. Franklin and Porter were West Point
classmates of McClellan and they were his only friends in the hellish place he
was mired in.
"It sounds like
the rascals have engaged with Keyes's front on the Williamsburg Road,"
McClellan said, when Franklin and Porter rode up.
toward the gap in the road crossing of the Chickahominy. "If Keyes and
Heintzelman can hold their lines across the river, the army might extend its front
from their position at Seven Pines on the Williamsburg road, up the Nine Mile
road to Old Tavern. Control of the Seven Pines crossroad with the Nine Mile
road makes our operations on the York River Railroad secure back at least as
far as Tunstall's Station and allows us to unite our whole line two miles
closer to Richmond, bring up our heavy guns and push into the city."
Porter and Franklin said
nothing as the sound of artillery fire waned and flared and waned again.
McClellan shifted his
weight in the saddle and turned toward Franklin on his near side. "Porter
must keep his divisions on our right flank facing north, to guard against the
enemy trying to get into our rear from the direction of Mechanicsville and
Hanover Junction, but, if Sumner crosses his divisions over the Chickahominy on
the lower bridges near the York River Railroad, and moves to the north around
the rear of Keyes and Heintzelman, can you not get your infantry across the
river on that road over there and connect with Sumner's right in the fields
between Fair Oaks Station and Old Tavern?
Franklin's mount suddenly snorted and moved sideways
several steps, casting its tail against the flies that had risen when the wind
and rain died down and were now swarming around its haunches. He leaned forward
and touched the animal's neck soothingly, turning him around in a circle to
stand still again next to McClellan.
Franklin scanned the gap in the dense timber that lined
the far rim of the river bluffs. He could see no sign of activity going on
across the river, but he had examined the several ravines that cut into the
bluffs with his field glasses the day before, and he had read the reports of
his topographical engineers who had studied the enemy's movements on the
plateau, from perches in the trees near Fair Oaks. During the last seventy-two
hours, the engineers had reported that the enemy was throwing up a maze of
earthworks in the two mile space of Richmond suburb known today as Highland
Springs. Masses of rebel troops were seen marching, with flying banners and
bands blaring, back and forth over the plateau while teams of artillery horses
passed through the intervals, pulling cannon into protected positions. The
rebel army was plainly giving the invaders notice the ground of Highland Springs
was occupied with heavy force.
Shaking his head dourly,
Franklin shifted the reins, leading his horse a step closer to McClellan. He
pointed at the half-submerged timber posts protruding from the brawling river
which marked the location of the New Bridge crossing.
"When the bridge is
rebuilt, I think I can get the head of a column over the river," he said;
"but, with these rains, the road through those farm fields and up that
ravine will be a quagmire. It may be impossible for the men to climb to the rim
and even if they can, they must go without artillery. Sumner can use his
bridges to get over the river now and connect at a right angle to Keyes's front
near Fair Oaks. Then, with Heintzelman's support, he can move up the Nine Mile
road on Old Tavern. Once Sumner gets a grip on the plateau beyond Fair Oaks and develops pressure against Secesh's position in front of Old Tavern, my
divisions, with their artillery, might follow Sumner across the river, either
here or on the lower bridges and also support his attack."
The sound of the cannon
was completely gone now, and only the calls of a few water birds could be heard
echoing in the river basin. The clearing sky was spreading westward, in the
wake of the distant patches of scooting rain squalls.
The three generals sat
silently for a time in their saddles. On McClellan's right, Fitz-John Porter
sat deep in his saddle, his gleaming eyes scanning the tree line across the
river. As Porter listened to Franklin speak, the creases around the corners of
his eyes tightened slightly and he rubbed the knuckles of his gloved hand
against the bristles of beard on his chin.
A graduate of the West Point class of 1845,
Porter fought with General Taylor's army at the battle of Buena Vista and he
was with General Scott's army when it landed at Vera Cruz and he had fought in
the breakout battle of Cerro Gordo, at Molino dey Rey and in front of the Belen
Gate at Mexico City. On the narrow causeway in front of the gate, his crew
lying wounded or dead around him, like Grant and Jackson, he had loaded an
eight inch howitzer and repulsed a Mexican infantry charge with canister. After
the war, Porter was an instructor of artillery and post adjutant at West Point during General Lee's tour of duty as superintendent. Immediately after the fall
of Sumter, General Scott had sent Porter to Harrisburg where he organized the
Pennsylvania Reserves. When Scott brought McClellan to Washington, Porter
joined McClellan's training staff. By November 1861, he was in command of a
division and in April 1862 McClellan gave him a corps. Like McClellan,
Fitz-John Porter disdained the politics of radical republicanism and wished
that the war would end with the Union as it was.
Porter shifted his seat
in the saddle and turned toward McClellan. "Mac, given the ground we now
occupy in this hellish place, if you don't fight those people over there for
possession of Old Tavern soon, they will soon be fighting me over here for your
line of communication with the Lee Place."
In the distance, an
eagle glided high in a spiraling ascent in the thermal air over the river. Stroking
Dan Webster's long black mane, McClellan's followed the eagle's flight through
the sky with his eyes. When it sailed out of sight beyond the trees, he dropped
his gaze and looked sullenly across the Chickahominy at the jungly, dark
palisades protecting Richmond.
The look on Mac's face
was drawn and weary. "For the sake of the cause, Fitz, I dare not risk the
safety of this army in making a general attack unless I am certain I can make a
sure thing of it." He said.
Before Porter could
respond, the silence of the forest was broken suddenly by the crackling rattle
of thousands of rifles discharging in unison. Somewhere across the Chickahominy
masses of men were volleying.
McClellan said, "the rain hasn't stopped Secesh from lamming into Keyes. I
had better get Sumner across the river before the Chickahominy washes his
Seizing the brim of his
hat, McClellan swept it off his head and slapped it against his leg; his
startled charger pegged sideways a few strides along the swamped knoll. Then he
pulled the reins to the left and nudged a blunt spur against the black
stallion's flank, and the sleek horse spun round and lunged up the slope,
plunging through the ruck in a spray of water.
Franklin and Porter
followed McClellan up the slope to solid ground where the trio joined the
French princes waiting in the clump of trees, and then, in a bunch, they
galloped onto the military road McClellan's pioneers had carved through the
Chickahominy wilderness and the horses asked for more bridle and they went
hammering over the planks in long driving strides toward Sumner's bridges.
The Ramp From The Grapevine Bridge
* * *
The Confederate army
opposing McClellan's advance at Seven Pines was organized into six divisions.
Several of these were larger than McClellan's divisions, subdivided into four,
five and six brigades instead of three.
General Joe Johnston, the Confederate field
commander, recognized that the army's first imperative was to prevent the enemy
from establishing a line of entrenchments within heavy artillery range of the
perimeter of Richmond. Since 1793, when Napoleon drove the British out of Toulon with artillery, the concentric fire of screened batteries advancing against a
fortified town, to open the way for the sudden, fierce rush of an overwhelming
infantry assault, more often than not secured victory for the attacker. By
1862, with indirect fire of rifled cannon and heavy ordinance, like the massive
Parrott guns, capable of throwing 100 pound shells three thousand yards, Richmond was doomed to capture unless its defenders kept the enemy's big guns out of
range. Therefore, at the very least, the tactical situation McClellan's move to
the Chickahominy had created, required Johnston to formulate a plan of
operation which would arrest, if not reverse, the enemy's advance across the
One plan of operation
available to Johnston was to attack McClellan's advancing left wing. After
crossing the Chickahominy, the two divisions of Keyes's corps advanced, step by
step, toward Seven Pines. Reaching that place on May 24, at about the same time
Stonewall Jackson was breaking Lincoln's so-called line at Front Royal, Keyes's
men encountered a line of rebel skirmishers and pushed them back a mile, across
a farmer's field to the fringe of a swampy forest, now drained and occupied by
the Richmond International Airport.
During the next several
days, the men of Keyes's two divisions, Casey's in front and Couch's behind,
constructed two lines of entrenchments between the edge of White Oak Swamp, on
their left, and the intersection of the York River Railroad and the Nine Mile
Road at Fair Oaks Station on their right.
White Oak Swamp
Two miles behind the position
of Keyes's corps at Seven Pines, down the Williamsburg Road near Savage's
Station, Kearney's division of Heintzelman's corps built a third line of
entrenchments. A mile farther back, near the Bottom's Bridge crossing of the
Chickahominy, Hooker's division built up a defensive position at the edge of
White Oak Swamp where it drains into the Chickahominy. Two miles northeast of
Keyes's corps, across the Chickahominy river basin, the men of Sumner's corps
were building causeways and bridges to span the wide, marshy flatland, and open
a wagon road (HW 156) running from Old Cold Harbor six miles to Fair Oaks.
The Old Cold Harbor road
snakes south to the Chickahominy on a swell of ground that squeezes between the
headwaters of Boatswain's Creek and the marshy fringe of Elder Swamp. In 1862, after crossing the main channel of the river, at Sumner's Grapevine Bridge, the
road ran over Golding's farm on the Chickahominy bottomland and up over the
open fields of Adam's farm on the Richmond plateau to the intersection of the
York River Railroad and the Nine Mile road at Fair Oaks Station.
At the time Keyes
began digging in his line at Seven Pines, McClellan's
engineers were busy building six trestle and pontoon bridges between New Bridge and Bottom's bridges. Three of these bridges were being built along the front of
Sumner's line on the left bank of the Chickahominy. Once the bridges were
completed, Sumner could bring his divisions and artillery across the river in
three columns and move directly on the sector of ground east of the Nine Mile
road between Old Tavern and Fair Oaks. Any attack Johnston might order his army
to launch against Keyes, with the objective of driving him back on Heintzelman
and pushing both of them back across the Chickahominy, would have a better
chance of success if the attack commenced before Sumner's divisions could get
across the river.
Another plan of
operation open to Johnston was to launch an attack against McClellan's right
wing. On May 24, as the men of Casey's division were digging a line of rifle
pits in front of Seven Pines and building up an advanced stronghold in front of
their center, Fitz-John Porter's cavalry, supported by horse artillery and one
infantry brigade, occupied Mechanicsville. Supporting this position, Porter's
five remaining brigades took position on the left bank of Beaver Dam Creek.
Enclosed by steep banks along a southwesterly two mile course, two converging
branches of the stream flow together into the Chickahominy, several hundred yards
south of the Mechanicsville bridge.
The ground between the
streamlets, about a half mile wide and two miles long, gave McClellan a natural
bastion to anchor his extreme right and protect his right rear. A frontal
attack against Porter's line along the creek would require the rebel infantry
to cross the Chickahominy on rickety bridges, drive Porter's advanced guard out
of Mechanicsville and then turn to the southeast. To reach Porter's first line,
the rebel assault group would have to go down the steep bank of Beaver Dam
Creek under the sweep of enemy rifle and artillery fire, cross over fifty yards
of marshy creek bottom and then climb up the opposite bank through a tangle of
fallen trees and run up to the enemy's entrenchments. Reaching that point, the attacking
force must then hold its position under the fire of Porter's infantry and
artillery until reinforcements came up behind to attempt a decisive
The tactical strength of
Porter's position at Beaver Dam Creek made it certain that the attacking force
would suffer severe casualties with little chance that the sacrifice would
result in a successful breakthrough; for even if the rebels broke through
Porter's front line, McClellan had the four divisions of Franklin's and
Sumner's corps available on the left bank to come quickly to Porter's support.
To lessen the casualty
rate of the frontal attack against Porter, and increase its chances of success,
it was possible for the rebel infantry columns crossing the Chickahominy above
Mechanicsville to march in a wide arc, indirectly heading for McClellan's rear;
but the line of march would require the rebel infantry to pass over a
steep-banked, narrow stream that rises on the north slope of a gentle ridge in
front of Beaver Dam Creek. The stream drains the Topotamomy Swamp into the Pamunkey River to the west, and can only be crossed on two roads which intersect
with the Shady Grove Church road on the south side of the swamp.
The Shady Grove Church road (HW 627) runs several miles from the Chickahominy along the crest of
this ridge. One of the two roads (HW 301) runs from Hanover Courthouse across
the mouth of the Pamunkey, passes Haw's Shop and the swamp and connects with
the Shady Grove Church road at a point behind the headwaters of Beaver Dam Creek
near Bethesda Church. The other road (HW 643) runs south from the vicinity of
Peak's Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, passes Hundley's Corner and Pole Green Church, then it crosses Beaver Dam Creek at its mid point, and continues toward
Gaines Mill and Old Cold Harbor four miles away.
Making a flank march
across Porter's front, however, would not go undetected by McClellan.
Stoneman's cavalry was patrolling on the Shady Grove road, which runs eastward
on the crest of the ridge and intersects both the Peak's Station road at Pole
Green Church and the Hanover Courthouse road at a point north of Bethesda
Church. Stoneman's cavalry squadrons were picketing the two approach roads far
in advance of the Shady Church Grove Road. Any attempt by the rebels to move
masses of infantry east on the north side of Totopomomy Swamp and swing them
south on these roads would quickly be discovered by Stoneman, and the bridges
over the Totopomomy stream would be destroyed.
Meanwhile, as the rebel
columns marched indirectly for McClellan's rear, Franklin might easily extend
Porter's line eastward toward the Pampunky and, as the distance increased
between the rebel attacking column and the Chickahominy bridges, McClellan
might launch either a general attack against the rebel position at Old Tavern
or he might order Porter to seize Mechanicsville; either action might isolate
one wing of the rebel army from the other and give McClellan the opportunity to
destroy one of them.
Beaver Dam Creek
Furthermore, even if Franklin's corps did not extend Porter's line, McClellan might still develop a general
attack against the rebel forces remaining on the right bank of the
Chickahominy. Franklin might easily reverse the direction of his front to
support Porter's right flank. Like Porter's, Franklin's corps also occupied a
bastion-like piece of ground, which was bordered on three sides by a
water-filled ditch: on the north, by the wide mouth of Beaver Dam Creek; on the
west, by the Chickahominy; and, on the south, by the branches of Powhite Creek.
The eastern fringe of Franklin's ground was cut up by a series of ravines formed by several streamlets that
trickled into the headwaters of both Powhite Creek and Beaver Dam Creek. The
road from Peak's Station, intersecting the Shady Grove Church Road near Pole
Green Church, runs through Franklin's position, and then bends southeast past
Powhite Creek and Gaines's mill-ponds; skirting the upper branches of
Boatswain's Creek the road runs through Old Cold Harbor. As it passes the
mill-ponds, this road intersects the wagon road leading west from Gaines Mill
to the New Bridge crossing of the Chickahominy. On the right bank of the river,
in 1862, the road bed passed over Garnett's farm fields on the bottomland and,
once up on the Richmond plateau, it followed what today is called Lee Avenue
where it connects to the Nine Mile road at St. John's Church.
The New Bridge Road leading To Old Tavern
In his advance of the
Army of the Potomac from Yorktown to the Richmond suburbs, General McClellan
had maneuvered his force into an outstanding tactical position.
The strength of
McClellan's tactical position put Joe Johnston in a quandary, where the choice
between the available plans of operations entailed great danger to the security
of his army. Any rebel advance made indirectly against McClellan's right rear
risked not only the development of frontal assaults against the strong
defensive positions Porter and Franklin both held, but also the development of
a counterattack against the rebel right wing, by Sumner's corps joining Keyes's
and Heintzelman's in a push on Old Tavern through the sector of Highland
In the short run, an
attack against McClellan's left flank might gain some temporary success, but,
in the long run, only an attack against McClellan's right flank, threatening
his line of communication with his tactical base of supply at the Lee Place,
had any chance of keeping McClellan away from Richmond.
Since in either case,
the rebel army would suffer huge casualties and its organizational strength
would be diminished as a result, the hard mathematics of war made the right
choice between possible offensive operations clear: if casualties there must
be, it was better to absorb them in fighting McClellan's army for its base of
supply than fighting to merely push back McClellan's advancing left wing. And
yet, the great danger Johnston worried might follow from seizing the initiative
made him hesitate.
* * *
In the face of Johnston's textbook tactical
choices, President Davis was as anxious as Lincoln for his field commander to
take the initiative and attack the enemy. Jeff Davis knew that if McClellan's
army forced the Confederate army to abandon Richmond as its base of supply, the
Confederate Government might easily shift its military operations in Virginia
to Petersburg and if forced to move from there, then it might use Lynchburg and
if from there, it might operate from Roanoke or Danville and so on. Indeed,
even if the Confederate army was forced outside the borders of Virginia, and into the midlands of the Confederates States to Atlanta, five hundred miles
away, its strategic base in the Confederate heartland would still allow it to
conduct military operations for years.
But Davis also knew as
well as Lincoln that the hard mathematics of war made it clear to every
thinking mind that the great disparity between the North and the South, in
population and gross national product, would reduce the Southern people to a
state of starvation making surrender inevitable. Only if the Confederate States
might gain a strong ally among the European powers, would the Davis government
have a chance to win a political stalemate with Lincoln's government.
At the moment of
McClellan's appearance on the Chickahominy, the British House of Commons was
engaged in a hot debate over whether to adopt a resolution, authorizing the
Royal Navy to escort convoys of British merchant ships into Charleston Harbor. If Davis lost hold of Richmond, he would lose the State of Virginia to Lincoln, and, with the loss of Virginia, would go the last hope of maritime trade with Britain.
On May 15, when the
Confederate forces crossed the Chickahominy from their retreat from the Peninsula, President Davis had ridden out from Richmond, in the company of General Lee, and
met with Johnston at his headquarters on the Williamsburg road near Seven
The three men conferred
late into the night, trying to come to a consensus what the Army should do. The
conference ended in a desultory fashion, with Davis unable to commit Johnston to a plan of operation. In the following days, as McClellan's five corps came
into position on the Chickahominy, Davis, back in Richmond, wrote several
letters to Johnston, pressing him to launch an attack against McClellan.
Sequestered at his field headquarters near the Chickahominy, Johnston did not
reply to Davis's letters and the army remained on the defensive. On May 24,
exasperated by Johnston's refusal to take the initiative against McClellan,
President Davis called for General Lee to come to his residence on Clay Street.
* * *
In the gray mid-morning
of that day, General Lee left his rooms on Franklin Street and walked to the
corner of Ninth Street. At the intersection, he crossed Ninth Street and turned
up the brick walk, past the old Bell Tower, to Capital Square. Looming above
him as he climbed the green temple hill, the statute of George Washington,
fixed ramrod straight in the saddle of a trotting bronze horse, was impatiently
pointing his ragged rebel army toward Trenton.
Passing the Capital
Building, General Lee reached Broad Street and crossed over to the north side
between the wagon traffic and walked east several blocks to Twelfth Street,
where he turned up to Clay Street. Two sentries, with long rifles topped with
stiletto-like bayonets propped straight up against their right shoulders, were
pacing in front of the Davis Residence when General Lee came round the corner
and approached. The sentry nearest the iron gate that led to the porch came to
attention as General Lee passed through and walked up the steps. At the top of
the landing, General Lee raised a large brass knocker on the door and let it
fall against the striker.
Immediately the door
opened, and a tall Lake Country African, dressed in a white polkadot shirt,
with a small white bowtie and black broadcloth coat and trousers, motioned for
General Lee to enter. The African's face was the color of obsidian, shiny and
deeply creased and immutable, with high cheekbones, impenetrable black eyes and
a flat nose; flecks of white colored the tips of the man's wooly hair.
President Davis's War Time Residence In Richmond
As General Lee removed
his hat, the African bowed slightly, motioning with the pale copper palm of an
upturned hand for General Lee to follow him into the vestibule. The entrance
room was round, with a high vaulted ceiling from which hung a bronze chandelier
wrapped in black gauze to snare the spring flies. A spiral staircase wound down
from the second floor along the wall. "Mr. Davis is in the
study," the African said, in a tone of voice that was at once deferential
and aloof. The African walked across the room ahead of General Lee, the leather
heels of his polished shoes making clicking sounds on the marble floor.
General Lee followed him into a shadowy corridor
and down it to a pair of sliding doors. When the African opened the doors of
the study, a grey light spilled into the corridor from two casement windows
inside. In the center of the room, President Davis was bent over a small,
ornately craved mahogany desk, leafing through a stack of telegrams with a
pained, haggard look on his thin, white face. Hearing the study doors open,
President Davis straightened as he saw General Lee step forward from the
shadows of the corridor and enter the room. "Come in. Come in." Davis said, as he stepped round the desk and clasped General Lee's hand. Behind them, the
African quietly closed the study doors.
President Davis drew
General Lee toward a thick round table set back in the room under the casement
windows. Davis went back to the study desk and
began nervously picking through his papers again.
Glancing toward the
windows, General Lee laid his hat down on one of the sills and pulled a chair
back from the table, positioning it so that one of the narrow shafts of grey
light fell over his shoulder; then he sat down, crossed his legs and began
reading the several letters Davis brought to the table. The first letter dealt
with the status of the few coastal ports still in Confederate control; the
second was a letter from Beauregard―Henry Halleck, the Commander of
Lincoln's Department of the West, was approaching Corinth from Pittsburg
Landing with one hundred thousand men. The third letter was the President's
last letter to General Johnston.
As General Lee read
through the correspondence, President Davis paced the carpet impatiently;
passing back and forth across the patch of light the grey sky threw through the
casement windows, Davis's sharp, thin features gave an impression that he was suffering
a great fatigue.
Just before the servant
opened the study doors to admit General Lee, Davis had been reading and
rereading a letter he had received from John Mason, the Confederacy's
representative in London; enclosed with the letter was a statement made in
debate in the British House of Commons by Lord John Russell, Queen Victoria's Minister for Foreign Affairs.
United States Government have now, for more than twelve months, endeavored to
maintain a blockade of three thousand miles of coast. This blockade has
seriously injured the trade and manufactures of the United Kingdom. Yet her
Majesty's Government has never sought to take advantage of the obvious
imperfections of this blockade, in order to declare it ineffective. It has, to
the loss and detriment of the British nation, scrupulously observed the duties
of Great Britain toward a friendly state."
President Davis had
rightly read into Russell's statement, ominous news for his government. Since
1861, the great powers of Europe—Britain, France and Russia―had
recognized both the United States and the Confederate States as belligerent
powers; as such, under the provisions of the 1856 Treaty of Paris, British
merchant ships were entitled to enter and exit all of the sea ports of the
Confederate States, unless the United States maintained a force
"sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy."
Up to the spring of 1862, the United States Navy had not done this. Instead of
attempting to physically blockade the entire coastline of the Confederacy, the
Navy stationed its squadrons outside the major ports and intercepted some, but
not all, of the many ships attempting to enter the harbors. The Treaty of Paris mandated that if the blockading belligerent state failed to seal access to the small
ports as well as the large ones, the neutral states were at liberty to trade
with the blockaded belligerent state. If, in the course of such trade, the
neutral state's merchant vessels were seized by the blockading belligerent
state, the neutral state was at liberty, under the treaty, to use its navy to
escort its merchant vessels safely into any port. The Lincoln Government repudiated
these provisions of the Treaty of Paris. As a consequence, a fleet of U.S. warships, operating from Key West, and patrolling the sea lanes between the
Confederate ports and the West Indies, had been boarding neutral vessels at
will and taking them as prizes if military contraband was found.
the blockade policy of the Lincoln Government unfolded, President Davis had
calculated that the British Government would claim the right under the Treaty
of Paris to forcibly open full trade with the Confederate States. But Lord
Russell's statement made in the House of Commons in the midst of the neutrality
debate shocked Davis into recognizing his delusion.
When General Lee had
read through the letters and laid them down on the table, President Davis
stopped pacing and sat down at the table opposite him. A slight glare from the
tall windows fell on the polished surface of the table, and Davis bent his head
for a moment. His left eye was covered with a whitish film from a chronic
infection and he pressed the palm of his hand against it to counteract the pain
throbbing behind it. Then, dropping his hand limply to his lap, as if the force
of gravity exerted too great a weight to resist, the Confederate President's
chin slumped against his chest and his gaze shifted toward the window.
against us, General Lee." President Davis said. The sound of his voice was
dull and muffled and full of despair. "Lincoln has suppressed all
resistance to his government in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. For
a railroad, his congress will soon recognize western Virginia as a new state in
the Union. His Western armies occupy most of Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, and Beauregard writes that he cannot hold Corinth and must soon fall back to Tupelo. Lincoln's gun boats dominate the Mississippi River from Memphis to St. Louis, and from New Orleans to Vicksburg. His navy has all of our major sea ports
blockaded and, despite her hunger for our cotton, Britain will never send the
Royal Navy to force them open."
President Davis's voice trailed off as he peered
into the garden through the casement windows. A row of Elm trees stood at the
back of the garden; behind their green tinged branches, he could see dimly
rising behind them, the pediment peak of the Virginia Statehouse.
"And now, Lincoln has his army right here in front of Richmond!" Davis said, his voice rising
angrily. "Even if Mississippi should fall, the people in Texas and in the
midlands of Alabama and Georgia and Carolina will fight on against Lincoln's tyranny; but, if he gains possession of Virginia, he will have cut the heart out
of our struggle and the people will resign themselves to surrender."
General Lee did not
immediately reply. He sat quietly with one leg crossed over a knee, his hands
folded in his lap. The Virginia soldier and the Confederate President sat
together at the table for a long time in silence. The faint sound of a distant
rumble rippled against the window panes and rain drops began to spatter against
the glass and course downward in blurry streaks.
President turned back to face General Lee; resting his chin against a bent forefinger,
his left elbow on the armrest, he watched the light fall on the profile of
General Lee's face: salty black, short-cropped hair, curling back from a broad
forehead, intense brown eyes set close to a thick Comanche nose under bushy
black eyebrows, full lips and a firm, thrusting chin; Lee's face radiated an
expression of cold, quiet confidence.
Davis leaned forward and rested his arms on the table
as he gathered a deep breath to speak. "Is there nothing that can be done
to drive McClellan away from Richmond?" Davis asked.
Silence pervaded the
room again as General Lee still looked away, out the window toward the back of
the garden where Jefferson's Roman temple loomed behind the flutes of the Elm
trees, his mind silently running, like a tumbler in a gearbox, through the
classic textbook examples of siege and maneuver, stretching back before Christ
to Alexander at Halicarnassus and Arbela. Drive McClellan away from Richmond? Not likely.
General Lee brought his
attention back to the President when Davis spoke again.
must take the offensive against McClellan or he must be replaced with someone
who will." The President said.
Like a diplomat, General
Lee made a depreciating gesture with his hand as he turned toward the
President, and the stern expression on his face lightened a bit. "General
Johnston is concerned, I know, that our available forces are not yet all in
hand, they are young and untrained and opposed to the work required for proper
entrenchments; and the spring weather makes the movement of large numbers over
the forest roads very difficult. I am sure General Johnston has delayed writing
back to you at this moment because he is busy distributing his forces in the
field in readiness for active operations against the enemy. I will go to him
and help in his hurrying to you the formulation of a good plan." General
While General Lee was
speaking, President Davis pulled himself erect in his chair and stared
pensively at Lee across the table. A muscle faintly twitched behind the
President's high cheekbones and his fine lips slightly trembled. General Lee
sat patiently, letting the silence soothe the tension that had built up in Davis's nervous frame.
Abruptly, General Lee
pushed back his chair and stood up; retrieving his hat from the window sill, he
half turned toward the President, moving smoothly toward the center of the room
and, lowering his shoulders, he made an almost imperceptible bow. "I will
go directly to General Johnston and consult with him as to the proper
plan." General Lee said as he paused at the corner of the President's
President Davis rose
from his chair and came forward, touching General Lee's elbow with a hand, and
walked with the soldier to the drawing room doors. President Davis opened the
doors and entered the hallway. General Lee followed. Ahead of them, in the
vestibule, the African was standing at his station near the entrance door.
After taking a few paces down the hallway, President Davis caught General Lee's
sleeve as they walked and hissed angrily: "If McClellan gets hold of Richmond his army will turn the Allegheny Mountains by the fall and be in Atlanta by Christmas."
General Lee stepped in
front of President Davis and gripped him by the shoulders in the country manner
of Virginia gentlemen and smiled warmly. "Stop, please stop, Mr.
President," Lee said in a quiet voice. "Lincoln's people haven't
whipped Virginia yet." General Lee released his grip on the President and
turned into the vestibule and went toward the entrance door, settling his hat
low against his temples as he strode away.
President Davis stepped
back several paces into the dim hallway light and watched General Lee pass
through the entrance door the African negro slave had opened for him. For a
moment, General Lee paused and looked at the African; it was a look of warm familiarity
and the African's eyes sparkled as Lee passed out the door.
When the entrance door
was closed again and the servant turned around, the corridor was empty. Resting
a hand on the brass banister of the spiral staircase, he began to slowly climb
the stairs. It was the sultry hours of the day, when motion stopped in the big
houses of Richmond and the city fell silent as a tomb.
In the afternoon of May
31, the generals of the nascent Army of Northern Virginia fumbled their first
offensive against McClellan. The evening before, Joe Johnston had given written
orders to five of his six division commanders for an early morning attack
against the front of McClellan's forces. According to Johnston's written
orders, two of the six Confederate divisions were to act defensively in the
protection of the army's left flank, with one division in reserve, while the
other three acted in concert to annihilate the enemy on the right bank of the
Johnson's original order
of battle gave the divisions of A.P. Hill and John Magruder the responsibility
of guarding against McClellan launching a counterattack. A.P. Hill's division
of three brigades was ordered to maintain its position between Mechanicsville
and New Bridge and block Fitz-John Porter's corps from attempting to cross the
Chickahominy into Johnston's rear. To Hill's right, John Magruder's division of
four brigades occupied a line of entrenchments along the rim of the
Chickahominy bluffs down to the deep ravine at the southern boundary of
Highland Springs. Magruder's assignment was to guard the several bridge
crossings in front of Franklin's corps. Meanwhile, the five brigades of
Whiting's division were to form a general reserve near Old Tavern and be ready
to either support the Confederate attack down the Nine Mile Road or reinforce
the Confederate defensive perimeter on the bluffs in the event a Union counterattack developed.
The three remaining
divisions, D.H. Hill's, Longstreet's and Benjamin Huger's, were to cooperate
together in a three pronged assault on the enemy. Two of D.H. Hill's four
brigades were to advance on both sides of the Williamsburg Road and attack the
left center of Keyes's front line about a mile in front of Seven Pines.
Like Heintzelman behind
him, Keyes had 6 brigades and eight batteries deployed in two lines about a
mile apart. The flanks of Keyes's lines extended to White Oak Swamp on the left
and Fair Oaks Station on the right. On Hill's left, Longstreet was to bring
into line two of his six brigades and connect with D.H. Hill's line in the
vicinity of the York River Railroad. With their remaining brigades in close
support, Hill and Longstreet were then expected to attack the left center and
right flank of Keyes's front line from the direction of the Williamsburg and
Nine Mile roads. When the pressure of the Confederates' front four brigades
broke Keyes's first line composed of three brigades, the Confederates' six
supporting brigades would sweep forward and invigorate the Confederate attack
against Keyes's second line.
The evolution of the
battle now being six Union brigades resisting the pressure of ten Confederate
brigades, the Confederates would press on to envelop the enemy's flanks and cut
his forces off from the Chickahominy bridges. When Hill's and Longstreet's
divisions drove Keyes's condensed lines back on Heintzelsman's first line, the
three brigades of Huger's division were expected to threaten the Union line of
retreat across the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge. While Hill's forces were
bending back the enemy's left flank on the north side of White Oak Swamp, Huger's brigades were to march along the swamp's south side and engage Heintzelman's
second line, which was entrenched at the mouth of the swamp in front of the
At the same time, if no
Union counterattack had developed from the direction of Mechanicsville or New
Bridge, the five brigades of Whiting's division, held in reserve at Old Tavern,
would be released to march down the Nine Mile Road to Fair Oaks and reinforce
the Confederate drive against the Union right flank and its line of retreat via
the Grapevine Bridge. Squeezed into the bottom of a sack by relentless
three-sided rebel pressure, the only way left for the surviving Union soldiers
to escape annihilation would be to rush pell mell for the York River Railroad
During the long stormy night of May 30th, at his
headquarters established in the widow Dabb's farm house on the Nine Mile road,
Joe Johnston and James Longstreet went alone together into a room and talked
about Johnston's plan of operation until dawn. Acquainted with Longstreet
before the war, Johnston had sponsored him when, after resigning from the old
army, Longstreet appeared in Richmond in June 1861. Assigned to duty as a
brigadier, Longstreet served under Johnston at the Battle of Bull Run and,
later, promoted to major-general, he accompanied Johnston when Johnston took command of Confederate forces at Yorktown. In the retreat from Yorktown, Johnston had delegated command of the rear guard to Longstreet and his management
of its engagement with the enemy at Williamsburg marked him as an officer fit
for corps command. Now, Johnston was counting on Longstreet to manage the
initial Confederate assault on the enemy's front line in the morning. But,
listening to Longstreet's wary warnings of disaster for Confederate arms,
amidst the pounding din of incessant rain and howling wind, Johnston's resolve
to seize the initiative melted and he began to think defensively.
When the dismal morning of
May 31 came, Longstreet rode west on the Nine Mile road to his division's
encampment along the banks of Stony Run, and General Johnston sent a message by
courier to Huger: "I fear that my note of last evening was too positive on
the subject of your attacking the enemy's left flank. It will be necessary for
you to know what force is in your front, it will be well to aid Hill, but then
a strong reserve should be retained to cover our right."
message reached Huger as his men were breaking down their camp on the grounds
of Oakwood Cemetery and forming their brigades into a long column on the muddy
farm road (the East Richmond road today) that runs down the ravine to the
bridge crossing of Gillie's Creek. Johnston's message did not change the line
of Huger's march and he wasted no time in getting his men moving toward White
Oak Swamp. An hour into his march, however, when he came down the road to
Gillies Creek, Huger found Longstreet sitting casually on his horse, with his
division clogging the road in front of the bridge crossing. The booming storm
waters had carried away the bridge and Longstreet's pioneers were busy making a
bridge out of planks braced over a wagon that they had pushed into the stream
In the conference that
followed between the two generals, Longstreet took the position with Huger that
as the date of his commission made him the senior officer present, he was
entitled to exercise general command of Huger's force. Under this supposed
authority, Longstreet ordered Huger to follow him across the stream. Then,
after Huger finally got his division across the creek in Longstreet's wake,
Longstreet ordered him to move his division to the front of the column and
relieve Rodes's brigade of Hill's division which was stationed at the
intersection of the Williamsburg Road and the Charles City Road.
Marching south on Eanes Lane, Huger reached the Williamsburg road at about 12:30 p.m. and moved east to its intersection with the Charles City road. As his lead brigade came into sight at
the intersection, the men of Rodes's brigade began marching northeast across
the marshy farmlands toward the Williamsburg Road to support Hill's attack on
the center of the Union line at Seven Pines.
Following behind Huger
on the Williamsburg road, Longstreet sent three of his brigades down the
Charles City Road to march with Huger's toward the Chickahominy; orders and counter
orders would come from Longstreet, requiring the six brigades to march back and
forth on the Charles City road, while the battle on the north side of White Oak
Swamp raged through the day. Approaching Hill's rear, Longstreet sent a fourth
brigade, Pickett's, cross-country to the York River Railroad to guard the
Confederate left rear. Then, with his remaining two brigades, Kemper's and R.H.
Anderson's, Longstreet moved forward on the Williamsburg road to support Hill's
attack on the Union front.
The Union front line was
occupied by three brigades under the tactical command of Silas Casey; an old
army officer who had written the West Point textbook on infantry tactics, Casey
would shortly find himself relieved of duty by McClellan and sent to the rear
By 1:00 p.m., with the
skies clearing and the last wisps of pale fog burning off the patchwork of
puddled fields and timber belts in front of them, Casey's men were hunkered
down in their line of rifle pits; four regiments occupied the rifle pits on the
south side of the Williamsburg Road, four regiments were in the center pits and
five regiments were in the trenches running toward the York River Railroad
tracks, about a half mile north of the road. A fort built of timber was on the
south side of the Williamsburg Road one hundred yards in advance of the rifle
pits. All the trees in the vicinity of the Union front line had been cleared of
timber to create a field of fire of about a mile in depth. In the middle of the
clearing, the felled trees were laying on the ground side by side, with the
canopies of their branches pointing west. On the right of the road, a quarter
mile beyond the felled trees, a battery of four three inch rifled guns was
posted in two sections, the cannoneers periodically crashing a shell into dense
green belt of timber where the enemy could be seen moving among the trees.
Supporting the guns were three regiments Casey had called up from Keyes's
Around 1:00 p.m. a rebel cannon banged from somewhere in the forest, and a long swath of grey
surged from the fringe of the weeping green forest and spread into the miry
fields. Watching the rebels come on, the Union soldiers stood almost shoulder
to shoulder in the rifle pits, their cheeks pressed against the stocks of their
rifles, which were laid in glistening rows upon the parapets, and began to fire
at targets. A mile away, on the north side of the Williamsburg road, the men of
Samuel Garland's brigade of Hill's division were advancing in scattered
formation on a 1/2 mile front. A graduate of V.M.I., Garland was practicing law
in Lynchburg when the war broke out; now, quickly promoted from captain to
colonel to brigadier, Garland was managing the advance of five North Carolina regiments in battle.
Wading knee-deep through
muddy pools of black water, some sinking to their hips in the boggy places, Garland's johnnies came up within a hundred yards of the front of the Union regiments
supporting the battery of guns and engaged in a withering fire fight that
lasted for an hour. Garland's lead regiment, the Twenty-Third North Carolina,
lost eighteen of its twenty nine field officers in a matter of minutes.
Finally, Garland's supporting regiments rushed against the Union regiments in a
fearless advance, each man charging on his own account, and pressed them back.
The Union cannoneers, seeing that the rebels were gaining a foothold in the
widening gap between their guns and their infantry support, began to limber up
to get their guns off the field.
A battery of rebel guns then appeared on Garland's flank and began to fire shells into the crowd of cannoneers struggling to manage
the teams of artillery horses milling behind their guns. With the enemy guns
now either disabled or fleeing the field, the remnants of the four Union
regiments retreated toward Fair Oaks Station and Garland's men moved up to the
abatis of felled trees and laid down behind the branches. Four more North Carolina brigades, under George Anderson, then came up men and passed through the
files of Garland's men and began crawling through the thick interlocking
branches toward the base of the trees. Watching their comrades press on in
front of them, Garland's men picked themselves up off the ground and, wild-eyed
and howling, they scrambled after them. With the unity of pride that comes
among people who know each other well, the North Carolinians cleared the trees
and raced for the Union parapets as streams of canister and lead smashed the
faces of their most reckless ones.
On the other side of the
Williamsburg road, Rodes's brigade of five Alabama regiments was emerging from
the fringe of White Oak Swamp and began crossing the open fields and entering
the abatis of trees. Behind the left of Rodes's regiments, a rebel battery
unlimbered and began directing shell fire at the Union redoubt which had six
guns showering the Alabamians with shrapnel as they cleared the tangle of trees
and surged around the redoubt.
Excited beyond control by the wild firing, the
crashing cannon, the crowding of the ranks, Casey's far left regiment leaped
out of their rifle pits and ran forward into the open field to meet the charge
of the Alabamians head on. As the two sides fired their rifles into each
other's faces, Hill's last brigade of North Carolinians appeared in the gap
between the edge of White Oak Swamp and the left flank of Casey's rifle pits.
The front regiments of Rains's brigade let loose a thunderous rifle volley into
the rear of the Union regiment and then the files of the rear regiments stepped
up to the front and charged into Casey's rear and seized the rifle pits as the
Union soldiers now gave way and fled toward Keyes's second line straddling the
intersection of the Williamsburg and Nine Mile roads at Seven Pines.
Now, with Rodes's
Alabamians swarming over the redoubt, capturing its defenders with their guns,
and Garland's and Anderson's North Carolinians entering Casey's rifle pits on
the north side of the road the Confederates reorganized, and closed up their
lines and pushed east. As the rebel pursuit came up to the abatis strung in
front of the Union second line, R.H. Anderson's brigade of five South Carolina regiments from Longstreet's division came up through Garland's straggling
forces and broke through to the Nine Mile Road, between Fair Oaks and Seven
On the south side of the Williamsburg road
Rodes's men swept through the abatis and up to the parapets of the second line
of rifle pits. But then a fresh Union brigade from Kearney's division of
Heintzelman's corps came up the Williamsburg road from the third line and
pitched into Rodes's regiments, driving them back to the abatis. Meanwhile on
the north side of the road, three of the South Carolina regiments came charging
down the Nine Mile road to the Seven Pines intersection and crashed into the
right flank of Kearney's men.
* * *
Sometime around noon, Joe Johnston left the widow Dabb's farmhouse and rode alone east on the Nine Mile
road to Old Tavern. Arriving in the vicinity of what is now Lee Avenue, a
little after 1:00 p.m., Johnston turned into a lane that led to a ramshackle
cottage by the side of one of Garnett's fields. The foundation of the cottage rested
on little piers of stones and it had a small porch with an overhanging roof
that was partially collapsed.
Johnston dismounted his horse and, wrapping its reins
around one of the porch railings, he climbed a pair of rickety steps to the
landing and sat down on a long plank bench built against the cottage wall. In
the fields around him, stretching off toward the Chickahominy, there were
blocks of bronze, black-bearded men, dressed in baggy brown shirts and
trousers, resting on their arms. Here and there among the men, bunches of
purple flags fluttered on poles stuck in the ground. Clusters of mounted field
officers roamed about in the rows between the blocks and occasionally lone
riders appeared, posting down the long lanes bearing messages back and forth
between the commands. A half mile farther to the east, along the Chickahominy
bluffs, the men of Magruder's division leaned apprehensively on the parapets of
their entrenchments. Down in the bottomlands, rebel pickets crouched in the
thick undergrowth, scanning the tree line on the opposite bank for any sign the
enemy were massing for a move on the bridges.
From time to time, a
courier from Magruder would ride up the lane to the cottage and report on the
movements of the enemy across the river, but no one came with news from
Longstreet. In midafternoon, Johnston called for an aide to come up and when he
arrived, Johnston sent him down the Nine Mile road toward Fair Oaks to scout
for Longstreet's flank but he never returned.
As the afternoon dragged
on, Johnston heard muffled sounds of cannon fire which came across the farm
fields from the direction of Seven Pines. After a while, a different noise,
much louder than the first, peaked and fell, like the sound of heavy gut snares
rattling against thick drum heads, a regiment of drummers might make shuffling
down a street on parade.
Joe Johnston jumped up
from the bench and took several quick strides to the south side of the porch
and leaned against the railing. He listened for the sound to repeat. Five minutes
passed. Nothing. Johnston nervously pulled at the trim goatee that covered his
chin and glanced at the sky. The milky disk of sun was finally well down from
the meridian, leaving only a few hours of daylight before dark. The time had
come to make a decision.
He walked back across
the porch to the steps and looked out over the fields toward the point where
the New Bridge road disappeared into the fringe of trees at the bluffs, his
mind racing back through the calculations he had made the night before.
The first quality of a
general is fortitude. McClellan's reaction to the rebel attack on his front
should have been to come like lightening with his other corps across the
Chickahominy bridges and challenge the Confederates for possession of Old
Tavern. At the very least, McClellan should have been feinting by now a river
crossing somewhere against the Confederate left flank.
Johnston shifted his gaze north, following the fringe of
trees up toward Hill's position in front of Mechanicsville. If there was any
movement of the enemy to be seen in front of Hill's and Magruder's division,
Johnston knew he would have heard about it by now. And yet McClellan could not
possibly be doing nothing to relieve the pressure on his position at Seven
The rebel general came
down the steps in a flash and, releasing his horse's reins, he swung into the
saddle as the horse spun around and broke into a run down the lane. Joe
Johnston had finally made up his mind to order Whiting to go in.
* * *
A Mississippian, Billy
Whiting had graduated first in his class at West Point, in 1845, and spent
fifteen years as an engineer in the old army before resigning in 1861.
Commissioned a major of engineers in the Confederate Army, Whiting first served
as Johnston's chief engineer during the battle of Bull Run. Promoted to the
rank of brigadier-general in the fall of 1861, by the time McClellan began
advancing up the Peninsula Whiting was in temporary command of a division of
ten thousand men composed of five brigades led by Law, Pettigrew, Hampton,
Hatton and Hood.
With Law's brigade
leading the way on the Nine Mile Road, Whiting quickly marched his division in
a column to the gap between the tip of the long ravine that pokes into the
Richmond plateau at the south border of Highland Springs and the line of the
York River Railroad, about a quarter mile north of Fair Oaks Station. Reaching
this point, the head of the rebel column began to take rifle fire from enemy
infantry in the fields on the south side of the Highland Springs ravine. This
fire was coming from five Union regiments which had been driven back from the
right flank of Keyes's lines by R.H. Anderson's brigade during the second wave
of the Confederate attack in the early afternoon.
Johnston, who had ridden
forward toward Fair Oaks Station through a stand of trees, came back up the
Nine Mile road and ordered Whiting to deploy his brigades at a right angle to
the road and push forward into the Adams' farm fields, which laid in the angle
of ground behind the ravine, and cut off the enemy's retreat toward the
Grapevine Bridge crossing of the Chickahominy.
Whiting cautioned Johnston that the Confederate pickets reported a large enemy force was behind the ravine,
but Johnston, insisting that the enemy was present in brigade size and was
retreating, ordered Whiting to push a battle line into the field.
Complying with Johnston's order, Whiting left Hampton and Hatton on the Nine Mile road behind Law and
sent Hood to the right of the road, with instructions to come into line on Law's
right while Pettigrew was moved into line on Law's left. Then, with the Sixth
North Carolina regiment in the lead, Whiting advanced Law's brigade into a belt
of trees that covered the ground in the gap between the ravine and the
Emerging from the tree
line, the North Carolinians slopped into the muddy farm field and began
pursuing the enemy infantry, nearing the Adam's farm house several hundred
yards away. A half mile beyond the farm house, the Grapevine bridge spanned the
Chickahominy and connected to a wagon road that ran past the farm lane to Fair Oaks. While the 6th North Carolina was moving past the ravine and into the Adams field, Joe Johnston rode through the woods and came out into a clearing near Fair
Oaks Station and watched the North Carolinians as they advanced.
Seeing them pass through
an abandoned Union encampment, Johnston decided the enemy force was the
remnants of a scattered Union brigade and posed no threat to Whiting's
division. Turning his horse around, Johnston rode back through the trees;
finding Hood engaged in deploying his brigade on the west side of the Nine
Miles Road, Johnston ordered Hood to move west across the railroad tracks and
connect his brigade with D.H. Hill's left flank which Johnston assumed was somewhere
between the tracks and the Williamsburg road.
Half way across the Adams farm field, the men of
the Sixth North Carolina found themselves blasted by two batteries of
artillery, twelve guns, which opened on their front from both sides of the Adams farm house. Law, seeing the regiment splinter into fragments, the men throwing
themselves down in the mud to escape the canister coming at them in a barrage
of lead, ordered the rest of his regiments to go forward on the run; but the
Union infantry, now laying down in a ditch in front of the farm house, added
their rifle fire to the artillery barrage and the rebel brigade broke and came
streaming back from the field in little groups and into the skirt of woods that
fringes the Highland Springs ravine.
As the remnants of Law's
brigade reached the ravine, Pettigrew's brigade came out of the woods and
advanced over the field toward the Adams house just as a moving mass of blue
appeared on the rim of the Chickahominy bluffs; smudged against the backlight
of the green forest, the moving mass grew into distinct, thick lines of Union
infantry as the rebel attackers came into action against the enemy troops and
guns around the farm house. Sedgwick's division from Sumner's corps had crossed
the Chickahominy on a half-submerged wobbly bridge; dragging four cannon with
them, the front of his men came charging with bayonets past the farmhouse and
stopped Pettigrew's men cold.
Hampton's and Hatton's brigades came pouring out of the woods around the ravine
to reinforce Pettigrew, whose men were falling back from the field. Almost
immediately, Hatton was shot from his horse and killed as his brigade crossed
the saddle of the ravine and came out into the field. Soon after this, Hampton was wounded and fell to the ground unconscious. Pettigrew was struck in the neck
by a rifle bullet and left for dead on the field. For thirty minutes, not
twenty yards apart, the leaderless men of the three rebel brigades laid in the
morass of the farm field and in the tangle of thick undergrowth and trees that
covered the ravine, under fire from the Union artillery pounding at them from
the center of the Union line.
Confederate attack on the left had been broken by the arrival of Union
reinforcements, Johnston returned to the Nine Miles road; finding the situation
perilous for Whiting's three brigades, he sent couriers galloping to bring
Hood's brigade back from the right and he called for Magruder to pull a brigade
from the New Bridge entrenchments to come to Whiting's support.
By now, the sun was
falling behind the distant church spires of Richmond and the battlefield slowly
became immersed in a cold gloom.
After the couriers went
off with their messages, Joe Johnston galloped down the Nine Miles road toward
the gap between the ravine and Fair Oaks to take command of the field. When he
neared the head of the Highland Springs ravine, he was struck by a rifle bullet
which pierced his shoulder, and a fragment of bursting artillery shell slammed
into his chest and he was knocked, bleeding and unconscious, to the ground.
Several of Whiting's men saw Johnston's fall and they lifted him into a blanket
and dragged him quickly from the field. Reaching the Nine Miles road, the
soldiers found a two wheel ammunition cart pulled by a mule and used it to get
the Confederate commanding general into Richmond. Soon after the cart bearing Johnston lumbered away from the battlefield, the guns of the warring parties became quiet
in the thickening night. The Battle of Seven Pines was over, and McClellan
still held a grip on the right bank of the Chickahominy.
* * *
Of the six Union
division commanders holding McClellan's ground at Seven Pines, none would
survive the war as a fighting general. Angered by the failure of Keyes's first
line to hold its ground against D.H. Hill's first attack, McClellan immediately
stripped Silas Casey of his command and sent him back to Washington where he
soon fell into retirement. Darius Couch, commanding the division holding
Keyes's second line, would rise to command a corps at Chancellorsville; but
after that battle, because of ill health, he was assigned charge of the Pennsylvania militia at Harrisburg where he remained until the close of the war. Commanding
the division holding the Union's third line at Seven Pines was Phillip Kearny,
the one armed veteran of the Mexican War; he would be killed two months later
blocking the Confederate advance from Groveton. A few weeks after Kearny's death, Israel Richardson, commanding the second division of Sumner's corps to
cross over the Chickahominy, would be killed near the Bloody Lane at Sharpsburg. John Sedgwick would rise to command a corps at the outset of Grant's campaign
against Richmond; but he would be killed by a sniper's bullet in the
Wilderness. Joe Hooker, whose division guarded the Union's left rear at Seven
Pines, would win command of McDowell's corps after Groveton. Later, in 1863, he
would command the Union Army at Chancellorsville; then, disgraced by Lee's
great victory there, Lincoln would shuffle him to the West where he would gain
redemption as a corps commander in the battles around Chattanooga and Atlanta and then abruptly retire.
Of the six Confederate
division commanders that had opposed McClellan's advance past Seven Pines, all
except one survived the war as generals. After Malvern Hill, John Magruder and
Bill Whiting would be sent to command the coastal defenses of Texas and South Carolina. Benjamin Huger would be sent to Petersburg. After Sharpsburg, D.H. Hill
would return to North Carolina and command the defense of Wilmington. James
Longstreet and A.P. Hill would rise to command the First and Second Corps of
the Army of Northern Virginia, at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Longstreet would suffer a life-threatening throat wound in the
Wilderness but he would recover and be present with General Lee at the
Surrender. A.P. Hill would fall ill at crucial times, but always he would
return to duty. When Grant finally turned Lee's line at Five Forks after ten
months of siege, A.P. Hill took to the saddle and rode alone directly into the
midst of the advancing Union infantry and was shot dead.
* * *
At first light on the
morning of June 1, Richardson's division of Sumner's corps crossed the
Chickahominy on the Grapevine Bridge and came into line behind Sedgwick's
division, bringing with him five batteries of artillery which were soon spread
through the Union lines.
By 6:00 a.m., Richardson and Sedgwick had their lines connected with Kearney's division in the
entrenchments of Keyes's second line.
As McClellan's fresh
divisions took over the front, Keyes removed his battered divisions to the rear
where they became the general reserve. Hooker's division of Heintzelman's corps
remained in front of Bottom's Bridge, watching the approaches from White Oak
Confronted now by six
Union divisions, the Confederate right wing, holding the entrenchments of
Keyes's first line, made a desultory attack on the reinforced enemy line. The
several brigades of Longstreet's division and the three brigades of Huger's,
which had not seen action the day before, moved forward toward the Seven Pines
intersection and engaged in an exchange of rifle and artillery fire with
Richardson's division; but, when none of the Confederate divisions behind the
Highland Springs ravine came forward to support the Confederate attack,
Longstreet ordered the brigades under his command to fall back to the captured
Union trenches behind Seven Pines.
As Longstreet's men were
breaking off their engagement with Richardson's division, Billy Whiting was
standing with his field officers on the margin of the Nine Miles road,
supervising the movement of his division back toward Holly Avenue, which marks
the midway point of Highland Springs. Whiting was moving his division away from
the Highland Springs ravine, bringing the rebel defensive perimeter north of
the railroad closer to Lee Avenue, to support A.P. Hill and Magruder's
divisions against a possible Union flank attack coming from the Chickahominy
In the distance, Whiting
saw the thin figure of a horseman dressed in civilian clothes loping down the
Nine Miles road toward him. As the horseman came near his position at the Holly Avenue intersection, Whiting saw that it was President Davis and he ran into the
middle of the road with his hands up, reaching for the lagging portion of the
reins. "Mr. President, you are riding within range of the enemy's
guns." Whiting shouted as Davis's horse, a sleek chestnut stallion,
lurched aggressively to a stop.
When he had the animal
quieted, the Confederate President turned stiffly in his saddle and looked
around at the troops filing past him on both margins of the road. "How is
that, General," Davis said, his face registering an angry, impatient look.
"I understand the front of our position is in the field beyond the
railroad tracks on the far side of Fair Oaks." Davis pointed down the
"No, Mr. President.
During the night, in the absence of General Johnston, it was decided to make
this point our advance on the left." Whiting said.
President Davis shook
his head irritably. "Well, Sir. Stop your men right where they are and you
wait here for General Lee. He has General Johnston's place as commander of this
Giving Whiting no time
to reply, President Davis abruptly turned his chestnut stallion to the right,
and, feeling the rein, the horse gathered his haunches under him and lunged
forward; leaping over the remnants of a broken rail fence bordering the road,
horse and rider in rhythm as one swept off across the sloppy fields in grand,
smooth strides and soon disappeared into the woods.
Off to the northwest, the storm clouds, which had
swollen the Chickahominy on the first day of battle at Seven Pines, were
sliding now, with bulging black bottoms and billowing white heads, over the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley. On June 2, the storm clouds released their
swollen bladders over the Massanutton and a deluge of water fell down the sharp
slopes of the mountain into the streams that feed the forks of the Shenandoah River.
Under the cold brunt of
the storm clouds' rain and hail, Stonewall Jackson's rumbling wagon train came
up the valley pike to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. At the North Fork bridgehead, the wagon train was delayed for almost half of a day when a wagon
broke down on the bridge and a large herd of captured cattle became confused in
the maze of stalled wagons and began milling in front of the bridgehead.
With Major Harman,
Jackson's wagon master, hollering orders, some of the teamsters moved their
wagons to the shoulders of the road and formed a makeshift corral which kept
the cattle from scattering into the fields, while others climbed into the bed
of the broken wagon and began throwing its contents over the bridge railing;
then, when the wagon was light enough, a gang of teamsters took hold of the
wagon's axle stems and carried it to the south side of the bridge and set it on
the shoulder. With the bridge clear again, the cattle herd was driven over the
bridge and the wagon train straightened out and got rolling south again.
Toward nightfall, when
the last of Jackson's wagons were long gone from the river, the men of Winder's
brigade came staggering up to the bridgehead in the rain. Winder's brigade,
which Jackson had marched to Harper's Ferry, had finally gotten up to Strasburg
the day before. and marched past the Manassas Gap Railroad, to take Jackson's van as the rest of the rebel infantry brigades, holding off Shields and Fremont from the valley pike, formed into a marching column behind.
Hungry, wet, and covered
with a grimy paste of dirt, Winder's groggy column of hollow-eyed young men
broke down into twos and threes and, sharing scraps of gum blankets they had
taken from the Yankees, they laid down together on the gravel road bed. They
had marched one hundred and fifty miles in five days and their legs could not
carry them any farther without rest.
A day later, Tuesday,
June 3, the rest of Jackson's slogging army reached the North Fork bridge and
crossed over, following in the trail of Winder's men who had gone south that
morning toward Harrisonburg.
What Happened in May 1862
The War In The West
The Papers of General Grant
The War in the East
The Papers of General McClellan