Monday, December 04, 2006

The Seven Days Battles

Dates: 25 June- 1 July, 1862


Union: Major General George McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: Since April of 1862, McClellan had moved his army in his usual glacial way. Instead of a straight in approach to the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA, he opted to move his troops by water to Fort Monroe, at the tip of a peninsula formed by the James River to the south, and the York River to the north. The first objective, the city of Yorktown, was taken after a month long siege, despite the fact that it was defended by only 10,000 Confederates. McClellan always believed that he was outnumbered, but he actually had a 10-to-1 superiority over Major General John Magruder’s defenders.

4 May, 1862: Magruder is ordered to pull back, leaving Yorktown to the Federals.

5 May, 1862: A Federal division under Brigadier General Joseph Hooker launches an attack on the Confederate rear guard at Williamsburg.

7 May, 1862: McClellan tries flanking maneuver by sending four divisions up the York River to Eltham’s Landing, where they are immediately hit by retreating Confederates in a battle that lasts for several hours.

9 May, 1862: As McClellan meets with President Lincoln about the operation, the Confederates abandon the Norfolk Navy Yard and begin an attempt to get the ironclad warship CSS Virginia to Richmond.

11 May, 1862: Because the vessel requires water deeper than the James to travel safely, it was decided to scuttle the pioneering ironclad warship rather than to let the Federals have it.

By 13 May, the mood in Richmond was one of panic. Civilians prepare to flee the city as the Confederate Government discusses their own evacuation.

15 May, 1862: A Federal attempt to assault Richmond by river is repulsed at Drewry’s Bluff, southeast of Richmond, at a fort manned by the former crew of the Virginia. The Union flotilla includes USS Monitor, the warship that engaged Virginia back on 9 March. At the same time, General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in Virginia, pulls his army across the Chickahominy River.

16 May, 1862: McClellan establishes his headquarters and supply point at White House Landing.
17 May 1862: Johnston arrives at Richmond and reports the situation to Confederate President Davis.

18 May 1862: Suffolk, VA falls to Union troops.

21 May, 1862: McClellan halts his advance, citing Confederate numerical superiority and requests additional troops. One thing that would complicate the deployment of any reinforcements is the presence of a Confederate army led by Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson in the Shenandoah River Valley.

25 May, 1862: McClellan receives an ultimatum from President Lincoln, either continue the advance or come to the defense of Washington.

27 May, 1862: The Confederates put up a strong defense at Hanover Court House, but are forced to continue the retreat. Federal units are within 10 miles of Richmond.

31 May, 1862: Johnston launches a massive attack at Fair Oaks. By noon, the Union forces are driven back to an area known as Seven Pines. At about 5:00 p.m. Johnston is seriously wounded.

Around that time, President Davis was touring the area with his military advisor, General Lee. Upon hearing of Johnston’s wounding, Lee is ordered to command the defense forces.

1 June, 1862: After taking command of the Confederate defense forces guarding Richmond, Lee begins planning to take the fight to McClellan.

Between 12 and 15 June, the Confederate cavalry arm, under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, rides around the Union force, gathering intelligence, attacking supply depots, and causing general havoc amongst the Federals.

It was also during this time that Lee designated his new command the Army of Northern Virginia. He also orders Jackson to bring his forces south and join him.

Meanwhile, McClellan’s army is split, with II Corps, under Major General Edwin Sumner, III Corps, under Major General Samuel Heintzelman, IV Corps, under Major General Erasmus Keyes, and VI Corps, under Major General William Franklin to the south of the Chickahominy. V Corps, under Major General Fitz John Porter, is north of the river.

McClellan still believes that he is outnumbered. In his reports that the Confederates have 200,000 men, but the truth was that Lee had less than half that, even with Jackson coming.

In any case, Lee is ready to attack.

26 June 1864: Battle of Mechanicsville: Lee’s plan is to hold the Federals south of the Chickahominy while launching a massive assault on Porter’s corps. The battle opens with Magruder’s division launching an attack on the main Federal force. Lee orders Major General A.P. Hill’s division (there were no corps in the Army of Northern Virginia yet) to attack the Porter with Jackson in support except for one problem, Jackson is about six hours late. Hill decides to attack anyway, driving back Porter’s units until getting stopped by Federal artillery. Another Confederate division, under Major General D.H. Hill (no relation) is also stopped by artillery fire. Despite the arrival of Jackson’s army about 5:00 p.m., Lee decides to halt the attack for the day.

McClellan hears about the attack and decides that despite Porter holding back the initial attack, he orders his army to start pulling back in order to save his supply base.

27 June, 1862: Battle of Gaines Mill: Lee puts A.P. Hill at the front of the next attack, which sustains enough causalities to end up getting pulled out of the fight. A second wave, consisting of the divisions of D.H. Hill, Major General Richard Ewell, Major General James Longstreet, as well as Jackson’s army pushes Porter across the Chickahominy and into the retreat with the rest of McClellan’s army.

28 June, 1862: McClellan orders the supplies at White House Landing destroyed rather than let them fall into Confederate hands.

29 June, 1862: Battle of Savage’s Station: McClellan decided to move his army south to Harrison’s Landing on the James. Any chance to take Richmond was lost when the order to retreat was issued. Lee pushes in the attack, sending in Magruder against Sumner’s II Corps and driving them back after two hours.

30 June, 1862: Battle of White Oak Swamp (Glendale, VA): Lee plans to send most of his forces to hit the Federals on their left flank while Jackson tries to hit their rear. Jackson is delayed when the bridge across the swamp was destroyed by retreating Federals. Lee launches his attack anyway, which is repulsed. That night, McClellan orders his army back to a high point in the area called Malvern Hill.

1 July, 1862: Battle of Malvern Hill: McClellan has placed his forces on top of Malvern Hill, supported by a massive artillery line commanded by Major General Henry Hunt. A.P. Hill advises against a frontal assault but Lee decides that this is the best way to drive the Federals off. He orders all of his troops to go into the attack, but due to lack of communication, Longstreet, A.P. Hill and Jackson are not involved. Instead, the divisions of D.H. Hill, Magruder, and Major General Benjamin Huger, are sent up the hill and into
a storm of shot and shell that Hunt’s guns unleashed on them. That artillery and a little help from the Union warships USS Mahaska and Galena held off the Confederates until sundown. That night, McClellan ordered his army to Harrison’s Landing, where they would wait for transports to take them away.

Lee removed the threat from Richmond and established himself as an able army commander. The Union would not get this close for another two years. McClellan, on the other hand, would lose the confidence of President Lincoln and would start down the road to his eventual removal from command.


Union: 15,849 out of over 100,000

Confederate: 20,141 out of about 80,000

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