THE SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES BEFORE RICHMOND
(Taken from The Confederate Military History, Volume 3, Chapter XVI)
Lee, in his first general order to the army before Richmond, said: The presence of the enemy in front of the capital, the great interests involved, and the existence of all that is dear to us, appeal in terms too strong to be unheard, and the general commanding feels assured that every man has resolved to maintain the ancient fame of the army of Northern Virginia and the reputation of its general [Johnston], and to conquer or die in the approaching contest." In a private letter he wrote: "I wish his [Johnston's] mantle had fallen upon an abler man, or that I were able to drive our enemies back to their homes. I have no ambition and no desire but for the attainment of this object." Writing in a humorous vein to a young friend, General Lee described himself, at this supreme moment of taking high command, in these words:
My coat is of gray, of the regulation style and pattern, and my pants are dark blue, as is also prescribed, partly hid by my long boots. I have the same handsome hat which surmounts my gray head, (the latter is not prescribed in the regulations), and shields my ugly face, which is masked by a white beard as stiff and wiry as the teeth of a card. In fact, an uglier person you have never seen, and so unattractive is it to our enemies that they shoot at it whenever it is visible to them.
McClellan was busy during the first half of June in massing four of his corps on the south of the Chickahominy, near the position where Lee found them when he took command; while with the remainder of his army he assiduously fortified his chosen position on the north side of that swampy river, drawing his supplies by the York River railroad from the stores at White House on the Pamunkey. McCall's division, from McDowell's army, reached him on the I3th, but Lincoln held the rest of that corps in front of Washington, still fearing an attack from Jackson. By the 20th, McClellan had 115,000 men present for duty, to which Lee, at first, could oppose but 57,000, but to these he soon added 15,000 from the Carolinas. On the 8th, while Jackson was ambidextrously engaged with Fremont and Shields, Lee was writing to him: "Should there be nothing requiring your attention in the valley, so as to prevent your leaving it for a few days, and you can make arrangements to deceive the enemy and impress him with the idea of your presence, please let me know, that you may unite at the decisive moment with the army near Richmond." Jackson, in reply, asked for reinforcements and the privilege of dealing further blows at his Valley opponents. Lee promptly sent him fourteen veteran regiments, under Lawton and Whiting, sending them off by rail on that day; marching them through Richmond in martial array, with all the pomp and circumstance of war, and taking good care to have McClellan apprised of their destination. The story of Jackson's Valley campaign has already been told, as well as the use he made of these reinforcements, and how he left the Valley on the l7th of June to swell Lee's forces at Richmond, after having amply provided for the quiet and safety of the large Federal army that his strategy had massed in the lower valley.
Undaunted courage, coupled with rare caution, characterized the new Confederate general commanding. Desiring to be fully informed in reference to the rear as well as the front of the great host beleaguering Richmond, Lee took his bold and ever-alert cavalry leader, J. E. B. Stuart, into his councils, and dispatched him on the 12th with 1,200 veteran cavalry to reconnoiter McClellan's rear. Starting from Richmond he followed the Brook turnpike northward to Ashland, then turned eastward by way of Hanover Court House, and followed the main road down the south side of the Pamunkey, a few miles in the rear of McClellan's far-stretching army, crossing the York River railroad at Tunstall's, making captures, destroying stores, and breaking the enemy's line of communication as he went; then, turning southward, he crossed the swollen Chickahominy, near Providence forge, and continued to the banks of the James at Charles City, whence he returned by the river road to Richmond, having in forty-eight hours, with the loss of but a single man, the brave LatanÚČ whom he left in the hands of noble Virginia women for burial, ridden entirely around the Federal army and gathered information of incalculable value to Lee in maturing his plans.
Jackson, by marching and using the trains of the Virginia Central railroad, in a "ride-and-tie" way, reached Frederickshall on the 21st, where he rested on Sunday, the 22d. At midnight, after the Sabbath had passed, Jackson mounted his horse, and accompanied by a single courier, rode rapidly toward Richmond for a conference to which Lee had invited him. By impressing a relay of horses, he reached that city after a 50-mile ride, at 1 p.m., and at 3, Monday, 23d, was in conference with the commanding general in reference to an attack on McClellan's right. On that same Monday, Jackson's men moved forward and on the evening of the 25th reached Ashland, suffering greatly from the intense summer heat of the lowlands, the choking dust of the roads, and the scarcity of water.
By June 24th, McClellan had an inkling of the approach of Jackson, and asked Stanton, his secretary of war, what he knew of the whereabouts of this hard-to-be-located man. This information was supplied him on the 25th, locating Jackson anywhere from Gordonsville to Luray, or in the mountains of West Virginia, while Banks and Fremont, in the lower valley, were intently watching for an attack by him from up the valley. On this same 25th, McClellan telegraphed to Washington: "I am inclined to think that Jackson will attack my right and rear. The rebel force is stated at 200,000, including Jackson and Beauregard. I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true."
Lee's plan of attack, which he communicated to his division commanders in a confidential general order, was for Jackson to move on the 25th from Ashland, and encamp his 16,000 men west of the Virginia Central railroad; at 3 a.m. on the 26th to march southeastward by way of Old Polly Hundley's corner and across the Totopotomoy, to Pole Green church, near Hundley's corner, in the rear of McClellan's position and on the Shady Grove road which leads into the road following down the Pamunkey. As Jackson crossed the railway he was to inform Branch, on the Brook turnpike, who was guarding that approach to Richmond with one of A. P. Hill's brigades, who, when thus informed, was to cross the Chickahominy and move down its northern bank toward Mechanicsville. The order next stated: "As soon as the movements of these rear columns (Jackson's and Branch's) are discovered, Gen. A. P. Hill, with the rest of his division (11,000 men), will cross the Chickahominy near Meadow bridge and move direct upon Mechanicsville ;" Hill's movement to be followed by Longstreet, crossing the Mechanicsville bridge with his 9,000, followed by D. H. Hill with his 10,000, these three to unite in a general movement against McClellan's right flank down the north bank of the Chickahominy. Stuart, with his cavalry, was to lead Jackson's movement and then extend his left, the object of Lee being to cut off any retreat of McClellan toward his base of supplies, by having Stuart and Jackson in his rear and ready to push eastward and intercept a retreat if he should attempt one.
To repeat, Lee's 50,000 men, if marched according to his order, would be thus disposed: A. P. Hill moving on McClellan's right flank at Mechanicsville, supported by Longstreet, with Jackson moving upon the rear of the same flank, supported by D. H. Hill. Jackson's order read: "Bearing well to his left, turning Beaver Dam creek and taking the direction toward Cold Harbor," after that to "press forward toward the York River railroad, closing upon the enemy's rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy." The orders clearly indicate that Jackson, when he was ready for action, was to give the signal for beginning the fight. These were the tactic arrangements on Lee's left. His right wing, south of the Chickahominy, 30,000 strong, held the line of fortifications extending from the front of Mechanicsville to Chaffin's bluff on the north bank of the James, not far below Drewry's bluff on the south side of that river. Holmes with 5,000 held the intrenched bluffs; Magruder and Huger, in the fortifications east of and before Richmond, confronted with their 25,000 men the nearly 80,000 of the four Federal corps south of the Chickahominy and between that and White Oak swamp, with their intrenched advance at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. It took sublime courage and confidence in his men for a commander to make such dispositions, and so divide his forces in the face of such great odds; but Lee had that courage in an eminent degree, and knew that he could trust the veterans of the army of Northern Virginia to resist a defensive attack against more than double their numbers, or to make an equally bold offensive one when he saw fit to command it. He also knew the hesitating disposition of McClellan, and was doubtless well informed as to his fears in reference to a largely superior attacking force. Magruder and Huger were instructed to impose upon the large Federal cavalry force in their front with constant demonstrations, and if attacked to unflinchingly hold their intrenchments.
The intense heat and the lack of water exhausted Jackson's men and animals, and the reconstruction of bridges and the removal of obstacles from the roads which Fitz John Porter had destroyed and placed during his movement on Hanover Court House, delayed Jackson's march, so that his column did not reach Ashland until the night of the 25th, although his army had made 50 miles from Gordonsville in three days. By 3 a.m. of the 26th his advance, under Whiting, moved from Ashland on the Ash-cake road; by 9 a.m. it was crossing the Virginia Central railroad, near Peake's, and by 10, Branch was informed of Jackson's progress, some six hours later than Lee had expected. Part of this delay was caused by the failure of the commissary department at Richmond to provide rations for Jackson at Ashland, as had been promised him. Jackson, in person, was pushing forward with all possible dispatch and, as White writes in his "Life of Lee," with "vigor unabated and his spirit aglow with the ardor of battle." Keeping to the left and pressing toward Cold Harbor, his right guarded by Stuart's horsemen, at 3 p.m. Hood's Texans in the lead had a hot skirmish at the Totopotomoy. There the Federals destroyed the bridge,which had to be rebuilt before Jackson could cross that stream; so he was unable to reach Hundley's corner, in McClellan's rear, until after dark of the 26th. Obeying orders and bearing to the eastward, he had not passed within sight or sound of the battle that A. P. Hill, contrary to orders, had brought on at Mechanicsville, forcing Lee to follow up without the aid of Jackson and contrary to his plan of attack.
After being notified by Jackson that he had crossed the Virginia Central railroad, Branch moved down the Chickahominy by the road on its northern side, to uncover the Meadow bridges, that A. P. Hill might cross his other brigades and be in position to attack when he heard Jackson's signal guns. Branch met Porter's outposts when crossing the Virginia Central at Atlee's, where he was delayed by a vigorous skirmish. At 3 p.m., A. P. Hill, <cmh3_286>although he had no sign from Jackson that he was in position and ready to co-operate in an attack, took upon himself the responsibility of moving on McClellan's right, fearing, as he says in his report, that delay might "hazard the failure of the whole plan." His advance was courageous and impetuous, but exceedingly imprudent.
The issue being taken, and the Federals driven from Mechanicsville to their intrenchments across Beaver Dam creek, and the Mechanicsville bridge uncovered, D. H. Hill and Longstreet, of necessity, marched to A. P. Hill's support, and Lee, in person, pressed the attack in front without the help of Jackson in the rear.
Beaver Dam creek, or swamp, as it is called locally, is a short stream running from the north into the Chickahominy; it is crossed by the main road from Mechanicsville down the north side of the Chickahominy, by way of Gaines' mill, to Old Cold Harbor. For about a mile from its mouth up to this road this swamp-bordered stream is well-nigh impassable. Above the road a dam is thrown across it, making an extensive pond above it for the use of Ellison's mill on the north side of the road. This sluggish stream deeply trenches the plateau or high ground north of the Chickahominy. The position was admirably chosen for defense against a movement from the west. The highest engineering skill in the Federal army had crowned the open, high ground with earthworks for numerous batteries, and with intrenchments for troops on the crest and down the slopes looking toward Beaver Dam swamp; while the heavy timber that fringed the stream and covered its high banks was cut down and so disposed as to make an almost impassable abatis in front of the position. The Federal batteries were so placed as to sweep all the approaches to their position, and five brigades of riflemen, of McCall's division, filled the intrenchments and log breastworks provided for the defense.
By 5 in the afternoon of this 26th of June, Branch's skirmishers had driven in those of Porter, and A. P. Hill was ordering the brigades of Archer, Anderson and Field into action along the road leading from Mechanicsville northwestward to Bethesda church, to move upon the rear of McClellan's immediate right, while Pender, supported by Ripley, moved along the river road toward Ellison's mill. The attack was fierce, but the defense was furious, and the Confederates were forced to recoil, shattered by the infantry and artillery fire that met them from the Federal right. At that very time Jackson was still north of the Totopotomoy, engaged in repairing the bridge which the retiring Federals had destroyed.
On the morning of the 27th, Jackson was advancing Ewell from Hundley's corner, where he had spent the night, eastward along the Shady Grove road, in obedience to Lee's general instructions. McClellan, advised of Jackson's presence on the field of action, and also, doubtless, of his being in force on his rear, fell back from his position on Beaver Dam creek to the central one held by Porter's corps, a short distance down the river road to Cold Harbor, where a second and still stronger position had been selected and strongly fortified. This retrograde movement, which had been brought about by Jackson without the firing of a gun, placed McClellan's troops, on opposite sides of the Chickahominy, in a line extending nearly north and south and facing westward. His right was again behind a swampy stream, running from the north into the Chickahominy, crossed by the road leading from Mechanicsville to Cold Harbor, with a pond and Gaines' mill above and beside it. The topographic conditions and the Federal preparations were much the same as those at Ellison's mill.
Jackson, rightly expecting to be supplied with maps of a locality so near to Richmond where the engineers had had ample time to survey and map the country, had sent his own topographical engineer and his assistants back to the Valley to continue the work of preparing an accurate map of that important military field; but no maps were furnished him except some that were imperfect and unreliable, and the guides sent to lead him were not well informed as to the field of action. The same was true in reference to other portions of Lee's command and of General Lee himself; consequently there was a clash in the ordered movements of troops based on unreliable maps, and it was very difficult to secure concert of action where so much of the country was covered with forests and cut up by deeply trenched watercourses.
Lee promptly ordered an attack on the new Federal position. A.P. Hill was sent along the main road from Mechanicsville to Cold Harbor, by way of Gaines' mill, while Longstreet was moved along a private road between the main road and the Chickahominy, nearly parallel to those leading to the Gaines house, which was west of the swamp behind Gaines' mill, and the New bridge over the Chickahominy. Jackson's guide conducted Ewell, by a road leading to Walnut Grove church on the main river road, west instead of east of the right flank and rear of McClellan's new position. This brought Ewell face to face with A. P. Hill, instead of some distance to his left, thus paralyzing the movements of each of these division commanders. D. H. Hill, who had been ordered to report to Jackson, pushed forward, from Mechanicsville, on the road leading to Bethesda church and Porter's right rear. By 2 p.m. Jackson had D. H. Hill's division in front of Old Cold Harbor, pressing forward upon Porter's right flank and rear, through fallen timber and tangled brushwood, which the enemy had provided as a defense to the rear of his right flank. This forward movement was opposed by sharpshooters. Lee, at Walnut Grove church, in front of which his line of battle, under A. P. Hill and Longstreet, was advancing toward the enemy's position beyond Powhite swamp, had ordered Jackson to continue his eastward course, strike Porter's rear and threaten his communications with York river, expecting this closing down upon his front, flank and rear would drive him down the Chickahominy.
Having, by strenuous efforts, got his troops in position north of Old Cold Harbor, Jackson ordered forward Bondurant's battery to draw the fire of the Federal guns and thus reveal their position, which was screened by intervening forests. The furious fire that this action drew, furnished Jackson the information he wanted, at about: 2:30 p.m., just as Hill was moving his division to assault the Federals at New Cold Harbor, having already driven Porter's skirmishers from Gaines' mill and the immediate line of Powhite swamp. Knowing that Longstreet was on his right, Hill, with his usual impetuous ardor, dashed across Powhite swamp and the obstructions that had been placed behind it, and rushed against the strong batteries and intrenched lines of the Federal center, and in fierce contention strove, for two hours, to carry the strong Federal position. He forced Porter to call for help, and at 3:30 Slocum added his 5,000 men to the defense. Hill had endured this fierce contest without assistance. Of course he could not with his single attacking line, against formidable obstacles, drive from their intrenched and barricaded position three lines of infantry, one above the other, on a steep slope, protected by fallen timber, and having the ridge behind them occupied by heavy guns that poured upon him shot and shell over the heads of the Federal infantry. At 4, Lee ordered Longstreet to make a demonstration against Porter's left, toward the Chickahominy, on Turkey hill. The crest of this hill, crowned with numerous Federal batteries, was 60 feet higher than the plateau opposite, on which Longstreet formed his line of battle. Numerous and elaborate defenses protected the slope of Turkey hill at this point, just as above; at the same time, McClellan's heavy siege guns, from his position south of the Chickahominy, had an enfilade fire on Longstreet's right as he advanced. These conditions led Longstreet to concentrate his entire division to strike the blow he had been ordered to give, and it was 7 o'clock before he was ready to move.
In the meantime, Jackson had not been idle. No leader of fighting men better understood the necessity of joining in a fight, when a fight was on, than he did; and when he found himself in front of Old Cold Harbor and heard the sound of firing on his right, he knew that the thing for him to do was to help defeat the enemy and drive him from his position, rather than be a looker-on and continue moving to the eastward, as he might have done under the general instructions of his orders. His divisions stretched across several miles of country, eastward and westward, through forests and across swampy creeks with steep and difficult banks, but he had so arranged them that they could be promptly moved when the emergency came for so doing. His chief of staff, Major Dabney, was quite unwell, having been overcome by the intense heat and the exertions of the past few days in the discharge of his arduous duties. The rest of the staff were scattered, under orders, and Jackson began giving instructions to Major Dabney to ride rapidly to the right and send forward each division, as he reached its commander, instructing each to bear to the left in moving forward, thus bringing his line of battle into successive action in echelon. Just as he was concluding his instructions, another staff officer, whose duty really was not on the field of battle, came up. Jackson at once directed Major Dabney to remain with him, while he sent this officer to deliver his orders. The major protested, knowing that it was dangerous to intrust such important orders to one not accustomed to such duty, but Jackson, aware of Dabney's exhausted physical condition, persisted. The result was, that this officer instructed the several division commanders, not to move, but to be ready to move, and so an hour or more of precious time was lost, during which Jackson was impatiently waiting to hear the sound of his guns attacking the enemy's flank and rear and bringing relief to Hill. Major Dabney, sent to the near rear for another purpose, was also impatiently listening for this attack, and, not hearing it, he, without orders, rode at full speed to the nearest division, and finding what orders had been given it, promptly ordered it into action, and so, in succession, gave the order to each division, when the whole line promptly swept into action; D.H. Hill on the left, followed on the right by Ewell, Jackson's old division, then Whiting. As the sound of the guns of these advances rang out, a wild yell swept through the lines of A. P. Hill and Longstreet, "Jackson's come." Pressing forward, though somewhat in disorder from the character of the country passed over, Jackson's men soon enveloped Porter's right and center, relieved A. P. Hill's exhausted men, and, with fixed bayonets, swept over all obstructions, whether of nature or of man. Lee, intently listening for the sound of battle, hearing Jackson's opening, promptly ordered his whole line to press forward.
Magruder performed his part well in holding the Federal troops south of the Chickahominy, marching and countermarching his infantry in deceptive movements and keeping his artillery in constant action. Porter soon saw that, unaided, he could not long resist the tide of battle that was now rolling full along his front and closing in on his flanks. He called for reinforcements, which McClellan ordered from Franklin and Sumner, across the river. Franklin replied that for him to send was "not prudent," and Sumner, more threatened by the brave Magruder, replied, "hazardous;" but 5,000 men, the brigades of French and Meagher, were sent to Porter's rear, as the day was closing, and reached Turkey hill just in time to receive the routed living remnant of Porter's corps. The forests and the condition of the country occupied by Lee's lines, prevented the use of much artillery in this battle of Gaines' Mill, but braver, daring and more heroic endeavor was never made by patriotic soldiers than on that day, all along the lines, especially by Hill's North Carolinians and Virginians, Lawton's Georgians, and memorably by Hood's Texans, who stormed the heights of Turkey and McGehee's hills, sweeping across fences and ditches, through fallen timber and abatis, and over intrenchments which blazed with sheeted fire from infantry and artillery, from the entire Federal front, leaving well-nigh half of their comrades dead or wounded on the way, and rolling back, in a sullen tide of defeat, both the regulars and the volunteers of Porter's corps, and becoming masters of the heights they had so bravely stormed. As it ever did, Jackson's "Stonewall brigade" pushed into the thickest of the fight, across the path of Ewell, and bore its full share in winning this glorious victory.
Porter's men were brave fighters and could not well have been asked to do more than they did to hold their position. Especially was this true of the Federal center and left, which held on stubbornly after Jackson had crushed their right. To the disposing of these Jackson then addressed himself, sending Whiting with the 4,000 of Hood and Law, to move with trailed arms, at double-quick, down the slope to the swamp and then rush up the steep ascent to the Federal fortress. Hood's Texans on the right, with Law's Mississippians and Alabamians on the left, swept silently forward, losing a thousand men as they advanced; then, with wild yell, leaped over obstruction after obstruction, cleared the breastworks, and followed in hot pursuit the retreating Federals that fled before their fierce courage and withering fire. All caught the notes of coming victory, and to its wild music rushed forward and helped to make that victory complete.
The reinforcements that McClellan had brought across the Chickahominy were just in time to.oppose the onward rush of the Confederates, and to form a line of defense behind which the routed Federals could rally, enabling Porter to form a new line with 35,000 men, just in front of the Chickahominy, on the very verge of Turkey hill. This Porter managed with soldierly skill and obstinately held on until darkness enabled him to cross that stream, destroy the bridges behind him, and join McClellan's main body on the south side of that river. The loss of 7,000 men and 22 guns and the capture of two almost impregnable fortress-like hills, crowned by embattled hosts, attested the daring courage of Lee's men and the vigorous defense of Porter's. Only the closing in of night prevented the capture of the whole Federal force north of the Chickahominy. Lee had now successfully carried out the first part of his plan, having driven McClellan from his menacing position north of the Chickahominy and become master of his line of communication with his base on the York. He now proposed to follow up his victory and capture the Federal army, but McClellan gave him but a partial opportunity for accomplishing this result. Astute enough to forecast what might happen when Lee, reinforced by Jackson, should fall upon his right, which he had fondly hoped would have been doubled in strength by the arrival of McDowell, he had provided for a change of base by having supplies for his army sent up the James, to Westover, accompanied by a fleet of gunboats to convoy and safeguard them, and at the same time furnish a defense in case his army should have to fall back to that river.
Disheartened by the severe punishment he had received, at the hands of Lee, at Gaines' mill and Cold Harbor, McClellan at midnight of the 27th, after the remnant of Porter's corps was safely across the Chickahominy and had destroyed the bridges behind it, ordered five of his corps to begin the retreat across White Oak swamp to the banks of the James. This was the only way of escape now left him from the toils of Lee. It is true that on the morning of the 28th he had 105,000 men, more than two-thirds of whom had not been engaged the day before, and that between him and Richmond was a force, under Magruder and Huger, only about one-fourth as large as his own, while two-thirds of Lee's army were still north of the unbridged and unfordable Chickahominy and farther from Richmond than his own. Here was an opportunity for a great captain, who "took no counsel of his fears," to capture the Confederate capital by a prompt and vigorous assault, and accomplish the object of his grand campaign. But McClellan was not such a leader and Lee knew it, and had no apprehension that such an attack would be made, although he expected and prepared for a renewal of the combat before McClellan would give up the formidable position that he still held between the Chickahominy and the White Oak swamp. But McClellan had made up his mind to escape from his sturdy antagonist, and there is no evidence that any of his subordinates opposed this conclusion.
On the morning of the 28th of June, Porter's corps, with a great array of heavy guns, stood on the south side of the Chickahominy, facing Lee and defiantly ready to oppose his advance. Four corps faced Richmond, extending from a fortified work on the Gelding farm, on the border of the Chickahominy swamp, southward to the natural defense of the great White Oak swamp, a closed, living gate of well-armed and well-supplied men, in battle array, with well-protected flanks. Thus guarded in flanks and rear, McClellan started his 5,000 wagons and great herd of beef cattle, preceded by Keyes' corps, to open the way along the single road that led southward across the White Oak swamp toward his chosen retreat on the James. The dense forests completely concealed this movement from observation. Before noonday, Keyes had crossed the White Oak bridge and was four miles beyond it, near Charles City cross roads, guarding the approaches from Richmond by the two great highways south of the swamp. All day the impedimenta of the Federal army were forced, with Northern energy, to the rear along the hidden, muddy roads that led through the forest wilderness. This unexpected movement was so well-concealed that it was on for four-and-twenty hours before Lee was informed of it, or could divine McClellan's intentions. The morning after the battle he had hastened Stuart, followed by Ewell, who was farthest on his left, down the Chickahominy river road to Dispatch Station. Stuart spared no time in seizing the railway, damaging its track and attacking the Federal guard, which he scattered from Dispatch Station. They saved him the trouble of destroying the bridge across the Chickahominy as they retreated toward McClellan's army. Stuart hastened after these trains loaded with ammunition and supplies, which plunged into the Chickahominy, while his dashing troopers followed the railway to the White House, with fire and sword, and captured or destroyed the enormous supplies and the scattered encampments which had been gathered along that line of communication to McClellan's base of supplies.
The steadily coming messages from Stuart soon satisfied Lee that McClellan must be seeking another base, but the question as to what one, he could not, as yet, decide. Two ways were open. He could reach the peninsula by the lower fords of the Chickahominy, as Grant did two years later. If he did this, it was necessary for Lee to remain north of the Chickahominy and pursue him toward Williamsburg. McClellan's alternative was to seek the James, which he was already doing, but unknown to Lee. The bold front presented by Porter was a serious obstacle in the way of pursuing McClellan's rear, so Ewell was ordered to hold Bottom's bridge, across the Chickahominy on the Williamsburg road, while Stuart watched the roads farther down leading to the peninsula. It did not take the hot June sun long to dry up the common roads by which McClellan was retreating, and the clouds of dust from these roads, late in the day of the 28th, told the observant Stuart what was going on, and he quickly apprised Lee that McClellan was in full retreat toward the James.
On the morning of the 29th, at the dawn of day, Lee took up the pursuit of his retreating foe. Longstreet and A. P. Hill crossed the Chickahominy at the New bridge, opposite to which they had bivouacked, and marched southward with orders to take the Darbytown road to the Long bridge until they should strike the right flank of McClellan's line of retreat. Magruder preceded these down the Williamsburg road, through the Seven Pines battlefield, and between the Chickahominy and the White Oak swamps. Huger was sent along the Charles City road on the south side of White Oak swamp, while Holmes led his 6,000 down the River road to strike the line of retreat to Malvern hill. Jackson was left to rebuild Grapevine bridge, to which a road led from Old Cold Harbor, with orders to cross and follow McClellan's rear.
Lee did his best to strike McClellan's retreat with some of these marching columns, in the afternoon of Sunday, June 29th. The Federal army was stretched along the road from Savage Station to Malvern hill. Keyes, followed by the remnants of Porter's corps, led the advance and guarded the approaches to the Quaker road, along which the trains were moving to and across Malvern hill. The fragments of McCall's and Slocum's divisions had crossed the White Oak swamp and encamped near Willis' church, near the knot of cross roads in the vicinity of Glendale. Heintzelman had crossed White Oak swamp and was going into bivouac just south of that, at 10 p.m. At about 4 p.m. Sumner's corps and part of Franklin's were holding the rear against an onslaught by Magruder at Savage Station. At about half past six, Heintzelman was crossing White Oak swamp at Brackett's ford, 1 miles above the swamp bridge, and by 10 p.m. he was bivouacking south of the swamp in front of Charles City cross roads, covering the Charles City road from Richmond. Charles City cross roads, on the watershed between White Oak swamp and Turkey Island creek, was notable for the fact that at or near that point the roads leading north to Bottom's bridge, northeast to the Long bridges, south to Malvern hill, southwest to New Market, and northwest to Richmond, all leading highways as well as numerous farm roads, met in intersection; it was also about halfway between the James and the Chickahominy, and in consequence of the coming together of so many roads, it was the most vulnerable point in McClellan's line of retreat. Knowing this, Lee bent all his energies to there strike a blow on McClellan's right flank.
McClellan also knew, from a personal inspection, the danger that threatened him at that place, and he had provided against it by sending Heintzelman across White Oak swamp at Brackett's ford, a mile and a half above the swamp bridge, so that his line of southward march would place him in position across the New Market and the Charles City, roads leading toward Richmond. To strike this point, Lee, all day, urged forward Huger by the Charles City road, Longstreet and A. P. Hill by the Darbytown road and the Long bridges road, and Holmes by the River road, to either support Hill and Longstreet, or to strike the head of the Federal retreat where the River road and the Quaker road met on Malvern hill. Success for Lee depended entirely .upon the vigor and speed of these movements, but Huger was held back by the obstructions the Federals had thrown across the Charles City road, while Longstreet, after making but 12 miles, went into camp near Darbytown, only about six miles from the fatal point at the Charles City cross roads.
The 29th was consumed by Jackson in working hard to bridge the Chickahominy so he could join in the pursuit. Magruder put but part of his men into the battle at Savage station, and so failed to drive away McClellan's rear guard, that there stubbornly held the road; while Holmes failed to reach and head off McClellan at Malvern hill. So the day passed without decisive results to Lee, and McClellan's retreat was continued with but little molestation.
The morning of June 30th found McClellan's entire army and heavy trains, including his hundred heavy siege guns and numerous batteries of field artillery, safely across the White Oak swamp, and by 10 a.m. Richardson's division, his rear guard on the main road, was destroying the swamp bridge. He now had 60,000 men in a naturally strong position, facing northward and westward, covering the roads leading to and from Charles City cross roads, with his flanks protected by swamps, and with the same sort of well-nigh impenetrable defenses covering nearly his entire front. The approaching roadways were all guarded by artillery, and his men had not been slow to everywhere add fallen timber and abatis to the defenses offered by the creeks and swamps. At the southern end of the swamp bridge was Frayser's farm, clear to the north and with forests to the south. There was placed Franklin with 20,000 men and a park of artillery, facing north and constituting the right wing of McClellan's army, ready to contest the passage of White Oak swamp. To the left, covering the roads from Richmond and the important junction of roads at Charles City cross roads, sweeping in an arc westward and southward, were 40,000 men under Sumner and Heintzelman. The position was, naturally, an exceedingly strong defensive one, and the disposition of the Federal troops could not well have been better made. They were now ready for the opening of the contest which is known in history by the names of White Oak Swamp, Frayser's Farm, Charles City Cross-roads, Glendale or Willis' Church; Glendale being the name of a plantation just south of Charles City cross roads, and Willis' church a point a mile in the same, direction from the same point on the Quaker road.
By 11 o'clock in the morning, the head of Jackson's column appeared at the northern end of the destroyed White Oak swamp bridge. Franklin at once opened on this with his heavy batteries. Colonel Crutchfield, Jackson's chief of artillery, brought twenty-eight guns promptly into position and soon drove back Franklin's artillery, when Jackson attempted to force the passage of the swamp; but Franklin successfully resisted this with his more numerous muskets aiding his artillery and with two brigades that were sent to his assistance from Sedgwick's division, giving him 25,000 men to meet Jackson's 21,000. Jackson, seeing that the odds were too great and that he could not get at his enemy at a single point, desisted from making a further attack; but he continued to keep Franklin's position warm with his artillery.
It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon before Huger opened his artillery on Slocum, on the Charles City road, only to find his antagonist thoroughly guarded behind broad belts of fallen trees across swampy ground, so he desisted from attack. Lee, in person, directed Longstreet into battle about 4 p.m., with less than 20,000 men, along the New Market road toward Charles City Court House, or the Glendale farm, against double his numbers holding McClellan's left. Longstreet had charge of the contest. His advance was through fallen timber, tangled underbrush, and hummocky ground on his left, while on his right the head swamp of the western branch of Turkey run was between him and the Federal left. Eager for the fray, Longstreet's men rushed forward, overcame all obstacles, and fell upon McCall's left with such a blow that his men fled, in panic, backward through Hooker's line of battle in their rear. The rush against Kearny's left was not successful, for he not only had Slocum's aid but two brigades from Franklin's left, while Hooker assailed Longstreet's victorious flank. A. P. Hill moved rapidly to Longstreet's assistance, but the Confederates were only able to hold the ground they had won from McCall, having captured that leader and fourteen of his field guns.
While this Frayser's Farm-Glendale battle was raging, Holmes, with his 6,000 men and a six-gun battery on the River road, crossed the western branch of Turkey Island creek and was crossing Malvern ridge toward Turkey Island bridge, when Warren, with 30 guns and 1,500 men, assisted by the gunboats in the James, which had an enfiladed fire on Holmes' line, drove him back. At Holmes' call, Magruder was turned from near Longstreet's battlefield to Malvern hill, to take part in the conflict there pending; but that was over before he arrived.
The Federals had held their line of retreat for another day, though with considerable loss, and when darkness came the corps commanders, without waiting for orders from the commanding general, took up their line of retreat toward the position that McClellan, in person, had selected on the James, passing through the strong force of infantry and the line of powerful artillery that had already been placed across the Malvern ridge to guard the way to the longed-for refuge. McClellan's night dispatch of the 30th, to Secretary of War Stanton, reads: "Another day of desperate fighting. I fear I shall be forced to abandon my material to save my men under cover of the gunboats. You must send us very large reinforcements."
July 1st, the last day of the Seven Days' battles around Richmond, found the Federal army in probably the strongest position it had yet held, on Malvern ridge, a tongue of high land projecting southeastward, almost to the James, between the two principal branches of Turkey Island creek, which meet, near the southwestern end of this ridge, about a mile from the mouth of this creek in the James. This ridge was not only commanding in elevation, but the larger portion of it, where occupied by the Federal army, was cleared and open land, which could be swept by artillery, while its slopes extended to swampy grounds along the bordering creeks.
McClellan placed his main line at right angles to this ridge and to the Quaker road that ran along its crest just south of the junction with the road leading to Charles City cross-roads by Willis' church, along which Jackson would advance, and the one leading to Richmond by way of Darbytown, along which would be the advance of Longstreet and those under him. The flanks of this Federal front extended to the edge of the bluffs above the swampy branches of Turkey run. A cloud of sharpshooters covered the front. Couch's corps was behind these, on the right of the road, with Heintzelman's and Sumner's corps in his rear, but farther extended to the east. Morrell was on the left of the Quaker road, with Sykes in his rear, covering a cross road leading to Holmes' position on the River road. The whole front was faced with protected batteries, while others occupied commanding positions in the rear near his flanks. This made the approach from the Confederate side very difficult, as these numerous Federal batteries swept the entire front. This part of the Federal line was less than a mile long, and nearly the whole of McClellan's great army was placed within this mile of frontage and a half mile back of it.
Just in the rear of this formidable battle array, the road to Harrison s landing, the point on the James to which McClellan was retreating, diverged to the southeastward from the Quaker road and from the Malvern ridge. At right angles to his main line and extending southward from his left for nearly a mile to the eastward of the Quaker road, McClellan had covered the bluffs, looking to the westward, with his splendid train of heavy siege guns which he had carefully saved for such an occasion. These swept the whole country in his rear and also the approaches from Richmond by the River road. At the southern end of this projecting ridge and at right angles to its line of heavy batteries, was a still more formidable massing of guns, commanding the River road under the brow of the ridge and leading to the position at Harrison's landing, which he had already covered with formidable earthworks. Warren's division was also placed across this River road at the point of the ridge. But McClellan had another strong arm of defense which was a hitherto unknown element in his fighting. A large number of Federal gunboats had come up James river and were anchored in Turkey Island bend, so that their guns not only enfiladed the whole western front of McClellan's position, but had a range, for their huge shells, to beyond the northern front of his line of battle, and raked the right of the position the oncoming Confederate lines of attack would be compelled to occupy. This co-operation of the sea power of the Federals more than doubled the strength of its local land power, great as that was, and effectually prevented any attack upon the left flank or the rear of the Malvern ridge.
Continuing his pursuit of McClellan on the 1st of July, Lee reached the front of the Federal position about noonday, and disposed a portion of the forces of Huger and Jackson, which had approached by the converging roads before referred to; the former on the right and the latter on the left. Magruder had been ordered to the same point, by the Quaker road, but it so happened that there were two roads in that region having the same name; he had taken the wrong one, and finding out his mistake had countermarched, but did not reach the field of battle until late in the day. A.P. Hill and Longstreet were held in reserve, and it was useless for Holmes to attack the intrenched bluff before him bristling with heavy guns and well guarded by numerous nearby gunboats.
There were but few available positions for Lee's artillery, but these Jackson availed himself of; on the left with the batteries of Balthis, Poague and Carpenter, while on the right those of Grimes and Moorman, first put in, were soon driven back and their places taken by Davidson and Pegram. None of these could long withstand the fury of the concentrated fire of the seventy guns that swept the slope in front of the Federal position. Forming his men in the edge of the forest and on the borders of the swamp, Lee ordered his front line, under Huger, Magruder, D. H. Hill and Whiting, to move against the enemy. Armistead's brigade, on the right, was to take the initiative, with a yell and a rush. The assault was not simultaneous. D.H. Hill alone advanced, with his own yell, but Armistead did not. Later, Magruder fiercely contended to reach the Federal left, but Huger failed to support him vigorously, and although he shook Porter's line so that that brave fighter called for reinforcements, Magruder was compelled to retire under the storm of canister and musketry that swept the open slope up which he was leading his brave men. D.H. Hill's assault upon the Federal center was bold and brave, and caused Couch's line to stagger; but Whiting, not hearing Hill's signal, failed to move to his assistance, while the near-at-hand Federal reserves swarmed to the aid of Couch and drove Hill back with great slaughter. Lee hurried forward reinforcements, but to no purpose, for night put an end to the battle before they could join in the issue, leaving him holding only his first position and to mourn the loss of 5,000 killed and wounded of his brave and fearless soldiery. Some of his division commanders had failed to comprehend his orders, and so were late in reaching the field of action; others had failed to advance at the appointed time, and so the attack was irregular, and therefore not forceful. The tangled forests and swamps through which he had to advance, greatly hindered the tactical disposition of his troops, so that he only succeeded in bringing fourteen brigades into action, and these but by twos or threes at a time, making their repulse certain from the massed Federal infantry and the tiers of batteries in front of them.
Notwithstanding the results of the day's combats and the almost impregnable nature of his position, McClellan was unwilling to try another issue, and as soon as dark fell, he ordered Porter to lead a retreat toward Harrison's landing, on the James, where he had ready for his army an intrenched camp covered by an extended line of gunboats. His thought may be imagined from two lines in his retreat order to Porter: "In case you should find it impossible to move your heavy artillery, you are to spike the guns and destroy the carriages ;" and, "Stimulate your men by informing them that reinforcements, etc., have arrived at our new base." The appearance of the road passed over in the retreat, looked, the next morning, like one followed by a routed army. Abandoned wagons were all along the way, and thousands of muskets were scattered along its sides. Hooker, a Federal corps commander, writes: "It was like the retreat of a whipped army. We retreated like a parcel of sheep; everybody on the road at the same time, and a few shots from the rebels would have stricken the whole command in panic."
On the 2d of July, which turned out to be a very rainy day, Lee ordered Longstreet in pursuit on the direct road to Harrison's landing, but that slow-moving general only made two miles of progress, and went into bivouac when he reached the River road. The army was countermarched, on the 3d, to Willis' church, to there take the road toward Charles City Court House and leading to the right flank of McClellan's new base and position on the James. But the guides again misled, in that country of tangled roads involved in worse tangled forests and swamps, and his advance, under Longstreet, was again retarded, so that he did not appear in the vicinity of Westover, on the right flank and front of McClellan's fortified camp, until noon of July 4th, to find that the skill of the Federal engineers, and the energy and zeal of its Northern soldiery, had encircled the entire front of the Federal camp with formidable breastworks, well supplied with artillery, the approaches to which were within the range of the gunboats, stationed in the James all along the rear of the Federal camp.
But three short months had passed since the superbly organized and every way equipped army of the Potomac had begun its "on to Richmond," but its every movement had been a failure. Jackson, with a small force in hand, had with strategic power routed or demoralized and then left stranded in the Valley 60,000 of its best men, during a month and a half of this quarter of a year. First Magruder, and then J. E. Johnston, had delayed and badly damaged the march of the main body, under the leadership of McClellan in person, on the Peninsula, keeping him back with fierce blows at Williamsburg, Yorktown and Eltham's landing, and by a bold front at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, held him hesitating in sight of Richmond. Lee, taking immediate command after the wounding of Johnston, had gathered from all directions his scattered forces, hurled them fiercely upon McClellan's lines and intrenchments, and after seven days of fierce contention at Ellison's mill, Gaines' mill, Charles City cross-roads and Malvern hill, had driven him back, followed by dire disaster, and left him stranded on the banks of the James with a loss of 16,000 men. The heroic struggles had cost Lee 20,000 of his brave Confederates, but had relieved his capital.
Calmly reviewing these stirring events, Lee deliberately and honestly wrote: "Under ordinary circumstances, the Federal army should have been destroyed." Seeking reasons why that result had not been accomplished, he found them in the" want of correct and timely information." This, attributable chiefly to the character of the country, but largely chargeable to the lack of trained staff organization, "enabled General McClellan to skillfully conceal his retreat, and to add much to the obstructions with which Nature had beset the way of our pursuing columns; but regret that more was not accomplished gives way to gratitude to the Sovereign Ruler of the universe for the results achieved."
Lee recalled these results to his army in a general order of July 7th, in which he said:
The immediate fruits of our success are the relief of Richmond from a state of siege; the rout of the great army that so long men. aced its safety; many thousand prisoners, including officers of high rank; the capture or destruction of stores to the value of millions; the acquisition of thousands of arms and forty pieces of artillery. The service rendered to the country in this short but eventful period can scarcely be estimated, and the general commanding cannot adequately express his admiration of the courage, endurance and soldierly conduct of the officers and men engaged. These brilliant results have cost us the loss of many brave men, but while we mourn the loss of our gallant dead, let us not forget that they died nobly in defense of their country's freedom, and have linked their memory with an event that will live forever in the hearts of a grateful people. Soldiers, your country will thank you for the heroic conduct you have displayed, conduct worthy of men engaged in a cause so just and sacred, and deserving a nation's gratitude and praise.
The cheers of the army of Northern Virginia, as the victorious chieftain rode along their columns returning to resting and recruiting camps in the vicinity of Richmond, were their reciprocating general order. In leading them to conquer their foes, he had conquered their lasting admiration and devotion, and henceforward, whether in victory or defeat, their confidence in Lee continued unchanged, as it will continue among their descendants and their people "to the last syllable of recorded time."