The Background of Seven Days Battle:
The history of Seven Days Battle is that Richmond remained the prize that captured the Federals’ imagination. With McClellan’s enormous army, surely it could be taken, and the war swiftly won. True, McClellan’s 150,000 men had been whittled down to 100,000, with troops diverted to defend Washington or fight Stonewall Jackson. But this was still more than double the size of any Confederate army that could be turned against them, though McClellan could never believe that he faced so few when they fought so well.
McClellan, regarded as a military genius, a young Napoleon, had a plan: he would not be a military primitive. He would not slog straight down from Washington to Fredericksburg to Richmond against heavy Confederate resistance. No, he would employ the Navy to land his troops at Fort Monroe on Virginia’s coastline. From there he had a march of only seventy-five miles to the Confederate capital, and the Navy could support him along the James River.
The landing was an enormous operation—more than 120,000 men were eventually landed—and conducted extremely well. An Englishman who saw it said it marked “the stride of a giant.” The giant, however, found his way blocked by fewer than 15,000 Confederates at Yorktown. Presumably, he could have brushed this force aside, so mighty was his right hand, but the Young Napoleon was, as ever, cautious about the dangerous Johnny Rebs and spent a month in elaborate siege of a Confederate force that marched up and down behind its entrenchments successfully convincing the Yanks that its numbers were legion. When they finally got footsore and withdrew, the Young Napoleon advanced again.
He had hoped the Navy would advance with him, but Confederate defenders at Drewry’s Bluff, seven miles from the rebel capital, convinced the Federals that the James River was impassable as it approached the city. So McClellan was on his own—or as on his own as he could be with more than 120,000 troops now under his command. He marched them to a point five miles from the city. The blue-coated infantry could see the spires of the church steeples—and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston could see the Federal forces massing before him. He had about 40,000 men to meet the Federals at the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) on 31 May 1862. On that day he did the best service he ever did the Confederacy: he managed to get wounded badly enough that Robert E. Lee took command. (Johnston himself said as much: “The shot that struck me down is the very best that has been fired for the Southern cause yet.”)
After Seven Pines, both sides withdrew. Lee set his men to building trenches, earthworks, and fortifications—so that he could defend the city with fewer men—and shaped his new Army of Northern Virginia to attack. McClellan was waiting for him, and lobbing shells at the Confederate lines.
The Seven Days Battle:
Lee amassed about 70,000 troops. He left 25,000 of them to defend Richmond, and threw the rest in an unceasing offensive against McClellan’s invaders. Lee’s initial intention had been to “drive our enemies back to their homes” but that intention had evolved into an aggressive campaign to destroy McClellan’s army in what became known as the Seven Days Battle (25 June–1 July 1862).
During the Seven Days Battle Lee kept the army surging forward in a series of battles (the major ones were Mechanicsville, 26 June; Gaines’ Mill, 27 June; Savage’s Station, 29 June; Glendale or Frayser’s Farm, 30 June; and Malvern Hill, 1 July) until General McClellan was driven back a full twenty-five miles, in what McClellan tried to term a strategic withdrawal, but which became known popularly, and more accurately, as “the great skedaddle.”
What You Need to Know:
The Seven Days Battle was a Confederate victory, but a brutally costly one. Confederate General D. H. Hill said of the Confederate attack on Malvern Hill against flaming Union artillery: “It was not war, it was a murder.” Nearly a third of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia went down as casualties. Their sacrifice, however, was not in vain. Not only was Richmond safe, but it would be three years before Federal troops again would be that close to the Confederate capital. That was three years for the South to try to win its independence.
Union General George B. McClellan, who led 100,000 men and moved as fast as an iceberg, attempted to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond in a series of six different battles along the Virginia Peninsula from June 25 to July 1, 1862). Confederate General Robert E. Lee drove back McClellan’s Union forces from a position 4 miles (6 km) east of the Confederate capital to a new base of operations at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
Map for this Episode
- Yorktown (April 5 – May 5)
- McClellan received about 30,000 reinforcements, bringing his total strength to 100,000 men.
- He marched toward Yorktown (yes, THAT Yorktown!). Union officers, forced to rely on store-bought maps, lost their way. Roads were muddy and barely passable.
- The Confederates there were commanded by John B. Magruder, who only had 11,000 soldiers, only about a tenth of McClellan’s force.
- Magruder used a variety of techniques to fool McClellan into thinking the Confederate force was much larger than it really was.
- Convinced the Confederates had 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers in front of him, McClellan kept asking for more soldiers. McClellan decided to lay siege to Yorktown. He maintained it for a month. Lincoln practically begged McClellan to attack. Johnston said “Only McClellan would not have attacked us.”
- The Confederates pulled back. McClellan SLOWLY advanced. His subordinate Philip Kearney called him “The Virginia Creeper.”
- Yorktown (April 5 – May 5)
- Jackson in the Valley
- Jackson was sent reinforcements.
- Mental map of Valley
- Jackson said: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow…a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will make it invincible.”
- In a brilliant campaign, Jackson marched his small army all over the Valley (over 350 miles!), striking all of the Union forces in the area and tying them down so that none could assist McClellan. He inflicted 7000 casualties and seized huge quantities of badly needed supplies in just over a month.
- Jackson’s Valley campaign lifted Confederate morale.
- Jackson was ordered to join Johnston’s forces in June.
Fair Oaks and the Seven Days Battles
- Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) – May 31
- Johnston had retreated his army nearly to the outskirts of Richmond and could not retreat any further without having to submit to a siege.
- McClellan had deployed about 1/3 of his army south of the Chickahominy River (between the York and the James) and 2/3 of the army north of the river. The Union troops could see the spires or Richmond and hear the clocks chiming.
- Johnston decided to attack the 1/3 of the Union army that was south of the Chickahominy.
- The Confederates did not execute Johnston’s plan well. The battle was a tactical draw, with about 5000 casualties on each side.
- Although the battle was largely inconsequential, it had two major consequences:
- McClellan was shaken by the great carnage, saying “Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”
- Joseph Johnston was wounded. Jefferson Davis replaced him with Robert E. Lee. (Quick bio on Lee)
- Regarding Lee, one Richmond newspaper said “Now our army will never be allowed to fight.”
- McClellan wrote, “I prefer Lee to Johnston. Lee is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility. Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he is yet wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility.”
- The Seven Days Battle
- When Lee took command, Confederate morale was still quite low.
- Lee reorganized the army and recalled Jackson. His army reached a total size of about 90,000.
- Lee was much more aggressive than Johnston. He believed in staying on the offensive.
- McClellan repositioned his army so that 1/3 of the army was north of the Chickahominy and 2/3 was south of it.
- Lee sent his cavalry chief, J. E. B. Stuart, who took a detachment and rode all the way around the Federal army. His own father-in-law, who had stayed loyal to the Union, led the Federal cavalry force that tried (in vain) to stop him.
- Lee decided to attack the Federal right (the soldiers north of the river). Jackson’s soldiers were to play a major role in the attack.
- The series of battles began on June 25, when Lee repulsed a Federal attack at Oak Grove.
- On the 26th, Lee attacked the Federals at Mechanicsville. Jackson did not show up, so the Confederate attack was repulsed.
- On the 27th, Lee attacked again at Gaines’s Mill. There the rebels pushed back the Union troops. A key role was played by Gen. John B. Hood and his Texas Brigade. Again, Jackson performed poorly. The Federals retreated across the Chickahominy so that the entire force was now united. (Gaines’ Mill was the biggest of the Seven Days battle and the largest Confederate attack of the entire war. It was also the only Confederate victory in the Seven Days).
- McClellan retreated his army toward the James River, away from Richmond.
- On the 29th and the 30th, Lee attacked at Savage Station and Glendale (Frazer’s Farm), but again the Confederates performed poorly. McClellan retreated further to Malvern Hill, a great defensive position.
- On July 1, Lee attacked the Federals at Malvern Hill, but again the attack was poorly coordinated. General D. H. Hill later wrote that Malvern Hill was not war, it was murder. This was a huge mistake on Lee’s part.
- McClellan’s subordinates urged him to lead a counterattack, but he refused. He was a beaten man. He retreated even further to Harrison’s Landing. Gen Philip Kearney said “We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. I say to all of you, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”
- After the battle, McClellan sent Edwin Stanton a telegram that ended with the words: “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.” Fortunately for him, the telegraph officer at the War Dept. censored these sentences.
- The Seven Days Battle produced 20,000 Confederate casualties and 16,000 Union ones. This was an even bloodier battle than Shiloh.
- Still, Confederate morale rebounded. Lee became a hero to the South. Northern morale sank. Lincoln calls for 300,000 more volunteers.
- On July 7, Lincoln visited McClellan, who told him he had not lost, but merely failed to win. McClellan also asked for 50,000 soldiers. Lincoln said “sending soldiers to that army is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard. Half of them never get there.
- In early September, Lincoln ordered McClellan and his army back to Richmond.