By late in June 1862, McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was three months old and despite a slow start, he had accomplished much. He had forced the Confederates back from Yorktown, across the Chickahominy River, and into the Richmond defensive lines. He had defeated a Confederate attack at Seven Pines, wounding General Johnston. He then prepared to advance siege guns from his base at White House Landing to the outskirts of the Confederate capital. Thinking himself outnumbered by the Confederates when in fact the opposite was true (but only narrowly so), McClellan hoped to lay siege to Richmond and, when he finally took the city, end the war.
After Johnston’s wounding, Confederate president Jefferson Davis placed Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee believed that he could not defend against a siege and must force McClellan away from Richmond. To strengthen his forces he ordered Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s army from the Shenandoah Valley, where it had successfully prevented the Union forces there from reinforcing McClellan. Lee determined that Jackson’s men, combined with elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, would attack Union general Fitz-John Porter on McClellan’s right flank. That part of the Union line guarded McClellan’s supply train but was separated from the rest of the army by the rain-swollen Chickahominy River. Lee decided formally on this plan after J. E. B. Stuart‘s cavalry, on its famous intelligence-gathering ride around McClellan’s army, discovered Porter’s flank to be “in the air,” or unanchored to any natural defense. If it were turned, McClellan’s supplies could be cut off. Meanwhile, Lee strengthened his defensive positions so they could be held for a time with a small force. It was an unpopular move among his men, some of whom took to calling him the “King of Spades.”
Lee and McClellan were racing to see which commander could execute his plan first. Neither knew the other’s plan, but although Lee had surmised McClellan’s, McClellan remained seemingly ignorant of Lee’s plan even after Stuart’s raid.
On June 25, McClellan made the first move. He planned to place his siege guns near a crossroads called Old Tavern. He would have to take Old Tavern by assault, but to secure his left flank he first wanted the Confederates south of Old Tavern cleared out. To do this he dispatched two divisions commanded by Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny from Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps. Marching west along the Williamsburg Road from Seven Pines, they ran into Confederate general Benjamin Huger’s division near Oak Grove. At first Hooker and Kearny made progress, but stiffening resistance and a flank attack halted them. By the end of the day the lines were basically unchanged.
News of the Union advance left Lee concerned that McClellan was preparing a general assault. Lee’s plans required McClellan to be passive. Only about 25,000 Confederates would be south of the Chickahominy, while about 65,000 would be positioned north of the river to attack Porter. Jackson’s men, marching east from the Valley, would not be in place until the morning of June 26, so as Lee was moving his forces into place on the evening of June 25, a Union assault could create serious problems. In the end, though, Lee satisfied himself that McClellan did not plan to attack and kept his plan in place. McClellan, however, heard of Jackson’s approach and called off Hooker’s and Kearny’s assaults on Old Tavern.
As a result, much of June 26 was quiet. McClellan no longer targeted Old Tavern and Lee waited for Jackson. The Confederate general’s plan counted on Jackson’s meeting up with Confederate forces on the Chickahominy River and relaying word to A. P. Hill, who, followed by forces under D. H. Hill and James Longstreet, would cross the river, march through Mechanicsville, and attack Porter’s Union corps, which was positioned behind the waist-deep Beaver Dam Creek. Jackson was delayed, however, and at three o’clock, A. P. Hill, along with a brigade from D. H. Hill’s division, attacked anyway. Making it all the way to the creek, his men were turned back by Union infantry and artillery.
Weary from the long march, Jackson and his men eventually arrived on Porter’s flank, although it was too late in the day to make an immediate difference. Still, his presence spooked McClellan, who determined that his supply line was too vulnerable. He also decided against an attack south of the Chickahominy, despite outnumbering Lee by more than two to one there. Instead, McClellan ordered Porter to hold a position behind Boatswain’s Swamp while he prepared a “change of base”—in this case, a euphemism for retreat—to the James River.
In the morning the Confederates north of the Chickahominy pursued the retreating Union army. Jackson and D. H. Hill moved northeast to turn Porter’s flank, and A. P. Hill and Longstreet moved southeast to fix Porter in place. But Lee thought Porter would stop behind Powhite Creek, where Gaines’s Mill stood, instead of Boatswain’s Swamp farther east. So Jackson’s movement did not turn Porter’s position, and A. P. Hill’s assaults found the Boatswain’s Swamp line fully as strong at Beaver Dam Creek. The Confederates charged throughout the day to little effect until late in the afternoon when Jackson and D. H. Hill arrived. An uncoordinated but basically simultaneous attack finally broke Porter’s position. Confederates argued for years about who broke through first. John Bell Hood’s 4th Texas and part of the 18th Georgia usually took the honors, but actually Porter’s line, although reinforced, yielded in many places before the overwhelming assaults by the various Confederate units.
South of the river little happened. In the evening some of Confederate general John B. Magruder‘s men attacked the Union line near the Chickahominy at Garnett’s Farm but were repulsed. Later McClellan announced his move to the James. He then wrote a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that bitterly concluded, “You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
On the fourth day of Lee’s offensive, there was a lull as Lee waited to see what McClellan would do. Some of Magruder’s Confederates attacked again near Garnett’s and Gouldin’s farms, but with little result. On his way to the James, meanwhile, McClellan packed his trains, destroyed whatever supplies he couldn’t take with him, and burned White House Landing. (The fire took with it the historic house there.) The artillery and two infantry corps moved to cover his retreat.
That evening Lee gave orders for the pursuit. John Magruder and Benjamin Huger would fix the Union rear guard in place. Stonewall Jackson and D. H. Hill would cross the Chickahominy and stay north and east of the Union army. James Longstreet and A. P. Hill would circle around the rest of the army to cut off the Union retreat. If all worked as planned, Lee could catch and destroy McClellan’s army.
On June 29 Confederates south of the Chickahominy River found the Union trenches empty and started their pursuit. Longstreet and A. P. Hill marched twenty miles in the heat to be in position. But Huger received conflicting orders and spent his day marching. Jackson believed he was to stay north of the Chickahominy instead of crossing the river and heading south and east as Lee had intended. Magruder alternated between aggression and worry that Union troops would attack him, in part causing Huger’s back-and-forth marching.
Eventually Magruder attacked the Union rear guard at Savage’s Station, formerly McClellan’s advance base. Union general Samuel Heintzelman continued his retreat, leaving behind Union general Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps and another division—more than enough troops to stop Magruder despite an initial Confederate success. The rest of McClellan’s army and the trains continued toward the James during the day, and the rear guard followed that night.
June 30 was the culmination of Lee’s pursuit plan. Despite the disorder of June 29, his pieces were in place for a glorious victory. McClellan kept more than half of his army near the Glendale crossroads, which was vital to the retreat because most of the major roads from the Richmond area to the James River converged there. Jackson and D. H. Hill would, by their presence, force the Union troops guarding White Oak Swamp Bridge to remain north of Glendale, attacking them if possible. Huger would do the same on the Charles City Road. Longstreet and A. P. Hill, joined by Magruder if the latter could move quickly enough, would then drive toward the Willis Church Road south of Glendale to cut McClellan’s retreat route.
Once again Longstreet and A. P. Hill performed well while the other generals struggled. Jackson contented himself with a bombardment at White Oak Swamp Bridge, allowing thousands of Union troops to reinforce the Glendale lines. Huger’s failure was on a smaller scale but just as complete. Magruder spent June 30 as Huger had spent June 29, marching to no effect. So Longstreet and Hill attacked unsupported, and broke the Union line initially before Union reinforcements made possible by Jackson’s and Huger’s failures pushed them back. While the exhausted Confederates rested, the victorious Union troops joined the remainder of the army on the relatively safe high ground at Malvern Hill.
By July 1, the Army of the Potomac had reached the James River and there consolidated. Its main line was on Malvern Hill, an eminence with a bluff overlooking the river and an open, gentle north slope—perfect for defensive fire by artillery. It was the strongest position McClellan occupied during the campaign. The Confederates followed slowly. Lee was cautious approaching an area he knew well from his youth, and he determined only to attack if an artillery concentration proposed by Longstreet was effective. Although the Union guns prevented such a concentration from taking place, the Confederates, through a combination of hope and bad orders, attacked the Union line anyway during the afternoon and early evening. None of the several assaults came close to breaking through, and most were stopped by the sheer power of the artillery, expertly handled by Colonel Henry Hunt, and fresh infantrymen brought into line by Porter.
For the fourth time in a week, McClellan’s men held the field during the day yet retreated at night—this time toward their new base at Harrison’s Landing.
On July 2 the Army of the Potomac marched to Harrison’s Landing in a driving rain. Lee followed the next day, having been alerted by Jeb Stuart that McClellan had left Evelington Heights, a bluff commanding Harrison’s Landing, unoccupied. But McClellan, perhaps reminded by Stuart’s shelling him with a single gun, moved troops to the heights before Lee could arrive. The Seven Days’ Battles were over, and with them not only McClellan’s and the Union’s best chance to take Richmond for more than two years, but also the best chance to restore the Union to a status quo that resembled 1860. From this moment on, the end of the war would likely mean revolutionary change in the political and social fabric of the nation.
In the meantime, Confederate spirits soared; despite a series of tactical defeats Lee had won a strategic victory, and he would keep the initiative until September 17 along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where McClellan finally forced him to retreat.