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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.
Skimino Creek Above Williamsburg
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 rear.
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 the Pamunkey.
Providence 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.
WM H. SEWARD
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 put it.
"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.
The Approaches to Richmond
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.
McClellan's 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.
Petersburg Rail Net
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.
EDWIN 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.
The Siege of Richmond
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.
Lincoln's Order 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.
McClellan 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.
Camp 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.
George 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 not.
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.
General Lee 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
Can Eventually Demolish The Confederates Outer Lines.
Just as Halleck did at Corinth, and Grant did at Vicksburg,
McClellan Would 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 them out.
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.
Headquarters, 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.
The Situation 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 Courthouse.
Most Respectfully, your obedient servant,
R.E. Lee, General
Headquarters, 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 from you.
I am 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.
Headquarters, 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
Headquarters, Richmond, May 10, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnston, General commanding
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. Lee, General
Headquarters, 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
Move and Countermove
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.
McClellan's 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.
Very 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 you.
A. Lincoln, President
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.
A. Lincoln, President
With Shield's 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.
Lincoln's 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.
A. Lincoln, President
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.
A. Lincoln, President
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 Seven Pines.
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 the rain.
.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
McClellan's corps 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.
McClellan gestured 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.
"Well, gentlemen," 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 bridges away."
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 Chickahominy.
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 breakthrough.
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 Springs.
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 Pines.
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.
"The 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."
Note: 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.
As 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.
"Everything goes 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.
The Confederate 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.
"General Johnston 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 Lee said.
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 desk.
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 Chickahominy.
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 bridge.
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 bridge.
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."
Johnston's 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 bed.
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 in disgrace.
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 second line.
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 Pines.
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 Pines.
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 railroad.
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.
In counterbalance, 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.
Realizing the 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 Swamp.
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 bridges.
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 road.
"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 army now."
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.
The War in the East
The Papers of General McClellan
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Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg, several times.
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