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Civil War Series

The Battles for Richmond, 1862

   

On the morning of June 3, a pale, gaunt figure rode briskly through the forests above the Chickahominy. Erect in the saddle, well dressed, and with an air of authority, he rode away from the city and toward the army. Jefferson Davis wished to see his troops, the men who would fight for him, the only ones now who could save his country.

Lee made a point of finding the president and joined him for an impromptu conference among the swamps. The two men had worked closely for months, but now the relationship was different. No longer would Lee simply offer suggestions or attend to administrative tasks. Now the general was in command. He would direct the army, devise its strategies, and order its movements. The president and the general sat together that morning and talked. Having served for months as the president's military adviser, Lee now asked the president to advise him. What should they do? How should they save Richmond? The question sprang from the very essence of Robert E. Lee. The Virginian already had strong opinions on what must be done to save the capital. He wanted to act on these plans, but he respected Davis, both personally and because the president was, by statute, commander in chief of the military. Lee also knew he needed the president's support, so he asked for advice, not merely to flatter his president, but as an assurance that he was willing to work as a team and that he valued the Mississipian's views.


CARING FOR THE WOUNDED

The battles on the Peninsula wrought carnage that could scarcely be imagined by Americans of 1862. In just two months, more men were wounded on the fields east of Richmond than in all of America's previous wars combined. The two days of battle at Seven Pines produced as many injured men as the entire Revolutionary War, and more soldiers fell shot or torn in one afternoon at Gaines's Mill than did in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War put together.


Dr. Charles Tripler was quickly overwhelmed and could find little room for battle casualties in hospitals already crammed with thousands of sick soldiers.

Understandably, neither side was prepared for the unimaginable. Dr. Charles Tripler, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, was quickly overwhelmed and could find little room for battle casualties in hospitals already crammed with thousands of sick soldiers. Even worse was that Tripler had not enough ambulances, doctors, nurses, or medical supplies to deal with the crisis. The Federals averted a medical tragedy only through the selflessness of the scores of civilian volunteers who went to the Peninsula to ease the sufferings of the sick and wounded. Though many volunteers came forward on their own, the majority went to the Peninsula with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private organization founded by Northern benefactors and composed mainly of volunteer doctors, young women nurses, and medical students. One nurse stated that the commission's goal was to see "that every man had a good place to sleep in, and something hot to eat, and that the very sick had every essential that could have been given them in their own homes."

These volunteers freely criticized the army's handling of the wounded, especially after Seven Pines. "Conceive of the medical director," wrote a commission nurse at the White House Landing hospital, "sending down over 4,500 wounded without anything for them: without surgeons, with no one authorized to take charge of them, with nothing but empty boats to receive them. No stores, no beds, no hospital stewards, no food, no stimulants—there was nothing of the kind on any of the boats, and not a pail or a cup to distribute food, had there been any."

The commission set up a kitchen by the railroad tracks at White House, and to the sick and wounded arriving from the front the ladies doled out hot coffee with condensed milk and distributed brandy or wine or oranges or iced lemonade. Stretcher-bearers moved the soldiers onto commission hospital transports, which had been extensively fitted out at private expense. On these ships, the ill or injured would be moved to the more adequate care of hospitals in the North.

MANY UNION SOLDIERS WERE INTERRED HERE AT THE QUARLES HOUSE AFTER THE FIGHTING AT FAIR OAKS. (USAMHI)

Confederate military medical personnel were no better prepared for the tide of bloody soldiers that flowed back from the battlefields. Chimborazo Hospital, the largest and perhaps the best hospital in Richmond at that time, had beds for 3,000 patients and a regular staff headed by Dr. James Brown McCaw. Dr. McCaw, a professor at Richmond's Medical College of Virginia, was energetic and innovative in turning Chimborazo into an excellent facility, but in the wake of the battles east of the city, he found himself pitifully short of staff, supplies, and space. Like their Northern counterparts, Southern civilians stepped forward to fill the breech.

Young Richmonder Constance Cary Harrison recalled that on the first day of fighting at Seven Pines, anxiety for the safety of Richmond soon became an unaffordable luxury as residents began to prepare for the arrival of the wounded. "Night brought a lull in the cannonading," she wrote, "people lay down dressed upon beds, but not to sleep, while the weary soldiers slept upon their arms. Early next morning the whole town was on the street. Ambulances, litters, carts, every vehicle that the city could produce, went and came with a ghastly burden; those who could walk limped painfully home, in some cases so black with gunpowder they passed unrecognized." Homes, churches, hotels, warehouses, and empty buildings throughout the city became hospitals and thousands of Richmonders, wealthy and impoverished alike, became angels of mercy. Men served as stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, or hospital stewards. Women who were not working as nurses gathered pew cushions from the city's churches and sewed them into beds for the wounded. "Larders all over town were emptied into baskets," recalled Harrison, and "the residents of those pretty houses standing back in gardens full of roses set their cooks to work, or, better still, went themselves into the kitchen, to compound delicious messes for the wounded."

More than 33,000 Northern and Southern soldiers suffered nonmortal wounds on the Peninsula, and army surgeons, volunteers, and citizens gamely tried to comfort the fallen and to save lives and limbs, but, as Miss Harrison noted after the ordeal ended, "all that was done was not enough by half."

Davis, equally as courteous and respectful, immediately responded by expressing his full confidence in Lee. They had already discussed Lee's outline of a plan—a swift movement to Richmond by Jackson's troops from the Valley, followed by a sudden move on the Federals' poorly positioned right flank. Davis told Lee he knew of no better plan than this and urged the general to enact it. The two men were of one mind: to defend Richmond, they must attack.

UNION WOUNDED FROM SEVEN PINES WERE BROUGHT TO THIS INCONSPICUOUS DWELLING, TURNED INTO A TEMPORARY FIELD HOSPITAL LIKE MOST OF THE FARMHOUSES IN THE AREA. (BL)

JEFFERSON DAVIS (BL)

Lee at once went to work in refitting the army and preparing it again for battle. He ordered the earthen fortifications around Richmond strengthened so they might be made secure by fewer troops, freeing more men for offensive operations. He consulted often with Davis and ordered troops from other parts of the Confederacy to move to Richmond in preparation for the offensive. What Lee hoped for most was that McClellan would not attack him before he could complete his preparations. Lee wished for time.

At the same time, McClellan repeatedly asked Washington for reinforcements. His agents reported correctly that the Confederates were gathering strength in Richmond, though the spies overestimated the number of the massing Southerners. McClellan declared he needed more men to counter the Confederate buildup, and though the War Department had sent McClellan more than 30,000 additional men by mid-June, the general repeatedly asked for more.

TROOPS OF THE SECOND MICHIGAN INFANTRY FOUGHT WITH MCCLELLAN DURING THE PENINSULA CAMPAIGN. (DETROIT PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Through the summer weeks on the Chickahominy, the Confederates spent their time digging and reorganizing, and many of the men, from officer to private, wondered about their new commander. Robert E. Lee was virtually unknown to the great majority of Americans. He had spent 37 of his 55 years laboring in obscurity in the U.S. Army as a military engineer, building levees and sea??coast fortifications all across America, and as a commander of cavalry on the Texas frontier. His brother officers thought well of him, his superiors valued him, but to the rank and file he was a mystery. So far in the war, Lee had done little to suggest to the public that he was a great general, and with the Federals bearing down upon the capital and the Confederacy facing its greatest crisis, many questioned if Lee could rise to the hour. One of Joseph Johnston's former staff officers, Major E. P. Alexander, sat in conversation one day with Colonel Joseph C. Ives, of President Davis's staff. Ives knew Lee from the latter's months as adviser to the president, and Alexander, eager for Ives's insights on the new general, spoke frankly. "Has Gen. Lee the audacity that is going to be required for our inferior force to meet the enemy's superior force," he asked, "to take the aggressive, and to run risks and stand chances?" Ives answered without hesitation."Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is Gen. Lee! His name might be audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too." Though Lee's audacity remained to be seen, he daily revealed his thoroughness as a planner. He understood the strengths and weaknesses of the Federal position. He saw the railroad as an Achilles' heel, a tactical liability for McClellan, but Lee believed the Federal commander would cling to this necessary evil as long as possible. Furthermore, despite the critical importance of the rails to the Army of the Potomac, Lee suspected that McClellan's force north of the river was not properly placed to defend the railroad. The Virginian thought he might be able to maneuver a large force around McClellan's exposed flank north of Mechanicsville. If he succeeded in this and reached or seriously threatened the Federal supply line, Lee thought McClellan might abandon his supply line and flee—either southward to the protection of the U.S. Navy gunboats in the James River, or eastward, toward White House or Fort Monroe. In either case, Lee would have forced McClellan away from Richmond and, at the very least, bought the Confederacy more time.

GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE (MUSEUM OF THE CONFEDERACY, RICHMOND, VA)

Before he acted on this plan, however, Lee needed information. He called for his chief of cavalry, Brigadier General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart, and ordered the 29-year-old to explore the Federal right flank. Lee needed to know the exact position of the Federal line as well as its strength. Adventurous of spirit, Stuart wished to expand the reconnaissance into something more elaborate, something extraordinary, and determined to move deep into the Federal rear if the opportunity offered.

Stuart kept the assignment a secret until 2 A.M. on June 12, when he declared to his staff: "Gentlemen, in 10 minutes every man must be in his saddle." In the predawn darkness, Stuart led 1,200 picked troopers northward. Only Stuart knew where they were bound. The column moved an easy 22 miles that day, far to the north and west of the Federals' position near Mechanicsville, before Stuart ordered a halt. He wished his men to be well rested for tomorrow's work.

THE FLAMBOYANT JEB STUART RELAXING IN CAMP WITH SOME OF HIS STAFF OFFICERS. STUART'S DARING RAID AROUND MCCLELLAN'S ARMY CHEERED CIVILIANS AND SOLDIERS WHO HAD BEEN DOWNCAST ABOUT THE CONFEDERACY'S MILITARY FORTUNES. (HOUGHTON LIBRARY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY)

The next morning, June 13, the Southerners set off early and continued around the Federal flank. The Confederates ran into U.S. cavalry at Hanover Court House and though the surprised and outnumbered Unionists fled, they spread the alarm, and more Federal cavalry converged to intercept the Southern column. At a crossroads called Linney's, Stuart encountered a strong line of Federal horsemen and at once ordered a charge. Captain William Latané of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, sabered Captain William Royall of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, but Royall won the encounter with two shots of his revolver. Latané fell dead, the first, and as it would turn out, only, Confederate fatality of Stuart's raid.


(click on image for a PDF version)
SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES—AREA MAP
On June 12, 1862, Brigadier General Jeb Stuart led 1,200 troopers on one of the more famous cavalry rides of the war. Sent by General Lee to scout the Union right flank near Mechanicsville, Stuart turned the affair into a three-day, 100-mile ride that carried his force completely around McClellan's army. Stuart's success paid immediate dividends. It provided Lee with important intelligence on the Union position and acted like an electric shock to awaken a sagging Southern morale. Nevertheless, the ride produced a fair amount of controversy. Critics suggested that Stuart's action helped alert McClellan to the dangers of his position astride the Chickahominy River, thus hastening his change of base from the Pamunkey to the James River.

The raiders pushed deeper into the Federal rear, and by midday, Stuart had accomplished his mission; he knew where McClellan's flank was and had gained an idea of its strength. But the cavalryman was far from finished. He decided that the Federals, aware by now of his presence, would soon be after him in considerable numbers and might even now be closing upon his rear to seal off his escape route. He decided it might be as dangerous to retrace his steps as it would be to seek another route home. Stuart informed his officers that they would not turn back but ride on and pass completely around the Federal army before returning to Richmond.

The Federal pursuit, a part of which was managed by Stuart's father-in-law, Federal Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, was ineffective. The Southern horsemen rode all day and all night of the thirteenth, easily outdistancing their pursuers. Stuart's men took time to damage the railroad at Tunstall's Station and burned 75 captured wagons and a schooner full of hay on the Pamunkey. By afternoon of June 14, Stuart and his sleepless men were across the Chickahominy and headed toward the James. The danger of Federal pursuit had long since passed so the weary column headed northwestward for Richmond at a more leisurely pace. The cavaliers soon arrived among friends, and the spectacular exploit soon made headlines, instantly transforming Stuart into one of the South's premier heroes.

STUART"S TROOPERS FAIL TO DISABLE A FEDERAL TRAIN AS IT ESCAPES FROM TUNSTALL'S STATION. THIS WAS THE ONLY DISAPPOINTMENT FOR THE CONFEDERATE CAVALRYMEN, WHO DESTROYED 75 WAGONS AND A SCHOONER FULL OF HAY ON THE NEARBY PAMUNKEY. (LC)

Lee was pleased to learn that McClellan's flank was still vulnerable, and he at once put his attack plan into action. On June 16, the day after Stuart returned and reported his findings, Lee directed Stonewall Jackson to move his troops out of the Shenandoah Valley and toward Richmond in preparation for a movement on McClellan's right.

Lee knew that, even making use of the Virginia Central Railroad, Jackson would need several days to move his 18,500 men across Virginia and into position to attack, but the commander wished to have all the details of the attack ironed out before the troops arrived. Lee asked Jackson to meet with him, and the Valley general headed for his commander's headquarters at the first opportunity. Lee summoned three other generals he would burden with responsibility in the coming battle to deliver Richmond. In the afternoon of June 23, Jackson, having ridden more than 50 miles ahead of his troops, arrived at the widow Mary Dabbs's house on the Nine Mile Road east of Richmond. Major General D. H. Hill, Jackson's brother-in-law, soon arrived, as did division commanders James Longstreet and Major General A. P. Hill, and the five men got down to business.

Lee informed his four generals that they were to attack McClellan within days and that the purpose of their meeting was to complete a plan and set a timetable. Jackson had the farthest to travel to get in position, so the timing of the attack hinged upon his ability to move his column. After some discussion, the generals agreed that Jackson's arrival would begin the assault on the morning of June 26. The meeting closed, and Jackson remounted and rode more than 40 miles back to his command.

A POSTWAR SKETCH OF THE TRENT HOUSE, WHERE MCCLELLAN MADE HIS HEADQUARTERS IN LATE JUNE. (BL)

A. P. HILL'S MEN PASSED THROUGH THE HAMLET OF MECHANICSVILLE BEFORE STRIKING THE MAIN FEDERAL LINE ALONG BEAVER DAM CREEK. (USAMHI)

The next day, Lee issued Special Orders Number 75 specifying each general's role in the operation. According to the plan, Jackson's command was to camp south of Hanover Court House by the evening of June 25, ready to march at 3 A.M. on the twenty-sixth, thus triggering the attack. He was to stay well north of the Federal position at Mechanicsville and move toward Cold Harbor. After Jackson moved, Lawrence O'B. Branch's brigade, of A.P. Hill's division, was to cross the Chickahominy at Half Sink, fall in on the Valley general's right flank, and advance toward Mechanicsville. A. P. Hill, waiting on the Meadow Bridges Road south of the Chickahominy, was to cross as soon as he discovered the movements of Jackson and Branch and move directly upon Mechanicsville. After Hill drove the Union forces through Mechanicsville (the Federals, Lee hoped, would be eager to abandon their strong positions at Beaver Dam Creek because Jackson would have by then outflanked them), the way would be open for Longstreet and D. H. Hill to cross the Chickahominy on the Mechanicsville Turnpike. Once that was accomplished, Lee would have consolidated 60,000 troops on the north bank of the Chickahominy. Together, the four columns would then, in Lee's words, "sweep down the Chickahominy, and endeavor to drive the enemy from his positions. . . . Then press forward towards the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy's rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy." This was the hand the gambler Lee was about to play, and, as Major E. P. Alexander later wrote, "the stakes were already his if his execution were even half as good as his plan."

McClellan had spent much of June 23 and 24 thinking about attacks as well. A stretch of dry weather had helped solidify the roads, and recent reinforcements had brought the army's strength to 115,000. The general declared it was almost time to act. He desired the high ground at a crossroads known as Old Tavern on the Nine Mile Road above Fair Oaks Station. From this vantage point, he expected to be able to dominate enough of the surrounding country to emplace heavy artillery that would force the Confederates from their advanced fortifications. By repeating this process of "regular advances," McClellan hoped to move step by step to within perhaps a couple of miles of Richmond, where his heavy artillery could bombard the Confederate capital. "Then," he wrote, "I shall shell the city and take it by assault." He planned to capture Old Tavern on the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh and scheduled a preliminary assault south of the crossroads for June 25. It was, he said, the first step toward taking Richmond.

On the rainy morning of June 25, Third Corps commander Sam Heintzelman sent Joe Hooker's division forward with orders to capture a thick patch of woods in no-man's-land between the Federal and Confederate lines. McClellan desired control of the woods so he would know what the Confederates were up to on the far side. Troops from both the Second and Fourth Corps would do some fighting this day, but Hooker's men would bear the brunt of the combat in what they would come to call the Battle of Oak Grove.

SHORTLY BEFORE THE BATTLE OPENS, MCCLELLAN EXAMINES THE MECHANICSVILLE TURNPIKE LEADING TO THE CONFEDERATE LEFT FLANK. (LC)

BRIGADIER GENERAL SAMUEL PETER HEINTZELMAN (LC)

Opposing Hooker on the far side of the woods were the men of Brigadier General Ambrose R. Wright's brigade. Wright's 4th Georgia was on picket that morning and opened the battle with men of the 1st and 11th Massachusetts. For most of the day, the fight would tear through the woods and fields before the Confederate works. The troops engaged had had little or no experience in combat, and the battle was an ugly, clumsily managed affair. By 5 P.M., McClellan, who had watched part of the battle in the afternoon declared to the War Department that he had won the battle and with little loss. He was premature on both counts, however, for about a half hour later, Wright launched a counterattack that did little damage to the Federal position but piled up more casualties. By the time the firing stopped well after dark, Wright, like McClellan, claimed victory, but considering that together the armies had lost more than 1,100 men and that the position of the front lines had changed little, history would declare the Battle of Oak Grove (or King's Schoolhouse, as the Confederates called it) a costly and indecisive draw. Neither side knew that Oak Grove was merely the first fight in a week of unimagined bloodshed that would become known as the Seven Days' Battle.

Toward sunset on the twenty-fifth, the rain began to peter out, and anxious citizens in Richmond looking eastward toward the battlefield saw what many thought was an omen. A rainbow stood out against the darkening sky. None of the people knew it, but with the conclusion of the fighting at Oak Grove, McClellan's offensive operations against Richmond ceased. The Confederates had withstood the worst McClellan would give them, and the morning of June 26 would mark the dawn of a new era in Confederate history.

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