On June 24 McClellan ordered the first move of his intended battle for Richmond. Taking the lesson of Casey at Seven Pines, for the advance on Old Tavern he put his most experienced lieutenant, Sam Heintzelman, and his best troops, on the firing line. “It will be chiefly an Artillery & Engineering affair,” he told Heintzelman. “Keep your command as fresh as possible, ready for another battle—I cannot afford to be without Heintzelman, Kearny & Hooker in the next effort.”
In joining battle for Richmond, McClellan counted under his immediate command 105,800 men of all arms. While he based his strategic and tactical decisions on confronting a Confederate army 200,000 strong, in fact the two armies were a close match. General Lee, who culled reinforcements from every direction in addition to calling in Jackson from the Valley, counted just over 101,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia. Back in April Lincoln had warned his general that the Confederates “will probably use time, as advantageously as you can.” That proved a major understatement.
Wednesday, June 25, 1862—Day One of the Seven Days—did not witness anything very auspicious militarily. The Third Corps’ Heintzelman assigned Joe Hooker to advance his lines a mile or so to Oak Grove, a conspicuous stand of timber (like Seven Pines) in this heavily wooded landscape. Gaining that objective, said McClellan, would be a major step toward seizing Old Tavern, prospective jumping-off place for the siege and assault on Richmond.
Hooker posted Dan Sickles’s Excelsior Brigade on the right, astride the Williamsburg Stage Road, and Cuvier Grover’s brigade on the left, with Joseph B. Carr’s in reserve. Grover, veteran of the hard fighting at Williamsburg, led with a skirmish line two regiments strong, pushing aggressively through the woods and driving the Rebel pickets. Today marked political general Sickles’s first real test. It did not go well. He put out an undermanned skirmish line and the advance was too slow to keep pace with Grover. The Rebels punched back, striking the least experienced Excelsior regiment, the 71st New York, which (in Sickles’s words) “broke to the rear in disgraceful confusion.”
McClellan and entourage rode up to consult and to restart the advance. Generals and staffs, wrote the Comte de Paris, were “seated on the parapet . . . hearing a few bullets whistle and quite a lot of cannon balls; one of them plants itself in the parapet, causing several people to scatter.” That was as close as General McClellan came to sharing the dangers of the battlefield with his men during the Seven Days.
This advance to Oak Grove on June 25 cost the Federals 626 casualties and came to nothing, for that evening Heintzelman was called back to the starting point. McClellan’s abrupt turnabout was triggered by a dispatch from Fitz John Porter at Fifth Corps headquarters north of the Chickahominy. A contraband just in from Richmond, Porter wrote, “says a large portion of Beauregard’s army arrived yesterday and that the army expected to fight today or tomorrow and fight all around. . . . He saw the troops arrive and heard the cheering welcome to them. They say we have one hundred thousand (100,000) men and they two hundred thousand (200,000) and that Jackson is to attack in the rear.”
This singular piece of unsubstantiated intelligence brought all three of McClellan’s deepest fears boiling to the surface—a supposedly eyewitness Beauregard sighting, a count of 200,000 for Richmond’s defenders, and an imminent attack by the renowned Stonewall Jackson. At 6:15 that evening he sent a despairing telegram to Secretary Stanton: “I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true. . . . I regret my great inferiority in numbers but feel that I am in no way responsible for it as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements. . . . I will do all that a General can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command & if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers can at least die with it & share its fate. But if the result of the action . . . is a disaster the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders—it must rest where it belongs.”
Having assumed the identity of martyr and shed accountability for whatever might happen, McClellan converted his energies from offense to defense, to saving his army. He directed Chief of Staff Marcy to order the four corps commanders south of the Chickahominy to look to their defenses: “You cannot too strongly impress upon the Generals the fact that I wish to fight behind the lines if attacked in force.” Earlier McClellan had begun stockpiling stores afloat on the James with an eye to helping the navy force the Drewry’s Bluff defenses. Now he redoubled that effort, his purpose to secure a haven on the James for the army if need be. He notified Flag Officer Goldsborough that the navy’s cooperation was “of vital importance & may involve the existence of this Army.” He sent to Ambrose Burnside in North Carolina to sever the railroad Beauregard was supposed to be using to transport his army from Mississippi. (Upon second thought, he ordered Burnside’s men to Fort Monroe. They reached there after the fighting was over.)
As if to legitimize his fears, McClellan was handed Pinkerton’s newest “summary of the general estimates” of the Confederate army—180,000 men, endorsed with Pinkerton’s caution that this number was probably “considerably short” of the enemy’s actual strength.
Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps was well posted to meet an attack from Richmond. His main line was a half mile east of Mechanicsville behind Beaver Dam Creek, where it emptied into the Chickahominy. It was inherently a strong position, fortified originally by Joe Johnston. George McCall’s recently arrived division manned the line, John Reynolds’s brigade on the right, Truman Seymour’s on the left, George Meade’s in reserve. They were supported by six batteries. Except for Seymour’s brigade at Dranesville (under E.O.C. Ord) back in December, these Pennsylvania Reserves were new to battle, but they were well led, well drilled, and well posted. The posting was mostly the work of Reynolds. A West Pointer, a twenty-year regular, Reynolds had won two brevets in Mexico and was highly regarded by McClellan, who had pulled strings to get him for the Army of the Potomac.
Lee’s plan for June 26 called for an advance down the north bank of the Chickahominy, coordinated with Stonewall Jackson’s Valley army striking Porter’s right and rear. Lee anticipated this envelopment forcing the Yankees to abandon their position, perhaps without a fight. By plan, Porter would be heavily outnumbered, leaving only some 30,000 Confederate infantry in the Richmond lines to confront the more than 76,000 Federals south of the river. There seemed great risk here, but Lee had taken his opponent’s measure—his cautious, deliberate pace—and read in the Northern press the wildly inflated estimates of Confederate numbers issued by Potomac army headquarters, and he recognized McClellan’s commitment to siege warfare. “He sticks under his batteries & is working night & day,” Lee wrote President Davis. “I will endeavour to make a diversion to bring McClellan out.”
But like Joe Johnston at Seven Pines, Lee’s complex battle plan fell to pieces. Just five brigades, 13,000 men, got into action on June 26, hardly a fifth of the intended force. Jackson’s army never reached the battlefield, never fired a shot. Instead of an overpowering envelopment, Beaver Dam Creek became a bloody, hopeless series of frontal assaults.
Much of John Reynolds’s antebellum service was in the artillery, and he posted his batteries to cover every approach with direct fire and crossfire. The infantry was well protected in rifle pits. The fighting at Beaver Dam Creek lasted some six hours and was never in doubt; “night closed the action with the enemy defeated and discomfited,” Reynolds wrote. The Rebels lost 1,475 men, the Federals, 361. Back in the fall Reynolds despaired of ever turning volunteers into disciplined soldiers. Now he had words of praise for his Pennsylvanians: “The conduct of the troops, most of them for the first time under fire, was all that could be desired and creditable to their State and Country.” Reynolds himself was widely praised for his first battle, Truman Seymour declaring that “much of the credit of this day belongs justly to him; his study of the ground and ample preparations . . . justify his high reputation as a soldier. . . .”
At noon that June 26, before the fighting began, McClellan telegraphed Stanton confirming that Jackson was closing in, threatening his communications. Stanton should “not be discouraged” by reports that the army’s lifeline was cut, even that Yorktown was lost. “I shall resort to desperate measures & will do my best to out manoeuvre & outwit & outfight the enemy.” He telegraphed his wife, “I think the enemy are making a great mistake, if so they will be terribly punished. . . . I believe we will surely win & that the enemy is falling into a trap. I shall allow the enemy to cut off our communications in order to ensure success.”
These two telegrams implied some bold, aggressive intention. In fact they were advance cover for the reality that General McClellan, facing what he took as implacable odds, was giving up his campaign, retreating from the gates of Richmond. To fall back down the Peninsula would be to admit utter defeat. Instead (to his mind), the Rebels’ “great mistake” was focusing on the Potomac army’s railroad lifeline. He would “outwit the enemy” by giving up the railroad, slipping the army away southward, and starting over with the James River as his new line of communications. In due course, operating from the James—and greatly reinforced—he might still “ensure success.”
Victory at Beaver Dam Creek (or Mechanicsville, as the battle was named) left McClellan momentarily exultant. “Victory of today complete & against great odds,” he told Stanton. “I almost begin to think we are invincible.” He crossed to Porter’s, and to Marcy back at headquarters he sang the praises of McCall’s division: “Tell our men on your side that they are put to their trumps & that with such men disaster is impossible.” In the Sixth Corps, “cheer after cheer rang all along the line, the bands came out for the first time in a month.”
By Baldy Smith’s account, McClellan, on his way to Porter’s that evening, stopped at the Sixth Corps. Smith and Franklin urged him to seize the moment—bring the Fifth Corps south of the river, destroying the bridges behind it. Then, said Smith, “we who were fresh should attack in force . . . and capture Richmond before Lee could make the long detour by Mechanicsville” to defend it. This exactly defined the risk Lee was taking, but failed to move McClellan. He reckoned a Rebel army 200,000 strong would leave a force at least the size of the Potomac army to hold Richmond even as Lee maneuvered north of the river. Of his and Franklin’s scheme Smith wrote ruefully, “This was not done.”
McClellan remained at Porter’s until after midnight, debating options. In his report, Porter laid out the daunting dilemma as he and McClellan imagined it. It was necessary “to select which side of the Chickahominy should be held in force, there being on each side an army of our enemies equivalent . . . to the whole of our own.”
Porter wanted reinforcements to hold the Beaver Dam Creek line, but McClellan’s concern was its open right flank. The alternative was to fall back four miles or so to a position near Gaines’s Mill covering the Chickahominy bridges, the links to the rest of the army. McClellan said he would return to headquarters, evaluate the situation there, and telegraph Porter his decision. A staff man overhead their parting words. “Now, Fitz, you understand my views and the absolute necessity of holding the ground, until arrangements over the river can be completed. Whichever of the two positions you take, hold it.” Porter replied, “Give yourself no uneasiness; I shall hold it to the last extremity.”
McClellan was being less than forthcoming with his favorite general. He did not reveal his intention to retreat to the James—an intention developed sufficiently by that time to outline it to the Comte de Paris and other staff during their ride back to headquarters. Porter’s understanding was quite different. As he explained to historian John C. Ropes, “McClellan left me after 12 o’clock that night to decide, after returning to his head-quarters, whether I should remain at Beaver Dam & be reinforced or move as quick as possible to the selected position at Gaines’ Mill where I would be reinforced from the right bank, or he would attack Richmond and I resist Lee’s attack even to my destruction, & thereby to prevent Lee going to the defense of Richmond.”
Apparently General McClellan was more comfortable asking his lieutenant to fight to the last ditch to secure a victory rather than to protect a retreat.
McClellan chose the Gaines’s Mill option, and at first light on June 27 Porter skillfully broke contact with the enemy at Beaver Dam Creek and steered his command to its new position. South of the river McClellan surveyed his battle line for potential reinforcements for the Fifth Corps. Anticipating that line as well as Porter’s to be attacked by the enemy host, he asked the four corps commanders there how many troops they could spare for Porter and still hold their lines for twenty-four hours.
From the Sixth Corps on the Chickahominy opposite Porter, Franklin marked Henry Slocum’s division as the lead reinforcement. Next came the Second Corps, and Bull Sumner volunteered half his corps to cross the river if ordered. To Sumner’s left was the Third Corps of Sam Heintzelman, who offered two of his six brigades. The Fourth Corps was on the far left, and General Keyes, mindful of his ordeal at Seven Pines, was cautious to a fault. “As to how many men will be able to hold this position for twenty-four hours, I must answer, all I have, if the enemy is as strong as ever in front. . . .”
To prepare for the retreat, McClellan sent engineers to survey the roads leading south to the James, and to bridge White Oak Swamp, the major barrier the army would have to cross. Ammunition and rations were called up from the White House depot. McClellan’s posture was everywhere defensive. To prepare Stanton, he telegraphed he was contending “at several points against superior numbers” and might be forced “to concentrate between the Chickahominy & the James. . . .”
The Gaines’s Mill position marked out by chief engineer John Barnard was an elevated plateau about two miles wide by a mile deep overlooking the four military-bridge crossings of the Chickahominy. A sluggish stream called Boatswain’s Swamp curled around the northern and western sides. Elder’s Swamp bordered the plateau on the east. These streams were thickly edged with timber and undergrowth. The plateau itself was largely open, but the sloping sides were well wooded. The approaches offered little cover for attackers. If the Fifth Corps was to hold its position “to the last extremity,” this was good ground for it.
Posted on the left, facing west, was the division of George W. Morell, his brigades led by Dan Butterfield, John Martindale, and Charles Griffin. For most of these troops and their generals, this would be their first battle. Morell, head of the 1835 Academy class, served two years before leaving the army for railroading and then the law. He reentered the service on the staff of the New York militia. Dan Butterfield, businessman-in-arms, was also a former New York militia officer. Martindale, a classmate of Morell’s, never served a day before resigning for a career in the law. Charles Griffin of the regulars was the only one of the four with battle experience, fighting his battery at Bull Run. Facing north (from where Stonewall Jackson was expected) was George Sykes’s division—two brigades of regulars, under Robert C. Buchanan and Charles S. Lovell, and Gouverneur Warren’s brigade of volunteers. Except for Sykes, these officers had not seen action previously. Sykes, who covered the army’s retreat at Bull Run, was a twenty-year man. McCall’s division that fought on the 26th was posted as corps reserve.
There were ninety-six guns on the plateau, supporting the lines or in reserve. Three of Henry Hunt’s reserve batteries of heavy guns were posted on the right bank to fire on Rebels advancing along the left bank. The Fifth Corps counted some 27,000 men. When engineer Barnard left that morning for headquarters, Porter thought it was agreed that Barnard would explain to McClellan “the necessity for additional troops, and also to send me axes, that the proper defenses might to some degree be prepared.”
Porter recalled bitterly that his request never registered at army headquarters. Barnard “found McClellan asleep, went to sleep himself & paid no attention to my request,” conduct he termed criminal. (Barnard admitted that when he found “the commanding general was reposing, I went to my tent and remained there until afternoon.”) In due course Porter renewed his call to headquarters for help, but reinforcements arrived very late and axes arrived, unhelved, even later. Whatever few fieldworks the defenders threw up were hasty makeshifts.
Porter expected reinforcement that morning after seeing the head of Slocum’s division approach the bridges but then turn back without explanation, “and I supposed the attack would be made upon Richmond.” In fact, in yet another of his second thoughts, McClellan countermanded Slocum’s movement out of concern that the Sixth Corps, lacking Slocum’s division, could not contain an attack from Richmond. Porter waited six hours with growing impatience for some response from Barnard’s mission. Only at 2:00 p.m. did he signal headquarters, “If you can send Slocum over please do so.”
For George McClellan, Gaines’s Mill was a battle not seen, not understood, not really sensed. He did not stir from headquarters at the Trent house, a half mile south of the Chickahominy crossings; his only links to the two fronts were the telegraph and couriers. He took no initiatives, waiting instead upon the enemy’s initiatives. What was the strength of the attackers? Porter was asked: “The General wishes to be exactly informed before he gives you an order.”
Throughout the day, as McClellan awaited intelligence from Porter’s battlefront, alarms raised by the generals facing the Confederates’ Richmond lines south of the river clamored for his attention. Joe Hooker reported “the passage of 2 or 4 thousand Rebel troops” toward Sumner’s Second Corps. Baldy Smith reported “six or eight regiments have moved down to the piece of woods in front of General Sumner.” Smith then warned, “The enemy are massing heavy columns” facing his own lines. Franklin confirmed: “Three regiments are reported to be moving from Sumner’s to Smith’s front.” Sumner added an alarm: “Enemy threaten an attack on my right near Smith.” Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe made an ascension and announced, “By appearances I should judge that the enemy might make an attack on our left at any moment.” A McClellan staff man summed up: “In fine the enemy appears to be intending to sweep down the Chickahominy on both sides.”
The perpetrator of these impending attacks south of the river was Prince John Magruder, whose notion of a good defense was a pseudo-offense. As he had done in those first days at Yorktown, the vastly outnumbered Magruder emptied out his bag of tricks to hoodwink the Yankees. Columns of troops marched hither and yon in plain sight. In plain hearing came shouts of command and drummers beating the long roll. There were bursts of picket-line firing and sudden artillery barrages.
Not everyone was fooled by these antics. Colonel Samuel K. Zook, 57th New York, reported no enemy in his front. Zook had crept out in advance of the picket line “and saw a whole lot of niggers parading, beating drums, and making a great noise.” Zook’s report was overlooked amidst the general intelligence din. Prince John’s efforts met the same credulous response on June 27 as they had at Yorktown in April—the phantom Confederate army of General McClellan’s invention acting exactly as he anticipated it would.
The day before, at Mechanicsville, Lee had hoped to drive the Federals into the waiting arms of Stonewall Jackson approaching from the flank and rear, but Jackson failed to appear. On the 27th Lee sought to repeat that tactic. He could commit some 54,000 men (twice Porter’s strength before any reinforcement). But Gaines’s Mill looked to be an even stronger position than yesterday’s. There seemed little choice except to storm the Yankees. Again Jackson was very slow getting his Valley army to the field, and until late in the day the Richmond army’s assaults, while fiercely made, were piecemeal and poorly supported. As late as 4:10 that afternoon Porter could report that he “found everything most satisfactory. . . . Our men have behaved nobly and driven back the enemy many times, cheering them as they retired.” Slocum was arriving now, and Porter even considered counterattacks.
Initially Porter fought his battle with a certain passivity, believing McClellan understood his situation, accepting his role as decoy to occupy the enemy while the rest of the army advanced on Richmond. In that belief he had waited until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when already under heavy attack, to even ask for Slocum’s division. Caught up in the pseudo-attacks in front of him, McClellan was oblivious to the intensity of the real attacks across the river. Andrew Humphreys ascended in Lowe’s balloon and reported the aerial view of Porter’s battle “for the first time that afternoon showed me how serious it was; for although we were but a short distance from the field the strong wind prevented my hearing the musketry. . . .” The reality on the ground was captured by Richard Auchmuty of Morell’s staff, who described the Fifth Corps caught in “a storm of shot, shell, and musketry, which made the trees wave like a hurricane.”
Within an hour of Porter’s confident 4:10 dispatch the battle turned against him. William F. Biddle of the headquarters staff, sent across the river to report on the fighting, found Porter sitting his horse at the rear of the battle line. “The bullets were coming thro the woods & dropping all around,” Biddle recalled. “Genl. Porter pointed to the woods & said, ‘You can see for yourself, Captain—we’re holding them, but it’s getting hotter & hotter.’” Shortly after 5 o’clock Porter telegraphed in desperation, “I am pressed hard, very hard. About every Regiment I have has been in action. I have asked several times for assistance, and unless I receive, I am afraid I shall be driven from my position.”
McClellan adjured Porter to “hold your own” and pledged, “You must beat them if I move the whole Army to do it & transfer all on this side.” It was an empty pledge. In asking—not ordering—his generals on the Richmond front to furnish what they could to Porter, McClellan met firm resistance. “I do not think it prudent to send more troops from here at present,” said Franklin. “Everything is so uncertain that I think it would be hazardous to do it,” said Sumner. Just two brigades—French’s and Meagher’s—crossed the river after Slocum, and they arrived only in time to pick up the pieces.
For Porter and his lieutenants to maintain a command grip on the battlefield became all but impossible as the fighting rushed toward a decision. Morell’s and Sykes’s line was stretched too thin to maintain reserves. When the line wavered or regiments exhausted their ammunition under the relentless assaults, Porter reached into McCall’s division for support. Truman Seymour described the resulting turmoil: “Regiment after regiment advanced, relieved regiments in front, in turn withstood, checked, repelled, or drove the enemy, and retired, their ammunition being exhausted, to breathe a few moments, to fill their cartridge boxes, again to return to the contested woods.” The regiments of Seymour, Meade, and Reynolds were scattered beyond control.
The Comte de Paris, directing reserves to the front, rushed up to George W. Taylor’s New Jersey brigade, Slocum’s division, and braced Taylor in rapid-fire French. The startled Taylor turned to his aide and asked, “Who the devil is this, and what is he talking about?” His bilingual aide explained it was the Comte de Paris of General McClellan’s staff, in his excitement lapsing into his native tongue. Despite his doubts, Taylor said, “Very well then, give him the Fourth Regiment and go see where he puts it.” (Shortly the 4th New Jersey was surrounded and captured; the young Frenchman escaped.)