On the northern front, facing Jackson, George Sykes posted his veteran regulars as a steadying second line, but soon they too were fully committed. Sykes’s left, Gouverneur Warren’s volunteer brigade, was subject to repeated assaults. “Oh I wish you could have seen that fight,” Colonel Warren wrote his fiancée-to-be, “when our regiment rushed against a South Carolina one that charged us. . . . Nothing you ever saw in the pictures of battles excelled it. . . . In less than five minutes 140 of my men were killed or wounded and the other regiment was completely destroyed.” Warren, who was nicked by a spent bullet, handled not only his own brigade but directed any other regiments that came under his eye in the confusion.
Dispersing Slocum’s reinforcing division far and wide by regiments, even by companies, was deemed essential by Porter, but it offended Henry Slocum’s military sensibilities. He would send a bill of particulars to Secretary Stanton “which preclude the idea of any credit being due Genl. Porter for his services on that occasion.” He spoke of Porter’s abundant artillery, “yet he made but little use of it,” of Porter’s “absurd disposition of his infantry force,” of his scattering of reinforcements. By Slocum’s accounting, “nine thousand brave men, two thousand of whom were of my division, were unnecessarily—I had almost said wantonly—sacrificed. . . .”
Porter responded with harsh words of his own. General Slocum, said Porter, had failed to report to him, “with whom his presence and advice might perhaps have averted some of the disasters he claims to have arisen.” Slocum needed to explain “his absence from his command and the battle field,” and why he left “without authority the north side of the Chickahominy.” This contretemps went unresolved, and marked the first of Slocum’s poisonous dealings with the Potomac army’s high command.
The sun was low in the sky, blood-red in the haze of battle smoke, when in one final convulsive charge the Confederates overwhelmed Porter’s line right and left and surged onto the plateau. Sykes’s regulars fell back in fair order, but where unit organization was fragmented, command collapsed and retreat became disordered. Former artillerist Charles Griffin attempted to rally his brigade, and any other infantry he could collect, to defend the divisional artillery. “Men, this battery must not be taken,” he pleaded. “I cannot cover your retreat; you must cover mine.” His effort was unavailing and most of the guns were lost. “Gen. Griffin wept hot tears and was unable to give any order,” reported the Comte de Paris. George McCall, at sixty old before his time and ailing, “exhausted by fatigue and opium, could no longer hold his horse and his speech had lost all coherence,” wrote the count. He also witnessed Dan Butterfield, on foot, his horse killed, separated from his scattered brigade, put his hat on the point of his sword and “advancing entirely alone, encouraged his men and sought to reform the disorganized regiments.” George Morell also rushed forward alone, seized a flag, and planted it as a rallying point for the fugitives.
One general the Frenchman did not see was John Martindale, of Morell’s division. Apparently Fitz John Porter did not see Martindale either. From the moment he arrived on the field, Martindale had voiced objections, remonstrating against Porter’s positioning of his brigade, against Porter’s posting of the artillery. When it came to Martindale leading his brigade in battle, Porter found him wanting. Porter made the case bluntly: “He abandoned the field at Gaines Mill in the day time or just before dark.”
The singular high command casualty that day was John Reynolds, who lost his way in the confusion and was captured. He was taken to Confederate general D. H. Hill, a onetime messmate of his in the old army. “Reynolds, do not feel so bad about your capture. It is the fate of wars,” said Hill. Some six weeks later Reynolds would return to the Potomac army in a prisoner exchange.
The closing moments of the fighting witnessed an astonishing, hell-for-leather charge by five companies of the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Philip St. George Cooke’s reserve cavalry was posted behind Boatswain’s Swamp at Porter’s direction to guard the flank. Looking for redemption after failing to catch son-in-law Jeb Stuart in the recent brazen circumnavigation of the Federal army, Cooke chose not to sit by idly in the crisis. Acting “without orders, of course,” Cooke sent in the 5th Cavalry to rescue the threatened artillery line on the plateau.
It was a disaster. The Rebels stood their ground and shot the charging troopers to pieces. The survivors sheered off and galloped back through the artillery line, creating the impression of a Rebel cavalry charge, and in the chaos batteries were lost. But the charge did give the attackers pause, and other batteries limbered up and escaped. About as many guns were saved as lost. Porter insisted Cooke’s ill-chosen tactic was the turning point of the battle. In fact the battle was already well lost.
Darkness saved the Federals from being driven into the river, and the arrival of French’s and Meagher’s brigades restored enough order to prevent a rout. “I was obliged to charge bayonets by the heads of regiments to force a passage through the flying masses,” French reported. Irishman Thomas Meagher, inspirited with Irish whiskey, galloped about in a drunken show of rallying fugitives.
“On the other side of the Chickahominy the day is lost,” McClellan wired Sam Heintzelman. “You must hold your position at all cost.”
As the survivors of Porter’s beaten command trailed back across the Chickahominy in the darkness, their way marked by pitch pine torches, McClellan called in his generals for orders. The gathering was lit by a fire of pine logs that cast flickering shadows across the clearing. A reporter thought the scene worthy of commemorating in a “grand national painting. The crisis, the hour, the adjuncts, the renowned participants. . . .” Present were corps commanders Porter, Franklin, Sumner, and Heintzelman. The outcast Keyes was not summoned; his corps, the army’s reserve, would lead the march to the James. By Heintzelman’s account, McClellan sketched out two possible courses of action—to give up the present campaign and withdraw the army to a new base on the James, or “to abandon this side & our wagons & with all the troops fight a battle on the other side. . . . Gen. McClellan professed a desire on his part personally to concentrate the Army & risk it on one general Battle.” This was a bravura gesture. As the Comte de Paris tactfully put it, “Heintzelman fought it and did not have trouble dissuading him from it.” Without debate, the retreat, already decided upon, was official. The last to cross the river destroyed the bridges.
In the midnight hour General McClellan, his grand campaign in ruins, anguished captive to his delusions, telegraphed Secretary Stanton his unique summary of the Gaines’s Mill battle. South of the Chickahominy “we repulsed several very strong attacks,” while north of the river the troops “were overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers even after I brought my last reserves into action. . . .” He had lost this battle “because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this & I say it with the earnestness of a General who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today.” He felt “too earnestly tonight—I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades”—a sight only in his mind’s eye—“to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army.” So there be no misunderstanding this last point, he underlined it: “If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.”
Stunned by this accusation of what amounted to treason, Stanton hurried to the White House to justify himself. “You know—Mr. President that all I have done was by your authority. . . .” Lincoln described the moment for Orville Browning: “McClellan telegraphed to Stanton in very harsh terms, charging him as the author of the disaster.” The president could only grit his teeth and tell his distraught general, “Save your Army at all events.”
McClellan intended his indictment to reach a larger audience if need be. On June 29 he repeated his particular accounting of Gaines’s Mill to General John A. Dix at Fort Monroe: “I for one can never forgive the selfish men who have caused the lives of so many gallant men to be sacrificed.” Dix was to consider this confidential, except “if I lose my life make such use of it as you deem best.”
Gaines’s Mill proved to be the costliest of the Seven Days’ battles. Of the Federals’ 6,837 casualties, 4,008 were killed and wounded and 2,829 taken prisoner. (The Confederates suffered 7,993 casualties, nearly all of them killed and wounded, almost twice the Federals’ count.) Twenty-two Federal guns were captured. The two reinforcing divisions of Slocum and McCall lost between them about 600 more men than the divisions of Morell and Sykes in the original Fifth Corps line, a result of the scattershot manner their troops were pressed into action. Indeed, Slocum’s division lost the most men of the four divisions engaged, much to Henry Slocum’s embitterment.
Gaines’s Mill might easily have become the decisive battle that McClellan envisioned as the centerpiece of his grand campaign—a battle fought defensively, on ground of his choosing, against the Rebels’ principal army, with Richmond as the prize. Had he not countermanded the dispatch of Slocum’s division at dawn that morning to support the Fifth Corps, Porter would have presented a solidly posted three-division front to the enemy, on choice defensive ground, his flanks secure, his lines stoutly backed by artillery, with a reserve at hand and additional reinforcements on call. “That battle should have been won,” said Phil Kearny. “It was lost by imbecility.”
But Gaines’s Mill as an opportunity never crossed McClellan’s mind. He saw instead only the phantom enemy of his imagination, replete now with Stonewall Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard, menacing him with “vastly superior numbers” on every front.
Saturday, June 28, Day Four of the Seven Days, dawned with the promise of renewed trials for the Federals. “However, the day advanced,” wrote the Comte de Paris, “and the enemy did not attack, the hours went by in silence . . .” Gaines’s Mill secured the initiative for General Lee, but for the moment he could only watch for McClellan to react. The Yankees might stay and fight for their railroad supply line. They might retreat down the Peninsula, reorganize, and renew their campaign. They might give up both the Chickahominy line and the railroad and retreat southward to the James and their gunboats. Lee was unconcerned that they might lunge straight for Richmond. McClellan had missed his chances on the previous days; surely he would not try it now.
The road network south to the James was limited. The Yankees had to fall back from their lines facing Richmond to Savage’s Station on the railroad, turn south, cross White Oak Swamp, and make their way past the hamlet of Glendale to Malvern Hill, overlooking the James. The route covered some 20 miles, but for the Army of the Potomac—nearly 100,000 men, 307 field and heavy-artillery pieces, 3,800 wagons and ambulances, 2,500 beef cattle—navigating that distance, much of it over a single road, proved to be an agonizing and deadly three-day ordeal.
Keyes’s Fourth Corps led the way. The engineers rebuilt the White Oak Swamp bridge, earlier destroyed to secure the army’s flank. A mile or so upstream, at Brackett’s Ford, they built a second bridge. Once across the swamp, Keyes learned of a woods road paralleling the Quaker Road, the main route to the James. This eased his march, but word of his find did not immediately reach those following. The Quaker Road would remain a lumbering mass of men and vehicles and lowing beeves.
Porter’s battered Fifth Corps, with the reserve artillery, was next to march. Porter occupied Malvern Hill and Keyes reached Haxall’s Landing, on the James, securing the immediate objective of the retreat. The rest of the army had to fight its way free.
On June 28 the fighting was limited to a sharp skirmish on Baldy Smith’s front, but the 29th promised a more serious confrontation as Lee determined McClellan’s intentions and set out to thwart them. Magruder was to pursue from the Richmond lines toward Savage’s Station. Jackson would bridge the Chickahominy and try to catch the Yankees before or at the White Oak Swamp crossing. But again Jackson lagged behind, so initiating any fighting that day was left to Magruder.
The three corps facing Richmond south of the Chickahominy—Sumner’s Second, Heintzelman’s Third, Franklin’s Sixth—pulled back to a new line in front of Savage’s Station. McClellan made headquarters south of White Oak Swamp, leaving to his three corps commanders the task of fending off the enemy long enough for the trains to escape, then escape themselves. That day, and thereafter, McClellan stayed to the rear, devoted exclusively to details of the retreat. He named no one to command at Savage’s. The three generals acted at their own discretion.
Savage’s Station served as the supply railhead for the army, and was crowded with immense stores of provisions, equipment, and ammunition. Here too was a large field hospital filled with wounded. Staff cartographer Robert Sneden described the scene at midday on June 29: “Long trains of wagons were still coming from the woods in front and columns of troops in motion filled the fields in front of Savage’s. Amid cracking of whips and braying of mules, all were hurrying to ‘the swamp road.’ . . . Generals Heintzelman, Sumner, Sedgwick, Franklin, and their staff officers were consulting and giving orders. All were taking the situation coolly. No excitement showed itself on their faces, though all were more or less anxious.”
Slocum’s bloodied Sixth Corps division was sent on across White Oak Swamp that morning by McClellan, who neglected to mention this to anyone else in the Sixth Corps. At Savage’s Franklin was surprised to find only Baldy Smith’s division at hand. He was surprised as well to find Sumner’s corps nowhere in sight. General Sumner, Heintzelman complained, “had obstinately refused to occupy the position assigned him . . . leaving a space of three fourths of a mile unoccupied.” Ever since Sumner failed to support Heintzelman at Williamsburg, the two generals had been at swords’ points, a situation made worse by Sumner’s frequent alarms calling out the men for no cause. Heintzelman likened him to the fabled shepherd boy who cried wolf, and was best ignored. Franklin made complaint to McClellan about Sumner, then he and Smith and Heintzelman determined (as Smith put it) “to try and inveigle” Sumner into taking up the new position by telling him that Smith was in imminent danger of being cut off. “To any appeal for aid he was prompt to respond,” Smith said of old Sumner.
Savage’s Station now witnessed an orgy of destruction. Anything that could not be carried away was smashed or burned or blown up. There were giant bonfires of hardtack boxes. Stored ammunition was fired, and the result, reported Robert Sneden, “resembled a volcano!” A trainload of artillery shells was set ablaze, the locomotive’s throttle tied down and the train sent rushing off toward the demolished rail bridge over the Chickahominy. “Through the roofs and sides of the cars sprang hundreds of live shells, which burst in the woods on either side of the track, screaming like fiends in agony.” This carnival of destruction climaxed spectacularly when locomotive and cars spilled off the wrecked bridge into the river.
Heintzelman concluded there was neither space nor need for his corps to remain at Savage’s, so he set his men on the march for the rear. He did not inform anyone at Savage’s that he was leaving—no doubt deliberately, to avoid debating his decision and command issues with Sumner. Franklin and John Sedgwick discovered his absence when they encountered Confederate troops where Heintzelman’s had been. “Why, those men are rebels!” Sedgwick exclaimed. “We then turned back in as dignified a manner as the circumstances would permit,” Franklin wrote. Sumner was furious, and on meeting Heintzelman the next day refused to speak to him.
In late afternoon Magruder attacked the Savage’s Station line. First to engage was William W. Burns’s Philadelphia Brigade, Sedgwick’s division. Burns was shot in the face but refused to leave the field, calling on Sumner for help. This only produced confusion, for Sumner seized any regiment that fell under his eye, sending it forward helter-skelter with a shout and a wave of his hat. Franklin, with a clearer grasp of the fighting, ordered up W.T.H. Brooks’s Vermont Brigade, and Brooks (despite a leg wound) and Burns soon beat back the attackers. The two sides ended up where they had started, the Federals suffering 919 casualties, the Rebels 444.
Franklin prepared to join the retreat, but Bull Sumner, his fighting blood up, refused to move. “I never leave a victorious field,” he insisted. At his wits’ end, Franklin showed him McClellan’s orders of that morning. “General McClellan did not know the circumstances when he wrote that note,” Sumner said with heat. “He did not know that we would fight a battle and gain a victory.” Franklin realized if they stayed they would be struck in the morning with redoubled force, and he sent to McClellan to report Sumner’s latest obduracy. A headquarters officer soon reached Sumner with unequivocal orders: “Present the accompanying order to Genl E. V. Sumner Comdg 2d Corps. If he fails to comply with the order you will place him in close arrest.” The direct order from the general commanding was enough for Edwin Sumner. “Gentlemen,” he told his staff, “you hear the orders; we have nothing to do but obey.” He and Franklin joined Heintzelman in retreat, and so the Army of the Potomac survived a long day of high command disorder.
Sam Heintzelman’s decision to cross the swamp at Brackett’s Ford somewhat relieved the congestion at the White Oak Swamp bridge, but still it was a maddeningly slow, tedious, dispiriting night march for everyone. At one point traffic at the bridge came to a dead stop. “Then we heard through the darkness General Richardson swearing like a trooper, and after considerable of that we moved on,” wrote one of Israel Richardson’s men; “. . . old ‘Dick’ with his fusillade of oaths was clearing them out and getting them over. . . .” Phil Kearny hurried his men along, warning that they were “the rear guard of all God’s creation.”
Nothing wrenched morale more than leaving behind wounded comrades at the Savage’s Station field hospital. “Those who could hobble or walk started from the hospital and mixed in with the moving wagon trains,” Private Sneden wrote. “Some were taken up by the teamsters, others, carrying their guns, supported a comrade. Some limped on sticks or improvised crutches.” Those left to the enemy’s care were counted by Lee’s medical director as 3,000.
Early on June 30 the rear guard crossed White Oak Swamp bridge and burned the span. The retreat routes through the swamp funneled into the road junction of Glendale two miles to the south. Glendale was as well the target of Jackson’s pursuing force and of Lee’s columns from Richmond intent on intercepting the Yankees’ retreat. Lee determined to make this Day Six of battle decisive. He focused his entire army on the objective of cutting the Potomac army in two. Confederate soldier-historian Porter Alexander would write of Glendale, “Never, before or after, did the fates put such a prize within our reach.” Of the Confederacy’s few chances for a success so great as to promise independence, Alexander wrote, “this chance of June 30th ’62 impresses me as the best of all.”
There was full intelligence on the Rebels that morning. From the north, Jackson was known to be advancing on the White Oak Swamp bridge site. From the west, Confederates were detected in force on both the Charles City and Long Bridge roads, close by Glendale. There was no doubt within the Union high command that saving the army’s trains—indeed saving the army—would require major fighting at Glendale. The Prince de Joinville, McClellan’s trusted adviser, had studied the maps and divined Glendale’s critical importance. “My Uncle spoke about this to the General,” wrote the Comte de Paris, “who grasped it at once. . . .”
Nevertheless, at this self-evident crisis in his fortunes, what remained of General McClellan’s warrior spirit evaporated. He deserted his army, or at least the largest part of it. At noon, following a sketchy inspection of the Glendale lines and a meeting with Sumner, Franklin, and Heintzelman, the commanding general and his entourage “took off at a fast trot” down the Quaker Road and over Malvern Hill to Haxall’s Landing on the James. “It is difficult to express the pleasure that everyone felt upon seeing with his own eyes the goal of our efforts, the end of our retreat,” Philippe recalled.
Some sixty hours had passed since McClellan determined the collapse of his campaign and committed to retreat. Hour by hour his demoralization intensified. He described himself that day to his wife as “worn out—no sleep for many days. We have been fighting for many days & are still at it. I still hope to save the army.” Saving the army meant one thing now: personally seeking out a safe haven on the James River. As to the more immediate crisis at Glendale, however, his loss of the moral courage to command in battle was complete, and he fled the responsibility. Andrew Humphreys of the engineers wrote his wife, “Never did I see a man more cut down than Genl. McClellan was when I visited him on board Com. Rodgers’ vessel. . . . He was unable to do anything or say anything.”
John Rodgers’s gunboat Galena was McClellan’s haven. At 4:00 p.m. he boarded the Galena to confer with Rodgers about the navy guarding the army when it should reach the river. Already at Haxall’s McClellan was miles too far from Glendale to exercise any command functions . . . although not too far to escape hearing the rising sounds of battle there. At 4:45, with general and staff aboard, the Galena steamed upriver some miles to shell a Rebel column on the riverbank. That evening, wrote the Comte de Paris, “I found the General at table with the naval officers. . . . When one has led so rude a life for several days, one feels out of place on arriving aboard a ship where everything is proper, whose officers have white linen and where one suddenly finds a good dinner and some good wine.”
In common with Savage’s Station the day before, McClellan left no one in overall command before he departed Glendale. This decision was surely dictated by Bull Sumner’s intransigence at Savage’s, but it thrust the Army of the Potomac into one of the worst command tangles it would ever experience. Sam Heintzelman, in congressional testimony, was asked about this peculiar trait of General McClellan’s. “Well, sir,” he replied, “he was the most extraordinary man I ever saw. I do not see how any man could leave so much to others; and be so confident that everything would go just right.” He added, “The corps commanders fought their troops entirely according to their own ideas.”
The Federal defenses on June 30 were divided—the rear guard at the White Oak Swamp bridge site facing Jackson’s advance from the north, and two to three miles distant, the flank guard at Glendale facing Lee’s advance from the west. After leaving his generals at Glendale to sort out matters for themselves, McClellan sent privately to the trusted William Franklin to command the rear guard at the swamp crossing. Franklin’s force was a mix of the last to leave Savage’s Station the night before—Baldy Smith’s Sixth Corps division, Israel Richardson’s Second Corps division, Henry M. Naglee’s Fourth Corps brigade. When the shooting started, Franklin appealed to ever-generous Sumner, who lent him two brigades from John Sedgwick’s Second Corps division.
The command at the Glendale crossroads was if anything even more tangled. The defending infantry was posted in line west of and parallel to the Quaker Road, along which the supply trains were still passing, fronting both the Long Bridge and Charles City roads. On the far right, blocking the Charles City Road, was Henry Slocum’s Sixth Corps division. Slocum was separated from his corps commander Franklin and acting independently; as he was short of artillery, Heintzelman loaned him two Third Corps batteries. Phil Kearny’s Third Corps division was next in the line. In his contrary way, Kearny took up a position (as Heintzelman put it) “in front of where I was ordered to hold & it was hours before I could move him.” Into the resulting gap had appeared George McCall with his laggard Fifth Corps division, inserting himself between Kearny and Hooker’s Third Corps division, on the far left. This mix-up left Heintzelman managing a divided command, well separated by McCall’s orphaned division; like Slocum, McCall reported to no one. To round out the entanglement, the Second Corps’ Bull Sumner went to battle that afternoon in charge of but a single brigade, from Sedgwick’s division, posted as a reserve.
General Franklin would encounter no difficulty managing the mix of forces under his command, for Stonewall Jackson’s attack proved merely a noisy, prolonged artillery duel, contributing in the end nothing to Lee’s battle plan. Franklin was returning to his command from Glendale when Jackson’s bombardment opened. “The wood through which I was riding seemed torn to pieces with round shot and exploding shells,” he wrote. At the front Baldy Smith was caught bathing, and as shot and shell fell about him he dressed “in what I judged was dignified haste.” The shelling caused panic among the supply trains, but inflicted no disruption of Franklin’s defenses. There was no follow-up to the shelling, so Franklin and Smith passed quiet hours relieving an abandoned sutler’s wagon of its stock of brandy and cigars.
At Glendale the Federal battle line was a ragged, improvised affair. Lacking central direction, each general selected his own position. Slocum on the far right was well separated from Kearny, who held a more advanced posting than anyone else. McCall’s line was tied neither to Kearny’s on his right nor to Hooker’s on his left. Joe Hooker was surprised to discover McCall’s division where he expected Kearny’s to be, distant 600 yards “and stretching off in an obtuse angle with the direction of my own.” McCall was astride the Long Bridge Road, which proved to be the axis of the Confederates’ main assault. In Lee’s design for June 30, while Jackson attacked the Yankees’ rear guard he would strike at Glendale with five divisions, intending to cut McClellan’s army in two. Benjamin Huger’s division would challenge Slocum on the Charles City Road. James Longstreet’s and A. P. Hill’s commands, supported by two of Magruder’s divisions, took McCall’s division as their primary target.