The Seven Days I

George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee, respective commanders of the Union and Confederate armies in the Seven Days

Near the end of the fighting on June 1 General McClellan appeared on the battlefield. His lieutenants had matters well in hand and little required his attention. “Sumner and his generals press themselves around the General, excited and triumphant,” wrote the Comte de Paris, who went on to sketch the scene. Sumner “has an even more withered air than usual”; the Irish Brigade’s Thomas Meagher “caracoles from right to left, always followed by a big green guidon, as if to say . . . ‘I am the most Irish of the Irish’”; William French “twitches his nose and winks his left eye convulsively.” An exception to the animated group was “the silent and contrite figure of Couch, wandering in vain in search of his division . . . cut off the previous day.”

McClellan gave thought to striking at the retreating enemy with Porter’s and Franklin’s corps. But the river was reported running higher and more violent than ever, making bridging impossible. McClellan crumpled the dispatch in his fist, wrote the Comte de Paris, “but he limited himself to this gesture of impatience.” The Battle of Seven Pines would not be followed up.

On June 2 the general commanding issued an address to his troops. As he had promised, “you are now face to face with the rebels, who are at bay in front of their Capital. The final and decisive battle is at hand.” He asked of them one last crowning effort, and he renewed his pledge: “Soldiers! I will be with you in this battle and share its dangers with you.” Read to the troops at dress parade, it “was greeted by many and loud cheers,” wrote a staff man.

McClellan pledged to Washington as well. He claimed victory at Seven Pines and said he would move quickly to build on it. “I only wait for the river to fall to cross with the rest of the force & make a general attack.” He telegraphed his wife, “One more & we will have Richmond & I shall be there with Gods blessing this week.”

But that night, in his solitude, he turned introspective in a letter to Ellen. June 1 marked his first-ever look at the scene of a major battle. He found it deeply disturbing. The impression in his mind’s eye of Seven Pines was crowded with the images of hundreds of gravely wounded men awaiting care and, scattered across the muddy, trampled field, scores of killed from the previous day’s fighting. He had seen battle dead before, in Mexico, but this scene was different—different in scale, different because these killed and wounded men were his men. He was confident of ultimate success, he wrote. “But I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”

Seven Pines proved to be the only Peninsula combat George McClellan experienced this close up. His revulsion at the bloody arithmetic of battle pointed to something deep-rooted in his military character—a reluctance to accept the human toll necessarily expended by a commander to win a battle or a campaign. As he put it in another letter, “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me!” In his address to the army he promised his men he would join them in the fighting to come and share its dangers. But critically at issue was whether in battle he would—or could—demonstrate the “moral courage,” the ruthless acceptance of responsibility, to risk and to expend those lives, in whatever numbers required, to gain victory.

McClellan’s incaution in pushing forward his left wing, and his misjudgment in thinking Johnston “too able” a general to risk countering that move, put the Army of the Potomac in jeopardy on May 31. Fortuitously, Johnston’s planning was so bungled that the Federals rallied and finally halted the assault, and then on June 1 regained the lost ground. From his sickbed McClellan’s direction was limited to ordering Sumner’s Second Corps to support the embattled left. The Federals lost 5,000 men and the Confederates 6,100, and the two armies ended the battle about where they began it.

In reporting to Washington on the fighting, McClellan drew on Heintzelman’s dispatches to denounce Silas Casey’s division for giving way “unaccountably & discreditably” on May 31. As at Williamsburg, McClellan’s report was highly judgmental of events where he was absent; and it too was released to the press. The press expanded the story. Correspondent Samuel Wilkeson pictured Casey’s troops as “sweeping in a great shameful flow down the Williamsburg road.” Casey’s men, wrote Wilkeson, “had been taught nothing save how to march and camp, and . . . deteriorated daily under the command of a General who had neither youth, enthusiasm, pride, or combativeness.”

Casey tried to defend himself and his men. Just because his division was “the subject of a false and malicious telegram, it is certainly no reason that it should be deprived of that which is justly its due.” He said his long casualty list earned his division credit, not discredit. The “unaccountably & discreditably” charge was withdrawn, but the damage was done. Beyond doubt Casey’s division had been severely handled. On June 23 McClellan relieved Casey, replacing him with John Peck. Casey would not again serve in the field. While the matter was handled awkwardly, McClellan’s summation was accurate enough. At Seven Pines “the division of Gen Casey was broken in such manner as to show that its commander had failed to infuse proper morale into his troops.”

Seven Pines was a battle suited to Bull Sumner’s dedicated if limited generalship. “The old man seemed to be making up for Williamsburg,” wrote Charles Wainwright. Scorched by the press after the earlier battle, Sumner sought vindication on May 31. When a McClellan dispatch crediting Sumner’s role in the fighting was garbled in the New York Herald, Sumner insisted McClellan make it public as originally written. He did so, and Sumner sent a copy to his wife endorsed, “Show this dispatch to our friends.” Alerted, he had assembled his men and marched them right to the Chickahominy bridges, thus wasting not a moment in crossing when the order came . . . saved moments that saved Keyes and Heintzelman. In the fighting Sumner grasped the measures needed, and competent lieutenants John Sedgwick and Israel Richardson carried them out.

The Comte de Paris, so contemptuous of Erasmus Keyes at Williamsburg, conceded that “General Keyes . . . this time is not afraid to expose himself” to enemy fire. Keyes’s horse and accouterments were hit three times by musketry during the chaotic fighting on May 31. A staff man wrote, “Keyes again rode up cheering and encouraging all around him, and his presence and words then as many other times during the day infused new vigor and determination into the men. . . .”

Still, Keyes found himself tarred by the same brush used on Casey, and belittled by the same rumors about his fortitude that Philippe earlier reported. Keyes wrote New York’s Senator Ira Harris that “great injustice has been done to my corps & to me in giving currency to the idea that Casey’s Division ran at once.” Most of the Fourth Corps, he insisted, was much longer under fire than that; he himself “was under hot fire for six consecutive hours on the 31st & . . . I personally reformed my lines many times.” But Erasmus Keyes had been caught in a situation not of his making, in a posting not of his choice, and could only try to stem what became (whether sooner or later) a stampede. To Chief of Staff Marcy, an old friend, Keyes wrote, “I cannot of course believe that Genl. McClellan is going to frown on me for my conduct on the 31st,” but should he in any way disapprove, Keyes appealed “to our old associations” to allow him to resign quietly and not suffer the humiliation of being relieved.

McClellan lacked cause to relieve Keyes, but he distrusted him sufficiently to post him in the coming weeks far from the sound of the guns. For his part, Keyes sought intervention from Treasury Secretary Chase: “I am called a Republican and if you know the manner in which McClellan & his clique make war on republicans, you will understand what pressure I am obliged to sustain.” He sought “the favor to have me ordered out of this army in some way which will not reflect on my capacity or devotion to the cause.”

Darius Couch, heading Keyes’s other division, was cut off at Fair Oaks Station with hardly a third of his command. He defended the spot stubbornly until Sumner came to his relief, and was not forgiving of McClellan’s failure to recognize his division’s hard fight. Like Keyes, he wrote privately to Chief of Staff Marcy: “If I am obnoxious to Gen. McClellan, let him send me to another field. I am willing to do anything, in order that the men know that they saved the left wing of the army.”

Sam Heintzelman initially reacted to the attack in slow motion, due to the ninety-minute delay in reporting from the front. But as he had at Williamsburg, he rushed to the scene, thrust himself into the fighting, pushed reinforcements forward and posted them, and his reporting brought Sumner’s Second Corps into the battle. McClellan held out his hand, Heintzelman wrote in his diary, “& remarked calling me by name, ‘You have done what I expected, you have whipped the enemy.’”

In answering the call on the 31st, Phil Kearny sought to reprise Williamsburg and play the part of rescuer. While he again demonstrated that as a battlefield leader of troops he had few peers, his command arrogance limited his performance. He overrode Heintzelman’s orders to David Birney merely on the grounds (as he told his wife) that “weak old fool” Heintzelman “mismanaged me as usual.” Kearny then did not admit it was he who was accountable for Birney’s supposed inaction. In his memoir Baldy Smith termed Phil Kearny “ungovernable,” a trait very much on display at Seven Pines.

In the second day’s fight there were no surprises by the Rebels, and no lapses by the Federal command. June 1 proved an incisive reversal of May 31. “I believe the report that the rebels are retreating,” Heintzelman wrote. “They cast their last die & lost.”

On May 30, as Joe Johnston prepared his assault on Seven Pines, far to the west in Mississippi P.G.T. Beauregard evacuated Corinth, slipping away from the clutches of Henry Halleck’s Federal army. This event triggered, on the part of General McClellan, an extended series of Beauregard sightings. Remarkably, the first came on May 30, McClellan reporting to Stanton, “Beauregard arrived in Richmond day before yesterday, with troops & amid great excitement.” On June 10 he passed on further intelligence of Beauregard’s arrival, and proposed “detaching largely” from Halleck’s army to strengthen his own. Halleck bristled, reporting Beauregard and his army still a presence in Mississippi. McClellan continued to post Beauregard sightings regardless, thereby considerably inflating the host defending Richmond.

As the Potomac army battled at Seven Pines, the campaign the president was managing in the Shenandoah Valley rushed toward its own climax. McDowell from the east and Frémont from the west sought to trap Stonewall Jackson. On May 30, having chased Banks into Maryland, Jackson started back up the Valley. By Jackson’s calculation, McDowell and Frémont were aiming for Strasburg, “and are both nearer to it now than we are.” In Washington, Quartermaster Meigs was writing, “Jackson’s army is being gradually surrounded. I pray that the movement may be successfully carried out & that he may be caught in the web we have woven with care and labor in the last week.”

McDowell’s 20,000 men in the Valley saw James Shields’s division in the van. Shields had just reached Fredericksburg to join the march to the Peninsula, but having campaigned in the Valley he seemed best suited to spring the trap. The Pathfinder, for all his experience in the mountains of the West, was finding the Alleghenies a terrible place to make war. Still, by May 31, despite their many trials, he and Shields were poised to head off Jackson at Strasburg. “It seems the game is before you,” Lincoln telegraphed them.

Then both Federal generals blinked. On June 1 Shields halted and turned to defend against James Longstreet’s command that rumor of the most improbable sort had brought from Richmond to threaten him. Frémont feebly skirmished with the Rebel rear guard while the last of Jackson’s troops hurried through Strasburg. “The latest information from the Shenandoah Valley,” wrote Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay on June 2, “indicates that Jackson’s force has slipped through our fingers there, notwithstanding that he was almost surrounded by our armies.”

“Do not let the enemy escape from you,” the president demanded of McDowell and Frémont. They attempted pursuit, but on June 8, at Cross Keys, Jackson rounded on Frémont and drove him back. The next day, at Port Republic, Shields in his turn was driven back. A resigned Lincoln told Frémont to give up the chase and stand on the defensive. Shields was ordered to rejoin McDowell’s command. The Valley campaign was over, and Stonewall Jackson had won it decisively.

Lincoln’s directions to his generals in the Shenandoah reflected sound military instincts. He discounted Jackson’s threat to Washington, recognized Jackson’s intent to tie up Federal forces in the Valley, and without hesitation seized on the moment to cut off Jackson’s escape. Despite all the obstacles of terrain and weather, he managed to position Shields and Frémont in time to spring the trap. The failure was theirs. James Shields proved all bluster, Pathfinder Frémont, all excuses. Neither would redeem his lost military career.

The president’s strategy for energizing McClellan’s stagnant campaign went awry at the very start, when from the best of motives he pulled Shields’s division out of the Valley to join McDowell for transfer to the Peninsula. Had he not had to wait for Shields, McDowell and his three divisions at Fredericksburg ought to have joined McClellan by mid-May . . . at which Richmond, seeing the Yankees so strongly reinforced, would surely have recalled Jackson to defend the capital.

Lacking a general-in-chief, Lincoln’s only source of professional military advice was Stanton’s War Board and the ineffectual Ethan Allen Hitchcock. No one seems to have pointed out that without Shields’s division the Valley’s defenders were seriously “out of balance” and a tempting target for Jackson. “Messrs. Lincoln & Stanton are not as great Generals as they had supposed themselves to be,” remarked W.T.H. Brooks. John Gibbon wanted the war left to the generals, “who ought to know what they are about, and if they don’t I think it very certain nobody else does.”

In fact it was still possible to achieve an exalted state of reinforcement even after Jackson’s escape. George McCall’s division that had remained at Fredericksburg was started to the Peninsula (by water) on June 6. The president determined that Frémont and a rejuvenated Nathaniel Banks ought to be enough to keep a grip on the Valley, so on June 8 McDowell was directed to the Peninsula “with the residue of your force as speedily as possible.” That residue comprised the divisions of Shields, Rufus King, and James B. Ricketts (replacing E.O.C. Ord). But by now Shields’s division, in Lincoln’s homely phrasing, “has got so terribly out of shape, out at elbows, and out at toes” that it required refitting. Still, McDowell promised that he with King and Ricketts would join the Potomac army before June 20.

That order never came. Once again, affairs in the Valley turned perplexing. Lincoln told McClellan he had hoped to send him more force, “but as the case stands, we do not think we safely can.” The continued bumbling of Frémont and Banks kept the Valley’s defenses in disarray, and General Lee, with calculation, added to the perplexity. He dispatched three brigades to strengthen Jackson, greatly alarming the Yankees, then recalled Jackson and his entire command to the defense of Richmond. Frémont and Banks crowned their ineptitude by failing to discover that Jackson was gone.

Lincoln saw the reports of these Rebel reinforcements for the Valley as another McClellan opportunity. Every soldier sent away from Richmond was one less soldier the general would have to face—if he acted promptly. The logic of that quite escaped McClellan. Secure in his delusions about Confederate numbers, he replied that if 10,000 or 15,000 men “have left Richmond to reinforce Jackson it illustrates their strength and confidence.” Detective Pinkerton fed the general’s fantasy, reporting the Rebel army was “variously estimated” as 150,000 to 200,000 strong. McClellan took the 200,000 figure as his benchmark for the campaign.

During the First Corps’ checkered chronicle, Irvin McDowell met growing disdain from the Potomac army’s officer corps. McClellan was convinced of McDowell’s perfidy in angling for an independent command, and told Stanton if he could not have full control of McDowell’s men, “I want none of them, but would prefer to fight the battle with what I have & let others be responsible for the results.” Fitz John Porter tipped off New York World editor Manton Marble that McDowell was “a general whom the army holds in contempt and laughs at—and has no confidence in.” Israel Richardson spoke of “the gay and accomplished Gen. McDowell . . . who puts one in mind very much of a second Jack Falstaff. . . . We should like much to have his troops to assist us, but don’t want him.” McDowell wrote a friend, “Yet I, who have been striving and struggling to get down to join McClellan’s army . . . find myself thoroughly misunderstood both by the press and by the people . . . with a not worthy motive ascribed to me.”

The net result of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign was that his two divisions joined the Peninsula battles while just two divisions (of four) of McDowell’s reached McClellan. The unsettling situation sent the president up to West Point to seek counsel from the retired Winfield Scott. The old general advised dispatching McDowell’s corps to the Peninsula, and offered his thoughts on a general-in-chief and on a response to the Valley debacle. On June 26, the day after he returned to Washington, Lincoln combined the Union forces remaining in northern Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley into a new Army of Virginia, to be commanded by one of Halleck’s Western generals, John Pope.

George McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserves division was assigned on arrival to the Fifth Corps. It boasted three promising brigadiers, John F. Reynolds, George G. Meade, and Truman Seymour. The Fifth was now the largest corps in the Potomac army and, under Fitz John Porter, the particular favorite of General McClellan.

McClellan gained a second substantial reinforcement by working himself free of General Wool at Fort Monroe. John Wool, seventy-eight, wily veteran of army politics, ran his Department of Virginia as an independent fiefdom, holding fast to his troops and deflecting McClellan’s pleas that he garrison the army’s rear areas at Yorktown, Williamsburg, and White House. Lincoln resolved the impasse by an exchange of department heads—Wool taking the place of John A. Dix at the Middle Department in Baltimore, Dix taking over at Fort Monroe. The Department of Virginia was folded into McClellan’s command, and two-thirds of Dix’s troops—eleven regiments—attached to the Potomac army. Dix’s regiments and the 20,000 men of McCall’s division, said Sam Heintzelman, “ought to carry us into Richmond.”

Edwin Sumner was given charge of the three corps now posted south of the Chickahominy—his Second, Heintzelman’s Third, Keyes’s Fourth. Armed with semi-independent status, Sumner resumed his alarmist habits. On June 1, even as the Rebels’ retreat ended the Seven Pines fighting, he announced, “I have good reasons to believe that I shall be attacked early in the morning by 50,000 men,” and he called out the Third Corps for support. Heintzelman disagreed, detailing his reasoning to Sumner. It was wasted effort. On June 3 Heintzelman’s diary read, “The promise of a pleasant day till Sumner created, or rather tried to create, a stampede.” June 8: “Gen. Sumner has another stampede & paraded his troops & Kearny’s. I could not see the slightest necessity.” Sumner was only calmed when McClellan shifted headquarters south of the river and the three corps commanders resumed their normal roles.

Phil Kearny loudly complained about Sumner (“Bull in a china shop”), and raised objection when John C. Robinson replaced the injured Charles Jameson as head of one of Kearny’s brigades. Robinson was a veteran officer with a good record, and Kearny was rebuffed. “Gen. McClellan has written a letter & sent it through me,” Heintzelman wrote, “as severe & unexceptional as a letter well can be written. It will do Kearny good. He is always finding fault & making exceptions.”

No objections met two other new brigade commanders. John C. Caldwell replaced wounded Otis Howard in the Second Corps. Caldwell was a school principal from Maine, a Republican whose party affiliation gained him the colonelcy of the 11th Maine and a promotion to brigadier general. Charles Griffin, the fiery artillery veteran who lost his battery at Bull Run, gave up the guns for an infantry brigade (and a brigadier’s star) in the Fifth Corps, replacing the promoted George Morell.

On June 2 headquarters set forth a reorganization of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery arm. On taking command, McClellan had shifted the assignment of batteries from brigade to division, with a general army artillery reserve. In the new scheme, each corps took roughly half the batteries assigned to its divisions to form a corps artillery reserve. The Second, Third, and Fourth Corps carried out this reorganization in time for the next battle. Porter’s Fifth Corps, to which Henry Hunt’s artillery reserve was attached, had no separate corps reserve. The thought here was to give the corps commanders more flexibility for tactical purposes. The guns still remained under control of infantry generals, however; artillery flexibility directed by artillery officers was yet to come.

So soon as the Chickahominy flooding subsided, McClellan put his engineers to bridge building. By mid-June there were ten bridges, and Franklin’s Sixth Corps was brought across. Only Porter’s reinforced Fifth Corps remained north of the Chickahominy, guarding the right flank and the railroad. The four corps south of the river entrenched themselves. Francis Barlow grumbled that the army lay crouched behind earthworks along the whole line. “I don’t know whether we are to be the attacking or the attacked party.” Phil Kearny grumbled too. “We always seem to take a nap after every Battle, which thus completely throws away all the good results.” Still, confidence was building. “Richmond is sure to fall,” Hiram Berry wrote. “. . . I trust when Richmond falls the war closes.”

On June 15 McClellan outlined for his wife, but not for Washington, his plan for capturing Richmond. Lincoln was given only the vague assurance that “we shall fight the rebel army as soon as Providence will permit.” The site of the next battle, McClellan told Ellen, would be Old Tavern, elevated ground a mile south of the Chickahominy and some five miles from Richmond. “If we gain that the game is up for Secesh—I will have them in the hollow of my hand.” At Old Tavern he would mass 200 guns to “sweep everything before us,” then advance the heavy guns and mortars and invest Richmond—“shell the city & carry it by assault.”

Much to McClellan’s embarrassment, on June 12–15 Jeb Stuart expanded a reconnaissance into a complete circuit of the Army of the Potomac. General Lee concluded that “McClellan will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns, & we cannot get at him without storming his works. . . .” Lee determined to seize the initiative. He took as his target Porter’s Fifth Corps north of the Chickahominy, and assigned Stuart to reconnoiter. The Rebel troopers traced Porter’s lines, and to conceal his purpose Stuart continued on around the Federals, returning to Richmond along the bank of the James.

Pursuit was a family affair, directed by Philip St. George Cooke, head of the cavalry reserve and Stuart’s father-in-law. Cooke set off on Friday the 13th and his luck foundered. Lacking an independent cavalry force like Stuart’s, Cooke had to paste together a command. Then he was hobbled by faulty intelligence that gave the Rebel column an infantry component. Cooke ordered up infantry of his own—Gouverneur Warren’s brigade—thus limiting the pace of the pursuit to that of the foot soldiers. He never came close to catching Stuart. “I have just returned after a weary tramp (and an unsuccessful one foolishly managed) . . . ,” Colonel Warren reported; “the rebels have been quite enterprising.”

Set against Union successes in other theaters that spring, the drumbeat of demands and complaints and excuses from the Peninsula increasingly wore on Washington. John Nicolay invoked an 1862 version of Murphy’s Law: “McClellan’s extreme caution, or tardiness, or something, is utterly exhaustive of all hope and patience, and leaves one in that feverish apprehension that as something may go wrong, something most likely will go wrong.” Quartermaster Meigs was sure “McClellan never did & never will give an order for attack.”

For his part, McClellan shared his alienation with his lieutenants. George Meade wrote his wife that he and Franklin and Baldy Smith visited McClellan, who “talked very freely of the way in which he had been treated, and said positively, that had not McDowell’s corps been withdrawn, he would long before now have been in Richmond.” McClellan passed on to Ellen the latest capital gossip: “I learn that Stanton & Chase have fallen out; that McDowell has deserted his friend C & taken to S!! . . . that Honest A has again fallen into the hands of my enemies & is no longer a cordial friend of mine! . . . Alas poor country that should have such rulers.” He named caution his watchword: “When I see such insane folly behind me I feel that the final salvation of the country demands the utmost prudence on my part & that I must not run the slightest risk of disaster. . . .”

Fitz John Porter took up his commander’s cause with virulent dedication. He urged New York World editor Marble to reveal to the country the nefarious conspiracy of the Lincoln administration. “The secy and Prest ignore all calls for aid. They have been pressed and urged but no reply comes. . . . I wish you would put the question,—Does the President (controlled by an incompetent Secy) design to cause defeat here for the purpose of prolonging the war, or to have a defeated General and favorite (McDowell) put in command . . . ?”

The Seven Days II

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.)

The Seven Days III

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.

The Seven Days IV

Battle of Malvern Hill; Confederate forces are indicated in red, and Union forces are indicated in blue.

To the Federals’ great good fortune, Lee’s battle plan fell to pieces just as it had at Mechanicsville four days earlier. Jackson applied only artillery to his task, leaving his powerful infantry force standing idle. Huger fumbled his assignment as well, weakly engaging his artillery and none of his infantry. A confused Magruder marched his divisions first one way and then another, and they too failed to fire a shot. Thus the fighting at Glendale was left to just the twelve brigades of Longstreet and A. P. Hill—a severe enough test for the Yankees, to be sure, and nearly more than they could handle.

McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserves, confronting their third fight in five days (after Mechanicsville and Gaines’s Mill) were battle-weary and undermanned. John Reynolds had been captured on June 27 and his brigade was under Colonel Seneca G. Simmons. The division had suffered 1,650 casualties at Gaines’s Mill, a thousand of those from George Meade’s brigade. It was only by chance—a misdirected nighttime march—that the Reserves were not then on Malvern Hill with the rest of the Fifth Corps . . . and only by chance that their posting was at the center of the Glendale defenses.

George McCall’s inexperience, or incompetence, was evident in his postings. His flanks were not covered and he positioned his six batteries too far in advance of supporting infantry. Meade regarded the postings as very faulty and told one of his captains he suspected McCall of being either drunk or ailing and under the influence of opium. The opium charge was not new; the Comte de Paris had raised it at Gaines’s Mill. Truman Seymour’s brigade formed on the left in a large field and well in advance of Joe Hooker’s division to his left. Meade’s brigade was on the right and not tied to Kearny, while Simmons’s lay in reserve. The only other reserve in the Quaker Road sector was one of John Sedgwick’s Second Corps brigades.

Longstreet, guiding on the Long Bridge Road, attacked on a three-brigade front. The Rebels stormed out of the thick woods, driving the Yankee skirmishers before them and aiming for McCall’s exposed gun line. On Seymour’s front two batteries, from the artillery reserve and unused to such close work, pulled back with unseemly haste. There was bitter fighting around the other four batteries; Seymour’s infantry line was breached and his flank turned, and he and most of his men retreated in disorder, leaving a large gap in the battlefront. Joe Hooker was still in a fury about it when he drafted his report: Officers and men of Seymour’s brigade “broke through my lines, from one end of them to the other, and actually fired on and killed some of my men as they passed. Conduct more disgraceful was never witnessed on a field of battle.”

As Longstreet and Hill tried to widen and deepen the breach, the Federals fought to seal it, striking head-on and from both flanks. Seneca Simmons, only days in command of Reynolds’s brigade, led a charge into the gap and was killed. George Meade too rushed into the midst of the fighting. Alanson M. Randol, whose battery was subjected to repeated attacks, remembered seeing Meade pressing his men into the fight, “encouraging & cheering them by word and example.” Then Meade was hit, in the right arm and in the chest. He told Randol he was badly wounded and must leave the field. “Fight your guns to the last, but save them if possible.” Now, of McCall’s three brigade commanders, Simmons was dead, Meade wounded, and Seymour missing in action. A staff man came on a dazed General Seymour behind the lines, on foot, “his hat and clothes pierced by balls. He was alone. I asked him where his Brigade was: he told me it was entirely dispersed.” All twenty-six of the guns on McCall’s front were captured, abandoned, or withdrawn.

Behind the broken front Sumner and Heintzelman pushed reserves forward as fugitives fled past them. The shrill yip of the Rebel yell marked the enemy’s gains, close enough that both Heintzelman and Sumner were grazed by spent bullets. John Sedgwick was nicked twice and his horse killed. Sedgwick’s one brigade then present, under William Burns, was thrust into the breach, and Burns met the challenge as he had at Savage’s the day before. Sumner called on Franklin to return Sedgwick’s other two brigades loaned him, and Franklin did so promptly. Confident now of his own position, Franklin sent along two additional brigades of Richardson’s. To the arriving 15th Massachusetts, Sumner called out, “Go in, boys, for the honor of old Massachusetts! I have been hit twice this afternoon, but it is nothing when you get used to it.” These 11,700 men proved decisive in stemming the breakthrough.

On the northern shoulder of the broken front Phil Kearny reported Rebels attacking “in such masses as I had never witnessed,” a notable appraisal from a soldier of his experience. Guarding his flank was a section of Battery G, 2nd U.S. Artillery, Captain James Thompson, and guarding Thompson was Alexander Hays’s 63rd Pennsylvania. Twice Colonel Hays counterattacked to save the guns. Finally Thompson said he was out of ammunition and must withdraw. “I told him to go ahead and I would give him a good chance,” wrote Hays in a letter home. “Again it was ‘up, 63rd, give them cold steel; charge bayonets, forward, double quick!’ In a flash, yelling like incarnate fiends, we were upon them. . . . Such an onset could not last long, and towards dark we retired, having silenced the last shot.” This drama was witnessed by Kearny, and Alex Hays was flattered by the attention: “Kearny is somewhat hyperbolical in his expressions, but says it was magnificent, glorious, and the only thing that he saw like the pictures made in the papers. . . .”

Sam Heintzelman, rushing back and forth between his divided command, saw that Hooker now had matters in hand, so he focused on Kearny’s needs. He sought out Henry Slocum, whose division on the far right was comparatively idle. Slocum agreed to lend him the New Jersey brigade, Kearny’s old command, and with a shout the Jerseymen rushed into the fight at the double-quick. Another reinforcement was Lieutenant Colonel Francis Barlow’s 61st New York, loaned from Richardson’s division. Barlow wrote, “At a charge bayonets & without firing we went at a rush across the large open field. It was quite dark & very smoky so that we could not distinctly see the enemy in the open ground but they heard us coming & broke & ran. . . .” The 61st ended the day holding its position with the bayonet, its cartridge boxes empty. By then Barlow was leading three regiments as senior officer present.

In the dark woods Kearny was as usual personally (and recklessly) scouting out the fighting. “I got by accident in among the enemy’s skirmishers . . . and was mistaken by a rebel Captain for one of his own Generals,” he wrote his wife; “he looked stupid enough & said to me, ‘What shall I do next, Sir,’ to which I replied . . . ‘Do, damn you, why do what you have always been told to do,’ & off I went.” By leading from the front, his men “know that when matters are difficult, I am at their head, between them & danger—at least showing that I count on being followed,” not exposing them to dangers “I do not share.”

As darkness ended the fighting, George McCall concluded a day of general misfortune by losing his way and stumbling into the enemy lines. He was the second Union brigadier general, after John Reynolds, to be taken prisoner in the Seven Days fighting. This left battle-shocked Truman Seymour in command of the Pennsylvania Reserves and colonels in command of its three brigades.

Glendale cost the two armies a roughly equal number of casualties—3,673 Confederate, 3,797 Federal, plus eighteen guns lost. McCall’s and Kearny’s divisions accounted for almost three-fifths of the Federal total. George Meade’s chest wound proved dangerous but not life-threatening. He recuperated at home in Philadelphia and returned in time for the next campaign. McCall would be exchanged in August, but ill health and his unsteady record at Glendale combined to end his military career.

In the absence of the commanding general, the officer corps improvised very capably at Glendale. Franklin’s rear guard had little to do beyond hunkering down against Jackson’s artillery, and Franklin was prompt and generous in reinforcing McCall. Henry Slocum, not seriously threatened, reinforced Kearny. Heintzelman added to his solid record of leadership, managing a divided command even as he fed reinforcements into McCall’s broken front. Edwin Sumner and John Sedgwick and George Meade were in their element pressing troops into the fighting. Hooker on the left of the break and Kearny on the right continued to show exceptional skills at troop leading, although again Kearny did so in the most reckless manner. “He rides about on a white horse, like a perfect lunatic,” wrote Richard Auchmuty, adding that a posting on Kearny’s staff was decidedly unhealthy. There were some questions about Truman Seymour’s indecisive handling of his brigade, but he would head the Pennsylvania Reserves until the next campaign.

Disaster was averted (narrowly), the army was wounded but intact, and the Quaker Road remained open. Still lacking any guidance from McClellan, his lieutenants continued deciding matters on their own. Convinced that a second day of inaction by Stonewall Jackson was highly unlikely, Franklin sent to Heintzelman to ask how soon his command would clear the road for the rear guard to withdraw. Heintzelman replied that he had no orders to move and should not move without them. Slocum, like Franklin in an exposed position, added his voice for withdrawal, as did Seymour for McCall’s bloodied division. Heintzelman had sent off a staff officer to find McClellan, report on the day’s events, and get his orders. Finally, despairing of hearing from him (the Comte de Paris noted McClellan reading Heintzelman’s dispatch aboard the Galena and making no reply), Heintzelman and Sumner agreed on retreat. Heintzelman summed up: “General McClellan had been down the James River & we had to fall back or be cut off & on our own responsibility.”

Slocum pulled back first, followed by Kearny, Seymour, Sedgwick, and Hooker. Franklin was able to withdraw the rear guard “in parallel” with the others after one of Baldy Smith’s staff rediscovered the woods road General Keyes had found three days earlier. One of Smith’s men wrote in disgust, “We pulled up stakes again in the night and skedaddled.” They were not pursued. “It was after one a.m. when we took the road,” wrote diarist Heintzelman, “& at 2 a.m. were at Gen. Porter’s Hd. Qrs. where I met Gen. McClellan who had just heard of what was going on.”

A staff man on Malvern Hill recalled McClellan “suddenly coming riding hard up the hill in the dark, about 8.30 p.m. I think, & going at once . . . to read the accumulated dispatches.” Earlier, at Haxall’s Landing, McClellan implied to Washington that he was in the midst of the battle: “Another day of desperate fighting. We are hard pressed by superior numbers. . . . If none of us escape we shall at least have done honor to the country. I shall do my best to save the Army.” He asserted bravely he was sending orders to renew the combat the next day at Glendale, “willing to stake the last chance of battle in that position as any other.” But soon enough he found his generals already falling back (without orders, he told the staff disapprovingly). “I have taken steps to adopt a new line. . . .”

At 2:00 a.m. on July 1, McClellan called in topographical engineer Andrew Humphreys and instructed him to lay out lines on Malvern Hill and post the troops coming in from Glendale. “There was a splendid field of battle on the high plateau where the greater part of the troops, artillery, etc. were placed,” Humphreys wrote his wife. “It was a magnificent sight.” If today was to be the Potomac army’s last stand, the place was well chosen.

Malvern Hill was an elevated plateau three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile and a quarter deep that overlooked the James a mile distant. On the west was a sharp drop-off called Malvern Cliffs, and on the east the terrain was wooded and marshy. The Rebels approaching from the north confronted a gradual, open slope leading up to the crest of the hill, where on display was what Alexander Webb called “a terrible array”—the artillery of the Army of the Potomac. Fitz John Porter would be credited with command of the battle fought there that day, but in fact the battle belonged to Henry Hunt, the Potomac army’s chief of artillery.

By midday on July 1 Humphreys had the infantry posted and Hunt had the guns positioned to meet what everyone on Malvern Hill recognized was certain to be yet another assault by the relentless enemy. At an early hour General McClellan appeared on the field and rode the lines. The troops’ welcome inspirited him: “The dear fellows cheer me as of old as they march to certain death & I feel prouder of them than ever,” he told Ellen. “I am completely exhausted—no sleep for days—my mind almost worn out—yet I must go through it.” Going through it would not include taking command of the coming battle, however.

At 10:00 a.m. the Galena again weighed anchor with the general aboard. This time his journey was an hour and a half downstream to Harrison’s Landing, which Commander Rodgers said was the farthest point on the James that the navy could protect the army’s supply line. McClellan spent two hours ashore “to do what I did not wish to trust to anyone else—i.e. examine the final position to which the Army was to fall back.” The Galena’s log showed him returning to Haxall’s Landing at 2:45 that afternoon, and Andrew Humphreys placed him on Malvern Hill at about 4 o’clock, conferring with Porter. McClellan then made a second tour of the lines, after which he remained at the extreme right of the army throughout the period of the heaviest fighting. By the account of his staff officer William Biddle, “We heard artillery firing away off to the left—we were too far to hear the musketry, distinctly. . . .”

Critics would make much of McClellan’s Galena expedition on July 1, accusing him of abandoning his army on the eve of battle, and he was sensitive to the issue. In testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War in March 1863, when asked if he boarded a gunboat “during any part of that day,” he replied that he did not remember. During the 1864 presidential campaign cartoonists labeled him “The Gunboat Candidate,” lounging aboard the Galena as his army fought for its life. In fact, McClellan consulted with Porter during one phase of the Malvern fighting, then deliberately distanced himself from active command. The true, lesser known case of dereliction of duty was absenting himself aboard the Galena on June 30 while at Glendale his army did actually fight for its life. At Malvern Hill on July 1, while conforming to the letter of command, George McClellan certainly violated the code of command.

The Fifth Corps’ Morell and Sykes and Hunt’s reserve artillery were posted on Malvern Hill when McClellan arrived at the James on June 30. He shifted Darius Couch’s Fourth Corps division from Haxall’s Landing to Malvern. As finally established, the battlefront facing the advancing Rebels was Morell’s division on the left and Couch’s on the right, a total of 17,800 men. Sykes’s and McCall’s divisions guarded the western flank. The eastern flank was three army corps strong—Heintzelman’s Third, Sumner’s Second, Franklin’s Sixth. John Peck’s Fourth Corps division, with corps commander Keyes, was at the river.

As was now habit, McClellan designated no overall commander when he went off to Harrison’s Landing, so Porter, as the general posted on Malvern Hill when the rest of the army reached there, was recognized by all as commander pro tem—by all but old Sumner. Edwin Sumner reflexively assumed the command whenever McClellan was not in sight (which was often enough during the Seven Days), and at one point during the Malvern fighting he ordered Porter to fall back to a new position. Porter ignored him. On the Federal battlefront were eight batteries, 37 guns. Hunt would bring up batteries from his reserve to where they were most needed. Altogether on the plateau there were 171 guns posted for action or in reserve.

General Lee intended to clear the way for his infantry with a massive artillery barrage from a “grand battery.” But his guns were poorly handled, while the Yankee batteries were expertly handled, and the barrage scheme collapsed. A series of command misunderstandings then sent the Confederate infantry lunging head-on against Malvern Hill. A single powerful blow might have had at least a chance of breaking the Yankee line, but the assaults were disjointed and beaten back one after another. “It was not war—it was murder,” was Confederate general D. H. Hill’s verdict.

Henry Hunt ranged back and forth along the gun line, checking postings and battle damage, pulling out batteries that had exhausted their ammunition and replacing them from his reserve. Twice his horse was killed under him, twice he sprang up calling for a new mount. Hunt understood that reserves would be decisive. He described his thinking: “I gathered up some thirty or forty guns . . . brought them up at a gallop, got them into position as rapidly as possible, and finally succeeded in breaking the lines of the enemy.” His was a masterful performance.

Captain John C. Tidball’s battery was one of those Hunt called up. To his surprise, Tidball found the battery blazing away next to him was commanded by Captain Alanson Randol. He knew Randol had lost his guns at Glendale after a savage struggle. Randol explained that today he was looking for a part to play and came upon this battery of 20-pounder Parrotts whose German gunners had precipitously left the field at Glendale. Their officers apparently absent, Randol appropriated the battery, aided by his lieutenant who spoke a little “Dutch,” took it to the front, and administered a lesson in both gunnery and leadership.

Darius Couch had his hands full fending off some of the heaviest Rebel attacks, and he turned to Porter for help. Porter appealed to Sumner, but met reluctance—Sumner, as usual, expected to be attacked any moment, no matter that he was more than a mile from the fighting. Sam Heintzelman was willing: “By God! If Porter asks for help, he wants it, and I’ll send him a brigade.” He ordered up Sickles’s brigade, plus a battery. Thus prodded, Sumner sent forward Meagher’s Irish Brigade, and soon the front was stabilized. Couch reported pridefully, “Sumner, Kearny and Sedgwick gave me no little praise for the successes I achieved on this day.” Hunt was equally prideful: General McClellan was “in every way and in all respects thoroughly satisfied with me and my work.”

Phil Kearny acted his usual ungovernable self. That afternoon, after Heintzelman posted one of the Third Corps batteries, Kearny came along and shifted it elsewhere. Heintzelman returned and demanded to know who had moved the guns. Lieutenant Charles Haydon took up the story: “On being told he rode brim full of wrath for Gen. K. ‘You countermand another order of mine & I will have you arrested, Sir’ said H. ‘Arrest my ass, God damn you,’ said Kearny and rode off. . . . Heintzelman looked after him very earnestly for near a minute. A faint smile came over his features & he himself turned around & rode slowly off leaving the battery where he found it.”

“The struggle continued until nine o’clock p.m., when the rebels withdrew,” wrote artillerist Alexander Webb. “The author, an eye-witness, can assert that never for one instant was the Union line broken or their guns in danger.” At 6:10 p.m. Porter had reported to McClellan, “The enemy has renewed the contest vigorously—but I look for success again.” By 9:30 he declared victory: “After a hard fight for nearly four hours against immense odds, we have driven the enemy beyond the battle field. . . .” If reinforced, if the men were provisioned and their ammunition replenished, “we will hold our own and advance if you wish.” His victorious men “can only regret the necessity which will compel a withdrawal.”

The general commanding, however, had already issued orders for the final leg of the retreat, to Harrison’s Landing. Porter’s report of a complete victory did not move him to reconsider. He explained to Lincoln: “I have not yielded an inch of ground unnecessarily but have retired to prevent the superior force of the Enemy from cutting me off—and to take a different base of operations.”

McClellan’s lieutenants were dismayed (or worse) by his order to continue the retreat. Darius Couch, who had smothered the assaults on Malvern Hill, recalled his “great surprise” at leaving a victorious field, and his bitterness at abandoning “many gallant men desperately wounded.” For staff man William Biddle, “the idea of stealing away in the night from such a position, after such a victory, was simply galling.” Israel Richardson observed that “if anything can try the patience and courage of troops,” it was fighting all day every day, then falling back every night. Phil Kearny was livid. To fellow officers he declaimed, “I, Philip Kearny, an old soldier, enter my solemn protest against this order to retreat. We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. . . . I say to you all, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason!”

In the early hours of July 2 Fitz John Porter and Baldy Smith found time for a conversation as their commands trudged toward Harrison’s Landing. Porter described the decisiveness of the victory at Malvern Hill, and said he had spent the night trying to persuade McClellan to change his mind and move against Richmond at daylight. Knowing Porter to be McClellan’s closest confidant, and knowing Porter’s own native caution, Smith was fully persuaded just how ill-judged was McClellan’s decision. When he reached Harrison’s Landing, he wrote his wife “saying I had arrived safely but that General McClellan was not the man to lead our armies to victory.”

Malvern Hill was indeed a decisive victory. Confederate losses on July 1 came to 5,650. The Federal loss was just 3,007, and some 800 of those were stragglers picked up by the enemy during the retreat on July 2. Moreover, in its amphitheater-like setting Malvern was a highly visible victory, for all to witness (all but General McClellan) and a tonic to the fighting men of the battered Army of the Potomac.

A retreat already ugly turned uglier when it began to rain, a downpour that lasted twenty-four hours. “The retreat was a regular stampede, each man going off on his own hook, guns in the road at full gallop, teams on one side in the fields, infantry on the other in the woods,” wrote Richard Auchmuty. “At daybreak came rain in torrents, and the ground was ankle deep in mud.” To Francis Barlow “it was more like a rout than a ‘strategical movement.’” Joe Hooker called it “the retreat of a whipped army. We retreated like a passel of sheep. . . .” John Peck’s unbloodied Fourth Corps division acted as rear guard, hurrying along the stragglers and untangling massive tie-ups among the trains. The stunned and wounded Army of Northern Virginia offered no pursuit.

No one excelled George McClellan at inspiriting troops. At Harrison’s Landing on July 4, Independence Day, he raised spirits with an address to the army. Like an alchemist he sought to transmute leaden reality into silvery triumph. “Attacked by vastly superior forces, and without hope of reinforcements, you have succeeded in changing your base of operations by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients. You have saved all your material, all your trains, and all your guns, except a few lost in battle. . . .” (The Potomac army in the Seven Days lost war matériel beyond counting, wagons by the hundreds, and forty guns in battle.) “Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history. . . .”

The address played well to the rank and file, which needed assurance that their stout fighting and their costly sacrifices over the past bloody week had not been wasted. What had seemed a retreat was now officially a change of base. “All our banners were flung to wind,” Charles Haydon told his journal. “A national salute was fired. The music played most gloriously. Gen. McClellan came around to see us & we all cheered most heartily for country, cause & leader.”

If Charles Haydon spoke for a majority of the troops, fellow Third Corps soldier Felix Brannigan represented a vocal and growing minority. The papers speak of the “splendid strategy of McClellan,” Brannigan wrote. “I think he was forced to it. Anyhow, he gets too much credit for what other people do. McClellan kept at a respectable distance in action, but the real saviours of the army were Heintzelman, Kearny, Hooker, Richardson, and their subordinate generals. They were here, there, and everywhere . . . mixing in the thickest of the fray. Heintzelman with his old cloak and battered hat, and the one-armed Kearny, were particularly conspicuous.” Henry Ropes, Sedgwick’s division, thought “a great deal of faith in McClellan is gone, and I fear will not return.”

In the officer corps faith in McClellan was clearly shaken. “You have no idea of the imbecility of management both in action & out of it,” Francis Barlow wrote home. “McClellan issues flaming addresses though everyone in the army knows he was outwitted.” Everything he saw and heard, said Barlow, “more & more convinces me that McClellan has little military genius & that he is not a proper man to command this Army. I think the Division Genls & about everybody else here have lost confidence in him.” Barlow’s remark on discontent among the generals of division was perceptive. Of those who expressed opinions, Kearny, Hooker, and Baldy Smith were McClellan’s more outspoken critics. Richardson and Couch regarded the final retreat, to Harrison’s Landing, as a mistake. Henry Slocum wrote his wife, “I have allowed matters connected with our movements here to worry me until I came near being sick.”

The five corps commanders were more discreet. Edwin Sumner’s narrow vision focused more on obeying orders than on reasoning why. Still, he favored holding Malvern Hill “if my opinion had been asked about it.” Sam Heintzelman, highly critical of McClellan’s repeated failures to lead, welcomed his own chances at independent command. Erasmus Keyes was so isolated by McClellan that he scarcely witnessed a shot fired. William Franklin, while a McClellan loyalist, was quietly unhappy with events. “I wept at the mismanagement and waste, and I know other officers who did so too,” he told his wife. While Fitz John Porter argued against the final move to Harrison’s Landing, he remained a McClellan partisan; he cast all the blame on Washington. Samuel Barlow warned McClellan of “the jealousy of your own Generals, including Sumner, Heintzelman, Kearny & I fear even of Baldy Smith!”

Harrison’s Landing was a secure base, with swampy creeks forming its flanks and gunboats as watchdogs. But as an encampment it was a miserable place. Kearny complained that “we are completely boxed up, like herrings.” Into some four square miles of lowland were crowded 90,000 men, 25,000 horses and mules, 2,000 beef cattle, almost 3,500 wagons and ambulances, and 289 guns. The water was bad, flies were a constant plague upon man and beast, and it was stiflingly hot and humid. The army’s sick list at its peak reached 22 percent.

Malvern Hill was a superior base in every respect—stronger defensively, certainly healthier, and (should it come to that) a proper starting point for a renewed offensive against Richmond. By McClellan’s account, the navy was the reason he did not exercise the victor’s claim to the Malvern battlefield. Gunboats could guarantee the army’s supply line only as far as Harrison’s Landing, where the James was wide. Above that it narrowed at Haxall’s Landing, and McClellan imagined harassing fire from the south bank.

McClellan might have secured Haxall’s himself—and doubled his threat to Richmond—by seizing the south bank of the river with his own or with fresh troops. Ideal for that was Ambrose Burnside’s command just then landing at Fort Monroe from North Carolina. But that option did not occur to the Young Napoleon. His only thought now was securing his army from the ravening enemy host.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part I

The repulse in December of Hoth’s attempt to break through to Stalingrad enabled the Soviet command to reactivate one of the original elements of ‘Saturn’, the attempt to cut off the retreat of Army Group A from the Caucasus. The General Staff recommended that the Southern (formerly Stalingrad) Front, while directing its main effort towards Rostov-on-Don, should use some of its forces to take Tikhoretsk; by so doing it would cut off Army Group A from Rostov, and threaten the rear of its 1st Panzer Army. Simultaneously, the Black Sea group of the Transcaucasus Front was to thrust northwards to meet the Southern Front’s forces at Tikhoretsk, and expand towards Krasnodar and Novorossiysk, while its Northern Group was to keep the Germans too busily engaged to break away or manoeuvre.

Shtemenko says anxiety was caused by information that the Germans had learned of the preparations for the Novorossiysk operation, but ‘further investigation did not confirm that there had been a leak’. This is rather disingenuous; as mentioned earlier, that a major offensive was intended in Transcaucasus was among the information on four such operations (including ‘Mars’ but not ‘Uranus/Saturn’) mentioned earlier as deliberately ‘leaked’ in Agent Max’s 4 November 1942 message to Gehlen, composed in the General Staff and approved by Shtemenko himself. That the Germans knew what was coming is also indirectly confirmed by Shtemenko’s own statement that ‘the enemy did not wait for us to put our plans into practice. At the very moment when GHQ issued its directive concerning the attack on Tikhoretsk, the Nazi command began withdrawing its 1st Panzer Army from the Terek to the north-west’, though he attributes this to the realisation ‘that its rear was unavoidably threatened by Southern Front’, a dubious attribution, since on his own testimony the Directive to the Southern Front was not issued until 31 December, and by then Hitler had already authorised withdrawal from the Caucasus. The 1st Panzer Army withdrew across the Don and held the vital crossings at Rostov until 14 February, while on the Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler that the 17th Army pulled back westwards, completing by 6 February its retreat to the ‘Gothic Line’ and Taman peninsula, from where further withdrawal into the Crimea could and would be made over the relatively narrow Kerch Straits. The withdrawals were skilfully conducted, as were those by Army Groups North and Centre from the Demyansk and Rzhev salients in the following few weeks, but, as Churchill said about Dunkirk, ‘wars are not won by withdrawals’.

However, a withdrawal on one sector can provide resources for an attack elsewhere, and that is precisely what happened. About seven divisions-worth of German units, freed in the early stages of abandonment of the Rzhev salient, were dispatched to the southern end of Army Group Centre’s line, to reinforce the 2nd Panzer Army. Five of them (two panzer and three infantry divisions) helped bring to a halt the poorly planned, inadequately supplied and over-ambitious offensives that Stalin insisted on the Western, Bryansk, Voronezh and Central (formerly Don) Fronts undertaking before the spring thaw in March–April.

Manstein’s counter-offensive took the form of a strong strike by Army Group South against the left wing of Vatutin’s South-West Front in the Donbass area, and was applied at full force on 19 February 1943. It achieved complete surprise; though Vatutin belatedly ordered his men on to the defensive, they were unable to hold their positions, and by the beginning of March had retreated to the line of the Seversky Donets river. This in turn exposed the left flank of Vatutin’s northern neighbour, the Voronezh Front, which had recaptured Kharkov on 16 February and was still attempting to advance. The Front Commander, Colonel-General F.I. Golikov, was even slower than Vatutin to react to the danger, and hastily ordered his forces to take up defensive positions only on 3 March. They had no time to do this in an organised way, because on the next morning the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf attacked from south-east of Kharkov, driving the Voronezh Front back to the north and north-east, with heavy casualties, partial loss of control and several instances of troops fleeing in panic, abandoning their guns and tanks. By 14 March the Germans had encircled Kharkov, and they retook it two days later.

Stalin judged the situation serious enough to order Zhukov and Vasilevsky to the Voronezh Front on the day Kharkov fell, because, as Shtemenko delicately put it, ‘it was impossible to compile an objective picture from Golikov’s reports’. They succeeded in ‘not only un covering but partially rectifying major inadequacies in the directing of our forces’ and also studied the situation at another danger point further north, the junction between the Western and Central Fronts. There had previously been another army group, the Bryansk Front, between them, but in order to centralise control over the forces attempting to take Orel this had been abolished and its forces resubordinated to the two neighbouring Fronts. However, since it was at the extreme flanks of both, neither Sokolovsky at Western nor Rokossovsky at the Central Front ‘had been able to give it the necessary attention’. Zhukov and Vasilevsky recommended reconstituting the Bryansk Front, sending Golikov to command it and replacing him at the Voronezh Front with Vatutin, who had previously commanded it in 1942. In view of their criticisms of Golikov, their recommendation that he command the recreated Bryansk Front was surprising, and Stalin accepted it only as a temporary measure; by 31 March Golikov had been replaced by Vatutin, was in effect ‘kicked upstairs’ to head the Personnel Directorate of the General Staff, and was never again entrusted with a field command. Zhukov is unlikely to have shed any tears over that; during the 1937–38 purges Golikov, who at that time outranked him, had sought to have him investigated as a potential ‘enemy of the people’ (an episode described only in post-Soviet editions of his memoirs). By 25 March, after the Voronezh Front had retreated 100–150 kilometres (about 62–93 miles), its line was stabilised, and the onset of the spring thaw then enforced a pause on both sides.

Despite the setback in the south, the increases in Red Army manpower and equipment that had made the Stalingrad counter-offensive possible were continuing, and shifting the balance further against Germany. To economise on manpower and create reserves, Army Group North between 15 and 28 February abandoned the Demyansk salient, until then held by 12 divisions, and between 2 and 31 March Army Group Centre abandoned in stages its positions nearest to Moscow (about 112 miles from the Kremlin), in the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, which it had successfully defended for over a year against repeated Soviet attacks. The heavy cost to the Soviets of Operation ‘Mars’ in November–December 1942 (discussed previously) has to be assessed against the fact that the successful German defence of the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had required 30 divisions, at least three of which had already been packing to go south, and would have been joined by others if ‘Mars’ had not been mounted. Abandonment of the salient in March reduced the front line in that sector from 330 to 125 miles, releasing most of the divisions deployed there for Army Group Centre to use elsewhere or put into reserve; at least six of them subsequently fought in the battle of Kursk in July.

The evacuation of the two salients was presented to the Soviet public as the consequence of successful Red Army offensives. In fact both were well-organised and skilfully conducted withdrawals in stages behind strong rearguards, and the pursuing Soviet forces received at least as much damage as they inflicted. There was, nevertheless, an element of truth in the Soviet claims. Successful offensives had indeed prompted the evacuations, but they were those of Operations ‘Uranus’, ‘Little Saturn’ and ‘Ring’, where the destruction of 20 German divisions in the Stalingrad pocket, six more outside it, heavy losses in several others, and the virtual elimination of the Romanian 3rd and 4th, Hungarian 2nd and Italian 8th Armies had intensified the already manifest German manpower shortages. The strategic and psychological effects on both sides were also strong, in the obvious removal of any residual threat either salient might pose to Leningrad or Moscow, and the shortened line freed not only German but also Soviet forces for use elsewhere. At Leningrad the blockade would not be completely lifted for another year, but the effects of Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’) in January, achieving limited restoration of land links with the ‘mainland’, were also becoming tangible. Over two years the perilous ‘Road of Life’ over the frozen lake in winter, and ferries in the other seasons, had taken in 1.6 million tonnes of food, ammunition, fuel and equipment, and brought out 1.4 million evacuees, but now was no longer needed. In the far south the North-Caucasus Front ended its Krasnodar offensive on 16 March, after advances of up to 70 kilometres (44 miles), and on 28 March the Central (formerly Don) Front did the same, after advancing about 150 kilometres (93 miles). In these areas, as at Demyansk and Rzhev-Vyazma, much of the action presented to the Soviet public as resulting from victories in battle was really pursuit of a skilfully withdrawing enemy, but that the Germans found it necessary to withdraw at all was a moral victory additional to those gained on the Volga-Don battlefields.

During the weeks of inactivity imposed by the spring thaw both sides began planning for the coming summer. In the interim, Zhukov secured Stalin’s agreement to reinforce the Voronezh and Central Fronts with three entire armies (1st Tank, 21st and 64th) from Stavka Reserve. Granted a Soviet ‘army’ was much smaller than a German one, the contrast manifested the changing balance of forces; while Germany was having to abandon long-held positions to save manpower, the Red Army was fielding substantial new forces. Furthermore, it was also out-producing Germany in the tanks, guns and aircraft needed to equip them. The early trickle of Lend-Lease supplies was now becoming a torrent, almost doubling from 2.45 million tons in 1942 to 4.8 million in 1943. Supplies of American trucks and jeeps (118,000 during 1942 alone, over three times as many as the 34,900 produced by Soviet plants) gave the Red Army’s infantry and artillery mobility on a scale Germany could not match, and enabled the Soviet vehicle industry to concentrate on producing tanks and self-propelled guns. American deliveries of transport aircraft similarly freed Soviet factories to produce fighters and bombers of new and improved types with which to take on the Luftwaffe.

When the situation stabilised, the Central Front was occupying the northern and Voronezh Front the southern face of an enormous salient, about 120 miles from north to south and over 60 miles from west to east, centred on Kursk, between two German salients, around Orel to the north and Kharkov to the south. The Kursk salient became the focal point of both sides’ planning for the summer campaigning season.

In German planning the rivalries between OKH, responsible for the Eastern Front except for the Finnish sector, and OKW, in charge of that sector and of all other theatres, soon showed themselves. In the spring of that year 187 (67.5 per cent) of Germany’s 277 divisions were on the Eastern Front, and demand for manpower was increased by Hitler’s insistence that OKW reinforce the North African theatre, to prevent or at least postpone collapse there, because if the Anglo-Americans were victorious, their next move would be a return to the European mainland.

Despite the reinforcements sent to North Africa, Axis resistance there collapsed in May, and the enhanced risk of an Anglo-American invasion prompted senior OKW officers such as Jodl and Warlimont to argue for divisions to be withdrawn from the East to strengthen the Western and Mediterranean theatres. However, their chief, Field-Marshal Keitel, gave them no support, deferring, as ever, to Hitler’s preferences. Guderian, recently restored to service as Inspector-General of Armoured Forces, strongly opposed mounting any major offensive at all in 1943. He saw such an undertaking as entailing the premature employment of the new Tiger heavy and Panther medium tanks, with their mechanical reliability yet untested, their crews not yet adequately trained or experienced to exploit their advantages and cope with any shortcomings, and their numbers too small to implement his maxim ‘klotzen, nicht kleckern’ (‘downpour, not drizzle’), all factors likely to prove important when the expected Anglo-American invasion added pressure in the West to the Wehrmacht’s increasingly heavy burdens in the East.

OKH, not surprisingly, saw things differently. Manstein later said in his memoirs that he had wanted to eliminate the Kursk salient at once, even before the spring thaw, but that proved impossible for lack of reserves. Hitler’s general instruction for the war in the East in 1943, Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, stated:

It can be expected that after the end of winter and the spring thaw the Russians, after creating reserves of material resources and partially reinforcing their formations with men, will renew the offensive. Therefore our task consists of pre-empting them if possible in the offensive in different places, with the aim of imposing our will on them on even one sector of the front, as at the present time is taking place on the front line of Army Group South [i.e. Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov]. On the remaining sectors our task amounts to bleeding the attacking enemy. Here we must create a firm defence in good time.

In the North Caucasus Army Group A was simply to hold its positions on the River Kuban and ‘free forces for other fronts’. Army Group North was to prepare for another strike at Leningrad, while Army Groups Centre and South were to plan to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. To achieve this Army Group South must ‘strike northwards from the Kharkov region in cooperation with an assault group of 2nd Army, to destroy the enemy forces operating before 2nd Army’s front’, and Army Group Centre was to create ‘an assault group to be used for an offensive in cooperation with forces of the northern wing of Army Group South. Forces for this are to be freed by the withdrawal of troops of 4th and 9th Armies from the Vyazma area to a shortened line…’. While Field-Marshal Kluge was arranging this, Manstein was to undertake ‘formation of an adequately combat-capable panzer army, concentration of which must be finished by mid-April, so that it can go over to the offensive at the end of the spring thaw’.

So the general concept of the German offensive at Kursk had been decided by mid-March. However, the proposal to launch it before the end of April, immediately after the thaw, proved totally unrealistic; neither troops nor equipment, especially adequate numbers of the new tanks, could be made available so soon. Delays in tank production, and also the time taken to satisfy Model’s needs for making up to strength divisions worn down in Operation ‘Mars’, prompted Hitler to postpone the offensive several times, eventually to ten weeks later than originally intended; and, as will be seen, the Soviet forces in, around and behind the salient made good use of the time gained by the successive delays.

Hitler issued Operations Order no. 6, for the offensive, codenamed Operation ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), on 15 April. Army Group Centre’s 9th Army (Colonel-General Walter Model), with forces made available by its withdrawal during February–March from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, and the 2nd Panzer Army (General Rudolf Schmidt, soon replaced by General Erhard Raus) were to attack the Central Front at the northern neck of the salient, while the 4th Panzer Army (Colonel-General Herman Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf of Army Group South attacked the Voronezh Front at the southern neck. Their aim was to break through and advance to link up near Kursk, then, in cooperation with the 2nd Army’s foot soldiers on the salient’s west face, to destroy the encircled Soviet forces. Success in ‘Citadel’ was to be followed by the transfer of the 2nd Army and units from High Command Reserve to Army Group South, for an immediate south-eastward offensive (Operation ‘Panther’) ‘to exploit the confusion in the enemy ranks’, and to retake those parts of the Donbass industrial and mining area not regained by Manstein’s March offensive or ceded by line-shortening tactical withdrawals.

Forces of both army groups were to be concentrated in rear areas well away from their start-lines, and to be ready any time after 28 April to start the offensive six days after receiving orders to do so, 5 May being set as the earliest possible date. In the meantime Army Group South was ordered to mislead the enemy by conducting ostentatious preparations for Operation ‘Panther’, including ‘demonstrative air reconnaissance, movement of tanks, assembly of pontoons, radio conversations, agent activity, spreading of rumours, air strikes, etc.’ Army Group Centre was not required to play such elaborate tricks, but should deceive by devices such as moving forces to the rear, making fake redeployments, sending transport columns back and forth in daylight hours, and spreading false information dating the offensive to not earlier than June. All real movements were to be by night, and all units newly arriving must maintain radio silence.

Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and the evident imminence of a strategically comparable debacle in North Africa was causing some urgent rethinking among her allies. Italy had not stood to gain any territory or much economic benefit from Germany’s war with the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s main reason for committing the Italian 8th Army to that war was the hope of ensuring that Hitler would respond in kind, after the expected rapid crushing of the Red Army, by making major forces available to help achieve the Duce’s primary ambition, victory over the British in the campaign to dominate the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. A quarter of a million Italians served on the Eastern Front; about 80,000 of them died in battle or captivity, and over 43,000 suffered wounds or frostbite; the survivors cursed the Duce for sending them to Russia, and their German ‘brothers in arms’ for their arrogance and uncooperativeness. Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to make peace with Stalin so as to concentrate Axis forces against the anticipated Anglo-American invasions, first of Italy and eventually of the rest of German-occupied Western Europe. An indication of senior Italian military opinion was that General Ambrosio, the Army Chief of Staff, who had been insisting since November that all remaining Italian troops in Russia must be brought home, was promoted on 1 February 1943 to head the Commando Supremo, and before the end of May all the surviving members of the 8th Army had arrived back in Italy. With the surrender in the middle of that month of all German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Berlin–Rome ‘Axis’ effectively became a dead letter, with Mussolini’s dictatorship under threat and Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war.

Equally strong effects on other sufferers from the Stalingrad debacle, Romania and Hungary, would soon become apparent. By the opening of the battle of Kursk all Romanian forces had been withdrawn from Soviet territory, except from Moldova and Transdnistria, adjacent to and claimed by Romania, and only two divisions of the Hungarian 2nd Army remained with Army Group South, which employed them on occupation and anti-partisan duties, not as front-line troops.

The ‘Conducator’ of Romania, Marshal Antonescu, and the ‘Regent’ of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, had both begun covertly seeking contact with the British and Americans, in hopes of making peace with the West while continuing to fight against the approach of Communism from the East. Mussolini, on the other hand, continued to advocate coming to terms with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate forces against the expected Anglo-American invasion of Italy, and again wrote to Hitler to that effect on 17 March. But his grip on power and Fascism’s hold on Italy were already loosening; on 25 July he was deposed and arrested.

At the other extremity of the Eastern front, Finland hitherto had been Germany’s militarily most competent and reliable ally, but maintained that its war, unlike Germany’s, was defensive, a continuation of the ‘winter war’ of 1939–40, aiming not to destroy the Soviet Union but merely to recover the territories lost by that war. Marshal Mannerheim, who had been a lieutenant-general in the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, was well aware of the dangers of over-provoking Finland’s giant neighbour, and had agreed to resume the post of Commander-in-Chief only on condition that Finnish forces would on no account take part in any attempt to capture Leningrad. As early as August 1941 President Ryti, on Mannerheim’s insistence, had twice rejected requests from Keitel for the Finnish Army to advance north and east of Lake Ladoga, to link up with German forces advancing along its south shore, and thereby isolate Leningrad. To exercise more pressure Keitel sent his deputy, Jodl, to Finland on 4 September 1941, but Mannerheim remained firmly uncooperative, so exasperating Jodl that he burst out, ‘Well, do something, to show goodwill!’ To get rid of him, and not pre judice Finland’s negotiations with Germany for 15,000 tonnes of wheat, Mannerheim agreed to arrange a small diversionary offensive, but in the event did not make even that limited gesture.

The main constraint on Finland’s independent posture was its dependence on Germany for food and fuel. This dependence became even greater after the United Kingdom, an important pre-war trading partner, bowed to Soviet pressure and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, a day ironically significant in two ways: first, it was Finnish Independence Day, and secondly, it was the day that Mannerheim ordered the Finnish Army to go on to the defensive on all sectors immediately after capturing Medvezhegorsk, which it was about to do. He had already begun demobilising older soldiers at the end of November, and by the spring of 1942 had released 180,000 of them. Coincidentally, Zhukov launched the counter-offensive at Moscow on the day before Mannerheim ordered his army to cease attacking, and the day after he did so, Japan brought the United States into the war.

The Soviet victory at Moscow made a prolonged war inevitable, hence even more straining Finland’s limited resources, and this was further intensified after Stalingrad. On 3 February, the day after the last German units there surrendered, and four days after the end of Operation ‘Iskra’ at Leningrad, President Ryti took the prime minister and two other ministers to confer with Mannerheim about ‘the general situation’. They all agreed that Finland must seek a way out of the war, but that it could not do so immediately because of its economic dependence on Germany. On 9 February, at the defence minister’s request, Mannerheim’s Head of Intelligence, Colonel Paasonen, addressed a closed session of Parliament, ending his speech by advising the members to ‘get used to the possibility that we shall once again be obliged to sign a peace treaty with Moscow’. On the 15th the opposition Social-Democratic Party brought the issue into the open with a public statement that ‘Finland has the right to get out of the war at the moment it considers it desirable and possible’. An American offer of mediation was conveyed through the US embassy in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to tell the Germans of the American approach and try to extract a promise that German forces in Northern Finland would withdraw voluntarily if Finland requested their removal. No such promise was forthcoming; on the contrary, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that Finland not only reject the American approach, but also undertake to conclude neither truce nor armistice with Moscow without German consent. Ramsay conceded neither demand, so Ambassador Bluecher suggested applying pressure by restricting supplies of food and fuel, but for the time being Ribbentrop declined to go that far.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part II

Hitler had already summoned the leaders of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to meetings to pull them into line, and Bluecher demanded that President Ryti, re-elected on 15 February 1943, make the same journey, but Ryti refused. Germany showed its displeasure by temporarily recalling Bluecher, then, from the beginning of June, stopping all deliveries of food to Finland and halving deliveries of fuel and lubricants. However, Germany could not risk antagonising its only ally with proven ability to fight the Red Army successfully (and with a record at that better in some respects than Germany’s own). So the restrictions were lifted at the end of June, even though Finland had still made no concessions.

Most Finnish political and military leaders resisted even the thought of a lost war until at least the end of 1942, but Mannerheim had recognised the possibility much earlier, and throughout the year the Finnish Army not only undertook no offensives of its own but also refused to participate in German ones, such as the attempt to cut the railway along which about a quarter of Allied Lend-Lease supplies were transported from Murmansk and Archangelsk to central Russia.

The Finnish government periodically sounded public opinion by surveys, the results of which were published only after the war.249 The differences in results of two surveys, one in September 1942, the other in January 1943, indicated how public opinion shifted in response to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and, on Finland’s own doorstep, to the success of Operation ‘Iskra’ in partially lifting the blockade of Leningrad. The surveys asked simply ‘Do you believe Germany will win?’ The results, in percentages, were as follows:

Finland had been stressed by its war effort to the extent of calling up 45-year-olds, and continued throughout 1943 to explore, quietly, so as not to arouse German suspicions, the possibilities for negotiating a way out of the war. In July the Soviet embassy in Stockholm conveyed a message through the Belgian ambassador, indicating willingness to negotiate, provided the initiative came from the Finnish side, but that approach was not followed up. Unlike the UK, the USA had not yet declared war on Finland, so during the summer of 1943 the Finnish government made a desperate attempt to secure American rather than Soviet or German occupation by notifying the State Department, via the US embassy in Lisbon, that if American forces landed in northern Norway and invaded Finland from there, the Finnish army would not resist them. However, the United States military had no interest in such a diversion, so nothing came of this. Finland did not in fact leave the war until September 1944, but that its leaders began seeking a way out on the very day of the final surrender at Stalingrad was evidence of that event’s impact on Germany’s allies, even on one that had no forces involved in the disaster.

To add to the Germans’ problems, the outcome at Stalingrad had important effects on the population of German-occupied Soviet territory. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve the anticipated lightning victory, and the behaviour of German occupation forces, had already considerably cooled the enthusiasm with which many, particularly in the Baltic states, former Polish or Romanian territory and Ukraine, had initially greeted the invaders; support or at least acceptance of their presence was widespread as long as they appeared to be winning. However, the debacle at Stalingrad alerted the inhabitants of occupied areas, whether pro- or anti-Soviet, to the likelihood that ultimately Soviet rule would return, then those who had resisted the invaders would be rewarded, any who had not would be severely punished, and any who had actively assisted them could expect a rope or a bullet.

The consequence was a great increase during the first half of 1943 in the numbers joining partisan units behind the German lines – according to one account numbers doubled, so that by March there were up to 100,000 in 1,047 detachments, and by the opening of ‘Citadel’ the numbers had risen to 142,000. With so many men available, increasingly controlled and supplied by the regular Fronts, large-scale partisan operations became possible for the first time; on the night of 22/23 June, for example, the rail system in Bryansk province was attacked. It was claimed that 4,100 rails were blown up, but that is undoubtedly an exaggeration, as the same account described the main line along which German reinforcements and supplies came in as blocked only ‘for three whole days’. However, an indication of the extent of partisan activity is that these attacks took place only three weeks after the conclusion of a major anti-partisan operation, ‘Zigeunerbaron’ (‘Gypsy Baron’), in precisely that area.

Partisan activity, small-scale and sporadic in 1941, had grown until guerrilla raids became too large and frequent to be countered solely by Einsatzkommandos, police battalions and (mostly Ukrainian) auxiliaries. It became necessary to use army units as well, and this diverted large numbers of German and allied troops from their front-line duties. Operation ‘Zigeunerbaron’ was a classic example. While preparations for ‘Citadel’ were in full swing, the entire 18th Panzer Division and other units, including Hungarian troops and Soviet ‘volunteers’, had to spend two weeks ‘purging’ the forest areas south of Bryansk of partisan forces estimated at 3,000–3,500 strong. The 18th Panzer Division alone claimed to have destroyed 207 ‘camps’ and 2,930 ‘combat positions’, killed or captured 700 partisans, killed 1,584 unspecified ‘others’, taken 1,568 prisoners and received 869 Red Army deserters, evacuated 15,812 civilians and burned down all villages in the area, thereby seemingly denuding it both of partisans and of all sources of support for them. Yet the partisans were able to mount substantial and coordinated attacks on the rail system only three weeks after ‘Zigeunerbaron’ ended.

For ‘Citadel’ Army Group Centre had available three panzer (41st, 46th and 47th) and two infantry (20th, 23th) corps, totalling 6 panzer, 1 panzer-grenadier (motorised infantry) and 14 infantry divisions, with over 900 tanks, supported by 730 aircraft. At Army Group South Hoth had three corps (52nd, 48th Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer) and so had Kempf (3rd Panzer, 42nd and Corps Raus), totalling between them 6 panzer, 5 panzer-grenadier and 11 infantry divisions, with about 1,000 tanks and 150 assault guns, and 1,100 aircraft. In reserve Army Group Centre had two panzer and one panzer-grenadier divisions, Army Group South one of each. The seven infantry divisions of the 2nd Army, on the salient’s west face, were to form the west side of the encirclement that the mobile forces were expected to create, and until that happened were to do just enough to prevent the enemy moving troops to other sectors. The forces available for ‘Citadel’ therefore totalled 55 divisions (15 panzer, 8 panzergrenadier and 32 infantry). All 23 mobile and 15 of the infantry divisions were at or near full strength, and they totalled about 900,000 men.

Even after the Directive was issued, there was still disagreement among the generals about the form ‘Citadel’ should take. On 4 May Hitler held a meeting in Munich with Kluge, Manstein, Guderian and Zeitzler, at which a letter from Model was considered, raising objections to the operation as planned because he still contended the resources allocated to him were inadequate. Possible alternatives discussed included simply attacking the west face of the salient, or allowing the Soviets to attack first, weakening them in a defensive battle, and then mounting a counteroffensive; Hitler rejected the first as necessitating too complex redeployments, and the second as ‘too passive’.

Had Hitler but known it, the defensive option he then disdained was the very one that Stalin had already chosen three weeks earlier, on Zhukov’s recommendation. Apart from one day (25 March) in Moscow, Zhukov was with the Voronezh and Central Fronts from 17 March to 11 April, and Vasilevsky joined him on 1 April. On 8 April Zhukov sent a telegram to Stalin, in which he stated categorically that the Germans’ summer offensive would be against the Kursk salient, that there were two options, to disrupt their preparations by attacking first, or to wear them out in a defensive battle then launch a counter-offensive, and that he favoured the latter course. This meant temporarily surrendering the initiative, something generals normally prefer to avoid unless absolutely sure they know what the enemy intends to do. Yet Zhukov, an anything but ‘passive’ commander, proposed to build the entire Soviet strategy around what he expected the Germans to do, only a few weeks after February’s major Intelligence failure to foresee Manstein’s offensive, and a full week before Hitler even issued the Directive for ‘Citadel’. Why were he and Stalin so sure that they knew what the Germans would do?

Neither Zhukov nor Vasilevsky ever explained the reasons for their certainty. Zhukov said only that ‘by agreement’ with Vasilevsky and the Front commanders a ‘careful reconnaissance’ of the enemy facing the Central, Voronezh and South-West Fronts was conducted in late March and early April, using Intelligence Directorate and partisan resources to establish ‘presence and deployment of enemy reserves in depth…the course of regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’. The main problem with this statement is that in ‘late March and early April’ there were few ‘enemy reserves’ for Intelligence to find anywhere at all, let alone deployed in positions that could be positively equated with an intended future attack on the Kursk salient. As already mentioned, Manstein’s hopes of mounting an offensive against it in April had been thwarted by lack of reserves. Some would have become available after the abandonment of the Demyansk salient at the end of February. However, when Hitler issued Operations Order no. 5 his assignments of additional forces for ‘Citadel’ did not mention Demyansk at all, but specifically allocated troops from the 4th and 9th Armies that would become available by withdrawal from the much larger Rzhev-Vyazma salient. When he issued the Order, on 13 March, that withdrawal was still in progress. It was completed on the next day, reducing the length of the front line in that sector from 550 to 200 kilometres (from about 344 to 125 miles), and freeing 20 divisions, 15 of which were redeployed to block the offensive by the Bryansk and Central Fronts in the Orel area. However, by 8 April, the day Zhukov sent his message to Stalin, few of the units in question could yet have moved to locations identifiable by local Soviet reconnaissance as associated with anything beyond the local defensive battles in which they were engaged till the last days of March. In fact 27 March was the first day for several months on which the daily Sovinformburo bulletin announced ‘no significant changes’ in the front line.

As for ‘regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’, movements involving more than routine replacement of casualties for units already on the Eastern Front would not be undertaken until that same Operations Order no. 5 was issued, so would not even begin until the second half of March, and only air force units could undertake them quickly (as mentioned below, Bletchley’s first indications of German intentions related to Kursk came from Luftwaffe messages decrypted during the third week of March).

Vasilevsky was scarcely more forthcoming, commenting,

although we didn’t know everything about the German plans we foresaw much, and deduced much, relying both on information from the Intelligence organs and on analysis of current events. Documents in our possession fully reveal the mechanism of the German army’s preparation for a new offensive…Despite all the contradictions and disputes, the German command’s plans amounted to decisively weakening the striking force of the offensive by Soviet troops that they expected in summer, after that develop a victorious offensive in the east, snatch the strategic initiative from the hands of the Soviet command and achieve a breakthrough in the war to their advantage.

This passage is remarkable for two things. First, his use of the present tense ‘reveal’ may be a ‘historic present’ (somewhat more common in Russian usage than in English), meaning that the General Staff had the documents before the battle, or it may mean that they came into ‘our possession’ only after it, at some unspecified time before he wrote his memoirs. Secondly, his summary of the German plans as comprising a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive is completely wrong. As noted above, Hitler had rejected that as ‘too passive’. Furthermore, Vasilevsky contradicted himself in the very next paragraph, which correctly cited Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March as ‘setting the task of pre-empting the Soviet forces on various sectors of the front after the spring thaw’. But here too he did not say whether the Order’s contents were or were not known before the battle. So neither of the two main architects of the Soviet victory at Kursk shed much light on the question of where they got their information. There may therefore be some point in looking at possible sources that are known to have existed, but that neither would mention for security reasons.

The two principal Soviet Intelligence organisations, the GRU (Military) and NKVD (political), maintained large networks of agents abroad; before the invasion these had provided numerous warnings that it would happen, and some information about planning, but nothing precise enough to shake Stalin’s erroneous beliefs that Hitler would not invade at all, or if he did, that his main purpose would be to secure resources for a long war. Up to and including the Stalingrad campaign, gaps in Intelligence continued to create problems for Stavka. As previously mentioned, one in particular, the failure to discover that the capture of Moscow was no longer on the German agenda, led it into serious errors, when von Bock’s persistence in efforts to take Voronezh during July 1942 was misread as portending a subsequent northward drive to outflank Moscow, leading to retention in its vicinity of large reserves that, if sent south earlier, could have helped prevent the Germans reaching the Volga, Stalingrad and the Caucasus. It will be seen below that a persistent belief in the long-discarded German aspirations to capture Moscow continued to affect Soviet planning up to and including that for the defensive battle of Kursk in July, even though the Germans had abandoned the likeliest launching point for it, the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, during March.

Both the counter-offensives at Stalingrad (Operations ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’) had to be extensively modified during their execution because of gaps in Intelligence information. The forces encircled proved over three times as large as expected, necessitating the temporary suspension of ‘Uranus’ and the modification of ‘Saturn’ into ‘Little Saturn’, keeping far more forces than originally planned in the Stalingrad area, and hence so much reducing those intended to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus that that objective had to be abandoned. Another gap was closed only by chance. A German relief attempt was expected, but Intelligence could not discover where it would start. The answer was found only on 28 November when reconnaissance patrols of the 4th Cavalry Corps found the 6th Panzer Division, just transferred from France, detraining at Kotelnikovo, one of the two likely starting points that Zhukov had identified in the assessment he sent to Stalin at that time. Then in February 1943 Soviet Intelligence completely failed to detect the build-up for Manstein’s counter-offensive that recaptured Kharkov, and forced the Voronezh, South-West and Bryansk Fronts to retreat to the Seversky Donets river, abandoning most of the just-reconquered Donbass.

Vasilevsky attributed this last failure to ‘incorrect assessment of the strategic situation’ by the three Front commands, especially a misreading of Manstein’s regrouping of his forces in early February. These involved westward movements from the Kharkov area, to Krasnograd by the SS Panzer Corps and to Krasnoarmeiskoe by the 40th and 48th Panzer Corps, and these were wishfully misinterpreted as the first moves in a major retreat to the Dnepr river line. Vasilevsky also admitted that Stavka and the General Staff compounded the error by setting over-ambitious tasks in pursuit of an enemy whom they wrongly believed so thoroughly beaten as to be incapable of mounting a counter offensive. His explanation of his and Zhukov’s confidence about German intentions at Kursk mentioned no sources of information higher than those available to the ‘Fronts’, i.e. prisoners, documentation at divisional or lower level, or reports of unit movements detected by partisans, cavalry patrols or reconnaissance aircraft. Otherwise he mentioned only unspecified ‘information from the Intelligence organs’, and ‘analysis of current events’, without specifying what information, or what ‘current events’ indicative of future German intentions could have been available as early as the first week of April.

An account provided by Anastas Mikoyan indicates that Stalin’s mind was made up even before the end of March.259 When the dictator summoned him to a meeting, at 2 a.m. on 27 March, he told him that Intelligence information indicated the Germans were concentrating large forces for an offensive in the Kursk salient area: ‘Seemingly they are trying to gain the strategic initiative having a long-range aim at Moscow.’ He was wrong on that latter point, and on the first there cannot have been very large movements by 27 March. Withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had been completed only on 14 March, and not many of the units from there intended for the ‘Citadel’ offensive were likely to have moved in only 13 days, especially since the spring thaw was in full spate. It could be that Soviet Intelligence had gained some information about Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, but no source so far has disclosed if or how they obtained it; and even if they had, it does not mention Moscow, so Stalin’s reference to it must have derived simply from his reluctance to shed the belief that it must inevitably be the Germans’ prime target.

On 8 April, a mere seven weeks after the complete Intelligence failure over Manstein’s counter-offensive, Zhukov sought and obtained Stalin’s approval for a plan based entirely on what the Germans were expected to do. Granted the salient stuck out as an obvious place to attack, but victory in war frequently rests on an ability to avoid the obvious, and German generals had often displayed considerable talent in that direction. Besides, a case could be made for other objectives. Operation ‘Don’, carried out by the Transcaucasus, North Caucasus and South Fronts from 1 January to 4 February, had forced Army Group A to withdraw to the Taman peninsula but had not evicted it from the Caucasus, and a German attempt to use the peninsula as a launch-point for a renewed attempt to retake the nearest oilfields, at Maikop, was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Nor was another assault at Leningrad, at least to close off the narrow corridor between the city and the rest of the country.

To discard all possible alternatives and identify the Kursk salient as the sole target for the German summer offensive of 1943 required more than inspired guesswork; so did the decision to fight a defensive battle rather than disrupt the German preparations by attacking first. Granted, the three previous major victories conducted or masterminded by Zhukov, in Mongolia, at Moscow and Stalingrad, had all involved a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive, but in all three that sequence had been dictated by enemy offensives, whereas his proposal to follow the same pattern at Kursk was entirely voluntary. Completely reliable information about German intentions would have to be involved, and it is therefore reasonable to consider where he could have acquired it.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part III

Battle of Kursk – Aviation Art by Nicolas Trudgian.

All the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ networks of Soviet agents in Germany and occupied Europe had been executed, imprisoned or ‘turned’ to work for the Abwehr between August 1942 and January 1943, so none of them could have provided any advance information about plans for a future German offensive against a salient that came into existence only in March 1943.

Another possible source would be ‘Lucy’ in Switzerland, the codename of Rudolf Roessler, a German exile apparently with sources in the High Command. Moscow initially treated him with suspicion because he refused to disclose his sources (he never did), though it eventually came to regard him as highly reliable. Contrary to the fanciful account by Accoce and Quet, who claim Roessler was providing information to the Soviets from the spring of 1941, including the complete text of the ‘Barbarossa’ plan, and that he met his Soviet controller, the Hungarian Communist Sandor Rado, at that time, all Soviet accounts agree that the details of ‘Barbarossa’ were not known in advance (if they had been, Stalin would not have made the erroneous assumption that the main assault would come south of the Pripyat marshes), and Rado wrote in his memoirs that he acquired Roessler only in November 1942.

Messages from Lucy from the first half of 1943, cited in Rado’s memoirs or other sources, included nothing as high-level as plans for a major German offensive. Besides, the changes in Soviet plans necessitated by gaps in Intelligence between mid-November 1942 and mid-February 1943 suggest that Lucy did not provide especially valuable information in that period either. Even if he then began to produce much better-quality Intelligence, Stalin and Zhukov were hardly likely to have come to trust him so unconditionally by early April as to base their entire strategic plan on messages from him. Furthermore, the former NKVD/KGB general Sudoplatov pointed out that many of Lucy’s reports were similar or even identical to paraphrased Ultra material passed on officially by the British, and therefore concluded that he was a British ‘plant’. The British had indeed succeeded in planting an agent in Rado’s group, so Sudoplatov’s claim is credible, but it is probably not the full story, especially as the most authoritative account of British Intelligence in the Second World War does not mention Operations Order no. 5 among the messages Bletchley decrypted during March.

Roessler also worked for Swiss Intelligence; Switzerland, then entirely surrounded by German or German-occupied territory, necessarily kept a very close eye on the Wehrmacht, and a tight rein over disclosing its findings. Roessler cannot have been its only source of information, and since Switzerland’s interests were better served by a Nazi defeat than a Nazi victory, it may well have passed information to Roessler, fully intending it to reach the British or any other of Germany’s enemies. Paul Carell’s view was that Swiss Intelligence was the actual source of messages received from Roessler’s sub-source ‘Werther’. He noted that all messages received from Werther after 11 February 1942 gave misleading information that Manstein’s forces were withdrawing rather than concentrating for his March counter-offensive, but claims this was because Manstein did not inform OKH or OKW, so officers there, including Werther, drew the same erroneous conclusion as the Soviets. It took a visit to Manstein’s headquarters to dispel Hitler’s misgivings on this issue, so Carell has a point; but an alternative possibility is that the source was a double-agent and the February messages were intended to disinform.

One Russian author has in fact suggested that Lucy was a German disinformation agent, basing his arguments mainly on manifest inaccuracies in some messages cited by Rado. For example, a Kursk-related message of April 1943, allegedly listing the divisions in the 4th Panzer Army of Army Group South, included five that were there and six that were not – the false identifications included one each then in Norway, Germany and with Army Group Centre, and three that did not exist then or ever. If the purpose of the message was indeed to disinform, such an exaggeration of Army Group South’s strength would aim at deterring the Soviets from attempting an offensive immediately after the spring thaw, but if it was not so intended, then Roessler’s sources were clearly nowhere near as good as Accoce and Quet or Rado claimed.

Two other Lucy messages received in June also appear calculated to deceive. The first, on 17 June, said that the Germans considered an offensive at Kursk too risky in view of the Soviet strength, and the second, on the 21st, stated that Army Group South was regrouping so as to threaten the flank of an expected Red Army offensive. Both could only be attempts to dissuade the enemy from expecting an attack that in reality was only two weeks from launching.

Another ground for suspicion of Lucy is that not one of Roessler’s alleged sources surfaced after the war ended. If they were really members of OKW or OKH, both defined by the victors as criminal organisations, their careers, incomes and prospects had been terminated by the Wehrmacht’s defeat and disbandment, and they faced the prospect of at least a denazification hearing or possibly even a trial as war criminals. Their reception by Moscow would have been problematical; on returning there both Rado and Leonid Trepper, the Red Orchestra’s ‘Big Chief’, were charged with having been German-controlled double agents, ‘rewarded’ with 10-year jail sentences, rehabilitated and freed only after Stalin’s death. However, American or British Intelligence services would surely have welcomed Lucy’s ‘sources’, and even have sought to recruit them as double-agents in the rapidly evolving Cold War, and that would have considerably improved their lives in devastated post-war Germany. Could it be that if Roessler had provided names, then the British, Americans or Soviets would have tried to contact them directly, and would then have found that they did not exist?

The contention that Lucy was a German-controlled double agent is inconsistent with the fact that it was German pressure that obliged the Swiss in October 1943 to locate Rado’s transmitters and shut his ring down. However, there are at least three possible explanations for that. First, that it was a genuine espionage ring, to which the Sicherheitsdienst or Gestapo failed to apply the preferred counter-espionage solution of turning at least some of its members, as they did with the Red Orchestra, and as the British did with all German agents sent to the UK, and the Soviets did with agents sent in to support Max. Secondly, it may have been felt to have outlived its utility as disinformation, and that the Soviets were no longer reacting as expected. Thirdly, it could even be, as is not uncommon in espionage, that the right hand, Gestapo or Sicherheitsdienst, did not know what the left hand, the Abwehr, was doing. That no arrests in OKW or OKH accompanied the shutdown suggests that if Roessler had sources there, they were extraordinarily good at covering their tracks, or were indeed participants in a ‘disinforming’ operation shut down because it had outlived its usefulness. Or it could be that the information was, as Sudoplatov claimed, ‘planted’ by the British, or came from Swiss Intelligence, and that the Swiss complied with the German demand because by October 1943 it was clear that Germany’s defeat, though not imminent, was inevitable. The ring was therefore no longer needed, and continuing risked exposing their own role, prompting a German blockade or even invasion. Evidence to establish the truth is not in the public domain, and probably never will be.

Advance Ultra information from Bletchley may have been among the factors influencing Stalin’s decision of 12 April, but was not definite enough to have been the only factor. Its main utility was that later messages provided useful information about German preparations to the Soviet General Staff planners of the defensive battle. The British official history noted the first signs of German preparations in the third week of March 1943, from decrypted Luftwaffe messages ‘about the movement of panzer divisions on the central sector of the eastern front, and a re organisation of GAF [German Air Force] commands which brought Fliegerkorps VIII back to the Kharkov area for close support operations’. Then on 13 April another Luftwaffe message first used the codename ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), and on the 19th another disclosed that Luftflotte (Air Fleet) IV ‘was sending forces allocated to Zitadelle to GAF Command East’. If the messages from the third week of March were passed quickly to Moscow, officially in paraphrased form or unofficially by one of the ‘resident’s’ agents, they could certainly have been taken into account in the Soviet decision-making, and may help account for what Stalin told Mikoyan on 27 March, but those of 13 and 19 April cannot have influenced the principal decision about how to fight the battle, because Stalin had already taken that on the 12th, when he endorsed the proposal Zhukov had made on the 8th.

The same reservation applies to the most comprehensive of the early indicators deciphered by Bletchley, a message from Field-Marshal von Weichs, commanding Army Group B, transmitted some time after 15 April and decrypted on the 25th. The gist of it may have been passed on officially to the Soviets, but according to two post-Soviet publications the State Defence Committee received a translation of the actual text from the NKVD ‘resident’ in London on 7 May; one of the accounts says it had been passed to him by Philby, who had received it from Cairncross. A post-Soviet account of Soviet Intelligence operations during 1941–45 devoted an entire chapter to Cairncross. It said that,

in his new job at Bletchley Cairncross received access to a whole range of deciphered German documents, which were immediately passed to Moscow. Philby also had access to a range of such documents – they were sent to him by the Chief of Intelligence. Blunt also sometimes managed to acquire some materials. But Cairncross had these documents in his own safe, and could use them as they arrived, i.e. without great delay. He passed on very important information about the offensive the Germans were preparing on the Kursk salient, indicated approximate dates for the offensive, the technical parameters of the new German ‘Tiger’ tank, and other information. By his self-sacrificing work he made a serious contribution to our victory at Kursk and on other fronts.

The same post-Soviet account credited the NKVD ‘resident’ in London with 14 agents altogether; since MI5’s post-war investigations did not, at least publicly, identify anything like that many, there may have been more than one still unidentified ‘mole’ passing on information. Certainly the Weichs message and anything else the ‘resident’ obtained about ‘Citadel’ would be very helpful to the General Staff planners, but Stalin had taken the crucial decision two weeks before Weichs’ message was deciphered, and four weeks before the State Defence Committee received its translated text. As for technical details of Tiger tanks, the Soviets did not need them; as noted below, they captured several between November 1942 and April 1943, and put them through comprehensive tests in April.

Although Ultra information from Bletchley cannot have been the sole or principal source of Zhukov’s and Stalin’s confidence as early as April about German intentions, information, particularly from Cairncross, about the methods employed in deciphering may nevertheless have played a role in the Soviet decision-making. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the British decided not to share the Ultra secret, believing Soviet security to be German-penetrated, and expecting the Red Army would be speedily defeated. After both assumptions proved wrong, they took to passing on important information from Ultra, paraphrased and without disclosing the source, beyond dropping vague hints about an agent in the German High Command. The Soviets pretended to believe them, but obviously knew exactly what the source was, on information from Cairncross, Philby, Blunt and maybe others among the alleged 14 agents. Perhaps even more important than any information they passed on would be the messages’ evidence that many Enigma-based systems (and, as with the Weichs message, even the more complex ‘Tunny’) had been broken, and that large numbers of messages were being deciphered daily, often within only a few hours of transmission, to the great benefit of the Anglo-American war effort. Even before the war the Soviet Union had had a large interception and decrypting organisation (Sudoplatov mentioned that they were deciphering messages to or from several foreign embassies, including those of Japan, Italy, Turkey and Bulgaria), and the discovery from their British agents that the German cipher systems were breakable would justify a large commitment of intellectual and material resources.

In that connection the account mentioned above goes on to say:

Along with material of a military-operational character, Cairncross passed on data about the machine-cipher Tunny, which was used by the British to decipher German radio messages. On the basis of these data an analogous example of this machine was designed…In the operational file there is a task set by the Centre to the London residency. In particular it is stated that the Germans have made some changes in the machine’s design, and that therefore additional data are required, data that maybe are known to the British and accessible by Cairncross. The data were received from the source and sent on to Moscow. There is no information in the file about the further fate of this deciphering machine.

Tunny was Bletchley’s codename for the German SZ40 (Schluesselzusatz, ‘key-adder’) cipher machine and its derivatives, several versions of SZ42, used for communication at the highest military levels, such as between OKW/OKH and the headquarters of army groups, and including the message from Weichs, mentioned above. It was first observed in use in mid-1941, and by January 1942 Bletchley ‘understood its design and method of operation’. It was far more sophisticated than Enigma, so decryption was ‘normally too laborious to be undertaken by hand, and the first stage of mechanisation was the provision of a decyphering machine, delivered early in June 1942’. As to the unknown ‘further fate’ of the machine, if the reference is to the British machine, it is quite wrong. The first machine-deciphering successes were achieved in early May 1943 by a machine codenamed ‘Robinson’, replaced in February 1944 by Colossus 1, the first programmable computer. The reference must be to an attempted Russian counterpart to ‘Robinson’, otherwise why would Moscow ask its London ‘resident’ for data that could be obtained only from someone actually working at Bletchley? The most likely reason why there is nothing further on file is simply that they could not make the Soviet machine work, but that they even tried suggests a high level of cryptanalytical effort.

Bletchley could not acquire much Enigma traffic from German army units on the Eastern Front. Every division commander had an Enigma machine and radio transmitter in his command vehicle, but except when actually on the move most communication after December 1941 was via landlines, making use of radio too sporadic and the amount of traffic picked up by UK-operated intercept stations too small to decrypt on a regular basis. The best source of information about the Eastern Front remained the Luftwaffe general (‘Red’) cipher. ‘Fish’ messages, though taking longer to decrypt, were also valuable because the information they contained was more high-level, and consequently took longer to become outdated.

The Soviet situation was different. Landlines could be, and frequently were, tapped. During the Battle of Moscow for example, a German unit reported killing a Soviet officer who was doing so. General S.P. Ivanov, Vatutin’s Chief of Staff at Stalingrad, mentioned in his memoirs both receipt of a decrypted message that had been transmitted less than 36 hours previously, and a successful tapping operation against the Romanian 3rd Army. Line-tapping was also among the tasks set for partisans operating behind the German lines.

Radio interception of enemy traffic was frequently mentioned in Front commanders’ reports from late 1942 onwards, though in most cases the references were to voice communication, especially between German aircraft and ground controllers. It is also relevant that Bletchley found Luftwaffe cipher systems easier to break than those of the army or navy. German army operations depended heavily on air support, and in early 1943 about 60 per cent of the Luftwaffe was on the Eastern Front. Luftwaffe liaison officers (Fliegerverbindungsoffizieren, or ‘Flyvos’), each with an Enigma machine, were regularly attached to army units, and their messages frequently provided valuable clues about army operations.

The many secrets unveiled in the post-Soviet era have as yet included very little about the role of cryptanalysis in the Soviet–German war. That high-level Soviet communications were very secure is clear from the experience of Bletchley’s German counterpart, the B-Dienst; it found Soviet low-level tactical military ciphers easy to break, but had no success above that level. Front or higher-level Soviet commanders used Baudot machines and landlines, so messages could not be regularly intercepted, and Soviet diplomatic traffic used codebooks plus one-time pads of randomly generated figures; if these are properly used, messages can be deciphered only by those holding both book and pads. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Soviet expertise in codes and ciphers was of a high standard; the simplicity of tactical ciphers was mainly because low-level transmission resources were often primitive, originators and receivers of messages were not highly trained cryptographers, and any action proposed or requested in tactical-level messages would usually be taken before any third party could decipher or act on them.

In addition to a massive intellectual and technological effort, the British mounted substantial operations (e.g. a commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, seizure of German weather ships in the North Atlantic, recovery of machines and documents from captured U-boats) in order to secure single Enigma machines and associated documentation such as key tables. The surrender of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army at the end of January must have provided Soviet cryptanalysts with a number of Enigma machines and associated documentation far beyond what any British or American operation acquired. Each of the 20 division and 5 corps commanders had one such machine; the 6th Army headquarters had at least one, and may have had a ‘Fish’ machine as well. Some Flyvos probably escaped on returning supply flights, but by 17 January the Soviets had taken six of the seven local airfields, and made the seventh unusable by artillery fire and air attacks, so there were no landings or take-offs in the remaining days before the final surrender, and most Flyvos must still have been in the city. Even if only five were still there, that brings the total of Enigma machines in Stalingrad to 30. The troops were freezing and starving, ammunition, explosives and fuel were almost all gone, the ground was frozen too hard and the troops too weak to destroy or bury the machines. They could at most take a rifle-butt to them, and in some cases not even that – one last message ended with ‘the Russians are breaking in…’. It is also unlikely that key tables, operational documents and manuals were all destroyed, and it is entirely speculative, but not unreasonable to postulate that the haul of machines and documents at Stalingrad facilitated a ‘last heave’ by an already existing programme that had made progress, but not yet resolved all the problems.

This treasure-trove became available only in the first week of February, too late for much exploitation before Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov, but during March it may have become possible to decipher some Enigma traffic, including messages between divisions and armies concerning preparations for ‘Citadel’. Divisions on the move would sometimes have to resort to radio transmission – the order to observe radio silence applied to operator chatter and plain text messages, but not to enciphered traffic, because the Germans did not learn until 27 years after the war that the British had broken their ciphers. Interception of such transmissions could have been among the factors giving Zhukov the confidence about German intentions that prompted his message to Stalin on 8 April. Information from Front Intelligence and partisan observations of eastbound rail traffic would certainly also have been involved, but the most significant preliminary move, the German IX Army’s withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, took place by stages between 1 and 14 March. As noted above, this released up to 22 divisions to IX Army reserve, and hence to eventual availability for ‘Citadel’. However, with movement impeded by the spring thaw, and the need to employ several of these divisions to stop the attempted offensive by the Bryansk, Central and Voronezh Fronts, major redeployment into starting positions for ‘Citadel’ could not have been far enough advanced by the first week of April to account by itself for the confident tone of Zhukov’s message to Stalin.

Bletchley’s analytical effort naturally depended mainly on mathematicians, and although the relevance of chess-players is less obvious, work there did attract a number of them, including several of high international ranking. Russia was not short of mathematicians and chess champions, and given what it learned about Ultra from Cairncross and others, Soviet Intelligence must have devoted a large effort to Enigma-breaking. Intelligence failures up to mid-February 1943 suggest no or very limited success until then, but the least implausible explanation for the very marked improvement thereafter is successful exploitation of materials captured at Stalingrad.

No Russian account gives any details about where Stavka received the information that led it three times (on 2 and 20 May, and 2 July) to notify the two Front commanders in the salient that the German offensive would begin within a few days. In fact Hitler first set the date as 3 May, but changed his mind on 29 April, because he considered the numbers of the new tanks, assault and anti-tank self-propelled guns so far available to the attacking divisions insufficient. He then set a new date of 12 June, but ‘events in the Mediterranean’ (specifically the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa on 12 May) forced another postponement, and even raised the possibility of abandonment. However, on 21 June he fixed the launching date for ‘Citadel’ as 3 July, then on the 25th changed it to 5 July. Stavka’s warning to the commanders on 2 May fits with Hitler’s original starting date of 3 May, and it is just possible that it was based on intercepted traffic. Hitler’s original order specified that Army Groups Centre and South must be able to launch ‘Citadel’ on five days’ notice. A launch on 3 May would therefore have to be ordered by, at the latest, 29 April, the date on which Hitler cancelled it. There is no information in the public domain to indicate whether any orders had been issued before the cancellation. The 20 May warning was simply wrong, but no Soviet or post-Soviet source has said on what it was based. The third warning, on 2 July, was absolutely correct, and its timing is interesting. It was only on 1 July that Hitler assembled at his Rastenburg headquarters the marshals and generals who would lead ‘Citadel’, Manstein, Kluge, Model, Hoth, Kempf and the commanders of the two air fleets, von Greim and Dessloch, and ordered them to start it on the 5th. The time of day of this meeting is not known, but since Hitler, like Churchill and Stalin, habitually worked into the small hours and then slept until at least mid-morning, it was unlikely to have taken place before 10 a.m. German summer time, which was 11 a.m. Moscow time. Stalin’s message warning the Front commanders that ‘Citadel’ was likely to be launched ‘during the period 3–6 July’ was transmitted at 2.10 a.m. Moscow time on the 2nd. That is 1.10 a.m. German time, at most only 15 hours after the meeting at which Hitler gave his generals their final orders.

This rapidity suggests two possibilities. One is that by then some Enigma traffic was being read. After the meeting, and before leaving headquarters, Manstein, Kluge, Model and Hoth, and probably also both air fleet commanders, would necessarily send orders to their own Chiefs of Staff to start alerting subordinate formations to prepare for battle, though without telling them the starting date. Messages from OKH to the headquarters of Army Groups Centre and South would probably use the more complex Fish machine cipher, and be sent by landline, but those from army headquarters to divisions or corps and to Luftwaffe units would be enciphered on Enigma machines, and some of them would be transmitted by radio, therefore vulnerable to interception.

The other, simpler, possibility is that the Soviets could intercept but not decipher Enigma messages, but concluded from traffic analysis that action was imminent because of the sudden large increase in traffic caused by the messages that Army Groups Centre and South and the army and air force HQs under them had to send, to alert their subordinate formations. Either possibility fits the speed of Stavka’s warning to the Fronts better than the idea of messages going from a source in OKW or OKH to Roessler in Switzerland, then through one of his intermediaries, Schneider or Duebendorfer, to Rado, who would then have to encipher it and contact one of his operators to have it transmitted to Moscow. Messages that Rado cited in his memoirs invariably took two or more days to be delivered.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part IV

Whatever the means that secured them, the improvements in Soviet Intelligence enabled Stavka’s planning for the summer to proceed more or less in parallel with the German. However, the planners were soon confronted by the disconcerting discovery that the new German Tiger I heavy tank was far superior to their prized KVs and T-34s because of its thicker armour, superior binocular sights and much longer-range and greater-calibre 88mm gun. Tempting fate, the Germans in late 1942 had sent a small pre-production batch of the new Henschel Tiger Is to the Leningrad front, where one became bogged in marshland and was captured. However, the Red Army’s tank and artillery specialists were preoccupied at that time with the situation around Stalingrad, so the encounter then attracted little attention. In December a battalion of Tigers was included in Hoth’s force that attempted to lift the siege of Stalingrad, then in early April 1943 some damaged Tigers were captured near Belgorod.

Tests conducted on 25–30 April, using various calibre anti-tank, field, tank and anti-aircraft guns, showed that armour-piercing shells from the 76.2mm F-34 gun then standard on the T-34-76 and KV-1 could not pierce even the side armour of a Tiger at more than 200 metres, while the Tiger’s 88mm shells could penetrate 110mm of armour at up to 2 kilo metres (1.25 miles). The thickest frontal armour on Soviet tanks was 100mm on the KV1 and 45–60mm on the T-34-76; therefore all would be vulnerable for the time it took them to get within killing distance of a Tiger. Even if they could cover the 1.8 kilometres (about 1.1 miles) at full speed, it would take them over two minutes; a Tiger could fire several rounds in that time, with a good prospect that one of them would score a direct hit.

Nor was the Tiger the only threat to Soviet tanks. The Ferdinand assault gun had an even more powerful 88mm gun than the Tiger, and thicker frontal armour, while the new medium Mark V Panther tank and newer examples of the older Mark IV mounted a long-barrelled 75mm gun, shells from which could penetrate the frontal armour of a KV at 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) and of a T-34 at 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). In addition the late G and H models of the Mark IV had been fitted with extra sheets of armour-plate at the front and over the tracks, and even many of the obsolescent Mk III tanks had been retrofitted with a long-barrelled 50mm gun, shells from which could also penetrate the armour of a T-34 at over a kilometre. Furthermore, the Zeiss binocular sights fitted in the new and up-gunned older tanks ensured more accurate fire than Soviet tank crews could achieve.

The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.

Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.

Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.

Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.

Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.

On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.

Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’

The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.

Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.

While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.

Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, 824 in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.

Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.

As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions, each including a battalion of 45 Tigers, that the elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.

Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.

The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.

German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943

As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.

For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.

Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.

Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front, but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.

The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.