Operation A-GO Part II

The submarine phase of Operation A-GO had completely miscarried. Not only were seventeen submarines lost, but no submarines would now be available for quick action against the U.S. fleet off the Marianas. The destruction of the NA line and other losses in the area also tended to lead Japanese officers back to their preconceived opinion that any American attack would be launched at the Palaus.

The Japanese were now rapidly becoming aware that a major American offensive was at hand. But where? Even with the submarine losses south of Truk indicating a drive west from there, more substantial evidence was needed. Task Group 58.6, consisting of the carriers Essex, Wasp, San Jacinto, five cruisers, and twelve destroyers, struck Marcus on 19 and 20 May. Results were not overwhelming, but the attack prompted Admiral Toyoda to place TO-GO in motion. However, when TG 58.6 raided Wake on the 23rd it was obvious that these two forays were not full-scale attacks and Toyoda cancelled TO-GO.

Toyoda issued his preparation order for A-GO on 20 May. The Mobile Fleet was placed on a six-hour alert. Falling back on one of their favorite tactics, the “bait” force, the Japanese commanders ordered the battleship Fuso, cruisers Myoko and Haguro, and a pair of destroyers to be ready to sortie as a decoy force. They were to lure the Americans into the Palau–Ulithi area where they could then be destroyed by naval and air forces concentrated there. Finally, Base Air Force was ordered to intensify its reconnaissance efforts.

Base Air Force conducted several reconnaissance flights over American bases. On 27 May one plane flew from Truk via Buin (thought by the Americans to be knocked out) to Tulagi, where Rear Admiral Richard L. Conolly’s Southern Attack Force was staging for the Guam landing phase of the Marianas invasion. Two other Truk-based planes staged through Nauru to take a look at Majuro and Kwajalein, where most of the invasion forces were gathering. The day before TF 58 sortied from Majuro another intrepid pilot took a peek at the lagoon and reported an impressive array of warships there. The Japanese now had the Americans located, but they were not quite sure of what to do next.

Following the receipt of “Start A-GO,” which actually meant “Begin preparations,” Admiral Ozawa held a meeting on his flagship Taiho for all his commanders. He reminded them that the coming action was to be decisive, and that they were to press on despite any damage suffered. Regarding the latter point, Ozawa declared that for A-GO to succeed, individual units had to be considered expendable. The officers present also discussed proposed tactics for the battle. A massed grouping of carriers much like the disposition used by the Americans was considered, or an “encirclement” using an inverted-V arrangement of three groups. But the final disposition chosen for the Mobile Fleet involved dividing the force into a Main Body and a heavily armed Vanguard.

The Japanese now watched and waited. Then came the invasion of Biak on 27 May. The Japanese high command felt that this move should not go unchallenged. In the first place, the loss of the three airfields on this island off the coast of New Guinea would be a serious blow to the air units of A-GO. The Japanese also reasoned that an attempt by them to recapture Biak would lure the U.S. fleet into “The Decisive Battle near Palau.” But the Combined Fleet intelligence officer, Commander Chikataka Nakajima, was not convinced Biak was the major offensive. He thought the landings were just a subsidiary operation and the main American effort would be aimed at the Marianas. His superiors did not agree with him, though, and the Japanese prepared a relief operation for Biak designated Operation KON. The KON plan called for warships to transport about 2,500 troops to Biak from Mindanao. The battleship Fuso, the heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro, and five destroyers were to act as the screen for a transport section of one heavy and one light cruiser, and three destroyers.

The movement of the enemy ships, coming mainly out of Tawi Tawi, did not escape notice. Allied intelligence officers, using “Magic” intercepts, already knew that a landing attempt would be made on Biak around the fourth or fifth of June and that the Fuso, Myoko, and Haguro would be in the force. The reports by the submarines Cabrilla and Bluefish of enemy vessels leaving Tawi Tawi merely confirmed the “Magic” reports.

The transport section, now augmented by two minelayers and a small transport, picked up its troops at Zamboanga on 31 May and proceeded to Davao, where it rendezvoused with the heavy cruisers and three destroyers. The units then headed for Biak, the Fuso and two destroyers taking a more northerly course. On the morning of 3 June the submarine Rasher spotted part of the force and sent off a contact report. The message was intercepted by the Japanese, who were disturbed at being discovered so far from their target. When a Wakdebased PB4Y began shadowing them, the Japanese decided to call off the attempt.

But this abortive effort would not end happily for the Japanese. While the transport section proceeded to Sorong, on New Guinea’s western tip, to disembark troops, the Fuso, Myoko, Haguro, and two destroyers retired to Davao. As this force approached Davao on the night of 8 June, they ran into the path of the submarine Hake. Commander John C. Broach waited until a destroyer crossed his sights, then fired a spread of torpedoes that ripped open the 2,077-ton Kazagumo and sank her.

While the first attempt to reinforce Biak by sea had stalled, action in the air over the island had heated up considerably. Since the Japanese had been anticipating that the next major U.S. offensive would be in the Carolines—Palaus sector, much of their air strength was situated in or near this region. When the Biak landings “confirmed” their suspicions, they began rushing planes in to reinforce their 23rd Air Flotilla. A number of these planes came from the Marianas—reducing the air strength there at a time when they would most be needed.

This one fact illustrates the effectiveness of the Joint Chiefs’ concept of a dual thrust across the Pacific. No longer could the Japanese mass their forces in a particular area against an enemy thrust, for now they could be outflanked by another enemy movement.

A number of air strikes were flown against U.S. positions on Biak and Wakde; one attack in particular, on 5 June at Wakde, was very successful. But the Japanese could not keep up the intensity of their attacks and in the process lost planes that could have been used more profitably elsewhere. Also, quite a few pilots came down with malaria at this time, greatly limiting their usefulness.

The Japanese were not about to give up on Biak, though, and a second attempt to reinforce it was quickly mounted. On 7 June Rear Admiral Naomasa Sakonju led a force of six destroyers, distantly screened by two cruisers, on the reinforcement mission. Three destroyers carried six hundred troops, while the remaining destroyers provided an escort and also towed a landing barge each.

Sakonju’s second effort (he had led the first attempt) was to be even less successful. On the 8th ten B-25s from Hollandia, escorted by P-38s, spotted Sakonju’s ships sliding in toward Biak. In a low-level bombing and strafing attack, the B-25s sent the 1,580-ton Harusame to the bottom and damaged the Shiratsuyu, Shikinami, and Samidare. Sakonju pressed on, but not for long. At 2340 a lookout on one of Sakonju’s ships picked up an Allied cruiser and destroyer force, led by Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley, RN, which was out looking for just these ships.

Sakonju decided that discretion was the better part of valor. After casting off the barges, his force fired a volley of torpedoes at the Allied ships and then high-tailed it to the northwest. Involved in a stern chase and having to dodge torpedoes occasionally, the Allied destroyers were unable to close the distance enough to be effective. The Shigure was hit five times by 5-inch fire and the Shikinami also had some casualties, but that was the extent of damage to both sides. Most of the troops—who must not have been very happy about what was taking place around them—were taken back to Sorong. The second attempt to reinforce Biak had been turned back.

While the Japanese were vainly trying to reach Biak, a lone U.S. submarine was making her presence felt near Tawi Tawi. Commander Samuel D. Dealey was on his fifth patrol in the Harder. This patrol he had been assigned a dual mission: scout Tawi Tawi and pick up a group of guerrillas on northeast Borneo.

As the Harder was transiting Sibutu Passage (just south of Tawi Tawi) on the night of 6 June, a convoy of three tankers and two destroyers was picked up. Closing the convoy on the surface, the sub was suddenly spotlighted for the nearest destroyer, when the moon broke through the clouds. The Japanese destroyer charged in for an “easy” kill. Dealey waited until the enemy ship was only 8,500 yards away before submerging. When the ship got within 1,100 yards, Dealey let her have three “fish” from the stern tubes. The Minazuki, a 1,590-ton vessel, was stopped cold by two torpedoes, blew up, and went down fast. A second try at the convoy by the Harder was frustrated by the other destroyer, and Dealey turned back toward Sibutu Passage.

Shortly before noon the next day, Dealey saw another destroyer in the Passage. And the destroyer saw the Harder! This time Dealey let the 2,077-ton Hayanami come in close to point-blank range—650 yards—before firing three torpedoes “down the throat.” Two of them disembowled the Hayanami, and nine minutes after the first sighting she sank, stern first. But Dealey and the Harder were not home free. A second destroyer came boiling over to the spot and spent the next two hours rolling depth charges around the sub. None hit, but when six more Japanese destroyers showed up, Dealey decided it was time to leave. He cleared the area and on the night of 8 June picked up his group of guerrillas. He then returned through Sibutu Passage and took up station off Tawi Tawi.

Two more Japanese destroyers showed up in the Harder’s periscope the following night. Dealey made a submerged approach on the ships and when the targets overlapped, he fired four torpedoes. Two hit the 2,033-ton Tanikaze, which literally fell apart. The other two “fish” were thought to have hit the second destroyer, but there is no record of this ship being lost or even damaged.

Dealey and the Harder had made a big dent in Ozawa’s destroyer forces. Three destroyers had been sent to the bottom in four days by “The Destroyer Killer” (as Dealey was later nicknamed). The U.S. submarines congregated around Tawi Tawi had hurt Ozawa and, thus, Operation A-GO. Along with the destroyers Dealey had sunk, several others had been lost or would soon be. Destruction of these destroyers would mean that the Mobile Fleet would be inadequately screened by these critically important, versatile ships during the coming battle. It was a situation other American submarines would take advantage of in the Philippine Sea.

In the meantime, following the second failure to reinforce Biak, Ozawa was more determined than ever to force his way to the island and land troops that would push the invaders back into the sea. To this end he assembled a new force to carry out Operation KON. It was not a puny force. Included in it were the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi, three heavy and two light cruisers, seven destroyers, two minelayers, and a number of support and transport vessels.

Under the command of Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, this force sortied from Tawi Tawi on the afternoon of 10 June. Their departure was noted by Sam Dealey. As the Harder closed in for an attack, the sub’s periscope was seen and a destroyer charged in. Dealey was not impressed and waited for the enemy ship to close the range. At 1,500 yards three torpedoes were fired “down the throat.”

As the Harder went deep, a series of explosions were heard. Dealey thought he had gotten another destroyer, but Japanese records do not confirm this. If not sunk, this unidentified destroyer must have been badly damaged. The other escorts and covering aircraft were not about to let the Harder off the hook, but she did escape after undergoing a succession of furious counterattacks. After dark, Dealey was able to surface and send a contact report about the enemy’s departure from Tawi Tawi.

The Japanese ships continued on to Batjan, just south of the island of Halmahera, where they arrived on the 11th. The run to Biak was scheduled to be made on the 15th. This time the troops were to be landed at all costs, and the big guns of the heavy ships were to be used in a smashing bombardment of U.S. positions on the island.

But fate, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were again to stall the reinforcements for Biak. On the 11th and 12th TF 58 planes pounded Saipan and Guam. The Japanese now realized they had been outfoxed; the Americans were aiming for the Marianas, not the Palaus. At 1830 on 12 June Admiral Toyoda ordered the start of A-GO. Operation KON, although only “temporarily” called off, was never resumed.

Admiral Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet began moving out for the fateful meeting in the Philippine Sea.


Army Group South Ukraine, 19 August-26 September 1944

The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.


By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner’s strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.

The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector—about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu.

Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine’s retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy’s Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.

At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff’s foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu’s position. On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.


The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu. Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler’s circle to confuse Antonescu’s personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents’ rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.

On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter “possible surprises in Rumanian territory.” Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army’s never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160 miles of the army group’s 392-mile-long front.

In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge. The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as “very positive.” Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other “everything possible.” In the transmission, someone had added, “It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out.”

Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner’s instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he “hoped” if events took such a turn to be able “to give the necessary order in time.” The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.

To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer “who would represent the German interest more emphatically.” Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany “through thick and thin” In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine’s expense.


On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third—much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.

Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were “completely confident” (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.

The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.

Two of Armeegruppe Woehler’s Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army’s right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day’s end Friessner realized that the Rumanian’s performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.

The two Ukrainian fronts—Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka—had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.

The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy’s sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.

On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group’s intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.

When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people “forever.”

During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.

In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now “letting himself be guided solely by military considerations” and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.

For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front’s advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.


In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans. But the King’s broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy—Germany—and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.

The contradiction in the King’s statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.

Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the “Putsch,” arrest the King and “the court camarilla,” and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were “no longer available,” to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler’s assignment over to an SS general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.

Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.

Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.

At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.

In the afternoon, on Hitler’s orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also “getting strange reports” from that country.


The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.

On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.

On the 26th Tolbukhin’s troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy’s forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.

The next day Malinovskiy’s spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army’s encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.


During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner’s command.

The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians’ reach.

The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, “The jig will be up out here.”

On 30 August, Malinovskiy’s troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest. In carrying out Stavka’s orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.

When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.

On 5 September Hungarian Second Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy’s command on 6 September.)

During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians’ success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two—long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.


Army Group South, 5-29 October 1944


Hungarian Second Army advanced again on 6 September, but not as fast as it had the day before. Sixth Army, which had taken command of Eighth Army’s right flank corps, reported that the Russians were in the Oitoz Pass and, off the army’s south front, were already through the Predeal Pass and assembling at Brasov. Friessner authorized the army to start back during the night if the pressure became too great. He told Guderian that the Hungarians could not be expected to reach the Turnu Rosu Pass; the Rumanians had asked for Russian help. He had talked to the Hungarians and they were agreed on going back to a shorter line.

The next day the Hungarian offensive came to a standstill. The effect of its first two days’ success could be observed farther south. Soviet Sixth Tank Army, which had been going toward the Iron Gate, had stopped and turned north. One of its mobile corps was crossing the Turnu Rosu Pass, another was heading into the Vulcan Pass. By noon the lead elements were through the Turnu Rosu and in Sibiu, forty miles from the Hungarian front Friessner then decided to stop Hungarian Second Army, take it into a defensive line, and back it up with all the German antitank weapons that could be scraped together. Orders went out to Eighth and Sixth Armies to start withdrawing that night. During the night the Operations Branch, OKH, tried to interpose an order from Hitler forbidding the withdrawal. When the army group answered that it had already begun, the Operations Branch replied that Hitler “had taken notice” of the withdrawal to the first phase line but reserved all subsequent decisions to himself.

Five days earlier Hitler had personally instructed Friessner to get ready to fall back some forty miles farther west than the proposed line on the Muresul River. In the meantime he had changed his mind, because he was determined to hold onto his last legitimate ally, Hungary, and because he was arriving at a new and novel estimate of Soviet strategy.

The first reason was the more immediate. Hungary, never a pillar of strength in the German coalition, had since Rumania capitulated been in a state of acute internal political tension. Horthy had dissolved all political parties and had declared his loyalty to Germany. His first impulse had seemed to be to seize the opportunity to annex the Rumanian parts of Transylvania, to which Hitler was only too happy to agree after Rumania declared war. But by 24 August the internal condition of Hungary appeared so uncertain that the OKW moved two SS divisions in close to the capital to be ready to put down an anti-German coup.

The events of the next few days, however, were at least superficially reassuring. The military in particular, appearing to be loyal to the alliance, set about mobilizing their forces for the war against their ancient enemy Rumania with, under the circumstances, surprising energy. The appointment on 30 August of Col. Gen. Geza Lakatos as Minister President to replace Sztojay, who was sick, and the appointments to his Cabinet preserved the hold inside the Hungarian Government which the Germans had established in the spring.

On the other hand Horthy kept out representatives of the radical rightist, fanatically pro-German Arrow-Cross Party.

The first overt alarm was raised on 7 September when, in a flash of panic touched off by a false report that the Russians were in Arad on the undefended south border 140 miles from Budapest, the Hungarian Crown Council met in secret and later, through the Chief of Staff, presented an ultimatum to the OKH: if Germany did not send five panzer divisions within twenty-four hours Hungary would reserve the right to act as its interests might require. Guderian called it extortion but gave his word to defend Hungary as if it were part of Germany and announced that he would send a panzer corps headquarters and one panzer division. Later he added two panzer brigades and two SS divisions, bringing the total to roughly the five divisions demanded. Because Hungary was in so shaky a condition Hitler refused to sacrifice the Szekler Strip even though Friessner and the German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest assured him that the Hungarians were reconciled to losing the territory.

On 9 September Friessner went to Budapest where he persuaded Horthy to put his agreement to the withdrawal in writing. The impressions he received from talking to Horthy, Lakatos, and the military leaders were so disturbing that he decided to report on them to Hitler in person the next day. At Fuehrer headquarters Friessner learned the second reason why Hitler did not want to give up the Szekler Strip. He had concluded that having broken into the Balkans (Third Ukrainian Front had crossed into Bulgaria on 8 September), the Soviet Union would put its old ambitions—political hegemony in southeastern Europe and control of the Dardenelles—ahead of the drive toward Germany. In doing so, it would infringe on British interests and the war would turn in Germany’s favor because the British would realize they needed Germany as a buffer against the Soviet Union.30 Since the withdrawal had started, he agreed by the end of the interview to let the army group go to the Muresul on the conditions that the line be adjusted to take in the manganese mines at Vatra Dornei and that it be the winter line. He also decided, after hearing Friessner’s report, to “invite” the Hungarian Chief of Staff for a talk the next day.

In Budapest on the 10th Horthy conferred with a select group of prominent politicians, and a day later informed the Cabinet that he was about to ask for an armistice and desired to know which of its members were willing to share the responsibility for that step. The vote went heavily against him—according to the account the Germans received at the time all but one against and, according to his own later statement, three for him. The Cabinet then demanded his resignation. He refused; or, as he put it in his Memoirs, he decided not to dismiss the Cabinet.

Either way, when the Hungarian Chief of Staff went to Fuehrer headquarters on the 12th he went as an ally. The day’s delay had mightily aroused Hitler’s suspicion, and he told the Hungarian military attaché that he had no further confidence in the Hungarian Government. The Chief of Staff’s visit went off, as Antonescu’s had in August, in mutual complaints and recriminations that were finally obscured by a thick fog of more or less empty promises. On his departure Guderian gave him a new Mercedes limousine, which came in handy a few weeks later when he went over to the Russians.


Army Group South Ukraine completed the withdrawal to the Muresul on 15 September. Tolbukhin’s armies were temporarily out of the way in Bulgaria, and Malinovskiy’s advance from the south was developing more slowly than had been expected. His tanks and trucks had taken a mechanical beating on the trip through the passes. On the other hand, a new threat was emerging on the north where Fourth Ukrainian Front on 9 September had begun an attempt to break through First Panzer Army and into the Dukla Pass in the Beskides of eastern Czechoslovakia and toward Uzhgorod. Behind that sector of the front the Germans were at the same time having trouble with an uprising in Slovakia in which the Minister of War and the one-division Slovakian Army had gone over to the partisans.

While Friessner was at Fuehrer headquarters Hitler had instructed him to use offensively the new divisions being sent. He wanted them assembled around Cluj for an attack to the south to smash Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies and retake the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. Friessner issued the directive on 15 September, but the prospects of an early start were not good. Hitler had some of the reinforcements stop at Budapest, in readiness for a political crisis there.

At the front, the Hungarians, who had not done badly against the Rumanians, were disinclined toward becoming earnestly embroiled with the Russians. To give them some stiffening, the Army group merged Hungarian Second Army with Sixth Army to form the Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico under the Commanding General, Sixth Army, Fretter-Pico. On the 17th Fretter-Pico reported that Second Army was in a “catastrophic” state and that one mountain brigade had run away.


At mid-month the Stavka also gave new orders. It directed Tolbukhin, still occupied in Bulgaria, to give Forty-sixth Army to Malinovskiy, and it transferred the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev from First Ukrainian Front. It instructed Malinovskiy to send his main thrust northwest from Cluj toward Debrecen, the Tisza River, and Miskolc, expecting him thereby both to benefit from and assist Fourth Ukrainian Front’s advance toward Uzhgorod. For a week, beginning on 16 September, Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies tried unsuccessfully to take Cluj, which, because of Hitler’s plan, was exactly the place Army Group South Ukraine was most determined to hold.

Friessner was far short of the strength both to fight the battle at Cluj and establish a front west of there. On 20 September a minor Russian onslaught threw back to Arad the Hungarians covering his flank on the west, and the following day they gave up the city without a fight. Thereafter the Hungarian General Staff activated a new army, the Third, composed mostly of recruits and recently recalled reservists, to hold a front on both sides of Arad. Reluctantly, it agreed to put the army under Army Group South Ukraine.

Losing Arad sent another wave of panic through Budapest even though the army group (redesignated Army Group South at midnight on 23 September) was certain that Malinovskiy did not yet have enough strength at Arad to attempt to strike out for Budapest. The German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest reported on the 23d that the Hungarian command had completely lost nerve. It had pulled First Army back to the border, it intended to move two divisions of Second Army west, and it wanted to withdraw Third Army to the Tisza River. The OKH promptly whipped the Hungarians into line and had their orders rescinded. “In view of the Hungarian attitude,” Guderian then sent several strong panzer units to “rest and refit” just outside Budapest.

The Hungarians’ nervousness was premature, but not by much. Malinovskiv was shifting his main force west to the Arad-Oradea area, and Army Group South had too few German troops to keep pace. On the 24th, when Friessner called for reinforcements, the Operations Branch, OKH, replied that it recognized the need the reason the army group had not been given any so far was that Hitler was still convinced the Soviet Union would first attempt to settle affairs in the Balkans on its own terms.

On the 25th elements of Sixth Tank Army, shifted west from Cluj, began closing in on Oradea. Friessner informed Hitler that the next attack would come across the line Szeged-Oradea, either northwest toward Budapest or north along the Tisza to meet Fourth Ukrainian Front’s thrust through the Beskides. He could not stop it without more armor and infantry. Operations Branch, OKH, replied that Hitler intended to assemble a striking force of four panzer divisions around Debrecen for an attack south, but that could not be done before 10 October. Until then Friessner would have to deploy the forces he had in trying to check the Russians in the Szeged-Oradea area.

By the end of the month Hitler had fleshed out his plan for the proposed striking force. The attack would go south past Oradea and then wheel west along the rim of the Transylvanian Alps to trap the Russians north of the mountains. After mopping up, Army Group South could establish an easily defensible winter line in the mountains. For a while it appeared that he might have time enough to put the striking force together. After taking Oradea on 26 September and losing it two days later when the Germans counterattacked, Second Ukrainian Front reverted to aimless skirmishing.

The Stavka was also looking for a quick and sweeping solution. On its orders, Malinovskiy deployed Forty-sixth Army, Fifty-third Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev on a broad front north and south of Arad for a thrust across the Tisza to Budapest. To their right Sixth Tank Army, now a guards tank army, was to strike past Oradea toward Debrecen, the Tisza, and Miskolc, there to meet a Fourth Ukrainian Front spearhead that would come through the Dukla Pass and by way of Uzhgorod. The pincers, when they closed, would trap Army Group South and First Panzer and Hungarian First Armies. Twenty-seventh Army, Rumanian First Army, and Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to attack toward Debrecen from the vicinity of Cluj. Timoshenko co-ordinated for the Stavka.

The plan was ambitious, too ambitious. Men and matériel for an extensive build-up were not to be had at this late stage of the general summer offensive; both fronts were feeling the effects of combat and long marches; and their supply lines were overextended. Because of the difference in gauges, the Rumanian railroads, if anything, were serving the Russians less well than they had the Germans, and Second Ukrainian Front had to rely mainly on motor transport west of the Dnestr. Malinovskiy’s broad-front deployment gave him only about half the ratio of troops to frontage usual for a Soviet offensive. As a prerequisite for the larger operation Fourth Ukrainian Front’s progress through the Dukla Pass was not encouraging; it had been slow from the start and at the end of the month the offensive was almost at a standstill.

After the turn of the month the Soviet attack into the Dukla Pass began to make headway, partly because Hitler had taken out a panzer division there for his striking force, and on 6 October the Russians took the pass. That morning Malinovskiy’s armies attacked. Hungarian Third Army melted away fast. At Oradea, however, Sixth Guards Tank Army met Germans and was stopped.

On the 8th, as his left flank was closing to the Tisza, Malinovskiy turned Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev around and had it strike southeast behind Oradea. That broke the German hold. By nightfall a tank corps and a cavalry corps stood west of Debrecen, and Friessner, over Hitler’s protests, ordered the Armeegruppe Woehler to start back from the Muresul line.

The army group still had one panzer division stationed near Budapest and another, the first of the proposed striking force, at Debrecen. On 10 October the divisions attacked east and west below Debrecen into the flanks of the Soviet spearhead. Late that night their points met. They had cut off three Soviet corps. The army group envisioned “another Cannae,” and Hitler ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to stop on the next phase line.

The next day, when Sixth Guards Tank Army put up a violent fight to get the corps out, who had trapped whom began to become unclear. The flat Hungarian plain became the scene of one of the wildest tank battles of the war. Malinovskiy reined in on his other armies. By the 12th the Russians in the pocket were shaking themselves loose, and Friessner ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to start back again. On the 14th the Russians were clearing the pocket, and Army Group South began concentrating on getting a front strong enough to keep them from going north once more. In the Beskides Fourth Ukrainian Front was moving slowly again south of the Dukla Pass and trying to get through some of the smaller passes farther east.


During the battle at Debrecen the Germans were aware that they were, as someone in OKH put it, “dancing on a volcano.” They sensed that in Budapest a break might come any day, almost any hour. Their suspicion was well founded. In late September Horthy had sent representatives to Moscow to negotiate an armistice, and on 11 October they had a draft agreement completed and initialed without a fixed date. To be ready for any sudden moves, Hitler had sent in two “specialists,” SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS Col. Otto Skorzeny. Von dem Bach had long experience in handling uprisings, most recently at Warsaw. Skorzeny commanded the daredevil outfit that had rescued Mussolini.

The crisis in Hungary resolved itself less violently than the Germans expected. As Hungarian head of state for a generation, Horthy had accumulated tremendous personal prestige, but his authority had declined, and his political position was badly undermined. In the Parliament during the first week of October the parties of the right formed a prowar, pro-German majority coalition against him. The Army was split; some of the generals and many of the senior staff officers wanted to keep on fighting. On 8 October the Gestapo arrested the Budapest garrison commander, one of Horthy’s most faithful and potentially most effective supporters, and, on the 15th, it arrested Horthy’s son, who had played a leading role in the attempt to get an armistice.

The Soviet Union demanded that Hungary accept the armistice terms by 16 October. In the afternoon of the 15th Radio Budapest broadcast Horthy’s announcement that he had accepted. By then he was acting alone. The Lakatos Cabinet had resigned on the grounds that it could not approve an armistice and Parliament had not been consulted on the negotiations.

The next morning, to the accompaniment of scattered shooting, the Germans took the royal palace and persuaded Horthy to “request” asylum in Germany. In his last official act, under German “protection,” Horthy appointed Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow-Cross Party, as his successor. Szalasi, whose chief claim to distinction until then had been his incoherence both in speech and in writing, subsequently had himself named “Nador” (leader), with all the rights and duties of the Prince Regent.

On 17 October Guderian, in an order declaring the political battle in Hungary won, announced that the next step would be to bring all of the German and Hungarian strength to bear at the front. How that was to be accomplished he did not say. In terms of the military situation the victory was one only by comparison with the immediate, total dissolution that would have come if Horthy’s attempt to get an armistice had succeeded. Morale in the Hungarian Army hit bottom. Some officers, including the Chief of Staff, some whole units, and many individuals deserted to the Russians, who encouraged others to do the same by letting the men return home if they lived in the areas under Soviet control.


On the night of 16 October Hitler ordered Army Group South to see the battle through at Debrecen but also to start taking Armeegruppe Woehler back toward the Tisza. Meanwhile, Malinovskiy had reassembled his armor, the two cavalry-mechanized groups and Sixth Guards Tank Army, south of Debrecen. On the 10th the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev broke through past Debrecen, and two days later it took Nyiregyhaza, astride Armeegruppe Woehler’s main line of communications.

The Armeegruppe, which had also taken command of Hungarian First Army, its neighbor on the left, held a bow-shaped line that at its center was eighty miles east of Nyiregyhaza. Friessner’s first thought was to pull the Armeegruppe north and west to skirt Nyiregyhaza. His chief of staff persuaded him to try a more daring maneuver, namely, to have Woehler’s right flank do an about-face and push due west between Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza while Sixth Army’s panzer divisions, in the corner between Nyiregyhaza and the Tisza, struck eastward into the Russian flank.

The maneuver worked with the flair and precision of the blitzkrieg days. On the 23rd the two forces met and cut off three Soviet corps at Nyiregyhaza. Before Russians could break loose, almost the whole Armeegruppe Woehler bore down on them from the east. In three days the Germans retook Nyiregyhaza. On the 29th the survivors in the pocket abandoned their tanks, vehicles, and heavy weapons and fled to the south.

On that day, too, for the first time in two months, Army Group South had a continuous front. On the north it bent east of the Tisza around Nyiregyhaza and then followed the middle Tisza to below Szolnok, where it angled away from the river past Kecskemet to the Danube near Mohacs and tied in with Army Group F at the mouth of the Drava. But it was not a front that could stand long. The Tisza, flowing through flat country, afforded no defensive advantages—the Russians had easily driven Hungarian Third Army out of better positions than those it held on the open plain between the Tisza and the Danube.

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.