Battles in the East, Traveling Tidbits

Seven Days Battle, Touring All Six Battlefields – Part 1

Richmond, along with holding the title of the former Confederate Capital, is absolutely packed with history, especially Civil War history. One could easily spend a week in this massive city and still have missed a few places. Three campaigns took place in and around the city between the years 1861 and 1865, most of the battle sites preserved and open to visitors. Hospitals and prisons housed invalids and prisoners throughout the war, and many of the buildings are still standing to this day. For those curious about how to plan their next visit to Richmond, I highly recommend the new release from Savas Beatie under the Emerging Civil War series, “Embattled Capital: A Guide to Richmond During the Civil War” by Doug Crenshaw and Bert Dunkerly.

This 2-part blog post will cover the battlefields of just one of the campaigns that erupted around the capital in 1862. This string of back-to-back engagements became known as the Seven Days Battle, taking place between June 25th and July 1st.

Union commander George B. McClellan received the all-clear from Washington to travel up the Virginian Peninsula and strike at Richmond, and began doing so in March of 1862. After victories at Yorktown and Williamsburg, Confederate General Joseph Johnston and his army retreated to defend the capital. He turned to face McClelland and put up a last-ditch effort to deter the Union forces at a place called Seven Pines. Just a few miles outside of Richmond, that attempt failed. And what was worse, the commander of the Confederate army in Virginia had been wounded on May 31st. Shot in the shoulder and hit in the chest by artillery shrapnel, “Old Joe” had to be carried off the field. Jefferson Davis had a decision to make. Allow G.W. Smith to lead, or appoint a new general to save the capital. Eyes fell on his military advisor, Robert E. Lee. As a veteran of the Mexican War and capable engineer, Lee was Davis’ best bet to push the Federals out of Virginia.

Not everyone was impressed by this decision to put Lee in charge. His orders to build defensive earthworks around the capital earned him the name “King of Spades”. Fighting from entrenchments was considered cowardly and undignified by some, but they would eat those words later in the war. Three weeks after his commission, Lee made his first advance against McClellan. After a reconnaissance from cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, the report came back that McClellan’s right flank, comprising of Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was left hanging, but anchored at Beaver Dam Creek. It was here that Lee would take the initiative. He called in Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from his successful campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, while divisions under A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, and James Longstreet crossed the Chickahominy River to approach Porter’s corps around Mechanicsville. A total of 55,000 Confederates would clash with 76,000 Federals. The two objectives were to crush the Union right flank and effectively obstruct the supply lines leading to White House on the Pamunkey River where McClellan had previously set up.

Chickahominy Bluffs

Earthworks at Chickahominy Bluffs

From his place at the Chickahominy Bluffs, Lee could watch the entirety of the battle at Beaver Dam Creek. This should be your first stop on the Seven Days Battle tour. Depending on where you’re coming from, the turnoff is easy to miss. Plug in the following coordinates in a GPS:

4300 Mechanicsville Turnpike, Richmond, VA 23111

There isn’t much to see except some earthworks that were part of Lee’s original Richmond defensive line. If you stand at the wayside marker near the rail fence, you can see where Lee would have had his view toward Mechanicsville. Today, trees and wilderness obstruct this view.

Beaver Dam Creek – June 26th, 1862

McClellan believed exaggerated reports that Lee had him outnumbered 2-to-1, a problem he will continue to have throughout his military career in the Civil War. However, that put him on the defensive, letting Lee come to him instead of the other way around. Porter sent out troops to impede Jackson’s route to his right flank, but Jackson was running several hours late, as he was not in position with the rest of the Confederate army. He didn’t reach his predetermined position until much later that evening, not pressing the advance as Lee had ordered.

Instead, Hill would take his men over the Meadow Bridges – a crossing over Chickahominy River – and swept the few Union forces out of Mechanicsville on the evening of June 26th, 1862. The Federals crossed Beaver Dam Creek, joining with McCall’s division. D.H. Hill and Longstreet soon followed, but Jackson continued to tarry. The terrain around the creek was swampy and cleared of trees by Pennsylvanians looking to create the perfect killing zone. A.P. Hill’s men stormed through solo, but a heavy artillery and small arms bombardment staggered them. The assault was redirected to the Union left flank, toward an area that boasted higher ground around Emerson’s Mill, but still couldn’t penetrate the defenses. D.H. Hill came up to reinforce, but instead of following A.P. toward the mill, he made straight for the millpond and were mowed down in the same way. Jackson was only three miles away, but he neither came to the army’s aid, nor did anyone send for him. Controversy abounds as to why Jackson, who had shown such outstanding work in the Valley, should behave this way. Exhaustion and miscommunication seem the likely culprits, but this was also Lee’s first command and not everyone was on the same page just yet. It would take time to make the Confederate army into a well-oiled machine.

By nightfall, the casualties were not in the Confederate’s favor with a total loss of about 1,700 between A.P. Hill and D.H. Hill. McCall’s men suffered only 360 from their defensive position on the north side of the creek.

Again, to reach Beaver Dam Creek, plug in this coordinate:

7243 Cold Harbor Road, Mechanicsville, VA 23111

The battlefield property that is currently preserved sits on the far right end of the Confederate attack. Wayside markers give perspective to the difficulties the soldiers faced that day. However, just looking up and down Beaver Dam Creek could do the same job. Since the battle took place, the course of the creek has changed slightly and a shopping center now sits near the Federal defensive positions. However, you can cross the footbridge and follow the wartime Cold Harbor Road (left image above) and see the former location of the Emerson Mill where A.P. Hill redirected his attack. The foundation is all that is left along the road and it’s difficult to spot through the foliage.

Gaines Mill – June 27th, 1862

McClellan, though feeling pretty confident that he had held off against the Confederates, decided to refocus his efforts away from Richmond and toward his supply base. He figured that moving his base from the Pamunkey to the James would afford better stability and safety under the watchful eye of Union gunboats. He gave orders to Porter to hold out for one more day and then pull back to a better defensive position and resolve the risk on his right flank, should Jackson make an appearance. Early on the morning of June 27th, Porter withdrew to the southeast, setting up a line along a steep ridge around the home of Dr. William Gaines and his left sitting at the farm of Sarah Watt. It was about a mile east of Beaver Dam Creek and situated along another stretch of boggy terrain, practically in a ravine with ridges on both sides, known as Boatswain’s Swamp. As before, the Federals had the high ground and the Confederates would have to pass through difficult topography to carry the position. The line extended for nearly two miles, arrayed in three lines of defense along the slope of the ridge. By all accounts, his line might as well have been impregnable. 

Lee moved against him with Longstreet and A.P. Hill on the Confederate right and Jackson and D.H. Hill on the left. The left wing of the formation would swing up and around, still aiming for Porter’s right flank, passing around the Old Cold Harbor Tavern. Meanwhile, the right wing would attack from the front, pushing him into the left wing. They advanced past Gaines Mill and came to Boatswain’s Swamp, and they stopped. This was not marked on Lee’s maps. He immediate saw the problem, as his men would have to descend into the swamp and then up again to pierce through the three lines of defence. However, he had few options available to him. He put more emphasis on the success of D.H. Hill and Jackson on the right, knowing that a flanking maneuver might have been their best bet. However, Jackson dropped the ball again. This time due to a confusion over the “Old” Cold Harbor and “New” Cold Harbor Roads. Doubling back cost them an hour and a half delay.

Despite this, McClellan’s fears became validated when reports from his hot air balloon (yes, a hot air balloon part of the newly formed Union Army Balloon Corps) reported that Confederates were massing in front of Porter’s corps, and that they had a balloon of their own that was conducting its own survey of the Federal position. Not only this, but some troops were conducting a deceptive maneuver by marching his men back and forth to make them appear larger in number.

At 2:30pm, A.P. Hill once more made his move against the Union forces virtually alone. Artillery opened up on them, raining down shells and shrapnel in a devastating barrage. Compounding the situation, the densely wooded area prevented the smoke from rising, creating a hazy and confusing state for the attacking Confederates. Crude fortifications had also been thrown up on the Union side, made of fallen logs and knapsacks. Brigadier General Maxcy Greggs managed to hold a portion of the Union right, but would not receive support from the rest of Hill’s division as they struggled to survive the onslaught. After several hours of this assault, A.P. Hill lost more than 2,000 men and remained unsupported by the other divisions. D.H. Hill and Longstreet entered the fray much too late while Jackson was still stumbling around to find his way. Lee was running out of daylight and he hadn’t budged the Federals.

Depleting ammunition and in desperate need of reinforcements, Porter held his own, but just barely. Still, McClellan encouraged Porter to keep it up and then wired to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for more troops, painting a bleak picture of his situation around Richmond.

When all of the Confederate forces were in position for one final push – Lee had to go hunting for Jackson – the order was given for all divisions to converge on the Union line. This time, the assault succeeded and the bluecoats were pushed back from the ridge. Through artillery fire, through the mud, up the hill, and through all three lines of defense, the right half of the Confederate forces defied the odds of the terrain and managed to capture fourteen artillery pieces. The Federal left collapsed.

At the end of June 27th, 8,700 Confederates and 6,800 Union troops had fallen. Porter’s corps retreated further southeast, beaten but not annihilated.

The Gaines Mill Battlefield site is just a stone’s throw away from the Cold Harbor Battlefield and I recommend that if you have time, visit both while you’re there. Portions of the preserved Cold Harbor Battlefield are also part of the Gaines Mill Battlefield and vice-versa.

Navigate to: 6283 Watt House Road, Mechanicsville, VA 23111

You’ll park in front of the Watt House, built around 1836 by Hugh and Sarah Watt. The area had been known as Springfield at the time. The house miraculously survived the battle and is now under the preservation efforts of the Richmond National Battlefield Park and a private residence to the staff.

Down the hill from the parking lot, you’ll find a trail that snakes through the woods, following the Confederate advancing path. Be sure to take the extended trial to gain the full scope of the terrain. The land was more cleared back then, but the trail will take you down to the creek where the Confederates crossed. You’ll be approaching from the Union perspective, so once you get to the creek, turn and look up to where you just came. Consider the slope and the fact that there would have been three lines of Federals blocking your path. Take a minute to reflect on the challenge they faced and all that was at stake. For the Confederates, the safety of the capital. For the Union, the preservation of their army and maintaining any sort of headway to make an attack upon Richmond. I wouldn’t have wanted to make that charge.

Be sure to follow the signs to the various monuments and markers that were dedicated after the war. When you circle back on the path, you’ll come to the Watt Farm Road lined with rail fences. At the end of the road is a wayside interpretive sign that talks about the balloons utilized during the Seven Days Battles. On your way back to the Watt House and the parking lot, I encourage you to take a moment of “zen” along the Watt House Road. I personally enjoyed the walk back to the car, despite the August heat.

(to be continued…)

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