Battles in the East, Traveling Tidbits

Seven Days Battle, Touring All Six Battlefields – Part 2

To see Part 1 of this blog series, Click HERE

Union General George McClellan had left the scene. Again. Defying the odds, newly appointed Confederate General Robert E. Lee had successfully pushed Fitz John Porter’s V Corps out of his secure position along the ridgeline at Gaines Mill. Now at dawn on June 28th, 1862, he found his opponent long gone away from the north side of the Chickahominy River and headed due south, staying on the southwest side of the river. Lee devised a plan for Major General “Prince John” Magruder and Major General Benjamin Huger to attack at Porter’s rear and hold him while James Longstreet and A.P. Hill descended upon the Federals and cut their army in two at Riddell’s Shop at the intersection of Charles City and Willis church Road. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose performance had been a little lack-luster on his campaign, was relegated to rebuilding the bridges that Porter had burned at New Bridge. But once he was in position, he would join in the fight and act as a sledgehammer against an anvil.

It was a good plan, as long as everything went smoothly. But nothing had gone smoothly up to this point. And time was getting away from them. All of June 28th was spent in motion, but little productive for the Confederates. Jackson took his time repairing the bridges and the Federals were burning everything in their wake as they withdrew further south. McClellan had sent three corps to guard his rear, lining up with Charles Sumner in advance and William Franklin as the caboose. Like Magruder, Franklin assumed that more help was near on the Williamsburg Road. Magruder slammed into Sumner and both went unsupported. Sumner was pushed back, but seeing that Huger was still far behind and Jackson hadn’t come up, Magruder delayed a few hours. Still, orders remained and he would need to attack and execute Lee’s plan.

Savage Station

With the Richmond & Yorktown Railroad to their left and using the Williamsburg Road as their guide, Joseph Kershaw’s brigade was sent forward to probe Franklin. The Federal general and John Sedgwick rode out and came across Kershaw’s men waving their regimental flag. Around 3pm, Confederates opened artillery fire. Louisianians and Georgians clashed with Vermonters and Pennsylvanians until nightfall. When artillery ran out, bayonets were fixed and charged into each other. Once darkness closed in, no ground had been gained by either side. Magruder hadn’t received support from Jackson or Huger, and Franklin’s men had done their job to blunt the Confederate advance. Miscommunication and failure to follow-up on orders was becoming a bad habit for the Confederacy, and McClellan did not take advantage of it as he continued to put more focus on other aspects of his campaign.

Today, Savage Station is not fully preserved. However, there are informational markers and one may still see the site of this short battle. There isn’t a solid address for the sight, so these are the GPS coordinates:

37°31’42.1″N 77°16’08.8″W

Or, you can plug in 2700 Meadow Road, Sandston, VA and look for the pull-off on the south side of the road with the wayside markers. Some identifiers will be the huge field and farm road that leads onto private land.

Take some time to pull over and read the signs. In the field on the side of the road that you turned off from, would have been Thomas Cobb’s Georgians and William Barksdale’s Mississippians. I encourage you to pull up an aerial view of your position. On the other side of the field is the railroad running east and west and further south is Interstate 65, but further south than THAT is the Old Williamsburg Road that both sides used as their guide in the battle. Between the railroad and the Williamsburg Road would have been Kershaw’s brigade as it advanced east into Sumner’s division. The heart of the battlefield is now the interstate crossing of 64 and 295.

If you’d like to detour, Seven Pines battlefield markers and the cemetery are on the other side of the interstate intersection near the corner of Nine Mile Road and Williamsburg Road. This is also near some civilization if you need a bathroom break or food (my recommendation is coming in another post).

By 1am on June 30th, McClellan’s troops were away and headed for White Oak Swamp. He also set up a strong defensive line to guard his tactful retreat. With Israel Richardson’s II Corps, Smith’s VI Corps, and Naglee’s brigade of the IV Corps, and three artillery batteries, they were ready for Lee and whatever he would throw at him. The terrain was once against in their favor as they set up along a hill that descended into a swamp just as formidable as the Chickahominy. The ground rose up on the other side, dense with trees and good cover for artillery. McClellan strung out his corps from White Oak Swamp all the way to Malvern Hill, with several breaks in the line. But, Malvern Hill offered a lot of open ground for artillery fire and they were now even closer to the river where Union gunboats could assist.

Jackson finally decided to join the party and caught up with Magruder at Savage Station around 3am. The dead and wounded Federals had been left behind, painting a horrifying picture of death and carnage as the sun rose over the freshly christened battlefield. Lee knew time was of the essence as all divisions headed for White Oak Swamp.

White Oak Swamp

The plan was to have Jackson on the left flank, Huger to his right, followed by A.P. Hill and Longstreet, the Confederate line forming an upside down “L” shape, fitting around the Union position. However, Huger had done comparatively little up to now and continued on that streak, cutting his own path through the woods to get to his appointed position and depriving Lee of that center hinge for his line. But this provided McClellan ample chance to consolidate his line and plug in reinforcements. Porter set up eight batteries of artillery on the left of the Union line anchored on Malvern Hill. Confederate major general Theophilus Holmes made up the Confederate right and presented his own six batteries and was sufficiently blasted. To add insult to injury, Gouverneur Warren’s troops pounded them with infantry fire from the south. Magruder’s battered men were ordered from the rear to help Holmes, but the damage had already been done and the flank would not be turned.

On the other side of the lines, Jackson came to White Oak Swamp and discovered the bridge had been burned. Setting up artillery, an exchange of fire ensued throughout the day with little to show for it. Union reinforcements were sent in while the 2nd Virginia Cavalry were ordered to try and find a fordable crossing. Their horses stuck in the mud and the unit became prime targets for Federal fire. They turned back and another recon party was sent. This time, they found a narrow part of the swamp about a mile away, neglected by the Union forces. Wade Hampton was ordered to build a quick bridge, but was not utilized. Neither did he take advantage of Brackett’s Ford, which the Federals were well aware of. Instead, Jackson was uncharacteristically apathetic to achieving anything on June 30th. He had taken a nap in the evening, rose only for dinner and then went right back to sleep again. This is further evidence that he was extremely wore down from the constant moving and fighting that spring and summer. One of his artillery battalion commanders said he was “physically broken down, stupefied, and dozed with fatigue.” His performance would have repercussions in the coming battles that lay ahead against McClellan.

To get to White Oak Swamp (if you’re still at the Savage Station turnoff), simply turn right onto Meadow Road and continue on until you pass highway 60 and continue on for a few more miles. You’ll see a Civil War Trails sign and a wayside marker similar to the one at Savage Station (the squatty stone ones, not the tall post signs). It’ll come up pretty quickly and right before crossing White Oak Swamp as you’re traveling south. Pull over to the side of the road. Keep in mind that there isn’t much room. If you get out to read the sign, be careful.

If you face south (toward the Civil War Trails sign), you’ll be facing toward the Union line. The terrain is not much different than it was in 1862. During heavy rains, the swamp does swell a bit. Please don’t get too close to the swamp, as there can be venomous snakes lurking about.

Glendale

When George McClellan left his army with little to no guidance, he did leave it in fairly capable hands. Names that would become infamous later in the war, such as “Fighting Joe” Hooker, John Sedgwick, and George Meade were in command of their corps and brigades and ready to hold the position while their leader went to scout for a new supply base – as he burned the other one.  

Longstreet and A.P. Hill, 19,000 men total, were all the Confederacy had at their disposal to dislodge the Union forces from the area around Frayser’s Farm, also known as Glendale. The terrain, once again, was not in their favor with wooded areas dotting open fields and segments of swampy ground. Visibility was limited and communication next to non-existent. Longstreet, facing McCall’s forces, had been told to wait for Huger’s arrival to the hinge of the line, but mistook the firing at White Oak Swamp for the signal to begin.

Confederate brigades advanced in piecemeal, confused by the terrain and unable to attack as one fighting force. Each were repelled and Union forces that had been sent to the right to defend at White Oak Swamp were recalled to help McCall’s section of the line. Both sides pulled in troops as a see-saw action became the order of the day, blue and gray charging and repulsing back and forth. Bayonetting and hand-to-hand combat erupted throughout. Eventually, the Union forces did have to pull back closer to Malvern Hill.

In the course of the battle, a total of 47,000 men were engaged with between 6,300 and 7,400 casualties. With Holmes tied up on the far right, Huger coming in far too late, Magruder’s troops wasted on Holmes’ struggles, and Jackson taking a nap, only Hill and Longstreet were left to take the position. While they still gained some ground, Glendale was arguably a missed opportunity for the Confederates. Still, the Federals held their own and the infamous Phil Kearney later declared it, “one of the most desperate of the war, the one most fatal if lost.”

To get to Glendale from White Oak Swamp, plug in this address:

9175 Willis Church Road, Richmond, VA 23231

This will take you to the Glendale National Cemetery. The bulk of this battlefield was preserved in recent history, beginning in 2005 with the Civil War Trust (now American Battlefield Trust) acquisition of 43 acres. In time, 600 acres were saved, making this one marvel preservation effort. It’s been called Glendale, Frayer’s Farm, Nelson Farm (the 1862 owners), Riddell’s Shop, Charles City Crossroads, Charles City Road, Long Bridge Road, New Market Road, and Willis Church Road. Today, there’s relatively little to see. In the field adjacent to the cemetery are the remains of the Nelson farmhouse foundation that would have existed during the battled. The cemetery building acts as a visitor center during a portion of the year, but please call ahead to check if they’re open. About half of the 2,000 soldiers interred at the cemetery are unknowns and has not received new interments since 1970.

Malvern Hill

McClellan, with a flair for the dramatic and probably overreacting, wired Washington after the battling of June 30th saying, “If none of us escape we shall at least have done honor to our country. I shall do my best to save the Army.” Fitz John Porter was made the de facto commander of the Union line along Malvern Hill as McClellan continued his scouting for a new base. Out of all the positions during this campaign, the line along Malvern Hill might have been the most impregnable. The field before them was open and held a slight incline, perfect for artillery fire. The wheat had been recently harvested, leaving about 900 yards of farmland open for 40 guns to position along the crest of the slope. And just for good measure, Union gunboats were within range and waiting on the James River and nearly the entire Union army on hand (80,000) had settled in, ready for the Confederates (70,000 altogether).

D.H. Hill said, “If General McClellan is there in strength, we had better leave him alone.” Lee was far too impatient to heed such a warning. He’d make another move on July 1st. Jackson slipped down to Glendale from White Oak Swamp and became the far left Confederate flank with D.H. Hill to his right, while Longstreet and A.P. Hill were in reserve licking their wounds. Artillery was set up on an elevated points on both the right and left, providing an opportunity for converging fire on Porter’s guns. If that defense could be broken by artillery, Lee would send in the infantry to sweep them out… That was the plan anyway. To get that many cannons coordinated and in place at the brigade level, communication had to be top-notch and their 14 batteries of reserve would have to cooperate as well. It took time that the Confederacy didn’t have and the Federals took advantage of the lack of coordination in their enemy.

With the Confederate guns coming in piecemeal and the Federals raining shot and shell, batteries were easily fired upon and eliminated from the field. The only reprieve of the onslaught came when Porter had to tell the gunboats to cease fire because their shot was coming up short into their own troops.

The artillery now apparently ineffective, Lee looked for a way to turn the Union right flank. Longstreet was ordered to move in, but the order was subsequently cancelled. Magruder, who was tardy again, finally showed up and with Lew Armistead, began an infantry assault. Sumner’s pulling back to avoid artillery fire was misread as a success in the advance. Lee seized the moment anyway and told them to “advance rapidly”.

The attack would prove disastrous as a tidal wave of gray charge forward and were mowed down by Union artillery fire. Holes were blown in to brigades and regiments as Magruder ordered them forward. A soldier remembered, “The earth trembled and shook as though an earthquake had occurred.” As gunners ran out of ammunition, caissons were sent back for more to keep up the fire. D.H. Hill came to Magruder’s aid, but copied his style by not sending one massive attack. Neither did he communicate his intent with Magruder, so it only racked up the carnage. Federals sent in more troops, holding the line against multiple assaults, even running out of their allotted cartridge rounds.

By the end of the day, over 5,600 Confederate and 3,000 Federal casualties were all that either side had to show for their efforts. The Union line held strong, despite the bitter fighting, and the Confederates had not achieved their objective.

To get to Malvern Hill, plug in this address: 9175 Willis Church Road, Richmond, VA 23231

However, look on your right for the site of the Willis Parsonage. It’ll be two brick chimneys with a fence marking out the property. Across the street from the Parsonage (left hand side of the road) is a pull-off with some wayside markers. Here is where D.H. Hill’s division was positioned during the battle. To your right and facing the way you came from Glendale, would have been Jackson’s troops.

After reading about the action here, please cross the road safely to the parsonage site. At the commencement of the battle, the inhabitants were escorted out. This was one of the first pieces of property on the Malvern Hill battlefield to be preserved. There’s a 1.5 mile trail through the woods that will take you to one of the Confederate artillery positions. Plenty of signs will also explain the action and the doomed assault on July 1st. If you choose to, the trail will also take you to the Union position, which will take you to the address above. If you choose not to walk the trail, there is a pull off and pavilion with signage and an impressive line of artillery in place where Adelbart Ames’ battery would have been placed.

The land around you looks much as it did at the time of the battle, besides the treeline. Ahead of the battery is where the Confederate attacks came from. To the left is the reconstructed Crew House, which is private property but there are some signs and marks accessible to the public. There’s another walking trail that can take you to a Confederate position. To your right is where the West House would have been. This was also visible from the Parsonage. Across the street is the position for Daniel Couch’s men and the other end of the trial that led to the Parsonage.

It is highly recommended that you walk the field and all the trails to get a good sense of the terrain and the battle that took place here. The swales and dips in the ground allowed protection for the Confederates, something that you can’t experience from reading this blog or any book. Glendale exemplifies this principle better than most battlefields.

Conclusion

By July 2nd, the Federals troops were gone again. Exhausted and battered, they retreated to Harrison Landing and under the complete protection of the gunboats. The Confederates pursued, but couldn’t reach them before July 4th when the Union army was secure at the landing. Richmond was also secure for the time being, though McClellan wanted to make another try for it, as long as Washington sent him no less than 100,000 more men. He also thought to cut the rail lines, but with the unfounded worry that Lee would pull troops from the west to defend the capital, he dropped that plan.

Lincoln had enough and put Major General John Pope in command of a new army and Henry Halleck (commander of all Federal forces) gave the orders in early August for McClellan to pull out and come join Pope further north. Word reached Lee that Pope would be moving south to make a move on the capital from a different direction and ordered Jackson to take his men and intercept. Thus began the campaign toward the battle of Second Manassas/Second Bull Run where Jackson crushed Pope’s army.

This led to a string of victories for the Army of Northern Virginia with their only setback for the rest of 1862 being along Antietam Creek that September. The Seven Days Battle proved to be a massive turn-around for the Confederate army, going from having their backs against Richmond with the church bells audible from the battlefields, to having the Army of the Potomac on the run. McClellan also showed his colors during this campaign, setting a reputation that would be later solidified during the Maryland Campaign when Lincoln would give him a second chance at command. The patterns of overestimating his opponent that spawned his hesitancy in battle began with the Seven Days Battle. Several generals did not perform their best on the Confederate side either. Stonewall Jackson would have plenty of opportunities to prove himself until his wounding at Chancellorsville in May of 1863, overshadowing his performance in the Seven Days Battle.

In the end, the Federal army would get another chance at Richmond, this time with Grant at the helm. To read more about the fighting at the Seven Days Battle and a more in depth guide to the battlefields, I recommend “Richmond Shall Not Be Given Up: The Seven Days Battles, June 25 – July 1, 1862” by Doug Crenshaw.

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