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Seven Days Retreat
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The Seven Days Retreat
Other names: The Seven Days, The Seven Days Battle, The Seven Day Battle
At the start of the Battle of Oak Grove on June 25, 1862, George McClellan thought he was beginning the final phase of his campaign for Richmond. Since the Battle of Seven Pines McClellan had been regrouping in preparation for a series of small struggles to take Richmond, not the single, grand "American Waterloo" he had originally envisioned.
Over the last month the Confederates had undergone serious changes. Joe Johnston's Army of the Potomac had been recently renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston was no longer at the head of the army, Robert E. Lee was, and G. W. Smith, Johnston's second, was gone as well. In his place A. P. Hill stood in command of the newly formed Light Division. Finally, Lee had recalled Stonewall Jackson from the highly successful Valley Campaign.
Jackson's recall had been a major element of Lee's planned attack against the main body of the Army of the Potomac. In late June, 1862 McClellan beat him to the punch, sending two divisions against the Rebel line still in the same position it had been at the start of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines four weeks earlier.
Backed by three full corps, (from the left, Samuel Heintzelman, 3rd Corps, Edwin Vose Sumner, 2nd Corps, and William B. Franklin, 6th Corps) Joe Hooker launched an attack against Brigadier General Benjamin Huger, the scapegoat of Fair Oaks. Hooker had been ordered to advance in an attempt to improve the positioning of siege guns outside Richmond. Huger's men held the line as Lee and McClellan added some reinforcements until McClellan ordered the attack broken off, just as Dan Sickles men seemed to be gaining a foothold. At 1:00 pm McClellan ordered the attack renewed, but by this time the advantage was gone.
Robert E. Lee moved to the front lines, concerned about the reason for the attack. The Virginian had been shifting the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Chickahominy and thought McClellan might have tried the attack to force him to shift back across the river. After watching the fighting Lee told President Jefferson Davis that his planned attack would be made the following day.
Lee's orders the following day to Benjamin Huger was one no commander likes to give and no general likes to receive - hold the line at all costs. That means that you will sacrifice your entire army for the greater good. Meanwhile, Lee fed McClellan a steady diet of bogus information: Beauregard had arrived in Richmond with his western army to the cheers of thousands, Rebel strength topped 200,000, Stonewall Jackson was in the enemy's rear (this wasn't that far from the truth).
Jackson's men, though, were having problems advancing to Richmond, and would not be there at all for the Battle of Mechanicsville. A. P. Hill, Daniel Harvey Hill and James Longstreet would be. With Franklin, Sumner, Heintzelman and Keyes south of the Chickahominy only Fitz-John Porter protected the north and Robert E. Lee intended to spring through Porter and cut the other corps off from their supply point at Harrison Landing. The major problem with Lee's plan was it left Benjamin Huger and Prince John Bankhead Magruder with a total of 28,000 men and Theophilus Holmes with 7,000 protecting the Confederate capital against nearly 80,000 Yankees.
Lee intended that Stonewall Jackson catch Porter's 5th Corps right flank while James Longstreet struck his center at Mechanicsville. President Davis, along with the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy had left the safety of Richmond to watch the battle, but they simply waited for a battle like the rest of the thousands of men along the Mechanicsville Pike. At 4:00 pm the sound of guns swept over the men, not the strike of a corps as if Jackson had finally attacked, but a much more muted sound.
From his vantage point on Chickahominy Bluffs Lee had no problem identifying the troops engaged - it was A. P. Hill's Light Division. Jackson's men were close but would not arrive until after the battle. Lee decided to advance Longstreet, but Fitz John Porter had standing orders for the men in the outposts along the Chickahominy to withdraw to the relative safety of his position behind Beaver Dam Creek if the Rebels advanced.
Brigadier General George McCall [US] held the line at Beaver Dam Creek with three brigades on the line and a forth (under George Gordon Meade) in reserve. When William Pender began to cross the mill pond at the southern end of McCall's line he came under a withering fire from the Pennsylvanians. D. H. Hill moved men up to support the brigade, but the battle was almost over. Darkness was falling. Stonewall Jackson would arrive the following day.
Early the following morning McCall was ordered to withdraw from Ellerson's Mill to a position near Gaines Mill as part of a general withdrawal. Fitz-John Porter's position behind Boatswain's Swamp (actually, a creek formed in a swamp further north) was in line with McClellan's army south of the Chickahominy. Little Mac didn't want to reinforce Porter unless he had to; the commanding general was thinking about launching an attack against Richmond from south of the Chickahominy. However, he did agree to send Henry Slocum [US] from Franklin's command to aid Porter.
To hold McClellan in check south of the Chickahominy River, Lee let Prince John Magruder orchestrate the troops as he had done during the Siege of Yorktown. Soon reports were coming in to headquarters from the Yankees facing Magruder that troops were concentrating in front of Edwin Vose Sumner's 2nd Corps. Magruder's charade successfully distracted the Union Army south of the Chickahominy River from major movement occurring to the north. A. P. Hill, James Longstreet and D. H. Hill were advancing on Fitz-John Porter's position.
Harvey Hill moved south from Old Cold Harbor, supposedly to hit Porter's flank, but ran into stiff opposition. The Confederate general decided to wait for support from Stonewall Jackson. About noon Ambrose Powell Hill fell in to the south of Harvey Hill's men - Jackson had not yet arrived - and Longstreet covered the distance from the battlefield to the Chickahominy River. Although Boatswain Swamp is not wide, the land falls quickly to the creek then rises almost as quickly on the other side, creating a naturally strong position. During the day the Union line was reinforced by Henry Slocum, bringing Porter's effective strength to 26,000 men. With A. P. Hill opening the Confederate attack, Porter withstood successive attacks by D. H. Hill, Longstreet, and, finally, Stonewall Jackson between noon and 4:30pm. Steadfast in his belief he could hold off any Rebel attack, Porter did not request any additional support from McClellan.
Lee ordered an all-out assault about 4:30pm. It took nearly two hours to assemble 28,000 men for the attack. Riding through the troops, Lee spoke to one of the men he knew from his days in Texas in the 2nd Cavalry, John Bell Hood, now a brigade commander under Longstreet. General Lee explained what he wanted Hood to do and Hood agreed to try. Soon the Texas Brigade was slicing through the Union line. As his men reached the top of the hill above the ravine they were greeted by 250 Yankees from the 5th Cavalry riding towards them with sabres drawn. Hood pushed aside this assault with a furious volley, dropping most of the men before they reached the Confederate line.
His line severed, Porter's men began streaming to the rear. With the breach, Lee succeeded in cutting the Army of the Potomac's supply line (from West Point on the York River) and that night McClellan told his generals he intended to withdraw to the James. During the telegraph exchange late that night with President Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, McClellan's wire was cut by J. E. B. Stuart's Rebel cavalry.
On June 28, 1862, the fourth of the Seven Days, things were relatively quiet, not because Lee didn't want to attack McClellan, but because he couldn't. Federal troops, afraid the Rebels might cross the Chickahominy, had burned Maury Bridge and the others were tightly held. Lee did not want to risk a high stakes attack merely to get to the other side of the Chickahominy so he waited until he could tell what McClellan would do. When Lee realized the Army of the Potomac was withdrawing to Harrison's Landing on the James on June 29 he ordered John Magruder to pursue and attack if possible.
As Magruder advanced east along the Richmond and York River Railroad on the hot June day, Union troops began burning anything they had that might be of use to the Rebels. Food, including hardtack still in cans, whiskey, guns, barns, homes and trains all suffered the same fate as the Union Army withdrew. There destination was to Glendale, south of the White Oak Swamp River and Harrison Landing.
Prince John ran into his first resistance on Allen's Farm at Orchard Station. Edwin Vose Sumner engaged Magruder's Confederates in a small rear guard action that grew into a heated exchange. A Yankee artillery blast during the battle cost the life of Brigadier General Richard Griffith. As Magruder battled the Yankees James Longstreet and Powell Hill crossed the Chickahominy River and began marching southeast along Darbytown and Long Bridge Road. Robert E. Lee was looking to concentrate more than 70,000 men against some 60,000 Yankees. He chose Glendale as his next target.
Magruder pushed on, running into increased action again near Savage's Station, a lone outpost east of Seven Pines. Sumner had chosen Savage Station to put up a fight because it had been chosen as the location for an Army field hospital. The Battle of Savage's Station was little more than a slow frontal assault of Sumner's position by Magruder, but Sumner's men were an island of Yankees by themselves. As dusk fell over the battlefield Sumner was advised to withdraw from his dangerous position, but he refused. Finally, orders came from McClellan:the defense of Savage's Station was over and the wounded must be abandoned to save the army. The Yankees withdrew early the next morning and Magruder's Rebels were on the road behind them. Stonewall Jackson and Harvey Hill began crossing the Chickahominy after Savage's Station.
Early on the morning of June 30, 1862 Lee ordered Magruder to support Powell Hill and Longstreet and put Stonewall Jackson in charge of pursuing Sumner's men. During a retreat of this size it is hard to maintain a unit's cohesiveness - they tend to break apart in the attempt to withdraw. It is much easier for the army following them to remain a condensed fighting group, and that is exactly what happened. After marching down White Oak Swamp Road the Yankees came together haphazardly to cross a bridge. Jackson had been nipping at Sumner's heels while the Yankees moved south to White Oak Bridge. Unfortunately, Jackson was not quick enough to catch the Yankees with their backs to the river.
As reports began coming into Confederate headquarters that the Yankees were concentrating at Malvern Hill, Phil Kearny pushed across White Oak Bridge and moved east to form a line to protect the Union wagon train. Benjamin Huger and Jackson were making their way to the small town by two separate roads.
On the other side of the swamp William B. Franklin was amassing a fairly large army (more than 22,000 men) in an excellent defensive position but without the help of a commanding officer - for some strange reason McClellan had decided to remain afar, out of reach even by telegraph. Hugar marched east down the Charles City Road intending to attack on or behind the enemy's right flank. As Kearny completed crossing White Oak Swamp his men lined up with Joe Hooker's, with Henry Slocum protecting the Charles City Road. Between Hooker and Kearny was George McCall, the Pennsylvanian who had absorbed attacks at Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill.
If Jackson wasn't impressed by the size or good defensive position William B. Franklin had taken, he was once the Yankee line twice repelled his attempts to cross White Oak Swamp bridge. Meanwhile, federal soldiers had blocked Huger's cautious advance with trees felled across the Charles City Road. South of Huger, James Longstreet and Powell Hill, who had the longest march, turned east and headed for Glendale. They would await Huger's attack, which was to be the signal to attack.
At 4:00 pm, General Lee was more than angry. Benjamin Huger's men had not fired a single shot and there was nothing going on from Stonewall Jackson's position (Jackson had fallen asleep under a tree). Further south, Erasmus Keyes had reached the James River and other federals, mostly under the command of Fitz-John Porter were arriving by the minute. Theophilus Holmes brought his small Department of North Carolina division south of Turkey Island Creek where his artillery could soften up the Union camp at Malvern Hill. Lee ordered John Magruder to swing around and join Holmes near Malvern Hill.
Lee then gave Longstreet and Powell Hill the order to attack. The Union and Confederate forces were separated by a few hundred yards over the open, rolling farmland then owned by Virginian R. H. Nelson. Folks in the area, though, still called it Frayser's Farm, after the previous family that previously owned it. Longstreet, in typical style, threw 3 large brigades at the Union line with another 4 brigades in close support. At 5:00 pm the two forces met in an attack spreading out on either side of Long Branch Road. Longstreet's center smashed into George Meade's brigade, then spread out along McCall's line. The massive attack exposed multiple weaknesses in the Union line which the Confederates tried to use to their advantage.
Some retreating Yankees became disoriented and charged their own line, killing fellow soldiers to get away from the Confederates. Joe Hooker noted the friendly fire incident in his official report, claiming to have witnessed the attack personally. He and George McCall feuded over this for the rest of their lives.
Help for the Union line began coming in the form of brigades from Slocum and Sedgwick. William B. Franklin, protecting the White Oak Bridge also sent two brigades. Even with the support the battle see-sawed back and forth, with the Yankees pulling back under Rebel attack, then the Rebels pulling back as the Yankees withdrew. In the end the battle was inconclusive, although the Union continued their general movement south to the James.
In between Glendale and Harrison's Landing, the troops found Malvern Hill. It is a deceptive formation. Walking north to south, the hill gently slopes up. Look at it from the south and it is a steep, low cliff along Turkey island Creek. Men near the gentle slope would call the battle now developing Malvern Hill, while men further back called it Malvern Cliffs.
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Seven Days Retreat was last changed on - December 14, 2006
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