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The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomacby Jeffry D. Wert
From Bull Run to Gettysburg to Appomattox, the Army of the Potomac repeatedly fought -- and eventually defeated -- Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Jeffry D. Wert, one of our finest Civil War historians, brings to life the battles/i>
The Sword of Lincoln is the first authoritative single-volume history of the Army of the Potomac in many years.
From Bull Run to Gettysburg to Appomattox, the Army of the Potomac repeatedly fought -- and eventually defeated -- Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Jeffry D. Wert, one of our finest Civil War historians, brings to life the battles, the generals, and the common soldiers who fought for the Union and ultimately prevailed. The obligation throughout the Civil War to defend the capital, Washington, D.C., infused a defensive mentality in the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. They began ignominiously with defeat at Bull Run. Suffering under a succession of flawed commanders -- McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker -- they endured a string of losses until at last they won a decisive battle at Gettysburg under a brand-new commander, General George Meade. Within a year, the Army of the Potomac would come under the overall leadership of the Union's new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant. Under Grant, the army marched through the Virginia countryside, stalking Lee and finally trapping him and the remnants of his army at Appomattox.
Wert takes us into the heart of the action with the ordinary soldiers of the Irish Brigade, the Iron Brigade, the Excelsior Brigade, and other units, contrasting their experiences with those of their Confederate adversaries. He draws on letters and diaries, some of them previously unpublished, to show us what army life was like. Throughout his history, Wert shows how Lincoln carefully oversaw the operations of the Army of the Potomac, learning as the war progressed, until he found in Grant the commander he'd long sought.
With a swiftly moving narrative style and perceptive analysis, The Sword of Lincoln is destined to become the modern account of the army that was so central to the history of the Civil War.
The Washington Post
Gary W. Gallagher, The Washington Post
"An important contribution to the literature of the Civil War by one of our most rigorous Civil War historians."
Jay Winik, author of April 1865: The Month that Saved America
"It has been a long wait for a new history of the Army of the Potomac, but the wait has certainly been worth it."
Civil War Times Illustrated
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The Sword of LincolnThe Army of the Potomac
By Jeffry D. Wert
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Jeffry D. Wert
All right reserved.
Chapter 6: "If We Were Defeated, the Army and the Country Would Be Lost"
The sound was eerie -- many men who heard it described it as "infernal," as if it came from the bowels of hell. A high-pitched "ki-i," the yell was emitted from the throats of Confederate soldiers on the attack. During the final week of June 1862, this fearsome screech rolled across the woodlots and bottomlands of the Virginia Peninsula, heralding the rise of Southern arms in the East. When the Seven Days Campaign ended on July 1, the "Rebel Yell" echoed across a changed landscape of war.
Ironically, after weeks of slow, methodical Union steps toward Richmond, the overdue reckoning began with an advance by the Federals on June 25. With Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps north of the Chickahominy, isolated from the rest of the army, George McClellan wanted to shorten the distance to Porter by seizing Old Tavern, a crossroads village. If the Yankees occupied the intersection, they could also move heavy cannon closer to the enemy works.
Joseph Hooker's Third Corps division led the reconnaissance-in-force, colliding with Major General Benjamin Huger's Confederate brigades. The Rebels resisted stubbornly, and Philip Kearny's troops and units from the Second and Fourth corps joined Hooker's men. A Union lieutenant described the enemy as "wretches...with their tall hats and brown coats, looking as if they would like to cut our livers out." The fighting at Oak Grove lasted until sunset. In the end, Huger's men held their works. Before the combat had ended, McClellan learned of an approaching whirlwind.
McClellan sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at 6:15 P.M., June 25, stating that several runaway slaves or "contrabands" had reported that Stonewall Jackson's command was at Hanover Court House, north and west of Porter's position near Mechanicsville. He estimated enemy strength around Richmond at 200,000, and remarked, "I am inclined that Jackson will attack my right and rear." If that were to occur, "this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack." But if the outcome resulted in "a disaster" for the army, "the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders. It must rest where it belongs," with the administration in Washington.
Stanton forwarded the telegram to Abraham Lincoln. The president was surely tired of reading another such dispatch from McClellan. He replied the next day, noting that the general's assertion as to being overwhelmed by superior numbers and as to the responsibility for it "pains me very much." Continuing, "I give you all I can, and act on the presumption that you will do the best you can with what you have, while you continue, ungenerously I think, to assume that I could give you more if I would. I have omitted and shall omit no opportunity to send you re-enforcements whenever I possibly can."
After he had wired Stanton, McClellan visited Porter's headquarters across the Chickahominy and approved the general's dispositions to meet an assault. He instructed his other corps commanders to clear the ground in front of their works. If the enemy attacked, they should "fight behind the lines." Before he slept, he telegraphed the War Department: "Every possible precaution is being taken. If I had another good Division I could laugh at Jackson. The task is difficult but this Army will do its best & will never disgrace the country. Nothing but overwhelming forces can defeat us."
At McClellan's order, then, the Army of the Potomac awaited the coming storm. It had been brewing for ten days, since Jeb Stuart's ride around the Federal army. General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior generals, including Jackson, on June 23, when it was decided to strike Porter's corps near Mechanicsville and roll up McClellan's right flank. Jackson's troops, en route from the Shenandoah Valley, would initiate around the Federal army. General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior generals, including Jackson, on June 23, when it was decided to strike Porter's corps near Mechanicsville and roll up McClellan's right flank. Jackson's troops, en route from the Shenandoah Valley, would initiate the offensive, followed by three of the army's other divisions. Lee gambled that his opponent would not exploit the Southerners' weak position south of the Chickahominy, where more than 70,000 Federals opposed fewer than 30,000 Confederates. Lee scheduled Jackson's attack for 3:00 A.M., on June 26.
Porter's roughly 30,000 Northerners manned a strong defensive position east of Mechanicsville behind Beaver Dam Creek. Earthworks strengthened their lines, while to their front open fields stretched west from the swampy creek bottom and steep banks. George McCall's division of Pennsylvania Reserves stood behind the fieldworks, supported by two additional divisions. Sixteen cannon braced the infantry lines. Cavalrymen patrolled Porter's right flank, watching for the arrival of Jackson's troops. If the Confederates attacked frontally, they would plunge into a cauldron of artillery fire and musketry.
The Pennsylvanians had been with the army barely a week, coming from Irvin McDowell's department. Except for the minor affair at Dranesville the previous December, they had been spared from the combat. Three West Pointers -- John Reynolds, George Meade, and Truman Seymour -- commanded McCall's brigades. On this day, Reynolds's and Seymour's men held the earthworks, with Meade's in reserve.
At six feet tall, darkly complexioned, with "piercing, penetrating eyes," Reynolds was an impressive man. McClellan described him as "remarkably brave and intelligent, an honest, true gentleman." He said little, greeted most individuals with a smile, and eschewed the infighting among fellow officers. As a general, he worked indefatigably. Although he believed that the administration interfered inordinately into army affairs, he kept his own counsel. He was popular with both his fellow Pennsylvanians and fellow generals. "His look and manner," thought one of his men, "denoted uncommon coolness."
It was not until about three o'clock in the afternoon when the Rebels moved to the attack against the Federals. Lee's plan called for Major General A. P. Hill's division to initiate the assault once Jackson made contact with one of his brigades. But Jackson's column of weary men, harried by Union horsemen, was hours overdue and finally went into bivouac three miles from Porter's flank. With his patience drained and without Lee's blessing, Hill advanced against the Yankees. When Lee learned that Hill had acted without Jackson, he allowed the attack to proceed.
The Southerners never had a chance. Union artillery crews and the Pennsylvanians erased the charges with gales of canister and rifle fire. "The conduct of the troops, most of them for the first time under fire," stated Reynolds of his volunteers, "was all that could be expected." A gunner declared that the enemy was left "laying sweltering in their own blood." It was a simple matter for the Northerners -- load, fire, and repeat the procedure. The enemy dead and wounded reminded a Union officer of "flies in a bowl of sugar." Lee's losses approached 1,400; Porter's, less than 400. The Fifth Corps commander claimed later that only 5,000 of his men had been seriously engaged in the repulse of the enemy assaults.
McClellan had joined Porter as the fighting subsided. Jubilant at the result, he issued a dispatch to the army, announcing the victory. South of the river, the troops cheered the news "until it seemed as though pandemonium had broken loose." Officers granted permission for bands to play music for the first time in weeks. It had been a good day for the army, and its members celebrated.
Despite the exultant tone of his message, McClellan faced critical decisions. He had lost the strategic initiative to Lee. If he wanted to retake it, he either could heavily reinforce Porter and make a stand north of the Chickahominy or he could assault the Confederate lines south of the river. Lee had predicated his risky offensive on the belief that McClellan would not strike the weakened defenses in front of Richmond. For McClellan to assail the works, he would have to incur risks, tactics uncharacteristic to his temperament and beliefs.
Earlier in the day, McClellan had instructed Porter to send his wagons and heavy artillery south of the Chickahominy and had directed officers at White House to forward supplies to the front and to prepare to abandon the supply base. During the night, he ordered Porter to withdraw to a stronger defensive position at Gaines's Mill and stressed to the general "the absolute necessity of holding the ground." By these actions, McClellan took preliminary steps for the abandonment of the three-month campaign. An officer assessed the consequences of McClellan's decisions: "He went over to the right and did the very thing necessary for defeat in either case, by ordering his troops to stay there and receive the attack, and letting his troops on the left remain idle."
Porter withdrew from his position at Beaver Dam Creek at daylight on June 27, moving southeast four miles to a plateau behind Boatswain's Swamp. When the Fifth Corps reached the site, Brigadier General George Morell's division filed right into line behind the morass. With a "long white beard," Morell looked more like a biblical prophet than a general, but he was a no-nonsense soldier, clearheaded, and devoted to duty. To his right, Brigadier General George Sykes's brigades of Regular Army and volunteer regiments deployed. Like Morell, Sykes was old army, a tireless and methodical soldier, who "enforced discipline like a machine." His Regulars believed, as one of them put it, "We are the Commanding General's hope and pride, the 'old guard,' etc." Behind Morell's ranks and the "old guard," McCall's Pennsylvanians formed the reserve.
When Lee had the enemy -- "those people," he called the Federals -- reeling, he pressed the attack. He took the offensive initially to save Richmond and then to "crush" or destroy McClellan's army. With Porter in retreat and with Jackson's troops at hand, Lee ordered his divisions forward in pursuit. By 1:00 P.M., the Rebels had located Porter's corps behind Boatswain's Swamp. The Southerners shifted into battle lines, moving in for the kill.
Confederate artillery crews opened fire on the Northerners. Union officers ordered the soldiers to lie down, and in the words of a New Yorker, "there was not a man in the line that could complain of being too thin at this particular time." Behind the shelling came gray-clad infantrymen, A. P. Hill's Light Division, which had been bloodied the day before. Across the fields and into brush-lined swamps, the Rebels charged, "their piratical flag waving defiantly in the breeze." On the plateau, rifles flashed. Within minutes, the Battle of Gaines's Mill escalated into a fearfulness worse than any prior engagement in the East.
A Pennsylvanian wrote that the combat was "as terrible as human beings can make it." Officers shouted at the men to "give 'em hell," as the Rebels ascended the rise and plunged into the Federal ranks. Men clubbed each other with their rifles. A Union corporal admitted later, "I had a most sincere desire to be somewhere else." The Yankees hammered the Southerners back only to see them come on again. A Berdan Sharpshooter remembered that the flag of the 4th Michigan, posted near the center of the line, had "the stars almost blotted out with blood, and bullet holes exceeding the number of stars."
Along Sykes's front, no troops fought better than the small brigade of two volunteer regiments, the 5th and 10th New York, under Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren. Sykes asserted later of the 5th New York, "I have always maintained it to be the best volunteer organization I ever knew." Recruited in the New York City area by Colonel Hiram Duryée, a wealthy businessman, the members adopted the name Duryée's Zouaves. They soon received the nickname the "Red Devils." When Warren succeeded Duryée in command, they became renowned in the army for their discipline and proficiency in drill. They believed that they were as good soldiers as the Regulars in their division.
Warren was a fellow New Yorker and a graduate of West Point. A physically small man, with a swarthy complexion and intensely black eyes, Warren possessed a keen intellect, read widely, and had been an excellent engineer in the antebellum army. He was inordinately proud, even arrogant, and disdainful toward men whom he regarded as inferior to him. His closest friend was Andrew Humphreys, McClellan's topographical engineer. Warren had visited army headquarters frequently during the weeks on the Peninsula. Few questioned his ability as a soldier.
On this afternoon, Warren led the 5th New York in a riveting counterattack. "The artillery," Warren wrote subsequently, "which had been firing stopped on both sides, and the whole armies were spectators." The Red Devils smashed into the 1st South Carolina Rifles and drove them back. The Zouaves were, declared a Regular, "the peers of any troops on that hard-fought field." Captain John W. Ames of the 11th United States told his parents afterward that the counterattack of the New Yorkers haunted his sleep. Every night, he wrote a week later, he saw a Zouave, with his arms around a comrade, who was "fairly a dead man, walking in his living friend's support." Ames admitted, "the horrors of sudden, accidental, bloody death are here so much augmented and multiplied."
As the afternoon lengthened, Jackson's men came onto the field and assaulted Porter's position. The corps commander had committed the Pennsylvania Reserves and wired McClellan: "I am pressed hard, very hard. About every Regiment I have has been in action." Without reinforcements, "I am afraid I shall be driven from my position." McClellan had already ordered Brigadier General Henry Slocum's division across the Chickahominy and two Second Corps brigades.
Slocum's men went in as Confederate attacks mounted. Screeching their "ki-i," announcing that hell was coming with them, Texans, Georgians, and Alabamians cracked the Union center. Blue-coated ranks splintered, but a Yankee believed that the day's "most desperate fighting" occurred at this time. At places along the lines, the "slaughter" was hand-to-hand.
Regimental commanders tried to rally their men, refuse flanks, or re-form ranks. Colonels Jesse Gove of the 22nd Massachusetts and John W. McLane of the 83rd Pennsylvania were killed. The Pennsylvanians belonged to the brigade of Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. Earlier in the action, he had urged McLane's volunteers: "Boys, if they come upon you again, I want you to give it to them! You are just the boys that can do it." Now, he shouted to them to use the bayonet, as he grabbed the regimental colors and waved them at the enemy. Butterfield suffered a wound, but after the war his conduct would earn him a Medal of Honor. The 83rd Pennsylvania and 22nd Massachusetts lost more men killed or mortally wounded than any other Union regiments on the field.
Several Federal units held firm against the Confederate surge. Artillery crews poured canister into the attackers' ranks, and infantry regiments triggered volleys. The 4th New Jersey and 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, advancing together, counterattacked, but were soon surrounded, forcing hundreds to surrender. An ill-advised, even suicidal, mounted charge by the 5th United States Cavalry bought time for some cannon to be saved. As thousands of Yankees streamed toward the river, the Irish Brigade and William French's brigade from the Second Corps arrived and helped stabilize the rear guard line, preventing a headlong rout. Darkness ended the battle.
The Yankees crossed the Chickahominy throughout the night. By daylight, the withdrawal had been completed and the bridges destroyed. In the confusion, John Reynolds and a staff officer became lost, stranded in a swamp. Confederate pickets discovered them the next morning, and Reynolds would spend the next several weeks in a Richmond prison before being exchanged.
"Yesterday was a terable day for us," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Robert McAllister to his wife on June 28, "one of the hardest fights of the war." The Federals had lost twenty-two cannon and had incurred 6,837 casualties in killed, wounded, and captured. Eight regiments, or one sixth of the units, lost more than two hundred men. The casualty rate was nineteen percent. In turn, they inflicted 8,700 losses on their opponents, or a fifteen percent rate. The combined casualties made Gaines's Mill one of the bloodiest single days of the war and the costliest of the Seven Days Campaign.
In his letter home, McAllister added, "The brave boys fought to the last." The Federals had made a valiant stand for roughly seven hours, despite being outnumbered three-to-two. Porter, Sykes, Morell, McCall, Slocum, and brigade commanders performed ably, shifting units and bringing forward reserves. Porter "had every reason to expect that McClellan would send him ample re-enforcements," a biographer of the army commander, Peter Michie, has argued. But McClellan sent only Slocum's division to Porter in a timely manner. Thousands of troops stood idle south of the river while the Fifth Corps and Slocum's three brigades fought desperately to hold their position. McClellan never rode personally to the battlefield, where one third of his army was engaged. In contrast, Lee accompanied his troops, ordering the assaults at Gaines's Mill.
During the night McClellan met with his senior generals. The army's options had been reduced to two -- it could assault the Confederate lines south of the Chickahominy or retreat down the Peninsula. An offensive could salvage the campaign and perhaps carry the Federals into Richmond while the bulk of Lee's army was north of the river. Convinced that he was outnumbered, McClellan could not intellectually or emotionally, or both, order such a gamble. Confronted with one of the most crucial decisions of his career, McClellan informed his subordinates that the army would abandon the supply base at White House and withdraw to the James River, where a new depot would be established. The campaign, begun three months ago and with such high prospects, was to be given up. "If we were defeated," he said to the group, "the Army and the country would be lost."
On this night McClellan defined himself as a general. He failed the army and the cause to which he was devoted. Here, a handful of miles from the enemy's capital, as historian John T. Hubbell has argued, "The army was not beaten, but the general was, most completely." As another historian, Archer Jones, has concluded, "McClellan had lost his nerve when confronted with his first really big engagement." In fairness to McClellan, he believed deeply that a defeat would doom the Union. But he refused to do what Lee had dared -- to follow a risky path to an uncertain destination. It is the measure of the man and of the general.
In his mind, characteristically, others had forced the decision upon him. He sent a telegram to Stanton after he had met with his corps commanders. McClellan attributed the defeat to his lack of numbers. If he had 10,000 more men, he could "gain the victory tomorrow." He then concluded: "I feel too earnestly tonight -- I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army. If you do not do so now the game is lost. 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."
When the telegram came into the War Department, a telegrapher deciphered it and showed it to Colonel Edward S. Sanford, head of the telegraph office. Sanford ordered the general's final sentence be deleted and the message recopied. Although McClellan naturally believed that his telegram had been copied in full, neither Stanton nor Lincoln learned of his insubordinate and false allegation. The president replied, "Save your Army at all events. Will send re-enforcements as fast as we can....I feel any misfortune to you and your Army quite as keenly as you feel it yourself. If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington."
At the meeting with his generals, McClellan told them, "We will have a difficult retreat to make." The movement entailed the passage of approximately 100,000 men, more than 300 cannon and heavy siege guns, 3,800 ambulances and wagons, and a herd of cattle. Although the army had to march only about fifteen miles to the James River, few roads ran south, and the army would have to cross White Oak Swamp. As the Federals marched, Lee's army could be expected to press their rear and try to interdict the retreat. Four roads followed an east-west course, and the Rebels could use these avenues to strike the Union column's flank. While McClellan had chosen the safer option, the withdrawal was a dangerous undertaking.
The retreat, or "change of base" as McClellan preferred to call it, had begun before he met with his generals. Erasmus Keyes's Fourth Corps had been ordered to start for White Oak Swamp. The engineer regiments marched with the corps, and at daylight on June 28, began rebuilding White Oak Bridge and constructing a new one upstream at Brackett's Ford. Porter's Fifth Corps and the wagon train followed Keyes. Wounded men who could walk left the large hospital at Savage Station and hobbled along among the wagons. At White House, troops destroyed vast stockpiles of supplies. As the smoke blackened the sky, the Federals marched away. Behind them came Confederates, who extinguished the flames. "It did not take them so long to put out the fire," grumbled a sergeant, "as it did us to make it."
The Second, Third, and Sixth corps guarded the Chickahominy crossings and covered the approaches from the west. After dark, the men in the three corps started southeast toward the bridges over White Oak Swamp. Samuel Heintzelman noted in his diary that the troops marched in "good order." During the day, Philip Kearny had issued 150 rounds of ammunition and directed officers to have each man in the division sew a patch of red cloth on his cap. Kearny told his brigade commanders that they were "the rear guard of all God's creation."
When the rank and file learned of the army's destination, they reacted with both disbelief and anger. A sergeant declared that he "never thought this Army never could never" retreat. A member of the 15th Massachusetts recorded in his diary on June 28, "Every one was blue and thought we were defeated." A lieutenant contended that McClellan's decision was "in the judgment of most of us, without sufficient cause." Another soldier described June 28 as "Blue Saturday. This day never to be forgotten."
North of the Chickahominy, Lee searched for evidence of McClellan's next move throughout the morning of June 28. Unconvinced that his opponent would abandon the supply base at White House, Lee sent Jeb Stuart's cavalry and infantry units east toward the Richmond and York River Railroad. When these commands reported that the Federals had destroyed the railroad bridge over the Chickahominy and dust clouds indicated a southward march by the Yankees, Lee concluded that McClellan was retreating either down the Peninsula or toward the James. He issued orders for a pursuit early on June 29. "Though not certain," as Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis, he believed the enemy was retreating toward the James, and "the whole army has been put in motion on this supposition."
North and south of the Chickahominy, the Confederates marched on June 29. Lee sent the divisions of James Longstreet and A. P. Hill back across the river to interdict the Union withdrawal on the next day. While these troops headed south on a "forced march," Lee directed the commands of John Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes to advance east, to gnaw at the enemy's columns, and to slow the Federal march. Stonewall Jackson received instructions to repair the bridge, to cross the Chickahominy, and in Lee's words, "to push the pursuit vigorously" against the Northerners' rear units.
A Union quartermaster described the march on June 29 in his diary as "the grandest 'skedaddling' ever I saw." The heat was, insisted a soldier, "almost insupportable; there was not a breath of air." Exhausted men fell from the ranks in droves, joining the able-bodied wounded who plodded along with the wagons. Cavalry escorts had to remove men who had collapsed in the roadbed. "Many of the boys had not a mouthful to eat," recounted a private. "I had nothing but hard bread, the sight of wich became sickening." A lieutenant wrote afterward, "we have lived on excitement and a few crackers."
Keyes's Fourth Corps and Porter's Fifth Corps continued to lead the retreat toward the James River. Marching most of the day and through the night, the Fourth Corps reached the James River by daylight on June 30. Behind it, the Fifth Corps halted on Malvern Hill, which dominated the surrounding terrain. A foul-up had left George McCall's division of Pennsylvania Reserves in bivouac near a crossroads named Glendale, where three roads intersected. During the evening of June 29, Henry Slocum's division of the Sixth Corps reached Glendale, which had to be held if the other three corps and wagons were to pass safely to the James.
Those commands -- the Second, Third, and Sixth corps -- closed on Savage Station throughout June 29. For a second day, they guarded the army's rear and western flank north of White Oak Swamp. At Savage Station, the Federals had the forward supply base for the army and a hospital with thousands of sick and wounded men. Unwilling to have the Rebels seize the vast amount of supplies, McClellan ordered the base's destruction.
Second Corps troops carried out the task. Although a lieutenant declared, "we had a sort of savage joy in seeing the destruction which would keep our rations from the enemy," most men who witnessed it were dispirited by the action. A Pennsylvanian recalled that there was "enough hardtack on one pile at that place to reach from Philadelphia to Pittsburg." The detail dumped mounds of coffee and sugar on the ground, smashed whiskey barrels, and lit fires. "In a few seconds," attested an onlooker, "the fire became a seething furnace of white heat." Men scattered to avoid the flames.
As a final act, the men ignited boxcars of ammunition and sent them down the tracks toward the destroyed bridge over the Chickahominy. When the engine and cars hurtled off the rails, the ammunition exploded in a terrific blast, shattering windows in nearby houses and rocking the ground. The pall of smoke at Savage Station and the deafening explosion must have made the Yankees feel that, as one of them jotted in his diary, "Everything seems to be going wrong with our side."
Most disheartening to the Federals was the decision to leave behind their sick and wounded comrades to the Confederates. At least 2,000, and perhaps as many as 3,000, patients filled the hospital. One of the unfortunate men was heard to cry out: "O my God! Is this the reward I deserve for all the sacrifices I have made, the battles I have fought, and the agony I have endured from my wounds?" Their fate would rest with the kindness and generosity of the Southerners.
Late on the afternoon, west of Savage Station, a Confederate battle line suddenly appeared. The troops belonged to Magruder's command and were trying, as Lee had directed, to hit the Union flank. The Rebels triggered a volley, "before we were aware of their presence," according to a Federal soldier. On came South Carolinians, Georgians, and Virginians, advancing along the railroad and Williamsburg Road. On the tracks, a specially mounted cannon hurled shells toward the Northerners.
The surprise resulted from confusion among the Union corps commanders. Second Corps commander Edwin Sumner thought that the Third Corps was still to his right and rear. Its commander, Samuel Heintzelman, however, had continued the march toward White Oak Swamp without informing either Sumner or William Franklin of the Sixth Corps. When Sumner learned of Heintzelman's absence he was furious, but he reacted quickly to the Rebel assault. According to a sergeant who saw him, he "was as cool as pigs in clover."
Sumner rushed back two brigades. The Confederates were so close that the Federals heard their officers issue orders. The woods exploded with musketry. Corporal James Wright of the 1st Minnesota, which had been sent into the action, described combat's fearful randomness: "The safe or unsafe place on the fighting line is about as difficult to pick out beforehand as it is to tell where and when the next bolt of lightning will strike. One of the incalculable and surprising things connected with battles is the irregular, uncertain, disproportionate, and eccentric way that losses occur in action."
While fortune favored the Minnesotans on this afternoon, to their left Brigadier General William Brooks's Vermont Brigade of the Sixth Corps met a wall of rifle and artillery fire. The 5th Vermont plunged ahead almost into the Southerners' ranks. Then combat's indiscriminateness struck the New Englanders as if it were a bolt of lightning. "Thirty men of the Fifth Vermont," recounted a surgeon, "were found lying side by side, dressed in as perfect a line as for dress parade, who were all stricken down by one discharge of grape and canister from the enemy's battery." In all, seventy-two Vermonters lay dead or mortally wounded, and 116 wounded, the greatest loss sustained in an engagement by any of that state's regiments in the war.
Additional Union regiments filed into line, and the fighting intensified. Officers reported that rifles became fouled and unserviceable from the rapid discharges. The thick woods filled with smoke, adding to the confusion. A Confederate called the Yankees' fire "dreadful." Federal counterattacks stabilized their lines, and darkness ended the engagement. A South Carolinian declared afterward: "I do hope never again to be a participant in such a terrible battle. It was heart-rending indeed."
While the Battle of Savage Station raged, McClellan once again rode away from the fighting. Army headquarters had been at the railroad depot until the afternoon of June 29. McClellan had alerted the corps commanders of the possibility of an attack and then headed across White Oak Swamp. For a third time, the commander had either removed himself from a battlefield or did not go to the sound of combat until it had ended. It might have been as historian John Hubbell has claimed, "he had distanced himself physically and psychologically (even spiritually) from his army." Undoubtedly, he relinquished active field command and burdened his corps commanders with the management of the retreat.
Once across White Oak Swamp, McClellan met William Averell, whose horsemen picketed the roads to the west. Averell reported that his videttes had not seen Confederate troops. "The roads will be full enough tomorrow," responded the commander. "Averell, if any army can save this country, it will be the Army of the Potomac, and it must be saved for that purpose." McClellan continued on to Glendale and issued orders for the Second and Sixth corps to cross White Oak Swamp during the night.
When Sumner received the orders at Savage Station, he refused to obey them, storming that they had won a victory and he would not abandon the field. Franklin said that he would obey and start the Sixth Corps south. When a second message arrived, threatening Sumner with arrest, the stubborn corps commander relented. The Second Corps filed into columns and followed Franklin's troops.
For the men on the march, it was a wretched night. A thunderstorm blew in, dumping rain on the exhausted, hungry Northerners. "The horrors of that night's march no one can imagine," remembered a Pennsylvanian. "Men declared that they could go no further, and I saw them take their guns from their shoulders, break the stocks off, and sit down by the roadside, to be taken prisoners in a few hours. Wagons, artillery, cavalry and infantry blocked the road, and the wounded were endeavoring to get on with the moving mass. How much further to go? Some said one or two, some four or five miles. It was impossible for regiments to keep together -- we would become separated before we knew it, but all tried to follow the same road." Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Dodge of the 101st New York confided in his journal, "I should like to know the meaning of all these movements -- they are very incomprehensible."
By the morning of June 30, seven divisions and a brigade of the Union army lay at or around Glendale, where Charles City, Long Bridge, and Quaker roads intersected. If the Confederates seized the crossroads, the Federal army could be divided and vulnerable to piecemeal destruction. The defense of Glendale on this day was vital to the passage of the army to the James River.
McClellan conferred with Sumner, Heintzelman, and Franklin and oversaw the deployment of the units, before riding away with his staff. "Why he left was an enigma," stated one of Heintzelman's headquarters clerks. McClellan expected a Confederate assault -- "The roads will be full enough tomorrow," as he predicted the day before -- and still he fled from another battlefield. It was, as historian Hubbell declared, an "inexplicable and inexcusable" decision. McClellan went to Haxall's Landing on the James, where he boarded the gunboat Galena and had dinner, while at Glendale, his army struggled for its survival.
The burden of command fell upon the three corps commanders. Heintzelman noted in his journal that Sumner remained angry about the Third Corps's march away from Savage Station and "avoided speaking to me." The Federal position formed a reverse L, with William Smith's and Israel Richardson's divisions and a Fourth Corps brigade, under Franklin, covering their rear, or base of the L, at the White Oak Swamp crossing. The main Union line extended from north to south, from Charles City Road to Long Bridge Road, manned by the divisions of Henry Slocum, Philip Kearny, George McCall, and Joseph Hooker. Eighteen batteries supported the infantrymen. In all, about 55,000 Yankees waited.
Before noon the Charles City and Long Bridge roads were "full enough." Since the previous morning, it had been Lee's plan to interdict the Federal retreat, and he had expected more than Magruder's troops to be engaged at Savage Station. He now directed his units toward Glendale and the opportunity to sever, if not destroy, his opponent's army. He ordered Stonewall Jackson to cross White Oak Swamp and to assail the Union rear. From the west, Benjamin Huger's three brigades were to attack along Charles City Road, while the divisions of James Longstreet and A. P. Hill were to charge on Long Bridge Road. If his subordinates fulfilled their roles, nearly 70,000 Rebels would assault the Yankees.
"With great suddenness and severity," wrote a Confederate staff officer, the Battle of Glendale erupted. In its intensity and bloodletting, it rivaled Gaines's Mill. While Huger's feeble attack stalled quickly before Slocum's troops, Longstreet's Rebels charged with ferocity toward McCall's Pennsylvanians. These Fifth Corps men had been encamped near Glendale because of the previous night's countermarch. It was fortuitous for the Federals that they were available, but as the unit's historian claimed, "Most of the men were fitter subjects for the hospital than for the battle-field."
"The fire of hell was let loose upon us," exclaimed a Pennsylvania captain, as shells and canister from Confederate batteries swept in upon their ranks. Behind them, gray-coated infantrymen charged. In front of the Keystone State volunteers, six Union batteries blasted the Rebels. The deployment of cannon in front of infantry was faulty. In turn, the Southerners drove toward the inviting targets. A furnace of artillery and rifle fire blew across the ground into the ranks of both attackers and defenders. Sergeant Michael Miller of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves swore to his wife that bullets "flew in every Square inch of air around me except the little Space I stood in." A comrade asserted, "To believe any man desires to go into battle, is to believe him a fool."
Longstreet hurled more troops into the fury. His men overran some of the batteries, clubbing and shooting the Union crews. Colonel Seneca G. Simmons, who had succeeded John Reynolds in brigade command after the general's capture, was killed. Another brigade commander, George Meade, suffered bullet wounds in the right forearm and in his side. An officer who witnessed Meade's wounding wrote of the general, "He did not fall from his horse -- only winced a little and rode slowly to the rear." He would not return to the army for seven weeks.
No Federal troops had fought more valiantly or suffered more than these Pennsylvanians during the campaign. They had little left, and their ranks began to crumble under the enemy onslaught. McCall tried to rally the men and found himself a prisoner. When taken to the rear, McCall met Longstreet, a former subordinate of the Union general. Longstreet offered his hand to his old friend. McCall refused it, remarking: "Excuse me, sir. I can stand defeat but not insult."
Before he was captured, McCall had met Kearny, who was leading regiments of his division to the support of the Pennsylvanians. Accounts of his men are universal in their praise of Kearny's conduct during the campaign. Kearny seemed tireless to the troops as he "rode along from front to rear, from rear to front, alive to the welfare of his men." They remarked about "his armless sleeve flapping up and down," riding with his horse's reins in his mouth, and his confident words to them. A New Yorker believed that he looked "like a Knight errant of old," as they trudged through the night from Savage Station. They had learned, as a lieutenant put it, "he would go into a fight, as an eater would go to a banquet." They had also heard that the Rebels called him "the one armed devil on the white horse."
When Kearny ordered his men into an attack, he liked to tell them to "go in gaily." Whether he used the phrase on this day is unknown, but few, if any, of his troops would have thought of gaiety at this time. "The Rebels were as thick as blackberries," wrote a lieutenant. Toward them came three Confederate brigades, Southerners from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The opposing lines stiffened and hammered each other. A soldier in the 20th Indiana claimed, "We fired so rapidly that our guns were too hot to hold."
Colonel Alexander Hays and the 63rd Pennsylvania typified the Union resistance. A West Pointer, Hays had left the army after the Mexican War to hunt for gold in California and then to build railroads in his native Pennsylvania. Elected colonel of the regiment in August 1861, he proved to be "a most kind-hearted and patient man with a private soldier." He possessed an "impetuous, even fiery" personality, and like Kearny, a passion for battle. On this day Hays and his men saved a Union battery with a counterattack. Kearny called it "this most heroic action," and Hays's brigade commander, Hiram Berry, declared "that I have not in my carreer in military life seen better fighting or work better done."
Additional Federal units came up in support of Kearny, sealing the breach where McCall's Pennsylvanians had been broken. As the 15th Massachusetts charged, Sumner shouted to its members: "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." On the left, Hooker's troops unleashed volleys into the attackers. Two days earlier, Private William C. Wiley of the 70th New York had complained in a letter home, "It seems as if General McClellan has no other Division in his Army but Hookers." Another soldier admitted later that he had had "a dread of it at first," but "I wanted to go in and give the Rebs a try, but it was awful work."
The Union lines held. A Confederate artillerist contended, "[N]owhere else, to my knowledge, [occurred] so much actual personal fighting with bayonet and butt of gun." At places, the combat had been hand-to-hand, and volleys had been triggered into foes at less than a hundred yards. Although imprecise, casualty figures are estimated at 3,500-3,800 in killed, wounded, and missing for the Federals, and 3,500-3,700 for the Confederates. Adjutant Robert Taggart of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves recorded in his diary that night: "When will it end....It is terrible. Yet this is war. Heaven interpose."
Glendale had offered Lee his finest chance to inflict a crippling, if not fatal, defeat upon McClellan's army. Instead of coordinated assaults, Longstreet's and Hill's divisions bled and died virtually alone against five Union divisions. They had fought "for all they were worth," but Federal reserves proved decisive. Huger had performed miserably, but most critically, Jackson had done little to execute his orders. His mysterious conduct has been controversial ever since. For whatever reasons, he failed Lee and the army. E. Porter Alexander, a Confederate artillery officer and the army's finest chronicler, stated it bluntly: "never, before or after, did the fates put such a prize within our reach."
McClellan, who had witnessed none of the fighting, wired the War Department that night, saying in part: "My Army has behaved superbly and have done all that men could do. If none of us escape we shall at least have done honor to the country. I shall do my best to save the Army." Hours later, he sent a second telegram, requesting 50,000 additional troops. "With them," he avowed, "I will retrieve our fortunes. More would be well, but that number sent at once, will, I think, enable me to assume the offensive."
Lincoln responded to both dispatches in separate messages. He advised the general: "Maintain your ground if you can; but save the Army at all events, even if you fall back to Fortress-Monroe. We still have strength enough in the country, and will bring it out." As to his request for reinforcements, the president stated, "When you ask for fifty thousand men to be promptly sent you, you surely labor under some gross mistake of fact." The government had barely 60,000 troops in the other departments in Virginia and in Washington's defenses. The idea, said Lincoln, "is simply absurd."
At the time McClellan telegraphed the War Department, he issued orders to the troops at Glendale to withdraw to Malvern Hill. For a second night in a row the men trudged through the darkness. "We did little more than drag ourselves along," said a soldier. A comrade likened it to "a funeral procession." Hooker's division remained at the crossroads as a rear guard until nearly daylight. Hooker's men watched Rebels, with lanterns, search for missing friends. He stated in his report, "The unbroken, mournful wail of human suffering was all that we heard from Glendale during that long dismal night."
When Hooker's division arrived, the Army of the Potomac stood reunited on Malvern Hill. The height rose 150 feet above the surrounding terrain. The open crest extended one and a half miles in length and three-fourths of a mile in width. The ground sloped to the north and northwest, with the hillsides cleared for several hundred yards. An extensive field of ripened grain and shocks of harvested wheat lay beneath the northwestern crest. Ravines and marshes protected the flanks. The position had "elements of great strength," wrote Porter.
McClellan, Porter, and the army's senior generals directed the deployment of the infantry and artillery. The army commander reportedly told a subordinate that the army was "in no condition to fight without 24 hours rest -- I pray that the enemy may not be in condition to disturb us today." The army's chief topographical engineer, Andrew Humphreys, who personally posted units, stated later: "Never did I see a man more cut down than Genl. McClellan was. He was unable to do anything or say anything." When McClellan had finished riding along the lines about nine o'clock in the morning, he and staff members departed for Haxall's Landing, where he reboarded the Galena and steamed downriver to Harrison's Landing, to examine the campsite for the army. Porter acted as unofficial commander in his absence.
McClellan's abandonment of the army as it awaited another probable battle -- the campaign's final showdown -- constituted a dereliction of duty unparalleled in the annals of the Civil War. Was he so depressed, as Humphreys indicated, or did he lack the moral courage to command the army in battle where young men were killed and maimed? Whatever the reason or reasons, for a third time McClellan deserted the troops whom he claimed he loved. Hooker told a brigade commander months later that McClellan was drunk on the Galena, but no other account substantiates Hooker's allegation. A lieutenant put it cynically, "McClellan was on the James River protecting the gun boats, and composing a scolding letter to the president -- probably." He declared that Little Mac was "a fearful incompetent."
By mid-morning on July 1, an imposing array of artillery batteries and infantry ranks held the crest of Malvern Hill. This would be a memorable day for Union gun crews, and 171 of them stood beside their bronze and iron cannon. Colonel Henry Hunt, commander of the Artillery Reserve, supervised the placement of the batteries. No one in the army knew his business better than Hunt. "I regarded him as the best living commander of field-artillery," McClellan wrote of Hunt. "He was a man of the utmost coolness in danger, thoroughly versed in his profession, an admirable organizer, a soldier of a very high order."
Infantrymen called an artillery battery a "brass band." Hunt expected each commander of a brass band to fire deliberately and to assess the accuracy of each shot. The discharges from the brass bands should possess a kind of rhythm, a fearful music of shells and canister. With sweeping fields of fire, Hunt and the gun crews anchored the Union position.
As the pieces rolled into place, Heintzelman located one of his Third Corps batteries. Returning later, he discovered that Kearny had moved it. He "rode brim full of wrath" to his division commander. "You countermand another order of mine," stormed Heintzelman, "and I will have you arrested, Sir." Kearny shot back, "Arrest my ass, God Damn you," and then spurred away. An onlooker claimed that Heintzelman smiled.
The Fourth Corps division of Darius Couch and the Fifth Corps division of George Morell defended the hill's northern crest, covering the likely approaches of Confederate assaults. To Morell's left, George Sykes's division of the same corps held the western hillside. On the right, the Third and Second corps guarded the army's eastern flank. The Sixth Corps extended the line south to Turkey Creek. Its commander, William Franklin, had accompanied McClellan to Harrison's Landing. A soldier asserted about their position on Malvern Hill, "I could hardly conceive any power that could overwhelm us."
The van of the Army of Northern Virginia came into view of the Yankees about midday. Unwell and ill-tempered, Lee had ordered the pursuit. Perhaps he still believed that he could inflict a punishing blow on the retreating Federals before they reached the protection of Union gunboats on the James. During the previous night, D. H. Hill, who had questioned a local civilian about Malvern Hill, told Lee and Longstreet, "If General McClellan is there in force, we had better let him alone." Longstreet laughed and jokingly replied, "Don't get scared now that we have got him whipped."
It took hours for the Southerners to deploy, slowed by inaccurate maps and the dense woods and swamps. Confederate artillerists opened the action, inducing a blizzard of fire from the massed Union batteries. With fewer than thirty cannon in action, the outmatched Rebel pieces soon fell silent under the hammering. Along the edges of the armies, opposing skirmish lines dueled. Berdan's Sharpshooters covered a portion of the Union front. In their distinctive green coats, these soldiers were deadly at such work. Brigadier General Alexander Hays later called them "the damdest thieves and the damdest fighters."
While on reconnaissance with Longstreet of the army's left flank, Lee received an erroneous report that the enemy was withdrawing. Earlier Lee had designated Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead's brigade to initiate the assault. When a second message arrived, stating that Armistead was making progress, Lee instructed John Magruder to "press forward your whole command and follow up Armistead's success." The army was committing to a bloodbath -- the Yankees had only shifted units; they had not begun a retreat.
On this July afternoon, war's terrible magnificence could be seen on the slopes of Malvern Hill. Before the battle had ended, men in fifteen Confederate brigades dressed ranks, stepped forth, screamed their yell, and charged into a maelstrom. It was not a complicated engagement -- waves of hot iron, belched from cannon, and torrents of lead, spat from muskets, tore into human flesh. The words of the defenders and the attackers relate a grievous story of valor and of death.
A Massachusetts private stated that the Southerners "rushed on in great numbers, seemingly regardless of consequences." He was convinced that they had to be "full of whiskey" to keep coming. An artillery lieutenant said that even after they had been repulsed, "they advanced again with grim, hard-set resolution." Union gunners had orders to aim at the feet of the Rebels and not to sponge their pieces between rounds, which increased the accuracy and rate of their fire. An infantryman declared that the Northerners "mowed down the grey jackets like grass." "Hell with all its horrors," Private William Wiley of the 70th New York told his folks, "cannot be worse than a battlefield. All the bad passions of men are excited to frenzy and each trying to be as destructive as possible. The Rebels fought like a set of demons."
Confederate accounts speak of the carnage that engulfed them. One soldier described the enemy artillery fire as a "perfect hailstorm of shell, grape, canister." A Georgia lieutenant wrote "that a tempest of iron and lead" swept over them, "cutting down every living thing." He added: "Oh what a terrible consuming fire is man's passions when it has full sway. Nothing but a kind Providence saved any of us alive." A Virginian swore, "At no other time did I so realize the horrors of a battlefield."
Major General Lafayette McLaws, a Confederate division commander, contended later that he never saw so many men panic under the withering fire. "It was but a slaughter pen." In a postwar letter, McLaws confided: "As for Malvern Hill, who is going to tell the truth about it, the whole truth. If I [were] ever to write what I saw...I would be denounced by our own people as a calumniator." D. H. Hill, who had warned Lee of the position's natural strength, said afterward, "It was not war -- it was murder."
After four hours, the butchery ended. At times, the Confederate assaults nearly reached the Union lines. Federal officers had to call up reserves to stabilize the ranks. Each man in several blue-coated regiments expended more than one hundred rounds of ammunition, while artillery crews discharged thousands of rounds. The casualty figures revealed the grim reality of the Southern defeat. Lee's losses exceeded 5,000. Northern casualties amounted to slightly more than 2,000. The dominance of Henry Hunt's artillery crews was undeniable on this day. Hill believed that more than half of the Rebel killed and wounded resulted from the "tempest of iron" spewed forth from Union cannon.
McClellan returned to Malvern Hill from his downriver trip as the combat waned. He examined part of the Union line, but not the sector that was still engaged. He then headed back to Haxall's Landing. During the evening he sent instructions to Porter to withdraw from Malvern Hill to Harrison's Landing. As the army prepared to march, McClellan boarded the Galena for the night.
Porter objected to the retreat order, suggesting that the Federals might even consider an advance on Richmond after the victory. Couch, who had distinguished himself in the battle, noted in his diary when he learned of the withdrawal, "I felt somewhat as Sumner had done the night before after his hard fought victory, I not knowing the plans of the Commanding General." A member of Heintzelman's staff declared that the order "produced great dissatisfaction and excitement in the ranks...but more so from the general officers, who now knowing the real cause for the movement, were loud in their protestations against the order. [They] denounced McClellan as a coward or traitor! General Kearny protested against the movement vehemently."
The Yankees began to file off Malvern Hill before midnight. They left their wounded comrades on the battlefield -- "an indelible disgrace," thought an officer. They marched, once again, through the night. Rain began falling on July 2, as they slogged through mud "over shoe tops" until they arrived at Harrison's Landing. They were hungry and "utterly exhausted." According to a colonel, officers and men "were in a sad plight," reminding him of "a shipwrecked crew."
Lee wrote in his official report, "Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed." He attributed the enemy's "escape" primarily to "the want of correct and timely information." Inaccurate maps, inadequate staff, and the wooded terrain hampered, if not crippled, the army's offensive operations. Subordinates failed Lee at critical times, resulting in headlong assaults at Mechanicsville, Gaines's Mill, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. The campaign cost the army more than 20,000 men, or nearly thirty percent of its strength. Lee "was deeply, bitterly disappointed" that they had missed opportunities to destroy the Federals. But his bold gamble had saved Richmond and redirected the war in Virginia. It had been a stunning achievement.
The Fourth of July was, wrote a Maine captain, "a holy day." In the camps of the Army of the Potomac at Harrison's Landing, bands played "Hail Columbia," "Yankee Doodle," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and other patriotic songs. Fireworks arced into the air. "It was a lively scene," added the captain. George McClellan visited the troops, inspiring "the soldiers with a new vigor." When he appeared among the men of the 2nd Michigan, they "cheered most heartily for country, cause & leader." But a 5th New Hampshire lieutenant offered a contrasting view of the day, "not much enthusiasm, but we fired a salute by the way of keeping up appearances." A quartermaster sergeant admitted, "we are all pretty well haggard out."
They tried to make sense of the ordeal through which they had passed. A Pennsylvanian argued, "I don't call it a defeat." A Maine volunteer comforted himself with the knowledge: "no Bull Run's & scenes which we repeated! No panics, and stampedes, were here witnessed!" A member of the 38th New York informed his cousin that they had been outnumbered two-to-one and that McClellan "deemed it wiser to retreat to the James River where our Gun Boats would be a great help to us." A 20th Indiana private concluded simply that they had "roused the real critter and we are both here."
They had indeed met "the real critter" on five battlefields, but held the ground on four of them when the fighting had ended. On scant rations and few hours of sleep, they had executed a dangerous movement -- a retreat in the presence of an opponent -- across difficult terrain. Their casualties amounted to, by one count, 1,734 killed, 8,062 wounded, and 6,053 missing or captured, for a total of 15,849, nearly 5,000 fewer than their foe. As McClellan told them, in part, in a Fourth of July proclamation: "Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history. No one will now question that each of you may always say with pride: 'I belonged to the Army of the Potomac!'"
Many, if not most, of them concluded that they had been "compelled" to retreat by superior enemy numbers. It has been argued by historians that as a result of the campaign's outcome a defeatism characterized the army's attitude. Historian Gordon Rhea has concluded that the Federals "expected to be defeated, and this caused a form of 'institutional timidity.'" Historian Stephen Sears termed it "an inferiority complex." The contemporary letters and diaries of the rank and file belie this conclusion.
"The retreat was," a lieutenant noted in his diary, "conducted superbly." Another lieutenant wrote his brother less than a week after Malvern Hill, "the successful accomplishment of the movement by us...is one of the greatest feats in military history." An artillery officer declared in a July 4 letter, "The Army is in as good condition today as it has ever been and there is no symptom of demoralization in it." On the same day, Sergeant Frank Young of the 15th Massachusetts scribbled in his diary, "the troops are anxious for another fight." Finally, a Maine soldier averred to his mother on July 6: "I will venture to say that considering the numbers the Army will fight better to day than it would one week ago. Experience has given us confidence. And unless the enemy bring superior numbers against us he cannot whip us."
In their estimation, they had accomplished what had been required of them. They had not made the decision to retreat, to destroy the supplies, or to abandon wounded and sick comrades. While some of them saw that the withdrawal meant a strategic defeat, their primary view encompassed the fields of battle. On them they had held their own. In the end, it was as one of them stated it, "McClellan was whipped." It was the army, not its commander, who made the safe passage from the Chickahominy to the James.
The conduct of the men and their commanders saved the army. Nothing more could have been asked of Fitz John Porter and the Fifth Corps. They bore the brunt of the fighting at Mechanicsville, Gaines's Mill, and Malvern Hill. The Pennsylvania Reserves incurred one fifth of the army's casualties. Once the retreat began, the burden of command rested with Edwin Sumner, Samuel Heintzelman, William Franklin and their division and brigade commanders. At Savage Station and Glendale, their troops repulsed the Confederate assaults, preventing a piecemeal destruction of the army. Unlike their opponent, they deserved better from the army commander.
"It is considered generally," wrote Colonel Francis Barlow in a July 4 letter, "that McClellan has been completely outwitted and that our present safety is owing more to the severe fighting of some of the Divisions than to any skill of our General." Many other field officers and generals shared Barlow's judgment. An aide at Third Corps headquarters related that the "fighting generals" had "a profound contempt for General McClellan's fighting qualities, and several officers high in command denounce him without stint." They accused him of indecisiveness, even timidity. "He is beaten before the battle is fought," declared Colonel Regis de Trobriand. "He foresees only defeat; he dreams only of the excuses necessary to throw the responsibility on some one else."
Apparently no officers criticized McClellan more than Kearny and Hooker. During the retreat, Kearny allegedly damned McClellan as "a coward and a traitor" and personally confronted him "with language so strong that all who heard it expected he would be placed under arrest." Following the campaign, the brigadier asserted in a letter, "the fearful error of McClellan's [was] want of heart." Hooker contended that McClellan "never gave birth to a soldier like idea or act or adopted those of others." To Hooker, McClellan missed the opportunity of the campaign when he refused to attack the Confederate lines south of the Chickahominy when the bulk of Lee's army was north of the river.
Except for the reported Kearny incident, the criticism or discontent simmered beneath the surface. McClellan had many defenders, and whenever he appeared among the troops, they cheered him. The fact remained, however, that the campaign exposed his failings as an army commander. Characteristically, he attributed the campaign's outcome to authorities in Washington, with their failure to reinforce him and his need to divide the army along the Chickahominy as he awaited the possible advance of Irvin McDowell from Fredericksburg. He argued rightly that the "true defense of Washington" lay on the Peninsula. He had demonstrated strategic aptitude when he chose it as the route of advance on Richmond. But when the critical test came, when "the real critter" appeared before him, he failed as an army commander.
Convinced that he faced a horde of Rebels and consumed by the belief that the Union cause rested in the salvation of his army, McClellan surrendered the strategic and tactical initiative to Lee. It would be two years before the Federals retrieved it in Virginia. Most critically, McClellan fled responsibility, abandoning the army to its fate, particularly at Glendale and at Malvern Hill. His decisions to ride away from impending battles constituted a dereliction of duty. Perhaps he was so haunted by the sights of dead and maimed men, or as historian Russell F. Weigley has concluded, he "was simply and continually frightened by war, which is not so mysterious a condition." McClellan was "never a warrior." The contrast between him and Lee could not be more compelling. Only one army had a leader who had proved himself worthy of leading it into the carnage of war.
The Seven Days Campaign resulted ultimately in foreclosing the Peninsula as an avenue of advance on Richmond by the Federals. It would limit strategic options for the next two years. The Union failure to capture the Confederate capital, predicted an aide of McClellan, "is destined to be followed by the effusion of seas of blood." A lieutenant believed that now the conflict would be "a war truly to the knife!"
Corporal James Wright of the 1st Minnesota thought of the campaign as it affected him and his comrades. "Each day of the Seven Days added a full year to our ages," he remembered, "and the whole campaign left us ten years older than we began it. I am sure that every man of the company felt that, practically, that was true. They 'looked it' anyway, and not one of them was the rollicking noisy boy he was before. And he never was afterwards."
Copyright © 2005 by Jeffry D. Wert
Excerpted from The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert Copyright © 2005 by Jeffry D. Wert. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jeffry D. Wert is the author of eight previous books on Civil War topics, most recently Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and The Sword of Lincoln. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, slightly more than one hour from the battlefield at Gettysburg.
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