Robert E. Lee’s first actions as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia were to instill discipline and to construct earthworks around the city. He was quickly derided for this in the press and in the army, and was called “Granny Lee” and the “King of Spades.” How could a real soldier hide behind fortifications?
Lee was way ahead of his critics, however. Not only would the earthworks even the odds against his Union counterpart, but they would allow him to defend more space with fewer men, freeing troops to take the offensive. Lee also called up men from further south, and by late June, his ranks had swelled to about 90,000 men—the largest army he would ever command.
The members of the Confederate press were not the only ones to seriously underestimate Lee. McClellan made a comment that was, in retrospect, amazing. On April 20, he wrote to President Lincoln, “I prefer Lee to Johnston—the former is too cautious & weak under great responsibility—personally brave & energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.”
Porter Alexander, who would become a famous artillery chief, witnessed the construction of the fortifications and asked a friend “Has Gen. Lee the audacity that is going to be required?” His companion, Colonel Joseph C. Ives, responded, “His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too.”
All would quickly learn what Robert E. Lee was made of.
Despite his best efforts, Lee still had serious disadvantages. The army was new to him, and he was not familiar with the capabilities of its leaders. Who would prove to be strong? Who would he be able to count on? His staff was new, too—and much too small. They didn’t understand him yet, which would be a problem when they drafted his orders. The army also lacked accurate maps—an amazing shortcoming considering the fact that the army was only a few miles from the capital. Yet good maps were difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Like Johnston, Lee knew he had to attack. McClellan had moved most of his army south of the Chickahominy, leaving only the corps of Fitz John Porter on the north bank. Lee ordered J.E.B. Stuart to take his cavalry and scout the Federal right, looking for a weak spot in the Federal defense. Stuart’s ride became the stuff of legend, but it brought back a piece of key information: Porter’s corps was outside of Mechanicsville, on a ridge at Beaver Dam Creek. Its right flank was “in the air,” meaning that it wasn’t anchored against a protective terrain feature. In other words, Porter’s position was vulnerable to a flank attack.
Lee called a meeting at the home of the widow Dabbs (“High Meadows”) on Nine Mile Road to discuss his strategy. In attendance were D.H. Hill, James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and Stonewall Jackson, who had made the long ride from the Valley. On June 26 A.P. Hill would cross the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge, then sweep through the village of Mechanicsville. Longstreet and D.H. Hill could then cross at the bridge near that village. Jackson’s Valley Army would come all the way to Richmond and descend upon Porter’s flank and rear. It was, indeed, an audacious plan.
A.P. Hill followed his instructions, and by mid afternoon, faced Porter’s corps at Beaver Dam Creek. Longstreet and D.H. Hill began to cross the river. Jackson’s men had arrived at Hundley’s Corner, only three miles from the battlefield, but there they stayed. He was a stickler for following orders, and those he had received led him to believe that he and D.H. Hill would advance together on Porter’s flank. Hill never appeared, so Jackson stayed put. A.P. Hill saw no signs of Jackson, so he took it upon himself to launch the attack, which was a fiasco. He lost some 1,400 troops and achieved no success.
Strategically, however, things were beginning to swing Lee’s way. McClellan had received word that Jackson was approaching, and Lee’s attack was further proof of the Confederates’ superior numbers. After all, only a madman would take most of his army across a river and leave his capital vulnerable! Yet Lee had done just that. Only John B. Magruder’s and Benjamin Huger’s divisions were left to defend Richmond—approximately 23,000 troops against four of McClellan’s corps.
However, McClellan began moving his supply base to the James River. he needed more time, so he instructed Porter to buy at least another day.
Near the mill of Dr. William Gaines stood a defensible ridge, and this is where Lee expected Porter to take his position. Accordingly, he ordered A.P. Hill to advance in the center, down the Cold Harbor Road. Longstreet was to advance on the right, down the river road, and Jackson and D.H. Hill would move to the left, around Porter’s right flank to Old Cold Harbor. There they would wait for A.P. Hill and Longstreet to drive the Federals into their waiting guns.
Unfortunately for Lee, Porter didn’t follow the script and, instead, set up his position on a ridge behind the nasty Boatswain’s Creek. On the center and right, his men were arrayed in thee lines: one at the creek, another halfway up the ridge, and the third, and the artillery, at the top.
A.P. Hill approached Dr. Gaines’s mill and found no sign of Porter’s troops. He continued to advance. Soon he slammed into them at Boatswain’s Creek and immediately attacked. All afternoon, Hill sent his men forward, but any time they came close to breaching the Federal line, Porter rushed in reinforcements. Longstreet arrived on Hill’s right, and D.H. Hill appeared on the left, at Old Cold Harbor, but where was Jackson? His week was continuing to go downhill. He had asked a local guide to take him to “Cold Harbor.” As his men advanced, he heard the sound of battle to his front. How could this be? He was supposed to be on the left flank! The guide had indeed taken him to Cold Harbor, but little did Jackson know that there were two buildings with this name and the guide had led him to “New” Cold Harbor. Jackson had to retrace his steps, which cost valuable time.
By 7:00 everyone was in place. Daylight Savings time did not exist, so there was only about an hour of light remaining. The situation was desperate for Lee. He had only two divisions south of the river, and if McClellan realized that, Richmond could be lost. Lee needed a victory now. He ordered an all-out assault; it would be, by far, his largest of the war.
As the Confederates attacked, John Bell Hood told his men not to stop and fire, but to keep charging. As they did, they broke through the first line of the Federal defense at the bottom of the ridge by the creek. As the Federals retreated, they blocked the view of their compatriots further up the hill; these men in turn retreated and blocked the third line of defense. Confederates on the far left also broke through. Porter’s men quickly retreated across the Chickahominy, saved by nightfall.
Lee had won his first battlefield victory, but at a horrific cost. The two armies suffered some 15,000 casualties that day.
More bloodshed awaited in the days ahead.
(to be continued)
EXTRA: Go “On Location” at Beaver Dam Creek with Doug Crenshaw and Chris Mackowski