On the morning of June 29, Robert E. Lee was faced with an opportunity few commanders ever have. His enemy, with 100,000 men, hundreds of guns, and thousands of wagons, was retreating across his front. McClellan had few options in the way of roads, and Lee had five roads radiating from Richmond like the spokes of a wheel. It seemed to be the perfect opportunity!
However, Lee had a problem. Most of his army was on the north side of the Chickahominy. The Federals had destroyed the bridges they had constructed, so Lee was left with New Bridge, and the crossing further back at Mechanicsville. It would take a good while to get his four divisions across. Lee needed to buy time, so he ordered John Magruder and Benjamin Huger to attack in an effort to pin down the Federal rear. Jackson would rebuild a bridge and join the attack.
Unfortunately for Lee, Huger did nothing. Jackson never attacked, mainly due to a misunderstanding of orders drafted by one of Lee’s aides, and because of the time it took to rebuild a bridge. Magruder finally attacked, but with only a portion of his force. In Magruder’s defense, he faced two Union corps. The resulting battle of Savage Station was a minor affair (unless you were a participant!),
During the night the Federals continued their escape, slipping across the bridge at White Oak Swamp. One more day and the Union army might make it to the safety of their gunboats on the James.
On the 30th, Lee planned for what would be his best chance in this campaign, and one of his best in the war, to inflict a catastrophic defeat on the enemy. Benjamin Huger would strike towards the Riddell’s Shop crossroads, now known as Glendale. James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would attack on his right flank, and the three would cut the Union army in two. Theophilus Holmes had been brought up from the Petersburg area, and he would move down the River Road and harass the Union retreat. Magruder would be in reserve. The “hammer” would be Jackson, who would cross the White Oak Swamp and smash the portion of the Federal army cut off at Riddell’s Shop.
Things began to unravel almost immediately. Huger did nothing, save for a minor artillery duel. Theophilus Holmes also showed a lack of competence and made no contribution. In fact, his was a negative one: he requested reinforcements from Lee, who sent Magruder’s 13,000 men marching to the river in support and so would take no part in the day’s action. They would be needed desperately.
The greatest disappointment was Stonewall: this would be the low point of the war for him. Totally exhausted from the Valley campaign and several rides to Richmond, he spent an important part of the day asleep. All that remained for Lee were the divisions of Longstreet and A.P. Hill—19,000 men out of the 72,000 available to Lee that day!
It’s so important to walk a battlefield if you want to understand it, and Glendale is a perfect example. The wooded area has some clearings for small farms, rolling terrain, and swamps. At times, it’s impossible to see anything around you. Longstreet ordered four brigades to attack, but they did not do so in unison. Kemper advanced, but owing to the heavy woods could not see if Jenkins, to his left, was beginning his assault. Branch was supposed to move ahead with Kemper, but had difficulty locating him until he could hear the sound of the guns. As a result, Kemper’s brigade attacked on its own. Each of the subsequent scattered attacks was eventually beaten back. Near nightfall, A.P. Hill’s division was brought up, and the Union defenses were finally taken. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the road the Federals were retreating on was never severed. More than 7,000 men, blue and gray, fell that day, with little gain for the Confederates.
During the night, McClellan’s army retreated over the gentle slope of Malvern Hill. By morning, four union corps would be arrayed in a horseshoe configuration, with 30-40 guns in front, nearly hub-to-hub over a 900-yard wide front. The Confederates could see the guns, but had no idea what was on the other side of the hill. It appeared formidable, but Longstreet suggested that Confederate artillery could be positioned in a manner that would drive the Union guns off of the hill. However, the gray guns could never even establish themselves in position: batteries were destroyed as soon as they appeared.
As Lee and Longstreet rode off to scout the Federal right flank, Lee left one of his most disastrous orders. Lewis Armistead’s men were in front. Armistead was to watch to see if the Federals pulled back, and if they did, his men were to charge “with a yell.” At this signal, other Confederates were ordered to do the same. At the time, his men were engaged with Union pickets and sharpshooters. As they gained on the enemy, those few Federals pulled back, and Armistead’s men, of course, yelled.
Taking this for the signal to attack, John B. Magruder sent his men forward. D.H Hill also sent his men in. It was a perfect slaughterhouse. Wave after wave of Confederates advanced across the open slope and were cut down by the thousands. By nightfall, 5,000 Confederates lay on the field, dead, dying or wounded. Union generals urged McClellan to attack, but he would have none of it. By dawn his men were gone, soon to be beneath the cover of the Union fleet.
The seven days of battle—subsequently known as the Seven Days—proved to be one of the war’s great turning points. Two actually.
The first is obvious. The Confederates, backed up to their capital and seeing the imminent demise of their cause, had triumphed over the Union’s premier army. Once threatening Richmond, the AoP was now cowering at the river. Lee would soon take advantage of the shift in momentum and strike north, destroying John Pope’s plans at Second Manassas and eventually invading Maryland. It was an amazing turn of events.
The second turning point might be a little more difficult to see, but it was not only a turn in the war, it would bring a major change to American history. McClellan, and his like in Congress, sought only to crush the rebellion and put the army back together again. There were to be no reprisals against Confederate property, and freeing the slaves was not on the agenda. With McClellan’s defeat, more radical members of Congress became influential. Lincoln now knew that slavery had to be on the table, and he began drafting the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is one of history’s great ironies that the institution the Confederacy was fighting to defend would die more rapidly due to Confederate victory in the field. The course of the war, and of American history, had experienced a seismic shift.
For more on the ramifications of Johnston’s wounding and Lee’s ascension to command, read Kris White’s essay “The Cresting Tide: Robert E. Lee and the Road to Chancellorsville” in Turning Points of the American Civil War, part of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.
Also: Join us for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, where Doug Crenshaw will talk more about the Seven Days’ Battles as a turning point of the war. That ties into our overall theme, “Turning Points of the Civil War,” which also ties into ECW’s new book, Turning Points of the American Civil War. (See how clever that all is!) Check out Kris White’s essay in the book, “The Cresting Tide: Robert E. Lee and the Road to Chancellorsville”—a road that begins at Seven Pines. And check out Kevin Pawlak’s essay in the book, “’The Heavyest Blow Yet Given the Confederacy’: The Emancipation Proclamation Changes the Civil War,” which builds on Doug’s last point in this post.