In late June 1862, Robert E. Lee Struck George McClellan’s right flank at Mechanicsville. This attack, plus reports that Stonewall Jackson’s valley army was approaching on his right, caused McClellan to change his base from White House Landing on the Pamunkey to the security of the James River. He needed time, and ordered Fitz John Porter to hold put another day north of the Chickahominy River. Following orders, Porter bought precious time for the Army of the Potomac. The most famous of the Seven Days’ Battles, Gaines’s Mill, was the result. Porter held out until nightfall, when he was finally driven across the river.
The next day, June 28th, Lee spent in determining where McClellan would go. Would he retreat down the Peninsula, would he attack Richmond, or would he move to the James? By nightfall he knew that McClellan had made the latter choice. His army retreated across the Peninsula, basically on one road, right across Lee’s lines. The Confederates had a series of roads, like the spokes of a wheel, pointing at the enemy retreat. Lee know that the South could not win a protracted war, as it simply didn’t have the population or manufacturing capacity enjoyed by the North. He needed to either crush the enemy’s army, or cause the North to abandon the war. Now Lee had the opportunity he needed, and it might not come again. He wanted to take advantage of McClellan’s vulnerable situation and strike a blow that would seriously damage, if not destroy the Army of the Potomac. What would come next was the most important, if not the most famous, of the Seven Days’ battles.
As McClellan retreated, his army moved south until it reached an intersection known locally as Riddell’s Shop (today called Glendale). Here it would turn, march over Malvern Hill, and then on to the safety of its gunboats on the James. The key was Glendale. Lee decided he would cut the enemy in half at that road juncture, then destroy it in detail.
Lee’s army was new to him. He had taken command only a month earlier, and was not familiar with most of his commanders His staff was small and newly formed, and the terrain could be challenging for communications. To make matters worse, and almost unbelievably, the Confederates did not have good maps of the area, only a few miles from their capital. Their advantage was that they had 72,000 men that they could launch at the enemy.
Lee would send Benjamin Huger, James Longstreet and A. P. Hill, with a combined 29,000 men, to strike at Glendale. Huger would move down Charles City Road. The others would come up Long Bridge Road. Theophilus Holmes and his small division would march down New Market Road (today’s Route 5). He would harass the enemy retreat across Malvern Hill, and possibly seize that point. The hammer would be Stonewall Jackson. He had his army, plus D. H. Hill’s division, some 25,000 men. They would attack the enemy’s rear at White Oak Swamp. Together with the force that moved against Glendale, their overwhelming power would crush any Yankees north of Glendale, at least half of the enemy army. As a bonus, McClellan would not be on the battlefield; he would be scouting for a new position on the river. No one was left in charge, and the Federal units set up a fishhook-type defense. Units were scattered… parts of divisions were mixed up with other units.
Lee’s plan began to unravel almost immediately. Huger moved down Charles City Road, but the Federals were cutting down trees to block his way. Rather than send a force to stop this, he spent his time cutting up and removing the trees, and considering building a new road. He was to start the attack, there was no time for road construction! His contribution for the day was an exchange of artillery fire with the enemy. 10,000 Confederates were now out of the fight.
Theophilus Holmes didn’t fare much better. He was slow to move, and the result was that
Union troops under Porter established a position with artillery on New Market Heights. Gouverneur Warren’s brigade blocked the New Market Road, and Federal gunboats fired on Holmes’ men from the river. Lee rode down and witnessed the lack of progress and ordered John Bankhead Magruder to bring his division as reinforcements. He arrived too late to do any good, and another 18,000 Confederates were out of the attack.
What of Jackson? With 25,000 men and his reputation for decisive action, things were still promising. Unfortunately, this would be Stonewall’s worst day. He never aggressively pursued an attack across White Oak Swamp. The enemy in his front was strong, but scouts found a few ways across and beyond the Federals’ flank. Wade Hampton even built a bridge. Jackson was not himself… modern historians suggest that he was exhausted. He fell asleep eating, arose, and then went to bed. His army would not attack that day. Lee was down another 25,000 men!
It was left to Longstreet and A. P. Hill. Longstreet was ordered to advance, and he did, but owing to the heavily wooded terrain near Glendale, his brigades attacked in a disjointed fashion. The Pennsylvania Reserves fought back doggedly. Lack of action by Huger and Jackson allowed the Federals to pull troops from those sectors, and they held off the Confederate assault. Lee’s last chance was A. P. Hill. His men moved forward, but could not reach Willis Church Road before darkness fell. That night the Federals pulled back to Malvern Hill, where disaster awaited Lee’s army the next day.
It seems almost unbelievable that the Confederate attack could have failed, but everything that could have gone wrong certainly did. Communications were poor, the terrain was difficult, and some of Lee’s commanders were simply not up to the job. Magruder, Huger and Holmes would soon be sent away. While Jackson’s performance was non-existent, Lee had observed the Valley campaign and knew his potential. The enemy was driven from Richmond, but the Confederates had missed an opportunity that might not come again. To Lee’s chagrin, the war would go on.