On June 25, 1862, George McClellan had 105,000+ men within just as few miles of Richmond. Robert E. Lee took over the Confederate Army from the injured Joe Johnson on June 1, and devised a plan to drive Federal Army from the very gates of the capital. Near the end of the month, Lee completed the first part of his objective, but at great cost.On June 27 he drove the Federal V Corps across the Chickahominy and threatened McClellan’s supply line. He was now looking for an opportunity to destroy, or at least seriously damage, the Union army outside of Richmond. Lee knew the Confederacy could not fight a long war; the North had a much larger population base and greater manufacturing and transportation capacity than did the South. He wanted to strike hard and fast, and induce the North to sue for peace.
By the afternoon of the next day Lee saw an opportunity developing. McClellan was retreating to the James River. His army was marching across Lee’s front and was stretched out for miles. Lee had 5 roads positioned like the spokes of a wheel that he could use to strike McClellan, but most of his army was still north of the Chickahominy… he needed to buy time to get them across. On the 29th he ordered Generals Benjamin Huger, John Bankhead Magruder and “Stonewall” Jackson to attack and slow down the Federal retreat long enough to get the rest of the army south of the river. Owing to communications (and performance) foul-ups, only a weak attack was launched by Magruder at Savage’s Station.
Nevertheless, the morning of the 30th brought Lee one of his greatest opportunities. The Federal army had escaped across White Oak Swamp, but most of it still had to march and turn at the crossroads at Riddell’s Shop (today known as Glendale). If Lee could cut that intersection, he could possibly destroy the half of the Federal army north of it.
Huger was to strike down Charles City Road and take the crossroads. He would be joined by James Longstreet and A. P. Hill’s divisions, who were coming up Long Bridge Road. 29,000 men would converge at the crossroads. To the south, along the river road, Theophilus Holmes was to lead his small division and harass the Federal troops crossing over Malvern Hill on their way to the river. If he hurried, he might even seize that eminence and cut the enemy off. The hammer would be Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Army, augmented by the division of D. H. Hill. Roughly 25,000 men would cross White oak Swamp. From there, they could attack and crush the Federals trapped between their force and the commands of Longstreet, Huger and A. P. Hill. Magruder would be in reserve. Altogether Lee had 72,000 men available to strike. It was exactly the kind of opportunity he needed.
The Federal position was in even greater danger than Lee imagined. Arrayed in a sort of fish hook, it ran from White Oak Swamp to the Glendale area, then to Malvern Hill. There was little cohesion of units. They were spread out across the area, not always positioned with their own corps. McClellan left the field and went to the river to scout for a new encampment for his army, and left no one in charge. It was a recipe for disaster. But although they are often unfairly maligned, the Federal leaders and troops abandoned by their commander would fight cooperatively and tenaciously this day.
Lee’s plan to unravel immediately. Huger never attacked the crossroads. Instead, he engaged in an artillery duel with Union General Slocum’s guns. Theophilus Holmes failed to hurry. The Federals seized Malvern Hill, placed troops across the river road, and brought up gunboats to shell the Confederates. Lee road down to the river to find out what was holding up progress and ordered Magruder’s 12,000 men to come down to the river to reinforce Holmes.
From the Confederate point of view, the strangest and most tragic failure was Jackson’s. His men did nothing of significance that day, never crossing the swamp. A number of reasons have been offered to explain Jackson’s surprising lack of aggressiveness, and possibly the closest is his evident exhaustion.
That left only Longstreet and A. P. Hill to attack. They had 19,000 men, and didn’t realize that the others had basically done nothing. Longstreet ordered three of his brigades, joined by L. O’B. Branch’s brigade from Hill’s division, forward. The remainder of Hill’s division would be held in reserve. It is often said that you have to visit a battlefield to truly understand it… nowhere is that more true than Glendale. A good deal of the area was heavily wooded, along with vines and abundant undergrowth. A swamp was to Longstreet’s right. The ground consisted of low rolling ridges. It would be difficult to see other units in action, and almost as challenging to hear them. Longstreet’s assault was delivered piecemeal. Because other Confederate divisions had not attacked, Federal commanders pulled troops from unthreatened areas, and they arrived just in time to stop repeated Southern blows. Hill’s men were sent in near dark, but they could not take the crossroads. Magruder’s 12,000 had been sent to the river and were not available at the real point of attack, where they were sorely needed.
Many things led to this spectacular failure, among them the newness of the army, Lee’s unfamiliarity with his commanders, poor maps, and a staff that was too small and used ineffectively. In fairness, it must be remembered that Lee took this army over at the beginning of the month. He had driven the Federal army from the capital, but it did escape, and the tragic battle at Malvern Hill would follow the next day.
Of the battle, Douglas Southall Freeman later wrote: “Victories in the field were to be registered, but two years of open campaign were not to produce another situation where envelopment seemed possible He had only that one day for a Cannae, and his army was not ready for it.”