Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
July 12, 2012
In the summer of 1862, two great armies contended for control of Richmond, the Confederate capital. The 60,000 Soldiers of General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia stood between Richmond and the 105,000-man Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George McClellan. The commanders of both armies had been criticized for their perceived lack of aggressiveness. President Lincoln famously wrote:
In March, 1862, after months of prodding, McClellan launched the Peninsula Campaign, which was an attempt to capture Richmond by maneuvering northwest along the Virginia Peninsula. McClellan’s early efforts were met with success. Rather than engage in pitched battle against a numerically superior foe, Johnston slowly retreated, agitating both the Confederate president and newspapers. Johnston hoped to find favorable ground from which he could isolate a portion of the enemy forces and negate his numerical superiority, but pressure mounted for him to act.
On May 31, Johnston attacked McClellan at Seven Pines just outside Richmond. His attacks were inconclusive due to poor coordination and because the Confederate movements had been spotted by an aerial reconnaissance balloon, operated by Thaddeus Lowe’s Union Army Balloon Corps. Near the end of the fighting, Johnston, directing troops from horseback, was struck twice in the shoulder and chest by shell fragments. Borne from the battlefield, Johnston would survive to later command the Army of Tennessee in the defense of Atlanta.
Although fighting continued on June 1, no further progress was made. That evening, President Jefferson Davis placed Robert E. Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee devoted the next three weeks to improving the organization of his army and planning an offensive campaign. Lee planned to leave 25,000 men in defense of Richmond while striking at McClellan with the balance of his forces. Lee’s army would be reinforced by Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was recalled from the Shenandoah Valley. The arrival of Jackson’s army would increase the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia to 92,000 men. Nearly one quarter of these Soldiers were from Georgia.
As time passed without action, Lee suffered the same criticism as his predecessor. He was perceived as timid for not striking McClellan, whose army was within six miles of Richmond. Newspapers derided him as “Granny Lee.”
On June 25, perhaps sensing Lee’s plans, McClellan attacked. The action at Oak Grove was inconclusive and McClellan’s army returned to their former lines.
The next day, Lee erupted with a series of furious assaults that would drive McClellan back and forever change the perception of the Army of Northern Virginia. What followed would be referred to as the Seven Days Battles.
Lee’s complex plan for the actions of June 26th went awry. The ensuing Battle of Mechanicsville ended as a tactical victory for the Union as the Confederate forces, unable to coordinate efforts, suffered greater casualties without dislodging the Union. Nevertheless, McClellan was forced to abandon his position due to the arrival of Jackson on his flank. McClellan’s army redeployed to positions overlooking Boatswain’s Creek and on June 27, Lee attacked again. It was here, at the Battle of Gaines Mill, that Lee launched the largest Confederate charge of the war. More than 50,000 Confederate Soldiers swept forward in a charge that broke the Union’s lines and sent the Army retreating across the Chickahominy River. Gaines Mill was the only one of the Seven Days battles that was a clear-cut tactical victory for Lee. McClellan was convinced that he was outmatched and outnumbered, and committed to abandon the Richmond campaign and retreat to his base at Harrison Landing.
Lee was not content to simply let McClellan get away. He struck him at Savage Station on June 29, and again on June 30 at Glendale. These engagements were inconclusive but added to the casualty count of both armies.
By July 1, the entire Army of the Potomac was concentrated on Malvern Hill. The Union line was fortified by 250 cannons. Additional firepower was provided by three Union gunboats on the James River. Lee’s battle plan was similar to the one he would employ nearly a year later on the 3rd day of Gettysburg. He would bombard the position with artillery before attempting to seize it. Before his plan could be put in motion, Union artillery seized the initiative, and, in a 90-minute cannonade, put the bulk of Lee’s artillery out of action. Confederate divisions charged in waves into the face of withering cannon fire without gaining ground. Lee lost nearly 5,700 men, almost three times McClellan’s losses. D. H. Hill, one of Lee’s division commanders wrote: “It was not war, it was murder.” Union Col. William Averill would recall: “Over 5,000 dead and wounded were on the ground… but enough were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.”
Malvern Hill was the final battle of the Seven Days. Repeatedly, Lee had pitched his army forward in a head-long series of audacious attacks which completely unnerved his opponent. In seven days, Lee’s troops would attack in six major engagements. In the course of these attacks, Lee’s army of 92,000 would suffer more than 20,000 casualties while inflicting 16,000 casualties on the Union forces. But the true casualty of the Seven Days was General McClellan. Lee knew his opponent was hesitant and took advantage of that weakness by pressuring him with direct action. The gambit worked. McClellan, convinced that he was outnumbered, abandoned the Richmond Campaign. Lee seized the initiative and took the war to Northern Virginia, where he nearly destroyed the Union Army at Second Manassas. Flush with success, Lee advanced into Maryland where he would again face McClellan near the banks of the Antietam River in what was to be the single bloodiest day of the war.
The battles of Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (Antietam) will be the subjects of the August and September articles.