For some time after the Battle of Fair Oaks heavy rains made any movement almost impossible for either of the armies that confronted each other near Richmond.
Continuing McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign,
our selection from History of the War of Secession by Rossiter Johnson published in 1895. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Place: Eastern Virginia
General Franklin’s division of McDowell’s corps had now been sent to McClellan, and immediately after the Battle of Williamsburg he moved it on transports to White House, at the head of York River, where it established a base of supplies. As soon as possible, also, the main body of the army was marched from Williamsburg to White House, reaching that place on May 16th. From this point he moved westward toward Richmond, expecting to be joined by a column of forty thousand men under McDowell, which was to move from Fredericksburg. On reaching the Chickahominy, McClellan threw his left wing across that stream, and sweeping around with his right fought small battles at Mechanicsville and Hanover Junction, by which he cleared the way for McDowell to join him. But at this critical point of time Stonewall Jackson suddenly made another raid down the Shenandoah Valley, and McDowell was called back to pursue him.
Johnston resolved to strike the detached left wing of the National army, which had crossed the Chickahominy and advanced within half a dozen miles of Richmond, and his purpose was seconded by a heavy rain on the night of May 30th, which swelled the stream and swept away some of the bridges, thus hindering reinforcement from the other wing. The attack, May 31st, fell first upon General Silas Casey’s division of Keyes’s corps, which occupied some half-finished works. It was bravely made and bravely resisted, and the Confederates suffered heavy losses before these works, where they had almost surprised the men with the shovels in their hands. But after a time a Confederate force made a detour and gained a position in the rear of the redoubts, when of course they could be held no longer. Reinforcements were very slow in coming up, and Keyes’s men had a long, hard struggle to hold their line at all. They could not have done so if a part of Johnston’s plan had not miscarried. He intended to bring in a heavy flanking force between them and the river, but was delayed several hours in getting it in motion.
Meanwhile McClellan ordered Sumner to cross the river and join in the battle. Sumner had anticipated such an order as soon as he heard the firing, and when the order came it found him with his corps in line, drawn out from camp, and ready to cross instantly. He was the oldest officer there (sixty-six), and the most energetic. There was but one bridge that could be used: many of the supports of this were gone, the approaches were under water, and it was almost a wreck. But he unhesitatingly pushed on his column. The frail structure was steadied by the weight of the men; and though it swayed and undulated with their movement and the rush of the water, they all crossed in safety.
Sumner was just in time to meet the flank attack, which was commanded by Johnston in person. The successive charges of the Confederates were all repelled, and at dusk a counter-charge cleared the ground in front and drove off the last of them in con fusion. In this fight General Johnston received wounds that compelled him to retire from the field and laid him up for a long time. The battle — which is called both Fair Oaks and Seven Pines — cost the National army more than five thousand men, and the Confederate nearly seven thousand.
For some time after the Battle of Fair Oaks heavy rains made any movement almost impossible for either of the armies that confronted each other near Richmond. General Alexander S. Webb says: “The ground, which consisted of alternate layers of reddish clay and quicksand, had turned into a vast swamp, and the guns in battery sank into the earth by their own weight.” McClellan kept his men at work, entrenching and strengthening his position, while he himself appears to have been occupied largely in writing dispatches to the President and the Secretary of War, alternately promising an almost immediate advance on Richmond and calling for reinforcements. He wanted Mc Dowell’s corps of forty thousand men, and the authorities wished to give it to him if it could be sent by way of Fredericksburg and united with his right wing in such a way as not to uncover Washington. But in one dispatch he declared he would rather not have it unless it could be placed absolutely under his command.
His position was in several respects very bad. The Chickahominy was bordered by great swamps, whose malarial influences robbed him of almost as many men as fell by the bullets of the enemy. His base was at White House; and the line thence over which his supplies must come, instead of being at right angles with the line of his front and covered by it, was almost a prolongation of it. It was impossible to maintain permanent bridges over the Chickahominy, and a rain of two or three days was liable at any time to swell the stream so as to sweep away every means of crossing. He could threaten Richmond only by placing a heavy force on the right bank of the river; he could render his own communications secure only by keeping a large force on the left bank. When it first occurred to him that his true base was on the James, or how long he contemplated its removal thither, nobody knows; but he received a startling lesson on June 12th, which appears to have determined him.
When General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at Fair Oaks, the command devolved upon General G. W. Smith; but two days later General Robert E. Lee received the command of the Confederate forces in Virginia, which he retained continuously till his surrender brought the war to a close. The plan that he had opposed, and caused Mr. Davis to reject, when Johnston was in command—of bringing large bodies of troops from North Carolina, Georgia, and Southern Virginia, to form a massive army and fall upon McClellan — he now adopted and proceeded at once to carry out. Johnston enumerates reinforcements that were given to him aggregating fifty-three thousand men, and says he had then the largest Confederate army that ever fought. The total number is given officially at eighty thousand seven hundred sixty-two. This probably means the number of men actually carrying muskets, and excludes all officers, teamsters, musicians, and mechanics; for the Confederate returns were usually made in that way. McClellan’s total effective force, including every man that drew pay the last week in June, was ninety-two thou sand five hundred. His constant expectation of reinforcements by way of Fredericksburg was largely, if not wholly, what kept him in his false position, and it is fair to presume that but for this he would have swung across the peninsula to the new base on the James much sooner and under more favorable circumstances.
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