One of the more important series of battles in American history, collectively known as the Seven Days, occurred in Virginia 150 years ago this week. By driving away McClellan’s larger Army of the Potomac from Richmond, Robert E. Lee ensured that the Civil War was not going to be a quick Union victory, and that the Civil War, instead of a minor blip in US history, would, by the beginning of 1863, be transformed into a revolutionary struggle that would destroy slavery and alter the Union forever.
Before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of General Joe Johnston at the battle of Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee, had acquired the nickname of “Granny Lee” due to his construction of fortifications and a perception that he was too cautious and lacked an aggressive spirit. Few nicknames in history have been more inapposite. As a commander Lee was a gambler and far preferred to attack the enemy than to passively await an attack. After taking over command from Johnston at the beginning of June, Lee began working towards a big offensive to drive the larger Union army away from Richmond. To accomplish this he began to draw reinforcements to Richmond from throughout Virginia, most notably Jackson’s Valley Army.
From June 12-15th he had the cavalry of his army, brilliantly commanded by Jeb Stuart, ride around McClellan’s army to ascertain what portion of McClellan’s army was north of the Chickahominy River.
Lee got the information he needed from Stuart’s reconnaissance. McClellan had about 25,000-30,000 men north of the Chickahominy. The remainder of his army, about 60,000, was south of the Chickahominy, in front of the Richmond defenses. Lee’s plan was bold. Leaving about 25,000 men in the Richmond defenses, he would take the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, and attack McClellan’s troop north of the Chickahominy, giving him a two-one battlefield superiority over the Union forces that side of the Chickahominy. The plan of course was contingent on McClellan remaining passive in front of Richmond. Lee planned on cutting McClellan’s supply lines by turning McClellan’s flank after winning on the north side of the Chickahominy and crossing to the south side and forcing McClellan to retreat or to be destroyed by the converging Confederates from Richmond and Lee’s forces. The plan was daring and complicated, especially for an army as green as the one Lee led.
The Seven Days got off to a premature start when McClellan launched an attack at Oak Grove south of the Chickahominy to gain a position to bring Richmond within range of his siege guns. Two divisions of the III Corps were alloted for the attack, and three Confederate brigades under General Huger opposed them. In confused fighting the Union gained about 600 yards. The attack gave urgency to the Confederate offensive the next day since it was assumed that McClellan was now resuming the Union drive on Richmond. As it turned out, the battle of Oak Grove was the only offensive undertaken by McClellan during the Seven Days.
Here is Lee’s plan for his offensive against McClellan north of the Chickahominy:
GENERAL ORDERS, HDQRS. ARMY OF THE NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
No. 75. June 24, 1862.
I. General Jackson’s command will proceed to-morrow from Ashland toward the Slash Church and encamp at some convenient point west of the Central Railroad. Branch’s brigade, of A. P. Hill’s division, will also to-morrow evening take position on the Chickahominy near Half-Sink. At 3 o’clock Thursday morning, 26th instant, General Jackson will advance on the road leading to Pole Green Church, communicating his march to General Branch, who will immediately cross the Chickahominy and take the road leading to Mechanicsville. As soon as the movements of these columns are discovered, General A. P. Hill, with the rest of his division, will cross the Chickahominy near Meadow Bridge and move direct upon Mechanicsville. To aid his advance, the heavy batteries on the Chickahominy will at the proper time open upon the batteries at Mechanicsville. The enemy being driven from Mechanicsville and the passage across the bridge opened, General Longstreet, with his division and that of General D. H. Hill, will cross the Chickahominy at or near that point, General D. H. Hill moving to the support of General Jackson and General Longstreet supporting General A. P. Hill. The four divisions, keeping in communication with each other and moving en echelon on separate roads, if practicable, the left division in advance, with skirmishers and sharpshooters extending their front, will sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position above New Bridge, General Jackson bearing well to his left, turning Beaver Dam Creek and taking the direction toward Cold Harbor. They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy. Any advance of the enemy toward Richmond will be prevented by vigorously following his rear and crippling and arresting his progress.
II. The divisions under Generals Huger and Magruder will hold their positions in front of the enemy against attack, and make such demonstrations Thursday as to discover his operations. Should opportunity offer, the feint will be converted into a real attack, and should an abandonment of his intrenchments by the enemy be discovered, he will be closely pursued.
III. The Third Virginia Cavalry will observe the Charles City road. The Fifth Virginia, the First North Carolina, and the Hampton Legion (cavalry) will observe the Darbytown, Varina, and Osborne roads. Should a movement of the enemy down the Chickahominy be discovered, they will close upon his flank and endeavor to arrest his march.
IV. General Stuart, with the First, Fourth, and Ninth Virginia Cavalry, the cavalry of Cobb’s Legion and the Jeff. Davis Legion, will cross the Chickahominy to-morrow and take position to the left of General Jackson’s line of march. The main body will be held in reserve, with scouts well extended to the front and left. General Stuart will keep General Jackson informed of the movements of the enemy on his left and will co-operate with him in his advance. The Tenth Virginia Cavalry, Colonel Davis, will remain on the Nine-mile road. V. General Ransom’s brigade, of General Holmes’ command, will be placed in reserve on the Williamsburg road by General Huger, to whom he will report for orders.
VI. Commanders of divisions will cause their commands to be provided with three days’ cooked rations. The necessary ambulances and ordnance trains will be ready to accompany the division and receive orders from their respective commanders. Officers in charge of all trains will invariably remain with them. Batteries and wagons will keep on the right of the road. The chief engineer, Major Stevens, will assign engineer officers to each division, whose duty it will be to make provision for overcoming all difficulties to the progress of the troops. The staff departments will give the necessary instructions to facilitate the movements herein directed.
By command of General Lee:
R. H. CHILTON, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Here is Lee’s overview of the inception of the Seven Days offensive which he wrote on March 6, 1863:
SIR: After the battle of Seven Pines the Federal Army, under General McClellan, preparatory to an advance upon Richmond, proceeded to fortify its position on the Chickahominy and to perfect the communications with its base of supplies near the head of York River. Its left was established south of the Chickahominy, between White Oak Swamp and New Bridge, defended by a line of strong works, access to which, except by a few narrow roads, was obstructed by felling the dense forests in front. These roads were commanded for a great distance by the heavy guns in the fortifications. The right wing lay north of the Chickahominy, extending beyond Mechanicsville, and the approaches from the south side were strongly defended by intrenchments. Our army was around Richmond, the divisions of Huger and Magruder, supported by those of Longstreet and D. H. Hill, in front of the enemy’s left, and that of A. P. Hill extending from Magruder’s left beyond Meadow Bridge. The command of General Jackson, including Ewell’s division, operating in the Shenandoah Valley, had succeeded in diverting the army of McDowell at Fredericksburg from uniting with that of McClellan. To render this diversion more decided, and effectually mask his withdrawal from the valley at the proper time, Jackson, after the defeat of Frémont and Shields, was re-enforced by Whiting’s division, composed of Hood’s Texas brigade and his own, under Colonel Law, from Richmond, and that of Lawton, from the south.
The intention of the enemy seemed to be to attack Richmond by regular approaches. The strength of his left wing rendered a direct assault injudicious, if not impracticable. It was therefore determined to construct defensive lines, so as to enable a part of the army to defend the city and leave the other part free to cross the Chickahominy and operate on the north bank. By sweeping down the river on that side and threatening his communications with York River it was thought that the enemy would be compelled to retreat or give battle out of his intrenchments. The plan was submitted to His Excellency the President, who was repeatedly on the field in the course of its execution. While preparations were in progress a cavalry expedition, under General Stuart, was made around the rear of the Federal Army to ascertain its position and movements. This was executed with great address and daring by that accomplished officer. As soon as the defensive works were sufficiently advanced General Jackson was directed to move rapidly and secretly from the valley, so as to arrive in the vicinity of Ashland by June 24. The enemy appeared to be unaware of our purpose, and on the 25th attacked General Huger on the Williamsburg road, with the intention, as appeared by a dispatch from General McClellan, of securing his advance toward Richmond. The effort was successfully resisted and our line maintained.