June 27, 1862 (Friday)
General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, was of two minds. His smashing defensive victory at Beaver Dam Creek the previous day had enlivened him. As the Rebel attack progressed, the General saw it as their great mistake – that he somehow led them unwittingly into a trap. The Federal defenders, under General Fitz John Porter, would hold their ground, while McClellan attacked the lightly-defended Richmond. In fact, it was just what Confederate General Robert E. Lee was afraid he would do.
Though the several Rebel attacks had been beaten back with bloody repulses, the appearance of fresh enemy troops under Stonewall Jackson on his right flank, quickly changed his mind. No more did he think of assaulting the Confederate capital. He pulled back his right and began to concentrate his army south of the Chickahominy River. General Porter’s Fifth Corps, about 27,000-strong, guarded the bridges as supplies and heavy artillery were shuffled across.
As the morning of this date progressed, reports of Confederate movement came in from all down his main line. McClellan believed the Rebels greatly outnumbered him, putting their figures around 180,000 to his 130,000. In truth, General Lee had about half of such exaggerations. The odds were against him, McClellan believed, but he would make a stand and try to fight off the Rebels. This was a very far cry to the rhetoric of only a few months before that boasted of storming victoriously through the streets of Richmond. It wasn’t even a shadow of McClellan’s own scheme to push towards the city with a series of partial attacks. And though abandoning his campaign and retreating back down the Peninsula was not yet in the front of his mind, McClellan decided to go on the defensive.1
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Rebel Army of Northern Virginia, knew that McClellan’s troops had pulled back, leaving their Beaver Dam Creek positions. He just wasn’t sure where they went, but figured they’d try to defend their supply line by defending Powhite Creek, which ran past Gaines’s Mill. He ordered General A.P. Hill’s Division to move by the road closest to the Chicahominy River, in what he believed would be an advance upon the Federal front. General Longstreet would be his reserve.
Like the previous day, he called upon Stonewall Jackson, supported by D.H. Hill’s Division, to fall upon the Union right flank, suspected to be near the mill itself. D.H. Hill would form the extreme left of the Rebel assault, marching towards Old Cold Harbor, thought to be well behind the Federal lines. Jackson would lead the attack, which would force the Federals from their suspected positions on Powhite Creek, sending them scrambling in defeat.
Only, the Union Army wasn’t where Lee and his four Generals believed. Nestled into the hills about a mile east of Powhite Creek, sat General Porter’s 27,000-strong Fifth Corps.
Around 1pm, the Rebel advance began to come apart. D.H. Hill, marching towards Old Cold Harbor, believed he was well behind the Union right flank. Nevertheless, he ran into one of Porter’s Federal Divisions. Union artillery hailed upon them and their lines of infantry seemed ready to receive a frontal assault. This was clearly not the flank of the Union army. But before biting off more than he could easily chew, Hill decided to wait for Stonewall Jackson, who had fallen woefully behind schedule.
Meanwhile, A.P. Hill’s Division had moved towards the Powhite Creek position. Finding the creek and Gaines’s Mill virtually undefended, they pressed on, finally meeting the Federals in Boatswain’s Swamp. By 2pm, the fighting grew vicious as the Rebels moved steadily towards the Union lines. Three batteries of enemy artillery blew breeches in the oncoming lines. A.P. Hill could not charge under such weight, so his men would have to stand there and slug it out for the foreseeable future – until Jackson appeared on their left.
Stonewall Jackson, guided by a local, had taken the wrong road. Wanting to keep Gaines’s Mill on his right, the guide was leading him directly to it. Jackson discovered this due only to the sounds of the battle, which he figured was coming from near the mill. With his entire force, he turned around, countermarching several miles, and losing nearly two hours.
Ordered by Lee, Longstreet made a few diversionary attacks to A.P. Hill’s right, in hopes of stretching out the Union line. When Jackson finally arrived from the north, behind D.H. Hill, he fed his lead brigades in piecemeal in the space between the two General Hills, which offered little more than cannon fodder for the Federal gunners. Before it was too late, Lee ordered Jackson to move the rest of his men to sweep the field.
Jackson was electric, dashing here and there, readying his loyal Valley army while the fighting raged on his right. As Jackson made the final preparations, so did Lee. By 7pm, with dusk closing in, all was ready for a final push to break the Union lines.
Over the course of the day, the disjointed Rebel attacks had been repulsed, but not without Federal casualties. General Porter had called on McClellan for reinforcements, which were used to plug the holes ripped open by the Confederates. Porter received some of the addition support from General Slocum’s Sixth Corps, and called for still more. McClellan, believing that since roughly 80,000 Rebels were bearing upon them, as many as 100,000 could strike at any moment from Richmond. In truth, less than 30,000 defended their capital as McClellan allowed 64,000 of his own men to sit idle through the day, forcing General Porter to fight his own battle.
Weary from holding the Rebels all day, Porter’s line ultimately broke during Lee’s dusk attack. All up and down the Federal defenses, regiment after regiment, from the right, center and left, made for the rear. Some retired in good order, while others ran for their lives. This flight of infantry uncovered the artillery, which fired round upon round of cannister at the approaching hordes of Confederates. Those that could not get away were captured, as Porter’s men ran towards the bridges to cross the Chickahominy. Finally, darkness fell, and the fighting tapered off.
The Federals lost 894 killed, 3,114 wounded, and 2,829 captured. The attacking Confederates sustained 1,483 killed, 6,402 wounded, and 108 missing.2
“I have lost this battle, because my force was too small,” wrote McClellan to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton just after midnight. “I again repeat that I am not responsible for this, and I say it with the earnestness of a general, who feels in his heart, the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed to-day. I still hope to retrieve our fortunes, but to do this, the government must view the matter in the same earnest light that I do. You must send me very large reinforcements, and send them at once.”
McClellan then turned his attention to Lincoln: “I only wish to say to the President, that I think he is wrong in regarding me as ungenerous, when I said that my force was too weak. I merely reiterated a truth, which to-day has been too plainly proved. If at this instant I could dispose of ten thousand fresh men, I could gain the victory to-morrow.
“I feel too earnestly to-night, I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades, to feel otherwise than that the government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now, the game is lost.”
Filled with sadness, spilled over to bitterness, he concluded: “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you, or to any other persons in Washington.
“You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”3
- George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1988. [↩]
- For this account, I decided to use several trusted secondary sources. These were: Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears; The Peninsula Campaign by Kevin Dougherty; and The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey. [↩]
- The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1992. [↩]