Federals Retreat in the Face of More Rebel Blundering

June 30, 1862 (Monday)

In the eyes of many, Stonewall Jackson was to blame for a good number of the Confederate failures since arriving late and missing the battle of Beaver Dam Creek. He had gotten turned around before the battle of Gaines’s Mill, and misunderstood Lee’s orders, missing the battle of Savage’s Station.

The eyes of many, however, were not the eyes of General Robert E. Lee, who had blamed the latest breakdown completely on General John Magruder. On this day, retaining full faith in the hero of the Shenandoah Valley, General Lee turned over the pursuit of General George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac to Stonewall Jackson.

Lee’s plan was simple. Jackson would push south through White Oak Swamp with 25,000, while General Longstreet (with his own, and General A.P. Hill’s men, totaling 45,000), were advancing upon parallel roads towards Glendale.

As Longstreet and Hill continued on their way, Jackson began his march, encountering nothing but Federal stragglers on the road to Savage’s Station, scene of the previous day’s battle. There, the bulk of his men stopped to collect the stores that the Union troops had left behind. It was quite a bounty of discarded uniforms, ammunition, blankets, guns and, most important to the starving Valley army, food.

White Oak Swamp

Around midmorning, Jackson was on the march again, reaching the edge of White Oak Swamp at noon, and finding that the retreating Federals had burned the bridge. The Confederate artillery found a ridge overlooking a Federal artillery position and opened upon them, scattering the force, which abandoned three of their guns in the confusion. Ordering the bridge to be rebuilt, Jackson’s sloshed across the swamp with his cavalry to capture the pieces.

Just as they arrived on the southern bank, they were greeted with infantry and artillery fire. While his cavalry escaped destruction by using an unguarded ford, Jackson went back the way he came. By the time he arrived back on the northern bank, however, Federal fire had spoiled any plans to rebuild the bridge. He would have to find another way across White Oak Swamp.1

Meanwhile, Lee had sent General Benjamin Huger’s division, 12,000-strong, on a direct course to Glendale. He would be initiating the battle. Longstreet (with Hill) would follow, while Jackson hit the rear guard.

Positions of US and CS troops nearish the end of the day (plus roads taken, etc etc etc).

General Huger had but three miles to march along the Charles City Road before reaching his objective, but it took him most of the morning to march only a mile. In fear that the Federals would stream out of White Oak Swamp, to his north, Huger sent an entire brigade to check any such attack. With his remaining three, he slowly lumbered forward.

Another brigade was soon dispatched to the south, and as he advanced with only half his force, he discovered that the Federals had felled trees across the road. Rather than ordering a detail of men to lift them out of the path, he decided to cut a new road through the woods. At this rate, it wasn’t until the late afternoon that he was within artillery range of the Federal army. Due to how long it had taken him to make his new road, he decided to call off the attack.2

Battle at White Oak Swamp

The booming of Huger’s guns was exactly what General Longstreet had been waiting for. Since noon, he had been at the junction of Darby Town and Long Bridge Roads with General Lee, straining his ears for the first sounds of battle to the northeast, roughly two miles away. Thinking that Huger was engaged, Lee ordered Longstreet forward with two divisions.

Soon, Longstreet’s artillery was thundering away, while his infantry pushed back the Federals skirmishers. Longstreet and Huger were separated by thick woods and a swamp. One force could not support the other. But Lee and Longstreet both trusted that Huger was advancing and expected to see Stonewall Jackson’s command flowing down from the north. Lee never sent any of his staff to ascertain either Huger’s or Jackson’s positions.3

Jackson’s position was completely unchanged, except for the small artillery duel that had evolved into a large artillery duel. One of Jackson’s temporary brigade commanders, General Wade Hampton, had discovered a second crossing a bit east of the burned out bridge across White Oak Swamp. Hampton insisted that a bridge could quickly been thrown up, but that only infantry could cross it, as a road would have to be built through the woods on the other side to accommodate the artillery. Jackson told Hampton to get to work.

In an hour or so, the crude bridge was ready. Hampton found Jackson, told him of the bridge, and offered to lead the advance across it. Jackson said nothing for what seemed to Hampton like a very long time. And then he stood and walked away without a single word passing his lips. Hampton was stunned, but could do nothing.

Jackon’s walk took him to a large tree, where he again sat down and promptly fell asleep. He awoke after an hour, but seemed to be able to muster none of the strength and energy he found so abundant in the Shenandoah Valley.4

Though Longstreet was deployed, he was ordered by Lee not to attack, as they were waiting for Jackson. From a scout, Lee learned that the head of the Federal Army was in complete disorganization at Malvern Hill. He rode south to find General Theophilus Holmes, commanding Lee’s southern-most division. Holmes had already found the enemy and was shelling them with his artillery. Lee ordered him to bring up his infantry, and then told General John Magruder to bring his division south to support Holmes, thus weakening his own strength at Glendale.5

This became incredibly important as Federals rushed reinforcements to fight off Longstreet’s coming assault. Also of great importance was Jackson’s complete inability to hold the Federal rear guard in check, allowing brigade after brigade to escape his grasp and aid their comrades at Glendale.

Nevertheless, Lee now ordered Longstreet to attack. Six brigades in two long rows threw themselves upon Federals under Generals McCall, Hooker, Kearny, Sedgwick and Meade. And though the absence of an overall Federal commander reduced each brigade and division to an independent command, the Union troops outnumbered their assailants. The tumult was radiant, costing Longstreet a quarter of his entire division.

It was darkness and a stout Federal defense that put an end to the killing. And though victorious, the Army of the Potomac continued their retreat, leaving their dead, wounded and the field of battle to the enemy. This time, it was not on the orders of General McClellan, who was, as usual, several miles away and completely out of contact. The soldiers and officers, perhaps used to winning and retreating, did so on their own initiative.

It was in that frame of mind that McClellan established his new defense atop Malvern Hill.6

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillian, 1997. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  3. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska, 1964. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillian, 1997. []
  5. The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 by Kevein Dougherty, University Press of Mississippi, 2005. []
  6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
Creative Commons License
Federals Retreat in the Face of More Rebel Blundering by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by