June 23, 1862 (Monday)
Confederate General Robert E. Lee made his headquarters at the Widow Dabbs house, roughly a mile and a half northeast of the Richmond city limits. The General had called a council of war for 3pm, when Generals D.H. Hill, James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would meet to discuss an attack on the Union Army of the Potomac’s right flank.
Lee had called Stonewall Jackson from the Shenandoah Valley, but nobody expected to find him leaning against a fencepost on this hot and dusty afternoon. Jackson’s brother-in-law, D.H. Hill saw him while riding up to the house. Thinking Stonewall was still in the Valley, he was shocked, but happy to see him.
D.H. Hill and Jackson entered the house, and Lee’s officer offered refreshments. Jackson took only a glass of cold milk. Soon, they were joined by Longstreet and A.P. Hill, who had taunted the less popular Jackson when they were classmates at West Point.
As Lee unveiled his plan, each General had an important role to play. The target was Union General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, just north of the Chickahominy River. Jackson was to march south, striking Porter’s right flank and rear. A.P. Hill would then cross the river and march along its northern bank to the bridge at Mechanicsville. Once the bridge was cleared, Longstreet and D.H. Hill would join in. All told, 56,000 Rebels would be throwing themselves against a single Union corps.1
The idea, as written out by Lee the following day, was to “sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position…. They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy.” The remaining 30,000 men under Generals Magruder and Huger would remain in their defenses, protecting Richmond.2
What this actually meant was that three-quarters of the Army of Northern Virginia would secretly leave their positions to concentrate on the Union’s right flank. Secrecy was paramount. Should the Federals learn that the road to Richmond was open, the city would be lost. Just as important was timing. If something held Jackson’s troops back, the attack could not begin. Lee’s army would have left its capital uncovered with nothing to show for it.
The date for the attack was set for June 26. This would allow Jackson ample time to arrive with his men, who were roughly fifty miles away. The meeting wound down around dusk. Jackson mounted his horse and rode off with his aides into the darkness. He would return to his men around 10am the next day.3
Meanwhile, General George B. McClellan had some kind of premonition. In a letter to his wife, he told of his anxious day. The movements of the Rebels were “mysterious.” The weather, until this sweltering day, had been wet and miserable. It stuck this entire army of 130,000 in the mud outside Richmond and allowed it to go no farther. But with the roads drying out, McClellan expected “to be able to take a decisive step in advance [the] day after tomorrow.” If successful, he would gain a couple of miles towards Richmond.
Probably in the hope of saving his army from the complete ruin he was certain an all out battle would bring, it appeared to him “as if the operations would resolve themselves into a series of partial attacks, rather than a general battle.”
But this wasn’t the premonition. “I have a kind of presentiment,” wrote McClellan, “that tomorrow will bring forth something – what I do not know – we will see when the time arrives.”4
Late that night, after Jackson was well on his way back to his men, and after McClellan put away his pen and paper, several escaped slaves entered the Union lines. They found General Porter’s pickets and told them that the Rebels intended to cross the Chickahominy River on the first stormy night.5
This same dark night was bringing another visitor towards the Union lines: Charles Rean, with the story that he was a Union soldier, escaped from a Confederate prison in Winchester. He had come to warn General McClellan himself of the coming Rebel assault. Soon, he would be taken in by the cavalry pickets and relayed up the chain of command, from Colonel to Brigadier to Major-General. Yet something wouldn’t quite add up. Where did this man really come from, and who sent him?6
Buell is Stuck While Bragg Stirs
Union General Henry Halleck had captured Corinth, Mississippi on May 30. Less than two weeks later, he broke up his large Army of the Tennessee into its three original armies, giving back commands to Generals Grant, Pope, and Buell. The Army of the Ohio, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell, had left Corinth on the 11th to march upon Chattanooga, a valuable railroad hub linking Virginia with Georgia. It also was a foray that could lead into Eastern Tennessee, with its hotbed of Unionism still hopefully burning.
Buell’s movements were slow, and by this date, his army had made it only to the Tuscumbia, Alabama area, barely fifty miles from Corinth, with over 170 miles left to go to Chattanooga. Reports that the Confederate army was still in Tulepo, Mississippi gave Buell some leeway, but that was about to change.7
On this date, General Braxton Bragg, the new commander of the Confederate Army of Mississippi, informed Richmond that he was taking his 34,000 effectives to Eastern Tennessee. There, he would join with General Kirby Smith’s 20,000 and fall upon Buell. Paving the way were two cavalry commands under John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Smith had been asking, even begging Bragg for reinforcements, and it seems that Bragg was finally ready to assist.8
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. Along with Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1996. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p499. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1996. [↩]
- Letter from George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, June 23, 1862. As found in The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1992. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p248. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p693. [↩]
- Days of Glory; The Army of the Cumberland, 1861 – 1865 by Larry J. Daniel, LSU Press, 2004. [↩]
- The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. [↩]