McClellan Exaggerated Victory at Hanover Court House

May 27, 1862 (Tuesday)

General Branch

General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch had been a busy fellow for the past couple of weeks. Though he had never ventured with his Confederate brigade into the Shenandoah Valley, he had been held in reserve, awaiting orders from General Richard Ewell to cross the Blue Ridge and join up with Stonewall Jackson’s force. Just as it seemed as if Ewell and perhaps even Jackson were to be recalled to Richmond, abandoning the Valley, General Joe Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia just outside the Confederate capital’s gates, gave his blessings for both to begin their campaign, pushing north towards the Potomac and Washington.

Though Branch had been under Ewell’s command, he was nabbed by Johnston as a sort of sacrificial compromise, just as he was about to cross through the passes into the Valley. Since then, he had moved his brigade near Hanover Court House, fifteen or so miles north of Richmond. His objective was to guard the Virginia Central Railroad, the line which provided a link across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah.1

For the past several days, General George B. McClellan had heard rumors from Virginia citizens that 17,000 Rebels were moving on Hanover Court House and the rear of his Army of Northern Virginia. Unsure of what to make of this, he sent orders to nearby cavalry to check on the situation.2

Gouverneur K. Warren

They had found the enemy in strong force, but they were only 3,000 or so in number. Though much smaller than the feared 17,000, it was feared that they were at least strong enough to make a move on the Union right flank.3

To more fully understand what he might be up against, General Fitz John Porter, commander of the Fifth Corps, stationed on the right flank, ordered another reconnaissance. This time, Col. Gouverneur K. Warren took his regiment, who, along with some cavalry, pushed back Branch’s Rebel pickets. After managing to destroy a bridge across the Pamunkey River, they figured the number of Rebels to be closer to 5,000 or 6,000.4

Following the foray at the bridge, General Branch moved his command back a few miles to Slash Church, giving himself a buffer against what appeared to be a plethora of small, but well armed, Federal scouting parties. As the gray, rainy dawn opened upon this date, Branch’s forward pickets reported another body of Union troops close at hand. Branch sent a regiment forward to bolster the pickets.5

James Lane

The regiment, under Col. James Lane, stepped off lively, and soon spotted a lone Federal regiment marching up a road from the south. Lane’s Confederates emerged from a woodlot upon the unsuspecting enemy, pouring a vicious fire upon the Federals before charging and driving them through a wheat field. As the enemy scattered, Lane’s regiment pursued, tramping through the wheat. When they were about to emerge, Lane saw on his right, not the back of the fleeing Yankees, but an entire brigade of fresh Federal troops. Before he could react, Union artillery opened upon them and he was forced to fall back, regrouping and laying low. While Rebel artillery maneuvered into position, Lane sent word to Branch to bring up reinforcements.6

This unexpected Union brigade was only part of the force General Porter dispatched before dawn. By 4am, roughly 12,000 men, an entire division, was on the road to Hanover Court House to put an end to whatever shenanigans Branch was up to. Believing Branch to still be encamped at Hanover, Porter divided his force, hoping to fall upon them in the front, flank and rear.

Branch was, of course, no longer at Hanover, but had fallen back. Porter had marched his force past the road leading to Branch’s new camp without noticing he had done so until Lane attacked one of his regiments and then stumbled onto a brigade. Porter, unaware that any of this was going on, continued his march toward Hanover Court House.7

Battle of Hanover Court House

The word that got Branch moving was faulty. His cavalry informed him that there were only two regiments to his front. Believing he could turn them back with his brigade, he dispatched two regiments to meet them.8 Upon seeing that they were in trouble, the Federals sent word to General Porter to double back and come to their aid.

The Rebels charged, but were beaten back. The fighting, however, continued as each side found cover and blasted away at each other for nearly an hour. Running low on ammunition, the Federal line began to cave. But any feeling of Confederate hopefulness was soon dashed by the timely arrival of the bulk of Porter’s troops.9

General Fitz John Porter

It was then that General Branch figured out that his brigade of 4,000 was tangling with an entire Union division. Though he hoped that the sound of battle would draw reinforcements to his side, he realized he couldn’t hold long against four to one odds, and called a retreat at dusk. In the coming darkness, Porter threw out a half-hearted pursuit, but Branch’s rear guard kept them from wandering too close.10

For such a short, lopsided engagement, the casualties were heavy. The Federals lost 62 killed, 233 wounded and 70 captured. The Rebel figures, though incomplete, were probably about the same, except that Porter’s cavalry was able to scoop up over 700 Rebel prisoners, most lost during the retreat.11

The Battle of Hanover Junction was a small affair, but General McClellan, even after the war, made much of it, calling it “one of the handsomest things of the war, both in itself and in its results.” The battle itself, according to McClellan, anyway, was “a glorious victory over superior numbers.” Though how he arrived at that conclusion is a mystery. The results, as reported by McClellan, were that the Rebels could no longer communicate with Fredericksburg (where no Rebels were stationed anyway) or with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley (which was just untrue).

Most importantly, McClellan’s right flank was secure and, if General McDowell hadn’t been ordered to the Shenandoah Valley, he would have a clear road to the Army of the Potomac.12

What was actually more important than any of this was that McClellan was neglecting his left flank and making no efforts to cross the Chickahominy River, which separated his Army of the Potomac from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. This lack of effort would not go unnoticed by the Rebels.

  1. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p191. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p667-668. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p677-678. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p741. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p743-744. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p682. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p742. []
  9. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p742. []
  11. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  12. McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C. L. Webster & company, 1886. []
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McClellan Exaggerated Victory at Hanover Court House by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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