McClellan’s First Partial Attack at Oak Grove

June 25, 1862 (Wednesday)

Despite believing that his Confederate opponents outside Richmond were soon to be reinforced by Stonewall Jackson’s valley army, Union General George B. McClellan decided to move forward with the first part of his plan. Washington had been breathing down his neck to make a push towards the Rebel capital, barely five miles away, for weeks. Weather had been the reason McClellan gave for his hesitancy, but now, with the sun showing brightly and the ground drying, the time had come.

By a series of partial attacks, rather than a full scale, all out assault, he believed that his Army of the Potomac could push General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia back a couple of miles. On this day, he would push with his left.

General Joseph Hooker’s Division made up the first partial attack. Separating the two armies at this point was a stretch of swampy ground that McClellan wished to push through. This would make any additional assaults all the easier.

At 8am, his three brigades untangled themselves from the main Union line, and picked their way through dense undergrowth and a swamp. The center brigade, commanded by General Dan Sickles, holding the Williamsburg Road, fell behind. On Sickles’ left was General Cuvier Grover’s brigade, with skirmishers thrown out in advance. A third brigade, under General Joseph Carr, was held back in support.1

Grover’s skirmish line, and then his main body, were the first to come into contact with the Rebels in General Benjamin Huger’s Division. Forming the Confederate skirmish line were 400 Georgians. As Grover’s Federals pushed out of the woods, the Georgians fell back. Their commander, sent a courier back to the main line, informing the brigade commander, General Ambrose Wright, that they were under a heavy attack. The courier, scared out of his mind, took to his heels.

With the sounds of battle looming, the frightened courier was soon redundant. General Wright quickly grabbed two additional regiments and hurried to the scene of the fighting. Anchoring his left on the Williamsburg road, he ordered his men to charge and throw the Federals back into their works.2

General Joseph Hooker

The gaudy and colorful Zouave uniform, modeled after the French colonial army, was believed to only exist in the Army of the Potomac. When suddenly Zouave troops appeared in front of Grover’s Union troops, there was a pause. If they fired, they thought, they would be killing their own men. But why would their own men be coming from the direction of Richmond?3 Soon, as Wright’s Georgia Zouaves opened fire, it was quickly sorted out. But not quickly enough. The Rebel attack hurled the entire Union brigade back into the woods, but at a heavy cost of Southern lives.

Sickles’ Union Brigade, which had fallen behind, had caught up with the action, sprung forth and drove the triumphant Rebels back into their lines.4 As the Federals were reinforced, the Rebels were as well. Joining Wright’s defense was a North Carolina brigade commanded by General Robert Ransom, made up entirely of green troops.

General Daniel Sickles

They hit Sickles on his right and began to turn his flank. Though he could make no further advance without reinforcements, a crisp volley from one of his regiments stopped the Rebels. Unfortunately, someone in the Union ranks shouted “we are flanked! Retreat!” Sickles lines started to crumble, but he was able to bring them to order before too much ground was lost.5

General Hooker, Sickle’s division commander, witnessed the whole thing (which mortified Sickles), and called to the Third Corps commander, General Samuel Heintzelman, for reinforcements. Heintzelman relayed the messages to General McClellan via telegraph, as he was three miles away from the fighting. Believing that the attack had failed, he ordered Hooker’s Brigade to fall back to the main Union line, after less than three hours of battle.6

Hooker received the order just as his reinforcements were coming up. Not wanting to withdraw, and not ordered to attack, a lull fell over the field. Around 1pm, McClellan decided that it would be best if he put in an appearance and rode to the Williamsburg Road. After a quick meeting, Hooker was again ordered to attack.

General Ambrose Wright

Though the attack was joined by reinforcements from other divisions, and even artillery, it could not break the Rebel line. Attack and counterattack charged and withdrew across the fields until nightfall brought a final end to it. General McClellan, though his men did not carry the Confederate position, was nonetheless happy. They had moved their lines forward 600 yards, putting the swampy ground of Oak Grove behind them. The Rebels, however, were equally pleased. They had lost no ground, and their picket lines returned to their original positions.7

Sixty-eight Federals were killed, with 503 wounded, and another 55 missing. The Rebels loss less, with 66 killed, 362 wounded, and 13 missing.8


“If I had another good regiment, I could laugh at Jackson.”

As the firing died down, General McClellan received a dispatch from General Fitz John Porter, holding the right flank of the Union army. An escaped slave had just come in from Richmond and reported that a large portion of General P.G.T. Beauregard’s western Army of Mississippi had arrived in the Confederate capital. The Rebels now numbered 200,000, and were expected to attack the next morning with Stonewall Jackson himself falling upon the Union right and rear. In reality, Lee’s Army was closer to 70,000.

This new rumor matched old rumors that had been flying around for weeks, and echoed the strange deserter/spy picked up the day before. With this latest bit of information, McClellan became a true believer. Not that he had doubted his own intelligence, provided by Allen Pinkerton, that had steadily increased Confederate troop figures since the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign, of course.9

"Don't tell anyone I'm not here!"

“I incline to think that Jackson will attack my right and rear,” wrote McClellan to Washington that early evening. “The rebel force is stated at 200,000, including Jackson and Beauregard. I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true; but this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack.”

He complained bitterly that his army, numbering only 130,000, was too small, that he if he had received the reinforcements he wanted, he would not be so worried. “I feel that there is no use in again asking for reinforcements,” closed the panicked General.10

Around 10:30pm, he again asked for reinforcements, specifically “some new regiments… another division of old troops… also, a couple of new regiments of cavalry.”

“If I had another good regiment,” wrote McClellan ten minutes later, “I could laugh at Jackson.”11


  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p108. Hooker’s Report. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p804. Wright’s Report. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p804. Wright’s Report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p135. Sickles’ Report. []
  6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p135; 788. Hooker’s and Huger’s Reports. []
  8. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  9. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p51. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p253-254. []
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2 thoughts on “McClellan’s First Partial Attack at Oak Grove

  1. Hi Eric,

    I’m somewhat confused — you have an illustration of a Union Negro regiment on Hilkton Head in today’s entry, but no narrative about it. What’s the story?



    1. Hi Kevin,

      I was wondering that myself, actually. “What was I thinking when I wrote this?” I asked myself.

      But in really tiny print that you have to squint to see, the caption of the picture gives the date of today. I guess it’s my way of saying “oh and this happened, too.”

      Sorry for the confusion, but it *was* mutual. 🙂


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