Rains Save McClellan’s Victorious Army from a Badly Beaten Foe

July 2, 1862 (Wednesday)

Berkeley Plantation - McClellan's Headquarters at Harrison's Landing

“As usual, we had a severe battle yesterday and beat the enemy badly,” wrote Union General George McClellan to President Lincoln, “the men fighting even better than before. We fell back to this position during the night and morning.” Though the Rebels were indeed whipped at Malvern Hill, and though the Federal troops were fighting better than they ever had in the past seven days, McClellan continued to retreat. The Army of the Potomac was now on the banks of the James River at Harrison’s Landing.1

The retreat from Malvern Hill to the Landing was only eight miles, but in the dark, in the rain, the victory turned to defeat and the orderly retreat, to a route. The army had become a mob. Along with the 314 killed, and 1,875 wounded, 818 Union soldiers had become “missing.” During the battle, the Rebels were in no real position it take prisoners. The overwhelming majority of the missing were actually taken as stragglers, too weary to keep up with the shifting army.

In his letter to Lincoln, McClellan told the President that he had lost but one wagon in the retreat. This was pure fantasy. Over 500 wagons had been lost during the whole of the Seven Days Battles – nearly a third had come following Malvern Hill.

General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, now 90,000-strong, had squeezed itself into a space four miles long and a mile deep. To their backs was the James River, to their front General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.2

“I have not yielded an inch of ground unnecessarily,” wrote McClellan, “but have retired to prevent the superior force of the enemy from cutting me off and to take a different base of operations.”3

This “superior force” had been estimated by McClellan to number anywhere between 185,000 to 200,000. In reality, the Confederates could field no more than 70,000.

As the burial details from both sides buried their respective comrades, the Southern commanders met to discuss the next move. Stonewall Jackson, though he performed sluggishly during the entire week-long campaign, wanted to press forward. McClellan was whipped, he believed, and one more blow might end it all. The weather, deluges of rain, turning dirt roads to muddy rivulets, was a good reason a pursuit could not immediately be undertaken.

Another reason was uncertainty as to where McClellan’s Army had gone. General Lee was not convinced that McClellan had given up attempting anything more than saving his beloved Army. Thinking that the Federals could cross the James to attack either Richmond or Petersburg, he dispatched General Theophilus Holmes Division to Drewry’s Bluff. To the east, following McClellan’s line of retreat, he sent General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry.4

President Jefferson Davis made a surprise visit to Lee’s headquarters, joining Jackson and Longstreet. While Jackson breathed not a word, the others discussed how the Union army had slipped away. Davis offered some suggestions, which Lee courteously acknowledged, but little came of the meeting.

Turning to Jackson, Davis asked him his opinion. “They have not all got away if you go immediately after them,” replied the near-sulking Stonewall. But that was not possible on this day. The rains and fatigue stopped Lee’s Army from any real pursuit.5

But this day was hardly a day of rest. Through the downpours, both Federals and Confederates began to bury the dead. General Jubal Early, commanding Lee’s only fresh troops, had arrived after dark the previous night and was greeted with an abominable site come the dawn.

General Jubal Early

“The parties from both armies, in search of the dead and wounded,” wrote Early in his report of the campaign, “gradually approached each other, and continued their mournful work without molestation on either side, being apparently appalled, for the moment, into a cessation from all hostile purposes, by the terrible spectacle presented to their view.”6

The “terrible spectacle” extended far beyond the battlefield at Malvern Hill. Though Lee was not yet convinced, the campaign was at an end. Over the past week, fighting, killing and dying each day, the Army of Northern Virginia had lost 3,494 killed, 15,758 wounded and 952 missing. This was twenty-two percent of his army.

The Union Army of the Potomac, victoriously defending nearly every field of battle (before retreating after winning the day) had faired much better. Their losses included 1,734 killed, 8,066 wounded, and 6,055 missing. This was over 4,000 less casualties than the Confederates.7

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p287. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p288. []
  4. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p613. []
  7. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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Rains Save McClellan’s Victorious Army from a Badly Beaten Foe by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Rains Save McClellan’s Victorious Army from a Badly Beaten Foe

  1. Also on this date, Abraham Lincoln realized that suspending Union recruitment had been a mistake, and sent out a call for 300,000 more volunteers. This led to one of the more famous songs of the Civil War, “We Are Coming, Father Abraham”.

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