Rebel Mistakes at Beaver Dam Creek – Union Retreat

June 26, 1862 (Thursday)

When Stonewall Jackson left General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters on the 24th, he seemed to fully understand his role in the coming attack. He was to descend, with his Valley army of 18,000, upon the Union right flank near Mechanicsville, while three other divisions followed suit. By the night of the next day, however, he was confused.

At the council of war, Lee had specified that the assault would begin at 3am. But in a subsequent letter, Lee suddenly took to managing the fine details of Jackson’s march, urging him to split his force into two columns, each using a different road, and each meeting up with specific units already on the field.

In this more recent message, Lee gave Jackson minute details on how to approach the waiting army, but did not mention a specific time or place for the forces to unite. In fact, Lee didn’t even mention that there was going to be an attack. Perhaps misunderstood by Jackson, it was Lee’s intension to force the Union right flank into a retreat by the mere presence of Jackson’s force.

General A.P. Hill is going to attack whether you like it or not.

Jackson had slept, maybe, eight hours in the past four days. He was facing complete exhaustion. Nevertheless, he had his men up by 2:30am, but by 9am, his army was six hours behind schedule. Rumors of Federals on their left and actual Federals to the front held them up with occasional artillery shells thrown from distant hills.

He was able to get a message to General Lawrence Branch, who commanded the brigade, of A.P. Hill’s Division, he was to link to, but it was Jackson’s only communication with Lee’s army that day.1

Outside Richmond, the Rebel divisions under Generals James Longstreet, D.H. Hill and A.P. Hill had been in position since 3am, waiting for Jackson to arrive. Lee had massed nearly 56,000 men on his left, north of the capital, facing roughly 28,000 Federals under General Fitz John Porter. This left less than 29,000 Confederates to defend Richmond itself, opposed by the remaining 76,000 from the Union Army of the Potomac.2

Map showing positions before and after the battle.

Lee received Jackson’s message that he would be a few hours late, but was unworried. He was also unaware that it was more than just a few hours. The morning turned to sweltering afternoon, as Longstreet and D.H. Hill’s men snoozed at their posts. All were waiting for Jackson, whose arrival would signal the maneuver.

Nearing 3pm, the soldiers were roused from their slumber by the sounds of battle to their northeast. From his post nearby, General Lee had a grand view. Accompanying the smattering of musket shots, he could see far off blue figures retreating as a line of gray followed. Lee correctly surmised that they were A.P. Hill’s men. But what he couldn’t realize is that they had not moved on Jackson’s signal – they had attacked on their own.

Or rather, they had attacked on General A.P. Hill’s orders. Growing tired of waiting for Jackson, Hill decided to make his move without the Valley General. Hill’s part of the plan was to cross the Chickahominy River and clear the town of Mechanicsville to allow the divisions of Longstreet and D.H. Hill to cross the river farther below. Figuring that Jackson would arrive at any moment, and that the rest of Lee’s massed forces would at least support him, Hill stepped off.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek

Once Hill’s men had crossed the Chickahominy, they came under a galling fire from Union batteries. Though fierce, they trudged through to Mechanicsville, driving the Federals through the streets and back into their lines along Beaver Dam Creek, about a mile east.

Still fully expecting Jackson to appear on his left, A.P. Hill formed his division and prepared to assault the Union position held by General George McCall’s Division of Porter’s Fifth Corps. It was around 5pm when Hill ordered the advance.

General Lee had left his observation post and crossed the river to be nearer the fighting. While nearing Mechanicsville, he learned that Hill had attacked without Jackson. With Hill’s Division sitting in the open, being pounded by Federal artillery, Lee had to act. If he did nothing, the Federals would soon sniff out his original plan and attack the lightly-defended Richmond. Hill would have to attack.3

General McCall

Four times he tried, and four times he failed. Across swampy ground, a creek and up against the Union entrenchments, Hill’s men battled, were beaten back, and attacked again. Finally, with darkness coming on, there was nothing more anyone could do. The Federals had been unmoved from their lines.

Union General McClellan arrived on the field as the battle was winding down. He assumed that the troops before him were those under Stonewall Jackson, and was thrilled to have whipped his old classmate.

But even at this late hour, nobody knew where Jackson and his 18,000 men were. At nightfall, he encamped his men near Hundley’s Corner, about three miles northeast of Mechanicsville. There doesn’t seem to have been any communication between Jackson and Lee, though it’s possible that one of Jeb Stuart’s messengers informed Lee of Jackson’s whereabouts.4

Lee may not have known where Jackson was, but the Federals did. Late that night, his true position was uncovered. McClellan was shocked to discover such a large, unbloodied force on his right. Though he had been victorious, he decided to retreat his entire army to the protection of the gunboats on the James River. This would require General Porter’s Fifth Corps to cross the Chickahominy.

While the bulk of his army remained in its entrenchments, Porter’s Corps was ordered to fall back and cover the river crossings as his supplies and heavy artillery was moved south.

General Lee, though defeated, and unable to know that McClellan was about to retreat, decided to renew the attack the next day.5

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  3. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska Press, 1964. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  5. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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Rebel Mistakes at Beaver Dam Creek – Union Retreat by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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