The Disjointed Confederate Pursuit and Battle of Savage’s Station

June 29, 1862 (Sunday)

Classic Magruder!

Word had come into General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters that the Union trenches were empty. His suspicion that they were retreating was correct, and he quickly devised a plan of pursuit. The three divisions north of the Chickahominy River, commanded by Generals Longstreet, A.P. Hill and Jackson (who now commanded D.H. Hill’s men as well), were ordered to cross, but only Jackson was given a key role to play. Longstreet and A.P. Hill were too far away to be of any use, though they were also crossed.

Lee’s other divisions, under Generals Magruder and Huger, held the line opposite the main Federal entrenchments. Both, like Jackson, were expected to hit the enemy in a simultaneous attack. Jackson would descend upon them from the north, while Magruder hit the center and Huger fell in on the right. Lee hoped to catch General McClellan and his Army of the Potomac in White Oak Swamp the following day, figuring that it would take the Federals at least that long to cross.1

As before the battles of Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines’s Mill, very little went as planned. In General McClellan’s mind, Lee, whom he believed outnumbered him nearly two to one, left him little choice but to claw his way out through the swamps. His destination was the James River, near Malvern Hill, where he would find the protection of the gunboats.

One known road led through the swamp, until General Erasmus Keyes found an abandoned one that served well its original purpose. Leaving a strong rear guard at Savage’s Station, McClellan picked up his headquarters and moved it south, across the swamp. While he left the corps of Generals Sumner, Heintzelman, and Franklin, he left no overall commander.2

General Lee had joined General Magruder on Nine Mile Road, near Fair Oaks Station, to personally discuss the plans for the day. Magruder, however, was in no shape to fight a battle. Suffering from acute indigestion and prescribed a cocktail of morphine to subdue its effects, Magruder was himself subdued. Though Lee’s main plan was to trap the Federals the following day in White Oak Swamp, he drove home the importance of hitting their rear guard to slow them down.

As Magruder understood it, he was to command the attack, moving his force east along the Williamsburg Road. General Huger, he believed, would be snug on his right as support on the Charles City Road. Magruder was mistaken. Lee intended Huger to move along the more southerly Darby Town Road, which would take him out of range for support. Believing that Jackson would soon appear on his left and that Huger would be on his right, Magruder began his march.3

Savage Station in 2008

Most of the Federal rear guard had pulled back to Savage’s Station. General Sumner, however, pulled back only to the Allen Farm, along the Williamsburg Road, two miles west of Savage’s. And there is where Magruder found him at 9am. It was a minor, but sharp skirmish, pitting two Georgia regiments against two from Pennsylvania, but it managed to cloud General Magruder’s already cloudy mind. At the end of the two hour fray, Magruder was convinced that the Federals were about to attack him.

By this time, Magruder had realized that Huger was not on his left, and sent a plea to General Lee to order Huger to come to his aid. No doubt feeling the day already getting away from him, Lee concurred, plucking two brigades from Huger’s Division for Magruder to use until 2pm. Meanwhile, Magruder learned that Jackson would be delayed due to a bridge that needed to be rebuilt before he crossed it. Rather than attacking, he decided to wait for Huger and Jackson to arrive.

Map of battlefield. Notice the interstate exit that completely destroyed the ground.

During the lull, Union General Heintzelman decided that there were enough Federals at Savage’s Station to hold off whatever attack Sumner believed to be imminent. Without even whispering a word to Sumner, Heintzelman and his men slipped away, and no one was the wiser.4

General Huger, wanting little to do with Magruder’s indefinite waiting, decided to go back to his original plans of marching east down the Darby Town Road. As Magruder started his Division forward, he learned of Huger’s egress and received Jackson’s répondez, s’il vous plaît, which stated that he would not be joining in on Magruder’s attack, as he had been ordered to “other important duty.” In truth, while it may have been in Lee’s mind to order Jackson to make an attack, he never actually ordered it. The fact is that near this point in the day, Jackson received an early morning order from Lee to stay along the Chickahominy River, guarding its bridges in case McClellan was retreating along that route.

Battle of Savage's Station

Jackson, as usual, obeyed the strange orders, relaying a message to Magruder that he had “other important duty” to perform.5

Magruder decided to press forward along Williamsburg Road, accompanied by the world’s first railroad battery. In early June, General Lee had thought up plans to place a 32lbs naval gun on a flat car. Pushed by an engine, this would give the piece speed, though would only be useful if the enemy stayed in front of it, along the tracks.6

Railroad Battery used at Savage's Station

This was all discovered when Union General Franklin decided to check on the recently-vanished Heintzelman. Instead of friends in blue, however, he found the enemy in gray. Quickly the Federal line was plugged, though had Huger’s troops stuck around for the assault, the Federals would have been in much more trouble.

As it happened, Magruder broke down, ordering his brigades to “attack the enemy in whatever force or works he might be found.” This was no battle plan, and soon the Rebel attack fell to pieces. Two brigades (under Kershaw and Semmes) pressed forward, but the brigade north of the railroad (Cobbs) did nothing. Without a plan or even communication between each other, Kershaw’s Brigade charged in a fury, piercing the Union line.

The Federals hurried in reinforcements, and beat back the attack, which devolved into a stand up fight. On Kershaw’s right, Semmes pitched in, but on the left, Cobb’s brigade did nothing. On Semmes’ front, a Union Vermont Brigade made a vicious charge, hoping to turn the flank and the tide, but were beaten back with appalling losses.

The slowness of the advance and the pitched battle stretched on until darkness fell across the field, bringing an end to the fighting. The Federals had not budged.7

General Lee was furious with Magruder. “I regret much that you have made so little progress today in the pursuit of the enemy,” reprimanded the commanding General. “In order to reap the fruits of our victory the pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no more time or he will escape us entirely.”

In a post script, Lee tried to clear up some of the confusion over Jackson’s “other important duty” order. “On the contrary,” corrected Lee, “he has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.”8

Finally, well after midnight, Jackson received instructions from Lee, and rode through a violent thunderstorm to Magruder’s headquarters. He assured the nervous Magruder that his men would be up at dawn and on his left soon after.

General Lee, however, had other ideas.9

Savage Station Battlefield as seen from the interstate overpass.

  1. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  2. George B. McClellan by Steven Sears, Da Capo Press, 1988. []
  3. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska, 1964. []
  4. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. Robertson make a lot of excuses for Jackson in his book, and this might just be another. []
  6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  7. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska, 1964. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 2, p687. []
  9. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
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7 thoughts on “The Disjointed Confederate Pursuit and Battle of Savage’s Station

  1. Hello! Great blog. I have a question regarding the early fighting in the Savage’s Station battle at Allen’s Farm. Regarding the two Pennsylvania regiments that were engaged there, does anyone know which two regiments they were? I have been poring over the official records and I am almost certain that one of them was the 53rd Pennsylvania under Col. John Brooke. Here’s the after-action report that has convinced me that one of them was the 53rd:

    But what was the other regiment? Was it the 81st Pennsylvania from Caldwell’s brigade? The after-action report for the 81st says that it was “ordered to the front to support a battery posted in front of the line of battle” but then says “The enemy kept up a severe first [presumably “fire”], but were silenced by Petti’s battery. In the afternoon we were marched to Savage Station, and were formed in the brush fronting the railroad, in the second line of battle; were not engaged.”

    I would assume that had the 81st done more than that, e.g. been in heavy fighting along with the 53rd and helped hold up Magruder for 2 hours, that it would be mentioned in some detail in its after-action report instead of given just a cursory explanation as it was. Or instead of the 81st Penn. was it one of the several Pennsylvania regiments from Burns’s brigade in Sedgwick’s division? From what I understand the only Pennsylvania regiments in all of Sumner’s II Corps were the 53rd from French’s brigade (Richardson’s division), the 81st from Caldwell’s brigade (Richardson’s div.) and the four (69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th) from Burns’s brigade (Sedgwick’s div.) so it the remaining “mystery regiment” would have to be one of these five. Many thanks to whomever can shed some light on this puzzling matter.

  2. P.S.– With further digging I am leaning toward the other regiment being the 71st Penn. Here is the passage from Burns’s after-action report that has me leaning in that direction: “On Sunday, June 29, I was directed to draw my brigade from the breastworks to join the division, and march to Orchard Station, which was done in the face of the enemy under favor of a fog. On reaching Orchard Station the corps was formed in line of battle, facing to the rear. Soon after I received an order to send a regiment back to reoccupy our former lines as advanced pickets. I sent the Seventy-first Pennsylvania Volunteers (California), Lieutenant Colonel W. G. Jones. When Colonel Jones’ pickets reached the wood where the battle ended on the 31st of May he captured 12 prisoners, the advance of the enemy’s pickets. He soon discovered the enemy in force in my old camp, who commenced to advance on him. At the same time a force came down the railroad in front of the regiment, advanced on his left, and forced this regiment back. Colonel Jones fell back to a favorable position at the left of the wood behind Allen’s house, and received the enemy in gallant style. The force of the enemy, however, beginning to multiply, the Californians retired fighting through the woods to the edge of the field, in front of the line of battle formed by Sumner’s corps. Here it halted on the second advanced line, composed of the Sixty-third New York, Colonel Burke, on the right; Twentieth Massachusetts, Colonel Lee, on the left, and the Fifth Hampshire, which had previously been the left of the advanced line. The enemy were here checked, but anticipating a renewal of attack, General Sedgwick directed me to take command of this line. The Seventy-first Pennsylvania Volunteers, under its gallant young lieutenant-colonel, won high encomiums from the corps commander, who knows what hard fighting means. About 12 o’clock we received orders to fall back upon Savage’s, passing through the lines of General Heintzelman, when lying at Savage’s, expecting an attack in the direction of Bottom’s Bridge.”

    But what does he mean by 71st Pennsylvania (California)? Were all the men of the regiment Californians who had moved to Pennsylvania before enlisting? He even refers to them as Californians. I’m confused.

  3. Thanks Eric, I will check that out. Have fun in your travels and be careful. Be sure to drink plenty of water if you’re somewhere hot.

  4. I think I have a conclusive answer to the question of the identity of the other Pennsylvania regiment. I read what you sent from the military museum about the California regiments from Pennsylvania and found an actual website dedicated to the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers (California) where I found an account of its experience at the Battle of Savage’s Station in particular the Allen’s Farm fighting. In that account it mentions the 71st being involved in heavy fighting at Allen’s Farm AND mentions it in conjunction with the 53rd Pennsylvania! I quote:
    “On the morning of the 29th, after the army had started on the march to the James, the brigade moved from its encampment, bringing up the rear of Sumner’s Corps, to a position on Allen’s Farm, between Peach Orchard and Savage Station, where the corps was drawn up in line of battle. The enemy not making his appearance, Sumner ordered Sedgwick to send the California Regiment [71st Pennsylvania] to re-occupy the picket line at Fair Oaks, which had been abandoned in the morning. The duty was a delicate one, but its commander, accustomed to unquestioning obedience, about faced and moved his little column back through the dreary woods, and over the dismal battle-ground until he reached the identical spot where the enemy had so often charged on Kirby’s Battery. The pickets and videttes were posted by Colonel Jones in person, Major Parrish being left in charge of the reserve. Scarcely was the regiment in position, before the enemy’s’skirmishers, the Louisiana Tigers, who had been held in concealment in the woods and had reserved their fire until the line was within a few yards of them, opened. The regiment immediately charged and captured several of their number. The position was now perilous. The enemy readily yielded in front with the evident purpose of drawing the regiment on. Infantry and cavalry could be plainly seen in a wood to the left, but whether friend or foe was uncertain. Adjutant Smith volunteered to ride out at the risk of the enemy’s fire on the way and the chance of capture when there, and ascertain their true character. The waving of a white handkerchief soon indicated that they were friends, the Fifth New Hampshire with a squadron of cavalry; but they were already hard pressed, and evidently unable to hold out many minutes longer. The enemy, in heavy force, was already marching on the right to Savage Station. The withdrawal of this force on the left would leave the regiment exposed on three sides. It was accordingly decided to retreat rapidly, and the order was silently passed along the line. By rapid marching by the left to the rear, it succeeded in safely crossing the stream.
    Scarcely had the reserve been posted when the enemy opened with infantry and artillery. The position of the regiment was in a garden between the stream and a log house, and in front of Richardson’s Division. It was supported by the Fifty-third Pennsylvania, Colonel Brooke, whose right stretched out beyond the crest of the hill, and one company on his left was in rear about fifty yards. Hazzard’s and Pettit’s Batteries were posted near, and did excellent execution. Repeatedly the enemy charged in heavy force and with determined valor, but was as often hurled back with fearful slaughter, and finally retired. The regiment was vastly outnumbered, but had the advantage of a stream and a fence, with rugged ground in front. The loss in killed and wounded was ninety-six, including four officers. At the close of the action General Sumner rode up to Colonel Brooke and commended him for the conduct of his regiment; but Brooke, with the quick sensibility of the true soldier, said,
    “I am entitled to no particular credit for this victory. It is the California Regiment in my front which deserves your compliments. They have fought hard for their laurels, and shall not be robbed of them by me.”
    The action closed at one P. M., and the regiment soon after moved on to Savage Station, where, with the brigade, it went into position two hours later, on the Williamsburg Road, co-operating with Hancock’s, Brooke’s, and Meagher’s Brigades. At four the enemy commenced a bold attack. It was gallantly met, and a counter charge delivered with the characteristic impetuosity of Burns, who led it, allayed for a time the thirst of the rebels for battle and blood. The batteries of Hazzard, here, as in the first encounter, delivered their schrapnel with terrible effect. With obstinacy on either side the battle was maintained until nine o’clock, when quietly withdrawing, the corps moved on to White Oak Swamp.”

    So it would appear that the two Penn. regiments were indeed the 53rd from French’s bde. (Richardson’s div.) and the 71st from Burns’s bde. (Sedgwick’s div.)

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