U.S. Civil War - Seven Days Battles, 150th Anniversary
Today, May 25th, 2012, marks the 150 the anniversary of one of the largest and most important campaigns of the U.S. Civil War - the Seven Days Battles. Here in Central Virginia, we are commemorating the anniversary of this campaign where approximately 200,000 Union and Confederate forces fought on the eastern fringes of Richmond in Henrico Country, Virginia. These series of battles marked the highwater mark of Union General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first campaign as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Seven Days Battles, here's a synopsis of the campaign - I'll begin with a little background on the events leading up to these battles. As I mentioned earlier, these battles marked the end of George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, which began in March 1862. McClellan's plan called for landing the Army of the Potomac in Hampton Roads and driving up the peninsula between the James and York rivers to Richmond. The rivers would enable McClellan to resupply and reinforce his forces, since the roads in that area were notoriously poor, especially during the Spring rains.
McClellan's forces moved steadily up the Peninsula until they reached the eastern approaches to the Confederate capital of Richmond in Henrico County. It was here, where the natural obstacles in the area - primarily the Chickahominy River and surrounding swamps, which were flooded during the torrential rains of Spring 1862 - that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston decided to stake out an advantageous line of defense against McClellan's advance.
The battle that set the stage for the Seven Days Battles occurred a month earlier at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks Station (May 31 & June 1), after McClellan began moving his forces across the Chickahominy River. Johnston decided to attack the Union army while it was divided during the crossing of the river, where he could bring a numerically superior force to bear against the exposed and vulnerable Union III and IV Corps. On May 31, Johnston began his attack, which was mismanaged and uncoordinated from the start, but it managed to halt McClellan's advance. It was during the first day of this battle on May 31 that one of the most important events of the U.S. Civil War took place - Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated to Richmond. General G.W. Smith assumed temporary command of the Army of Northern Virginia, but proved to be indecisive during the fighting that took place on June 1, and was subsequently relieved of command. In his stead, Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed General Robert E. Lee to assume command of the army.
Following the fighting at Seven Pines, several other developments took place that would effect the course of the Seven Days Battles to come. On June 8 & 9, General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson successfully concluded his Shenandoah Valley Campaign after the victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic, enabling him to march to Richmond to reinforce Lee's forces east of Richmond. Several days later, from June 12-15, Confederate cavalry commander General J.E.B. Stuart made the first of his famous rides around the Union Army, gaining valuable intelligence that helped influence Lee's decisions on where and when to begin his offensive against McClellan's army.
The Seven Days Battles technically began at the Battle of Oak Grove on May 25, 1862 when McClellan tried to get his siege guns in range of Richmond's defenses. The attack was ineffectual, and on the next day Lee launched his counter-offensive, striking the Union army's northern flank at Mechanicsville. Lee's intricate plan quickly went awry - Jackson's exhausted troops arrived late and A.P. Hill launched an uncoordinated attack on his own initiative, which was repulsed by Union General Fitz John Porter's troops. After Jackson's forces finally arrived on Porter's right flank, endangering the Union line and the railroad supplying the army, McClellan decided to abandon his advance on Richmond and shift his base of supply southeast to the James River at Harrison's Landing. He withdrew his forces across Boatswain's Creek to a formidable position overlooking the swamp in that area. The following day, on June 27th, Lee continued his offensive, attacking Porter's position at Gaines Mill. In one of the most epic feats of arms during the entire Civil War, Confederate General John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade forced the crossing at Boatswain's Creek and broke through the Union lines, inducing the timid and unnerved McClellan to order a full withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac to Harrison's Landing on the James.
After the breakthrough at Gaines Mill, Lee continued to attack the panicked McClellan at Garnett's and Gouldin's Farms (June 27-2. As the Union army continued its retreat through the flooded terrain in and around White Oak Swamp, Lee devised a complex plan to encircle and destroy McClellan's army, which began with the fighting at Savage's Station on June 29th. The fighting continued the next day, as Lee launched a two-pronged assault on the Army of the Potomac, which was bottlenecked on the poor network of muddy roads in the vicinity Glendale. The plan had Jackson attacking the Union rear across White Oak Swamp while the main Confederate force attacked the Union center at Glendale/Frayser's Farm. With White Oak Swamp flooded and Union artillery parked on the high ground to the south, Jackson was unable to a force a crossing into the Union rear, enabling McClellan to reinforce the Union center at Glendale/Frayser's Farm and repulse the main assault. In one of the more curious events of the Seven Days Battles, an exhausted Stonewall Jackson decided to take a nap beneath a shade tree during the fighting.
Following Lee's failure to encircle and destroy the Union army at Glendale, McClellan withdrew to Malvern Hill, where the Confederates would be forced to charge up clear ground into the teeth of the Union artillery massed on the high ground. It was here that the Seven Days Battles ended, as Lee futilely assaulted the Union lines at Malvern Hill on July 1st. After the battle, McClellan established an unassailable position at Harrison's Landing under the watchful eyes and range of Union gunboats on the James River. Lee wisely decided not to attack these lines and withdrew back to the defenses around Richmond, leaving the the demoralized McClellan and Union army to suffer idly along the banks of the James River in the sweltering summer heat. In August, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the Army of the Potomac to withdraw to northern Virginia and reinforce the Army of Virginia under the command of General John Pope, who would face Lee's army at the Second Battle of Bull Run/Manassas later in the month. The first Union assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond was over.
In addition to being one of the largest campaigns of the U.S. Civil War, the Seven Days Battles are interesting on many notable levels. First of all, they marked the first campaign of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee, who would embarrass numerous Union generals before his fortunes turned at Gettysburg and Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of Union forces in the East. Secondly, the campaign marked the first of George McClellan's ignominous defeats, which would inevitably lead to his dismissal and later his run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 presidential campaign. Third, the Seven Days Battles signaled that the Civil War was going to be a massive, bloody affair that would not end quickly and conveniently for either side. Another striking feature of the campaign was the ineffectual generalship of Lee's subordinates, primarily Stonewall Jackson, who repeatedly failed his commander during the week of fighting. Finally, the most important and perhaps least mentioned outcome of this campaign involved the issue of - surprise of surprises - slavery. Had McClellan defeated the Army of Northern Virginia and captured Richmond in 1862, the plan was to re-establish the Union under the pre-war status quo, which would have permitted the perpetuation of chattel slavery in the United States. However, Lee's victory in the Seven Days Battles forced the Lincoln Administration to abandon that plan and reassess its position on slavery and its relationship to the war and its objectives. What was once a war that was solely intended to preserve the Union increasingly became a war intended to abolish the abomination of slavery - the stated objectives and political dynamics of the war would never be the same. Ironically, it could be said that Robert E. Lee did Abraham Lincoln and the United States a favor when he defeated George McClellan in the Seven Days Battles.
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