Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – The Seven Days

Inventor and entrepreneur Thaddeus Lowe in his balloon Intrepid deploying to observe Confederate troop movements at the Battle of Fair Oaks Station

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

The Seven Days (map)

The complex series of interlinked battles fought between 25th June and 1st July, to the east and south of Richmond, known as the Seven Days, were the decisive engagement of the Peninsula campaign of the eastern theatre of the American Civil war. Lasting from March to July of 1862 , this was the Union’s first major offensive operation in that theatre since the disaster of 1st Manassas (1st Bull Run) the previous year, the war’s first major battle. The Union forces numbered 104,000 and were commanded by George Brinton McClellan, and were opposed by 92,000 Confederates under Robert E Lee.

Robert Edward Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia descended originally from an English settler, Richard Lee, who arrived in the colony in 1638, founding one of Virginia’s oldest families; his father was Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry”, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee attended West Point and graduated in 1829 second in his class; entering the Army Corps of Engineers as a second Lieutenant  the same year. After a successful career in the Engineers, he served with great distinction in the Mexican war as a Chief Aide to the expedition commander Gen Winfield Scott; he also met and served alongside the man who would one day be his battlefield nemesis – Ulysses Grant. In 1852 he became Superintendant of West Point, before earning promotion to deputy command of a Texas cavalry regiment, where he served under Albert Sidney Johnston, then a Colonel, fighting the Comanche and Apache; he also commanded the small force sent by President Buchannan in 1859 to apprehend John Brown at Harper’s Ferry after his failed attempt at fomenting a slave uprising.

Upon the outbreak of war the Lee family home was Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) located just across the Potomac from the White House, its dome still then under construction. Initially accepting promotion to Colonel, Lee was an opponent of secession but, like many men of that time felt a greater loyalty to his state and had doubts about bearing arms against it should it secede. He initially rejected a post within the Confederate army, but on 18th April 1861 when offered promotion to Major General and command of the Washington defences, he rejected that also and resigned from the army two days later on hearing of the final decision of Virginia to secede. Three days later on the 23rd, he was offered, and accepted, command of the Virginia State forces.

His early service in the Confederate army was less than stellar – the defeat at the small battle of Cheat Mountain in Sept 1861 earned the derisive nickname in the press of “Granny Lee”; but by the time of the Peninsula campaign he had gained the confidence of President Davis who appointed him his Military Advisor; it was during this tenure that he supervised the construction of trench-works around Richmond – ridiculed by the press at the time, they were to play an important role in the latter stages of the Overland Campaign in the closing phases of the war.

After the shock defeat of the Union in the war’s first major battle, Lincoln dismissed it’s commander Irwin McDowell and introduced emergency legislation to recruit and equip and army of 500,000 for a period of three months. The forces around Washington were renamed the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan placed in command. A highly experienced officer who, just like Robert E Lee, had graduated from West Point second in his class and went on to serve in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican war. After the conflict he went on to a peacetime career where, as a fluent French speaker, he was appointed official observer to the Crimean war and witnessed the siege of Sevastopol. After leaving the army, he enjoyed a highly successful career in business and held the post of Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad company and was also president of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad. In addition, he developed his political connections during this period and was a noted supporter of Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign, won by Lincoln.

Although frequently criticised during the war as being overly cautious on the battlefield, there was no denying McClellan’s outstanding abilities as an administrator. He completely built up the Army of the Potomac from scratch turning it from a disorganised and defeated rabble after 1st Manassas into a well drilled and exceedingly well equipped force; plus he was hugely popular with his men, who dubbed him “little Napoleon”, a nickname he did nothing to discourage. This warm relationship however was not shared with Lincoln, whom he detested, regarding him as an upstart and rude mannered provincial lawyer hopelessly out of his depth in the White House – referring to him more than once as “the original gorilla”.

To break the deadlock that had set in on the eastern front, McClellan conceived an audacious plan to move the entire Army of the Potomac by sea down Chesapeake Bay to Fort Munroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just 75 miles east of Richmond. Bounded to the north by the York river and to the south by the James river, the assault was intended to outflank the Confederate defences south of Washington and capture the rebel capital Richmond in a surprise attack. The Union force set sail from Alexandria, Virginia on 17th March 1862, just seven months after 1st Manassas, with 122,000 men and 15,000 horses, landing the following day at Fort Munroe and commencing the advance up the Peninsula on 4th April.

From the outset, the Union force was hampered by the excessive caution of its commander combined with wildly inaccurate intelligence as to the enemy. The US in the 1860’s possessed no professional military intelligence service and instead had to employ the Pinkerton Detective Agency in its place. The reports provided by the Pinkertons badly over-estimated the strength of the Confederate opposition; at the first engagements for instance, close to the old British defensive works around Yorktown, McClellan was informed that the enemy numbered at least 100,000, the same size as his own army – in reality there were barely 15,000 men manning the entrenchments.

As the Confederates, commanded by the experienced Joseph Eggleston Johnston, retreated up the Peninsula the first pitched battle occurred on 5th May close to Williamsburg, where 32,000 Confederates held off 41,000 Union troops for the cost of 4,000 casualties in total, before Johnston drew off, cautiously pursued by McClellan; with further clashes at West Point and Drewry’s Bluff; the port of Norfolk was also occupied on 10th May, the operation observed by President Lincoln, then on an inspection tour of the army’s progress.

As the Union army entered the thickly wooded valley of the Chickahominy river, swollen from the early spring rain, McClellan  soon discovered that not only were their own maps wholly inaccurate, showing rivers flowing in the wrong direction, but that no local maps of the area existed at all. Due to a decision to deploy on both sides of the river, his force was divided in two by the swollen river at the first major battle of the campaign, Fair Oaks Station (Seven Pines) just 5 miles east of Richmond, when Johnston attacked him on the 31st May. A three day battle ensued resulting in a stalemate, as McClellan withdrew from the vicinity of Richmond to re-group and relocate his supply base from White House to Harrison’s Landing, bringing the first phase of the campaign to a close. The confederates lost 6,000 casualties at Fair Oaks Station, but among them was Johnston himself, wounded by a stray bullet. His replacement, appointed a few days later, was Robert E Lee.

The stalemate after Fair Oaks Station lasted a month, while McClellan re-grouped and deployed his forces in an arc around the eastern side of Richmond, but still lying astride the flooded river, as he prepared for a siege, but Lee had other ideas. On the 10th June, he ordered a cavalry raid and reconnaissance in force by 1,200 troopers under Gen JEB Stuart.

James Ewell Brown (“JEB”) Stuart was Lee’s cavalry commander, and had a long personal association with his superior, going back to the early 1850’s, having known Lee socially before the war. He attended West Point during Lee’s superintendence of the Academy and earned several distinctions for his outstanding skills in horsemanship. Assigned to the cavalry after graduation he served with distinction on the western frontier and showed early leadership promise, soon achieving promotion to first Lieutenant and later Regimental Quartermaster. In 1857 he was wounded fighting against the Cheyenne, whilst serving under Edwin Sumner, then a Colonel, and in 1859 was one of the troopers serving under Robert E Lee when he captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. He defected to the  Confederates on the outbreak of war, and was soon promoted to Brig General, going on to serve in all the major campaigns of the Eastern theatre. Noted for the red-lined cape and wide felt hats adorned with an ostrich feather he habitually wore, Stuart cut a dashing figure, famed not only for his horsemanship but also his mastery of reconnaissance; although he was nonetheless thought by some subordinates to be a little too fond of showmanship and “military foppery “.

Stuart set out a few days later and conducted a circuitous ride by way of Hanover Courthouse, past Cold Harbor, White House, Charles City Crossroads and Malvern Hill, completing a circuit of McClellan’s huge army all the while raiding Union depots, destroying infrastructure, taking prisoners and generally disrupting McClellan’s carefully planned dispositions, pausing only to accept drinks and bouquets from admiring southern women. By one of those quirks of fate that crop up endlessly in the Civil War, the man assigned to pursue, and hopefully capture Stuart, was none other than Gen Philip St George Cooke, his own father in law. As with so many families in the Civil War, the conflict split them down the middle with members joining both sides. At the outbreak of war Cooke opted to fight for the Union, a decision that Stuart remarked he “would regret only once, but that would be continuously !”. Although the raid was of negligible value militarily as a piece of wartime propaganda it was a masterpiece, with Stuart returning to Richmond to a hero’s welcome.

The Seven Days battles began on the 25th June with a minor clash at Oak Grove, a small wooded area cut in two by the waters of White Oak Swamp and was the only offensive action McClellan took during the battles. Two Union divisions took part, one of them containing a brigade commanded by Gen Daniel Sickles, who would later famously defend the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg; the action was inconclusive leading to 1,100 casualties on both sides.

The main action began on the 26th of June when Lee attacked the northern flank of McClellan’s army at Mechanicsville, three miles northeast of Richmond. The original plan had been for the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah Valley led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to outflank the Union position by an overnight march, but Jackson failed to arrive in time, resulting in a tactical Union victory with heavy Confederate casualties – but as was frequently the case with McClellan, he acted as if the battle had been a defeat, and withdrew his force to the southeast, surrendering the initiative to Lee, who never let it go from that point on.

As McClellan withdrew from the Mechanicsville area, with the rest of his huge force still deployed in an arc around Richmond, the two armies clashed again the following day, three miles to the east at the battle of Gaines Mill (Chickahominy) where 60,000 Confederates attacked a force of 35,000 entrenched close to the northern bank of the Chickahominy. As at Mechanicsville, confused orders led to the late arrival of Stonewall’s troops, allowing the Union force, led by Gen Fitz John Porter to escape to the southern bank, but at the cost of 7,000 casualties.

Although McClellan’s force was still largely uncommitted, and the small part that had been engaged had performed well, Lee’s aggressive move completely unnerved McClellan and he ordered a general retreat to the southeast with the intention of concentrating around the Union base at Harrisons Landing on the James river. On 29th June, McClellan’s force was located around Savage’s Station on the Richmond and York River railroad, preparing to retreat to the southeast around White Oak Swamp when Lee attacked again with a force of 14,000 led by Gen John Magruder against 26,000 union troops under Gen Edwin Sumner. Yet again, confused orders on both sides led to a disjointed action with only part of Magruder’s force deployed, and part of Sumner’s force withdrawn. The action is notable for the first use of an armoured railroad gun, a 32-pounder rifled Brooke naval gun mounted in a sloping iron casement and pushed by a locomotive. This fearsome weapon however, which far outclassed anything the Union force possessed, was insufficient to overcome the Confederates numerical disadvantage, and the action ended in a bloody stalemate with 1,500 casualties, plus 2,500 Union wounded left behind as McClellan’s force withdrew again after the battle.

The following day, 30th June, with McClellan’s army now safely to the south of White Oak Swamp, Lee attacked again, but this time with a much bigger force. Ten miles southeast of Richmond, at the battle of Glendale (known also as Frayser’s Farm or Charles City Crossroads), he deployed 45,000 against 40,000 Union men. As with so many of Lee’s plans in the Seven Days, his orders were misunderstood, misread and in some cases simply ignored by his subordinates, resulting in a uncoordinated and disjointed battle, with units committed piecemeal to the fight, that ended in a bloody stalemate with 7,500 casualties on both sides. Yet again, although McClellan had succeeded in repulsing Lee and keeping his army intact, he treated the engagement as if it had been a defeat and continued his withdrawal to the south.

The final, and largest, battle of the Seven Days took place on 1st of July just three miles south of the Glendale battlefield where 55,000 Union troops had taken up a fortified position on the north bank of the James river, and were attacked by an equal number of Confederates at the battle of Malvern Hill (known also as Poindexter’s Farm). Lee’s complex plans to defeat the Union force were yet again poorly executed by his subordinates who also came up against a fearsome artillery barrage from the Union guns massed on the hill, supplemented by 50-pounder shells fired by three river gunboats; a feature of the conflict, virtually from the outset, was that the Confederates possessed better infantry, but the Union had far the better artillery. Despite this, Lee’s troops closed to within 200 yards of the Union centre, but by nightfall had been badly repulsed with 6,000 casualties, allowing McClellan to withdraw again to his base at Harrison’s Landing three miles to the southeast.

McClellan now established a strongly fortified base on the James river and Lee declined to renew the attack, retreating instead to the defences of Richmond. A golden opportunity to end the war in its second year had been wasted, and shortly afterwards the entire Union force was withdrawn, to be re-deployed south of Washington to reinforce the newly assembled Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope. President and General blamed each other for the defeat, with Lincoln accusing McClellan of caution bordering on cowardice and McClellan blaming Lincoln for failing to reinforce him against an enemy that he still believed to be twice the size of his own army. Northern morale plummeted after the embarrassing defeat, whilst southern morale skyrocketed, despite the clumsy performances of many of Lee’s subordinates, whilst Lee himself was now raised to the status of a military genius in the eyes of many. McClellan, for his part, would retain command of the Army of the Potomac, but was not retained in his other role, General in Chief of the Union forces, into which Lincoln promoted Gen Henry Halleck without consulting, or even notifying McClellan.


Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

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  1. Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War « Savereo John History
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