The Seven Days

June 25 to July 1, 1862

          With failures in attempts to advance directly on Richmond at First Manassas and Ball's Bluff, the Union decided on a new approach.  In April 1862, Gen. George Brinton McClellan moved his Army of the Potomac to Fortress Monroe to advance toward Richmond up the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers.  Moving slowly up the Peninsula, McClellan was near the outskirts of Richmond by late May 1862.  McClellan's supply line was a rail line from White House due east of his army.  The rail line crossed the Chickahominy River on its way to Richmond, so McClellan believed that he had to defend both sides of the Chickahominy River.  The Confederates saw the vulnerability of McClellan's army, and Joseph Johnston attacked with his Confederate army on May 31st.  Despite the great potential of the attack, it was bungled, and Johnston was wounded.  McClellan's army remained outside of Richmond as Union armies in the west were advancing.  Thoughtful Confederates could envision a short and dim future for their new nation.


Dabbs House

     President Jefferson Davis placed his military advisor, Robert E. Lee in command of the army.  From his headquarters at the Dabbs House, Lee had his troops entrench, and they nicknamed him "Granny" Lee in response.  Lee had much greater plans, however.  He sent for Stonewall Jackson from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce his army.  Meanwhile, McClellan sought the aid of Federals from northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.  Jackson, however, was quicker, and he had the advantage of interior lines, so it was his force, and not the Federals, that reached the main armies outside of Richmond.

Chichahominy Bluffs

    On the morning June 26th, Lee observed the crossing of the Chickahominy River by three divisions from here, an earthwork built for the defense of Richmond that overlooks the broad, swampy valley below.  Waiting to cross for word from Jackson, A.P. Hill heard nothing and decided to cross his division anyway.  D.H. Hill and Longstreet followed.


Beaver Dam Creek

     With three of his divisions north of the Chickahominy against the isolated Union V Corps, Lee had left only two divisions south of the river to hold off most of McClellan's army.  Jackson was to join Lee north of the river directly from the Valley, but he was uncharacteristically late.  A.P. Hill cleared Mechanicsville on time expecting that Jackson would turn the Yankees out of their formidable position behind Beaver Dam Creek.  Lee had crossed the Chickahominy and was while conferring with A.P. Hill, he was visited by Jefferson Davis.  Concerned that McClellan might snatch the iniatitive and attack the vastly outnumbers Confederates south of the Chickahominy - or mass against Jackson - Lee ordered A.P. Hill to attack.  An attack would also serve to pin the Federals in position, making them vulnerable to Jackson's planned maneuver around their flank.

At the time of the battle, the slopes on the left of the panorama were bare, not wooded, and they were occupied by Yankee artillery atop the hill (14 guns) and infantrymen in tiers of riflepits.  The foot bridge obscured behind some trees on the right of the panorama was the location of the road bridge which crossed the creek, then passed Ellerson's Mill.  The creek was dammed to run Ellerson's Mill.  The near, Confederate, side of the creek was bare except for a small group of woods at the creek.  Pender's brigade had already attacked.  After feeling out the position, it was decided that Ripley's brigade would move against the Union left near the Chickahominy and hopefully move around the Union left flank.  The ground was not inspected and the resulting attack fell well short of the Union flank and struck here at the pond of Ellerson's Mill.  The Confederate brigade was raked as it moved diagonally to the flank.  The attack was a complete and costly failure.  Although some men entered the creek, the brigade largely went to ground near the creek bank and remained there until dark.  Confederate casualties on the day approached 1,500 compared to only 361 Federals.  

Jackson had never entered the fight, and Lee had not reached New Bridge, where he hoped to gain a more direction connection with Magruder and Huger south of the Chickahominy.  On orders from McClellan, Porter withdrew to a position south of Gaines's Mill and New Cold Harbor early on the next day.  McClellan decided to 'change base' to the James River, and Porter taking a stand south of Gaines's Mill would buy time to evacuate the White House base.

West Point Atlas of American Wars 1689-1900

Walnut Grove Church

    Finding the enemy gone on the morning of June 27th, Lee sent his army in pursuit.  Here, at Walnut Grove Church, A.P. Hill met Stonewall Jackson, and Lee soon joined them.  It was around 11am.  Lee spoke with Jackson, but it is not known what exactly was said.  Lee expected a battle at Powhite Creek, and Jackson would continue his mission of leading a turning movement around the assumed enemy Powhite Creek position.

Old Cold Harbor

    Jackson's march became confused.  Asking for directions to 'Cold Harbor', he was given directions to 'New Cold Harbor".  On his way there, he discovered that 'Old Cold Harbor' was where he needed to be.  Arriving at the intersection shown above (from the left), he expected to be in the Union rear.  He expected to hear firing to the west from New Cold Harbor, along the road on the right of the photo.  Instead, he heard firing to the south.  Lee had found Porter's V Corps behind Boatswain's Creek, and he was attacking.  Continuing on the road south, Jackson would pitch in the fight, attacking the Union right.  The decisive effort, however, would be made on Lee's right.     

Gaines Mill

     By 2 P.M. on June 27th, Lee was attacking Porter's corps near Gaines Mill.  This is the creek at the foot of the hill defended by Porter's V Corps.  Attacking Confederate troops advanced toward the swampy Boatswains Creek off the picture to the left with the objective of capturing the hill to the right.  The Yankees were entrenched in three lines on the slope in a sparse woods.  The land to their front at the time was cleared with no cover except for near the creek itself.  Confederate troops went to ground, unwilling to go forward or fall back.  On the rebel left, Jackson's planned turning movement had gotten lost and attacked the Union center.

Hood's Brigade

     Late in the day, Lee's first major battle as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was looking like a defeat.  At 7pm, he committed Whiting's Division.  Hood's Texas brigade was part of the division.  Lee asked Hood if he could take the heights.  Hood responded, "I will try."  Previous attacks had failed because the men had stopped to fire.  Hood ordered his men to advance with the bayonet without stopping to fire.  Near here, the Texans swept over their prone comrades, the men from previous attacks who had gone to ground, and they advanced into the Union position.  It was a breakthrough!

5th Massachusetts Battery

Closely following the fleeing Union troops, Hood's men reached the crest of the heights where the Union artillery was positioned.  The 5th Massachusetts Battery opened fire on the attackers, but Confederate fire cause frightful damage, and the battery withdrew.


Watts House

     Hood's brigade had smashed through the Union defenses on the wooded slopes on either side of this 360 degree panorama.  Now they were atop the hill near the Watts House, shown here.  The action continued into the area not preserved by the national park.  The advancing brigade, led by the 4th Texas and 18th Georgia, captured 14 of the 18 guns of Weedon's Artillery in the field beyond.  A desperate charge by 250 men of the 5th US Cavalry was repulsed with only 100 survivors.  The Texas brigade lost 571 men but had won the day.  Porter was forced south of the Chickahominy and McClellan decided to retreat with his whole army to Harrison's Landing.

June 28, 1862

June 29, 1862

     McClellan's situation was perhaps not bad enough to justify retreat, but retreat he did.  On June 28th, the wagons trains started their journey south to the James, and the corps of Keyes and Porter moved south to protect the line of retreat.  Meanwhile, McClellan himself also moved south and for the most part lost contact with the army!  To decide on his next course of action, Lee needed to know if the Union army was headed east or south.  Jeb Stuart's cavalry didn't tell him much, and neither did Ewell's division, which he sent east to Despatch Station.  It was only late on June 28th that Lee determined that the Union army was moving south.

For June 29th, Lee ordered A.P. Hill and Longstreet across the Chickahominy to try to intercept the Union retreat while Huger and Magruder pressed forward, battling the Yankees at Savages Station.  Rather than press the enemy, Jackson rested his men and rebuilt Grapevine Bridge, crossing the Chickahominy only on June 30th.  Meanwhile, without direction from higher authority, Slocum and Heintzelman withdrew south.  A Confederate opportunity to press the retreating Yankees had not materialized.

White Oak Swamp
    Lee began his pursuit on the 30th.  Despite enormous potential, an uncoordinated attack on McClellan's rear guard at Glendale on June 30th failed to destroy the Union force, and McClellan continued his retreat, halting on the high ground at Malvern Hill.  Jackson faced White Oak Swamp at the time of the Glendale battle, but he did not cross and attack.


    This is the north-south road that the Union army was protecting, with Confederates attacking it from the left side of the panorama.  Although preservation organizations have done wonderful work preserving the Glendale battlefield in recent years, much of it is wooded, and will take many years to restore the battlefield to its wartime appearance of mostly open fields.  The national cemetery is worth a visit, though.  Over 7,000 men fell in the battle, and McClellan's escape route remained open.  The next day, Union troops were in a strong position on Malvern Hill.   

Malvern Hill

     The simplified map above shows the situation on July 1st.  With marshy Turkey Run dominated by Union artillery, McClellan's left flank was secure from Holmes.  Union artillery was massed on Malvern Hill, with good fields of fire in all directions.  Lee, however, believed he could destroy McClellan's army at Malvern Hill, and he saw this as his last chance to do so before McClellan escaped.  To attack the hill, Lee had to silence the Union artillery.  Confederate artillery emerged from both Confederate flanks to duel their Union counterparts, but they were silenced soon afterward.  Confederate infantry was to attack only after the Union artillery had been silenced.  One brigade, however, moved forward due to its own local circumstances.  They cheered, which was the signal for the army to begin the attack.  The other brigades interpreted it as such and advanced up Malvern Hill.  Lee, meanwhile, had been scouting a potential move around the Union right flank.  Returning to find his men attacking, he ordered them to continue.  The Confederate attack was repulsed with heavy losses, about 5,000 men, and no gains.  Union losses were also high, around 3,000, demonstrating that the battle was not as one sided as it is often portrayed.  McClellan continued the retreat to Harrison's Landing the next day.

Confederate Artillery

    Approaching along Carter's Mill Road, this is where the Confederate artillery on Lee's right flank entered the action facing Union artillery already in position on either side of the West House.  As the Confederates entered the field, they faced the concentrated fury of the Union guns.  With less space available to deploy, the Confederate could get few guns into action; further, it was difficult to coordinate the deployment with the Confederate gunners on the left flank for the intended converging bombardment.  The Confederate gun on the left flank entered the action afterward and were also silenced.  For a successful infantry assault, Lee had to gain superiority in an artillery duel, but the Confederate batteries were silenced on both flanks.

Infantry Attack Begins

     With the Confederate bombardment stymied, Lee began investigating a potential turning movement to the east, something which he learned was impractical.  The orders that he had given for an infantry assault were only after successful artillery duel, so in his mind the orders were now dated and not in force.  Some of his subordinates, however, did believe they were still in force, with the signal for the beginning of the attack being cheering.  It wasn't a sophisticated system by any means, and the campaign showed bad staff work on many occasions.  When a portion of the Confederate infantry under Armistead gained a small, local success against Berdan's Sharpshooters, they cheered.  Magruder launched the rest of his division in an attack, and his neighbor, D.H. Hill, followed suit.  Gordon's Brigade attacked in this area, eventually supported by Semmes's Brigade.  This attack directly toward the Union gun line reached some slave cabins that were on the right side of the panorama, but Union artillery  stopped the Confederate attack.  

     On the right of the panorama there are some trees.  They didn't exist at the time of the battle, but they will remain in place due to government environmental regulation.  These modern woods cover a slope that descends to Crew's Run or Turkey Run, and several Confederate brigades attacked along these slopes and into the Union flank near the Crew House.

Ignore "You are Here".  

Western Slope Near Crew House

     The panorama above shows the type of slope that the western side of Malvern Hill had.  Not wooded during the war, fields of fire were generally open, but undulations, or hollows, gave some protection to the Confederate troops as they advanced along the side of Malvern Hill, although this is not obvious now with all of the trees.  Union guns near the Crew House stopped the Confederate attack in this vicinity, but the Confederates got close enough for small arms fire on the gun crews.  The original Crew House survives, but it is a private residence outside of park boundaries.  

Union Artillery Line

    The hill had room for 30 to 35 guns spaced at the regulation 17 yards distance from each other, a distance dictated by their need to make a U-turn pulled by horses.  Although only a few guns are now on display, there were many more here during the battle, and behind each of them was a limbers used to pull the gun and also store a few rounds.  Cassions, or ammunition wagons, were also behind each guns.  Infantry were also behind the guns, ready to advance beyond them in case the enemy got too close.  Behind the infantry was the reserve artillery used to rotate and replace batteries on the front line.  Still further back was a line of large, long range guns.  All in all, it represented not only a lot of firepower but also a large target for enemy guns, and the guns could not be withdrawn instantly.  So when the Confederate infantry approached, the Union infantry behind the guns moved through them to face the attackers.  Although the Confederates would lose 5,000 men in the battle, the Federals would lose 3,000 - no small amount considering how one sided the battle is often portrayed.

    The Union gun line extended across the Willis Church Road past the West House.  We will go there next.  

Right of Union Artillery Line

    On the far right of the photo you can see the position of the Union right-rear where Union troops overlooking Western Run protected the right flank.  The gun line where this panorama was taken is marked by the green, grassy trail.  This section of the gun line faced woods to their front that gave the Confederates some cover.  And although there were several hundred yards of open ground to their front, beyond that, the slope steepens down to the site of the Parsonage, so some of the ground is protected from view - and from Union fire.  We will go there next to have a closer look.

Dead Ground

     Here you can see where the slope of Malvern Hill gets steeper.  The West House is partially obscured, and by direct fire the Union guns could not reach much of the area between where the photo was taken and the Willis Church Road.  After the Confederate infantry assault was repulsed, Union infantry advanced from the West House toward the Parsonage and engaged their Confederate counterparts.  The fighting was indecisive and ended with nightfall.

    That night, the Union army continued its retreat to the James River.  Fire from Union gunboats had been a minor factor in the battle of Malvern Hill, but the closer to the James the Confederates got, the more of a danger they became.  The Confederates, therefore, buried their dead, and the army returned to the vicinity of Richmond.  There, in a central location served by rail, Lee could respond to Union moves from various locations.

Berkley Plantation

     The Union army halted and camped at Harrison's Landing on the James River.  Although Jeb Stuart fired a few artillery rounds into the camp from Evelington Heights, Lee considered the area too easily defended to attack it.  The place was already historic by any definition.  It had witnessed the first Thanksgiving in 1619, was home to America's first whiskey distillery, was home to a colonial shipyard, and was the ancestral home of William Henry Harrison.  In the Civil War, this history was added to when "Taps" was written there.  Lincoln also visited McClellan here twice to confer on strategy.
Jeb Stuart's cannonball - allegedly

James River at Berkley Plantation

    What now, with the Union Army encamped on the James?  The Union Navy dominated the river.  McClellan might have moved on Petersburg just as Grant would do two years later, potentially turning the tables on Lee and cutting the rail link south.  He did not.  

     Lee had saved Richmond but at great cost.  In truth, he had had little alternative but to attack McClellan.  His strategic position was improved, but it was still far from rosy.  What would McClellan do now?  And a new army of 'those people' under 'the miscreant' Pope was forming in Northern Virginia.  To deal with it, Lee shifted Jackson's force north, where they clashed with the Yankees at Cedar Mountain.  Lee then accompanied much of the rest of the army under Longstreet north to join Jackson, taking with him the subordinates that had performed best.  Lee struck again at Second Manassas, hoping to smash Pope's army before McClellan's army transitioned north by water to join it.   Another victory might change the course of the war.


Copyright 2009-14, John Hamill



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