The Battle of Gaines' Mill, also known as the First Battle of Cold Harbor or the Battle of Chickahominy River, took place on June 27, 1862, in Hanover County, Virginia, as the third of the Seven Days Battles (Peninsula Campaign) of the American Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee renewed his attacks against Union Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter's V Corps, which had established a strong defensive line behind Boatswain's Swamp north of the Chickahominy River. Porter's reinforced V Corps held fast for the afternoon against disjointed Confederate attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.
At dusk, the Confederates finally mounted a coordinated assault that broke Porter's line and drove his soldiers back toward the river. The Federals retreated across the river during the night. Defeat at Gaines' Mill convinced Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to abandon his advance on Richmond and begin the retreat to the James River. The Confederates were too disorganized to encircle and then pursue the main Union force. Gaines' Mill saved Richmond for the Confederacy in 1862. The battle occurred in almost the same location as the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor and had similar numbers of total casualties.
Background[edit | edit source]
McClellan's Army of the Potomac had pushed to within a few miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond and had stalled following the Battle of Seven Pines in late May 1862. Lee wanted to take the initiative, believing that remaining on the strategic defensive would play into Union hands and allow the Confederacy to be worn down. He planned to shift the 90,000-man Confederate Army to the north of Richmond, and bring crushing strength to bear on McClellan's left flank. The Confederate cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had ridden around and exposed this flank, and confirmed its vulnerability. Lee then wanted to use Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson's force, transported by rail from the Shenandoah Valley, to attack on this sector and crush the Union forces in a vice.
The Seven Days Battles began with a Union attack in the minor Battle of Oak Grove on June 25, but the first major battle started the next day when Lee launched a large-scale assault against McClellan at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (or Mechanicsville). Lee attacked Porter's V Corps north of the Chickahominy, while the bulk of the Union Army was relatively unoccupied south of the river. By the next morning, the Union forces were concentrated into a semicircle with Porter collapsing his line into an east-west salient north of the river and the four corps south of the river remaining in their original positions. Porter was ordered by McClellan to hold Gaines' Mill at all costs so that the army could change its base of supply to the James River. Several of McClellan's subordinates urged him to attack the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder south of the river, but he feared the vast numbers of Confederates he believed to be before him and refused to capitalize on the overwhelming superiority he actually held on that front.
Battle[edit | edit source]
On June 27, Lee continued his offensive, launching the largest Confederate attack of the war, about 57,000 men in six divisions. Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill resumed his attack across Beaver Dam Creek early in the morning, but found the line lightly defended. Moving eastward and approaching Gaines' Mill, his lead brigade, under Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg, was held up by fierce resistance from the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. By early afternoon, he ran into strong opposition by Porter, deployed along Boatswain's Creek and the swampy terrain was a major obstacle against the attack. Attacks by the brigades of Brig. Gens. Gregg, Dorsey Pender, Joseph R. Anderson, and Lawrence O'Bryan Branch made little headway. As Maj. Gen. James Longstreet arrived to the south of A.P. Hill, he saw the difficulty of attacking over such terrain and delayed until Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson could attack on Hill's left.
For the second time in the Seven Days, however, Jackson was late. A civilian guide had led Jackson down the wrong road and Jackson's troops found the main road to Old Cold Harbor obstructed by trees felled by the retreating Union army. They were also harassed by sharpshooters and so took a different road, delaying their arrival. Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill attacked the Federal right and was held off by the regular army troops of Brig. Gen. George Sykes's division; he pulled back to await Jackson's arrival. Longstreet was ordered to conduct a diversionary attack to stabilize the lines until Jackson could arrive and attack from the north. In Longstreet's attack, Brig. Gen. George E. Pickett's brigade attempted a frontal assault and was beaten back under severe fire with heavy losses. Pickett himself was wounded in the shoulder. Jackson finally reached D.H. Hill's position at 3 p.m. and was completely disoriented following a day of pointless marching and countermarching. Believing that Longstreet's attack was underway, he kept his men and those of Hill's out of the fight to avoid friendly fire. Receiving messages from Lee, Jackson began his assault at 4:30 p.m. Richard Ewell's division led the attack, but the Union line still held and two of his brigade commanders went down: Col. Isaac Seymour, commanding the Louisiana Brigade in Richard Taylor's absence due to an illness, was killed and so was Maj. Roberdeau Wheat, the colorful leader of the Louisiana Tigers Battalion.
Porter's line was saved by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum's division of the VI Corps moving into position to bolster his defense. As the sun was starting to go down, Lee threw William Whiting's division, his last reserve, into action. Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade broke a hole in the line, as did Pickett's brigade on its second attempt of the day. The brigades of Brig. Gens. Thomas F. Meagher and William H. French arrived from the II Corps, too late to help other than as a rear guard for Porter's retreat. A battalion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry under Captain Charles J. Whiting made a desperate charge against the Texas Brigade, but was forced to surrender after heavy losses. By 4 a.m. on June 28, Porter withdrew across the Chickahominy, burning the bridges behind him.
For the second day, Magruder was able to continue fooling McClellan south of the river by employing minor diversionary attacks. He was able to occupy 60,000 Federal troops while the heavier action occurred north of the river.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
Gaines' Mill was an intense battle, the largest of the Seven Days and the only clear-cut Confederate tactical victory of the Peninsula Campaign. Union casualties from the 34,214 engaged were 6,837 (894 killed, 3,107 wounded, and 2,836 captured or missing). Of the 57,018 Confederates engaged, losses totaled 7,993 (1,483 killed, 6,402 wounded, 108 missing or captured). Since the Confederate assault was conducted against only a small portion of the Union Army (the V Corps, one fifth of the army), the army emerged from the battle in relatively good shape overall. Lee's victory, his first of the war, could have been more complete if it were not for the mishaps of Stonewall Jackson. Historian Stephen W. Sears speculates that it were not for Jackson's misdirected march and his poor staff work, the major assault that Lee unleashed at 7 p.m. could have occurred three or four hours earlier. This would have put Porter in grave jeopardy, without any last-minute reinforcements and the cover of darkness. He quotes Edward Porter Alexander, prominent Confederate artillery officer and postwar historian: "Had Jackson attacked when he first arrived, or during A.P. Hill's attack, we would have had an easy victory—comparatively, & would have captured most of Porter's command."
However, although McClellan had already planned to shift his supply base to the James River, his defeat unnerved him and he precipitously decided to abandon his advance on Richmond and begin the retreat of his entire army to the James. Gaines' Mill and the Union retreat across the Chickahominy was a psychological victory for the Confederacy, signaling that Richmond was out of danger.
Notes[edit | edit source]
- Salmon, p. 107.
- Eicher, p. 288.
- Sears, p. 249.
- Holden-Reid, p. 83.
- Kennedy, pp. 93-94; Sears, pp. 183-208; Salmon, pp. 99-101.
- Time-Life, p. 45.
- Sears, pp. 210-26; Kennedy, p. 96; Eicher, p. 285; Salmon, pp. 103-06.
- Eicher, p. 285; Burton, pp. 113, 129; Kennedy, p. 96; Salmon, pp. 104-06; Sears, pp. 221-31.
- Kennedy, pp. 96-97; Sears, pp. 227-42; Salmon, p. 106.
- Eicher, p. 287.
- Eicher, p. 288; Sears, p. 289.
- Sears, pp. 249-50.
- Sears, pp. 250-51.
References[edit | edit source]
- Editors of Time-Life Books, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run, Time-Life Books, 1984, ISBN 0-8094-4804-1.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
- Holden-Reid, Brian, The American Civil War and the Wars of the Industrial Revolution, Cassel & Co., 1999, ISBN 0-304-35230-6.
- Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- Robertson, James I., Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, MacMillan Publishing, 1997, ISBN 0-02-864685-1.
- Salmon, John S., The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, Stackpole Books, 2001, ISBN 0-8117-2868-4.
- Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Ticknor and Fields, 1992, ISBN 0-89919-790-6.
- National Park Service battle description
[edit | edit source]
- Battle of Gaines's Mill in Encyclopedia Virginia
- The Battle of Gaines Mill: Battle Maps, History Articles, Photos, and Preservation News (CWPT)
- Animated History of the Peninsula Campaign