The Battle of Gaines' Mill, 1862

June 27, 1862

The Battle of Gaines' Mill was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, on June 27, 1862. The outcome of the battle was a Confederate victory. The battle is most well-known for being Robert E. Lee's first victory of the war, prompting George B. McClellan to suspend his plans to invest Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait

The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first major victory in the Civil War. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — First Battle of Cold Harbor, Battle of Chickahominy River
  • Date — June 27, 1862
  • Location — Hanover County, Virginia
  • Opponents — United States of America (USA) and Confederate States of America (CSA)
  • USA CommandersGeorge B. McClellan, Fitz John Porter
  • CSA CommandersRobert E. Lee
  • Winner — Confederate States of America

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Overview and History

On March 17, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign. After transporting the Army of the Potomac by ships to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers, McClellan planned to advance on Richmond and bring the American Civil War to a quick conclusion. By late May, the Federals had fought their way to the outskirts of the Confederate capital.

Battle of Seven Pines

On May 31, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston struck back at the Battle of Seven Pines. Two days of hard fighting rendered a tactical draw and high casualties on both sides. The aftermath of the engagement, however, produced two important strategic developments. First, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston suffered a severe wound during the fighting. Second, the high casualty rate convinced McClellan to target Richmond rather than risk costly assaults against the Confederate defenses around the capital.

Reprieve for Lee

For nearly a month, McClellan sat idly, developing plans for a siege. The unexpected reprieve presented Lee with an opportunity to organize his command and to plan an offensive designed to drive the Union army away from Richmond. Toward the end of June, McClellan developed a renewed sense of urgency when he learned that Major General Stonewall Jackson was moving to reinforce Lee after concluding his highly successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Battle of Oak Grove

On June 25, at the Battle of Oak Grove, Confederate forces repulsed McClellan’s attempt to advance his siege artillery approximately one and one-half miles closer to the capital so he could “shell the city and take it by assault.”

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek

On the next day, Lee seized the initiative. Leaving only two divisions to protect Richmond from the bulk of McClellan’s army (four corps positioned south of the Chickahominy River), Lee attacked Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s 5th Corps, which was isolated north of the river. Lee planned to defeat Porter’s corps, which formed the right (northern) wing of the Federal army, and then to sever McClellan’s supply line, the York and Richmond Railroad.

Battle of Gaines Mill, 1862, Union Forces Assembled
Union forces assembled on the morning of the battle. Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War, 1894.

Events did not unfold as Lee had planned, and the Northerners rebuffed the Confederates at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. Nonetheless, the specter of Jackson on his right flank prompted McClellan to move his supply center to the James River, handing Lee what the Southerner failed to achieve on the battlefield. Despite the Federal victory, McClellan ordered Porter to abandon his entrenchments at Beaver Dam Creek during the night and to fall back to higher ground as the arduous task of shifting the Union supply center began.

Federals Deploy Near Gaines’ Mill

During the night of June 26–27, Porter deployed his troops in an arc 1.5 miles long southeast of a mill owned by Dr. William F. Gaines. Porter’s new line on high ground behind Boatswain’s Creek, with the Chickahominy River to his back, was protected by a thick growth and offered an excellent field of fire for repelling enemy assaults.

Lee Moves Against Porter

Still hoping to crush Porter’s army before it could cross the Chickahominy, Lee continued his assault on June 27. His plan was similar to the one that failed the day before, sending two divisions commanded by A. P. Hill and James Longstreet against the Union center, while Stonewall Jackson and D.H. Hill tried to flank Porter on the right and then hit the Northerner from the rear.

Costly Confederate Attack

The action got underway early in the morning when A. P. Hill’s division moved across Beaver Dam Creek with little resistance. Expecting to be pursuing an army in retreat, Hill instead encountered Porter’s stout new line. Jackson, meanwhile, had taken a wrong turn and for the second time in two days was late to the battlefield. Like the day before, Hill waited until 2:30 and then launched a futile attack against the Union center that lasted two hours and produced two thousand casualties.

Confederate Reinforcements

At approximately 3:30 p.m. Major General Richard Ewell’s division was the first of Jackson’s command to approach the Union lines. Lee ordered Ewell to attack immediately before his entire division arrived. Lee also ordered D.H. Hill and Longstreet to join in what became a series of disjointed assaults. By 4:30, Jackson’s full division arrived, but communication problems delayed its deployment.

Federal Line Crumbles

By sunset, Lee finally had all of his generals in place. At 7 p.m. he ordered a massive charge covering a two-mile front. Over 32,000 Confederate soldiers stormed the Federals in the largest single assault of the war. Porter’s men held on gamely, but following some of the more brutal fighting of the Civil War, Brigadier-General John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade broke through on Longstreet’s front. The Federal line then began to crumble, and the Federals began to fall back toward the Chickahominy River. As the Confederates pursued, Union Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, the father-in-law of Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart, ordered a foolhardy cavalry charge that sacrificed nearly an entire Federal regiment and achieved nothing.

Battles of Gaines' Mill, 1862, Union Artillery
Union artillery at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. Image Source: Harper’s Weekly, July 19, 1862.

Saved by Darkness

Although Porter’s line broke, the onset of darkness saved his corps from total destruction. Confederates took many of Porter’s spent and dazed men prisoner, but the Union general got much of his command across the Chickahominy River during the night. At roughly 4 a.m. on June 28, Porter burned the bridges spanning the river, leaving Lee’s pursuers on the opposite side.

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Outcome

Although Lee failed to destroy Porter’s corps as he had hoped, the Battle of Gaines’ Mill was a significant tactical, strategic, and psychological victory for the Confederacy. Although the Confederates suffered more causalities (7,993 men, including 1,483 killed, 6,402, wounded, 108 missing or captured), compared with Union losses (6,837 soldiers, including 894 killed, 3,107 wounded, 2,836 missing or captured), Lee won the field and forced Porter to retreat across the Chickahominy.

More importantly, the Confederate victory caused McClellan to lose his nerve and suspend his plans to target Richmond. Although he refused to refer to it as a retreat, McClellan ordered the four corps that he had poised at the doors of the Confederate capital to withdraw south. By the end of the week, Richmond was no longer in danger, and new life had been breathed into Confederate hopes.

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Significance

  • The Battle of Gaines’s Mill was the third engagement of the Seven Days Battles during the Peninsula Campaign.
  • The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first major victory in the Civil War.
  • The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was the largest of the Seven Days Battles.
  • The last Confederate assault against Union lines at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill employed 32,000 Confederate soldiers and was the largest of the Civil War.
  • The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was the only clear-cut Confederate tactical victory of the Peninsula Campaign.
  • Seven Union soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Facts

Campaign

Military Forces Engaged

  • USA — Army of the Potomac
  • CSA — Army of Northern Virginia

Number of Soldiers Engaged

  • USA — Roughly 34,000
  • CSA — Roughly 57,000

Estimated Casualties

  • USA — 6,837 (894 killed, 3,107 wounded, 2,836 missing or captured)
  • CSA — 7,993 (1,483 killed, 6,402 wounded, 108 missing or captured)

Battle of Gaines’ Mill Timeline

This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, and how it fits into the chronological order of the Peninsula Campaign. The battles that occurred from June 25 to July 1, 1862, are collectively known as the Seven Days Battles.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Gaines' Mill, 1862
  • Date June 27, 1862
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Gaines' Mill, First Battle of Cold Harbor, Battle of Chickahominy River, Peninsula Campaign
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

The Battle of Gaines' Mill, 1862 is Part of the Following on AHC