Prelude to the Battle
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 invest Richmond rather than to risk costly assaults against the Rebel 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, Rebel 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 and attacked the right flank of McClellan’s forces, which Brigadier General Fitz John Porter commanded north of the Chickahominy River. Events did not unfold as Lee had planned, however, and the Northerners rebuffed the Rebels at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. Despite the federal victory, McClellan ordered Porter to abandon his entrenchments and to fall back during the night.
Battle of Gaines’ Mill
On June 27, Lee renewed his attack on Porter’s corps at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. The federal line broke under pressure from the largest single assault of the Civil War, but Porter got much of his command across the Chickahominy River under cover of darkness. The Confederate victory caused McClellan to lose his nerve and to suspend his offensive against Richmond. Although he refused to refer to his subsequent movements as a retreat, McClellan ordered the four corps he had poised at the doors of the Confederate capital to withdraw south toward the safety of Union gunboats on the James River.
Battle of Savage’s Station
Sensing an opportunity to destroy McClellan’s entire army, Lee devised an elaborate plan of pursuit. On June 29, the two sides engaged again at the Battle of Savage’s Station. Once more, poor execution and tardiness by Lee’s generals enabled McClellan’s rearguard to escape under the cover of darkness.
Bottleneck at Glendale
By noon of the next day, most of McClellan’s army had traversed the White Oak Swamp and temporarily escaped Lee’s clutches. Still, the Yankees were not completely out of danger. As they retreated south, the Federals encountered a bottleneck where several roads converged near the village of Glendale. In addition, their command structure was fractured because McClellan was miles away aboard the gunboat Galena on the James River. The federal commanders on the front lines were left to their own resources as their leader never came close to the battlefield that day.
Lee Plans Knockout Punch
The situation at Glendale afforded Lee yet another opportunity to destroy the Army of the Potomac. He devised an intricate battle plan to throw nearly his entire army at the Bluecoats before the Northerners could reach the safety of Union gunboats on the James River at Harrison’s Landing.
On June 30, Lee deployed his army in a semi-circle west of the crossroads at Glendale.
- Stonewall Jackson’s division, positioned at the top of the arc, was still north of the White Oak Swamp. Lee ordered Jackson to rebuild a bridge across White Oak Swamp Creek and then to descend on the federal right flank from the north.
- Benjamin Huger’s division was next in line on the arc, southwest of Jackson. Lee ordered Huger to move southeast along the Charles City Road and take part in a massive strike against the center of the Yankee line.
- Lee ordered A. P. Hill and James Longstreet, whose divisions formed the middle of the arc, to join Huger in the attack from the west against the Union center.
- At the southwestern end of the formation, Lee ordered T.H. Holmes to shell the Federals as they retreated to the southwest toward Malvern Hill.
Lee’s Plans Fall Apart
Lee’s plan fell apart almost immediately. Union artillery and sharpshooters harassed Jackson’s engineers, who failed to rebuild the bridge. Rather than crossing the creek at a ford that his men discovered, Jackson reportedly lay down under a tree and went to sleep while his soldiers engaged in a fruitless artillery duel. Jackson’s men were never a factor in the ensuing battle at Glendale.
Trees that the Federals had felled across the Charles City Road stymied Huger’s advance. In what facetiously became known as the Battle of the Axes, Huger wasted hours having his men blaze a new road through the adjacent forest and failed to strike the Union center as planned.
As Hill and Longstreet awaited Huger’s arrival, federal artillery began shelling the center of Lee’s line at approximately 2 p.m. Return fire from the Rebels failed to silence the Yankee guns. Lee’s window for success began to close as the afternoon waned. With nightfall only a few hours away, Lee ordered Hill and Longstreet to begin their assault on the center of the Union rearguard despite the absence of Jackson and Huger.
Failed Rebel Assaults
The assault went well initially. The Rebels punctured the Union line and drove the Bluecoats back to the edge of Frayser’s Farm with a strike that featured fierce hand-to-hand combat. Without support from Jackson and Huger, however, the attack petered out. Reinforcements plugged the gap in the Yankee line and prevented the Confederates from capturing the intersection. The Federals still held their line of retreat.
Meanwhile, at the southern end of the line, Holmes made no progress. Fitz John Porter’s division, supported by Union gunboats on the James River, thwarted a Confederate assault against the federal left. After the first repulse, Holmes chose not to try again.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Glendale ended when night fell. Tactically, the results were inconclusive. The Union suffered 3,787 casualties (297 killed, 1,696 wounded, and 1,804 missing or captured). The Confederacy lost 3,673 soldiers (638 killed, 2,814 wounded, and 221 missing).
Strategically, the battle was another defeat for Lee. By failing to capture the intersection at Glendale, the Rebels lost a golden opportunity to prevent the Army of the Potomac from continuing its retreat toward the safety of Union gunboats on the James River at Harrison’s Landing. The Confederate failure at Glendale set the stage for a decisive defeat the next day at the Battle of Malvern Hill.