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.
Sensing an opportunity to destroy McClellan’s entire army, Lee devised an elaborate plan of pursuit.
- Lee sent the divisions of James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Theophilus H. Holmes southeast, positioning themselves to strike McClellan’s left flank.
- Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson, who was commanding his own division, and the divisions of D. H. Hill and Brigadier General William H. C. Whiting, to repair a bridge over the Chickahominy River and then descend upon McClellan’s troops from the north.
- Finally, Lee ordered Brigadier General John B. Magruder to advance his division along the Richmond and York River Railroad and to attack McClellan’s rearguard.
As the Army of the Potomac retraced its steps, McClellan left behind a rearguard comprising three corps (Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner’s 2nd Corps, Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s 3rd Corps, and Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s 6th Corps) near Savage’s Station. Oddly, though, McClellan did not appoint an overall commander for his rearguard operations.
Savage’s Station was a stop on the Richmond and York River Railroad that served as a depot on McClellan’s supply lines. It was also the site of a Union field hospital, where doctors were caring for roughly 2,500 soldiers wounded during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. As Magruder’s division moved east along the tracks, the Federals were busy preparing to evacuate by destroying any items that might be of use to the Rebels.
Action at Orchard Station
Magruder first engaged Sumner at Orchard Station, two miles west of Savage’s Station, at 9 a.m., on June 29. Sumner’s men outnumbered the Rebels 26,000 to 14,000, but Magruder expected support from Jackson on his left and Benjamin Huger’s division on his right. Jackson, however, had misinterpreted his orders and remained north of the Chickahominy River, and Huger was not on Magruder’s right, where the latter expected him to be.
Fearing that the Yankees might attack his under-manned force, Magruder requested reinforcements. General Lee responded by loaning him two brigades from Huger’s division, with the provision that Magruder would return the men if the Yankees did not attack by 2 p.m. When the appointed hour came and passed, Magruder had to return the reinforcements. Faced with the undesirable predicament of advancing against a much larger force, Magruder held off attacking until 5 p.m.
Tentative Rebel Attack
By the time Magruder attacked, he may have been under the influence of morphine administered to treat a bout of acute indigestion. Possibly suffering from clouded judgment, Magruder issued ambiguous and tentative orders. As a result, less than one-half of his force took part in the ensuing battle.
Confusion on the Union Side
Luckily for Magruder, there was plenty of confusion to go around on the Union side. With no overall commander in charge of the federal rear guard, Heintzelman decided that two divisions were enough to hold off Magruder and unilaterally marched his men south to join the main army, without informing Sumner or Franklin. After learning of Heintzelman’s departure, Sumner’s directives proved even more cautious than Magruder’s. When Magruder finally attacked, Sumner deployed only ten of his twenty-six regiments during the engagement.
After several hours of combat, darkness and the onset of violent thunderstorms brought an end to the action at approximately 9 p.m. Although the fighting was vicious at times, the results were inconclusive. The Rebels suffered roughly 450 casualties compared to nearly 900 for the Federals, but Magruder could not dislodge Sumner.
Aftermath of the Battle
Magruder’s dalliance displeased Lee. A dispatch from Lee to Magruder that evening stated, “GENERAL, I regret much that you have made so little progress to-day in pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory the pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no time, or he will escape us entirely.”
Despite Lee’s prodding, escape is exactly what Sumner did. With Jackson’s arrival still expected during the night, McClellan ordered Sumner to evacuate Savage’s Station, leaving behind the 2,500 soldiers and doctors in the Union field hospital. By noon the next day, most of McClellan’s army had crossed the White Oak Swamp and escaped Lee’s clutches.