On June 25, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a series of six battles in seven days that pitted the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia against Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. Collectively known as the Seven Days Battles, Lee's assaults drove McClellan's army away from the outskirts of Richmond, ending the Union's Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
Prelude to the Battles
On March 17, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign. McClellan planned to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in southeastern Virginia. With the bulk of the Confederate forces positioned in northern Virginia, near Manassas Junction, McClellan planned to advance up the peninsula and capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, and bring the American Civil War to a quick end.
McClellan’s Delay Buys Johnston Time
On April 4, McClellan’s 120,000-man army began its march up the peninsula. The next day, the advance came to a halt when the Federals encountered Confederate forces of about 10,000 men, dug in along the Warwick River near Yorktown. Erroneously believing that the Rebel forces outnumbered his army, McClellan settled in for a siege rather than attack. The resulting one-month delay enabled Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to redeploy troops from northern Virginia to the peninsula. Despite the delay at Yorktown, by late May, McClellan’s army had his army encamped along both sides of the Chickahominy River, only several miles from Richmond.
Lee Replaces Johnston after the Battle of Seven Pines
When heavy spring rains flooded the Chickahominy, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston seized the opportunity to attack McClellan’s army while the swollen river divided it. On May 31, Rebel troops launched attacks against the isolated Third and Fourth of Corps of the Army of the Potomac near Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, Virginia. Around dusk, General Johnston was severely wounded, and G.W. Smith assumed temporary command of the army. Smith renewed the attack on June 1, but the Confederates made little headway against the reinforced Federals. The Battle of Seven Pines ended on the evening of June 1.
Seven Days Battles
Battle of Oak Grove
Following the Battle of Seven Pines, McClellan sat idly for nearly a month developing plans for a siege of Richmond. Taking advantage of McClellan’s inactivity, Lee prepared for an offensive designed to drive the Union army away from Richmond. On June 25, the two armies clashed at Oak Grove in what was the first in a series of six battles known as the Seven Days Battles. At the Battle of Oak Grove, Rebel forces repulsed Federals attempting to position siege guns within the range of Richmond.
Battle of Beaver Dam Creek
The next day, Lee seized the initiative by attacking Union forces at Beaver Dam Creek, but the Federals inflicted heavy casualties on the Rebels and repelled the attack.
Battle of Gaines’ Mill
Undaunted, Lee renewed his offensive on June 27 at Gaines’ Mill. Despite staunch resistance, Rebel forces broke the Union lines late in the day, sending the Federals in retreat. The Confederate victory at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill convinced McClellan to abandon his plan to capture Richmond and begin a general retreat back down the peninsula.
Battle of Savage’s Station
Lee continued to pursue doggedly and struck the Union army again on June 29, at Savage’s Station. Although the results of the Battle of Savage’s Station were inconclusive, the retreating Federals abandoned over 2,500 wounded soldiers in a field hospital.
Battle of Glendale
On June 30, at the Battle of Glendale, Lee tried unsuccessfully, to prevent McClellan’s retreating army from reaching the James River. The battle results were inconclusive, but McClellan extracted his retreating army to a stronger defensive position on Malvern Hill.
Battle of Malvern Hill
The next day, the Rebels suffered heavy casualties trying to dislodge the Federals during the Battle of Malvern Hill. Despite the Union victory, McClellan withdrew his army and entrenched near the James River, protected by Union gunboats.
Aftermath of the Battles
The Seven Days Battles proved costly for the Army of Northern Virginia, which suffered over 20,000 casualties, compared to about 16,000 federal losses. Nevertheless, Lee’s offensive achieved its strategic objective. In seven days, the Rebels had driven the powerful Army of the Potomac away from Richmond and saved the Confederate capital. McClellan had lost his opportunity to bring the war to a swift conclusion. With the Army of the Potomac no longer an immediate threat to the South, Lee shifted the focus of the action in the Eastern Theater back north and prolonged the war for over two more years.