Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 3

Camp-Fires of General Lee


IT was on the morning of June 29 that Lee, having learned that McClellan was retreating toward the James, pushed forward his columns in pursuit. Magruder and Huger hurried over the Williamsburg and Charles City roads, Longstreet and A. P. Hill made for the New Bridge crossing of the Chickahominy, while Jackson, having crossed at Grapevine Bridge, aimed to strike the Federals along the south bank of the Chickahominy.

A somewhat curious complication resulted from the following situation. Sumner was not long in discovering that the Confederates were recrossing the Chickahominy and advancing upon Savage Station. Accordingly, he moved his corps from the position it had held at Allen’s farm to that place, where he was joined by a portion of Franklin’s corps. Heintzelman, who held position on the left of Sumner, had been directed to hold the Williamsburg road, but he fell back and crossed White Oak Swamp, while Sumner moved to Savage Station. Thus it came about that when Magruder advanced on the Williamsburg road he found no Federals to fight, while Sumner, unaware of Heintzelman’s withdrawal, was astonished to discover the enemy in his front at Savage Station. Under these circumstances took place the battle of Savage Station, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 29, 1862.

The advance of the Confederates was by the Williamsburg road and along the railroad-track, preceded by an engine which drew an iron-plated car on which was mounted a heavy gun. This contrivance was more unique than effective. The engine would steam slowly along for a short distance, and then stop until the gunners within the turret of the land-monitor fired the piece. It sent the ponderous ball whirring over the country, but there is no record that it ever succeeded in striking any one.

About the middle of the afternoon the Signal Corps apprised the Federals that the Confederates were advancing. Smith had barely time to throw Hancock’s brigade on Richardson’s right and to extend his line to a thicket, while Brooks’s brigade was sent to the extreme left. Magruder, quick to see the gap made by the withdrawal of Heintzelman, precipitated McLaws’s and his own division against the most vulnerable part of the Federal line. His attack was made with his usual impetuosity and reckless bravery, when grim old Sumner arrived in the nick of time. He was able to check Magruder while Brooks re-established the battle-line on that side.

The Confederates were in high spirits, and, remembering the splendid victory they had won at Gaines’s Mill, fought with the most heroic valor, determined to deliver a telling blow upon the Federals before night could come to their relief. They saw that McClellan was conducting his retreat with such skill that it was more than probable he would extricate his army, and they desired to make it cost him dear. The battle raged along the whole line until sunset. The Union lines gave way again and again under the fierce charges of their assailants, but they were reformed as often, and even the fiery courage of Magruder and his men could not effect a lasting breach in the ranks of the Federals.

And where, all this time, was Stonewall Jackson? Ah! if he had swept down on the flank, as was his wont, with those yells that so often struck terror to the hearts of the Federals, the latter must have given way and been scattered like chaff in the hurricane. But Jackson the indomitable was still working at the bridge over which he was to cross the Chickahominy. Had that been rebuilded in time, he would have come down like a thunderbolt; but, despite all the energy he could put forth, it was not completed until after the shades of night were closing in, when he and his soldiers hurried across. They were too late to hurl themselves on the foe, the roar of whose cannon was in their ears.

General Sumner wished to hold the ground he had defended with such valor, but the demand for a contraction of the lines was imperative. General McClellan ordered his withdrawal, and just as it was growing light on the following morning his men resumed their march, the last brigade destroying the bridge which carried them over.

Full credit must not be denied McClellan for the masterly manner in which he conducted the retreat. If the spongy ground, matted with undergrowth and covered at intervals with trees, rendered the passage by his men difficult, it served them the inestimably good turn of making the pursuit by Lee equally hard to execute; and, on the other hand, had a general of less skill than McClellan been employed to save the immense army, he must have failed. He had succeeded in placing the White Oak Swamp between him and Lee, and he had brought off his cannon and saved his rear-guard from rout.

At daylight the approaches to White Oak Bridge and Frazier’s farm were occupied by the Federals, while the Charles City road and Porter’s former position beyond Glendale were covered. Keyes, with Porter close behind him, led the retreat of the army, and reached the James River early in the day; but, so far as McClellan was concerned, they were entirely lost to him. They had been detained on the way, and had sent no messenger to him. Even the topographical engineers sent out by the Federal commander had not reported, and he could only trust to the intelligence of his lieutenants to extricate themselves from the peril in which they might become involved.

General Keyes made a most fortunate discovery while retreating with his division. He came upon an old unused road leading toward the James, which was easily reopened, and which, running parallel to the one he was following, enabled him effectually to protect his long train against attack. It is difficult for one who has never witnessed such a movement to form a just idea of its magnitude. When Keyes halted on the banks of the James, the Army of the Potomac extended backward nearly ten miles. Long as was this line, and impossible as it was to defend every portion of it, yet the necessity of protecting the train forbade its shortening; for it would have been fatal to leave the passage of White Oak Swamp open to the Confederates.

The situation of the Union army may be understood from the following statement: From the passage out of the White Oak Swamp the highway runs southward to the James River, nine miles or so distant. The Union army was strung along this road on its way to Haxall’s Landing, where it was seeking the protection of the gunboats. The White Oak pass, crossing a tributary of the Chickahominy, marked the termination of the famous White Oak Swamp, through which McClellan had forced his way, fighting as he went. This pass was the only one over which the Confederates could follow in direct pursuit of the fleeing Unionists. The supreme importance of its being held by the latter is therefore apparent to all, for the fate of their army depended upon its defence.

Following the retreating Federals southward some two or three miles, the next point from which the Confederates could assault them was reached. This was Glendale, where the highways from Richmond converge. It may be said that all the roads leading southward from Richmond between the James and the Chickahominy draw together at Glendale like the converging spokes of a wheel; consequently, it required to be fortified against the Confederate assault that was certain to come. Continuing southward, the next exposed point was Malvern Hill, just north of Haxall’s Landing, the haven of refuge to the distressed Unionists. This was in direct communication with Richmond by the Newmarket road, which sent off a spur to the northward to Glendale. It was sure to receive attention from Lee, though it was the least inviting of the three points, its natural strength being very great.

Having shown the only places where the Unionists were liable to be attacked, let us now see what means McClellan took to protect them against his enemy.

The Union commander visited all the threatened points and personally directed the movements for defence. Keyes occupied the space between the James at Turkey Bend on one side and Malvern Hill on the other, Porter taking up a strong position on the same hill. Franklin was stationed at the pass of White Oak Swamp, near Frazier’s farm, with orders to defend it to the last, though that officer understood its value too well to require any urgency about the matter. All the remaining troops were placed in position at Glendale.

Such being the disposition of the Union troops, let us see what was done by Lee. None realized more clearly than he the necessity of striking a crushing blow with the least possible delay. He had confidently expected to capture the Army of the Potomac, and now it was slipping through his fingers. Once on the bank of the James under the protection of the gunboats, it would be as safe against his utmost efforts as if lost in the woods of Maine. But tremendous obstacles were in the path of the Confederate chieftain. He and his lieutenants had never dreamed that the scene of the struggle would be shifted to that portion of the Peninsula, and they were more ignorant of the topography of the country than the Federals. It is even stated that Lee was unable to procure a county-map by which to guide his movements. While the vast morass known as White Oak Swamp offered such a secure protection to the flank of the retreating army, it was utterly impassable for Lee except along the avenues already pointed out; consequently, he was forced to divide his army into several divisions, which, under the peculiar character of the country, were unable to communicate with one another or to effect a junction after the defeat of the Federals. Stonewall Jackson, with four divisions, pressed eagerly forward through the White Oak Swamp with the determination of forcing the passage which Franklin had been ordered to defend to the last extremity; Hill and Longstreet were hurrying down from Richmond along the highways which debouched at Glendale into the road over which the Unionists were retreating; Magruder was immediately behind them, and was to form the right in the attack; while Wise’s Legion and other troops posted on the James were directed to make all haste down the banks of that river, with the object of seizing and fortifying Malvern Hill before it could be occupied by the Federals.

Such were Lee’s plans, and now let us see in what manner they were carried out.

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