By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
The battles began on June 25, 1862. Nothing of importance happened that day, but it was indeed the opening of the Seven Days’ Battles. Incidentally, there are just six days of battles and really only five significant battles, although it is called the Seven Days of Battles. Yet, the Seven Days’ Battles were a major inflection point in the course of the American Civil War.
McClellan’s army was divided by the Chickahominy River. At Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, a third of it was south of the river and two-thirds north. Now roughly two-thirds lay south of the river and one-third north. The north one was commanded by an officer named Fitz John Porter.
Robert E. Lee decided that the best way to get at the enemy once Jackson arrived from the Shenandoah Valley was to strike at the exposed right flank, north of the river.
The Armies Before the Seven Days’ Battles
McClellan had between 100,000 and 110,000 soldiers outside Richmond. Lee had 90,000. One often reads that the Federals were overwhelmingly more powerful during the Seven Days’ campaign and that Lee had a small army fending off this Union juggernaut. That was not the case. This was one of the few times in the war when the armies were relatively equally matched in terms of numbers, with Lee at only a modest disadvantage in this instance.
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Robert E. Lee’s Planning for the Seven Days’ Battles
Lee planned to hit McClellan’s right flank. He would have a force to demonstrate in front of the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, and John Bankhead Magruder would play a key holding role there while the bulk of the Confederate army would strike Fitz John Porter’s troops north of the Chickahominy.
Lee hoped that the valley army of Stonewall Jackson would play a key role as it would later come in on the enemy’s flank.
The Commencement of the Seven Days’ Battles
The battles began on June 25 when Lee repulsed a strong Union reconnaissance. It was not a major battle that day, but it was really the opening of the Seven Days’ Battles. There are really six days of battles and only five significant battles, but it is called the Seven Days, anyway.
The First Major Battle
After June 25, Lee always held the initiative, and the first significant battle came on June 26 at Mechanicsville, which was called Beaver Dam Creek by the Federals. At Mechanicsville, Jackson was to come in on the Federal flank and fight in concert with several other Confederate divisions, but Jackson never showed up. The hours ticked by. The morning went by. Noon came and went. One o’clock, two o’clock, still no Jackson.
The other Confederates on the ground, especially A. P. Hill, who commanded the biggest division in Lee’s army, simply could not restrain themselves anymore. They attacked without Jackson, and these attacks were easily repulsed.
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The Battle of Gaines’s Mill
After the fighting, Fitz John Porter simply withdrew to another position at a place called Gaines’s Mill, and there the second and by far the biggest battle of the Seven Days took place, the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, on June 27, 1862.
Once again, Jackson was slow to advance. He eventually got in position, and by the afternoon Lee had his army in place and launched the largest set of Confederate assaults of the entire war. More than 50,000 Confederates participated in the attacks at Gaines’s Mill on the afternoon of June 27.
Very late in the day on the Union left flank, near a house called the Watt House, the Confederates finally achieved a breakthrough.
Fitz John Porter was driven back, but the Confederates were not in a position to follow up on this victory. Their breakthrough came too late. Fitz John Porter very effectively withdrew and managed to get his corps, his third of the army, roughly, back across the Chickahominy River without further damage.
Gaines’s Mill was a very large battle, but, owing largely to ineffective staff work and failure of coordination, the Confederate troops were in no position to deliver a more decisive blow against the Federals.
The Reason Behind Jackson’s Poor Performance
Most often Jackson’s poor behavior—and it was poor again at Gaines’s Mill—has been attributed to his sheer exhaustion. He had been up for most of those preceding several days, and there is no doubt he was exhausted.
But his exhaustion, the other soldiers’ exhaustion, and poor staff work, all helped contribute to Lee’s failure in achieving more while McClellan’s army was divided.
The Countermoves from McCellan
Over the next four days, McClellan withdrew southward across the Peninsula. He changed his base to the James River owing to the powerful Federal naval forces on the James River.
At the same time, Lee tried to deliver a heavy blow against the retreating Federals. There was skirmishing on June 28—not a major battle. But then the Battle of Savage Station, on the 29th, and the Battle of Fraser’s Farm or Glendale, on the 30th, saw Lee’s army fumbling to get into a position to hit the Federals effectively but failing in both instances. Magruder had a very bad day at Savage Station, and Lee essentially wrote him off as a useless subordinate.
At Glendale, there were heavy Confederate attacks. Time and again they attacked, but the attacks again were not delivered in concert. Thus, McClellan’s army held off the Confederates and retreated finally to a very strong position at Malvern Hill.
Malvern Hill was an almost perfect military position. It was a gentle slope. Along the crest the Federals packed infantry, they packed artillery, and then they had a spectacular vision in front of them: a very gentle slope up which the Confederate infantry would have to come if they were going to attack. It was the kind of position that generals dream of.
Robert E. Lee’s Frustration
Lee was frustrated by this point in the campaign. He had hoped to accomplish a great deal more. He had seen his plans fail to be executed time and again. Part of the problem was that he was trying to do too much with an army that was still finding its way. It was a new army. He did not have a staff that was adequate enough to coordinate some of the complex things he was trying to put in motion.
Nevertheless, Lee thought he had missed opportunities, especially at Savage Station and elsewhere, and he meant to retrieve those at Malvern Hill and to rely on his infantry to do so.
The Battle of Malvern Hill
Lee decided to launch assaults against this strong Union position on the afternoon of July 1, in the Battle of Malvern Hill.
Again, there was poor coordination. Troops taking the wrong roads and taking a long time to get into position delayed the assaults until about mid-afternoon. The Confederate artillery proved largely ineffective against the Union artillery at Malvern Hill; and in the end, the Confederate infantry attacked up the hill unit after unit after unit, and they were easily driven back. They never really threatened the Union position at Malvern Hill.
Daniel Harvey Hill, one of the Confederate division commanders after the war quite aptly wrote this of Malvern Hill: “It was not war; it was murder, just sending the infantry up and watching them be slaughtered.”
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A Missed Opportunity from George B. McClellan
Many Northern officers recommended a quick counterattack after the failure of these Confederate assaults, but McClellan overruled that. He said, “No, we’re not going to do that.”
He was a thoroughly beaten man mentally. Others would disagree with that. But here he was in a splendid position, his army still very much intact, and he did not have even a moment’s thought of aggressive counterpunching. He was content to hunker down under the safe view of the Union navy on the James River.
McClellan then decided he would drop down the James River a little bit farther to an even safer position at a place called Harrison’s Landing.
When he heard that the army was to retreat, a Union general named Philip Carney is said to have remarked with disgust, “We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. I say to all of you, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”
The Conclusion of the Seven Days’ Battles
That was the end of the Seven Days. Malvern Hill was a terrible decision on Lee’s part. It would rank with the decision to assault Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg on the third day as one of Lee’s worst. But McClellan retreated anyway.
The Consequences of the Seven Days’ Battles
The Seven Days’ Battles had even more casualties than the Battle of Shiloh: 20,000 Confederate casualties and 16,000 Union casualties during the seven days.
In a strategic sense, the initiative passed from McClellan to Lee. Lee had changed the dynamic. Now it was McClellan who was retreating away from Richmond, down the James River, and hunkering down along the river at Harrison’s Landing.
Confederate morale rebounded remarkably after the Seven Days’ War. It’s really quite astonishing how quickly it happened. It was almost as if all those bad things in the west had not happened. Lee’s own reputation did the same thing. All those doubts about him seemed to be swept away by the Seven Days’ campaign.
The Reactions After the Seven Days’ Battles
The European observers decided that the war was going the Confederacy’s way after the Seven Days. That really is quite an astounding fact because it was as if they had blinders on for anything that happened west of the Appalachian Mountains. How could they cancel all of that good Union activity out west and decide the Union was losing the war just because of the Seven Days? But many in the North also took the same view.
Lincoln was also immensely frustrated. He poured out that frustration—to the degree that he would pour things out—in a letter. Writing to a French diplomat, he said he could not understand how all the good work of six months, of clearing 100,000 square miles of territory in the west, should count for so little. How a “single half defeat”—that was how he termed the Seven Days—should count for so much? But the fact was it did.
Common Questions about the Seven Days’ Battles
In the course of the Seven Days’ Battles, General Robert E. Lee drove back General George B. McClellan’s Union forces and forced him to retreat to Harrison’s Landing.
Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, and Stonewall Jackson were the Generals leading the Seven Days’ Battles.
It is believed that there were 20,000 Confederate casualties and 16,000 Union casualties during the Seven Days.