Battles proved major turning point in war
Motorists zipping along Route 360 or Interstate 295 through eastern Henrico may seldom think about it, but their travels slice across some of the most hotly-contested, strategically-significant territory of the Civil War. Over the course of the week ending on July 1, 1862, the area was the scene of six major battles.
These conflicts, which we now know as the Seven Days Battles, are occasionally labeled the Seven Days Campaign. But rather than being a true, separate campaign, the battles actually represented the culmination of the Peninsula Campaign – Union General George B. McClellan's unsuccessful effort to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond and end the war.
Eventually coming within seven miles of the capital, McClellan's troops were in prime position for a strike at the region's transportation hubs and the Confederacy's economic and manufacturing centers, which supplied iron and small arms that were crucial to the survival of the army. With nearly 125,000 men, McClellan had amassed the largest army in American history, outnumbering the Confederate troops almost two to one.
In addition to their smaller numbers, the Rebels were also disadvantaged by fortifications that were far from complete.
Excavations had begun on only four of 18 batteries ringing the city; powder magazines frequently held as much as three feet of water; and uncleared woods still obscured the line of fire.
Yet instead of capturing Richmond, the Federal forces ended the Seven Days Battles in retreat and eventual withdrawal. Under the leadership of a new commander named Robert E. Lee, the Confederates took the offensive, and the war would go on for another three long, hard years.
As a major turning point in the Civil War, the Seven Days Battles rank number six on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant events in Henrico’s 400-year history.
‘Four tables amputating all day’
General Robert E. Lee was less than a month into his tenure as commander when the Seven Days Battles took place.
On the last day of May, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston – in what some say was his greatest contribution to the Confederate cause – had suffered a wound at the Battle of Seven Pines that set the stage for Lee to take charge of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Headquartered at Dabbs House, Lee spent the month of June extending his defensive lines and fortifying the earthworks that ringed the city. Early on, his fondness for ordering shovel duty had earned Lee the nickname "King of Spades" from his grumbling troops.
Meanwhile, McClellan – who had struggled through such boggy conditions on his march up the peninsula that one historian said the Army of the Potomac "seemed to ooze instead of march" – camped nearby and obligingly waited for dry weather and roads. Lacking his expected reinforcements, and concerned that the Confederate build-up on his right flank threatened supply lines north of the Chickahominy, McClellan arranged to shift his base of supply to the James River at Harrison's Landing.
Beginning on June 25, the opening clashes of the Seven Days Battles took place at Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines Mill in Hanover County. On the night of June 27, after hard fighting at Gaines Mill, part of McClellan's army began withdrawing toward the James across the Grapevine Bridge (today the site of the Route 156 bridge across the
Chickahominy). The Yankee wounded were brought to a field hospital at Savage Station, where one wounded New Jersey soldier recorded in his diary, "Four tables amputating all day."
Although he still held the advantage, McClellan was unnerved by the Gaines Mill battle and convinced that he was surrounded and outnumbered. Instead of merely shifting his supply base to the southeast, he abandoned his siege of Richmond and ordered the troops to head for the relative safety of Harrison's Landing.
Savage Station: the land Merrimack
On June 29, Savage Station became the scene of the third battle of the Seven Days Battles.
Maj. Gen. John Magruder's Confederate forces attacked the rear guard of the retreating Federals, who were hampered by a lack of north-south routes. Most roads below the Chickahominy River ran east-west, so it took McClellan's troops three days to march southeast, then turn south at White Oak Swamp. But without help from Stonewall Jackson, who was still reconstructing the Grapevine Bridge, Magruder could not capitalize on the situation.
The Confederates, however, did fire at Federal units with a siege gun that was mounted on a railroad flatcar and pushed into position with a locomotive. Dubbed the "Land Merrimack," the siege gun bombarded the Union front, with some of its shells reaching as far to the rear as the field hospital. The use of the gun marked the first-ever instance of railroad artillery used in combat.
Forced to leave behind their field hospital, including 500 medical personnel and more than 2500 sick and wounded, the Yankees moved on to face new challenges at Glendale and Malvern Hill, the final two battles of the Seven Days Battles.
Glendale: the lost opportunity
The dual names designating the June 30, 1862 conflict – Frayser's Farm and Glendale – suggest just one of the communication problems that dogged the Confederate Army's movements in the unfamiliar ground around the Chickahominy and James rivers. Duplicate or misleading place names (including two Cold Harbor crossroads in nearby Hanover, and the locally-known-but-absent-from-maps Darbytown Road) and unreliable directions frequently confused orders and delayed troop movements.
Of course, exhaustion was another factor contributing to Confederate woes, and the wet weather and treacherous mud continued to pose obstacles to maneuvers for both armies. As one solder wrote of his travails around White Oak Swamp, "Wet ground to sleep on, mud to wade through, swollen creeks to ford, muddy springs to drink from."
It was in White Oak Swamp on June 30 that Stonewall Jackson's troops stalled as they pursued McClellan's army in its retreat toward the James. Unable to cross a stream protected by Yankee fire, Jackson never made it to Glendale to join the attack planned by General Lee.
With Union brigades positioned around the bottleneck at Glendale crossroads, unaware of Rebel plans to strike, the attack represented Lee's last best chance to intercept the Federals and cut them off from the James River. Lee had so outmaneuvered McClellan's scattered troops that – had he only gotten early support from Jackson and Huger
(slowed by downed trees on Charles City Road) – historians believe a defeat of McClellan was virtually assured.
Instead, the Confederates could manage only a piecemeal attack, notable for some of the fiercest bayonet and rifle-butt fighting of the war. As one Northern colonel described the scene: "It was muzzle to muzzle, and the powder actually burned the faces of the opposing men."
By nightfall the battle at Glendale has sputtered to an indecisive finish, and Federal forces were able to regroup and escape. With the dying daylight, it's been said, also died one of the South's greatest opportunities for victory. Many historians identify Glendale as the penultimate battle of the Seven Days, pointing out that had the day gone differently, the entire history of the war – and perhaps the nation – could have changed. As Confederate General E. Porter
Alexander's famously lamented, "Never, before or after, did the fates put such a prize within our reach."
McClellan's forces settled atop a natural fortress – one historian called it a mini-Gibraltar – at Malvern Hill, a mile-wide plateau that must have seemed a paradise after six weeks in the swamps. July 1 dawned so hot, however, that soldiers on both sides suffered sunstroke as the Confederates attempted one final offensive.
But once again, the Rebels were unable to coordinate their attack, and again confusing instructions and mapping mixups played key roles. Magruder's brigades, for instance, wasted a long march in the wrong direction following "Quaker Road" – a name applied locally to two neighboring but different routes.
With Federal gunboats also lobbing shells from the river, the Confederate charge was futile. Despite great loss of life on both sides, Malvern Hill was clearly a victory for the North. Yet the demoralized McClellan continued his withdrawal to the new supply base at Harrison's Landing.
"For Lee, Malvern Hill was a tactical defeat," wrote historian Ernest B. Furgurson. "But the Seven Days Campaign was a major strategic success. McClellan pulled back to Harrison's Landing, 19 straight miles from the city, much further by crooked roads or winding river."
Just three months earlier, as McClellan prepared to march up the Peninsula, the end of the war had seemed to be within his grasp. In the wake of his retreat, Northern morale plummeted – while Confederate morale skyrocketed.
Jokes about "changing my base" made the rounds of the Rebel forces, inspiring great hilarity – and even a few derisive verses. One of the more popular examples went, "Henceforth, when a fellow is kicked out of doors, he need never resent the disgrace; but exclaim, 'My dear sir, I'm eternally yours, for assisting in changing my base!'"
In an article about the Seven Days Battles, University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher wrote, "[The battles] saved Richmond and inspirited a Confederate people buffeted by dismal military news from other theaters. The victory also caused Lee's reputation to shoot upward, beginning the process by which he and his army would emerge, by the late spring of 1863 at the latest, as the principal national rallying point for the Confederate people. "
Day is done
Not only did the Seven Days Battles play a key role in the outcome of the Civil War, but they also helped produce a lasting musical legacy.
At their miserable encampment on Harrison's Landing, Northern soldiers endured crowded, hot, unsanitary conditions. On July 15, one soldier's journal recorded a temperature of 103 in the shade.
It was on such a hot July evening that an officer showed his brigade bugler a melody he had sketched on the back of an envelope, asking him to sound it out in place of the "lights out" call that traditionally signaled day's end.
According to one version of the story, Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield was not fond of the standard "lights out"call, which he considered too formal. With the help of brigade bugler Oliver Willcox Norton, Butterfield tinkered with the tune and developed a replacement. Norton, of Erie, Pennsylvania, was the first to sound the new call, which soon spread to both Union and Confederate forces.
Not long afterwards, a corporal in Captain John C. Tidball's unit at Harrison's Landing passed away, and Tidball was refused permission (for military reasons) to fire three guns over his grave. Wanting to bury the corporal with full military honors, Tidball had the idea to play Butterfield's call. Within a short time, it was adopted officially by the army for use in military funerals.
With only a few modifications, that same haunting bugle call first played at Harrison's Landing – otherwise known as "Butterfield's Lullaby" or "Day is Done" – has come down to us today as "Taps."
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