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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. II
p166
Chapter XV

The Pursuit Goes Astray

(SAVAGE STATION)

Soon after sunrise on the morning of June 29, Lee received a message of great import from Major R. K. Meade and Lieutenant S. R. Johnston, the two engineers who had been sent from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's division to attempt a reconnaissance across the Chickahominy. They had succeeded in making their way over the swamp, and their report sent a thrill through the army: the great, frowning Federal works around Golding's Farm were empty! This was the key position south of the Chickahominy. If McClellan had evacuated Golding's Farm, it could only mean one thing: he had abandoned his attempt to take Richmond.

Lee's spirits rose at the news. What fairer opportunity could any soldier ask than to attack his adversary in retreat and while changing base? The aim of the campaign had been to force McClellan to retire or to come out from behind his entrenchments so that he could be attacked to advantage. McClellan obligingly had done both.

In the midst of the first exhilaration an officer arrived from the southside with the news that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Magruder was preparing to attack. The theatrical tone of the announcement aroused Lee's sense of humor. He sent the officer back with his compliments to the General and with the facetious request that in making his assault, Magruder should take care not to injure Major Meade and Lieutenant Johnston, who already occupied the works.1

The plan of operations, which Lee had doubtless been maturing on the 28th, now took form rapidly. As no report had been received during the night of any appearance of the Federals on the p167 lower Chickahominy, Lee considered it almost certain that McClellan was making for the James River;2 but as the enemy might have been delayed in his retreat, Lee could not completely put aside the possibility that his opponent was making for the Peninsula, even though Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart had as yet seen nothing of him. Ewell and Stuart therefore had better be held where they were, guarding the lower bridges of the Chickahominy. The remainder of the army should be put in pursuit of the enemy. Lacking, however, all information as to the line of McClellan's probable withdrawal to the James, Lee had to dispose his forces anew in the most practicable manner to meet his adversary on any route that he might follow. This was a difficult task in detail, but if it were rightly performed Lee believed that he could keep McClellan from reaching the James River.3

The distance from Gaines's Mill to the James was too great for the whole army to get in front of McClellan's moving army before nightfall of the 29th. The main battle would have to be fought on the 30th. In his retreat, however, McClellan would have to take his whole army across White Oak Swamp, a troublesome miniature of the Chickahominy that ran from McClellan's left into the larger stream midway between Bottom's Bridge and the Long Bridges. McClellan's leading corps doubtless would be able to reach the south side of White Oak Swamp that day, but if his rear was pressed with vigor part of his army might be cut off north of that stream.

There were, then, two battles to be planned — first the attack on the rearguard that day and a general engagement on the 30th. How was the army to be disposed for these successive operations? Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson was opposite Grapevine Bridge, which of course must be rebuilt at once. Should it develop, after all, that McClellan was making for the lower crossings of the Chickahominy, Jackson could march down the left bank and support Ewell and Stuart. Otherwise, he could cross the bridge when it was completed and could march down the right bank, available either to support the attack on the rearguard or to cut off the Federals if they were balked at White Oak Swamp and attempted to march on to the lower bridges over the Chickahominy. Magruder could move p168 down the Williamsburg road. Then, when the Federal rearguard had been cut off, Magruder and probably Jackson also could cross the swamp and again assail the rear. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Huger, by going down the Charles City road, would be on the Federals' flank.4


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Lee's plan of attack on Federal rearguard at White Oak Swamp, June 29, 1862.
The shaded area suggests the crowding of the approaches to White Oak Swamp Bridge as the Federals retreated.

Longstreet and A. P. Hill should be placed well to the south or to the southwest of White Oak Swamp, where they could strike McClellan in flank or in front, according to his position on the 30th.

Based on this reasoning, orders were issued for movements on the 29th as follows:

1. Ewell to remain at Bottom's Bridge, guarding the crossing.5

p169 2. Stuart to watch the lower passages of the Chickahominy.6

3. Jackson to rebuild Grapevine Bridge and, in the absence of other instructions, to cross and move down the right bank of the Chickahominy, supporting Magruder and moving against the enemy with all speed.7

4. Magruder8 to pursue vigorously the Federal rear down the Williamsburg road and engage it before it reached White Oak Swamp.

5. Huger9 to follow the Charles City road and to take the Federals in flank at White Oak Swamp or before they reached that point.

6. Longstreet, commanding his own and A. P. Hill's division,10 to cross the Chickahominy at New Bridge and to take the shortest route to the Darbytown road; thence down that highway into position on the Long Bridge road to intercept the Federal retreat to the James.11

The general plan of advance was to be as shown on page 170.


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General plan for reconcentration of the Army of Northern Virginia in pursuit of McClellan, as formulated on the morning of June 29, 1862. The arrow suggests the massing of the Federals on their assumed approach to the narrow roads leading to James River.

A. P. Hill's and Longstreet's men, having been prepared for immediate movement, were able to start as soon as these orders were received. Lee hurried ahead of them to explain to Magruder and to Huger in person what was expected of them. Crossing New Bridge, he sent Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Chilton forward to find Magruder. When Magruder had reported, Lee went forward with him down the Nine Mile road, Lee reviewing the plan of operations. Magruder, however, was greatly excited and much preoccupied with the movement of his own division and, as it subsequently developed, got the impression that Huger was to take the Williamsburg road, whereas Huger was to advance down the Charles City road.12 Lee p170 remained with Magruder until they were well inside the former Federal lines at Fair Oaks Station,13 and then he hastened to General Huger's headquarters on the Williamsburg road. General Huger, he discovered, had been into the evacuated Federal position and had then ridden along the front announcing to his men the news of the Federal retreat. The advance of his troops was under way but seems to have been slow and poorly organized. At length, when Huger went on with his command, Lee decided to remain for the time at Huger's quarters,14 which were conveniently placed p171 for ready communication with Longstreet and A. P. Hill as well as with Huger and Magruder. Lee did not attempt to arrange the tactical details of the expected action against the rear of the enemy, but left these to General Magruder.

Already the day was intensely hot,15 and as the roads were now dust-covered, the march of the pursuit column would be hard and miserable, but otherwise nothing happened to indicate any miscarriage of plans until there arrived a dispatch from Magruder at Fair Oaks, stating that a strong force was in his front and was moving against him.16 Lee seems to have discounted this, perhaps attributing the report of an enemy advance to General Magruder's excitement, but as the two rear brigades of Huger's division had not marched far, he ordered them recalled and had them moved over to the Williamsburg road.17 Fearing, however, that this might involve a halt by the whole division, Lee in a short while sent Huger a note in which he reminded him of the importance of advancing rapidly down the Charles City road. If Magruder did not need assistance, Huger was to move on.18 Nothing further, it would seem, was heard from Magruder or from Huger for some hours. Lee had no apprehension, for Jackson's advance from Grapevine Bridge would inevitably turn the flank of any Federal column that might have been drawn up across the Williamsburg road to halt Magruder's pursuit.

Smoke climbed high from piles of abandoned stores to which the retreating Federals had set fire during the night. From the east, the dust still rose in a mighty column. Here and there farm houses, barns, and haystacks were smouldering from an incendiary torch. The fields over which the enemy had retreated were littered with accoutrements and arms. By the roadside stood abandoned wagons and broken ambulances.19 At Lee's temporary headquarters there was the same "fog of war" that somehow had prevailed from the beginning of the campaign. Few couriers came and those few brought little news. Either the majority of the division commanders did not appreciate the necessity of keeping G. H. Q. informed, or else each of them was acting as if he were exercising independent command, and under no necessity of co-ordinating p172 his movements with the others'. Stuart, who had gone on from Dispatch Station to the White House, reported that base abandoned, vast stores burned, and Rooney Lee's historic home destroyed. The cavalry commander was satisfied that the enemy's movement was toward the James and that McClellan had no intention of retreating down the Peninsula.20 Word reached Lee, also, that General T. H. H. Holmes, with 6000 of his men, had crossed to the north side of the James by the pontoon bridges at Drewry's Bluff and had been ordered by the War Department to move down the left bank of that river by way of the New Market road to co-operate with Lee — a very welcome reinforcement, nearly compensating for the casualties at Gaines's Mill.21

As the day closed, it was believed at headquarters that the enemy might be headed off at the intersection of the Long Bridge and Charles City roads, a place familiar in later campaigns as Riddell's Shop. This was, in reality, most improbable, because so great an army, with its wagon train, could not be crowded into the space between Riddell's Shop and the known rear of the enemy; but Stuart was ordered across the Chickahominy to co-operate in an attack at the point where the head of the column was supposed at the moment to be.22 Longstreet and A. P. Hill had made a fair day's march, considering the heat and the dust — thirteen miles.23 Their advance had reached Atlee's farm, on the Darbytown road, though some of Hill's units had been compelled to keep the road until 9 P.M.24 The two divisions were still seven miles from Riddell's Shops,º but, by an early start on the 30th, could get there in time to head off McClellan if he were there. The news from the other commands was far less favorable, and it reached headquarters in a torrential rain that continued far into the night.25 Huger had done a wretched day. Bewildered by the dispatch of troops to p173 and from Magruder, he had spent long hours in the road and then had hesitated in the belief that the enemy was still in White Oak Swamp on his flank. He had bivouacked at Brightwell's, not more than six miles from his starting point.26 If this was the best that could be expected from a fresh division of 9000, it augured ill for the morrow.

Magruder, it developed, had spent several hours at Fair Oaks in placing his troops in line of battle and then had waited for the expected arrival of Huger on his right and of Jackson on his left, in the hope of enveloping the Federal rearguard. Huger, exercising the discretion Lee had given him, had recalled his two brigades because he did not find any need or place for them.27 Jackson had not arrived. After a long delay, Magruder had attacked and had driven the Federals back to Savage Station, one of their advanced bases on the York River Railroad.28 Then he had brought into action the railroad battery that Lee early in June had asked the Navy Department to construct.29 Kershaw's and Semmes's brigades of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McLaws's division had assaulted a lightly fortified Federal position and had made some progress in a two-hour battle that had ended with darkness, but they had not routed the Federals or perceptibly hastened the withdrawal of the rearguard. The advance of the column for the day had been only five miles, the casualties had been 441, and the net result was that the Federals had another night in which to complete the crossing of White Oak Swamp, with two roads available to them across it.30

Lee was disappointed. He did not know the great strength p174 of the force encountered by Magruder, and he wrote him in serious strain. "I regret very much that you have made so little progress today in the 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 more time or he will escape us entirely."31 After this letter had been written, late in the evening, but before it had been dispatched, Major Walter Taylor rode in from an interview with General Magruder, to whom he had carried orders to feel out the enemy during the night.32 Taylor had a strange tale to tell. General D. R. Jones, commanding one of Magruder's small divisions,33 had been expecting Jackson's co-operation on his left, next the Chickahominy, but before the action at Savage Station had opened he had received word from Jackson that he could not help him, as he had "other important duty to perform."34 Magruder had repeated this to Taylor, who had no knowledge of any conflicting orders for Jackson. Taylor had proposed to Magruder that he ride on to Grapevine Bridge, see Jackson, and ascertain what Jackson meant, but as the night was blackness itselfa and Taylor did not know the road, Magruder sent one of his own officers and Taylor returned to headquarters. Lee was as much in the dark as Magruder concerning Jackson's "other important duty," though he knew, of course, that when he had left the north side of the Chickahominy that morning Jackson had not completed the rebuilding of Grapevine Bridge.35 So Lee added a postscript to the letter he had previously written Magruder. "I learn from Major Taylor," he said, "that you are under the impression that General Jackson has been ordered not to support you. On the contrary, he p175 has been directed to do so and to push the pursuit vigorously."36 From Jackson himself, Lee had no words. This, then, was the position of the army at 10 P.M., June 29:


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	Assumed positions.
Roads of heaviest troop movements, June 29‑30, are shaded.

The situation was by no means what Lee had hoped it would be at the end of the day's operations. The Union rearguard had not been caught on the north side of White Oak Swamp; the columns pursuing the Federal rear were not yet close to the swamp; p176 there was growing improbability that the head of McClellan's column could be in the vicinity of Riddell's Shop. The day's operations had been a failure, not to say a fiasco. Still, the enemy would be within striking distance the next day, if only for that one day. McClellan doubtless was crossing White Oak Swamp and might have the rear of his army across before morning, but he would be strung out along the roads. And he would be bound for the James River. Of that, Lee was now fully satisfied. Had McClellan been moving toward the lower Chickahominy, Stuart and Ewell would certainly have had some evidence of his proximity ere this. They had reported none.

If McClellan was not headed off at the junction of the Long Bridge and Charles City roads, by what route would he make for the river? Lee did not know, and he ordered such cavalry as he had at hand to make a bold scout and to ascertain the enemy's position. The result was a bloody repulse for the Confederate horsemen on the Willis Church road, which led to the James. Little else was established except that the enemy was well to the south of Riddell's Shop.37

Was it possible to dispose the Army of Northern Virginia so as to cut McClellan off before he reached the James? As Lee pondered that question, he saw a possibility of attacking the enemy on the move. Then, if he demoralized and defeated the Federals, he would have a chance of enveloping them. Holmes was close to the river and too weak to interpose his division between the enemy and the James, but he could cover the extreme right flank and would be available in case the enemy were broken and fled in disorder toward the James. Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Huger would be on McClellan's flank. By crossing White Oak Swamp, Jackson's strong column would be in rear of the Army of the Potomac. Magruder could be brought around White Oak Swamp as a general reserve. A great opportunity was presented for a convergence of force in a simultaneous attack on a moving enemy, encumbered with a great wagon train.

Lee determined to make the effort, hopeful of large results. Orders were prepared as follows for the movement of the different columns, beginning on the Confederate right:

p177 1. Holmes to advance down the New Market road and take a strong defensive position at New Market Heights near the junction of his route and the Long Bridge road.38

2. Magruder to return from Savage Station, enter the Darbytown p178 road by the shortest byway, advance down it, and take position as a general reserve.

3. Longstreet and A. P. Hill to continue down the Darbytown road to the Long Bridge road and to be prepared to attack the Federals when and where located.

4. Huger to march down the Charles City road, and to open with his artillery when he established contact with the enemy.

5. Jackson, with Whiting and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.D. H. Hill, to march to White Oak Swamp bridge, cross there, and attack the enemy in rear.

6. Stuart's previous orders to stand — to move to the main army and to co-operate as circumstance permitted.

7. The movements at dawn. As Huger was nearest the enemy, the opening of his guns to be the signal for the advance of the attacking columns.39

All these orders, except those for Magruder, were issued while the storm was still raging around Savage Station. After it passed, silence settled over the countryside.40 The only dispatch of any importance that arrived late in the night was one from the sleepless and excited Magruder. Regarding the situation as "by no means satisfactory," he asked for reinforcements, in case Jackson did not arrive. Lee thought them unnecessary and did not send them.41


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 11, part 2, pp494, 662; Longstreet, 130; 9 S. H. S. P., 567‑68; Jones, 242. Magruder's message was not so belated, nor was it based upon so scant a knowledge of the situation, as this episode might indicate. At 3:30 A.M. the Federal lines in his front had been held in strength (O. R., 11, part 2, p662).

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2 Lee's Dispatches, 21.

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3 Longstreet, 148.

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4 O. R., 11, part 2, p494.

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5 O. R., 11, part 2, p607; R. Taylor, 88. For Federal activities opposite Dispatch Station and Bottom's Bridge, see O. R., 11, part 2, pp198‑199, 200, 215.

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6 O. R., 11, part 2, p517.

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7 O. R., 11, part 2, p687.

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8 11,500 fresh troops.

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9 9000 fresh troops.

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10 Longstreet, 130; O. R., 11, part 2, p837.

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11 O. R., 11, part 2, pp494, 662. The crude pamphlet The Seven Days Battle Around Richmond quoted from a Richmond newspaper this simple method of keeping mind the roads around Richmond. N. A. Davis also reprinted it, op. cit., 44; "Place your [left] hand [palm upward]º upon the table with the index finger pointing a little north of east. Spread your fingers so that the tips will form the arc of a circle. Imagine Richmond as situated on your wrist; the outer edge of your thumb as the Central railroad, the inner edge the Mechanicsville turnpike, the first finger as the Nine Mile or New Bridge road, the second as the Williamsburg Pike running nearly parallel with the York River railroad — the railroad running between the two fingers. The third as the Charles City Turnpike (which runs to the southward of the White Oak Swamp) and the fourth as the Darbytown road."

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12 O. R., 11, part 2, pp662, 679.

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13 O. R., 11, part 2, p662.

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14 O. R., 11, part 2, p789.

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15 O. R., 11, part 2, p789.

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16 O. R., 11, part 2, p680.

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17 O. R., 11, part 2, pp680, 789.

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18 O. R., 11, part 2, p789.

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19 21 S. H. S. P., 162.

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20 O. R., 11, part 2, pp483, 497, 516 ff.; H. B. McClellan, 77‑79. The White House, where Martha Dandridge Custis had been living at the time of her marriage to Washington, had been spared and guarded by the Federals but had been set afire on the 28th, "by an incendiary . . . a private of the Ninety-Third New York . . . " (O. R., 11, part 2, p333).

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21 O. R., 11, part 2, pp495, 906‑7. For the correspondence regarding Holmes's advance, see Ibid., part 3, p613 ff.

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22 O. R., 11, part 2, p518.

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23 Cf. D. E. Johnston: The Story of a Confederate Boy, 112.

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24 Longstreet was not precise regarding this march in 2 B. and L., 399. See O. R., 11, part 2, pp759, 775, 874; 3 C. M. H., 295; 21 S. H. S. P., 162.

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25 O. R., 11, part 2, pp79, 691; R. Taylor, 89.

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26 O. R., 11, part 2, pp789, 797; P. F. Brown: Reminiscences of the War of 1861‑1865, pp17‑18. For the movements of Kearny's Federal division, whose whereabouts alarmed Huger, see O. R., loc. cit., 162.

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27 O. R., 11, part 2, p789.

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28 See supra, p101, n50.

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29 2 English Combatant, 163. The gun had been reported ready for action on June 24. O. R., 11, part 2, p615. For its subsequent use, see O. R., 36, part 3, p725; O. R., 51, part 2, p996.

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30 Joel Cook, 326; O. R., 11, part 2, pp494, 663 ff., 691, 717, 726; McDaniel, 6‑7; History of Kershaw's Brigade, 128; N. A. Davis, op. cit., 61, described the "railroad Merrimac." The Federals had Sumner's, Franklin's, and Heintzelman's corps on the Williamsburg road, but Heintzelman resumed his march, in the belief that the ground was too crowded to permit the employment of his troops (O. R., 11, part 2, pp50, 91; 2 B. and L., 372 ff.). Early on the morning of the 30th, the Confederates reached the Federal field hospital at Savage Station and took prisoner 2400 sick and wounded. The fullest account of the destruction of stores, of the hospital at Savage Station, and of the running of an ammunition train down the York River Railroad into the Chickahominy is that of James J. Marks: The Peninsula Campaign in Virginia (cited hereafter as Marks), 230 ff., 245.

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31 O. R., 11, part 2, p987.

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32 O. R., 11, part 2, p667. In the McGuire Papers is a letter from H. H. McGuire to Jed Hotchkiss, April 10, 1896, in which Doctor McGuire stated that on the afternoon of June 29, about 5 o'clock, the rebuilding of Grapevine Bridge was so nearly complete that Jackson crossed and met Lee and Magruder at the Trent house, where Lee gave Jackson his verbal orders for June 30. As Doctor McGuire recorded as a part of this meeting an incident that is known to have occurred early on the morning of June 29, it seems quite certain that he confused both the hour and the place of meeting. The dispatch of Taylor to Magruder late in the day, and Lee's surprise at Taylor's report, are almost conclusive evidence that Lee did not see Jackson or Magruder that afternoon.

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33 Magruder had three — his own, Jones's, and McLaws's, but in the Confederate correspondence of the campaign, the whole are loosely described as "Magruder's division" or "Magruder's command."

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34 O. R., 11, part 3, p625.

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35 Jackson had been expected to finish the bridge during the day (O. R., 11, part 2, p663).

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36 O. R., 11, part 2, p687. Cf. ibid., 665.

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37 O. R., 11, part 2, p525.

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38 O. R., 11, part 2, p906.

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39 O. R., 11, part 2, p495.

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40 Lee's headquarters for the night are not known.

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41 O. R., 11, part 2, p665.


Thayer's Note:

a This was two nights after the New Moon on June 27 (see this page of the U.S. Naval Observatory lunar almanac), so that a thin sliver of moon had set early on. Add the rainstorm, and it must indeed have been a very dark night.


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