Posted on Mon, Jun. 25, 2012
Seven Days in seven hours: See where Robert E. Lee made his mark
By CHUCK MYERS
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
RICHMOND, Va. - Strolling above Beaver Dam Creek, you hardly take note of the languid tributary water that drifts peacefully from the nearby Chickahominy River.
Red cutgrass, trumpet weeds and a host of other herbaceous species grow freely on bordering wetland meadow, while red maples, river, birch, Sycamore, On the banks, Tulip poplar and a variety of oak trees fill out the landscape. A footbridge spanning the creek connects with a rustic gravel path that terminates after 75 yards, astride the former site of a 19th century mill.
The lush view, flush with natural sounds and aromas, paint a bucolic scene.
But 150 years ago, Beaver Dam Creek presented a very different scene, as cannon thundered and infantry pressed forward.
The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, hailed the first major engagement of the Seven Days Battles, a series of clashes between North and South during the Civil War in late June and early July 1862.
The Seven Days sites present a unique opportunity for day-trippers and Civil War enthusiasts alike. Over the course of seven hours or less, visitors can track the routes of two armies as they battled east of Richmond in 1862.
Navigating two-lane roads by car to five battlefields in a few hours may appear daunting. But the distances and travel times between the sites are comparatively short - approximately 32 miles total travel distance.
The Seven Days Battles laid the foundation for one of the legendary leaders of the American Civil War - Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Lee served as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis early in the war. But after Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston fell wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in late May 1862, he assumed command of Confederate forces in Virginia. He also renamed his new charge the Army of Northern Virginia.
His opposite number, Union Gen. George B. McClellan, had spent months cautiously moving his large Army of the Potomac up the Tidewater Peninsula, after it had landed at Fortress Monroe near Norfolk.
McClellan's wary approach toward the Confederates chagrined many on the Union side, including his commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln.
Still, by June 24, 1862, the federals had reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital at Richmond, and seemed poised to take the city.
But Lee would have none of that. Although in the process of reorganizing his army, he had a good strategic fix on the Union situation and McClellan's command style.
Ronald S. Coddington, the author of two books profiling the Union and Confederate soldiers, and a third, "African American Faces of the Civil War," due out in late 2012, said Lee possessed a strong perceptive ability, which allowed him to anticipate McClellan's moves.
"Lee knows McClellan and what he's capable and incapable of. Lee is a remarkable judge of character. He figures out early on that McClellan is not really going to come on strong. ... He knows exactly what McClellan is all about. I don't even think McClellan was that much of a challenge for him."
An opening salvo between the opposing forces occurred at Oak Grove on June 25. This minor engagement proved inconclusive, as the Confederates repulsed a Union probing attack.
Evidence of the battle, which occurred near the present-day Richmond International Airport, disappeared long ago.
Bob Krick, historian at the National Park Service's Richmond National Battlefield Park, noted that Oak Grove's role in the Seven Days has undergone reconsideration, given the nature of the battle.
"There's been sort of an unorganized movement to change the definition of the Seven Days. The Park now adopts that new definition. We argue that the Seven Days should be considered as being defined by Lee's offensive, which makes good sense. And so we say that the Seven Days ran from June 26, when he made his offensive movements, to July 2, the day after Malvern Hill, where he determined that he had run out of options and his offensive was over."
And herein lies the best rationale for visiting the Seven Days battlefields.
-Downtown Richmond to Chickahominy Bluff (5.3 miles)
For purists who enjoy visiting battlefields around historic dates, only a summertime excursion the Seven Days battlefields will do. But if you grow weary touring and hiking in the summer heat and humidity, then the spring and fall are far more ideal times for making the trip.
The Visitor Center at the Richmond National Battlefield Park at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond serves as a natural starting point for a Seven Days driving tour.
The Richmond National Battlefield Park oversees 13 Civil War Park units. Visitors Center staff can answer any questions regarding travel directions from the city to the battlefields and Civil War history in central Virginia.
The first sites along the route, Chickahominy Bluff and Beaver Dam Creek, share a common link. Both locales played a role on the opening day of the Seven Days.
After Oak Grove, Lee carried the fight to McClellan.
The Union Army numbered about 100,000, but sat divided in positions on opposite banks of the Chickahominy River. Lee saw this as an opportunity to strike hard at McClellan's right flank near Mechanicsville.
Although outnumbered, Lee had help on the way. The Confederate Army of the Valley under Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was due to arrive shortly from the Shenandoah Valley.
Lee left 25,000 soldiers to protect the capital, and moved to the attack with a planned combined force of about 60,000 men.
Lee waited for his strategy to unfold at Chickahominy Bluff, off the Mechanicsville Turnpike.
A popular misconception holds that Lee watched the Beaver Dam Creek battle from the Bluff on June 26.
Actually, he merely looked for the Jackson's arrival from here.
"He (Lee) waited all during the forenoon, through the lunch hour and on into the early afternoon from that bluff," Krick explained. "Finally, Confederate troops showed up in the village of Mechanicsville across the river. He thought it was Jackson, but found that it wasn't Jackson at all. It was his own troops."
Chickahominy Bluff is among the smallest units of the Richmond battlefields. Accordingly, you need not linger long here to understand its role in the Seven Days.
A raised platform at the end of a short trail includes a description of Lee's presence at the Bluff. But the view from the landing is hardly sweeping. Tall tree obscures any possible vista toward Mechanicsville.
Lee eventually departed the Bluff to join his army at Beaver Dam Creek.
-Chickahominy Bluff to Beaver Dam Creek (2.5 miles)
The Beaver Dam Creek battlefield park covers 266 acres, and represents the southern part of the original battle. Here, the Confederates advanced against the right flank of the Union Army's 5th Corps under Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter.
Spotty communications and a chaotic assault stymied the Confederate effort at the Beaver Dam Creek battle. Confederate forces under Gen. A.P. Hill attacked without Lee's knowledge, while Jackson's army did not arrive in time to fight.
Fighting concluded at sunset with a Union victory. Yet, McClellan worried. The Union commander knew Jackson's army would join Lee's force even before the battle. After midnight on the 26th, he ordered a retreat to the James River, where Union gunboats could protect his army.
The battle lines are not hard to picture. The Confederates attacked roughly from the west side of the creek by the visitor parking area. The Union army fought from positions on the east bank. A footbridge over the creek leads onto the original Cold Harbor road and the former Ellison's Mill.
Driving into the Park, you'll undoubtedly notice a sizable concrete marker topped by an iron plaque to one side. This is a Freeman Marker.
During the 1920s, a group of historians formed the Battlefield Marker Association, and placed the markers at 59 locations throughout the region to observe the events that took place in the Richmond area during the war.
-Beaver Dam Creek to Gaines' Mill (approx. 6 miles)
The next major phase of the Seven Days occurred at Gaines' Mill, a few miles southeast of Beaver Dam Creek, on June 27.
Acting as a rearguard, the Union 5th Corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter deployed along the creek's south bank by the Watt House, a modest farmhouse that served as a headquarters. By early afternoon, the Union line faced Confederates to its left and its center. Jackson's troops arrived late, and assumed a position off the Union right. The front extended for nearly two miles.
Union infantry and artillery put up a stubborn defense against repeated, disjointed Confederate attacks. A coordinated Rebel effort late in the day finally broke the Union left, and gave Lee his first major victory in the war.
The South suffered 8,700 casualties, and the Union, 6,000, making the battle the costliest of the Seven Days.
Gaines' Mill is a National Park Service gem, and well worth an hour of exploration. The present site encompasses about 60 acres on the Union left.
Union artillery rests behind snake-rail fences that flank a walking area left of the Watt House. Two more field pieces aim at the forest on the right.
A walking path on the west side loops past a Freeman Marker and onto a forest trail under a screen of American beech and red and white oak trees. Well-placed information signs on the trail illuminate the fighting at Boatswain Creek. The only Civil War monument here also sits at the lane's terminus. It honors an Alabama brigade commanded by Confederate Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox, which cracked the Union lines in this area.
The Wilcox Brigade monument was dedicated in 1999. Recently, a second monument devoted to Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's Texans was unveiled at Gaines' Mill, but on private property.
East of the Watt House, a section of the Gaines' Mill battlefield overlaps with the former the Cold Harbor battlefield. Lee's army faced the Union's Army of the Potomac a second time here in June 1864.
Cold Harbor was a nightmare for the Union Army. On June 3, 1864, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched a large assault against Lee's earthwork defenses. The Confederates repelled the federals, and inflicted staggering casualties.
The Gaines' Mill and Cold Harbor battles also hold a unique distinction. Lee's first major battlefield success and last big open field victory of the Civil War took place on virtually the same ground.
-Gaines' Mill to Savage's Station (Approx. 6 miles)
Route 156 courses easterly the Gaines' Mill road and through the Cold Harbor battlefield before heading due south and crossing the Chickahominy River.
Since Beaver Dam Creek, the road has shadowed the course of the armies as they moved south. A brief departure onto Old Hanover Road off Route 156 maintains this track.
A left onto Old Hanover Road, followed by another left onto Grapevine Road, leads to a stretch of unmarked straight pavement. Not far ahead is the Trent House, a private home that severed as McClellan's headquarters during Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines' Mill.
Old Hanover comes to a stop at Meadow Road. Here, the vista becomes farmlands, the location of the third big engagement of the Seven Days, Savage's Station.
The armies took a brief break from fighting on June 28. After Gaines' Mill, McClellan's men destroyed bridges over the Chickahominy to slow the Confederate advance. Lee wanted to pressure the Union rearguard. But with the bulk of his army still at Gaines' Mill, and Jackson's men now occupied with rebuilding a river crossing, Lee ordered another Rebel force under Gen. John B. Magruder to take up the pursuit.
The Confederates initially drove the Union soldiers down toward Savage's Station on June 29. When Confederates west of the station threatened the Union line, federal reinforcements moved to quell the danger. Frustrated by Magruder's performance, Lee finally called off the attack.
Savage's Station is private property, and not under Park Service administration. A Freeman marker and Virginia historic signs provide the only evidence today of a Civil War battle here. Still, stop and survey the landscape briefly.
The battle itself took place a few miles to the southwest, now lost under the cloverleaf that connects nearby Interstate 295 with Interstate 64.
Although the scenery appears well-tended farmland, the expansive acreage did play a role in the battle. A large Union field hospital once resided in these fields.
While Savage's Station concluded as a strategic draw, Krick added that this chapter ended on a bitter note for the Union.
"When McClellan's retreat commenced to the James River, he couldn't carry away the sick and wounded. It was a real demoralizing blow to his army. ... They marched off and left 2,500 sick and wounded comrades, and there's no way that could be contorted into a victory."
-Savage's Station to Glendale (approx. 10 miles)
Meadow Road reconnects with Route 156 south, just over an intersection with Route 60, and meanders toward the concluding phases of the Seven Days.
Jackson's force, still lagged behind Lee's army, attempted to transit White Oak Swamp south of the Chickahominy. A Confederates and the Union artillery duel ensued over the swamp. A Freeman Marker and Virginia historical sign at a turnoff recall the exchange.
In the meantime, Lee and McClellan's armies headed for renewed fighting ahead at Glendale, also known as Frayser's Farm on June 30.
A Willis United Methodist Church services roadside sign alerts travelers to a key left turn and continuation on the Route 156 (Willis Church Road), toward Glendale and Malvern Hill.
Lee had a chance to inflict serious damage on the Union Army at Glendale. The retreating Union army faced a difficult dual task of fended off the Confederates and keeping its retreat route open along Willis Church Road.
The Glendale battlefield alternates between farm fields and dense woods between the roughly parallel Willis Church and Long Bridge Road. But to save time, it's best to stay on Willis Church.
Chances are you won't encounter much traffic along Willis Church. Still, it's not hard to imagine just how choked the passage became as retreating Union troops battled separate Confederate assaults.
Seven Days roadside signs lead toward a military cemetery at Glendale, one of two found on the tour. (The other is at Cold Harbor.)
During the summer, the Park Service operates a Visitor Center at the Glendale National Cemetery. Generations of American veterans lie in the cemetery, including Union dead. In fact, several Union casualties rest in a mass grave beneath a tall flagpole near the center.
The Willis United Methodist Church resides only yards up the road. The church served as a temporary hospital for Northern wounded, and later, Confederate casualties.
-Glendale to Malvern Hill (2 miles)
Around one last bend and over a short bridge, you arrive at Malvern Hill.
As the Confederates massed for the last act of the Seven Days, 40 Union cannon waited for them on the low crest of Malvern Hill.
The Malvern Hill Battlefield presently encompasses more than 800 acres, and represents some of the best-preserved battlefield property in the National Park system.
Lee called for artillery bombardments from two directions on the federals on the hill on July 1. The plan didn't go well though, as the better equipped and trained Union artillery responded and silenced the Confederates in short order.
At this point, Lee suspended further action. Unfortunately, his infantry moved forward unaware of the change in plan.
Union gunners battered a disjointed Confederate frontal assault as it advanced across open fields in the late afternoon. Pinned-down Confederate units didn't find relief until after sunset, when darkness allowed a pull back.
Malvern Hill offers separate ground-touring entry points: at ruins of a parsonage and further ahead at a crest lined with eight Union cannon.
A 1.5-mile trail circles around the battlefield. The route right from six Union cannon goes the West House - one of two residences on the battlefield proper. The second, the Crewe House, is a private home in the opposite direction.
Two more Union cannon lay before the West House. The path then turns left toward The Parsonage - about a 20-minute walk.
Only two chimneys remain today. The Parsonage actually stood for more than a century after the battle, until a blaze destroyed it in 1988.
From The Parsonage, the trail leads through a wooded area and across Carters Mill Road, which meets with Willis Church and transits the battlefield. The trail reaches a Confederate artillery position before swinging left and back to the starting point on the ridge.
After beating back the Confederates, the Union army pulled up its stakes and headed for shelter at Harrison's Landing, 12 miles away on the James River.
McClellan achieved his goal of reaching the James. But he had also squandered a precious opportunity to capture Richmond. The Army of the Potomac headed back north, finishing its evacuation from the Peninsula on Aug. 26, 1862.
On July 2, Lee halted the Confederate pursuit. The Army of Northern Virginia scored only one clear victory during the Seven Days. Yet, Lee's aggressive strategy had saved Richmond.
And, for the next year, the tide of war generally favored of the Army of Northern Virginia.
"The momentum is clearly with Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy," Coddington said. "In terms of military strategy, the frontal assault is going to be tried again at Gettysburg and other places. And it's always a tough one to pull off. ... Lee sees an opportunity and he goes after it the best way he can."
2012 McClatchy-Tribune News Service.