Action Jackson 1862
Stonewall’s Foot Cavalry Wins The Day
By David Atwell
Much has been said, over the years, deriding the abilities of Union general George McClellan. It is true that he was slow. It is true that he constantly bickered with US President Lincoln. But it is also true that President Lincoln and Secretary of Defence Edwin Stanton, with their constant interfering with McClellan’s plans, only ensured defeat for the Army of the Potomac, during the Seven Days Battles, as well as the annihilation of the Union Army of Virginia, not long afterwards, which resulted in the Confederate occupation of Washington DC. All in all, thanks to these amateur methods of military planning, there would be the damnation of all Union parties involved, even though at the beginning of 1862, everything appeared to be very much the opposite for Union aspirations.
McClellan’s plan, for the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, was a bold yet well thought out one. In order to break the Confederate front lines, in northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac would conduct a huge amphibious operation, land to the rear of the Confederate army, then march on Richmond. At first, Lincoln completely agreed with the plan, believing it to be of great merit, but when Stanton got to advise the Union President, things soon began to change. Yet, without being made aware of these changes, McClellan commenced his campaign.
Things got off to a good start, for the Army of the Potomac, until they reached Yorktown. Here things slowed down to a snails pace. Given false intelligence, not to mention McClellan’s natural caution, instead of a quick bold attack, McClellan chose to conduct a siege. What was worse, it was a slow siege which, in the end, proved to be pointless. It was around this time, thus, Lincoln, under media and public pressure, decided to withhold 42 000 troops from McClellan, which would become the vital reason for the Union catastrophe which would follow.
Still, at the first real major battle of the Peninsular Campaign, those 42 000 troops were not needed. The Confederate general in charge at the time, Joe Johnston, decided to launch an attack. The two day battle which followed, known as Fair Oaks, was a messy affair for both sides. But two important things happened, which would have a significant impact on the future. The first was that Joe Johnston was seriously wounded, allowing Robert E. Lee to take over command. And the second was that, although the battle was a stalemate, McClellan had been unnerved by the Confederate assault and became even more cautious.
In doing so, Lee was able to achieve a number of things once he gained command. The first was he managed to get more reinforcements, ensuring he now had enough to go onto the assault in a sustained manner. Importantly, this ensured that the Confederate capital of Richmond was now safe from Union occupation. The next thing was a thorough reorganisation of the Confederate defenders into the now famous Army of Northern Virginia. And lastly the maverick Confederate general, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, was given command of the Army’s left wing. The seeds had thus been sown for Confederate victory.
After the Battle of Fair Oaks McClellan, even if he had become even more cautious than normal, nevertheless continued the advance towards Richmond as he had planned several months before. By doing so, he had not, however, altered his battleline where he still allowed the chance that the reinforcements from the Washington region, namely US I Corps, would join up on his right hand wing. Thus he allowed US V Corps, under the command of General Porter, to become the flank guard even though this meant V Corps was exposed to any flanking manoeuvre. Confident, nonetheless, that the Confederates would defend Richmond first and foremost, McClellan dismissed the danger this represented to the Army of the Potomac. Lee, however, did not.
Consequentially, on 26 June, the Army of Northern Virginia attacked. It was a rather complicated plan, which Lee had developed, but simple nevertheless in its basic strategy. Essentially the right Confederate wing would keep the main part of the Union army honest; the centre would pin US V Corps in place at Mechanicsville; whilst Jackson’s wing moved around the open Union flank then crush it from behind. Of course, even if relatively simple, all sorts of things could go wrong, from being spotted by Union cavalry patrols, whilst on the flanking march, to simply getting lost. Lee, nevertheless, judged that the benefits would outweigh the dangers.
Sure enough, at around 2 PM, the Union pickets at Mechanicsville began to engage the first ranks of the advancing Confederate soldiers of A. P. Hill’s division. Within minutes the nearest Union regiments had lined up and began to offer a strong defence. As the Confederate attack advanced, though, it began to suffer heavy loses. It appeared, thus, to everyone present, that the first stage of Lee’s first major offensive was about to suffer defeat. Still the Confederates pressed ahead, especially when D. H. Hill’s division began to enter the battle. Doing so ensured other Union forces, previously uncommitted, also added their numbers as well, meaning that a vast majority of V Corps were involved in keeping the Confederates at bay. Yet by committing themselves as such, V Corps merely succeeded in doing exactly what Lee wanted them to do.
As a result of the initial action at Mechanicsville, Jackson was now given a trouble free run. Having moved out at dawn, guided by local volunteers, Jackson’s left wing was able to march to their objective without any Union interference nor did they get lost. By the time the first shots were fired at Mechanicsville, by A. P. Hill’s soldiers, Jackson’s wing was ready to move into the battle. And move they did. Long before there was any warning, Jackson’s soldiers were already amongst the rear area of V Corps camps. By 5 PM the Union camps had been cleared and Jackson’s troops were attacking the rear of V Corps battleline. Artillery pieces, thousands of Union troops, as well as General Porter himself, had been captured, whilst thousands of others ended up as casualties. Only some 2 500 Union troops managed to flee, panic stricken, from the disaster, telling all and sundry the fate of US V Corps and the fate which awaited the rest of the Union army.
It goes without saying that news spread fast as to the Union disaster at Mechanicsville. McClellan consequentially panicked and quickly ordered a retreat south to the James River. This was not necessarily a bad decision overall, given the fact that his entire flank had just been destroyed, but it meant that any attempt to take Richmond was now impossible. Yet, what is more to the point, it meant that the roads, tracks, and everything else an army could march along, would be jammed packed with troops, cannons, horses, and wagons. This would hence ensure that the Union retreat would be even slower than their previous advance. Needless to say, this was exactly the opposite to what every Union soldier, regardless of rank, wanted.
Lee, too, knew this fact and did not waste much time issuing new orders to continue the attack against the Army of the Potomac. Doing so, though, was a lot easier said than done. Lee’s centre divisions had been seriously hurt, during their part of the Battle of Mechanicsville, and needed some time to see to the wounded, not to mention rest and rearm. And although their enthusiasm was most certainly up to the task of pursing the Union soldiers, practical considerations delayed their ability to do so.
The same, however, could not be said for Jackson’s left wing. Although having had a forced march, on the previous day, plus a fair amount of fighting, due to the fact that they did not have to conduct a frontal assault, but rather they simply overran the enemy with limited resistance, both their casualty rates and ammunition expenditure was low. Plus, having the reputation of being foot cavalry, furthermore helped Lee in his deliberations. Thus Jackson was ordered to vigorously pursue the Army of the Potomac, whilst A. P. Hill’s and D. H. Hill’s divisions acted as the reserve. Meanwhile, as the Union troops abandoned their front lines facing Richmond, both Longstreet’s and Magruder’s commands would likewise pursue albeit at a respectable distance.
One may wonder why Lee did not want Longstreet and Magruder to be too aggressive, as they followed the fleeing Union troops, but Lee did not want either command to get involved with a battle individually, just in case he may need one or the other command to help Jackson’s pursuit. It basically came down to numbers. Jackson, however, victorious, still only had 18 000 troops with him, whilst the Army of the Potomac still had 70 000 troops. And even if another US Corps could be cut off, during the retreat, then Lee knew he would have to combine Jackson’s command with someone else’s to ensure victory.
Meanwhile, at McClellan’s headquarters, it became obvious that a major rearguard stand had to be conducted in order for the army to survive. Consequentially McClellan, although having little other choice, unwittingly ensured Lee would get his wish. It was not, though, as if the commander of US VI Corps, Franklin, had not seen it coming. Having been concerned about Porter’s open flank, he had mentioned it to McClellan who had brushed his concerns aside. Franklin had, however, kept his eye on the local terrain, just in case he had to fight such a battle as he had now been ordered to conduct. Thus on the evening of 27 June US VI Corps lined up at Savage’s Station awaiting the dawn.
If there is one complaint about Jackson’s efforts, during the Seven Days Battles, it is he was too enthusiastic to get at the Union forces. Having learnt at dawn, on 28 June, that the Union had establish a battleline, not far from his overnight position, he gave orders to attack it immediately. Thus by 9 AM, with his command lined up and ready to go, it attacked with little regards to any well planned battle strategy and/or tactics. Predicably, just like with the Confederate frontal assault two days earlier, the Confederate’s began to suffer heavy casualties. The attack, thus, by Midday, soon ground to a halt and became more of an artillery duel than anything else. Here again, due to the impatience of getting into battle, the Confederates had not chosen the best locations to place their artillery. As a result, the guns of US VI Corps was winning this battle within a battle as well.
Yet US IV Corps was not to achieve victory, this day, and Jackson’s reputation would be saved, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of Longstreet’s command on the Union left flank. Having stuck to his orders, Longstreet had been following the withdrawal of US VI Corps albeit at a distance. Longstreet, though, had used his initiative that morning once he had heard the guns open up at Savage’s Station. Believing rightly, that battle had commenced there between his comrades, under either Lee or Jackson, and VI Corps, Longstreet issued his own orders to march to the sound of the guns. Although this took some three hours, Longstreet managed to get his command into a reasonable battleline, then charged the Union lines facing Jackson, taking the defenders by surprise. The result was predictable, and although the Union defeat was not as impressive as that at Mechanicsville, it did mean to say that another US Corps had been stricken from the Order of Battle and there were 17 000 fewer Union troops, now mostly prisoners, to fight for the loss of about 4 000 Confederates. Included in the Union deaths was the gallant Franklin, who was killed near the end of the battle whilst still issuing orders.
About the only good news for the Union, during the whole Seven Days Battles saga, was a victory at Malvern Hill on 30 June. But before that battle took place, the Confederacy would have one more victory. Confederate cavalry general, Jeb Stuart, was also active, during these events, albeit somewhat detached from the main army. Having been given orders to operate to the left hand flank of Jackson’s command, he soon found his cavalry force on the prowl against any unprepared Union forces. These usually were not any fighting units, but supply and logistic ones. Nevertheless, that mattered little to Stuart as his cavalry wreaked havoc on the Union supply trains retreating towards Harrison’s Landing, on the James, along with everyone else.
Still, even with the success of the cavalry, Lee was a frustrated man. Having to deal with the practicalities of cleaning up a battlefield, especially in dealing with thousands of prisoners, not to mention caring for the wounded, regardless of side, meant to say he lost a day in getting at those people as Lee would say. Yet, his orders went out to continue the pursuit of the retreating Army of the Potomac. Soon, Magruder, with 13 000 troops, the only Confederate force not yet involved in any combat, was hammered with orders to engage the next US Corps before it could escape. Meanwhile, Lee gathered the rest of the army together, including A. P. Hill’s and D. H. Hill’s divisions, then in reserve, and set off in pursuit once more.
Magruder, however, took his time, which did not win him any favours after the campaign was over. Lee was far from impressed, but that did not mean that Magruder’s efforts were not ignored. McClellan, now that he was well aware that VI Corps had been annihilated, only knew too well what fate awaited for him, and the rest of the army, if the Confederate pursuit was not stopped. Albeit he was reluctant to order it, the US III Corps of General Heintzelman soon found itself having to conduct a last ditched rearguard action akin to VI Corps only two days before. One major thing, though, worked in III Corps favour: and that was the ground they had decided to fight upon.
Malvern Hill proved to be the best location that any defender could have imagined. It could not be outflanked. Instead only a frontal assault could take place. And even though Lee was able to combine his entire army together for once, more or less, at the Battle of Malvern Hill, the meagre 17 500 Union troops were up to the task of defeating them. There were, however, several mistakes made by the Confederates which ensured Union victory.
The first mistake to take place was that Magruder arrived on the scene on 1 July, several hours before the others, and got immediately into action. With urgent orders coming from Lee to rapidly take the fight to those people, he finally followed these orders instead of waiting for the Army of Northern Virginia to concentrate together its numbers. His 13 000 troops, hence, were completely outnumbered and Magruder's force had no chance whatsoever in breaching the Union defences. Error then compounded upon error, when the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia finally arrived. Lee, thinking victory could come at any moment, decided to support Magruder in his futile efforts, by sending reinforcements into the attack as they arrived on the battlefield. In doing so, though, the attack continued piecemeal, instead of building up the formidable army Lee had finally concentrated for a major concerted effort. These errors would continue, until mid afternoon, when Lee finally realised the situation and decided to have one major all-out assault. The problem by now, however, was that Magruder’s troops were thoroughly exhausted along with half of the rest of Lee’s army. Consequentially Lee’s first and only major assault at Malvern Hill, in the afternoon, was also repulsed.
Heintzelman knew, nonetheless, that his III Corps was in no better condition than Lee’s army, even though his casualties were light, his ammunition stocks were low, not to mention his men were exhausted. Thus, under the cover of darkness, having done its job superbly, III Corps withdrew from their positions and was, more or less, safely in Harrison’s Landing by dawn the next day. Lee knew this would probably happen, so he dispatched Stuart and his cavalry after III Corps at dawn on 1 July. Stuart discovered, to his horror, when reaching Harrison’s Landing, that the place was a natural fortress after a brief engagement with the Union defenders. He reported this to Lee who regretted not completely destroying the Army of the Potomac, but was nevertheless satisfied with the results thus far. It seemed a siege would now commence, but other factors would soon came into play to change this.
As an indication as to the strength of the Union, especially at the time, even with the disaster having endured by the Army of the Potomac, a new Union army, the Army of Virginia, had been organised during McClellan’s slow march up the Peninsular. Formed from a mix of new recruits and divisions stripped from McClellan’s original plans for his campaign on Richmond, it numbered 77 000 troops by the time it took its first steps on its march towards Richmond. Lincoln, although not having complete faith in its commander, General John Pope, nevertheless did not originally envisaged the Army of Virginia to do anything other than defend the Union capital. But now, with the Army of the Potomac under siege, and Pope declaring he shall be victorious, Lincoln had few choices other than allow Pope to attack, hoping that Richmond may indeed fall, whilst the Confederate army was busy with the trapped Army of the Potomac.
Lee, however, saw it coming, thanks mostly to Union newspapers reporting the boasts of General Pope. Consequentially, by late July 1862, a mere three weeks after the Seven Days Battles, Lee had started slipping out divisions, from around the battlelines surrounding Harrison’s Landing, back to positions covering Richmond from a northern approach. Still, not everything went to plan as Pope actually managed to get a step on Lee’s preparations by moving earlier than Lee predicted. Consequentially, a number of skirmishes commenced, between Jackson’s units, now organised under the banner of CSA II Corps, which culminated at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on 9 August. Although it was a Confederate victory, it was far from a convincing one as evident by, even though the Union retreated, Jackson was in no position to pursue.
Mind, it was not that Lee wanted Jackson to pursue the Union force at this point in time, as Lee had no idea whether McCellan, with a still a sizeable force of some 53 000 troops, would take advantage of the moves by Pope, break out of the Harrison’s Landing parameter, and once more march on Richmond. As a result, Lee kept Longstreet’s newly organised CSA I Corps in place, for as long as possible, until he was convinced McClellan was content to remain in place. This meant, though, that Jackson, with only 24 000 troops, had to face off an army three times his number. Lee, in other words, was playing for time.
Time, however, was more so running out for Pope rather than for Lee, as Lee had finally decided to leave a small force behind under Magruder, watching McClellan, whilst moving the great bulk of Longstreet’s Corps north to join up with Jackson. Meanwhile, and unbeknown to Lee, McClellan had actually organised an evacuation to take place not much later around 30 August. Still that did not now matter to Lee, as countering Pope was his main objective.
Alas for Pope, he would help Lee in his own defeat at the Battle of Second Manassas. Having rapidly advanced south initially, after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, he became overly cautious akin to McClellan. This may have seemed prudent at the time, considering the recent fate of the Army of the Potomac, but in this case it ensured Lee was given the precious time he needed to get his plans developed and put into motion. So once again, with a Union army holding their positions, waiting for a frontal attack, Lee simply moved around its right flank and attacked where Pope never expected him to do so. At first the Confederate plans seemed to be working, but then Pope, for all his faults, more or less realised the danger: or to put it more accurately, it should be said, some of his subordinates realised the danger but Pope eventually listened. Thus, having dug in along the Rappahannock expecting a frontal assault, a long series of mobile battles instead resulted, on the Union’s right flank, as the Union Army of Virginia commenced a retreat in a race to get to Manassas Junction before the Confederates.
Alas for the Union Army of Virginia, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would not let them get away that easy. Instead a huge battle took place at Manassas, which would dwarf the first one that took place there just over a year before. Although the Confederates were outnumbered, as they only had about 55 000 soldiers against 77 000 Union troops, on this particular occasion it mattered not, for on the day of battle, 29 August 1862, the Union positions were haphazard, poorly organised, and several units were still arriving on the battlefield. Meanwhile the Confederates had fully deployed and overlapped both flanks of the Union battleline.
Thus when the Confederates attacked at around 10 AM, even though the Union centre managed to repulse the morning attacks, it was a completely different story on the flanks. In both instances, the Union was in trouble from the start. Jackson’s attacks, though, were soon stopped by stubborn Union resistance around the Stone House, but Longstreet’s attacks on the other flank simply drove the few Union defenders into a panic. This panic was soon turned into a total rout as Stuart’s cavalry got involved with the attack. Within a hour, Longstreet’s Corps, lead by Kemper’s division, had swung around behind the Union centre, and were soon attacking the rear of the Union positions at the Stone House. In doing so, the vast majority of the Union Army of Virginia, including its commanding general, had been surrounded. They would not last out the day.
News of the annihilation of the Union Army of Virginia did not reach Washington until the next morning. Lincoln was in deep shock and was incapable of making any decisions until the following day. By then it was far too late. Washington was basically void of defenders save for a 10 000 manned garrison. More to the point, Lee knew this. Having had several victories, seemingly against great odds, taking and occupying Washington appeared to be the next logical step to him. And it was seen as the next step which may see an end to the Civil War albeit risky. Convinced, however, that McClellan would not try to conduct a similar stunt on Richmond, Lee decided to take the gamble.
It now, though, became a race of the ignorant. Lee had no idea, that on the day he would march on Washington with 50 000 or so troops, McClellan’s 53 000 troops were embarking on ships sailing their way to Washington. Furthermore, McClellan had not yet been informed of the fate of Pope’s Union army, whilst Lee had not been informed yet of McClellan’s evacuation. Had Lee known this, Washington would never have been occupied, as Lee would have feared that he may have soon been surrounded and forced to surrender with his entire army.
As it was, it was not to be. Although the Washington defences were impressive, they were only manned by 10 000 troops, none of whom had seen combat, which ensured Washington fell to the Confederates after a long five hour battle. Mind the Confederates did not gain victory easy. Instead, by achieving their victory, over the Washington garrison, an horrendous casualty figure of 12 000 dead and wounded was accomplished, not to mention the deaths of several veteran generals. Even Longstreet was not immune to bullets, and suffered a gunshot to his body, although he was to fully recover after a few months of rest.
McClellan, though, was eventually warned of the situation in Washington and soon made plans to land his Army of the Potomac elsewhere, after a rather perilous journey up the Chesapeake, to the relative safe harbour of Baltimore. Here McClellan planned to continue the war by retaking Washington at the first opportunity. This, though, was something McClellan would never be given the chance to achieve. Lincoln, having escaped Washington prior to its occupation, now dismissed McClellan from the Army. Whilst US reinforcements soon flooded into Baltimore and the surrounding regions of Washington, in an effort to contain the Confederate success, Lincoln looked towards someone else to command the US Army in the Eastern Theatre. Alas Lincoln would choose one Ambrose Burnside.
Gallagher, G. W. The American Civil War: The war in the East 1861-1863, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2001
Konstam, A. Seven Days Battles 1862, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2004
Konstam, A. Fair Oaks 1862, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2003
Krick, K. K. The American Civil War: The war in the East 1863-1865, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2001
Langellier, J. Second Manassas 1862, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002
Ward, G. C., Burns, R. & Burns, K. The Civil War, American Documentaries, London, 1991
And my thanks to maveric @ AH.Com who started an ACW thread which sparked my interest in this scenario.