Battle of Mechanicsville Civil War

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Location of Mechanicsville, VA

Battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia

The Battle of Mechanicsville, also known as the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek or Ellerson's Mill, took place on June 26, 1862, in Hanover County, Virginia, as the first major engagement, but second battle, of the Seven Days Battles during the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War. It was the start of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's counter-offensive against the Union Army of the Potomac, under the command of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, which threatened the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee attempted to turn the Union right flank, north of the Chickahominy River, with troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, but Jackson failed to arrive on time. Instead, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill threw his division, reinforced by one of Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill's brigades, into a series of futile assaults against Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter's V Corps, which occupied defensive works behind Beaver Dam Creek. Confederate attacks were driven back with heavy casualties. Porter withdrew his corps safely to Gaines Mill.

Battle of Mechanicsville Virginia Map
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(Map) Civil War Battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia

Seven Days Battles Map
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(Click to Enlarge)

Background

After the Battle of Seven Pines, on May 31 and June 1, McClellan and the Army of the Potomac sat passively at the outskirts of Richmond for almost a month. Lee, newly appointed commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, devoted this period to reorganizing his army and preparing a counter-attack. He also sent for reinforcements. Stonewall Jackson arrived on June 25 from the Shenandoah Valley following his successful Valley Campaign. He brought four divisions: his own, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder, and those of Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Brig. Gen. William H. C. Whiting, and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill. 

 

The Union Army straddled the rain-swollen Chickahominy River. Four of the Army's five corps were arrayed in a semicircular line south of the river. The V Corps under Brig. Gen. Porter was north of the river near Mechanicsville in an L-shaped line running north-south behind Beaver Dam Creek and southeast along the Chickahominy.

Civil War Battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia
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(Historical Marker)

Virginia Civil War Map of Battles
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(Left) Map of Virginia Civil War battles in 1862.

 

Lee moved most of his army north of the Chickahominy to attack the Union north flank. He left only two divisions (under Maj. Gens. Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder) to face the Union main body. This concentrated about 65,000 troops against 30,000, leaving only 25,000 to protect Richmond against the other 60,000 men of the Union army.

Civil War Mechanicsville
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(Right) Although the Battle of Mechanicsville (second of the Seven Days Battles, aka Seven Days Battles Around Richmond) was a crushing Confederate defeat, when "Stonewall" Jackson's force finally arrived on the field, the Union army was forced to withdrawal. With Lee now in charge, having replaced the wounded Gen. Joe Johnston during the initial phase of the Peninsula Campaign, and Jackson now at Lee's side, the Confederates were now on an aggressive offensive and eventually forced McClellan's withdrawal from the Richmond area.

 

The battle plan for Mechanicsville was a risky plan that required careful execution, but Lee knew that he could not win in a battle of attrition or siege against the Union army. The Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had reconnoitered Porter's right flank and found it vulnerable. McClellan was aware of Jackson's arrival and presence at Ashland Station, but did nothing to reinforce Porter's vulnerable corps north of the river.

Battle of Mechanicsville
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Historical Marker

Lee's plan

Lee's plan required Jackson to begin the attack on Porter's north flank early on June 26. Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's Light Division was to advance from Meadow Bridge when he heard Jackson's guns, clear the Union pickets from Mechanicsville, and then move to Beaver Dam Creek. The divisions of Maj. Gens. D.H. Hill and James Longstreet were to pass through Mechanicsville, D.H. Hill to support Jackson, and Longstreet to support A.P. Hill.

Jackson's March to Mechanicsville
Stonewall Jackson Civil War Mechanicsville.jpg
(Historical Marker)

Lee expected Jackson's flanking movement to force Porter to abandon his line behind the creek, and so A. P. Hill and Longstreet would not have to attack Union entrenchments. South of the Chickahominy, Magruder and Huger were to demonstrate, deceiving the four Union corps on their front.

 
Jackson's March to Mechanicsville
(Right) Historical Marker Inscription: In mid-June 1862, having defeated three Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and his Valley Army joined Gen. Robert E. Lee to defend Richmond. Jackson and his men marched by here on 26 June to strike the flank of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's army near Mechanicsville. Because of Jackson's exhaustion and unfamiliarity with the roads, however, they arrived too late to fight. On 27 June, Jackson and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia assaulted the Union right flank at Gaines's Mill, Lee's clearest victory in the Seven Days Campaign.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek
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(Click to Enlarge)

Battle

Lee's intricate plan went awry immediately. Jackson's men, fatigued from their recent Valley Campaign and lengthy march, ran at least four hours behind schedule. By 3 p.m., A.P. Hill grew impatient and began his attack without orders: a frontal assault with 11,000 men. Brig. Gen. George A. McCall's Union division was forced back. Porter reinforced McCall with the brigades of Brig. Gens. John H. Martindale and Charles Griffin, and extended and strengthened his right flank. He fell back and concentrated along Beaver Dam Creek and Ellerson's Mill. There, 14,000 well entrenched infantry, supported by 32 guns in six batteries, repulsed repeated Confederate attacks with substantial casualties.

Seven Days Battles
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Battle of Mechanicsville, VA

Jackson and his command arrived late in the afternoon. However, unable to locate A.P. Hill or D.H. Hill, Jackson was unable to support or engage. Although a major battle was raging within earshot, he ordered his troops to bivouac for the evening. A.P. Hill, now with Longstreet and D.H. Hill behind him, continued his attack, despite orders from Lee to hold his ground. His assault was beaten back with additional casualties.

 

Jackson did not attack, but his presence near Porter's flank caused McClellan to order Porter to withdraw after dark behind Boatswain's Swamp, five miles to the east. McClellan was concerned that the Confederate buildup, or reinforcement, on and against his right flank threatened his supply line, the Richmond and York River Railroad north of the Chickahominy, and he decided to shift his base of supply to the James River. (He also believed that the demonstrations by Huger and Magruder showed that he was seriously outnumbered.) This was a strategic decision of grave import because it meant that, without the railroad to supply his army, he had to abandon his siege of Richmond. (Battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia, Summary)

Civil War Battle of Mechanicsville
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Virginia 1862 Map

Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield
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Richmond National Battlefield Park

Aftermath

Overall, the battle was a Union tactical victory, in which the Confederates suffered heavy casualties and achieved none of their specific objectives due to the seriously flawed execution of Lee's plan. Instead of more than 60,000 men crushing the enemy's flank, only five brigades, about 15,000 men, had seen action. Their losses were 1,484 versus Porter's 361. Lee's staff recalled that he was "deeply, bitterly disappointed" by Jackson's performance, but communication breakdowns, poorly written orders from Lee, and bad judgment by most of Lee's other subordinates were also to blame.

 

Despite the Union tactical success, however, it was the start of a strategic debacle and the unraveling of the Union Peninsula Campaign. McClellan began to withdraw his army to the southeast and never regained the initiative. The next day the Seven Days Battles continued as Lee attacked Porter at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

 

A small portion of the battlefield has been preserved as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, a park area administered by the National Park Service.

(Sources listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, by Stephen Sears. Description: To the Gates of Richmond charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, General George McClellan’s grand scheme to march up the Virginia Peninsula and take the Confederate capital. For three months, McClellan battled his way toward Richmond, but then Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate forces. In seven days, Lee drove the cautious McClellan out, thereby changing the course of the war. Intelligent and well researched, To the Gates of Richmond vividly recounts one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Continued below…

Publishers Weekly: Sears complements his 1988 biography of George McClellan with this definitive analysis of the general's principal campaign. McClellan's grand plan was to land an army at Yorktown, move up the Virginia peninsula toward Richmond, and fight a decisive battle somewhere near the Confederate capital, thereby ending the Civil War while it was still a rebellion instead of a revolution. The strategy failed in part because of McClellan's persistent exaggerations of Confederate strength, but also because under his command the Federals fought piecemeal. The Confederates were only marginally more successful at concentrating their forces, but Sears credits their leaders, especially Lee, as better able to learn from experience. Confederate victory on the Peninsula meant the Civil War would continue. The campaign's heavy casualties indicated the kind of war it would be. About the Author: Stephen W. Sears is the author of six award-winning books on the Civil War. He lives in Connecticut.

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Recommended Reading: The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula and the Seven Days (Military Campaigns of the Civil War) Description: The Richmond campaign of April-July 1862 ranks as one of the most important military operations of the first years of the American Civil War. Key political, diplomatic, social, and military issues were at stake as Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan faced off on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. The climactic clash came on June 26-July 1 in what became known as the Seven Days battles, when Lee, newly appointed as commander of the Confederate forces, aggressively attacked the Union army. Casualties for the entire campaign exceeded 50,000, more than 35,000 of whom fell during the Seven Days. Continued below…

This book offers nine essays in which well-known Civil War historians explore questions regarding high command, strategy and tactics, the effects of the fighting upon politics and society both North and South, and the ways in which emancipation figured in the campaign. The authors have consulted previously untapped manuscript sources and reinterpreted more familiar evidence, sometimes focusing closely on the fighting around Richmond and sometimes looking more broadly at the background and consequences of the campaign. From the Inside Flap: The Richmond campaign of April-July 1862 ranks as one of the most important military operations of the first years of the American Civil War. These nine original essays, by well-known Civil War historians, explore questions regarding high command, strategy and tactics, the effects of the fighting upon politics and society both North and South, and the ways in which emancipation figured in the campaign. Contributors: William A. Blair, Keith S. Bohannon, Peter S. Carmichael, Gary W. Gallagher, John T. Hubbell, R. E. L. Krick, Robert K. Krick, James Marten, and William J. Miller. About the Author: Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He has published widely on the Civil War, including six previous titles in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series.

 

Recommended Reading: Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles. Description: Extraordinary Circumstances tells the story of the Seven Days Battles, the first campaign in the Civil War in which Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia. One of the most decisive military campaigns in Western history, the Seven Days were fought in the area southeast of the Confederate capitol of Richmond from June 25 to July 1, 1862--and began a string of events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation and the shift toward total war. About the Author: Brian K. Burton is Associate Professor of Management and Director of the MBA program at Western Washington University. Continued below...

Reviews:

"A full and measured account marked by a clear narrative and an interesting strategy of alternating the testimony of generals with their grand plans and the foot soldiers who had to move, shoot, and communicate in the smoky underbrush." -- The Virginia Magazine

"A thoroughly researched and well-written volume that will surely be the starting point for those interested in this particular campaign." -- Journal of American History

"A welcome addition to scholarship that should be the standard work on its subject for some time to come." -- Journal of Military History

"A well-written, thoroughly researched study of the Seven Days.... Provides thorough and reasonable analyses of the commanders on both sides." -- Georgia Historical Quarterly

 

Recommended Reading: Seven Days Before Richmond: McClellan's Peninsula Campaign Of 1862 And Its Aftermath (Hardcover). Description: Combining meticulous research with a unique perspective, Seven Days Before Richmond examines the 1862 Peninsula Campaign of Union General George McClellan and the profound effects it had on the lives of McClellan and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as well as its lasting impact on the war itself. Rudolph Schroeder’s twenty-five year military career and combat experience bring added depth to his analysis of the Peninsula Campaign, offering new insight and revelation to the subject of Civil War battle history. Continued below…

Schroeder analyzes this crucial campaign from its genesis to its lasting consequences on both sides. Featuring a detailed bibliography and a glossary of terms, this work contains the most complete Order of Battle of the Peninsula Campaign ever compiled, and it also includes the identification of commanders down to the regiment level. In addition, this groundbreaking volume includes several highly-detailed maps that trace the Peninsula Campaign and recreate this pivotal moment in the Civil War. Impeccably detailed and masterfully told, Seven Days Before Richmond is an essential addition to Civil War scholarship. Schroeder artfully enables us to glimpse the innermost thoughts and motivations of the combatants and makes history truly come alive.

 

Recommended Reading: Sword Over Richmond: An Eyewitness History Of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign (Hardcover). Description: Publishers Weekly: Union General George McClellan's attempt to capture the Confederate capital in 1862, one of the most significant campaigns of the Civil War, has been comparatively neglected by popular historians, probably because of its complexity and seeming lack of coherent structure. Wheeler recounts it in a way that should attract a large readership: the judicious use of extensive quotes by participants and observers, linked by expositional passages of remarkable clarity, supported by good maps. Continued below…

The political and strategic aspects of the campaign are given fair due, but the emphasis is on the human element. The central incidents on which the personal narratives hang include the Monitor-Merrimack battle, "Stonewall" Jackson's diversionary maneuvers in the Shenandoah Valley and Lee's daring counteroffensive in the Seven Days Battles. The book is rich in dramatic anecdote, telling detail and eloquence.

 

Recommended Reading: The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Review: This is one of the most useful guides I've ever read. Virginia was host to nearly 1/3rd of all Civil War engagements, and this guide covers them all like a mini-history of the war. Unlike travel books that are organized geographically, this guide organizes them chronologically. Each campaign is prefaced by a detailed overview, followed by concise (from 1 to 4 pages, depending on the battle's importance) but engrossing descriptions of the individual engagements. These descriptions make this a great book to browse through when you're not in the car. Most sites' summaries touch on their condition--whether they're threatened by development (as too many are) and whether they're in private hands or protected by the park service. Continued below…

But the maps are where this book really stands out. Each battle features a very clear map designating army positions and historical roads, as well as historical markers (the author also wrote the /A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers/), parking, and visitors' centers. Best of all, though, many battles are illustrated with paintings or photographs of the sites, and the point-of-view of these pictures is marked on each map!

Sources: Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3; Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959; Kennedy, Frances H., Ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6; Salmon, John S., The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, Stackpole Books, 2001, ISBN 0-8117-2868-4; Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Ticknor and Fields, 1992, ISBN 0-89919-790-6; National Park Service; Library of Congress; Richmond National Battlefield Park; Civil War Preservation Trust; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

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