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Seven Bloody Days

Forgotten battlefields; monuments to vanity

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee! His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too.

It was some three weeks before the truth of these words was demonstrated. First, Lee strengthened his lines and firmed up his defenses in front of Richmond. He also sent for Stonewall Jackson, who had been busy in the Shenandoah Valley, keeping Washington so much on edge that Lincoln had continued withholding from McClellan the additional men he claimed so urgently to need. Lee sent his cavalry to scout the Union positions north of the Chickahominy, and Jeb Stuart responded by riding completely around McClellan’s lines. He reported back to Lee that the Union’s northern flank was “in the air.”

Lee determined to attack there with the bulk of his army, keeping a token force on the south side of the river, thus leaving Richmond exposed and vulner-able should McClellan move aggressively.

McClellan did move, and his army won the Battle of Oak Grove. After which he sent a message informing Washington, “The rebel force is stated at 200,000. .  .  . I regret my inferiority in numbers but feel that I am in no way responsible for it. .  .  . I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers, can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action which will probably occur tomorrow, or within a short time, is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders, it must rest where it belongs.” Lee had not yet attacked, but McClellan was a beaten man.

Lee did attack, the next day, on the other side of the river. The Union won that battle, too. And while McClellan’s forces on the opposite bank were merely four miles from Richmond, which was wide open to attack, he made the decision to retreat.

He was, he said, changing his base.

Lee, on the other hand, pressed his attack. The third of the Seven Days Battles, Gaines’s Mill, was the bloodiest and Lee’s first victory. It turned on an assault by Texans under the command of General John B. Hood, who was found after the battle sitting on a cracker barrel, weeping. And Hood was a hard man who would go on to lose the use of his arm at Gettysburg and have a leg amputated after a wound at Chickamauga.

After Gaines’s Mill, the Union army was in full retreat. A battle at Savage’s Station on the south bank of the river bought time. Enough to destroy vast stores of supplies but not enough to evacuate some 2,500 wounded men who were taken by the advancing Confederate armies.

During the morning I made my solitary walk around Malvern Hill, I went looking for the Savage’s Station battlefield. There is no park. The actual site of the battle is, today, partially covered by the cloverleaf interchange of I-295 and I-64 and commemorated by one of those cast iron plaques on the shoulder of a nearby two-lane blacktop.

I was drawn to the battlefield having recently read a book that covered the history of a company of Civil War soldiers from the region of Vermont where I now live. This company of men called themselves the Equinox Guards, and Savage’s Station was their first real action. It was a company of 59 men when the battle opened. At its end, only 15 members of the Equinox Guards were unharmed. Between 25 and 30 had been killed or mortally wounded.

There is nothing in any of the accounts of the Seven Days to prove one side or the other superior in bravery or fortitude or willingness to suffer and die.

When one compares generalship, however, the story is different, and vastly so.

McClellan continued his retreat. Lee pursued. Relentlessly. Intent on a battle of annihilation. And he might have had it at a battle known by various names, the most commonly used of which are Frayser’s Farm and Glendale. This was Lee’s best chance to cut the retreating Union forces off from the James River and the protection of navy gunboats. His generals—to include, conspicuously, Stonewall Jackson—failed him. The Union army escaped to the safety of Malvern Hill, where Confederate troops marched into the teeth of a powerful defensive position. It was his last chance, and his audacity became recklessness. The assaults failed.

The Union victory was so complete that some of McClellan’s subordinates urged a resumption of the offensive with the objective of taking Richmond. McClellan, who had spent most of the previous two days aboard a Federal gunboat on the James River, could not be persuaded. One of his generals, Philip Kearney, protested “against this order to retreat. We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond; and in full view of the responsibility of such a declaration, I say .  .  . such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”

McClellan wired Washington, “We have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”

By “failing to win,” he had made inevitable many other battles, to include Antietam, where he also failed. One feels a sense of profound sadness when visiting any of the Civil War battlefields, but there is something different about the patchwork of small sites and solitary plaques that mark and commemorate the Seven Days. A sense, perhaps, of failure compounded by futility and the eternally high price of human vanity.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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