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Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia

March 6, 1863



After the battle of Seven Pines the Federal Army under General McClellan preparatory to an advance upon Richmond, proceeded to fortify its position on the Chickahominy, and to perfect the communications with its base of supplies near the head of York River.

Its left was established south of the Chickahominy, between White Oak Swamp and New Bridge, defended by a line of strong works, access to which except by a few narrow roads, was obstructed by felling the dense forests in front. The roads were commanded for a great distance by the heavy guns in the fortifications.

The right wing lay north of the Chickahominy, extending beyond Mechanicsville, and the approaches from the south side were strongly defended by entrenchments.

Our army was around Richmond, the divisions of Huger and Magruder, supported by those of Longstreet and D. H. Hill extending from Magruder’s left beyond Meadow Bridge. The command of Genl Jackson, including Ewell’s division, operating in the Shenandoah Valley, succeeded in diverting the army of McDowell at Fredericksburg from uniting with that of McClellan.

To render this diversion more decided, and effectually mask his withdrawal from the Valley at the proper time, Jackson after the defeat of Fremont and Shields was reinforced by Whiting’s division, composed of Hood’s Texas brigade, and his own under Col Law, from Richmond, and that of Lawton from the south.

The intention of the enemy seemed to be to attack Richmond by regular approaches. The strength of his left wing rendered a direct assault injudicious, if not impracticable. It was therefore determined to construct defensive lines so as to enable a part of the army to defend the city, and leave the other part free to cross the Chickahominy and operate on the north bank. By sweeping down the river on that side, and threatening his communications with York River it was thought that the enemy would be compelled to retreat or give battle out of his entrenchments. The plan was submitted to His Excellency the President, who was repeatedly on the field in the course of is execution.

While preparations were in progress, a cavalry expedition under General Stuart, was made around the rear of the Federal Army, to ascertain its position and movements. This was executed with great address and daring by that accomplished officer.

As soon as the defensive works were sufficiently advanced General Jackson was directed to move rapidly and secretly from the Valley, so as to arrive in the vicinity of Ashland by the 24th June. The enemy appeared to be unaware of our purpose, and on the 25th attacked Genl Huger on the Williamsburg road, with the intention, as appeared by a dispatch from Genl McClellan, of securing his advance towards Richmond.

The effort was successfully resisted, and our line maintained.


Battle of Mechanicsville

According to the general order of battle [General Order 75], a copy of which is annexed, General Jackson was to march from Ashland on the 25th in the direction of Slash Church, encamping for the night west of the Central Railroad, and to advance at 3 a.m. on the 26th and turn Beaver Dam. A. P. Hill was to cross the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge when Jackson’s advance beyond that point should be known, and move directly upon Mechanicsville. As soon as the Mechanicsville Bridge should be uncovered Longstreet and D. H. Hill were to cross, the latter to proceed to the support of Jackson, and the former to that of A. P. Hill. The four commands were directed to sweep down the north side of the Chickahominy towards the York River Railroad, Jackson on the left and in advance, Longstreet nearest the river and in the rear. Huger and Magruder were ordered to hold their positions against any assault of the enemy, to observe his movements, and follow him closely should he retreat.

General Stuart with the cavalry was thrown out on Jackson’s left to guard his flank and give notice of the enemy’s movements. Brig General Pendleton was directed to employ the Reserve Artillery so as to resist any approach of the enemy towards Richmond, to superintend that portion of it posed to aid in the operations of the north bank, and hold the remainder ready for use when it might be required.

In consequence of unavoidable delays, the whole of Genl Jackson’s command did not arrive at Ashland in time to enable him to reach the point designated on the 25th. His march on the 26th was consequently longer than had been anticipated, and his progress being also retarded by the enemy, A. P. Hill did not begin his movement until 3 p.m. when he crossed the river and advanced upon Mechanicsville. After a sharp conflict he drove the enemy from his entrenchments, and forced him to take refuge in his works on the left bank of Beaver Dam about a mile distant.

This position was a strong one, the banks of the creek in front being high and almost perpendicular, and the approach to it over open fields, commanded by the fire of artillery and infantry entrenched on the opposite side. The difficulty of crossing the stream had been increased by felling the woods on its banks and destroying the bridges. Jackson being expected to pass Beaver Dam above and turn the enemy’s right, a direct attack was not made by Genl Hill. One of his regimens on the left of his line crossed the creek to communicate with Jackson and remained until after dark, when it was withdrawn. Longstreet and D. H. Hill’s crossed the Mechanicsville Bridge as soon as it was uncovered and could be repaired, but it was late before they reached the north bank of the Chickahominy. D. H. Hill’s leading brigade under Ripley advanced to the support of the troops engaged, and at a late hour united with Pender’s brigade of A. P. Hill’s division in an effort to turn the enemy’s left, but the troops were unable in the growing darkness to overcome the obstructions, and after sustaining a destructive fire of musketry and artillery at short range, were withdrawn.

The fire was continued until about 9 p.m. when the engagement ceased. Our troops retained the ground on the right bank from which the enemy had been driven. Ripley was relieved at 3 a.m. on the 27th by two of Longstreet’s brigades which were subsequently reinforced. In expectation of Jackson’s arrival on the enemy’s right, the battle was renewed at dawn, and continued with animation for about two hours, during which the passage of the creek was attempted, and our troops forced their way to its banks, where their progress was arrested by the nature of the stream.

They maintained their position while preparations were being made to cross at another point nearer the Chickahominy. Before they were completed, Jackson crossed Beaver Dam above and the enemy abandoned his entrenchments and retired rapidly down the river, destroying a great deal of property, but leaving much in his deserted camps.


Battle of Chickahominy [Gaines’ Mill]


After repairing the bridges over Beaver Dam the several columns resumed their march as nearly as possible as prescribed in the order. Jackson with whom D. H. Hill had united, bore to the left, in order to cut off reinforcements to the enemy or intercept his retreat in that direction. Longstreet and A. P. Hill moved nearer the Chickahominy. Many prisoners were taken in their progress and the conflagration of wagons and stores marked the way of the retreating army. Longstreet and Hill reached the vicinity of New Bridge about noon. It was ascertained that the enemy had taken a position behind Powhite Creek, prepared to dispute our progress. He occupied a range of hills, with his right resting in the vicinity of McGehee’s house and his left near that of Dr. Gaines’, on a wooded bluff, which rose abruptly from a deep ravine. The ravine was filled with sharpshooters, to whom its banks gave protection. A second line of infantry was stationed on the side of the hill behind a breastwork of trees above the first. A third occupied the crest, strengthened with rifle trenches and crowned with artillery. The approach to this position was over an open plain, about a quarter of a mile wide, commanded by this triple line of fire and swept by the heavy batteries south of the Chickahominy. In front of his center and right the ground was generally open, bounded on the side of our approach by a wood, with dense and tangled undergrowth, and traversed by a sluggish stream which converted the soil into a deep morass. The woods on the further side of the swamp were occupied by sharpshooters, and trees had been felled to increase the difficulty of its passage and detain our advancing columns under the fire of infantry massed on the slopes of the opposite hills and of the batteries on their crests.

Pressing on towards the York River Railroad, A. P. Hill who was in advance, reached the vicinity of New Cold Harbor about 2 p.m., where he encountered the enemy. He immediately formed his line nearly parallel to the road leading from that place towards McGehee’s house, and soon became hotly engaged. The arrival of Jackson on our left was momentarily expected, and it was supposed that his approach would cause the extension of the enemy’s line in that direction. Under this impression Longstreet was held back until this movement should commence.

The principal part of the Federal Army was now on the north side of the Chickahominy. Hill’s single division met this large force with the impetuous courage for which that officer and his troops are distinguished. They drove the enemy back and assailed him in his strong position on the ridge. The battle raged fiercely and with varying fortune more than two hours. Three regiments pierced the enemy’s line and forced their way to the crest of the hill on his left, but were compelled to fall back before overwhelming numbers. The superior force of the enemy, assisted by the fire of his batteries south of the Chickahominy, which played incessantly on our columns as they pressed through the difficulties that obstructed their way, caused them to recoil. Though most of the men had never been under fire until the day before, they were rallied and in turn repelled the advance of the enemy. Some brigades were broken, others stubbornly maintained their positions, but it became apparent that the enemy was gradually gaining ground.

The attack on our left being delayed by the length of Jackson’s march and the obstacles he encountered, Longstreet was ordered to make a diversion in Hill’s favor by a feint on the enemy’s left. In making this demonstration the great strength of the position already described was discovered, and General Longstreet perceived that to render the diversion effectual the feint must be converted into an attack. He resolved with characteristic promptness to carry the heights by assault. His column was quickly formed near the open ground. As his preparations were completed Jackson arrived, and his right division, that of Whiting, took position on the left of Longstreet. At the same time D. H. Hill formed on our extreme left, and after a short but bloody conflict forced his way through the morass and obstructions and drove the enemy from the woods on the opposite side. Ewell advanced on Hill’s right and engaged the enemy furiously. The first and fourth brigades of Jackson’s own division filled the interval between Ewell and A. P. Hill. The second and third were sent to the right. The arrival of these fresh troops enabled A. P. Hill to withdraw some of his brigades, wearied and reduced by their long and arduous conflict. The line being now complete, a general advance from right to left was ordered. On the right the troops moved forward with steadiness, unchecked by the terrible fire from the triple lines of infantry on the hill, and the cannon on both sides of the river, which burst upon them as they emerged upon the plain. The dead and wounded marked the way of their intrepid advance, the brave Texans leading, closely followed by their no less daring comrades. The enemy were driven from the ravine to the first line of breastworks, over which our impetuous column dashed up to the entrenchments on the crest. These were quickly stormed, fourteen pieces of artillery captured, and the enemy driven into the field beyond. Fresh troops came to his support and he endeavored repeatedly to rally, but in vain. He was forced back with great slaughter until he reached the woods on the banks of the Chickahominy, and night put an end to the pursuit.

Long lines of dead and wounded marked each stand made by the enemy in his stubborn resistance, and the field over which he retreated was strewn with the slain. On the left the attack was no less vigorous and successful. D. H. Hill charged across the open ground in his front, one of his regiments having first bravely carried a battery whose fire enfiladed his advance. Gallantly supported by the troops on his right, who pressed forward with unfaltering resolution, he reached the crest of the ridge, and after a sanguinary struggle broke the enemy’s line, captured several of his batteries, and drove him in confusion towards the Chickahominy until darkness rendered further pursuit impossible. Our troops remained in undisturbed possession of the field, covered with the Federal dead and wounded, and their broken forces fled to the river or wandered through the woods.

Owing to the nature of the country the cavalry was unable to participate in the general engagement. It rendered valuable service in guarding Jackson’s flank and took a large number of prisoners.

On the morning of the 28th it was ascertained that none of the enemy remained in our front north of the Chickahominy. As he might yet intend to give battle to preserve his communications, the 9th Cavalry, supported by Ewell’s division, was ordered to seize the York River Railroad, and Genl Stuart with his main body to cooperate.

When the cavalry reached Dispatch Station the enemy retreated to the south bank of the river and burned the railroad bridge. Ewell, coming up shortly afterwards, destroyed a portion of the track. During the forenoon columns of dust south of the Chickahominy showed that the Federal Army was in motion. The abandonment of the railroad and destruction of the bridge proved that no further attempt would be made to hold that line; but from the position it occupied, the roads which led towards James River, would also enable it to reach the lower bridges over the Chickahominy and retreat down the Peninsula. In the latter event it was necessary that our troops should continue on the north bank of the river, and until the intention of Genl McClellan was discovered it was deemed injudicious to change their disposition. Ewell was therefore ordered to proceed to Bottom’s Bridge to guard that point, and the cavalry to watch the bridges below. No certain indications of a retreat to James River were discovered by our forces on the south side of the Chickahominy, and late in the afternoon the enemy’s works were reported to be fully manned. The strength of these fortifications prevented Generals Huger and Magruder from discovering what was passing in their front. Below the enemy’s works the country was densely wooded and intersected by impassable swamps, at once concealing his movements and precluding reconaissances except by the regular roads, all of which were strongly guarded. The bridges over the Chickahominy in rear of the enemy were destroyed, and their reconstruction impracticable in the presence of his whole army and powerful batteries. We were therefore compelled to wait until his purpose should be developed.

Generals Huger and Magruder were again directed to use the utmost vigilance and pursue the enemy vigorously should they discover that he was retreating. During the afternoon and night of the 28th the signs of a general movement were apparent, and no indications of his approach to the lower bridges of the Chickahominy having been discovered by the troops in observation at those points, it became manifest that General McClellan was retreating to the James River.


Battle of Savage Station

            Early on the 29th Longstreet and A. P. Hill were ordered to recross the Chickahominy at New Bridge, and move by the Darbytown to the Long Bridge road. Major R. K. Meade and Lieutenant S. R. Johnston of the Engineers, attached to General Longstreet’s division, who had been sent to reconnoiter, found about sunrise, the work on the upper extremity of the enemy’s line of entrenchments abandoned. Generals Huger and Magruder were immediately ordered in pursuit, the former by the Charles City road, so as to take the Federal Army in flank, and the latter by the Williamsburg road, to attack its rear.

Jackson was directed to cross at Grapevine Bridge and move down the south side of the Chickahominy. Magruder and Huger found the whole line of works deserted and large quantities of military stores of every description abandoned or destroyed. The former reached the vicinity of Savage Station about noon, where he came upon the rear guard of the retreating army. Being informed that the enemy was advancing, he halted and sent for reinforcements. Two brigades of Huger’s division were ordered to his support, but subsequently withdrawn, it being apparent that the force in Magruder’s front was covering the retreat of the main body. Jackson’s route led to the flank and rear of Savage Station, but he was delayed by the necessity of reconstructing Grapevine Bridge. Late in the afternoon Magruder attacked the enemy with one of his divisions and two regiments of another. A severe action ensued and continued about two hours, when it was terminated by night. The troops displayed great gallantry and inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy, but owing to the lateness of the hour and the small force unemployed, the result was not decisive and the enemy continued his retreat under cover of darkness, leaving several hundred prisoners, with his dead and wounded, in our hands. At Savage Station were found about twenty-five hundred men in hospital and a large amount of property. Stores of much value had been destroyed, including the necessary medical supplies for the sick and wounded. But the time gained enabled the retreating column to cross White Oak Swamp without interruption and destroy the bridge.


Battle of Frayser’s Farm

Jackson reached Savage Station early on the 30th. He was directed to pursue the enemy on the road he had taken and Magruder to follow Longstreet by the Darbytown road. As Jackson advanced he captured such numbers of prisoners and collected so many arms that two regiments had to be detached for their security. His progress was arrested at White Oak Swamp. The enemy occupied the opposite side and obstinately resisted the reconstruction of the bridge. Longstreet and A. P. Hill, continuing their advance on the 30th, soon came upon the enemy strongly posted across the Long Bridge road about a mile from its intersection with the Charles City road. Huger’s route led to the right of this position, Jackson’s to the rear, and the arrival of the commands was awaited to begin the attack.

On the 29th Genl Holmes had crossed from the south side of James River with part of his division. On the 30th, reinforced by General Wise with a detachment of his brigade, he moved down the River road and came upon the line of the retreating army near Malvern Hill. Perceiving indications of confusion, Genl Holmes was ordered to open upon the column with artillery. He soon discovered that a number of batteries, advantageously posted, supported by an infantry force superior to his own and assisted by the fire of the gunboats in the James River, guarded this part of the line. Magruder, who had reached the Darbytown road, was ordered to reinforce Holmes, but being at a greater distance than had been supposed, he did not reach the position of the latter in time for an attack.

Huger reported that his progress was obstructed, but about 4 p.m. firing was heard in the direction of the Charles City road, which was supposed to indicate his approach. Longstreet immediately opened with one of his batteries to give notice of his presence. This brought on the engagement, but Huger not coming up, and Jackson having been unable to force the passage of White Oak Swamp, Longstreet and Hill were without the expected support. The superiority of numbers and advantage of position were on the side of the enemy. The battle raged furiously until 9 p.m. By that time the enemy had been driven with great slaughter from every position but one, which he maintained until he was enabled to withdraw under cover of darkness. At the close of the struggle nearly the entire field remained in our possession, covered with the enemy’s dead and wounded. Many prisoners, including a general of division, were captured, and [blank] pieces of artillery with some thousands of small arms taken. Could the other commands have cooperated in the action the result would have proved most disastrous to the enemy. After the engagement Magruder was recalled to relieve the troops of Longstreet and Hill. His men, much fatigued by their long, hot march, arrived during the night.


Battle of Malvern Hill

Early on the 1st July Jackson reached the battle field of the previous day, having succeeded in crossing White Oak Swamp, where he captured a part of the enemy’s artillery and a number of prisoners. He was directed to continue the pursuit down the Willis Church road, and soon found the enemy occupying a high range, extending obliquely across the road, in front of Malvern Hill. On this position of great natural strength he had concentrated his powerful artillery, supported by masses of infantry, partially protected by earthworks. His left rested near Crew’s house and his right near Binford’s. Immediately in his front the ground was open, varying in width from a quarter to half a mile, and sloping gradually from the crest, was completely swept by the fire of his infantry and artillery. To reach this open ground our troops had to advance through a broken and thickly wooded country, traversed nearly throughout its whole extent by a swamp passable at but few places and difficult at those. The whole was within range of the batteries on the heights and the gunboats in the river, under whose incessant fire our movements had to be executed.

Jackson formed his line with Whiting’s division on his left and D. H. Hill’s on his right, one of Ewell’s brigades occupying the interval. The rest of Ewell’s and Jackson’s own divisions were held in reserve. Magruder was directed to take position on Jackson’s right, but before his arrival two of Huger’s brigades came up and were placed next to Hill. Magruder subsequently formed on the right of these brigades, which with a third of Huger’s, were placed under his command. Longstreet and A. P. Hill were held in reserve and took no part in the engagement. Owing to ignorance of the country, the dense forests impeding necessary communication, and the extreme difficulty of the ground, the whole line was not formed until a late hour in the afternoon. The obstacles presented by the woods and swamp made it impracticable to bring up a sufficient amount of artillery to oppose successfully the extraordinary force of that arm employed by the enemy, while the field itself afforded us few positions favorable for its use and none for its proper concentration. Orders were issued for a general advance at a given signal, but the causes referred to prevented the proper concert of action among the troops. D. H. Hill pressed forward across the open field and engaged the enemy gallantly, breaking and driving back his first line, but a simultaneous advance of the other troops not taking place, he found himself unable to maintain the ground he had gained against the overwhelming numbers and numerous batteries of the enemy. Jackson sent to his support his own division and that part of Ewell’s which was in reserve, but owing to the increasing darkness and intricacy of the forest and swamp they did not arrive in time to render the desired assistance. Hill was therefore compelled to abandon part of the ground he had gained after suffering severe loss and inflicting heavy damage upon the enemy. On the right the attack was gallantly made by Huger’s and Magruder’s commands. Two brigades of the former commenced the action, the other two were subsequently sent to the support of Magruder and Hill. Several determined efforts were made to storm the hill at Crew’s house. The brigades advanced bravely across the open field, raked by the fire of a hundred cannon and the musketry of large bodies of infantry. Some were broken and gave way, others approached close to the guns, driving back the infantry, compelling the advanced batteries to retire to escape capture, and mingling their dead with those of the enemy. For want of concert among the attacking columns their assaults were too weak to break the Federal lines, and after struggling gallantly, sustaining and inflicting great loss, they were compelled successively to retire. Night was approaching when the attack began, and it soon became difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The firing continued until after 9 p.m., but no decided result was gained. Part of the troops were withdrawn to their original positions, others remained on the open field, and some rested within a hundred yards of the batteries that had been so bravely but vainly assailed.

The general conduct of the troops was excellent, in some instances heroic. The lateness of the hour at which the attack necessarily began gave the enemy the full advantage of his superior position and augmented the natural difficulties of our own.

After seizing the York River Railroad on the 28th June and driving the enemy across the Chickahominy, as already narrated, the cavalry under General Stuart proceeded down the railroad to ascertain if there was any movement of the enemy in that direction. He encountered but little opposition and reached the vicinity of the White House on the 29th. At his approach the enemy destroyed the greater part of the immense stores accumulated at that depot and retreated towards Fortress Monroe.

With one gun and some dismounted men Genl Stuart drove off a gunboat which lay near the White House and secured a large amount of property, including more than ten thousand stand of small arms, partially burned. Leaving one squadron at the White House, in compliance with his orders he returned to guard the lower bridges of the Chickahominy. On the 30th he was directed to recross and cooperate with General Jackson. After a long march he reached the rear of the enemy at Malvern Hill on the night of the 1st July at the close of the engagement.

On the 2nd July it was discovered that the enemy had withdrawn during the night, leaving the ground covered with his dead and wounded, and his route exhibiting abundant evidence of precipitate retreat. The pursuit was commenced, General Stuart with his cavalry in advance, but a violent storm which prevailed throughout the day, greatly retarded our progress. The enemy, harassed and closely followed by the cavalry, succeeded in gaining Westover on James River, and the protection of his gunboats. He immediately began to fortify his position, which was one of great natural strength, flanked on each side by a creek, and the approach to his front commanded by the heavy guns of his shipping in addition to those mounted in his entrenchments.

It was deemed inexpedient to attack him, and in view of the condition of our troops, who had been marching and fighting almost incessantly for seven days under the most trying circumstances, it was determined to withdraw in order to afford them the repose of which they stood so much in need. Several days were spent in collecting arms and other property abandoned by the enemy, and in the mean time some artillery and cavalry were sent below Westover to annoy his transports.

On the 8th July the army returned to the vicinity of Richmond. Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed. Its escape was due to the causes already stated. Prominent among these is the want of correct and timely information. This fact, attributable chiefly to the character of the country, enabled Genl McClellan skillfully to conceal his retreat and to add much to the obstructions with which nature had beset the way of our pursuing columns.

But regret that more was not accomplished gives way to gratitude to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe for the results achieved. The siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of a campaign, which had been prosecuted after months of preparation at an enormous expenditure of men and money, completely frustrated. More than ten thousand prisoners, including officers of rank, fifty-two pieces of artillery, and upwards of thirty-five thousand stand of small arms were captured. The stores and supplies of every description which fell into our hands were great in amount and value, but small in comparison with those destroyed by the enemy. His losses in battle exceeded our own, as attested by the thousands of dead and wounded left on every field, while his subsequent inaction shows in what condition the survivors reached the protection to which they fled.

The accompanying tables contain the lists of our casualties in the series of engagements. Among the dead will be found many whose names will ever be associated with the great events in which they all bore so honorable a part. For these, as well as for the names of their no less distinguished surviving comrades, who earned for themselves the high honor of special commendation, where all so well discharged their duty, reference must necessarily be made to the accompanying reports. But I cannot forbear expressing my admiration of the noble qualities displayed, with rare exceptions, by officers and men, under circumstances which demanded the exercise of every soldierly virtue.

To the officers commanding divisions and brigades belongs the credit for the management of their troops in action. The extent of the fields of battle, the nature of the ground, and the denseness of the forests rendered more than general directions impracticable.

To the officers of my staff I am indebted for constant aid during the entire period. Colonels Chilton and Long, Majors Taylor, Venable, Talcott, and Marshall, and Captain Mason were continuously with me in the field. General Pendleton, Chief of Artillery; Lieut Col Corley, Chief Quartermaster; Lieut Col Cole, Chief Commissary; Lieut Col Alexander, Chief of Ordnance; Surgeon Guild, Medical Director; Col Lay and Lieut Col Harvie, Inspectors General, and Lieut Col Stevens, Chief Engineer, attended unceasingly to their several departments. To the whole medical corps of the army I return my thanks for the care and attention bestowed on the wounded.

I am very respectfully, your obt servt

R E Lee






Source: The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin, 211-222  


Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2017 January 5