McClellan’s Siege Of Richmond

The great memory of Richmond for all time will be of the Civil War, when for three years battles raged around it. The first movement against the city was McClellan’s siege in 1862, and the environs show abundant remains of the forts, redoubts and long lines of earthworks by which the Confederate Capital was so gallantly defended. The earliest at-tack was by Union gunboats in May, 1862, against the batteries defending Drewry’s Bluff on James River, seven miles below the town, the defensive works being so strong that little impression was made, but enough was learned to prevent any subsequent naval attack there. McClellan came up the Peninsula between James and York Rivers, approached Richmond from the east, and extended his army around to the north, enveloping it upon a line which was the are of a circle, from seven miles east to five miles north of the city. The Chickahominy flows through a broad and swampy depression in the table-land north and east of Richmond, bordered by meadows, fens and thickets of underbrush. It thus divided McClellan’s investing army, and the first great battle near Richmond was begun by the Confederates, who took advantage of a heavy rain late in May which had swollen the river and swamps. They fell upon the Union left wing on May 31st, and the indecisive battle of Fair Oaks, in which the losses were ten thousand men, was fought southwest of the Chickahominy. General Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate Commander, was badly wounded, and General Lee succeeded him, continuing in command until the war closed. Extensive cemeteries now mark this battlefield among the swamps. During June the heat and malaria filled McClellan’s hospitals with fever cases, and he had to move the greater portion of his army to higher ground north of the Chickahominy, where he erected protective earthworks. These still exist, with the formidable ranges of opposing Confederate works on the south side of the river.

One of the most brilliant Confederate movements of the war followed. McClellan’s right wing stretched around to the village of Mechanicsville, five miles north of Richmond, and Lee determined to overwhelm this wing. Stonewall Jackson had been driving the Union troops out of the Shenandoah Valley northwest of Richmond, and late in June began a combined movement with Lee’s army at Richmond. Longstreet and Hill crossed the Chickahominy above Mechanicsville and attacked the Union right, beginning the “Seven Days’ Battles,” lasting from June 25 to’ July 1, 1862. Jackson was to have got down the same day from the Shenandoah Valley, but his march was delayed, and this gave time for McClellan to withdraw his wing and extensive baggage trains across the swamps below, the stubborn defense by his rear guards making the fierce conflict of Gaines’ Mill, on the second day, during which Jackson, coming from the northward and joining the others, compelled the Union lines to change front, the con-test thus turning into the first battle of Cold Harbor, in which the rear held their ground until the retreat was completed across the Chickahominy, and with-drew, destroying roads and bridges behind them. McClellan then made a further retreat, for which these obstructive tactics gave time, across the White Oak Swamp down the river, moving on a single road, leading to higher ground, which was held by hasty defenses. The Confederate attacks upon this new line made the battles of Savage Station, Charles City Cross Roads, and Frazier’s Farm, the pursuit being checked long enough to permit another retreat and the formation of lines of defense on Malvern Hill, fifteen miles southeast of Richmond, adjoining James River. The Confederates again attacked, but met a disastrous check ; and, wearied by a week of battles and marches, they then desisted, closing the seven days’ fighting, in which both sides were worn out, and the losses were forty thousand men. McClellan’s army, having retreated from around Richmond, afterwards withdrew farther down James River to Harrison’s Landing, and here they rested. Subsequently they were removed by vessels to Washington for the later campaign which resulted in the second battle of Bull Run, McClellan being superseded for a brief period by Pope. This brilliant Confederate movement against McClellan raised the siege and relieved Richmond, emboldening them to make their subsequent aggressive campaigns across the Potomac, which were checked at Antietam and at Gettysburg.