Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 12

Setting the Stage for Battle
The net result of the Battle of Hanover Court House was a change to the strategy of the campaign. McClellan noted that the “enemy was not in great force opposite Bottom’s Bridge” and that “it was important to secure a lodgment upon the right bank before he should have time to concentrate his forces and contest passage.” On the 20th BG Silas Casey’s division of IV Corps (BG Erasmus Keyes) was ordered to ford the river and occupy the heights on the far side. The move was made on the 23rd and the advance went about two miles beyond the river and established camp. On the 25th a further advance was made to Seven Pines where they were instructed to “throw up defenses in an advantageous position.” Keyes placed Casey’s Division across the Williamsburg Road and the division of BG Darius Couch across the Nine Mile Road and began to dig in with the “few intrenching tools at hand.” The work “progressed slowly, however, on account of the incessant rains.” Casey did manage to construct a “pentangular redoubt” for six pieces of artillery. and establish a picket line within 1000 yards of the Confederate line.

GEN Joseph Johnston was already considering an attack on Union forces at the river but altered his plan. The original design called for an attack across the river against the Union right flank before it could be reinforced by McDowell. When that column was recalled to the defense of Washington, Johnston revisited his plan and decided against a cross river assault. Instead the target would be the exposed Union Corps of BG Erasmus Keyes that had been pushed across to the south side of the river. MG James Longstreet and MG D. H. Hill would attack the front of the Union position from the Williamsburg Road with their divisions while MG Benjamin Huger would use his division to take the flank after the initial engagements. MG G. W. Smith would form the reserve or execute another flank attack if the situation developed to favor such a venture. In a meeting with Johnston, Longstreet was given overall control of the operation and the command of his division went to BG Richard H. Anderson. The plan made perfect sense. The movement against Hanover Court House had furthered dispersed the Union strength and the rain swollen Chickahominy would supposedly limit the ability of McClellan to reinforce his isolated Corps.

BG Samuel Heintzelman, commanding III Corps, also moved across the river on the 25th and took a position overwatching the crossings of White Oak Swamp. As the senior officer, Heintzelman also assumed overall command of Union troops that had crossed the river. In this capacity he rode out to Keyes forward positions on a reconnaissance on the 26th. After making some minor adjustments he returned to his command and started preparations of his own. For the next three days the Federal troops did the best they could improving their positions in the driving rains. Fields of fire were cleared and an abatis created in some areas. On the 29th and 30th increased picket activity foretold of the coming battle.

Johnston’s report on the battle, written a month after the fact, indicates that he was unaware of the presence of Heintzelman’s troops in the area. When writing of the torrential rains he noted that the swollen river “increased the probability of our having to deal with no other troops than those of Keyes.” This intelligence failure and the faulty assumption that reinforcements could not.

The Attack Begins (Belatedly)
According to Johnston’s order the assault was to “commence operations by 8 A.M.” There was confusion in the Confederate leadership about exactly how this attack was to be initiated. The expected early morning assault did not go off as planned. The exact sequence of events was unclear. Johnston wrote that “Huger with his division was to move down the Charles City Road in order to attack in flank the troops who might be engaged with Hill and Longstreet”. Apparently there was a misunderstanding between the two commanders. Longstreet, later wrote the “Huger was intended to make a strong flank attack”. He must have taken this to mean that the flank attack would begin the assault .

The well intended and tactically correct action went astray from the very beginning. Longstreet used his role as overall commander to alter the plan without notifying Johnston. He moved down the wrong road and fouled the poorly communicated plan even more deeply. This command confusion delayed the proposed 0800 attack until 1300. The long delay began to worry Johnston, who sent an aide out to find out why the battle had not been commenced. CPT Robert Beckham rode the length of the Nine Mile Road and found no trace of Longstreet’s troops. At 1000 he finally reported that he had discovered Longstreet on the Williamsburg Road. Johnston was so concerned about the apparent error that he considered aborting the plan but thought better of it.

A second command error compounded the first. MG Benjamin Huger’s division that was supposed to move down the Williamsburg Road to their preassault position on the Charles City Road “as early in the morning as possible” was sleeping in. When they were finally awakened they found the road clogged with Longstreet’s men. Although he ranked Longstreet, Huger could not convince him to step aside. Longstreet, claiming overall command, continued to push his men over the rain swollen Gillies Creek. The agonizingly slow progress continued until Longstreet’s men had completed their crossing. Hours late he moved his men aside and granted the road to Huger.

The other key Confederate leader on the field, MG D. H. Hill, became impatient at the long delay and initiated the attack at 1300. With three divisions stacked on the Williamsburg Road the intended wide attack became a narrow focus affair. Nevertheless, the assault caught the Union troops unprepared.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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