The Battle Of Gaines’s Mill [Fully Revised]

Major Pivot Point Of The American Civil War

[A fully Revised And Extended Version]

Purpose Of This Rather Unorthodox Article

The purpose of this article is not so much to rehash the battle of Gaines’s Mill itself, but rather to provide greater prospective as to how its outcome drastically altered the timeline of the war to save the Union, or as folks of those days in Dixie might prefer to call the confrontation — the war of Southern Independence. Moreover it is meant to show how this particular combat within sight of the Confederate capital of Richmond fit into a complex political situation and rapidly changing martial technology of that period, the latter forcing radical alterations upon battlefield tactics. Also how the massive development of worldwide manufacturing caused the American Civil War, in total, to become the first of only three possible industrial wars among mankind’s countless military confrontations over the eons. And lastly how the views of folks today would likely drastically differ from those of the war years.

Introduction

Perhaps the most significant battle of the American Civil War did not occur upon the more widely known and visited battlefields of America such as Antietam, Vicksburg or even Gettysburg, but rather the far lesser understood and remembered Battle of Gaines’s Mill, the third day of fighting within a series of violent clashes before the gates of Richmond know collectively as the Seven Days Battle.

Though it could not be anticipated at the time, the morning of June 27, 1862, the looming Battle of Gaines Mill, would soon unfold as a most pivotal encounter of the War of Rebellion, one that would determine whether or not fighting would continue on for perhaps an additional six months or drag on, as fate in the end dictated, for a supplementary period slightly shy of threehorrendously bloody years.

McClellan

Leading the Union army against General Robert E. Lee and his newly congregated and entitled Army of Northern Virginia, defenders of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia was the charismatic and highly controversial General George Brinton McClellan. McClellan had been a highly successful railroad executive before the war and one acknowledged as a top-flight organizer and leader of men. As a general, some nicknamed him the young Napoleon; others affectionately called him Little Mac. In political sentiment McClellan was a moderately conservative, mainstream Democrat of those days.

Trouble With Politicians

As McClellan skirmished with the Rebels in the swamps, streams and dense patches of woods within sight of capital of the Confederacy and positioned his troops for the final phase of his Richmond campaign, his overarching dilemma and most worrisome burdened was two fold. First political enemies back in Washington were working night and day trying to undermine his operations. Second he was wrongly of the impression that he was facing an enemy at least twice the size of his own forces, which numbered slightly over one hundred thousand combat effectives.

As for McClellan’s first nagging problem, politicians undermining his operations, there is the famous saying, and rightly so, that war is politics by other means. Never was this more true than during the American sectional struggle between the slave states of the Southern Confederacy and the upper tier states loyal to the Union. Northern abolitionist sentiment was lead in the Federal Congress by what were know as the radical Republicans (a general reversal of party sentiment from today). To cut through a maze of political complexity, the bottom line was that certain powerful Republicans did not want the war concluded before one of their primary goals of the war; the permanent destruction of the “peculiar” institution — slavery — was fully recognized.

When McClellan first rose to top command in the Federal army the radicals hoped to make him one of their own on the issue of Negro emancipation. But though McClellan was sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, he was a firm believer that forcing the Southern states back into the Federal Union should be by far the primary reason for the Northern war effort. Besides average loyal backers of the Union cause were either indifferent to the slave issue or some even hostile to interfering with the long-standing Southern institution. In other words the general did not wish to risk distressing his citizen soldiers over the thorny of slavery.

To compound the problem of politics for McClellan, the war for many Northern politicians was ferociously personal. Over many years Northern and Southern politicians had engaged in bitter feuds that sometime rose to the level of physical blows. It had come to the point where if any of their bitter Rebel enemies were serving in the Confederate armies, Northern politicians hoped to see them killed — the sooner the better. This was not the case with McClellan. Many of his former officer friends had gone over to the Southern cause, but he did not perceive them as personal enemies.

Aware of McClellan’s tolerant nature regarding the enemy, the radicals became evermore irritated and distrustful of the general’s motives. And so, upset by McClellan’s insufficient hatred of all things Southern and leery that the dashing young general might be fostering political ambitions, the radicals diligently conspired to undercut his ability to end the war quickly and relatively painlessly. But most important of all, they worked to prevent him from being seen as the savior of the Union, or any Democratic general for that matter, but especially McClellan.

To further this radical endeavor, while McClellan was repeatedly calling for reinforcements to make up for the administration’s previous troop cuts, to no avail, the Lincoln administration was busy squirreling away badly needed reinforcements to form a new second Eastern army, one that would soon come under the command of the darling of the radicals and one considered to be a most loyal Republican, General John Pope.

Indeed, with the radicals, politics trumped military considerations. They had already caused President Lincoln to demote McClellan from general-in-chief of all the Union Armies down to the far more limited role of commander of the Army of the Potomac only. And so as fate moved ever closer to the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, tensions between McClellan and the Lincoln administration, inspired by Congressional radicals, did much to color the general’s strategic thinking and actions, both consciously and unconsciously, for he was well aware of the intriguing against him.

Lincoln’s Tribulations

There should be no doubt that Lincoln and his devious sidekick, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, were giving McClellan and other Democratic generals fits. But Lincoln was navigating over uncertain and unprecedented ground in trying to put down the rebellion. He needed the support of both conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (yes, times have changed politically since the Civil War). The radicals of his own party were constantly pressuring him to dump conservative Democratic generals like McClellan. Yet most of the professionally trained graduates of the United States military academies were Democrats. He needed their military expertise as well as their political support in order to successfully prosecute the war. The bottom line was that in trying to satisfy all factions, he unwittingly created a series of fiascos to materialize on the battlefield.

A Matter Of Numbers

As to the matter of relative strength, basic military doctrine dictated that the Confederacy must concentrate the balk of its forces to the most critical point of attack — Richmond. This according to basic military principles as prescribed by Baron de Jomini, one of Napoleon’s officers and one considered the ultimate expert on military tactics. His methods were foundation principles taught in the United States Military Academy and other soldierly schools. And so, with every professionally trained officer on both sides of the war thoroughly schooled in the need for concentration of force, not one among McClellan’s general staff disputed this obvious assumption.

Therefore the general consensus among the military high command was that Rebel strength in the vicinity of Richmond would likely approached 200,000, when considering troops likely moving east from the Western Confederacy and General Jackson’s Valley Men. In fact Allan Pinkerton, heading up what vaguely passed for an army intelligence service of the time, confirmed that to be the case. The heart of Pinkerton’s information, unfortunately for McClellan, was gathered from escaped slaves whom, from hindsight we know, proved to be very unreliable informants.

On the other side of the relative troop strength equation, when McClellan initially proposed to come at Richmond and its defending armies up the Virginia peninsula from the southeast, he was thinking in terms of leading in excess of 150,000 troops. By the time the campaign got underway, alas, his force had been whittled down a full third by the Lincoln administration. Thus in McClellan’s thinking, simple math supposed that he was likely outnumbered at least two to one.

Historians critical of McClellan have long ridiculed his fear of being vastly outnumbered as if it were some mental defect particular to the General’s mindset. But as previously stated McClellan’s thinking was completely in keeping with the rest of the high command. The underlying problem, when it came to the issue of Rebel strength, was that the high brass of the Army of the Potomac could not possibly know that their Confederate counterparts were having as much trouble with politicians gumming up the works for them as they were having with their own politicos.

This was particularly true in light of the fact thatRebel President Jefferson Davis had been a professionally trained military mind that had once served as United States Secretary of War, with McClellan as one of his essential aides. It was unthinkable that such a fine martial mind as President Davis would fail to see to it that strategic necessity was implemented. Unfortunately for McClellan’s ongoing reputation, historians continue to propagate McClellan’s erroneous impression of the Federals being vastly outnumbered as nothing more than a foolish notion within the commanding general’s mind, alone.

It may be said that President Lincoln was indirectly responsible for such slurs against McClellan’s reputation. By the time mid-twentieth century Civil War writers came to their task, Lincoln had become a national icon. In order to fully succeed as authors of this genre, it was best that they play down the flaws of Lincoln’s early direction of the Federal war effort. Thus many writers of the war pushed blame, as much as it was possible, upon the generals, particularly the general of a different political party known to have openly opposed Lincoln, as did McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. Even a certain well know writer, having made McClellan the centerpiece of his life’s work, has done this with pronounced success — a marvelous gatherer of facts, but terribly biased against his subject with his analysis.

McClellan’s Basic Plan

With uncertainties of political interference and enemy troop strength hanging over him, McClellan nevertheless proceeded to push on with his intended siege of Richmond and its defending army. Having to consider that his political enemies would likely continue sabotaging his operations by various means and that his forces were greatly inferior to that of his opponent, it was McClellan’s basic plan to move upon Richmond and its defenders in deliberate entrenched steps, and then using his vast advantage in artillery, especially his large siege guns, pound the enemy into submission.

The Count of Paris, a close foreign confidant among his staff members, was well aware that McClellan intended to lean heavily upon his significant advantage in artillery. (In all the war, on either side, no one better utilized artillery than did McClellan.) The general emphasized this theme of deliberate advance to wife Ellen in a June 15 letter. “I shall make the first battle mainly an artillery combat. As soon as I gain possession of the Old Tavern I will push them in upon Richmond and behind their works; then I will bring up my heavy guns, shell the city, and carry it by assault.”

McClellan was among the first field commanders to fully comprehend the effect of modern technology on basic infantry tactics. The killing power of the rank and file soldier’s rudimentary weapon was enormously enhanced by the rifling (grooving) of its barrel, extending the firearm’s effective range from perhaps 50 yards to around 500 yards, meaning that defenders had many more chances to unleash volleys of deadly fire before possibly being overrun by onrushing attackers. Thus in four years of Civil War battlefield methods would evolve from standup Napoleonic style of combat to that of World War One trench warfare. In effect technology had caused defensive warfare to temporarily leapfrog ahead of offensive warfare. Not until the later perfection of tanks and airplanes during World War Two was balance restored between defense and offense.

A few years later, on nearly the same ground before Richmond as Gaines’s Mill, General Ulysses Grant would ignore this new reality of defensive advantage, incurring a huge lose of lives at the battle of Cold Harbor, where infantry were driven headlong into entrenched infantry. Grant would later write that his tactics at Cold Harbor were his worst mistake of the war. It was a lesson well learned as he soon settled down during the Richmond/Petersburg siege with his own version of trench warfare.

Meanwhile, the administration, still looking for ways to get rid of McClellan, sent General Burnsides, McClellan’s long time comrade, down from Washington to confer with the army commander. Old Burn was carrying instructions to relieve his friend of command if he thought McClellan was not moving ahead with enough vigor. To the dismay of the radicals and Stanton, General Burnside retuned to the Federal capital with McClellan still in charge of the main Federal army.

Finally on June 25 McClellan began what he hoped would be the concluding phase of his Peninsula Campaign with a probing attack centered on the Williamsburg Road from just west of Seven Pines, aiming at a place called Oak Grove. At this time his main deployment was from near the right bank of the Chickahominy River four miles farther south to White Oak Swamp. The four corps commanders along this front — Generals Franklin, Sumner, Heintzelman and Keys — were not necessarily all to McClellan’s liking. His best general, Fitz-John Porter, was posted with his 5thCorps some four mile to the northeast, on the other side of the flooding Chickahominy. Having to stretch his army across a flooding, even if normally such a small waterway, presented a risky situation for McClellan.

Porter’s troops were mostly arranged behind a small stream called Beaver Dam Creek. His purpose was twofold — linkup with any of the overland reinforcements that the administration kept promising to forward, then turning around and rescinding their movement southward; and second protect the army’s White House supply base resting on the west bank of narrow Pamunkey River, with the critical means of moving supplies from base to army forward positions being the Richmond and York River Railroad.

Plan B

When it came to McClellan’s actual preferred base of supply, his field actions and later writings don’t always line up well. Was McClellan really intending to come at Richmond dependent upon his White House base of supply? Or, instead, was he always anticipating, at some point of his operations, to change base to the James River, as he seems to indicate in his post war writings. This is the 64,000-dollar question.

In early June McClellan began seriously thinking in terms of a plan B, when he conferred with Admiral Goldsborough about the possibility of supplying the army from the James. The urgency for an alternative supply base was accelerated on June 12 when Jeb Stuart made his spectacular ride entirely around the Army of the Potomac. Three days following, McClellan ordered a reconnaissance of the route between White Oak Swamp and New Market near the James. And soon the navy began prepositioning supplies at Harrison’s landing.

McClellan later claimed that the only reason he held fast to his White House base was because he was ordered to extend his right flank to the Northeast to be in position to link up with troops that were soon expected to be coming down from the Fredericksburg area. But if such Troops did arrive overland in significant numbers from above his main deployment, they would automatically bolster his right flank, giving his supply system just the sort of protection it badly needed.

Being able to keep his White House base would be a much superior situation than having to carry supplies to his army via wagons over poor roads from Harrison’s Landing on the James, though the latter would make a more secure base of operation. And by his words and deeds prior to Lee’s counteroffensive, it should be clear that McClellan still had every intention of pushing ahead with his Richmond campaign while being supplied from White House for as long as it was possible.

It was most likely only because of his fears of being significantly outnumbered and did not trust his political superiors back in Washington to support him, that he was thinking and operating on the basis of a drastic backup plan. Very simply McClellan must have reasoned that should it appear that he was going to be overwhelmed and cut off from White House, he would then immediately shift to a plan B, meaning he would make a dash for the James River where his supplies and troops would be safely under the protection of naval gun boats. The river at Harrison’s landing was quite wide, as compared to the base on Pamunkey, and so the navy had ample room to maneuver for maximum protection of the army. The added benefit of marching south rather than east was that Lee would not expect McClellan to be moving in the direction of the James, buying him extra time for establishing a safer redeployment of the army.

Some could make a legitimate claim that McClellan’s plan B was really his plan A all along. Years later McClellan wrote: “In anticipation of a speedy advance on Richmond, to provide for the contingency of our communications with the depot at the White House being severed by the enemy, and at the same time be prepared for a change of base of our operations to the James River, if circumstances should render it advisable, I had made arrangements more than a week previous (on the 18th) to have transports with supplies of provisions and forage, under a convoy of gunboats, sent up the James River.”

When McClellan wrote, “If circumstances should render it advisable,” it seems to massively contradict what he actually intended to do when he wrote the following few words later: “The superiority of the James River route, as a line of attack and supply is too obvious to need exposition…. To that end, [a move to the James River] from the evening of the 26th, every energy of the army was bent.” It would seem that with these two statements McClellan is conflating safety with offensive efficiency.

Then McClellan continues to write in his book, McClellan’s Own Story, how he absolutely intended to run to the James River even before the outcome of the Battle of Gaines’s Mill was decided. After the pull back of Porter’s troops from their deployment overlooking Beaver Dam Creek to an even stronger position behind Boatswain’s swamp, McClellan explains: “I determined then to resist Jackson with the 5th Corps, reinforced by all our disposable troops in the new position near the bridge-heads, in order to cover the withdrawal of the trains and heavy guns, and to give time for the arrangements to secure the adoption of the James River as our line of supplies in lieu of the Pamunkey.”

According to this description of events, McClellan clearly intended that what became the battle of Gaines’s Mill was meant as merely a spoiling action to allow time for the rest of the army and its portable equipment to get a head start toward the James. One, however, should keep in mind that since that is how events materialized, McClellan in his later writings was possibly trying to spin a narrative to future historians that what he actually did by changing base to the James was his most natural and practical course of action. Something he was intending all along.

Some harsh critics of the general might even feel that McClellan was afraid to win a battle at Gaines’s Mill because it would seem to make a lie of his constant claim that he could not possibly win without more troops. If he was employing some sort of strange gambit involving an unnecessary retreat, it surely backfield as subsequently his troops resting on the banks of the James River, some weeks after the fighting had ceased, were ordered shipped off to General Pope’s army.

Lee’s Counter Offensive

At Richmond, having recently taken over command of the primary Eastern army, General Robert E. Lee understood McClellan’s methodical strategy. He contemplated that his new army and Richmond had no chance whatsoever of survival if he merely sat back and waited for the enemy to crush him. A desperate plan was mandatory. And so as McClellan commenced moving forward with the final phase of his plan for overwhelming Richmond and its defenders, sustained by his White House base on the Pamunkey, Lee launched a stunning counteroffensive. At this instance the Federal army was as previously mentioned dangerously astride the swampy Chickahominy River, a usually minor bog of a stream, which, however, was then experiencing major flooding.

As to his boldly designed attack, General Lee would leave an appreciably reduced force facing McClellan’s main army disposition west of the flooding Chickahominy, and gamble on moving the bulk of his troops north and east of the river before swing south in hopes of smashing the enemy’s single army corps, it being semi isolated on the east bank. The idea was to compel McClellan to pull his troops out of their strong entrenchments southeast of Richmond in order that he save his base at White House, and thus completely upend the enemy’s attempted siege of Richmond.

Lee’s seemingly wild gamble was more rationally devised than many would suppose. Being in essence his own intelligence service, Lee merely had to digest the intense mêlées openly waged in pro and anti McClellan northern newspapers to get a fairly accurate sense of what the general must be thinking, and in what manner the Yankee commander was being handicapped by his political opponents. To prevent his Yankee foe from belter understanding his own circumstance, Lee pressed the Richmond Newspapers to avoid mentioning specific military operations.

It was true that some 10,000 men from Georgia and the Carolinas had recently reinforced Lee at Richmond, but he rightly assumed that it was nowhere near to the extent that McClellan had reason to expect. Thus a big part of what would amount to Lee’s version of “shock and awe,” his counteroffensive, would be to buttress the notion in the enemy’s mind, especially as to McClellan’s perception, that he, Lee, was commanding a far larger army than was actually the case. Certainly Lee should have been cognizant of the fact that simply by coming at the enemy with great force east of the Chickahominy would seem to confirm any impression within the enemy’s thinking that he commanded a far greater force than was the reality. Could he panic the enemy into a retreat, or not, must have haunted Lee as his troops marched toward battle at midday of June 26, 1862?

Everyone Is New To The Game

Robert E. Lee would begin his counteroffensive within hours of McClellan originating the final phase of his drive on Richmond. With Lee newly in command of his first massive campaign and the famous Rebel leader of recent heroic valley fighting, General “Stonewall” Jackson, having just lately moved eastward to join with the main Confederate army (troops which Lee had optimistically christened The Army of Northern Virginia), coordination of various units would be, sadly for the Rebels, a dismal affair.

In fact both McClellan and Lee suffered growing pains as they attempted to maneuver large bodies of troops in this early stage of the war. Communication and coordination among officers was erratic, but still more so within the Confederate forces as their counteroffensive was much more daring and complex in scope.

In addition to Jackson being unaccustomed to working under another’s direction, he was worn out and in a mental fog throughout the Seven Days ordeal. He had been in constant motion, driving his troops to one victory after another in the Shenandoah Valley, an elaborate exercise designed to keep Lincoln from sending troops to McClellan. Then, too, Jackson had been rushing back and forth between his Valley army and conferring with Lee at Richmond, less his accustomed sleep time, just prior to his joining up with Lee’s big attack. “Stonewall,” contrary to his tough sounding moniker, was not of a body constitution that could survive well when missing norm rest periods.

Lee’s Counteroffensive Gets Underway

In the first noteworthy clash of forces along Beaver Dam Creek, just east of a cluster of buildings called Mechanicsville, the attacking Rebels suffered heavy casualties while the Federals being dug in upon the opposite bank incurred relatively modest losses.

McClellan’s biggest fear was that the Rebels (mostly he was thinking of General Jackson’s men) would soon outflank him on the right and make a run for his supplies at White House. And therefore, after conferring with General Porter, McClellan decided that the 5thmust be pulled back nearer to the bridges that joined the separated parts of the army and reinforced as best as possible. There is little doubt at this point that the commanding general was already thinking he might have to initiate plan B — switching base to the James River.

The simple act of Lee attacking in force east of the Chickahominy did seem to reconfirm to McClellan and his chief lieutenants that they were being attacked by vastly superior forces and thus must concentrate on saving the army. Moreover the poor numbers situation appeared to be once again reconfirmed by reports south of the river of heavy troops movements by the goings on of clever play-acting Rebels. It all worked as Lee had intended. It worked so well in fact that some Federal corps commanders along the main Federal deployment were fatally hesitant to want to send reinforcements to Porter whom was facing the real threat to the Army of the Potomac northeast of the surging river.

The Battle Of Gaines’s Mill

This brings us to perhaps the most critical battle of the entire American Civil War — even more so than those massive and highly symbolic battles

of Antietam and Gettysburg — the slugfest poorly branded The Battle of Gaines’s Mill, which some have suggested should have been more accurately termed The Battle of Watt House Hill,naming it after the high ground at the center of the Federal deployment. Like the day before at Beaver Dam Creek, it was the division commander A. P Hill’s Rebel troops that suffered most of the heavy fighting among units of the Southerntroop, engaging as they did the strongest part of the Federal works for the greatest period of the fighting. General Jackson, as mentioned, would be pretty much useless for the entire day and the balance of the Seven Days Battle as well, although others did manage to put his troop to good use, scattered about the battlefield in support of other commands as needed.

General Lee came to Gaines’s Mill with much trepidation. He was of the belief that should he be defeated, he must be compelled to retreat to his Richmond lines with little hope of holding off a renewed siege by a superior foe. And thus he drove his troops headlong into the enemy bordering on wild desperation and sustaining enormous casualties in the process. Some who endured the long hours of flailing at the Yankees said it was the most intense fighting that they would experience throughout the entire war.

After some five hours of Hill’s exhausted men slipping and sliding down in the muck of the steeply sided Boatswain’s Swamp, with Yankee artillery bursting overhead among the trees and small arms raining lead down upon them, off to their right John Hood’s Texans of James Longstreet’s Division began a concerted push into the Federals from that quarter. They were being hampered by Federal long-range artillery pouring deadly fire into their exposed flank from across the Chickahominy at Goldings farm. But the Rebel right flank persisted despite the mauling it was taking from both across the river and the enemy in front.

By this time the boys in blue, wore out from contending with Hill’s boys in gray, for what must have seemed like an eternity, were beginning to wilt. Also by this time Lee had finally gotten overall control of his troops so that he was now driving a general attack along his more than two-mile front, though it remained an erratic forward movement at best.

And so as a blood red sun began sliding below the western horizon, advantage here and there began favoring Lee’s most desperate multitudes. It was not exactly a total rout of the 5th Corps and its reinforcements, but the Federal dam did give way to the extent that it caused Porter’s command to initiate a general retreat toward the rest of the army southwest of the Chickahominy.

McClellan Decides To Put Plan B Into Effect

With the defeat of Porter, a badly shaken General McClellan did not long hesitate to institute plan B, his backup option. His focus immediately switched to transiting his army and most of its equipment safely down to the James River.

In late evening, McClellan informed his corps commanders that he would be putting into action a change of base plan. He then informed those in charge at White House that all supplies and equipment that could not be either shipped or haul away in a matter of a few hours must be destroyed. Then he sat down and let loose, at 12:20 A. M., a rant against Stanton and the administration. Months of frustration and anger from being toyed with by the government poured out of him. It would become known to history as McClellan’s infamous Savage Station Dispatch.

He wrote: “Now I know the full extent of the day…. I have lost this battle because my force was too small…I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army…. If I sustain this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other person in Washington — you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.”

Lincoln and Stanton flabbergasted by McClellan’s blunt missive and probably feeling a goodly measure of guilt did not try to use his words against the demoralized general. And even though the last line of the blistering message was not immediately shown to either Lincoln or Stanton, not long afterward the secretary of war was informed of it.

Via a successful series of spoiling fights, McClellan was able to get most of his army and its equipment safely down to Harrison’s Landing. Soon Lincoln came down from Washington to confer with the general, where the army rested unmolested on the banks of the James River. A standoff soon ensued. Lincoln demanded that McClellan attack the Rebels and McClellan refused to do so unless reinforced.

This reluctance by McClellan to go back on the offensive without substantial reinforcements played right into Lincoln and the Radicals hands. Subsequently, Lincoln, through the newly appointed General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, ordered the various parts of Army of the Potomac moved north to operate under the command of General Pope. But it was only for a brief period that the radicals were permit to celebrate at having won the day over McClellan. In short order, Lee hurried his trooped north and humiliated the blustery Pope at the Battle of Second Manassas, chasing the Federals pell-mell back toward Washington. And thus with the national capital suddenly threaten, Lincoln felt he had no choice in the unexpected emergency but to virtually reinstate to command, the very popular with the troops, McClellan, to save the day.

A few weeks later at the great battle of Antietam, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, McClellan managed to drive Lee back across the majestic waterway into Virginia. But after that nation saving endeavor his military career was at last at an end. With this strategic victory Lincoln and the radicals felt confidant enough to announce an emancipation proclamation, a first step toward the permanent destruction of slavery. The armies of the Union would in time devolve upon generals, like Ulysses S. Grant, whom the Radical Republicans felt were more in sympathy with their war policies.

McClellan Had No Chance

The hard reality is that McClellan never had the slightest chance to defeat Lee and capture the ultimate prize that was Richmond. He was squeezed between technological change and a powerful Republican faction quite determined to see him gone.

Technological advancements with the basic infantry weapon were at a stage in military history where it gave defensive warfare a significant advantage over the offensive side of the equation. Slow grinding trench warfare with considerable numerical advantage had become the only practical way to approach a well defended position by the time of the American Civil War. It was a precursor of the infamous World War One style of fighting.

Even though we know from hindsight that McClellan was not facing twice his own numbers, as he feared, parity of force, which was the actual case, would not have been enough for him to take Richmond. He required at least a hundred thousand man force to push against Richmond in deliberate stages from his main deployment at Seven Pines, with a heavy use of artillery to boot; and another fifty thousand men to protect his White House base along with the ever so vital Richmond and York River Railroad supply transit that ran from that place to his forward positions. His other vital requirement would have been time, probably four to six months at a minimum to crush the Richmond defenders. It was clear, however, by its actions that the Lincoln administration had no intention of giving McClellan either the manpower or the time required for properly completing the job.

Lets compare McClellan’s situation to when General U. S. Grant came to the very same Richmond vicinity two years later. First off, in just getting to within sight of Richmond, Grant had taken tremendous casualties at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor battles compared to McClellans relatively few loses in coming to the same place. Then, too, the recruiting stations were open, as they were not by nefarious design prior to McClellan’s campaign, nor was the administration holding back troop to form a second army outside of Grant’s command. Therefore Lincoln has no excuse to deny Grant his manpower needs. Furthermore, Grant was given a blank check as to the amount of time that he could take, and also to where he might lead his troops.

Finally, as we know, the Confederacy only collapsed after nine arduous months of Grant’s siege of the Richmond-Petersburg complex. Indeed, there was a huge positive difference in the Lincoln administration’s backing of Grant vs. the limp support it gave to McClellan. Therefore when all factors are considered, McClellan’s decision to fall back to the safety of Harrison’s landing was likely his only viable recourse following Lee’s close victory over him at Gaines’s Mill.

By the administration’s sabotaging of McClellan’s campaign for political considerations, it gave new life to Lee’s army and the Confederate cause in general, which in effect forced the-war-to-save-the-Union to have to started over again, adding far greater bloodshed than might otherwise have been necessary had politics not been inextricably part of the struggle.

Wild Speculation

Let me begin to seriously digress here. One might speculate as to how things might have unfolded differently had McClellan simply developed an integrated system of aerial observation. The Federals did play around with employing observation balloons, but they were unreliable and thus not particularly effective. Perhaps just as important, or maybe even more so, the driving force behind the Federal balloon corps, authorized by Lincoln and utilized by McClellan, was a self-trained scientist, Professor T. S. C. Lowe.

What was desperately needed, and apparently never followed up, were highly trained observers, specialists who could accurately interpret enemy troop movements. It is rather doubtful that Lowe, who did most of the observing or perhaps all of it, had anything remotely close to the sort of training required to know what it was that he was observing, even on those rare occasions when his balloon, the Eagle, was stable enough to focus on anything in particular, or the landscape free enough of battle smoke to make out enemy troop movements.

Perhaps had McClellan been able to have built a half dozen or so portable wooden scaffoldings, rising, say, perhaps 60 feet above the height of the local forest to observe the enemy, viewing stations crewed by a thoroughly trained staff of observers, he might have been given reasonably actuate reports as to enemy troop numbers and their movements. It is likely that with such a scheme the outcome of the critical battle of Gaines’s Mill might have been radically altered. Of course even if McClellan, or someone of influence on his staff had championed such an elaborate and cutting edge system, it is doubtful that the stuffy army bureaucracy would have approved and supported it.

Nevertheless, had such a basic observation scheme been in play, giving a much clearer idea of the forces arrayed against him, McClellan could have acted with assured confidence to reinforce Porter at Boatswain’s swamp, which Lee and others confused at the time with another thicket protected, swampy drainage into the Chickahominy, Powhite Creek, only a mile north of Boatswain’s swamp.

In this setting, with Porter much fortified and being dug in on good ground, and with Lee as the far more vulnerable attacker, it would likely have caused the Rebels equal in numbers to fail, compelling them to retreat back to Richmond, thus allowing McClellan to resume his siege of the all important Confederate political and military hub.

Thereafter there would not likely have been words of praise issued by McClellan for moving on Richmond via the James River. Indeed moving to the James took McClellan away from the super highway leading directly into Richmond, the ever useful Richmond and York River Railroad, to a place that was considerably more distant, as well as it being a much more awkward point from which to get at the Rebel capital.

McClellan did ask of the administration, like Grant later, to come at Richmond through the backdoor of Petersburg. This request was curtly rejected. The radicals wanted McClellans boys moving toward a merger with Pope, not away from the radical general.

The Federal defeat at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill did make for a murderous extension of the war, but on the positive side it allowed time for Lincoln to issue his emancipation proclamation. Ironically it was after General McClellan’s strategic victory at Antietam three and a half months following the setback at Gaines’s Mill that gave the Lincoln administration the political capital needed to announce an emancipation proclamation, the first step for breaking slavery.

But as mention, without a massive infusion of troops and granted considerable time to carry out a siege of Richmond, the best that McClellan could hope to accomplish would have been only a temporary stalemate of the war on the doorstep of Richmond with Lee bottled up behind his lines.

Gaines’s Mill Compared To Gettysburg

When compared to Gettysburg, Gaines’s Mill is pretty much lost in the fog of history, while Gettysburg shines in the spotlight. Indeed, Gettysburg has gained enormous notoriety and symbolism over time. It was the largest battle of the war (over a three day period); it was the farthest penetration of Lee into the north; it came around the middle of the war, giving it the appearance of a major turning point of the war; and the fact that Lincoln gave his world famous Gettysburg Address on that hallowed ground some months following the fighting has given the battlefield enhanced luster.

Also if one were to compare battlefields to house hunting, Gettysburg could be said to have awesome curb appeal. With its grand vitas, beautiful rolling fields of grain, its miniature mountains and unique patch of giant boulders and small streams, all of it surrounding a quaint little college town having hardly changed from the Civil War era makes Gettysburg an amazing stage for visiting a historical event. In no way does Gaines’s mill share such a magnificent stage. All of this within a day’s drive of many of the mega East Coast Cities.

Esthetically, the fighting at Gaines’s Mill is situated in scruffy bottomland — streams, swamps and thick tangles of forests, with only a few open spaces — nothing to compare with the beauty of other battlefields such as Antietam and the king of battlefields, Gettysburg.

Also, Gaines’s Mill, being the third in a series of battles collectively know as the Seven Days Battle, that alone muddies the battle’s individual importance. Moreover virtually the same ground was fought over by Lee and Grant two years later, particularly the bloody battle of Cold Harbor, which tends to obscure and confuse the action at Gaines’s Mill in the minds of visitors not well versed in Civil War history. Then, too, the city of Richmond has overrun the battle lines southwest of the Chickahominy River. And thus, alas, to most, and even some historians, the pivotal importance of Gaines’s Mill goes unappreciated.

Upon his defeat at Gaines’s Mill, little did General McClellan realize that his decision to run for the safety of the James River would unleash a series of events guaranteed to make it a long and bloody war. And so, in it’s own way, Gaines’s Mill might be seen as more determinative of the course of the fighting than the far more popular Civil War battlefields sites visited today.

An Industrial War

When war was breaking out within the union of American states, General Lee could already envision the struggle not ending well for the slave states. He understood that in a protracted war the agrarian South was no match for the industrial North. And so it was with great reluctance and sadness that he resigned his commission in the United States Army and offered his services to his home state of Virginia, for what he knew was a doomed cause, but an affair he could not eschew.

In all the combative annals of humankind, there has been what one might define as only three industrial wars — the American Civil War and World Wars One and Two. In these most titanic contests it was not so much the quality of the generals to lead or the sprit of the armies to fight that most determined the winning side, but rather the underlying industrial capacity of one side over the other. As long as the advantaged side maintained the political will to prosecute the war, it would eventually prevail. In the American Civil War the industrial North maintained an enormous advantage over the agrarian South when it came to producing modern war making goods.

Less than a century later, with the advent of nuclear weapons, this of course brought an end to the industrial war period. With war between major world powers having the potential to end, in one gigantic atomic holocaust, all life on earth in a matter of a few hours, the worlds nuclear powers are now, if the humankinds hopes to survive at all, limited to proxy wars while lesser states and political entities engage in asymmetrical warfare.

Historical Hype

Historians often overhype their own area of interest and expertise by saying such crazy things like, the entire outcome of one of these industrial based wars might have been dependent on a single battle. For instant there are those who claim that had Lee prevailed at the Battle of Gettysburg the South might have won the war — rubbish.

The toll taken on those that have been determined to be the “victor” in most great battle of the Civil War was hardly less that of the vanquish. Add to that the fact that anytime Lee was above the Potomac River he was skating on thin ice. The reality was that he was woefully lacking in the basic resources required to sustain a major campaign on Northern soil for more than a few weeks. In fact even Lee viewed his forays into the North as little more than large raids meant to gain backing from European powers. This is why he was so reluctant to commit to battle when on Northern soil. He knew he would have but a single shot at a significant fight. And once a full blow battle was engaged upon, Lee’s attention must quickly turn to getting his troops safely back to Virginia any way possible.

Moving into the twentieth century and World War Two we find other military writers and experts who never seem to grasp the concept of industrial warfare. Someone will claim that had the Normandy landings failed or Hitler’s counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge succeeded the Nazis might have won the war. This kind of talk is pure twaddle. Certainly such setbacks for the allies could have been temporally demoralizing and maybe even have delayed final victory a few months, but that’s about the extent of it.

By mid 1944 allied air forces were already beginning to turn German cites into smoking rubble, while at once ruling the skies over the European battlefields. And though the allies would devastate German war production at will, particularly the choke point of the German war machine, synthetic oil production, the axis powers could not begin to touch the arsenal of democracy — U. S. manufacturing. Indeed, Nazi war production, being but a fraction of the allies in the best of times, was rapidly dwindling.

Then, too, by this stage of the fighting the Russian hoards in the east had already devastated the best of the German army divisions. But if this were not enough, America’s massive industrial and scientific base was coming near to perfecting the atom bomb. So from hindsight, at least, it should be easy to see that the war’s outcome was never in doubt.

A Modern Perspective

And herein lay perhaps the greatest sorrow of the American Civil War from a purely military perspective and overt human suffering. For the benefit of a few highly influential Republican politicians, the war was caused to go forth for as long as it took to make its bloodshed primarily about ending slavery.

For blacks looking back from today at the struggle, it would seem to be a no brainer that ending slavery was worth every once of bloodshed required to do it. On the other hand, Whites on both sides of the war, and even some Blacks engaged in the seemingly endless carnage back in the day, would surely question whether or not such a modern point of view was worth the cost in terms of all the friends and relatives killed and horribly maimed by the war.

Moreover there is the complicated issue of how in modern times to regard those who fought against the Union. To be sure, in today’s politically charged world it’s hard to evaluate someone like General Robert E. Lee. Was he a Southern patriot or a United States traitor? Was he a bold strategist or a man who prolonged mayhem and killing to no good purpose? Was he a man of enormous integrity or merely a demonic defender of an immoral society? According to one’s perspective all of this is true or none of it is true. But upon close examination of American Civil War events one thing is certain, Lee’s victory at Gaines’s Mill gave New life, if only temporally so, to the Confederate cause — making Gaines’s Mill a critical pivot point of the war, indeed.

Jim Ridgway, Jr. military writer — author of the American Civil War classic, “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.” Christmas gift, yes!

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