Fight between New York's Excelsior Brigade and Confederate Army launched Robert E. Lee's first Civil War campaign

New York National Guard
Courtesy Story

Date: 06.21.2012
Posted: 06.21.2012 15:14
News ID: 90401

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - More than 4,000 New Yorkers were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the series of battles between the Union Army and the Confederate Army that began on June 25, 1862 and lasted through July 2, 1862.

The Seven Days Battles pitted the Union Army of the Potomac led by Gen. George McClellan against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia which had just come under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Union Army of more than 100,000 men, which included 55 New York infantry regiments, two New York cavalry regiments, two New York engineer regiments and 18 New York Artillery batteries, had fought its way up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe on the tip to the outskirts of the Confederate Capitol of Richmond.

McClellan was certain he would take the city and hurt the Confederate cause as a result of what was called the Peninsula Campaign.

Concerned about the costs of making a head on attack from Washington towards the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, McClellan decided to make an end run around the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia which as then led by General Joseph. E. Johnston. This army stood between Union troops around Washington and Richmond.

McClellan's solution was to land troops at Fort Monroe, on the tip of the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers, in March 1862 and then advance northward to capture Richmond.

His outflanking movement turned into a slow advance as the Confederate Army fought delaying action after delaying action. It took until June for Union Forces to get close enough to Richmond to think about actually attacking that city.

Johnston, though, was been injured in the June 1 Battle of Fair Oaks and was replaced by the much more aggressive Robert E. Lee.

Lee decided to abandon Johnston's defensive and delaying tactics and launched an aggressive counter attack against the Union forces of McClellan, which resulted in the series of battles which pushed the Union forces away from Richmond.

While Lee lost some of the individual battles which followed, he accomplished his strategic mission.

The first of the Seven Days Battles occurred in June 25 as New York's Excelsior Brigade, launched an attack towards Richmond along the Richmond-Williamsburg Road at a place called Oak Grove.

At 8:30 a.m. that morning the Excelsior Brigade-- composed of four the 70th, 71st, 72,73rd, and 74th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments-joined two other Union brigades in attacking towards Richmond.

The Excelsior Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, a famous (and infamous because he killed his wife's lover and got away with it) New York politician was on the right flank. In the center was a brigade from Major General Hookers Division and on the left was a third brigade from Major General Kearny's division.

The brigades from Hookers and Kearny's divisions made good progress, but the Excelsior Brigade got hung up crossing an obstacle made from chopped down trees, and then bogged down in White Oak Swamp. Finally the brigade hit tough Confederate resistance.

This threw the Union attack out of alignment and the Confederates launched a counter attack against the flank of the Excelsior Brigade. The 71st New York panicked, an action Sickles later called "disgraceful confusion", and retreated, exposing the other regiments to attack.

The brigade lost 322 men in the fighting killed, wounded, or missing and the attack bogged down, with fighting raging inconclusively, despite both sides throwing in additional regiments, until night fall.

The next day, Lee seized the initiative by attacking at Beaver Dam Creek north of the Chickahominy River, near Mechanicsville, Virginia. He chose to concentrate his forces in an elaborate attack on the sole Union corps, Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's V Corps, positioned north of the swollen Chickahominy River. Lee's aggressive attack began to falter as his troops ran into well intrenched Union infantry and artillery. The attack further unraveled when Confederate troops scheduled to join the fight were not in their proper positions. The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, was a Union tactical victory.
McClellan quickly lost the initiative at the Battle of Mechanicsville. Lee shortly followed his Mechanicsville attack with a major engagement at Gaines's Mill on June 27, and smaller actions at Garnett's and Golding's Farm on June 27 and June 28. Another attack on the Union rear guard at Savage's Station on June 29 hurried the Union retreat.

The Army of the Potomac continued its retreat and fought a delaying battle at Glendale on June 30. The Union Army escaped to a strong defensive position on Malvern Hill. At the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, Lee launched futile frontal assaults and suffered heavy casualties in the face of strong infantry and artillery defenses.

The Seven Days ended with McClellan's army in relative safety next to the James River, having suffered almost 16,000 casualties during the retreat.

Lee's army, which had been on the offensive during the Seven Days, lost over 20,000. As Lee became convinced that McClellan would not resume his threat against Richmond, he moved north for an invaded Maryland, the campaign that would climax with the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862 where 3,650 Americans would be killed and 17,300 wounded on both sides.