Memphis falls to Union forces; Robert E. Lee Assumes Command of the Army of Northern Virginia; The Seven Days Battles: June 1862

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

The month began with the conclusion of the two day Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, Virginia on June 1st. Confederate forces attacked Union lines that had been reinforced overnight. After getting nowhere with the attack, the Confederates were ordered to withdraw to their original position. Though both sides claimed victory, the Battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks as it is also known, was inconclusive. The Union Army absorbed about 5000 casualties, while the Confederates had over 6100.

One of the Confederate casualties was the Army of Northern Virginia’s commander, General Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston was wounded in the first day of action on May 31st. Johnston would recover and command other southern armies later in the war. He was replaced by Robert E. Lee on June 1st. Lee, serving as a military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, had not been impressive in western Virginia earlier in the war, but he would establish his reputation as a great commander in short order.

Capture of Memphis, Tennessee

The most significant action in the west during the month occurred on June 6th. That morning, residents of Memphis, Tennessee lined the Mississippi River banks to witness a naval battle between a Confederate naval squadron under the command of Captain James Montgomery and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson and a joint U.S. Army-Navy flotilla under Flag Officer Charles Davis and Colonel Charles Ellet. The U.S. flotilla consisted of the Ironclad Benton, and the City Class Ironclads Louisville, Carondelet, St. Louis, and Cairo under the command of Davis; Ellet commanded the Rams Queen of the West and Monarch. The southern fleet consisted of eight lightly armed rams.

Ellet’s Rams led the attack. The U.S. Rams used their superior speed to catch and ram the slower Confederate vessels, and the ironclads following shelled the outgunned Rebel fleet. In an hour and a half of action, all but one Confederate vessel was sunk or captured. With his city now defenseless, the mayor surrendered Memphis to Federal forces  later that same day. It was a lopsided  Union victory with only one Federal casualty. Colonel Ellet was shot in the leg and died June 21st.

Jackson Concludes Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Back in Virginia, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was withdrawing his army up the Shenandoah Valley while Union forces under Major General John C. Fremont and Brigadier General James Shields pursued him. On June 8th, Fremont attacked General Richard Ewell’s 6000 man division at the town of Cross Keys. Fremont had about 11,000 in his command, but was beaten back. The next day, Jackson left a small force at Cross Keys to hold Fremont and had the bulk of Ewell’s division march to nearby Port Republic and join in an attack on two brigades of Shield’s division.  Though outnumbered, the two Union brigades held off the Confederates until the attackers turned their left flank, forcing a retreat.

The Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic marked the end of Jackson’s highly successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Jackson then marched to Richmond to join Lee.

General J.E.B. Stuart Rides Around the Union Army

As the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee wanted as much information as possible about the Union Army’s strength and location as he could get. He ordered General J.E.B. Stuart to conduct a reconnaissance of the Union right. Stuart headed north out of Richmond on June 12th with 1200 cavalrymen. After scouting the Union Army’s right, Stuart decided it was too risky to retrace his route back to Richmond, so he turned south and made a hundred mile circuit around the entire Union Army. He returned to Richmond on June 16th to great acclaim.

The Seven Day’s Battles

Based on the intelligence Stuart had gathered, Lee planned his attack. He was set to attack on June 26th, but on the 25th, McClellan launched an attack against the Richmond defenses along his left. Results were inconclusive and resulted in  little change in the line. The next day, Lee launched an attack against the Federal right. He had planned on having the newly arrived Jackson lead the attack, but Jackson did not reach the battlefield until much later in the day.  Lee waited as long as he could and attacked with the troops he had on hand.

This attack at the Battle of Mechanicsville was a disaster for Confederate forces, who suffered some 1500 casualties to about 450 for the Federals. Nonetheless, McClellan had his forces fall back four miles to Gaines’ Mill. On the 27th, Lee attacked McClellan at Gaines’ Mill. In six hours of poorly coordinated, costly fighting, the Confederates suffered 9000 casualties vs. 6000 for the Union forces. But the attack drove the Federals from the field.

Both sides spent June 28th marching into new positions, and there was little fighting. On the 29th, Major General John B. Magruder attacked a Federal three division rear guard at Savage’s Station. The much larger Federal Force repulsed Magruder, but the Union divisions withdrew during the night.

McClellan, who constantly complained to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that he was outnumbered (when the opposite was true), was withdrawing to the James River where he hoped to be resupplied and protected by Union Navy gunboats. On the 30th, Lee launched a three pronged attack against a Union forces guarding a key crossroads at Glendale. If the Confederates could capture the crossroads, they could cut off the retreat of a large part of McClellan’s army.

Again, the Confederate attack was poorly coordinated, and only part of the attack force reached the battlefield. After six hours of fighting, the Federals beat back the attack at a cost of 2700 Union casualties and 3600 for the Confederates. The withdrawal continued south, and McClellan’s army set up a strong defensive position on Malvern Hill overlooking the James River.

Though the attacks had been not been executed well and the campaign was not yet over, Lee had succeeded in pushing McClellan back from the gates of Richmond. Despite losing Memphis, the Confederate armies had a largely successful month, especially in Virginia.

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