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American Civil War: Battle of Beaver Dam Creek

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American Civil War: Battle of Beaver Dam Creek

Major General Fitz John Porter

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek was fought June 26, 1862, during the American Civil War and was the second of the Seven Days Battles.

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - Background:

Having built the Army of the Potomac during the summer and fall of 1861, Major General George B. McClellan began planning his advance on Richmond for the spring of 1862. To capture the Confederate capital, he sought to move his army down the Chesapeake Bay to Union-held Fortress Monroe. From there, it would move up the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers to Richmond. Such a move would allow him to bypass Confederate forces in northern Virginia. It was his intention that US Navy warships would steam up both rivers to aid in expediting the advance. This element of the plan was blocked in early March 1862 when the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia attacked Union naval forces at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Though the threat of Virginia was mitigated by the arrival of the ironclad USS Monitor, efforts to contain the Confederate vessel drew off Union warships.

Pushing up the Peninsula in April, McClellan was tricked by Confederate forces into conducting the Siege of Yorktown for much of the month. Finally resuming the advance in early May, Union forces engaged the enemy at Williamsburg before slowly driving on Richmond. As his men neared the city, McClellan was attacked by General Joseph E. Johnston at Seven Pines on May 31. Though the battle was inconclusive, it resulted in Johnston being severely wounded and command of Confederate forces ultimately passed to General Robert E. Lee. For the next several weeks, McClellan remained idle in front of Richmond. This allowed Lee to enhance the city's defenses and plan a counterstrike.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - Lee's Plan:

Understanding that his army could not win a protracted siege at Richmond, Lee began making plans to attack Union forces with the goal of pushing them back from the city. Assessing McClellan's position, he found that Brigadier General Fitz John Porter's V Corps was isolated north of the Chickahominy River near Mechanicsville. This formation was tasked with guarding the Army of the Potomac's supply line, the Richmond and York River Railroad, which ran back to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. Seeing an opportunity, Lee planned to strike while the bulk of McClellan's men were south of the river. Additional intelligence regarding Porter's position was provided by Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry which conducted a daring ride around the Union army in mid-June.

For the attack, Lee intended to have Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's troops, which had just completed their successful Valley Campaign in the Shenandoah, strike Porter's northern flank. Once this effort had commenced, Major General A.P. Hill would move east through Mechanicsville and advance towards Beaver Dam Creek. To aid in these attacks, Major General D.H. Hill's division was assigned to support Jackson while Major General James Longstreet's division reinforced A.P. Hill. The goal of the plan was to have Jackson's flank attack force Porter from his strong position behind Beaver Dam Creek. With Porter dislodged, Confederate forces could then sever the Union supply line and force McClellan to fall back.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - Opening Moves:

Lee's plan called for the bulk of his army to operate above the Chickahominy. To guard the Richmond defenses, he left the divisions of Major General Benjamin Huger and John Magruder to face the bulk of the Army of the Potomac. With the expected arrival of Jackson's command on June 25, Lee intended to begin his assault the next day. On June 25, McClellan stirred and directed the divisions of Brigadier Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny to attack up the Williamsburg Road. The resulting Battle of Oak Grove saw the Union thrust blocked by Huger. With the Union effort contained, Lee continued with his plans for June 26.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - The Confederates Attack:

Despite Lee's efforts, his plan quickly went awry the next day. Badly fatigued from their efforts in the Valley and the march to Richmond, Jackson's men were not in position at the appointed hour. With Jackson running several hours behind, A.P. Hill became increasingly frustrated. At 3:00 PM, he still had not heard from Jackson and elected to initiate the battle on his own. Ordering his men forward, they swept Union forces from Mechanicsville. Alerted to the Confederate advance, Porter was willing to cede the town in favor of his position along Beaver Dam Creek. Charging forward, Confederate troops waded the creek in an effort to break the Union line (Map).

Though elements of Brigadier General George A. McCall's division wavered, prompt reinforcement by Porter saw V Corps throw back Hill's attack with heavy losses. Fighting from a strong position near Ellerson's Mills, Porter also worked to extend his right to protect against being flanked. As Hill conducted assaults against the Beaver Dam Creek Line, Jackson approached the area around 5:00 PM. Unable to make contact with the other Confederate commanders, Jackson elected to make camp rather than press on to locate the enemy. Aided by Longstreet and D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill continued attacking Porter into the evening. Taking additional losses, the Confederates halted their efforts after nightfall.

Battle of Beaver Dam Creek - Aftermath:

A clear tactical victory for the Union, the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek saw Porter's men inflict 1,484 killed and wounded on Lee's army while sustaining only 361 killed and wounded. Despite this triumph, the over-cautious McClellan, who believed Lee to possess around 200,000 men, directed Porter to retreat to a new position at Gaines' Mill that night. In addition, he shifted his supply base south the James River. By giving up the railroad, McClellan effectively lost his ability to mount and maintain a siege of Richmond. As a result of this decision, he effectively defeated his own campaign. Though beaten at Beaver Dam Creek, the initiative passed to Lee who would attack McClellan again the next day at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

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