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American Civil War: Battle of Savage's Station

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American Civil War: Battle of Savage's Station

Major General Edwin V. Sumner

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Savage's Station - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Savage's Station was fought June 29, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Savage's Station - Background:

Having begun the Peninsula Campaign earlier in the spring, Major General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac stalled before the gates of Richmond in late May 1862 after a stalemate at the Battle of Seven Pines. This was mostly due to the Union commander's overly-cautious approach and the inaccurate belief that General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia badly outnumbered him. While McClellan remained inactive for much of June, Lee tirelessly worked to improve Richmond's defenses and plan a counterattack. Though outnumbered himself, Lee understood his army could not hope to win an extended siege in the Richmond defenses. On June 25, McClellan finally moved and he ordered the divisions of Brigadier Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny to push up the Williamsburg Road. The resulting Battle of Oak Grove saw the Union attack halted by Major General Benjamin Huger's division.

Battle of Savage's Station - Lee Attacks:

This proved fortunate for Lee as he had moved the bulk of his army north of the Chickahominy River with the goal of crushing Brigadier General Fitz John Porter's isolated V Corps. Striking on June 26, Lee's forces were bloodily repulsed by Porter's men at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville). That night, McClellan, concerned about the presence of Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's command to the north, directed Porter to retreat and shifted the army's supply line from the Richmond and York River Railroad south to the James River. In doing so, McClellan effectively ended his own campaign as the abandonment of the railroad meant that heavy guns could not be carried to Richmond for the planned siege.

Taking a strong position behind Boatswain's Swamp, V Corps came under heavy attack on June 27. In the resulting Battle of Gaines' Mill, Porter's men turned back several enemy assaults through the day until being compelled to retreat near sunset. As Porter's men shifted to the south bank of the Chickahominy, a badly shaken McClellan ended the campaign and began moving the army towards the safety of the James River. With McClellan providing little guidance to his men, the Army of the Potomac fought off Confederate forces at Garnett's and Golding's Farms on June 27-28. Remaining away from the fighting, McClellan made the situation worse by failing to name a second in command. This was largely due to his dislike and distrust of his senior corps commander, Major General Edwin V. Sumner.

Battle of Savage's Station - Lee's Plan:

Despite McClellan's personal feelings, Sumner effectively led the 26,600-man Union rear guard which had concentrated near Savage's Station. This force comprised elements of his own II Corps, Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman's III Corps, and a division of Brigadier General William B. Franklin's VI Corps. Pursuing McClellan, Lee sought to engage and defeat the Union forces at Savage's Station. To due so, he ordered Brigadier General John B. Magruder to push his division down the Williamsburg Road and York River Railroad while Jackson's division was to rebuild the bridges across the Chickahominy and attack south. These forces were to converge and overwhelm the Union defenders. Moving out early on June 29, Magruder's men began encountering Union troops around 9:00 AM.

Battle of Savage's Station - The Fighting Begins:

Pressing forward, two regiments from Brigadier General George T. Anderson's brigade engaged two Union regiments from Sumner's command. Skirmishing through the morning, the Confederates were able to push the enemy back, but Magruder became increasingly concerned about the size of Sumner's command. Seeking reinforcements from Lee, he received two brigades from Huger's division on the stipulation that if they were not engaged by 2:00 PM they would be withdrawn. As Magruder contemplated his next move, Jackson received a confusing message from Lee that suggested that his men were remain north of the Chickahominy. Due to this, he did not cross the river to attack from the north. At Savage's Station, Heintzelman decided that his corps was not necessary to the Union defense and began withdrawing without first informing Sumner.

Battle of Savage's Station - The Battle Renewed:

At 2:00 PM, having not advanced, Magruder returned Huger's men. Waiting another three hours, he finally resumed his advance with the brigades of Brigadier Generals Joseph B. Kershaw and Paul J. Semmes. These troops were aided on the right by part of a brigade led by Colonel William Barksdale. Supporting the attack was a 32-pounder Brooke naval rifle mounted on a rail car and protected by an iron casemate. Dubbed the "Land Merrimack," this weapon was slowly pushed down the railroad. Despite being outnumbered, Magruder elected to attack with only part of his command. The Confederate movement was first noticed by Franklin and Brigadier General John Sedgwick who were scouting west of Savage's Station. After initially thinking the approaching troops belonged to Heintzelman, they recognized their mistake and informed Sumner. It was at this time that an irate Sumner discovered that III Corps had departed (Map).

Advancing, Magruder encountered Brigadier General William W. Burns' Philadelphia Brigade just south of the railroad. Mounting a tenacious defense, Burns' men soon faced envelopment by the larger Confederate force. To stabilize the line, Sumner randomly began feeding regiments from other brigades into the battle. Coming up on Burns' left, the 1st Minnesota Infantry joined the fight followed by two regiments from Brigadier General Israel Richardson's division. As the forces engaged were largely equal in size, a stalemate developed as darkness and foul weather approached. Operating on Burns' left and south of the Williamsburg Road, Brigadier General William T.H. Brooks' Vermont Brigade sought to protect the Union flank and charged forward. Attacking into a stand of woods, they met intense Confederate fire and were repulsed with heavy losses. The two sides remained engaged, with neither making any progress, until a storm ended the battle around 9:00 PM.

Battle of Savage's Station - Aftermath:

In the fighting at Savage's Station, Sumner suffered 1,083 killed, wounded, and missing while Magruder sustained 473. The bulk of the Union losses were incurred during the Vermont Brigade's ill-fated charge. With the end of the fighting, Union troops continued withdrawing across White Oak Swamp but were forced to abandon a field hospital and 2,500 wounded. In the wake of the battle, Lee reprimanded Magruder for not attacking more forcefully stating that the "pursuit should be most vigorous." By noon the following day, Union troops had crossed the swamp. Later in the day, Lee resumed his offensive by attacking McClellan's army at the Battles of Glendale (Frayser's Farm) and White Oak Swamp.

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