Battle of Savage's Station: Union, Confederate Forces Fight to Draw; 5th of 7 Days Battles

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Battle of Savage's Station: Union, Confederate Forces Fight to Draw; 5th of 7 Days Battles

"Battle of Savage's Station," artist unknown
From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 2 (1887)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 29, 1862

For this week's "Stroll Through Military History," I present one of a series of battles that temporarily saved the capital of the Confederacy – Richmond, Virginia – from attack and capture by the Federal Army of the Potomac. It was not a large battle – only a total of about 40,500 soldiers combined – but it served its function, pushing the Federal forces away from Richmond. It also proved an extreme liability to Union commander Major General George McClellan's military career.


The War Between the States had been raging for fourteen months, and most of the victories had accrued to the Confederate armies (with a few exceptions). In November of 1861, Maj. Gen. McClellan was named commanding general of all Union armies. However, by March of 1862, "Little Mac" had lost the confidence of President Abraham Lincoln. But when Lincoln proposed a plan to capture Richmond, McClellan fired back with a 22-page letter outlining his own proposal to take the enemy capital city. Reluctantly, Lincoln agreed to the general's plan, and allowed him to retain command of the Army of the Potomac.

By mid-May of 1862, 105,000 men of the Union Army of the Potomac were set up on the northeast outskirts of Richmond, while the Confederate soldiers in the defenses of the city numbered about 60,000. Through faulty intelligence gathered by detective Allen Pinkerton of McClellan's staff, the general erroneously believed he was outnumbered two to one. Consequently, McClellan sent constant requests (almost demands) to the War Department for reinforcements, receiving little if any new manpower.

Then at the end of May, CSA General Joseph E. Johnston launched a surprise attack on the Union besiegers. The Federal army was split by a flooded Chickahominy River, and Johnston hoped to destroy the two sections in piecemeal fashion.

Unfortunately, Johnston's offensive was plagued by vague or contradictory orders, division commanders making poor decisions, and a huge thunderstorm on the night before the planned Confederate attack disrupted movement on both sides. The two-day Battle of Fair Oaks (Union name) or Seven Pines (Rebel nomenclature) was the bloodiest battle to date in the Eastern theatre of the war (not to be outdone by the Battle of Shiloh from early April of 1862).

Another outcome from the fight at Fair Oaks was a new commander for the Army of Northern Virginia: Gen. Johnston was wounded during the fighting, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed his military advisor, Robert E. Lee, to command the army defending Richmond while Johnston convalesced.

Though Seven Pines was considered a Union victory, Gen. McClellan lost the strategic initiative and apparently his nerve as well, despite his belief he could still capture Richmond and end the war. With the more aggressive Lee taking command of the Rebel forces around the Rebel capital, chances for a quick end to the war plummeted.

Prelude to the Battle

Gen. McClellan gave Gen. Lee just over three weeks of breathing space, with the Army of the Potomac sitting by doing nothing. In the meantime, Lee received reinforcements, including Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's troops (which Jackson called his "foot cavalry") journeying from the Shenandoah Valley after a whirlwind campaign that ranged up and down the valley, pushing at least three separate Federal armies out of the valley.

Lee's initial attack plan, similar to Johnston's plan at Seven Pines, was complex and required expert coordination and execution by all of his subordinates, but Lee knew that he could not win in a battle of attrition or siege against the Union Army. The plan was developed at a meeting on June 23. The Union Army straddled the rain-swollen Chickahominy River, with the bulk of the army, four corps, arrayed in a semicircular line south of the river. The remainder, the V Corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter, was north of the river near Mechanicsville in an L-shaped line facing north-south behind Beaver Dam Creek and southeast along the Chickahominy.

Lee's plan was to cross the Chickahominy with the bulk of his army to attack the Union north flank, leaving only two divisions (under Maj. Gens. Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder) to hold a line of entrenchments against McClellan's superior strength. This would concentrate about 65,500 troops to oppose 30,000, leaving only 25,000 to protect Richmond and to contain the other 60,000 men of the Union Army. The Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had reconnoitered Porter's right flank as part of a daring but militarily dubious circumnavigation of the entire Union Army from June 12 to 15 and found it vulnerable.

Confederate Army

Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, CSA (1862?) photographer unknown; Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division
Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, CSA (1862?) photographer unknown
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division

The Rebel forces at the Savage's Station battle numbered some 14,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. John Magruder, formerly an actor. He was lacking the men of "Stonewall" Jackson's command, who were rebuilding bridges to cross the Chickahominy River. In addition, Jackson received garbled orders from Lee's headquarters that convinced Jackson to keep his men north of the Chickahominy. Jackson let Magruder know that his command would not arrive until the next day. Further, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger was supposed to be on Magruder's right flank, but was somewhere else entirely.

Union Army

Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, USA, (date unknown) from Brady-Handy Collection; Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division
Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, USA, (date unknown) from Brady-Handy Collection
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division

All told, about 26,000 Federal troops comprised the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac. Holding the supply depot at Savage's Station were three Union Corps: II Corps under Brig. Gen. Edwin Sumner, III Corps under Brig. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, and the VI Corps commanded by Brig. Gen. William Franklin. However, at some point prior to the start of the battle, Gen. Heintzelman decided his corps was not needed at Savage's Station, and on his own initiative pulled his men out of the encampment and marched toward Harrison's Landing on the James River. To make matters worse, Heintzelman did not inform either of his fellow Corps commanders of his exit from Savage's Station. To complicate matters further, army commander Gen. George McClellan had not appointed a commander for his rear guard. Although Sumner was the senior officer present, McClellan considered him incompetent.

Battle of Savage's Station

Plan of the battle of Savage' Station, June 29, 1862; From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, (1887)
Plan of the battle of Savage' Station, June 29, 1862
From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, (1887)

Initial contact between the armies occurred at 9 a.m. on June 29. About 2 miles west of Savage's Station, two Georgia regiments fought against two Pennsylvania regiments from Sumner's corps for about two hours before disengaging. Magruder, who was alleged to be under the influence of morphine to combat a bout of indigestion, was confused and became concerned that he might be attacked by a superior force. He requested reinforcements from Lee, who ordered two brigades from the division of Maj. Gen. Huger to assist, under the condition that they would have to be returned if they were not engaged by 2 p.m.

Magruder was forced to give up the two brigades from Huger's division at 2 p.m. and was faced with the problem of attacking Sumner's 26,600 men with his own 14,000. He hesitated until 5 p.m., when he sent only two and a half brigades forward. Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw commanded the left flank, Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes the center, and Col. William Barksdale (Griffith's Brigade) the right. Franklin and Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick were on a reconnaissance to the west of Savage's Station when they saw Kershaw's brigade approaching. Their immediate assumption was that these were men from Heintzelman's corps, but they soon realized their mistake. This was the first indication of Heintzelman's unannounced departure and Sumner, for one, was particularly outraged. Union artillery opened fire and pickets were sent forward to meet the assault.

Artist's conception of Confederate 'Land Merrimack' deployed at Savage's Station; Artist unknown; image courtesy of
Artist's conception of Confederate "Land Merrimack" deployed at Savage's Station
Artist unknown; image courtesy of

Magruder's attack was accompanied by the first armored railroad battery to be used in combat. Earlier in June, General Lee had hoped to counter the approach of McClellan's siege artillery by rail by using his own weapon: a 32-pounder Brooke rifled naval cannon, shielded by a sloping casemate of railroad iron, nicknamed the "Land Merrimack." It was pushed by a locomotive at about the speed of the marching infantry. However, even with this impressive weapon, which outgunned anything the Federal artillerists possessed, the results of Magruder's decision to send only part of his smaller force against a much larger enemy were predictable.

The first Union unit to engage was one of Sedgwick's brigades, Philadelphians led by Brig. Gen. William Burns, but his defensive line proved inadequate to cover the two brigade front of Kershaw and Semmes. Sumner managed this part of the battle erratically, selecting regiments for combat almost at random. He sent in two of Burns's regiments, and then the 1st Minnesota Infantry from another brigade in Sedgwick's division, and finally one regiment each from two different brigades in Brig. Gen. Israel Richardson's division. By the time all of these units reached the front, the two sides were at rough parity – two brigades each. Although Magruder had been conservative about his attack, Sumner was even more so. Of the 26 regiments he had in his corps, only 10 were engaged at Savage's Station.

The fighting turned into a bloody stalemate as darkness fell and strong thunderstorms began to move in. The Land Merrimack bombarded the Union front, with some of its shells reaching as far to the rear as the field hospital. The final actions of the evening were by the Vermont Brigade, commanded by Colonel William T.H. Brooks, of Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's division. Attempting to hold the flank south of the Williamsburg Road, the Vermonters charged into the woods and were met with murderous fire, suffering more casualties than any brigade on the field that day. The brigade as a whole took 439 casualties; the 5th Vermont regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Lewis A. Grant, lost nearly half of its men, 209 of 428.


As darkness and heavy rains shut down the fighting, Lee considered Magruder's actions to be a failure. He reamed "Prince" John for failing to pursue the withdrawing Federals. Rebel casualties were about 473 men killed.

On the Union side, any supplies that could not be carried or carted away from the Savage's Station depot were put to the torch. In addition about 2500 wounded Union soldiers were left behind in the rush of retreat, and were captured by the Confederates. Union fatalities numbered just over 1038.

Footnote #1: For his less-than-stellar performance in this battle, Gen. Magruder was sent west to Texas, where he re-captured Galveston from Federal forces. When the "Great Rebellion" ended, he travelled to Mexico and joined the armed forces of the Emperor Maximillian. After the fall of the French-backed regime, Magruder returned to the U.S. where he died in 1871.

Footnote #2: The Seven Days Battles 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 most of the Seven Days, lost over 20,000 (men that he could ill afford to lose). However, Lee had achieved his objective of pushing the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond.

Footnote #3: Today the battlefield of Savage's Station is considered "lost" by preservationists, the area of heaviest infantry fighting being covered by the nearby cloverleaf interchange of Interstate Highways I-295 and I-64. However, the land that comprised Savage's Station itself, i.e., the Union field hospital, supply depot, ammunition dump and rear areas of the Federal battle line, remains in a remarkably pristine condition, the nearby interchange barely noticeable during seasons when the foliage is in full bloom.

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