When I was researching Uzal Trowbridge, an uncle four generations back whose Civil War correspondence was mentioned in previous posts, I learned the very sad news that he was killed on June 27, 1862, during the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, which took place 149 years ago this month.
When talking about ones ancestors, particularly those of generations past, it seems to me that it is easy to say that “so and so” was killed or injured during the battle of “xyz,” without taking the time to grasp or ponder what that really meant—parents losing children, brothers and sisters losing a sibling, children losing fathers, wives and children left destitute, limbs lost, lives lived out in constant pain or paralysis. Behind each soldier in a list of the killed, missing, captured, or injured is a sea of friends, family, neighbors, and fellow townspeople. So, I wanted to know more about the events surrounding Uzal Trowbridge’s death, and the events of the war in general at that time. Having read his personal correspondence to his niece and nephews, I felt like I owed that to him as strange as that may sound. I’m sure those letters and his loss had an enormous impact on those children.
Some of the materials I read included the below books all of which I can highly recommend.
- To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears
- The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula & the Seven Days edited by Gary W Gallagher
- Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles by Brian K. Burton
In no way can I, a non-historian, speak as well or as exhaustively as these authors do about the events of that period. And I certainly can’t possibly summarize the content of their books in the space of this blog. I’ll do my best just to give a bit of a summary (recognizing it will be very simplistic) and recommend that those interested in further details refer to the appropriate resources.
The battle of Gaines’s Mill was part of the Seven Days Battles, a series of battles that took place at the end of June 1862. Ultimately, these battles marked a major turning point in the war. Up until then, the North had been hoping that the South would come to its senses and give up its ambitions to break with the northern states. The abolition of slavery had not yet been set as a condition of the Confederacy’s surrender. The goal of the campaign in the peninsula to the south of Richmond, Virginia, was to take the city, the capitol of the Confederacy, and thus force the South to surrender and end the war.
General McClellan and Robert E. Lee were the big players during those engagements of June 1862. It was here that Lee’s heroics made him famous with his fellow southerners. General Fitz John Porter, who was commanding the Union army in the field at Gaines’s Mill on June 27, took the heat for McClellan while the latter executed details (and periodically gave misdirection) from the sidelines. As the Union position, which from the start was far from ideal, quickly unwound, McClellan was forced to withdraw the Union troops to the James River, away from their goal of Richmond.
In the weeks leading up to the Seven Days Battles, McClellan made a number of tactical mistakes. A cautious and vain man, who habitually deflected blame away from himself, McClellan failed to act upon key intelligence that he could have used to his army’s advantage. His prolonged preparations, as if waiting for all the stars in the heavens to align properly, and his constant complaints to Washington that he did not have enough troops frustrated Washington (note: author Brian Burton estimates that the two armies were very close in effective strength—nearly 90,000 each; see pages 401-403 of his book, Extraordinary Circumstances). All of his delays gave the South time to amass a greater force and make more solid preparations.
In spite of the disastrous events of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan remained well-liked by his troops who believed he’d done his utmost for them. Only the officers and others closest to McClellan knew of some of the awful choices he’d made. The truth appears to be that had someone else been in charge of the Union troops at that time, someone much more decisive, Richmond may well have been taken, and the War might have ended then and there. While the cost in lives might have been even greater that June of 1862, in the long run far more many lives would have been spared—on both sides.
Lee made his mistakes, too, during the seven days but won the overall strategic campaign. Of the battles, Gaines’s Mill was the most successful for Lee. Some days were a draw and some a failure, but overall Lee managed to drive the Union troops away from Richmond and capture many men, supplies, and weapons, including a sizable amount of heavy Union artillery. Most significantly, Lee boosted the morale of the people and the army. Had not Stonewall Jackson made the missteps he made during that week, the Union army would have suffered even more at the hands of Lee’s army.
(continued in next post)