Harris, Public Information Officer, 804-365-6402
The Civil War in 1862
History changed in Hanover in the spring of 1862, when the Civil War took an unexpected turn.
In May and June, the war arrived in Hanover County and the Richmond area. What happened is known as the “Seven Days Battles”.
Union General George B. McClellan’s army of 120,000 men was larger than all but a few American cities. As it marched up Virginia’s peninsula towards Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln and most others in the Northern states expected an end to the year-old Southern rebellion. The outnumbered Confederate army fell back steadily and by June 1862 part of McClellan’s army was in the little hamlet of Mechanicsville, close enough to Richmond for soldiers to hear bells tolls in the City;
Bob Krick, historian for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, says that people at the time saw this moment as “the most important event in American history since the founding of the country.”
But on May 31, Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at the battle of Seven Pines, which took place around what is now the Richmond International Airport. Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed command of what he named the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee wanted to attack. First he sent his cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, on a mission to reconnoiter McClellan’s army to determine its position. Leaving from a position near Elmont and passing by modern-day Hanover landmarks such as Hanover Courthouse, Stuart’s cavalry ultimately rode all the way around McClellan’s army, a deed which electrified Southerners.
Acting on the information gained from Stuart’s mission, Lee decided to leave only a small portion of his army in front of Richmond and move the bulk of it across the Chickahominy River into Hanover to attack the isolated right flank of the Union army, which stretched from Beaver Dam Creek to Cold Harbor and down into Henrico County.
Lee summoned “Stonewall” Jackson, fresh off defeats of three Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley, to march from the north and west and descend upon McClellan’s right flank.
Lee’s first attack came at Beaver Dam Creek on June 26. The assault failed but Jackson’s arrival that night forced McClellan to pull back to a stronger position at Gaines Mill. From then on, Krick says, it was a matter of how much damage Lee could do to his retreating foes.
On June 27, Lee concentrated his forces at Gaines Mill. What ensued was the bloodiest battle ever fought in Hanover County, with the two armies losing more than 15,000 soldiers in a single day.
At dusk, the largest charge Lee ever ordered collapsed the Union line and only nightfall saved the Federal Corps from destruction. Lee had his first battlefield victory, and the tide of the war had changed.
Over the next five days, the Confederates continued to chase and strike the retreating Union army, but a variety of problems - including Jackson’s strangely lethargic performance - kept Lee from achieving the decisive victory he hoped would end the war. McClellan pulled his forces away from Richmond and the threat to the Confederate capital had passed.
But while Lee’s army had saved Richmond, the cost to the nation would be great. The two armies had lost 35,000 men over the seven days - a number which staggered the nation and seems almost incomprehensible today. Worse, the Confederate victory ensured even greater bloodshed, and the Civil War would go on for three more bloody years, much it fought right here in Hanover County.
Many activities commemorating the events of May and June 1862 will be held in the Richmond area. A listing of some of these events can be read here.
To read the events calendar posted by Richmond National Battlefield Parks, click here.
Information on some of the places in Hanover County that were impacted by the Seven Days Battles can be read here.
A major effort is underway to preserve more of the endangered Gaines Mill battlefield. Information on this effort can be read here.