“What if, what if,” Winston Groom said a few weeks ago at his lecture at the National Geographic Live. “You can “what if” all day long.”
When thinking about the Battle of Mechanicsville, which took place on June 26, 1862, one can’t help but wonder “what if.”
Finding success in the first part of his Peninsula Campaign that spring, General George McClellan had the Confederates retreating to within a few miles of Richmond. On top of that, Jefferson Davis worried about their losses out west.
But instead of retreating after he punished Lee’s men at Mechanicsville (Beaver Creek), what if McClellan would have continued to push his 100,000 strong and fully-supplied Federals towards the Confederate capital? Might the war have ended then?
We’ll never know, of course. The cautious McClellan did pull back. As a result, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia pushed as far north as Gettysburg in 1863. Before that, staggering tolls were counted at Manassas, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. The Peninsula Campaign alone took over 36,000 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing).
Several years ago, the better half and I visited the major Civil War battlefields in the area. In Richmond, we only had time for their Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron Works. Certainly a great place to start, but there’s so many Civil War sites to see in and around the city. We were merely scratching the surface.
My goal this time was to see some of the Seven Days Battles. Once again I had to choose one spot due to a lack of time. Decided on The Battle of Mechanicsville (known in the north as The Battle of Beaver Creek). It was the first of the Seven Days Battle, a series of confrontations that ended McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862). The battle also marked the beginning of Robert E. Lee’s on the field leadership.
Sort of like McClellan, I strategically chose not to go to Richmond by the most direct route. Instead of I-95, I took Highway 301. They’re actually about the same distance-wise from Alexandria, but the variable is the traffic.
Going down on a weekday morning, I had a pleasant drive. Given the rickety appearance of the James Madison Bridge over the Potomac, that part is a bit scary. You do get views of the Potomac not available on I-95, but now I see where they are beginning a rehab.
The other caveat with 301 is the stoplights. You just have to ramp down and accept the stoplights. Instead of going through Waldorf, I took 210/225 to the south side of La Plata, which worked fine as far as avoiding the lights around Waldorf.
Anyway, an uneventful drive down that took two hours and ten minutes. There’s a bit of a military theme as this route takes you past the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren and Fort A.P. Hill. The latter is named for A.P. Hill, who initiated the Beaver Creek attack.
When it come to preserving Civil War Battlefields, there’s been mixed results in protecting the sacred grounds. Antietam Battlefield benefits from the city of Sharpsburg controlling growth. Manassas/Bull Run Battlefield holds on as best it can. With so many Civil War sites in Richmond and its greater area, preservationists there have faced huge challenges in this regard.
Turning off I-295 and onto Highway 360, I came upon the busy intersection of Mechanicsville Road and Cold Harbor Road. 150 years ago this was the whole of Mechanicsville, a small crossroads village (The name came from a wheelwright and blacksmith shop). Nothing I see - a gas station, 7-11, small businesses - suggest these humble beginnings except the street sign for Cold Harbor Road. But I’ve scouted things out beforehand, a luxury Stonewall Jackson would have loved to have when he arrived from the Shenandoah Valley.
Further down the highway lies the Chickahominy River. Lee’s army was positioned there on the morning of June 26. McClellan’s troops were east of the crossroads, protected by Beaver Creek and a swamp that served as a moat. The Union soldiers had occupied the village for a month.
From the intersection, I drove down Cold Harbor Road, and turned right into the National Park Service’s site. It’s a beautiful sunny morning. The creek forms an s-shape in front of me, full of water and flowing underneath the pedestrian bridge. The trees hide the surrounding neighborhoods, and I’m the only there save a family crossing the bridge. Everything is so peaceful. The only interruption is the soft hum of the unseen cars motoring along I-295.
On the afternoon of the 26th, Lee had grown very impatient. On the drawing board, his plan called for Jackson to turn the Union right flank, approximately where the 295/360 interchange lies now. Jackson arrived late, so A.P Hill made his move anyway in the mid-afternoon. Five of his brigades, untested infantrymen, moved toward the creek. They came under heavy fire from General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps and took almost 1,500 causalities. Porter suffered about 360 losses.
McClellan had an overall advantage in troops but believed he was outnumbered. Jackson’s arrival in the late afternoon made him even more cautious, so he ordered Porter and his men to retreat. Thus ensued the rest of the Seven Days Battle. McClellan’s army marched to the James River, fighting Lee’s chasing army along the way. Five battles later McClellan’s army reached Harrison’s Landing. His Peninsula Campaign was over.
Lee took more losses, but had taken the initiative and chased the Union away from Richmond. Confederate morale soared. Lincoln lost more sleep and patience with his two star commander.
On the ride home I took I-295 and I-95. The snake bulged around Quantico, but no major slowdowns occurred. The driving time beat the 301 route by 20 minutes, but beware this stretch. From here on out it will only get worse.
The final thought goes to the “what ifs.” In his essay from "The Richmond Campaign of 1862", William A. Blair notes:
Had the war ended with McClellan’s siege of Richmond, it is unclear whether slavery would have died immediately or continued as part of a conciliatory peace won by the conservative prescription for war and reunion.
What is certain is that Robert E. Lee launched his career at Mechanicsville and McClellan did himself no favors with President Lincoln. As a leader of men, Lee was only getting started. Unfortunately, so was the war.
“To the Gates of Richmond,” Stephen Sears (Considered the best)
“The Richmond Campaign of 1862,” Edited by Gary Gallagher (Contains an excellent Bibliographic Essay)
Civil War Animated website (Awesome!)
Interpretive Markers at Beaver Creek Battleground Site
Village of Mechanicsville, 2012 Calendar, Battlefield Press, Mechanicsville