One of the more important series of battles in American history, collectively known as the Seven Days, occurred in Virginia 150 years ago this week. By driving away McClellan’s larger Army of the Potomac from Richmond, Robert E. Lee ensured that the Civil War was not going to be a quick Union victory, and that the Civil War, instead of a minor blip in US history, would, by the beginning of 1863, be transformed into a revolutionary struggle that would destroy slavery and alter the Union forever.
Before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of General Joe Johnston at the battle of Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee had acquired the nickname of “Granny Lee” due to his construction of fortifications and a perception that he was too cautious and lacked an aggressive spirit. Few nicknames in history have been more inapposite. As a commander Lee was a gambler and far preferred to attack the enemy than to passively await an attack. After taking over command from Johnston at the beginning of June, Lee began working towards a big offensive to drive the larger Union army away from the outskirts of Richmond. To accomplish this he began to draw reinforcements to Richmond from throughout Virginia, most notably Jackson’s Valley Army.
From June 12-15th he had the cavalry of his army, brilliantly commanded by Jeb Stuart, ride around McClellan’s army to ascertain what portion of McClellan’s army was north of the Chickahominy River.
Lee got the information he needed from Stuart’s reconnaissance. McClellan had about 25,000-30,000 men north of the Chickahominy. The remainder of his army, about 60,000, was south of the Chickahominy, in front of the Richmond defenses. Lee’s plan was bold. Leaving about 25,000 men in the Richmond defenses, he would take the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, and attack McClellan’s troop north of the Chickahominy, giving him a two-one battlefield superiority over the Union forces that side of the Chickahominy. The plan of course was contingent on McClellan remaining passive in front of Richmond. Lee planned on cutting McClellan’s supply lines by turning McClellan’s flank after winning on the north side of the Chickahominy and crossing to the south side and forcing McClellan to retreat or to be destroyed by the converging Confederates from Richmond and Lee’s forces. The plan was daring and complicated, especially for an army as green as the one Lee led.