With the Union Army now but eight miles to the east of Richmond, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston could no longer wait for McClellan to continue to build forces and lay siege to the Capital. With total numbers against him of roughly 105,000 to 65,000, Johnston made plans to attack the left flank of the Union Army – positioned on the south side of the Chickahominy River. Two Union Corps occupied this position – Heintzelman’s 3rd Corps and Keyes’ 4th Corps. The larger and three remaining Union corps were north of the swollen stream.
Johnston deployed about 40,000 of his men in the action – a rather complicated and poorly communicated plan of attack. Longstreet was to be the main player. A number of errors of misunderstanding, miscommunication, or misadventure resulted in a less than stellar Rebel attack. Johnston was himself rather severely wounded late in the day, with the command devolving ultimately to Robert E. Lee on June 1st.
The Union has brought up significant reinforcements for the second day, and Confederate attacks were repulsed. Each side claimed victory, though the outcome was indecisive – Union losses were over 6,000 as compared to slightly more than 5,000 for the South. Lee pulled the army back into the defenses of Richmond and began plans for what would be known four weeks later as the Seven Days Battles.
McClellan missed the entire affair, being bedridden by a bout with his chronic malaria. The entire experience of losses beyond pretty much anything seen to that point seemed to shake the Young Napoleon who continued to believe he was outnumbered by perhaps a 2:1 ratio, communicating in mid May, “I regard it as certain that the enemy will meet us with all his force on or near the Chickahominy … If I am not re-enforced, it is possible that I will be obliged to fight nearly double my numbers, strongly entrenched.” Beyond that and in the wake of the battle, he wrote: “I am tired of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor wounded. Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”
The month of June 1862 was as wet as it has been here around Antietam in recent weeks. McClellan wrote to Washington of the difficulties in bringing up his heavy guns. Again he moaned of his disadvantaged position: “I regret my great inferiority in numbers but feel I am in no way responsible for it as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements … But if a result of the action is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.”
To this, Lincoln eloquently responded: “… it pains me very much. I give you all I can … while you continue, ungenerously I think, to assume that I could give you more if I would. I have omitted and shall omit no opportunity to send you reinforcements whenever I possibly can.”