On the 26th, the day upon which I had decided as the time for our final advance, the enemy attacked our right in strong force, and turned my attention to the protection of our communications and depots of supply. The event was a bitter confirmation of the military judgment which had been reiterated to my superiors from the inception and through the progress of the Peninsular Campaign.
I notified the Secretary of War in the following dispatch:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Camp Lincoln, June 26, 1562—12 m.
I have just heard that our advanced cavalry pickets on the left bank of Chickahominy are being driven in. It is probably Jackson’s advance guard. If this be true, you may not hear from me for some days, as my communications will probably be cut off. The case is perhaps a difficult one, but I shall resort to desperate measures, and [p.52] will do my best to outmaneuver, outwit, and outfight the enemy. Do not believe reports of disaster, and do not be discouraged if you learn that my communications are cut off, and even Yorktown in possession of the enemy. Hope for the best, and I will not deceive the hopes you formerly placed in me.
GEO. B. McCLELLAN,
Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Camp Lincoln, June 26, 1862—2.30 p. m.
Your dispatch and that of the President received. Jackson is driving in my pickets, &c., on the other side of the Chickahominy. It is impossible to tell where re-enforcements ought to go, as I am yet unable to predict result of approaching battle. It will probably be better that they should go to Fort Monroe, and thence according to state of affairs when they arrive.
It is not probable that I can maintain telegraphic communication more than an hour or two longer.
GEO. STANTON, Secretary of War.
On the same day I received the following dispatches from the Secretary of War:
WASHINGTON, June 25, 1862—11.20 p. m.
Your telegram of 6.15 has just been received. The circumstances that have hitherto rendered it impossible for the Government to send you any more re-enforcements than has been done have been so distinctly stated to you by the President, that it is needless for me to repeat them.
Every effort has been made by the President and myself to strengthen you. King’s division has reached Falmouth; Shields’ division and Ricketts’ division are at Manassas. The President designs to send a part of that force to aid you as speedily as it can be done.
EDWIN M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.
Maj. Gen. GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN.
WASHINGTON, June 26, 1862—6 p. m.
Arrangements are being made as rapidly as possible to send you 5,000 men as fast as they can be brought from Manassas to Alexandria and embarked, which can be done sooner than to wait for transportation at Fredericksburg. They will be followed by more, if needed. McDowell’s, Banks’, and Frémont’s force will be consolidated as the Army of Virginia, and will operate promptly in your aid by land. Nothing will be spared to sustain you, and I have undoubting faith in your success. Keep me advised fully of your condition.
EDWIN M. MCCLELLAN.
But 5,000 of the re-enforcements spoken of in these communications came to the Army of the Potomac, and these reached us at Harrison’s Bar after the seven days.
In anticipation of a speedy advance on Richmond, to provide for the contingency of our communications with the depot at the White House being severed by the enemy, and at the same time to be prepared for a change of the base of our operations to James River if circumstances should render it advisable, I had made arrangements more than a week previous (on the 18th) to have transports with supplies of provisions and forage under a convoy of gunboats sent up James River. They reached Harrison’s Landing in time to be available for the army on its arrival at that point. Events soon proved this change of base to be, though most hazardous and difficult, the only prudent course.
In order to relieve the troops of the Sixth Corps, on the 19th of June General Reynolds’ and General Seymour’s brigades, of General McCall’s [p.53] division (Pennsylvania Reserves), were moved from Gaines’ farm to a position on Beaver Dam Creek, General Meade’s brigade being held in reserve in front of Gaines’ farm. One regiment and a battery were thrown forward to the heights overlooking Mechanicsville, and a line of pickets extended along the Chickahominy River between the Mechanicsville and Meadow Bridges. As has been already stated, I received, while engaged on the 25th in directing the operations of Heintzelman’s corps, information which strengthened my suspicions that Jackson was advancing with a large force upon our right and rear On this day General Casey, at the White House, was instructed to prepare for a vigorous resistance, and defensive works were ordered at Tunstall’s Station. Early on the 25th General Porter was instructed to send out reconnoitering parties toward Hanover Court-House to discover the position and force of the enemy, and to destroy the bridges on the Totopotomoy as far as possible.
Up to the 26th of June the operations against Richmond had been conducted along the roads leading to it from the east and northeast. The reasons (the President’s anxiety about covering Washington from Fredericksburg, McDowell’s promised co-operation, partial advance, and immediate withdrawal) which compelled the choice of this line of approach and our continuance upon it have been alluded to above.
The superiority of the James River route as a line of attack and supply is too obvious to need exposition. My own opinion on that subject had been early given, and need not to be repeated here. The dissipation of all hope of the co-operation by land of General McDowell’s forces, deemed to be occupied in the defense of Washington, their inability to hold or defeat Jackson, disclosed an opportunity to the enemy, and a new danger to my right and to the long line of supplies from the White House to the Chickahominy, and forced an immediate change of base across the Peninsula. To that end from the evening of the 26th every energy of the army was bent. Such a change of base in the presence of a powerful enemy is one of the mast difficult undertakings in war. I was confident of the valor and discipline of my brave army, and knew that it could be trusted equally to retreat or advance and to fight the series of battles now inevitable whether retreating from victories or marching through defeats; and, in short, I had no doubt whatever of its ability, even against superior numbers, to fight its way through to the James River, and get a position whence a successful advance upon Richmond would be again possible. Their superb conduct through the next seven days justified my faith.
On the same day General Van Vliet, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, by my orders telegraphed to Colonel Ingalls, quartermaster at the White House, as follows:
Run the cars to the last moment, and load them with provisions and ammunition. Load every wagon you have with subsistence, and send them to Savage Station by way of Bottom’s Bridge. If you are obliged to abandon White House burn everything that you cannot get off. You must throw all our supplies up the James River as soon as possible, and accompany them yourself with all your force. It will be of vast importance to establish our depots on James River without delay if we abandon White House. I will keep you advised of every movement so long as the wires work; after that you must exercise our own judgment.
All these commands were obeyed. So excellent were the dispositions of the different officers in command of the troops, depots, and gunboats, and so timely the warning of the approach of the enemy, that almost everything was saved, and but a small amount of stores destroyed, to prevent their filling into the hands of the enemy.
General Stoneman’s communications with the main army being cut [p.54] off, he fell back upon the White House and thence to Yorktown, when the WhiteHouse was evacuated.
Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.51-54
web page Rickard, J (20 June 2006)