The Civil War Letters of Forrest Little: Richmond and Retreat

Union troops repair a bridge across the Chickahominy River

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Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department


   It was not until May 9 that McClellan's huge army resumed its ponderous march up the Peninsula. At first covering a dozen or more miles a day, the Vermont brigade became bogged down in heavy rains and dense wagon traffic and slowed to between five and eight. The entire army stopped at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, where McClellan established his supply base for the final advance. Almost overnight the landing was expanded with floating docks and crowded with boats, wagons, and boxes. There, too, McClellan organized a Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac and attached to it Smith's division, including the Vermont Brigade. Camped on the river, Forrest Little and the Vermonters went for a swim, and Forrest described in his letter of May 22 how he and another soldier saved a Union man from drowning.

   The Union advance resumed on the 19th. Three days later the Fifth Vermont was holding the Union right, encamped on a low pine ridge near the banks of the Chickahominy River less than ten miles from Richmond. On the 24th they moved forward about a mile on the north side of the river and faced the Confederate earthworks across it. Everyone expected a climactic battle for Richmond, "the hardest battle that was ever fought," Forrest predicted, assuring his father that he would be home soon if he survived it. At this time Forrest's letter writing, which had slowed down as the Peninsula campaign got under way, virtually stopped—he apparently posted no letters for over forty days as the Union army fought its way toward and then away from Richmond.

   Once more, as at Lee's Mill, McClellan was confounded by the peninsula's small rivers. The Chickahominy pointed the Union soldiers west toward Richmond, but then it veered north before reaching the capital. McClellan positioned the Union right, including the Vermont men, on the north bank of the Chickahominy in order to protect his supply base at White House on the York River and to link with General McDowell's troops, expected to arrive from the north. The Union left, however, camped on the south bank, so that the river divided the two wings of McClellan's huge army. To make matters worse, the river had been swollen by May's heavy rains and threatened to wash out the four bridges McClellan relied on to unite his army. On May 30 the men of the Fifth Vermont got caught in a huge thunderstorm as they returned to camp from an engineering expedition to strengthen Union defenses at Mechanicsville.

   The next day, Confederate General Johnston, seeking to take advantage of this storm, sent two-thirds of his troops against one of the two Union corps south of the river. Luckily for McClellan, the Confederate attack at the battle of Fair Oaks (also called Seven Pines) was confused and disorganized, giving Union generals time to bring up reinforcements that stopped the rebels' advance. The Fifth Vermont was in camp when the big battle began at Fair Oaks four miles away across the river. At dawn on the battle's second day the Vermonters were ordered to cross the river at New Bridge and join the day's fight, but as they waited for a pontoon crossing to replace the burned bridge, word arrived that the battle was nearly over and they were turned around. By afternoon the Confederates had been driven back to their starting point. The battle of Fair Oaks was a stalemate—each side used just over 40,000 men and each suffered between 5,000 and 6,000 casualties—but Union troops could have much to cheer. General Johnston had been wounded during the first day's fighting and his men had retreated toward Richmond's defenses. 

   Still, McClellan seemed stunned by the sight of dead Union soldiers on the battlefield, and instead of pursuing the Confederates to Richmond he stood almost still for two weeks, promising President Lincoln an advance but blaming bad weather and lack of reinforcements for not undertaking it. To consolidate his gains after the battle, McClellan moved most of his army south of the Chickahominy, leaving 30,000 men on the north bank. As part of this shift, on June 5th the Vermonters crossed to the south bank of the Chickahominy and camped in a spot near the river at Golding's farm. There they remained for nineteen days as McClellan planned and procrastinated. Their duty was severe. The opposing armies were so close that rebel sharpshooters occasionally hit Union soldiers who ventured into the camp's open spaces. The Vermonters spent many nights digging to construct breastworks, then were called to arms at three o'clock every morning in anticipation of a Confederate attack. Lack of rest, drenching rains, and malaria from the swelling swamps took their toll, filling field hospitals with victims of "Chickahominy fever."

   By the time McClellan's army began to creep toward Richmond on the 25th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who replaced Johnston when the latter was wounded, had seized the initiative. Learning from his cavalry chief General J.E.B. Stuart, who had circled McClellan's army unharmed in three days, that General Porter's division on the Union's right wing was dangerously exposed, Lee planned to bring Stonewall Jackson's army from northern Virginia to attack it from the flank while his own troops assaulted its front. On June 26th the Confederates launched their attack, which at great cost eventually forced Porter's corps to withdraw southward across the river.

   Already McClellan was a beaten man. Unnerved by Lee's attack on Porter, news of Jackson's arrival, and the Union left's failure against Lee's remnants in front of Richmond, McClellan feared that the Confederates, who he mistakenly believed had "greatly superior numbers," would overrun his troops. Blaming Union leaders in Washington for a lack of support, he went on the defensive. McClellan decided to retreat southward to a base on the James River where Union gunboats could protect his army.

McClellan's "Change of Base"

   The fighting on June 25th began seven straight days of battle, the last five of which were Confederate attacks on the Union's retreating troops. Always on alert while they moved, the men of the Fifth Vermont slept on their guns each night. At first they played minor supporting roles in what McClellan euphemistically called his "change of base." At Golding's Farm on the 27th, two companies of the Fifth were engaged in support of Hancock's men, who were withstanding a foray by Gen. Magruder's rebel troops. Forrest Little's Company F was not among them. After Golding's Farm, however, the Fifth Vermont served as rear guard protecting the Union retreat. In that role they came under direct fire from the pursuing Confederates.

-- Next: The Battle of Savage Station