Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville or Ellerson’s Mill) 1862
First Major Engagement of the Seven Days Battles during the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War
This is the second installment of my Civil War blog. If you have no interest in history, move right along. If this kind of stuff interests you, by all means read on!
Summer 1862 – You would think the wounding of General Johnston and promotion of Robert E. Lee to the command of the Confederate Army in Virginia, would be met with enthusiasm by Southern soldiers. Of course they don’t have the advantage we do of knowing what he would accomplish later in the war.
The Southern soldiers gave Lee the title of, “King of Spades” because his first order was a month of improving the trenches around Richmond for the expected siege. The Union officers didn’t think highly of him either. Both his own men and the Union Army saw him as passive and timid, at least until the end of June 1862 anyway.
Lee had renamed his army the Army of Northern Virginia and planned a bold series of attacks to remove McClellan from Virginia and take the fight to the North. What he desperately needed was intelligence.
During the month after the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, both armies seemed intent to prepare for a long siege of Richmond. McClellan became indecisive about how to proceed. Lee took this opportunity to dispatch J.E.B. Stuart, his Calvary commander, on a fact-finding mission to discover the disposition of McClellan’s forces. Stuart’s raid eventually took him completely around the Union lines and back into Richmond. This was particularly humiliating to McClellan and gave Lee much needed information he needed to launch an offensive. This offensive came to be known as the Seven Days Battles.
The first action was a minor skirmish at Oak Grove on June 25th. This involved a Union advance towards Richmond that was halted with almost equal casualties on both sides. This would be the last offensive move by the North as the initiative switched to Lee the following day.
The next engagement was on June 26th and was known as the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek/Mechanicsville. As I said earlier, Southeastern Virginia is covered with rivers and swamps. When I think of a “creek”, I picture a small stream that you can easily leap across. Beaver Dam Creek is more of a swamp bordered on each side by a steep slope as seen in the images below. The Creek is up to 20 feet wide and probably a few feet deep, maybe more in 1862.
The Union Army was entrenched at the crest of the hill above the creek and had ample time to ravage the Confederates who attempted to cross the open slopes and struggle though the waist deep water. Before long, it was a bloody mess. From walking the battlefield, at least what remains, the whole attempt seems to be foolhardy at best.
The starting numbers were roughly equal, 15,000 for the Union facing about 16,000. The casualties were overwhelmingly Confederates. Had the South followed Lee’s plan more precisely, and Jackson, who was arriving from Western Virginia, engaged as planned, it could have been a decisive victory for Lee. Alas, as in all wars, the best plans can go bad the second after the first shot is fired. That was the case at Beaver Dam Creek.
The Union Army still retired back to Gaines’ Mill behind Boatswain’s Creek for the next phase of the battle the next day.
The enemy had intrenchments of great strength and development on the other side of Beaver Dam, and had the banks lined with magnificent artillery. The approach was over an open plain, exposed to murderous fire of all arms, and an almost impassable stream was to be crossed. The result, as might have been anticipated, was a disastrous and bloody repulse. Nearly every field officer in the brigade was killed or wounded, and a large number of officers of all grades were equally unfortunate. — Major-General D.H. Hill – August 1862
The first two images are looking north from the small bridge over the creek. The bridge did not exist in 1862, but merely exists to take visitors to the spot of Ellerson’s Mill, where the most serious fighting took place. The second two images are looking from the west and to the south of the creek. Try to imagine the landscape without trees. Note the slopes on both sides of the creek.
Location of battlefield:
Originally published June 4, 2007.