The May 27, 1862, Confederate defeat at Hanover Court House might have spelled doom for the Southern rebellion.
The Civil War could have ended in the spring of 1862. Major General George B. McClellan’s brilliantly conceived Peninsula campaign, the effort that had begun in March when he shifted his goliath Army of the Potomac from Washington to the tip of the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers,had moved,albeit slowly,westward up the peninsula to the proverbial gates of Richmond by late May. There had been missed opportunities along the way,and delays that could have been avoided, but nonetheless the army had done well on its shakedown cruise and was imperiling the Confederacy’s continued existence.
On May 27,“Little Mac” could count another victory at Hanover Court House when a blue contingent defeated a Rebel attempt to block more Union troops from joining McClellan from Fredericksburg. Victories,however,are only as good as what you make of them,and the Federals would fritter away the chance to unite the two forces and capitalize on the great opportunity for capturing Richmond and ending the war. It would take three years and the lives of thousands of men to again come that close to taking the Confederate capital.McClellan had no way of knowing that, of course, when he sent a euphoric telegram to Secretary of the War Edwin M. Stanton from the battlefield of Hanover Court House on May 28,1862,to say that the “action yesterday was truly a glorious victory.”
Before embarking on the Peninsula campaign, McClellan told his wife Ellen Mary, or “Nelly,” that he would “crush the rebels in one campaign.”He believed,as did most, that to capture Richmond was to behead the snake of rebellion.After all, the city was the governmental and industrial nerve center of the Confederacy.
After he had taken command in the summer of 1861, McClellan began building the Army of the Potomac from the remnants of the regiments trounced at the First Battle of Bull Run,with the eventual aim of moving on the critical city. After much prodding and debate from Abraham Lincoln, McClellan chose to take Richmond not by an overland route, but by moving his army from the Washington area to the peninsula southeast of Richmond via the water.That move left many in Washington anxious that their own capital was unprotected and open for attack.
As McClellan and a large portion of his army were landing on the Virginia shoreline,the Lincoln administration discovered that the promised troops left for the defense of the capital existed principally on paper. Lincoln ordered Maj.Gen.Irwin McDowell and his I Corps to remain behind and not join the main body of the Army of the Potomac, infuriating McClellan.The general telegraphed Lincoln on April 5, begging the president to “reconsider the order,” believing that absence of the I Corps “imperiled…the success of our cause.” McDowell’s 30,000 men sat on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, north of Richmond.
The Confederates, in the meantime, were not idly watching their hopes for a new republic slip by. The Confederate field commander,General Joseph E.Johnston,had slowly fallen back toward Richmond before McClellan’s advance up the swampy peninsula, trying to entice the Federals as far as possible from their base of supplies and therefore opening their lines of communication to attack.
The presence of such a large Federal force on the Rappahannock River,only a few days’ march from Richmond’s northern environs,threatened Johnston’s strategy.President Jefferson Davis and his military adviser General Robert E.Lee viewed McDowell’s men as seriously as McClellan’s army.They believed that McDowell was awaiting reinforcements from another Federal contingent under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, then stationed in the Shenandoah Valley.
To combat McDowell’s threat,Davis and Lee created the Army of the North from a 9,000-man division commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph R.Anderson and a 4,000-man brigade under Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch. Anderson’s three brigades were positioned south of the Rappahannock to watch McDowell’s force. Branch’s Brigade was positioned to the west at Gordonsville to act as reinforcements for either Anderson or for the Confederate troops operating in the Shenandoah Valley under Maj. Gens.Thomas J. “Stonewall”Jackson and Richard S.Ewell.
Lawrence Branch was a lawyer and U.S. congressman from North Carolina. Prior to the war, his only military experience came from a few weeks’service during one of the Seminole Indian wars.Since the start of hostilities in 1861, he had served as a military adviser for the governor of North Carolina and as quartermaster and paymaster for the state. Commissioned colonel of the 33rd North Carolina in September 1861, Branch was quickly promoted to brigadier general and given command of one of the military districts along the coast of North Carolina.
In March 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside defeated Branch’s outnumbered forces at the Battle of New Bern. Following the fight,Branch’s Brigade was created from the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th North Carolina infantries.To concentrate the regiments and brigades scattered along the East Coast of the Confederacy into a cohesive field army, Lee ordered Branch’s Brigade north into Virginia.It arrived there on May 4,and the brigade was soon caught up in a tug-of-war between Confederate commanders vying for more troops to support their own operations. Finally, on May 19, Johnston ordered Branch to take his command to Hanover Court House, between Richmond and Fredericksburg.
The area in and around Hanover Court House was steeped in history.The courthouse was one of the oldest in the state,and a local tavern was once owned by Patrick Henry. Henry Clay had been born there, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall had married there.But to the men of 1862, what mattered was the area’s strategic significance. For the Confederates, a force there protected transportation and communication lines and was in a position to both harass McClellan’s right flank and observe McDowell’s I Corps at Fredericksburg. On May 24, General Johnston ordered both Branch and Anderson to “draw closer to the main body” near Richmond. On May 26,Branch had moved three miles south of Hanover Court House to Slash Church and Anderson’s Division had left Fredericksburg and was eight miles north of Branch.Beside his five regiments,Branch had two regiments from Anderson,the 12th North Carolina and the 45th Georgia,plus Latham’s Battery and several companies from the 4th Virginia Cavalry.
On May 24, the same day that Branch was ordered to move closer to Richmond, McClellan received a telegram from Washington stating that McDowell had been ordered to move south and directing McClellan to extend his lines to the north and establish communications with the I Corps. Little Mac was also ordered to “detach a force to the right to cut off the retreat of the Confederate force in front of Fredericksburg.” A little later the same day, a second dispatch arrived, informing the Army of the Potomac commander that McDowell’s movement had been suspended,due to the actions of Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, and a portion of that force was sent to reinforce the Federal troops in the west.
Believing that McDowell would soon be released to move south,McClellan went ahead with his plans. He put together a conglomeration of troops under Brig.Gen. Fitz-John Porter and gave him a threefold mission: Clear the rumored 17,000 Confederates out of Hanover County and open the way for McDowell to link up with the Army of the Potomac;destroy the brigades over the Pamunkey River;and cut the Virginia Central Railroad.
Porter was a career Army officer,a Mexican War veteran who was commissioned brigadier general on May 17,1861,and had begun the Peninsula campaign commanding a division in the III Corps.In the midst of the march on Richmond,McClellan had reorganized his army, creating the V Corps from two divisions containing more than 17,000 men and placing Porter in command.For the movement toward Hanover Court House, Porter chose three brigades under the command of Brig.Gen.George Morell,a provisional brigade under Colonel Gouverneur K.Warren,several artillery batteries,the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry and detachments of the 5th and 6th U.S.Cavalry.
Both Porter and Branch spent the night of May 26 trying to keep out of the elements.Rain had pelted the soldiers on and off for a week,turning the roads into quagmires.As the Federal columns moved out at 4 a.m. on the 27th, one soldier wrote of “one broad mass of plastic mud knee deep, while the rain pelted us in torrents.”A Confederate officer would echo the Federal when he wrote that the roads were between “1⁄2 a leg to knee deep all the way.”
General Branch posted strong pickets with his limited cavalry,covering the roads to the south.He also dispatched two companies of the 37th North Carolina to Taliaferro’s Mill near the Pamunkey. Porter’s four infantry brigades took two different roads north.Morell’s three brigades traveled on the New Bridge Road, and Warren’s brigade took the road from Old Church. Porter still believed that Branch was “camped in strong force near Hanover Court House.”The Federal battle plan was for Morell’s brigades to engage the Confederates in the front and for Warren to “fall upon him in flank and rear.”The Federals, pelted by rain,slogged through the mud for hours.
Reports arrived early that morning at Confederate headquarters located at Slash Church that a small marauding party had been spotted advancing up the road to Taliaferro’s Mill.Branch sent the 28th North Carolina and a section of Lantham’s Battery to support his pickets from the 37th and to “repel any small party.” At the same time,Branch sent the 45th Georgia to repair the railroad at Ashland and to watch for troops from the north.The 28th North Carolina,under the command of Colonel James H. Lane, had reached the mill when he received word that the Federals were coming toward him from Hanover Court House.
As Lane attempted to return to the main Confederate force,he came into contact with the lead elements of Morell’s division,the 25th New York under the command of Colonel Charles Johnson. The meeting of the two forces took both colonels by surprise. Lane had to face his men to the rear and wheel to the right before coming into contact with the Federals.Several well-placed volleys and a charge by the 28th North Carolina,about twice the size of the 25th New York, sent the Yankees reeling, with many captured by Lane’s men.
As the Confederates pressed their attack, Porter had time to better prepare his next line of defense.A brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, composed of four regiments, and Battery M, 2nd U.S Artillery,went into formation.Lane reorganized his men,sent to Branch for reinforcements and redeployed his artillery.The Federals launched their attack,driving Lane back across the ground he had just captured and taking one of his artillery pieces.The Confederates continued to retreat toward Hanover Court House with the Federals in pursuit, most notably the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry.The fight lasted three hours.
Porter,not wishing to be outflanked and surprised, sent a squadron of cavalry and a section of artillery down the Ash Cake Road to the west,about the same time the 25th New York became engaged to the north.The Confederate pickets spotted the Federal troops and sent back reports to Colonel Charles Lee of the 37th North Carolina,whose camp was located near the Ash Cake Road. Lee sent two of his companies toward the Federals and another company to increase the size of the cavalry picket force and then rode off to Slash Church to report to Branch. As Lee returned from his conference with Branch, more Federal soldiers began to appear. Porter sent Brig.Gen.John H.Martindale’s brigade to reinforce his cavalry and artillery. Colonel Lee also committed the rest of his regiment and called for artillery support.
Martindale only had two of his five regiments with him.The 25th New York was battling the 28th North Carolina, and the 13th New York and 18th Massachusetts were on detached service.He was left with the 2nd Maine and 22nd Massachusetts, a total of 1,150 men.A section of Benson’s battery complemented his force.The 22nd was formed in a line of battle, with skirmishers deployed, and moved up the road. The 2nd Maine was ordered to the right and commenced tearing up the railroad and the telegraph lines.An artillery duel soon opened between the Confederates and the Federals. Colonel Lee ordered the 12th North Carolina to work around the flank of the Federals,as the 37th held the front.
Martindale called for reinforcements, but Porter, still believing that the main body of the Confederates lay to the north near Hanover Court House,ordered Martindale to disengage. Martindale sent a note back to Porter, stating that the Confederates were in his front and his left,not on his right.Regardless, the 2nd and 22nd were soon back on the road to Hanover. The 22nd was dispatched to proceed up the railroad toward Hanover, while the 2nd Maine was covering the artillery and cavalry.About that time,a cavalry officer informed Martindale that a strong Confederate skirmish line was approaching their flank.
General Branch arrived on the battlefield not long after the two sides disengaged. He ordered Colonel Lee to take his own regiment and the 18th North Carolina and “proceed to Colonel Lane’s aid.” Lee posted the 18th in front, protected by skirmishers on the front and flanks,and followed the 18th by the 37th.After covering a short distance on the Ash Cake Road, Lee found the Federals “strongly posted on the top of a hill” and he deployed the 37th to the left side of the road,with the 18th on the right.
The 2nd Maine had been redeployed by General Martindale, and after sending out skirmishers, went into position in some thick woods. Martindale also recalled the 22nd Massachusetts and discovered another regiment, the 44th New York, on the road to Hanover.Colonel Stephen Stryker of the 44th placed the regiment under Martindale’s command.The 44th was ordered to the left of the 2nd Maine and placed in a ravine.A section of Martin’s battery was also redirected and took up a position between the two regiments.
The Confederates slowed their advance when they came in sight of the Federals. When the Tar Heels were within 400 yards, the Federal artillery opened fire,causing the Confederates to hold their position. Colonel Lee sent back for reinforcements and artillery support.It was his intention to take the artillery once fresh troops arrived. Instead of reinforcements,Branch sent back orders.The 18th North Carolina was to charge the battery from the front while the 37th worked through some woods to take the battery from the flank.While the Confederates were making their dispositions, more Federals arrived.Approximately 150 men from the already battered 25th New York went into position to the left of the 2nd Maine.Also,a large group of stragglers and ambulance guards were nearby, and Martindale collected them to guard the right flank of his line.
As Lee rode over to the 37th’s position to relay their orders, Colonel Robert Cowan’s 18th North Carolina started toward the Federal guns.The regiment moved to within 250 yards of the Federal battery and was greeted with blasts of canister.The 18th faltered. Discovering that the 44th New York overlapped his own position, Cowan moved the 18th back a little and to the right.
The 37th also ran into problems.After advancing through the thick woods to within 60 yards of the battery, it discovered the 2nd Maine drawn up in a line of battle in the thick undergrowth, and the remnant of the 25th New York, which was positioned a little ahead of the 2nd Maine,was now on the 37th’s right flank.The 37th continued to advance slowly,and before long the 25th New York fell back, along with the gunners of the Federal artillery pieces, who were caught in a crossfire.The 2nd Maine continued to give ground stubbornly.
The entire Federal line stood on the verge of collapse.The 2nd Maine was nearly out of ammunition,and the 44th New York, seeing the 25th retiring, also began to fall back.General Porter realized the gravity of the situation and ordered the majority of his column to the fighting. Morell’s brigade, under the command of Colonel James McQuade, arrived and went into action.The 14th New York relieved the 2nd Maine,and the 9th Massachusetts and 62nd Pennsylvania entered the woods and enveloped the Tar Heels’ left flank.The 37th had little choice but to fall back.General Branch had kept the 7th North Carolina as a rear guard.They were placed across the road that the Confederate column was retreating on and, as the Federals advanced,delivered several well-placed volleys that halted the pursuit of the enemy. The Confederate forces continued their retreat to the town of Ashland.
The Federals were content to remain on the battlefield that they had just wrested from the Confederates. May 28 was spent burying the dead and collecting the wounded and debris of battle, including two company level flags taken from the Confederate camps and one 12-pounder cannon left by Colonel Lane’s men.Groups of Federals,mostly cavalry,scoured the area, making reconnaissance forays toward Ashland and destroying bridges over the Pamunkey and the South Anna rivers.At least one train and its cars were also captured.
McClellan inspected the field on the 28th and sent his dispatch to Stanton celebrating Porter’s “glorious victory” from Hanover Court House,writing of “a complete rout” of the Confederates. But after praising Porter, McClellan fell back to his old self, telling the secretary that he would do everything he could to “cut off Jackson” but was “doubtful whether I can.” He also returned to lobbying for more men:“It is the policy & duty of the Govt to send me by water all the well drilled troops available….If any regiments of good troops remain unemployed it will be an irreparable fault committed.”What the general failed to realized was that a movement that day to the south would have almost guaranteed him the Confederate capital.
Most likely unknown to General Branch, McDowell and his entire Federal force at Fredericksburg set out on the morning of the 27th on a reconnaissance across the Rappahannock toward Richmond. By the end of the day, they would be only 25 miles from Porter’s V Corps at the courthouse. McClellan did not have tactical command over these troops,but that was unknown to the Confederate high command.They did know,through one of Maj.Gen.J.E.B.Stuart’s scouts,that the Federals were on the move. Most of the Confederate forces in the area were to the west of the V Corps position, and given the proper reinforcements,a quick strike on the Confederate capital could have occurred. Instead of capitalizing on Porter’s victory, however, McClellan merely continued to clamor for more troops.
By May 29,the chance to hammer Richmond with the combined might of McDowell’s men and the Army of the Potomac was gone.On the 25th,Jackson had beaten Maj.Gen.Nathaniel Banks at Winchester in the valley,and his grayclads were now ominously poised to move north or west in Yankee territory.To help discourage that threat,the I Corps had returned to Fredericksburg.Meanwhile,Porter and the V Corps had returned to the area around New Bridge.
Porter’s victory over Branch at Hanover Court House helped to prove to Johnston just how easily the Union forces could maneuver to the north and east of Richmond, that the Chickahominy River divided the Federals and that the time might be right for a counterblow.
On May 31,Johnston launched his forces against the Federals at Seven Pines south of the Chickahominy, taking advantage of the fact the river was rain-swollen. Clinically,the battle was a draw,but the bloody punch in the nose caused McClellan to unite all of his men, including the V Corps, south of the river.
Additionally, during the fight at Seven Pines, Johnston was wounded in the right shoulder and chest. Jefferson Davis sent out Robert E. Lee to take over in the field.The complexion of things was really about to change. Lee named the Confederate force the Army of Northern Virginia,spent a month planning and then launched his own offensive, the Seven Days’campaign.By the beginning of July,the Army of the Potomac was cooling its heels on the James River near Malvern Hill, miles away from Richmond.
Hanover Court House and its opportunities were dim memories by then.Ironically, that small Union victory had actually turned into an opportunity for the Confederate forces near Richmond to reassert themselves and prolong the war for three more years.
A previous contributor to ACW, Michael C. Hardy is the author of the recently published Battle of Hanover Court House:Turning Point of the Peninsula Campaign, May 27, 1862.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.