Chickahominy River

From Academic Kids

Chickahominy is a river in southeast Virginia, near which several battles of the United States Civil War were fought in 1862 and 1864. The river rises about 20 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia and flows southeast and south to the James River.


In the 19th century, it was bordered in many places by swampy forests, which during heavy rains were covered with water as to be almost impassable.

During the Peninsula Campaign, after General George McClellan had taken Yorktown, his army followed the retreating Confederates, and gained another victory over them at Williamsburg, on the York River, about ten miles below the mouth of the Chickahominy (May 5, 1862). The Confederates then retreated across the Chickahominy, and a part of the Union army followed them. Soon after, a heavy rain came on and the river and swamps were so flooded that they became impassable. The Union army was thus completely cut in two; for though the two divisions were only a short distance apart, their only means of reaching each other was by a bridge many miles away.

General Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded the Confederates, resolved to attack the division that had crossed the river and destroy it before the rest of the army could come to its aid. The attack was made in two places, at the railroad station of Fair Oaks and (about a mile away) at Seven Pines. At first the Unionists were driven back and almost beaten, but meanwhile the soldiers on the other side of the Chickahominy had succeeded in building a bridge, and several thousand men hurried over to help, and the Confederates were driven back. General Johnston was severely wounded (May 31). The next day the attack was renewed at Fair Oaks, but the Confederates were again defeated and they retreated in disorder to Richmond.

It is surmised that if General McClellan had followed them into Richmond, he would have probably taken the city. Instead, he advanced slowly and cautiously, thinking the Confederate forces there were much larger. The slow advance gave the Confederates time to build forts and to receive reinforcements. In a few weeks, the Confederates had nearly as many men as the Unionists, their army now being commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

General McClellan up to this time had received his provisions and supplies by the way of the York River, and his base (that is, the place where his provisions were landed) was at West Point, on the Chickahominy. General Lee's army now recrossed the Chickahominy, trying to get between the Union army and West Point and so leave the Unionists without provisions. Instead of trying to prevent this, General McClellan resolved to change his base to City Point on the James River. To do this he had to unite his army on the west side of the Chickahominy and march toward City Point. The Confederates had already attacked the Unionists at Mechanicsville on the east side of the river, but after the bloody battle they were driven back (June 26). A still more bloody battle was fought on the next day at Cold Harbor, a settlement five miles from Mechanicsville. There General McClellan had left a rear-guard under General Porter, while the rest of the army crossed the river. But the rear-guard was attacked so fiercely that many thousands recrossed the river to help it, and even then it was hardly saved from a terrible defeat. At night the rear-guard crossed the river, and the whole army was united on the west side (the side nearest to Richmond).

They might easily have taken most of the city, for General Lee and most of his army were still on the east side of the Chickahominy, and farther away from Richmond than McClellan was. But the Unionists still supposed that a large army was defending the city, and they began to retreat towards City Point, fighting as they went. At Savage's Station, near Fair Oaks, they had a large hospital and many military stores. The stores were burned and a train of cars loaded with bombshells was set on fire; at the same time the engine was started, and as the train rushed off the shells exploded, until the cars reached a broken bridge, where they plunged into the river. Soon after the Confederates attacked the Unionists at the station and drove them away, capturing the hospital with 2,500 wounded soldiers (June 29).

On the next day they made another fierce attack at Frazier's Farm where a bloody battle was fought without much advantage being gained on either side. Finally (July 1) almost the whole Confederate army attacked the Unionists at Malvern Hill, but they were beaten back with terrible slaughter and the Union army reached City Point in safety. The six major battles from Mechanicsville to Malvern Hill are often called the Seven Days Battles. The Union loss during this time was 15,200; the Confederate loss, 19,400.

On June 3, 1864, a second battle was fought at Cold Harbor, between Union army under General Grant and the Confederates under General Lee. The Confederates had much the smaller army, but they were in strong intrenchments, where the Unionists attacked them. After one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Unionists were driven back, leaving the ground covered with dead and wounded.

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