Hanover Court House and Gaines's Mill
BY FITZ JOHN PORTER, MAJOR GENERAL, U.S. A.
UNDER the direction of General McClellan certain measures for the protection of the right flank of the army in its advance upon Richmond were put in my hands, beginning simultaneously with the march of the army from the Pamunkey. Among these were the clearing of the enemy from the upper Peninsula as far as Hanover Court House or beyond, and, in Case General McDowell's large forces, then at Fredericksburg, were not to join us, the destruction of railroad and other bridges over the South and Pamunkey rivers, in order to prevent the enemy in large force from getting into our rear from that direction, and in order, further, to cut the Virginia Central Railroad, the one great line of the enemy's communications between Richmond and Northern Virginia.
A portion of this duty had been accomplished along the Pamunkey as far as was deemed prudent by Colonel G. K. Warren's forces, posted at Old Church, when on the 26th of May, preparatory to an immediate advance upon Richmond, General McClellan directed me to complete the duty above specified, so that the enemy in Northern Virginia, then occupying the attention of McDowell, Banks, and Fremont, could not be suddenly thrown upon our flank and rear nor otherwise strengthen the enemy in Richmond. I was allowed to adopt my own plans, and to select such additional forces as I deemed necessary.
At 4 A. M. on the 27th General G. W. Morell, commanding the division consisting of J. H. Martindale's, Daniel Butterfield's, and James McQuade's brigades, marched from New Bridge preceded by all advance-guard of two regiments of cavalry and a battery of artillery under command of General W. H. Emory. At the same hour Colonel Warren with his brigade moved from Old Church. Cavalry under General George Stoneman and regular infantry under General George Sykes followed at a later hour, to protect our left flank and rear. The first two commands were to fall upon the enemy, who I had reason to believe were camped in strong force near Hanover Court House. The first command, under my immediate direction, was to take the enemy in front, while Colonel Warren, taking the road along the Pamunkey, was to fall upon him in flank and rear. In a pelting storm of rain, through deep mud and water for about 14 miles, the command struggled and pushed its way to Peake's Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, 2 miles from Hanover Court House, where we came in presence of the enemy.
At once a force of infantry (Colonel C. A. Johnson's 25th New York Volunteers and Berdan's sharp-shooters, protected by artillery, was sent forward to hold the enemy in check, pending the arrival of Morell, who was slowly pushing along the swampy roads. Cavalry and artillery were sent to the left along the Ashland road, to guard our flank and destroy the railroad and telegraph at the crossing. On Martindale's arrival he was sent in support of this force, and with it soon became engaged with very persistent opponents. Butterfield was sent to the front, where, deploying in line, he moved rapidly upon the enemy, put them to flight, and captured many prisoners and one cannon and caisson.
As the enemy gave way, the troops were pushed on toward Hanover Court House in pursuit of the fleeing foe and to strike their camp, which I had been informed was near by, but which was found abandoned. Suddenly the signal officers notified me of a large force attacking our flank and rear, and especially the troops under Martindale. At once the infantry were faced about, and at double-quick step hastened to the aid of their imperiled comrades. McQuade's brigade, on arriving opposite the contending forces, moved in line to the attack. Butterfield, now in rear as faced about, pushed his brigade through the woods and fell with vigor upon the enemy's flank. The united attack quickly routed the enemy, inflicting heavy losses in killed and wounded and prisoners.
Warren greatly delayed by muddy roads, swollen streams, and the work of building bridges, arrived about 3 P. M., at the close of the first battle, and was sent northward in pursuit of the enemy, and to destroy bridges and boats on the Pamunkey. He, with Rush of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, captured a company of North Carolina infantry just before reaching the wagon road bridge, which they destroyed. Night put an end to the contest.
The succeeding day was occupied in gathering in the results of our victory and in pushing the troops to Ashland, destroying two of the enemy's railroad trains, abandoned camps, and railroad ad other bridges over the Pamunkey and South Anna, and injuring the railroad tracks - it having been decided at Washington that McDowell was not to join us, and that a large portion of his command had been ordered to Northern Virginia in pursuit of Jackson, then on a raid into the Shenandoah Valley. Our movement had caused the rapid retreat to Richmond of General Joseph R. Anderson's command, thereby releasing McDowell's command for active operations in Northern Virginia, as well as opening the way for him to join us. The destruction of the railroad bridges was accomplished by Major Lawrence Williams, 6th U. S. Cavalry, who, while on the South Anna, fell in with some of McDowell's scouts, who were hourly looking for the advance of their corps.
McClellan joined me on the battle-field, and was well pleased with the results of our labors. Besides the destruction of the bridges, trains, etc., we were in possession of a large number of arms and one cannon, of some 730 prisoners, and had buried some 200 killed. By General McClellan's directions we returned to our camp on the 29th of May.
This was the first occasion that the corps had had to show its good qualities, all being in action at once. The behavior of the officers and men showed the benefit of the good training before Washington, during the fall and winter of 1861, given by their brigade and regimental commanders. The regiments, without exception, behaved most gallantly.
On our return to camp all rejoiced at the success of our mission in securing for a reasonable time our flank from injury and preparing the whole army for a rapid advance on Richmond, and also by rendering McDowell's presence unnecessary for the defense of Washington, giving the War Department the opportunity of sending his corps by water to join us. If that had been done, none of the enemy could have been detached from Richmond to threaten Washington, and his forces in Northern Virginia would have been called to defend Richmond. But a mightier power interfered, and through years of trial and sufferings delayed the happy victory we then hoped was in our hands.
After the battle of Fair Oaks, during the greater part of the month of June, 1862, the Army of the Potomac, under General McClellan, and the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Lee, confronted each other, east of Richmond. The two armies were of nearly equal strength. McClellan's forces, divided by the Chickahominy, were extended south of that stream, from New Bridge to White Oak Swamp, leaving north of the river only the Fifth Army Corps. The Confederate troops faced the Federal army throughout its length, from White Oak Swamp to New Bridge, and thence up the right bank of the Chickahominy, covering the important crossings at Mechanicsville and Meadow Bridge, north of the city.
South of the Chickahominy each army was secured against surprise in flank or successful attack in front by that swollen stream; by marshy lands and muddy roads; by redoubts studded with artillery and rifle-pits well manned, all flanked or covered by swamps, tangled thickets, and slashed timber. Not-withstanding the apparent quiet, both armies were actively engaged in the erection of those defensive works which permit large forces to be detached, at opportune moments, for aggressive action, or for the defense of menaced positions. These preparations for offensive and defensive action, known to both commanders, plainly impressed on each the necessity of guarding against any errors in position, and the importance of preparing promptly to take advantage of any opening in his opponent's line which promised results commensurate with the risks involved.
It was apparent to both generals that Richmond could only be taken in one of two ways: by regular approaches, or by assault. An assault would require superior forces, supported by ample reserves. It was equally apparent that an attack could readily be made from Richmond, because that city's well armed and manned intrenchments would permit its defense by a small number of men, while large forces could be concentrated and detached for offensive operations.
The faulty location of the Union army, divided as it was by the Chickahominy, was from the first realized by General McClellan, and became daily an increasing cause of care and anxiety to him; not the least disturbing element of which was the impossibility of quickly reenforcing his right wing or promptly drawing it to the south bank. That this dilemma was known to so intelligent and vigilant a commander as General Lee could not be doubted; and that it was certainly demonstrated to him by General J. E. B. Stuart's dashing cavalry raid around the Union army, on June 14th, was shown in many ways. One evidence of it was his immediate erection of field-works on his left, and his increasing resistance to the efforts of Union scouts to penetrate into the roads leading to Richmond from the north. This indicated that Lee was preparing to guard against the reenforcement of McClellan's right, and also against information reaching us of Confederate reenforcements from the north.
McClellan had been forced into this faulty position on the Chickahominy and held there by the oft-repeated assurances that McDowell's corps of 40,000 men, then at Fredericksburg, would be advanced to Richmond and formed on his immediate right, which would make that wing safe. On the 27th of May, under promise that McDowell would join him at once McClellan cleared his front of all opposition to his rapid march, by operations at Hanover Court House. If McDowell had joined McClellan then, it would have resulted in the capture of Richmond. That junction could also easily have been brought about immediately after the battle of Fair Oaks, and even then Richmond could have been taken. But the Confederate authorities so skillfully used Jackson, in the Valley of Virginia, as to draw off McDowell; while the fears of the Administration, then aroused for the safety of Washington, together with a changed policy, caused him to be held back from the Army of the Potomac; and, although orders were several times issued requiring McDowell to unite with McClellan, and assurances were given as late as June 26th that he would so unite, yet he never arrived, and the right wing of McClellan's army, then left exposed, became the object of attack. McClellan saw the coming storm, and guarded against it as best he could. Realizing the faultiness of his position, resulting from McDowell's withdrawal to the north, he desired to correct the error by changing his base from York River to the James, where he could be easily reenforced, and from which point his communications would be safe. This change could not be made so long as McDowell's advance was to be expected, nor in any event could it be effected without great risk to the safety of his own army in the face of a vigilant and active foe, and without seriously jeopardizing the success of the cause to which he was devoting all his energies. He, however, secured by careful examination full information of the roads and the character of the country over which he would be obliged to move, if circumstances or policy should require a change of base, and as early as June 18th sent vessels loaded with supplies to the James River.
In the middle of June General McClellan intrusted to me the management of affairs on the north bank of the Chickahominy, and confided to me his plans as well as his hopes and apprehensions. His plans embraced defensive arrangements against an attack from Richmond upon our weak right flank. We did not fear the results of such an attack if made by the forces from Richmond alone; but if, in addition, we were to be attacked by Jackson's forces, suspicions of whose approach were already aroused, we felt that we should be in peril. But as Jackson had thus far prevented McDowell from joining us, we trusted that McDowell, Banks, and Fremont, who had been directed to watch Jackson, would be able to prevent him from joining Lee, or, at least, would give timely warning of his escape from their front and follow close upon his heels.
With McClellan's approval, my command was distributed as follows:
General Geo. G. Meade's brigade of General Geo. A. McCall's division of Pennsylvania Reserves was posted at Gaines's house, protecting a siege-battery controlling New Bridge; Generals John F. Reynolds's and Truman Seymour's brigades held the rifle-pits skirting the east bank of Beaver Dam Creek and the field-works covering the only crossings near Mechanicsville and Ellerson's Mill. These field-works, well armed with artillery, and the rifle-pits, well manned, controlled the roads and open fields on the west bank of that creek, and were concealed by timber and brush from an approaching foe. The infantry outposts from the same division, and their supports, protection behind his intrenchments with the possibility of being able to remain there, and the gain of sufficient time to enable him to effect a change of base to the James; on the part of Lee, the destruction of McClellan's right wing, and, by drawing him from his intrenchments and attacking him in front, the raising of the siege of Richmond.
The morning of Thursday, June 26th, dawned clear and bright, giving promise that the day would be a brilliant one. The formation of the ground south of the Chickahominy opposite Mechanicsville, and west to Meadow Bridge, largely concealed from view the forces gathered to execute an evidently well-planned and well-prepared attack upon my command. For some hours, on our side of the river, all was quiet, except at Mechanicsville and at the two bridge-crossings. At these points our small outposts were conspicuously displayed for the purpose of creating an impression of numbers and of an intention to maintain an obstinate resistance. We aimed to invite a heavy attack, and then, by rapid withdrawal, to incite such confidence in the enemy as to induce incautious pursuit.
In the northern and western horizon vast clouds of dust arose, indicating the movements of Jackson's advancing forces. They were far distant, and we had reason to believe that the obstacles to their rapid advance, placed in their way by detachments sent for that purpose, would prevent them from making an attack that day. As before stated, we did not fear Lee alone; we did fear his attack, combined with one by Jackson on our flank; but our fears were allayed for a day.
General McClellan's desire to make the earliest and quickest movements at that time possible, and his plans for the accomplishment of that desire, as expressed to me, were substantially conveyed in the following dispatch of June 23d from his chief-of-staff:
"Your dispositions of your troop are approved by the commanding general. . .. If you are attacked, be careful to state as promptly as possible the number, composition, and position of the enemy. The troops on this side will be held ready either to support you directly or to attack the enemy in their front. If the force attacking you is large, the general would prefer the latter course, counting upon your skill and the admirable troops under your command to hold their own against superior numbers long enough for him to make the decisive movement which will determine the fate of Richmond."
The position selected on Beaver Dam Creek for our line of defense was naturally very strong. The banks of the valley were steep, and forces advancing on the adjacent plains presented their flanks, as well as their front, to the fire of both infantry and artillery, safely posted behind intrenchments. The stream was over waist-deep and bordered by swamps. Its passage was difficult for infantry at all points, and impracticable for artillery, except at the bridge-crossing at Ellerson's Mill, and at the one above, near Mechanicsville.
Quite early in the day. I visited General Reynolds near the head of the creek, and had the best reasons not only to be contented, but thoroughly gratified, with the admirable arrangements of this accomplished officer, and to be encouraged by the cheerful confidence of himself and his able and gallant assistants, Seymour on his left, at Ellerson's Mill, and Colonel Seneca G. Simmons and Major Roy Stone in his front. Each of these officers commanded a portion of the Pennsylvania Reserves - all under the command of the brave and able veteran, McCall. These troops were about to engage in their first battle, and bore themselves then, as they did on trying occasions immediately following, with the cheerful spirit of the volunteer and the firmness of the veteran soldier - examples inspiring emulation in these trying "seven days' battles."
Part of the general details previously adopted was then ordered to be followed, and subsequently was enforced as near as practicable in all the battles in which my corps engaged: that under no circumstances should the men expose themselves by leaving their intrenchments, or other cover, merely to pursue a repulsed foe; nor, except in uneven ground which would permit the fire of artillery to pass well over their heads, was infantry or cavalry to be posted in front of a battery, or moved so as to interfere with its fire. Bullet, shot, and shell were to be relied upon for both repulse and pursuit.
Sitting for hours near the telegraph operator at my quarters, prior to the attack, I listened to the constant and rapid "ticking" of his instrument, and was kept informed, by the various intercommunicating messages at the headquarters of the army, of the condition of affairs in front of the three corps farthest to the left. Reports often came from them that the enemy's camps seemed to be largely deserted, confirming the information that the enemy had gathered in front of Franklin and myself. Yet, the following day, when I called for aid to resist the forces of Lee and Jackson at Gaines's Mill, known to be immensely superior to mine, the commanders of these three corps expressed the belief that they were about to be attacked by bodies larger than their own, and objected to detaching any part of their troops.
From the cavalry scouts of Colonel John F. Farnsworth, Stoneman, and General P. St. George Cooke, whose forces stretched, in the order named, from Meadow Bridge north to the Pamunkey, reports came that Jackson was advancing slowly upon my flank. I was also informed that the departure of Jackson from Northern Virginia was suspected, but not positively known, at Washington; but that at this critical moment no assistance whatever could be expected from that vicinity.
Perhaps at this time the Administration had been crippled by its own acts, and could not respond to General McClellan's calls for aid. About April 1st, when our army began active operations in the field and recruiting should have been encouraged, the enrollment of troops was ordered to be stopped. The War Governor of Pennsylvania [Andrew G. Curtin] notably disregarded this order. His foresight was afterward recognized at Antietam, where he was able to render valuable assistance. In the month of June, however, the policy had begun to change, and the troops in Northern Virginia were being placed in charge of an officer [General John Pope] called to Washington "to take command of Banks and Fremont, perhaps McDowell, take the field against Jackson, and eventually supersede McClellan." At the day the order of assignment was issued, June 27th, however, there was no enemy confronting that officer - Jackson having disappeared from Northern Virginia, and being in my front at Gaines's Mill.
About 2 o'clock P. M., on the 26th, the boom of a single cannon in the direction of Mechanicsville resounded through our camps. This was the signal which had been agreed upon, to announce the fact that the enemy were crossing the Chickahominy. The curtain rose; the stage was prepared for the first scene of the tragedy. At once tents were struck, wagons packed and sent to the rear to cross to the right bank of the Chickahominy. The several divisions were promptly formed, and took the positions to which they had previously been assigned. General McCall assumed command at Beaver Dam Creek; Meade joined him, taking position behind Seymour; Martindale and General Charles Griffin, of Morell's division, went, respectively, to the right and rear of Reynolds; Butterfield was directed to support General Cooke's, and subsequently Martindale's right, while Sykes was held ready to move wherever needed. Reynolds and Seymour prepared for action and concealed their men.
About 3 o'clock the enemy, under Longstreet, D. H. and A. P. Hill, in large bodies commenced rapidly to cross the Chickahominy almost simultaneously at Mechanicsville, Meadow Bridge, and above, and pushed down the left bank, along the roads leading to Beaver Dam Creek. In accordance with directions previously given, the outposts watching the access to the crossings fell back after slight resistance to their already designated position on the east bank of Beaver Dam Creek, destroying the bridges as they retired.
After passing Mechanicsville the attacking forces were divided, a portion taking the road to the right to Ellerson's Mill, while the larger body directed their march to the left into the valley of Beaver Dam Creek, upon the road covered by Reynolds. Apparently unaware, or regardless, of the great danger in their front, this force moved on with animation and confidence, as if going to parade, or engaging in a sham battle. Suddenly, when half-way down the bank of the valley, our men opened upon it rapid volleys of artillery and infantry, which strewed the road and hill-side with hundreds of dead and wounded, and drove the main body of the survivors back in rapid flight to and beyond Mechanicsville. So rapid was the fire upon the enemy's huddled masses clambering back up the hill, that some of Reynolds's ammunition was exhausted, and two regiments were relieved by the 4th Michigan and 14th New York of Griffin's brigade. On the extreme right a small force of the enemy secured a foothold on the east bank, but it did no harm, and retired under cover of darkness.
The forces which were directed against Seymour at Ellerson's Mill made little progress. Seymour's direct and Reynolds's flank fire soon arrested them and drove them to shelter, suffering even more disastrously than those who had attacked Reynolds. Late in the afternoon, greatly strengthened, they renewed the attack with spirit and energy, some reaching the borders of the stream, but only to be repulsed with terrible slaughter, which warned them not to attempt a renewal of the fight. Little depressions in the ground shielded many from our fire, until, when night came on, they all fell back beyond the range of our guns. Night put an end to the contest.
The Confederates suffered severely. All night the moans of the dying and the shrieks of the wounded reached our ears. Our loss was only about 250 of the 5,000 engaged, while flat of the Confederates was nearly 2,000 out of some 10,000 attacking.
General McClellan had joined me on the battle-field at an early hour in the afternoon. While we discussed plans for the immediate future, influenced in our deliberations by the gratifying results of the day, numerous and unvarying accounts from our outposts and scouts toward the Pamunkey warned us of the danger impending on the arrival of Jackson, and necessitated a decision as to which side of the Chickahominy should be held in force. He left me late at night, about 1 A. M. (June 27th), with the expectation of receiving information on his arrival at his own headquarters from the tenor of which he would be enabled to decide whether I should hold my present position or withdraw to a well-selected and more advantageous one east of Gaines's Mill, where I could protect the bridges across the Chickahominy, over which I must retire if compelled to leave the left bank. He left General Barnard, of the Engineers, with me, to point out the new line of battle in case he should decide to withdraw me from Beaver Dam Creek. The orders to withdraw reached me about 3 o'clock A. M., and were executed as rapidly as possible.
The position selected for the new stand was east of Powhite Creek, about six miles from Beaver Dam Creek. The line of battle was semicircular, the extremities being in the valley of the Chickahominy, while the intermediate portion occupied the high grounds along the bank of a creek and curved around past McGehee's to Elder Swamp. Part of the front was covered by the ravine of the creek. The east bank was lined with trees and underbrush, which afforded concealment and protection to our troops and artillery.
From the point where the line of the creek turns suddenly to the east, the front was a series of boggy swamps covered extensively with tangled brush. Near McGehee's and beyond, the ground, elevated and drier, was filled with ravines swept by our artillery and infantry, who were covered by depressions in the ground. The high land embraced within the semicircle was cleared ground, but undulating, and often, with the aid of fences and ditches, giving concealment and cover, breast-high, to both infantry and artillery.
Before sunrise of the 27th the troops were withdrawn from Beaver Dam Creek and sent to their new position east of Powhite Creek, destroying the bridges across it after them.
Some batteries and infantry skirmishers, left as a ruse at Beaver Dam Creek, by their fire so fully absorbed the attention of the foe that our purpose suddenly and rapidly to abandon the intrenchments seemed unsuspected. But when they discovered our withdrawal, their infantry pressed forward in small detachment the main body and the artillery being delayed to rebuild the bridges. Seymour's brigade, the last to start, under its skillful commander, with Captain John C. Tidball's and Captain James M. Robertson's well-managed horse batteries on its flanks kept the enemy at a respectful distance and enabled all, horse, foot, and artillery, wagons and wounded, to reach, with little loss, their designated posts in the new position my brave and efficient aide, Lieutenant S. M. Weld, however, was taken prisoner.
The siege guns were safely removed by hand from the works overlooking New Bridge and taken to the south bank of the Chickahominy, where, protected by Franklin's corps, they were posted and used with damaging effect upon the enemy as they advanced that afternoon to attack the left of our line.
Our new line of battle was well selected and strong, though long and requiring either more troops to man it; than I had, or too great a thinning of my line by the use of the reserves. The east bank of the creek, from the valley of the Chickahominy to its swampy sources, was elevated, sloping, and timbered. The bed of the stream was nearly dry, and its west bank gave excellent protection to the first line of infantry posted under it to receive the enemy descending the cleared field sloping to it. The swampy grounds along the sources of the creek were open to our view in front for hundreds of yards, and were swept by the fire of infantry and artillery. The roads from Gaines's Mill and Old Cold Harbor, along which the enemy were compelled to advance, were swept by artillery posted on commanding ground.
Along the ground thus formed and close to its border were posted the divisions of Morell and Sykes, the latter on the right; Captain A. P. Martin's Massachusetts battery between, each brigade having in reserve, immediately in its rear, two of its regiments. Sections or full batteries of the division artillery were posted to sweep the avenues of approach, and the fields on which these avenues opened. Wherever possible and useful, guns were placed between brigades and on higher ground, in front or rear, as judgment dictated. The unemployed guns were in reserve with their divisions. Batteries of Artillery Hunt's Artillery Reserve were in rear of the left covered by timber from view of the enemy, but ready to move at a moment's call, or from their stand to pour their irresistible fire into the enemy's face in case they broke our line.
McCall's division formed a second line, near the artillery in reserve, in rear of Morell, and immediately behind the woods on the left. Reynolds, the first to leave Beaver Dam Creek, had gone to Barker's Mill to cover the approaches from Cold Harbor and Dispatch Station to Grapevine Bridge; but, hearing the battle raging on our left, and having no enemy in his front, while Emory, of Cooke's cavalry, with artillery, was near at hand to do the duty assigned to him, he hastened to join McCall, arriving opportunely in rear of Griffin's left.
General Cooke was instructed to take position, with cavalry, under the hills in the valley of the Chickahominy- there, with the aid of artillery, to guard our left flank. He was especially enjoined to intercept, gather, and hold all stragglers, and under no circumstances to leave the valley for the purpose of coming upon the hill held by our infantry, or pass in front of our line on the left. Stoneman's detachment of cavalry and infantry, miles to the north, was no longer available. Fearing it might be cut off by Jackson, I sent Stoneman word to make his way as best he could to White House, and in proper time to rejoin the army-wherever it might be.
Believing my forces too small to defend successfully this long line, I asked General Barnard, when he left me, to represent to General McClellan the necessity of reenforcements to thicken and to fill vacant spaces in my front line. He himself promised me axes. This was my first request for aid, but none came in response. The axes did not arrive till near dark, and were useless; but with the few obtained early in the day from the artillery, and in the little time at command, trees were felled along a small portion of our front, and barriers were erected, which were filled in with rails and knapsacks.
While withdrawing from Beaver Dam, I had seen, to my delight, General H. W. Slocum's division of Franklin's corps crossing the river to my assistance. McClellan had promised to send it, and I needed it; it was one of the best divisions of the army. Its able, experienced, and gallant Commander and his brave and gifted subordinates had the confidence of their well-trained soldiers. They were all worthy comrades of my well-tried and fully trusted officeee the greater part of the field and commiiiiicate renily with all parts of in
Thus far, it will be seen, all plans were defensive; I hg reason to belwve that thimmediatelyrgely outnumbered menthree to one. Evidently it was their plan and their policy to crush me, if possible. Their boldnss andconfidence, I might add incaution, if not imprudence and rashness in exposure and attack, confirmed my belief that at flrst they deemed the task an easy one.
I, however, determined to holduny position at leastee the greater part of the field and communicate readily with all parts of if.
Thus far, it will be seen, all plans were defensive; I had reason to believe that the enemy largely outnumbered me three to one. Evidently it was their plan and their policy to crush me, if possible. Their boldness and confidence, I might add incaution, if not imprudence and rashness in exposure and attack, confirmed my belief that at first they deemed the task an easy one.
I, however, determined to hold my position at least long enough to make the army secure. Though in a desperate situation, I was not without strong hope of some timely assistance from the main body of the army, with which I might repulse the attack and so cripple our opponents as to make the Capture of Richmond by the main body of the army, under McClellan, the result of any sacrifice or suffering on the part of my troops or of myself. I felt that the life or death of the army depended upon our conduct in the contest of that day, and that on the issue of that contest depended an early peace or a prolonged, devastating war– for the Union cause could never be yielded. Our brave and intelligent men of all grades and ranks fully realized this, and thousands of them freely offered up their lives that day to maintain the sacred cause which they had voluntarily taken up arms to defend to the last extremity.
The Confederates, under Longstreet and A. P. Hill, following us from Mechanicsville, moved cautiously by the roads leading by Dr. Gaines's house to New Cold Harbor, and by 2 P. M. had formed lines of battle behind the crest of the hills east of Powhite Creek. These lines were parallel to ours, and extended from the valley of the Chickahominy through New Cold Harbor around Morell's front, so
as nearly to reach Warren's brigade- the left of Sykes's division. At Gaines's Mill, Colonel Thomas Cass's gallant 9th Massachusetts Volunteers of Griffin's brigade obstinately resisted A. P. Hill's crossing, and were so successful in delaying his advance, after crossing, as to compel him to employ large bodies to force the regiment back to the main line. This brought on a contest which extended to Morell's center and over Martin's front- on his right- and lasted from 12:30 to near 2 o'clock- Cass and his immediate supports falling back south of the swamps. This persistent and prolonged resistance gave to this battle one of its well-known names.
Another column of the enemy, D. H. Hill's, from Beaver Dam Creek, and Jackson's column, from Northern Virginia, with which it had united, came opposite my right front from the direction of Old Cold Harbor and deployed, connecting with A. P. Hill's on the left and extending to our right beyond McGehee's. The advance column of these troops came a little earlier than those under Longstreet and A. P. Hill, but were more cautious and for some hours not so aggressive. Believing that they were passing on down the river to intercept our communications, and thinking that I might strike them to good advantage while in motion, I asked permission to follow, intending to attack with Sykes's division and Emory of Cooke's cavalry, leaving Morell and McCall to hold the other lines in check. Information, however, soon poured in, convincing me that this force was larger than any I could use against them, and that still larger forces were forming to attack our left and center. This compelled me to keep my troops united and under cover, and also again to ask aid from the south bank of the Chickahominy. My first message to General McClellan was not delivered, as already stated; my second one was responded to by the speedy arrival of Slocum.
Soon after 2 P. M., A. P. Hill's force, between us and New Cold Harbor, again began to show an aggressive disposition, independent of its own troops on its flanks, by advancing from under cover of the woods, in lines well formed and extending, as the contest progressed, from in front of Martin's battery to Morell's left. Dashing across the intervening plains, floundering in the swamps, and struggling against the tangled brushwood, brigade after brigade seemed almost to melt away before the concentrated fire of our artillery and infantry; yet others pressed on, followed by supports as dashing and as brave as their predecessors, despite their heavy loses and the disheartening effect of having to clamber over many of their disabled and dead, and to meet their surviving comrades rushing back in great disorder from the deadly contest. For nearly two hours the battle raged, extending more or less along the whole line to our extreme right. The fierce firing of artillery and infantry, the crash of the shot, the bursting of shells, and the whizzing of bullets, heard above the roar of artillery and the volleys of musketry, all combined was something fearful.
Regiments quickly replenished their exhausted ammunition by borrowing from their more bountifully supplied and generous companions. Some withdrew, temporarily, for ammunition, and fresh regiments took their places ready to repulse, sometimes to pursue, their desperate enemy, for the purpose of retaking ground from which we had been pressed and which it was necessary to occupy in order to hold our position.
The enemy were repulsed in every direction. An ominous silence reigned. It caused the inference that their troops were being gathered and massed for a desperate and overwhelming attack. To meet it, our front line was concentrated, reenforced, and arranged to breast the avalanche, should it come. I again asked for additional reenforcements. French's and Meagher's brigades, of Sumner's corps, were sent forward by the commanding general, but did not arrive till near dark.
At 2 P. M., when I took my station beyond the Watts house my anxieties and responsibilities had been substantially relieved, at least so far as related to the establishment of a line of battle, in which all engaged felt their power to resist attack. At that time the practicability of our defensive position, in charge of troops having implicit confidence in each other, had been demonstrated by the successful resistance for nearly two hours against the strong and persistent attacks upon our center and right. The troops were well shielded, with their reserves within immediate call. Commanders of divisions, of brigades, and of batteries were in the midst of their men, all confident and determined to hold their posts to the utmost, to resist and drive back the enemy, prepared to call up their reserves, replenish ammunition, and communicate to me such needs as they could not fill, and furnish all necessary information for my action. They had been left to their own judgment and energy, to determine in what manner they could accomplish the best results with the means at their command and with the least exposure.
From my post in advance of the Watts house, the field in front of Sykes was visible, and it was easily understood, by the sound of battle in the woods and by the fire of the enemy in his advance and repulse, that the center and left still remained solid and undisturbed. All available means were used by which I could be kept informed so that I could provide in the best possible manner, for the many rapid changes and wants suddenly springing up. The Prince de Joinville and his two nephews– the Comte de Paris and Due de Chartres- and Colonels Gantt, Radowitz, and Hammerstein, from the commanding general's staff, joined me as volunteer aides. Each of these, with my own staff, Locke, Kirkland, Mason, Monteith, and McQuade, exposed themselves to danger, not only quickly and cheerfully carrying every message, but often voluntarily throwing themselves where needed, to direct, to lead, to encourage, and to rally.
During the greater part of the afternoon, D.H. Hill's troops, in detachments, were more or less aggressive on the right. The silence which followed the repulse, already referred to, lasted but a short time. The renewed attacks raged with great fierceness and fury, with slight intermission, along the most of our front, till after five o'clock. Large and numerous bodies of infantry from the direction of Old Cold Harbor, under cover of artillery, directed their attacks upon Sykes's division and Martin's battery; others, from the west side of Powhite Creek, were hurled in rapid succession against Martindale and Butterfield. These furious attacks were successfully repelled, but were immediately renewed by fresh troops. McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves, as needed, were pushed as rapidly as possible into the woods, in support of Martindale and Griffin, whose brigades for a long time bore the brunt of the attacks and whose regiments were relieved as soon as their ammunition was expended. All our positions were held against enormous odds, and the enemy was driven back by our fresh troops, successively thrown into action. At each repulse they advanced new troops upon our diminishing forces, and in such numbers and so rapidly that it appeared as though their reserves were inexhaustible. The action extended along our entire line. At 4 o'clock, when Slocum arrived, all our reserves were exhausted. His brigades were necessarily separated and sent where most needed. Newton's brigade, being in advance, was led to the right of Griffin, there to drive back the enemy and retake ground only held by the enemy for an instant. Taylor's brigade filled vacant spaces in Morell's division, and Bartlett's was sent to Sykes, just in time to render invaluable service, both in resisting and attacking.
On the right, near McGehee's, the enemy captured one of our batteries, which had been doing them great damage by enfilading their lines and preventing their advance. They gained thereby a temporary foothold by advancing some infantry; but, prompt to act, Sykes directed its recapture, and the 16th New York, with arms shifted to the right shoulder, and moving at a double-quick, was soon in possession of the prize, which again renewed its fire.
At times, the enemy on the right would gain an advantage, but in such a case our infantry, supported by the fire of artillery, would move immediately at a rapid gait and regain the lost ground. This occurred frequently in Sykes's command and in the brigades serving near it, all of which were, more or less, in exposed ground. Not less deserving of praise were the divisions of McCall, Morell, and Slocum in their stubborn resistance to the oft-repeated and determined onslaughts of their assailants, who vastly outnumbered them.
About 6:30, preceded by a silence of half an hour, the attack was renewed all along the line with the same apparent determination to sweep us by the force of numbers from the field, if not from existence. The result was evidently a matter of life or death to our opponent's cause. This attack, like its predecessors, was successfully repulsed throughout its length. The sun had sunk below the horizon, and the result seemed so favorable that I began to cherish the hope that the worst that could happen to us would be a withdrawal after dark, without further injury- a withdrawal which would be forced upon us by the exhausted condition of our troops, greatly reduced by casualties, with-out food and with little ammunition.
As if for a final effort, as the shades of evening were coming upon us, and the woods were filled with smoke, limiting the view therein to a few yards, the enemy again massed his fresher and re-formed regiments, and threw them in rapid succession against our thinned and wearied battalions, now almost without ammunition, and with guns so foul that they could not be loaded rapidly. In preparation for defeat, should it come, I had posted artillery in large force just in rear of our center and left, ready for any emergency- and especially to be used against a successful foe, even if his destruction involved firing upon some of our own retreating troops, as might have been necessary. The attacks, though coming like a series of apparently irresistible avalanches, had thus far made no inroads upon our firm and disciplined ranks. Even in this last attack we successfully resisted, driving back our assailants with immense loss, or holding them beyond our lines, except in one instance near the center of Morell's line, where by force of numbers and under cover of the smoke of battle our line was penetrated and broken; this at a point where I least expected it. This was naturally the weakest point of our line, owing to the closer proximity of the woods held by the enemy. Under his cover they could form, and with less exposure in time and ground than elsewhere, and launch their battalions in quick succession upon our men. I believed I had guarded against the danger by strongly and often reenforcing the troops holding this part of the line. Here the greater part of McCall's and Slocum's forces were used. Just preceding this break, to my great surprise, I saw cavalry, Rush's Lancers which I recognized as ours, rushing in numbers through our lines on the left, and carrying off with sudden fright the limbers of our artillery, then prepared to pour their irresistible fire into a pursuing foe. With no infantry to support, and with apparent disaster before them, such of the remainder of these guns as could be moved were carried from the field; some deliberately, others in haste, but not in confusion.
In no other place was our line penetrated or shaken. The right, seeing our disaster, fell back united and in order, but were compelled to leave behind two guns, the horses of which had been killed. The troops on the left and center retired, some hastily, but not in confusion, often turning back to repulse and pursue the advancing enemy. All soon rallied in rear of the Adams house behind Sykes and the brigades of French and Meagher sent to our aid, and who now, with hearty cheers, greeted our battalions as they retired and re-formed. We lost in all twenty-two cannon; some of these broke down while we were withdrawing, and some ran off the bridges at night while we were crossing to the south bank of the Chickahominy. The loss of the guns was due to the fact that some of Cooke's cavalry which had been directed to be kept, under all circumstances, in the valley of the Chickahominy, had been sent to resist an attack of the enemy upon our left. The charge, executed in the face of a withering fire of infantry and in the midst of our heavy cannonading, as well as that of the enemy, resulted, as should have been expected, in confusion. The bewildered and uncontrollable horses wheeled about, and, dashing through the batteries, satisfied the gunners that they were charged by the enemy. To this alone I always attributed the failure on our part longer to hold the battlefield and to bring off all our guns, with few exceptions, in an orderly retreat. Most unaccountably this cavalry was not used to cover our retreat or gather the stragglers, but was peremptorily ordered to cross to the south bank of the river. I never again saw their commander.
At night I was called to General McClellan's headquarters, where the chiefs of corps, or their representatives, were gathered. The commanding general, after hearing full reports, was of the opinion that the final result would be disastrous if we undertook longer to hold the north bank of the river with my command in the condition in which it was left by a hard fight and the loss of rest for two nights. In this opinion all concurred; and I was then instructed to withdraw to the south bank and destroy the bridges after me. The plans to move to the James River were then explained, together with the necessity for the movement, and the orders were given for their execution.
My command was safely withdrawn to the south bank of the river, and the bridges were destroyed soon after sunrise on the 28th.
The Prince de Joinville and his two nephews, the Comte de Paris and the Due de Chartres, were on the field as volunteer aide-de-camp, actively engaged in encouraging the men, carrying messages, and performing other duties of aides. Each of these officers was in the midst of flying musket-balls, and was liable to be struck at any moment. At one time the Comte de Paris, regardless of himself, begged me to send his uncle to General McClellan with a message which would at once and permanently remove him from the dangers of the battle since the family interests at stake were too important to permit him to be so exposed. I had shortly before asked Colonel Thomas L. Gantt, another of McClellan's aides, to hasten to that general and hurry up reenforcements, as our lies would soon be broken. The danger was now imminent, and I asked the Prince to carry the same message, telling him that he was selected because of the speed of his horse. He turned as if to go, and I went to attend to the field. Soon the Count returned, with tears in his eyes, and with choking utterance, expressive of his care and affection, begged me again to send away his uncle. This also I did. Scarcely had The Prince left the second time when our cavalry fell back on us as I have related, our line was broken, and our artillery rendered miserviceable. The Prince and Colonel Gantt afterward told me that they did not leave, as I had directed, because all seemed favorable to us, and they thought I could not be in earnest or that I had greatly misjudged the situation. This shows how suddenly the tide may turn in battle and on what little incidents success may depend.
The forces arrayed against us, and especially those which had thus far been launched upon my command, were the chosen of Southern manhood from Maryland to Texas. No braver or more spirited body of men was to be found among the Confederates, or any who more strongly believed in their own invincibility. Their general officers, from the chief down, had been selected for earnest devotion to their cause, and well-earned reputation for intelligent and energetic performance of duty in other fields. With few exceptions they had been my personal friends, and many of them my intimate associates. In the varied relations to them as subaltern, as instructor, as academical and regimental comrade, in social life as competitor for honor in war and in garrison life, and engaged in watching those performing trying duty in Kansas, Utah, and elsewhere, I learned to know them well and to respect their decision under conviction of duty, when, to my regret, they left the cause of the Union. Notwithstanding my friendship, my personal regard for these old friends and former comrades, which never varied, it was my duty to oppose them, hen arrayed against the Union, to the utmost. At the earliest moment, when separation was attempted, and afterward, my efforts were continuously directed against the success of their cause. One of the results of those efforts was manifested on this battlefield. I was enabled, after great labor and care, to meet these friends and comrades in command of men, than whom there could be none more intelligent, better disciplined, braver, more confiding in each other, and more determined on success. They embraced soldiers from Maine, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and all New England-together with all the regular army, then at The East, from all parts of the country. Their commanders were not excelled by those in any other corps in ability or experience; they had the highest confidence in each other, in the army, and in their own men, and were fully competent to oppose their able adversaries.
I have said we did not fear Lee alone at Beaver Dam Creek. Nor, though anxious, did we fear the combined attack of Lee and Jackson at Gaines's Mill. Defeat to us was necessarily great damage to them. Our flanks were secure and could not be turned; though fewer in numbers, the advantages of our position, combined with the firm discipline of our own brave men, overcame the odds. Our adversaries were forced to meet us face to face. All day they struggled desperately for success, and near night after fearful destruction, broke our line at one point, just at a time when a most unforeseen mismanagement on our part aided to crown their labors with possession of the field. Still, our confidence was not broken; and, as we shall see in a succeeding paper, under like circumstances victory crowned our arms with success against the same opponents, strongly reenforced, at Malvern Hill.