By Jefferson Davis
OUR army having retreated from the Peninsula and withdrawn from the north side of the Chickahominy to the immediate vicinity of Richmond, I rode out occasionally to the lines and visited the headquarters of the commanding general. There were no visible preparations for defense, and my brief conversations with the general afforded no satisfactory information as to his plans and purposes. We had, under the supervision of General Lee, perfected as far as we could the detached works before the city, but these were rather designed to Protect it against a sudden attack than to resist approaches by a great army. They were, also, so near to the city that it might have been effectually bombarded by guns exterior to them. Anxious for the defense of the ancient capital of Virginia, now the capital of the Confederate States, and remembering a remark of General Johnston, that the Spaniards were the only people who now undertook to hold fortified towns, I had written to him that he knew the defense of Richmond must be made at a distance from it. Seeing no preparation to keep the enemy at a distance, and kept in ignorance of any plan for such purpose, I sent for General R. E. Lee, then at Richmond, in general charge of army operations, and told him why and how I was dissatisfied with the condition of affairs.
He asked me what I thought it was proper to do. Recurring to a conversation held about the time we had together visited General Johnston, 1 answered that McClellan should be attacked on the other side of the Chickahominy before he matured his preparations for a siege of Richmond. To this he promptly assented, as I anticipated he would, for I knew it bad been his own opinion. He then said: "General Johnston should of course advise you of what he expects or proposes to do. Let me go and see him, and defer this discussion until I return."
It may be proper here to say that I had not doubted that General Johnston was fully in accord with me as to the purpose of defending Richmond, but I was not content with his course to that end. It had not occurred to me that he meditated a retreat which would uncover the capital, nor was it ever suspected until, in reading General Hood's book, published in 1880, the evidence was found that General Johnston, when retreating from Yorktown, told his volunteer aide, McFarland, that 'he [Johnston expected or intended to give up Richmond."
When General Lee came back, he told me that General Johnston proposed, on the next Thursday, to move against the enemy as follows: General A. P. Hill, was to move down on the right flank and rear of the enemy. General G. W. Smith, as soon as Hill's guns opened, was to cross the Chickahominy at the Meadow Bridge, attack the enemy in flank, and by the conjunction of the two it was expected to double him up. Then Longstreet was to cross on the Mechanicsville Bridge and attack him in front. From this plan the best results were hoped by both of us.
On the morning of the day proposed, I hastily dispatched my office business, and rode out toward the Meadow Bridge to see the action commence. On the road I found Smith's division halted, and the men dispersed in the woods. Looking for some one from whom I could get information, I finally saw General Hood, and asked him the meaning of what I saw. He told me he did not know anything more than that they had been halted. I asked him where General Smith was; he said he believed he had gone to a farmhouse in the rear, adding that he thought he was ill. Riding on to the bluff which overlooks de Meadow Bridge, I asked Colonel Anderson, posted there in observation, whether he had seen anything of the enemy in his front. He said that he had seen only two mounted men across the bridge, and a small party of infantry on the other side of the river, some distance below, both of whom, he said, he could show me if I would go with him into the garden back of the house. There, by the use of a powerful glass, were distinctly visible two cavalry videttes at the further end of the bridge, and a squad of infantry lower down the river, who had covered themselves with a screen of green boughs. The colonel informed me that he had not heard Hill's guns; it was, therefore, supposed he had not advanced. I then rode down the bank of the river, followed by a cavalcade of sight-seers, who, I so? -posed had been attracted by the expectation of a battle. The little squad of infantry, about fifteen in number, as we approached, fled over the ridge, and were lost to sight. Near to the Mechanicsville Bridge I found General Howell Cobb, commanding the support of a battery of artillery. He pointed out to me on the opposite side of the river the only enemy he had seen, and which was evidently a light battery. Riding on to the main road which led to the Mechanicsville Bridge, I found General Longstreet, walking to and fro in an impatient, it might be said fretful, manner. Before I spoke to him, he said his division had been under arms all day waiting for orders to advance, and that the day was now so far spent that he did not know what was the matter. I afterward learned from General Smith that he had received information from a citizen that the Beaverdam Creek presented an impassable barrier, and that he had thus fortunately been saved from a disaster. Thus ended the offensive-defensive program from which Lee expected much, and of which I was hopeful.
In the meanwhile the enemy moved up, and, finding the crossing at Bottom's Bridge unobstructed, threw a brigade of the Fourth Corps across the Chickahominy as early as May 20th, and on the 23d sent over the rest of the Fourth Corps; on the 2th he sent over another corps, and commenced fortifying a line near to Seven Pines. In the forenoon of May 31st, riding out on the New Bridge road, I heard firing in the direction of Seven Pines. As I drew nearer, I saw General Ahiting, with part of General Smith's division, file into the road in front of me; at the same time I saw General Johnston ride across the field from a house before which General Lee's horse was standing. I turned down to the house, and asked General Lee what the musketry firing meant. He replied by asking whether I had heard it, and was answered in the affirmative; he said he had been under that impression himself, but General Johnston had assured him that it could be nothing more than an artillery duel. It is scarcely necessary to add that neither of us had been advised of a design to attack the enemy that day.
We then walked out to the rear of the house to listen, and were satisfied that an action, or at least a severe skirmish, must be going on. General Johnston states in his report that the condition of the air was peculiarly unfavorable to the transmission of sound.
General Lee and myself den rode to the field of battle, which may be briefly described as follows:
The Chickahominy flowing in front is a sluggish, and narrow river, bordered by marshes and covered with tangled wood. The line of battle extended along the Nine Mile Road, across the York River Railroad and Williamsburg stage road. The enemy had constructed redoubts, with long lines of rifle pits covered by abatis, from below Bottom's Bridge to within less than two miles of New Bridge, and had constructed bridges to connect his forces on the north and south sides of the Chickahominy. The left of his forces, on the south side, was thrown forward from the river; the right was on its bank, and covered by its slope. Our main force was on the right flank of our position, extending on both sides of the Williamsburg road, near to its intersection with the Nine Mile Road. This wing consisted of Hill's, Huger's, and Long. street's divisions, with light batteries, and a small force of cavalry; the division of General G. W. Smith, less Hood's brigade ordered to the right, formed the left wing, and its position was on the Nine Mile Road. There were small tracts of cleared land, but most of the ground was wooded, and much of it so covered with water as to seriously embarrass the movements of troops.
When General Lee and I, riding down the Nine Mile Road, reached the left of our line, we found the troops hotly engaged. Our men had driven the enemy from his advanced encampment, and he had fallen back behind an open field to the bank of the river, where, in a dense wood, was concealed an infantry line, with artillery in position. Soon after our arrival, General Johnston, who had gone farther to the right, where the conflict was expected, and whither reinforcement from the left was marching, was brought back severely wounded, and, as soon as an ambulance could be obtained, was removed from the field.
Our troops on the left made vigorous assaults under most disadvantageous circumstances. They made several gallant attempts to carry the enemy's position, but were each time repulsed with heavy loss.
After a personal reconnaissance on the left of the open in our front, I sent one, then another, and another courier to General Magruder, directing him to send a force down by the wooded path, just under the bluff, to attack the enemy in flank and reverse. Impatient of delay, I had started to see General Magruder, when I met the third courier, who said he had not found General Magruder, but had delivered the message to Brigadier General Griffith, who was moving by the path designated to make the attack.
On returning to the field, I found that the attack in front had ceased; it was, therefore, too late for a single brigade to effect anything against the large force of the enemy, and messengers were sent through the woods to direct General Griffith to go back.
The heavy rain during the night of the 30th had swollen the Chickahominy; it was rising when the battle of Seven Pines was fought, but had not reached such height as to prevent the enemy from using his bridges; consequently, General Sumner, during the engagement, brought over his corps as a reinforcement. He was on the north side of the river, had built two bridges to connect with the south side, and, though their coverings were loosened by the upward pressure of the rising water, they were not yet quite impassable. With the true instinct of the soldier to march upon fire, when the sound of the battle reached him, he formed his corps and stood under arms waiting for an order to advance. He came too soon for us, and, but for his forethought and promptitude, he would have arrived too late for his friends. It may be granted that his presence saved the left wing of the Federal army from defeat.
As we had permitted the enemy to fortify before our attack, it would have been better to wait another day, until the bridges had been rendered impassable by the rise of the river.
General Lee, at nightfall, gave instructions to General Smith, the senior officer on that part of the battlefield, and left with me to return to Richmond.
Thus far I have only attempted to describe events on the extreme left of the battlefield, being that part of which I had personal observation; but the larger force and, consequently, the more serious conflict were upon the right of the line. To these I will now refer. Our force there consisted of the divisions of Major-Generals D. H. Hill, Huger, and Longstreet, the latter in chief command. In his report, first published in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. III, pp. 277, 278, he writes:
Agreeably to verbal instructions from the commanding General, the division of Major-General D. H. Hill was, on the morning of the 31st ultimo, formed at an early hour on the Williamsburg road, as the column of attack upon the enemy's front on that road. . .. The division of Major-General Huger was intended to make a strong flank movement around the left of the enemy's position, and attack him in rear of that flank. . .. After waiting some six hours for these troops to
get into position, I determined to move forward without regard to them, and gave orders to that effect to Major-General D. H. Hill. The forward movement began about two o'clock, and our skirmishers soon became engaged with those of the enemy. The entire division of General Hill became engaged about three o'clock, and drove the enemy steadily back, gaining possession of his abatis and part of his intrenched camp, General Rodes, by a movement to the right, driving in the enemy's left. The only reinforcements on the field in hand were my own brigades, of which Anderson's, Wilcox's, and Kemper's were put in by the front on the Williamsburg road, and Colston's and Pryor's by my right flank. At the same time the decided and gallant attack made by the other brigades gained entire possession of the enemy's position, with his artillery, camp-equi age, etc. Anderson 5 brigade, under Colonel Jenkins, pressing forward rapidly, continued to drive the enemy till nightfall. . .. The conduct of the attack was left entirely to Major-General Hill. The entire success of the affair is sufficient evidence of his ability, courage, and skill.
This tribute to General Hill was no more than has been accorded to him by others who knew of his services on that day, and was in keeping with the determined courage, vigilance, and daring exhibited by him on other fields.
The reference, made without qualification in General Longstreet's report, to the failure of General Huger to make the attack expected of him, and the freedom with which others have criticized him, renders it proper that some explanation should be given of an apparent dilatoriness on the part of that veteran soldier, who, after long and faithful service, now fills an honored grave.
it will be remembered that General Huger was to move by the Charles City Road, so as to turn the left of the enemy and attack him in flank. The extraordinary rain of the previous night had swollen every rivulet to the dimensions of a stream, and the route prescribed to General Huger was one especially affected by that heavy rain, as it led to the head of the White-Oak Swamp. The bridge over the stream flowing into that swamp had been carried away, and the alternatives presented to him were to rebuild the bridge or to leave his artillery. He chose the former, which involved the delay that has subjected him to criticism. if any should think an excuse necessary to justify this decision, they are reminded to the accepted maxim, that the march must never be so hurried as to arrive unfit for service; they must also be reminded that Huger's specialty was artillery, he being the officer who commanded the siege-guns with which General Scott marched from Vera Cruz to the city of Mexico. To show that the obstacles encountered were not of such slight character as energy would readily overcome, I refer to the report of an officer commanding a brigade on that occasion, Brigadier General R. E. Rodes, whose great merit and dashing gallantry caused him to be admired throughout the army of the Confederacy. He said:
On the morning of the 31st the brigade was stationed on the Charles City road, three and a half miles from the point on the Williamsburg road from which it had been determined to start the columns of attack.. - . I received a verbal order from General Hill to conduct my command at once to the point at which the at-tack was to be made. - .. The progress of the brigade was considerably delayed by the washing away of a bridge near the head of White&Oak Swamp, by reason of which the men had to wade in water waist-deep, and a large number were entirely submerged. At this point the character of the crossing was sud that it was absolutely necessary to proceed with great caution to prevent the loss of both ammunition and life. In consequence of this delay, and notwithstanding that the men were carried at double-quick time over very heavy ground for a considerable distance to make up for it, when the signal for attack was given, only my line of skirmishers, the Sixth Alabama and the Twelfth Mississippi Regiments, was in position. - .. The ground over which we were to move being covered with thick undergrowth, and the soil being marshy so marshy that it was with great difficulty that either horses or men could get over it and being guided only by the fire in front, I emerged from the woods from the Williamsburg road under a heavy fire of both artillery and musketry, with only five companies of the Fifth Alabama.
General Huger's line of march was farther to the right, therefore nearer to White-Oak Swamp, and the impediments were consequently greater than where General Rodes found the route so difficult as to be dangerous even to infantry.
On the next day, June 1st, General Longstreet states that a serious at-tack was made on our position, and that it was repulsed. This refers to the works which Hill's division had captured the day before, and which the enemy endeavored to retake.
From the final report of General Longstreet, already cited, it appears that he was ordered to attack on the morning of the 31st, and he explains why it was postponed for six hours; then he states that it was commenced by the division of General D. H. Hill, which drove the enemy steadily back, pressing forward until nightfall. The movement of Rodes's brigade on the right plank is credited with having contributed much to the dislodgment of the enemy from their abatis and first entrenchments. As just stated, General Longstreet reports a delay of some six hours in making this attack, because he was waiting for General Huger, and then made it successfully with Hill's division and some brigades from his own. These questions must naturally arise in the mind of the reader: Why did not our troops on the left, during this long delay, as well as during the period occupied by Hill's assault, cooperate in the attack? And why, the battle having been preconceived, were they so far removed as not to hear the first guns? The officers of the Federal army, when called before a committee appointed by their Congress to inquire into the conduct of the war, have by their testimony made it quite plain that the divided condition of their troops and the length of tame required for their concentration after the battle commenced, rendered it practicable for our forces, if united, taking the initiative, they well might have been-to have crushed or put to flight first Keyes's and then Heintzelman's corps before Sumner crossed the Chickahominy, between five and six o'clock in the evening.
By the official reports our aggregate loss was, "killed, wounded, and missing," 6,084, of which 4,8-51 were in Longstreet's command on the fight, and 1,233 in Smith's command on the left.
The enemy reported its aggregate loss at 5,739. It may have been less than ours, for we stormed its successive defenses.
Our success upon the right was proved by our possession of the enemy's works, as well as by the capture of ten pieces of artillery, four flags, a large amount of camp equipage, and more than one thousand prisoners.
Our aggregate of both wings was about 40,500. The force of the enemy confronting us may be approximated by taking his returns for June 20th and adding thereto his casualties on May 31st and June 1st, because between the last-named date and June 20th no action had occurred to create any material change in the number present. From these data, viz., the strength of Heintzelman's corps, 18,810, and of Keyes's corps, 14,610, on June 20th, by adding their casualties of May 31st and June lst-we deduce the strength of these two corps on May 31st to have been 37,936 as the aggregate present for duty.
It thus appears that, at the commencement of the action on May 31st, we had a numerical superiority of about 2,500. Adopting the same method to calculate the strength of Sumner's corps, we find it to have been 18,724, which would give the enemy in round numbers a force of 16,000 in excess of ours after General Sumner crossed the Chickahominy.
Both combatants claimed the victory. j have presented the evidence an support of our claim. The withdrawal of the Confederate forces on the day after the battle from the ground on which it was fought certainly gives color to the claim of the enemy, though that was really the result of a policy much broader than the occupation of the field of Seven Pines.
On the morning of June 1st I rode out toward the position where General Smith had been left on the previous night, and where I learned from General Lee that he would remain. After turning into the Nine Mile Road, and before reaching that position, I was hailed by General Whiting, who saw me at a distance, and ran toward the road to stop me. He told me I was riding into the position of the enemy, who had advanced on the withdrawal of our troops, and there, pointing, he said, "is a battery which I am surprised has not fired on you. I asked where our troops were. He said his was the advance, and the others behind him. He also told me that General Smith was at the house which had been his (Whiting's) headquarters, and I rode there to see him. To relieve both him and General Lee from any embarrassment, I preferred to make the announcement of General Lee's assignment to command previous to his arrival.
After General Lee arrived I took leave and, being subsequently joined by him, we rode together to the Williamsburg road, where we found General Longstreet, his command being in front, and then engaged with the enemy on the field of the previous day's combat. The operations of that day were neither extensive nor important, save in the collection of the arms acquired in the previous day's battle.
General R. E. Lee was now in immediate command, and thenceforward directed the movements of the army in front of Richmond. Laborious and exact in details as he was vigilant and comprehensive in grand strategy, a power with which the public had not credited him soon became manifest in all that makes an army a rapid, accurate, compact machine, with responsive motion in all its parts. I extract the following sentence from a letter from the late Colonel R. H. Chilton, adjutant arid inspector general of the army of the Confederacy, because of his special knowledge of the subject:
I consider General Lee's exhibition of grand administrative talents and indomitable energy, in bringing up that army in so short a time to that state of discipline which maintained aggregation through those terrible seven day's fights around Richmond, as probably his grandest achievement.