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[236]

Doc. 78.-the seven days Contests.


Cincinnati Commercial account.

James River, Va., Tuesday Evening, July 2, 1862.
O friends! could you realize the afflictions of the past five days, you could almost shed tears of blood. Said a noble and gallant soldier, whose visage was wan, whose voice was tremulous with inexpressible emotion, whose beard was matted with his own precious blood — the crimson drops were trickling from his wound even then: “O my friends! it is horrible, horrible! to see this proud army so wretchedly pressed upon every side, destruction threatening wherever we turn, scarce a hope of extrication save that which is born of despair. It is horrible.” And the devoted soldier, who had faced the foe all day, and far into the night which had passed, turned into the forest to hide his manly grief. Had you seen his worn and haggard warriors plunge wearily on the soil around him, begrimed with smoke, and some of them stained with blood, and had you known that an hour later those brave men, already exhausted and stiffened with long fighting and weary marching, would be summoned again to deadly combat, you, too, would have echoed my noble friend. With all his weariness and all his deep distress of mind, his sword was flashing defiance again at the breast of the foe, before the sun rode highest in the empyrean. Oh! the gloomy countenances and anxious hearts of those dark days! Would to God such days had passed away forever! 0 my countrymen! you cannot comprehend the toils and trials of your devoted soldiers during those days of murderously unequal combat — conflict not simply with superior masses of disciplined soldiery, but contention against insidious thirst, craving appetite, enfeebling heat, overpowering fatigue — and after fighting and marching, and privations by day and suffering by night, and fighting by days succeeding nights of fighting and harassing vigils, against fresh forces hurled upon them in overpowering masses, till exhausted nature almost sunk beneath such fearful visitations, to be pressed to the imminent verge of despair was almost too much for human nature to endure. Oh! what a glorious spirit of devotion to country that inspires men to conquer such distress! I tell you, people, the soldiers of your army have won title to immortality. Whatever fate betide them, their children's children may proudly boast: “Our fathers were of the army of the Potomac.”

The soil of Virginia is now sacred. It is bathed with the reddest blood of this broad land. Every rood of it, from Upper Chickahominy to the base of Malvern Hill, is crimsoned with the blood of your brave brethren. The dark forests-fitting canopy for such woeful sacrifice — echo with the wails of wounded and dying men. There is a bloody corpse in every copse, and mangled soldiers in every thicket of that ensanguined field. Side by side they lie and die, friendly with the misguided foe whom they so lately fought. God only knows how many of the weary ones, plunged headlong into the shade of those gloomy pines, for a brief respite from the pressure of war's iron heel, lie there now to sleep the sleep that knows no waking. But while I write these lines the foe presses hard. Our soldiers turn their breasts to the steel. Their backs are upon the river. O God! shall they not stand where they now fight sternly and so well?

There is a record of sorrow — it is softened, too, by great pride — to be made, how your brethren watched and pressed the enemy for months, and how their leader begged, and was not relieved, for power to conquer ; how day after day they fought and bled — can you forget Fair Oaks and the weeks of watching and fighting in view of the spires of Richmond?--how they fought and conquered on Wednesday last; how they fought and won on Thursday; how they resisted and beat back the great surging tide of the foe on Friday, but at last, after deeds of heroism, they were compelled to yield to overwhelming power; and how on Saturday and Sunday and Monday and Tuesday they marched and suffered and fought as if every soldier had the soul of a hero in his frame, when nature's energies, almost exhausted, counselled with their fears, they still stood staggering but unconquerable, and met the summons to fight as if it were a privilege to be enjoyed. These were scenes to move the strongest heart. But oh! how cruel, friends, that such brave souls should be pressed almost to the very brink of ruin! They stood up still, with want pressing them, with fatigue crushing them, and at every summons to the field, they followed the old flag with cheers like the songs of gods. There was a moral heroism displayed by those worn men that will make our history's pages shine with splendid lustre.

But the record. With such feeble power as I can exert, after nights of sleeplessness and days of fasting and hardships — no more comparable though with our weary soldiers' troubles than the labor of a pigmy with the works of Hercules — I shall attempt the task. It will be necessary, however, to carry you over the field and present the salient points in advance.

You remember that the army was pressing hard upon Richmond. Every communication to the press assured you that it was not strong enough to execute the task. For weeks the symptoms of insufficiency of power manifestly increased. But the army pressed so closely upon Richmond, it could not be withdrawn without great peril. Gen. McClellan was committed to “do all he could” with what he had, while he hoped for aid. If the enemy did not reinforce he might accomplish his aim. So the work was pressed, while the people clamored that it was slow. The right wing, consisting of McCall's, Morell's, and Sykes's divisions, less than twenty-five thousand strong, was well posted on the left bank of the Chickahominy, from Beaver Dam Creek to a point below New-Bridge. Several [237] military bridges formed the avenues of communication between the two portions of the army separated by the river. The centre, consisting of Smith's, Sedgwick's, and Richardson's divisions, stretched in line of battle from Goulden's, on the banks of the river, to a point south of the Yorktown Railroad. The left wing, consisting of Hooker's, Kearney's, and Couch's divisions, stretched from Richardson's left to a point considerably south of the Williamsburgh stage-road, on the borders of White Oak swamp. The whole line was protected by strong breastworks and redoubts. The necessary extent of the line left but few troops for supports. Casey's, now Peck's, sadly reduced division guarded Bottom Bridge, the railway-bridge, and were assigned to other similar duty. Our line of battle on the right bank of the Chickahominy, as I have informed you, pressed so close to the rebel lines that neither could advance a regiment outside of their respective breastworks without provoking battle.

On Wednesday, June twenty-fifth, Gen. McClellan made the first distinctly offensive movement, by directing Gen. Hooker to take up an advanced position on Fair Oaks Farm, near the Williamsburgh road. It provoked a sharp resistance, which we overcame, and accomplished our object. It is necessary to note this fact particularly, because it bears strongly upon the question whether Gen. McClellan had then distinctly contemplated changing his base of operations to James River — a perilous thing to attempt before; more so now that we were still nearer the enemy. It was pronounced an “important achievement” by Gen. McClellan himself, because it gave him advantages over the rebel position which he had not enjoyed before. Some time during the night, however, tidings were received of a movement of Stonewall Jackson on our right wing. It was deemed hazardous to maintain the advantage of the previous day, and the line was ordered to resume its old position. Thursday afternoon the anticipated attack upon our right wing was made, and handsomely repulsed; but it was discovered that it had not been made by Jackson's command. Information was received that Jackson was sweeping down the Pamunkey, probably to capture military stores at White House, to cut off our communications with our water-base, and menace our rear. Orders were given at once to destroy all public property at White House and evacuate that point. Matters began to assume a critical appearance, and danger culminated in the disaster of Friday. It was then fully determined to “change the base of operations to James River.” It seems to me this was compulsory. The enemy had turned our right, evidently outnumbered us in great disproportion, was too strong in front for us to break through, and was in position to crush us in front and rear — and, perhaps, intended to strike on our left flank. Apparently his army was numerous enough for that grand combination. The retrograde movement was really begun Friday evening, by the transfer of headquarters from Trent's Bluff to Savage station, but the grand exodus did not commence until Saturday, and did not swell into full proportions till nightfall of that day. The history of that movement will follow in due course.

The reader being supposed to be familiar with the war-map, will now follow the course pursued by the army. In order to preserve the morale of the army as far as possible, and insure supplies of ammunition and subsistence, it was determined to carry through all the wagons loaded, and the ambulance train — making a mighty caravan-vastly increased by artillery trains. There was but one narrow road to pursue. It struck almost due south from the Williamsburgh road, through White Oak swamp to the Charles City road, into which it debouched about eight miles from Turkey Bend in James River. The course then lay up the latter road towards Richmond, where it struck a little south-west by the Quaker road which terminated in New Market road, leading from Richmond. The river was but a short distance south, and Malvern Hill — a beautiful lofty bluff overlooking the river and commanding the surrounding country — being our goal. Although there was but a single road, with slight exception, it had the advantage of coursing through White Oak swamp, upon which we might rely in some degree for protection of our flanks. There was great danger that the enemy might cut us off by moving columns down the Charles City, Central, or New-Market roads, or all three, but these chances were necessarily accepted. General McClellan acted upon the supposition that the enemy would not guess his determination until he was able to defeat their movements. At all events, it was the only hopeful course, because the enemy was watching for him on the left bank of the Chickahominy. The road was a narrow funnel for such a mighty torrent of trains and men, but fortunately it was smooth and dry. In order to make the movement successfully, it was necessary to fight at the outset, because it was morally certain that our line of battle could not be withdrawn from the front without sucking the enemy after them, so that due preparations were made. The events will now be recorded in their order, with as much of the spirit of the perilous enterprise thrown into the sketch as I have time to engraft. The affair at Fair Oaks Farm was the real beginning of the dreary drama. You will find a description of it in another letter. The Mechanicsville battle was the second act, which you will now read:

Battle of Mechanicsville.

When I closed my last communication, (twenty-sixth June,) a fierce battle was raging on the left bank of the Chickahominy, on the east side of Beaver Dam Creek. Our extreme right wing, consisting of McCall's Pennsylvania reserves, eight thousand five hundred strong, with five batteries, were strongly intrenched there in admirable position for defence. Information, leading General McClellan to expect an attempt upon his right, had been received during Wednesday night, and we were as well prepared for [238] resistance as our limited forces would admit.

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