Reminiscences of the army of Northern Virginia.
Paper no. 7.
Opening of seven days battles.
In my last I spoke of the secrecy with which the “foot cavalry” moved from the green fields and clear streams of the Shenandoah Valley to the swamps of the Chickahominy
I am now to speak of those seven days of smoke and noise, and heat, and bloodshed, and wounds, and groans, and sufferings, mingled with loud huzzas and rejoicings, during which Gen. McClellan
made his celebrated “change of base” from the Pamunkey
to the James
.--“The situation” at Richmond
in May had been indeed gloomy.
The evacuation of Norfolk
, and the destruction of the ironclad Merrimac (Virginia)
left James River
open to the gunboats of the enemy, with only a few hastily constructed earthworks, and some incomplete “obstructions” to bar their passage to the wharves of Richmond
The wildest panic ensued.
The Confederate Congress adjourned, many of the citizens fled from the city, and the preparations of the government for any emergency which might arise gave color to the rumor that it was proposed to evacuate Richmond
without a battle for its defense.
But the Legislature of Virginia passed vigorous resolutions calling upon the President
to defend Richmond
at every hazard, and to the last extremity.
A meeting of citizens (addressed by the Governor
of the State
and the Mayor
of the city) enthusiastically endorsed the action of the Legislature, and President Davis
assured the committee that he had no purpose of evacuating the city.
On the morning of the 15th of May Commodore Rogers
with the Galena
, the Monitor, the Aroostook
, the Port Royal
and the Naugatuck
, made an attack on the unfinished batteries at Drewry's Bluff
), nine miles below
, and received a repulse, which was of the utmost importance as breaking the prestige of the gunboats, blocking the way to Richmond
, and restoring the confidence of the people.
was, however, enveloping Richmond
with a cordon of intrenchments (temporarily broken by the Confederate
victory of Seven Pines
), and was only waiting for McDowell
's corps to swoop down from Fredericksburg
and join him at Hanover Courthouse in order to make his contemplated assault on the “doomed city.”
's splen-did Valley campaign thwarted this plan.
On May 24th McDowell
received his order from President Lincoln
to co-operate in the movement to “capture or destroy Jackson
's forces,” and at once replied to the Secretary of War
: “The President's order has been received — is in process of execution.
This is a crushing blow to us
We have seen how Jackson
eluded the snare set for him, beat his enemies in detail at Cross Keys
and Port Republic
, deceived them as to his plans, and hastened to obey the orders he received from General Lee
to join him on the Chickahominy
This great commander, who had succeeded to the command of the army on the wounding of General Johnston
at Seven Pines
, had sent Stuart
on his famous “ride around McClellan
,” had discovered the weak point of his antagonist, and was thus prepared to strike so soon as Jackson
should arrive at the designated point on the enemy's flank.
In his official report General McClellan
seeks to make the impression that his movements during the seven days battles were simply a preconceived
“change of base,” and a number of writers have adopted this theory and write as if Lee
simply endeavored to prevent McClellan
from fulfilling his purpose of moving to the James
and was badly repulsed in all of his attacks.
Things did not look that way to an eye-witness and active participant in those stirring scenes, and I do not see how any fair-minded man can read McClellan
's dispatches for several weeks before, during, and just after this “change of base” without seeing clearly that it was forced
and not voluntary.
. On June 25th he telegraphs to Washington
The rebel force is stated at 200,000, including Jackson and Beauregard.
I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true; but this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack.
* * * Again: “June 27th, 1862, 3 P. M.--We have been fighting nearly all day against greatly superior numbers.
We shall endeavor to hold our own, and if compelled to fall back
shall do it in good order, upon James river
if possible.” * * * [Italics mine.]
“June 28, 1862, 12:20 A. M.--I now know the full history of the day. On this side of the river (the right bank) we repulsed several very strong attacks.
On the left bank our men did all that men could do — all that soldiers could accomplish; but they were overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, even after I brought my last reserves into action.
Had I 20,000 or even 10,000 fresh troops to use to-morrow I could take Richmond
; but I have not a man in reserve, and shall be glad to cover my retreat and save the material and personnel of the army.
If we have lost the day, we have yet preserved our honor, and no one need blush for the Army of the Potomac.
I have lost this battle because my force was too small.
I still hope to retrieve our fortunes.
I know that a few thousand men more would have changed this battle from a defeat to victory.”
These and other quotations which I might make show conclusively that McClellan
did not “change base” according to some preconceived plan, but that he was driven from the field by Lee
But I must return to the movements of “the foot cavalry.”
's order of battle contemplated that Jackson
should bivouac on the night of the 25th of June near the Central Railroad, eight miles east of Ashland
, and to advance at 3 A. M. on the 26th, so as to turn the enemy's work at Mechanicsville
and on Beaver Dam Creek
and open the road for A. P. Hill
, D. H. Hill
to cross the Chickahominy
and unite with him in sweeping down towards the York River railroad, and thus cut McClellan
off from his base of supplies at the White House
But the burning of the bridges and the blockading of the roads by the enemy so impeded our march that we only reached the vicinity of Ashland
that night, and were not able to move again until sunrise on the morning of the 26th, and even then we made such slow progress that we only reached Pole Green Church in the afternoon, just as that gallant soldier, A. P. Hill
(impatient of further delay, and unwilling to wait longer for Jackson
to turn the position), had crossed the Chickahominy
at Meadow Bridge
and was leading his heroic “Light division” down on the position of the enemy at Mechanicsville
I shall never forget the scene among the “foot cavalry” when Hill
's guns announced that the great battle had opened.
Cheer after cheer ran along the whole line, and the column hastened forward with the eagerness of veterans to reach their “place in the picture near the flashing of the guns.”
But we were too late that evening to get into the fight or help our comrades by turning the strong position which they were assailing.
As we lay down in our bivouac, near Pole Green Church, with orders to move at “early dawn,” the muttering of the fight just closing, the
dashing about of staff and general officers and the talks of the men around the Camp fires, all betokened the eve of a great battle.
We broke camp the morning of the 27th and moved forward to the sound of the guns, which told that A. P. Hill
, supported by Longstreet
(who had crossed the bridge opposite Mechanicsville
so soon as Hill
drove off the enemy), was renewing his assult upon the strong position on Beaver Dam Creek
, which our move was designed to flank.
My own regiment, the Thirteenth Virginia, was deployed as skirmishers, and we were thus in advance of the whole of Jackson
's column, and the first to enter the deserted camps from which the enemy fell back on our approach, and to see and converse with a number of prisoners whom we captured.
But the sound of the battle ceased as we flanked the enemy's position at Ellison's Mill and compelled him to yield to the gallant attack in his front and fall back to his still stronger position about Cold Harbor and Gaines's Mill
The whole of General Lee
's columns north of the Chickahominy
(A. P. Hill
, D. H. Hill
, and Jackson
) now moved on the position which McClellan
had skilfully chosen and heavily entrenched.
D. H. Hill
was united to Jackson
, who was to make a detour to the left in order to attack on that flank, and at the same time prevent the enemy from retreating toward his base at the White House
, while A. P. Hill
moved nearer to the Chickahominy
The Army of the Potomac awaits us behind their strong entrenchments and the great battle of Cold Harbor
and Gaines's Mill
is about to begin.