previous next

Chapter 24:

  • Preparations for the defence of Richmond in may
  • -- operation of the Conscript law -- earthworks and other defences designed by Lee -- arrival of Federal boats and iron-clads -- works at Drury's Bluff -- immense raft -- capture of Richmond anticipated -- position of the two armies on the Chickahominy -- number of troops on either side -- McClellan advances.

At this period the Conscript law came into operation, and there was much grumbling among such as fell under its provisions. Those who had been in the army at all, for however short a period, were not averse to remaining in the ranks; for they knew absolute necessity alone had compelled Congress to pass such a law, and if liberty was to be gained, it must be by great sacrifices of individual convenience and pleasure. Lincoln had called out seventy-five thousand men at the commencement of the war, and having received every additional man the States offered, he had now an army of not less than seven hundred thousand in the field. There was little opposition made in our several States to the call of the President; some thought, indeed, the act was an unconstitutional one; yet the men were rapidly supplied, and discussion deferred until times of peace. Accordingly, when Johnston had fallen back to his line of defence around Richmond, we found many new regiments awaiting to join us.

The exactions of this law, however, were very oppressive to many, and seemingly despotic; hundreds who had volunteered for and served one year, had not been resident in the South more than a few months when the war broke out; so that to put such men on an equality with those born on the soil who had not served at all, seemed like the shadow of absolutism. There was much murmuring, therefore; and many, rather than serve for an indefinite period as the price of citizenship, abandoned the cause, and sought protection from the consuls of their several countries. [219] The character of the conscripts, who entered willingly on the service, was excellent, and they bore the jokes of the volunteers with a good grace. Physically, they were the flower of the nation, tall, well-made, sinewy fellows, who considered their knapsacks no greater weight than a pair of gloves. We all expected them to behave well in action, nor were we disappointed. Their shooting was splendid. Many of them would have entered the army before, but had been in regiments which were refused service at the beginning of the war; some did not know how much they were needed; and others again, though brave and ripe enough for a fight at any time, had formed such disagreeable notions of camp life from letters and journals, that they felt a decided repugnance to entering the ranks until compelled. Taken altogether, the morale of our troops, though always good, at this period was excellent. As they took up the lines assigned them, naught but good humor and hilarity was visible, for they well knew that Johnston could not fall back farther, and that the conflict must soon come. This they desired, and were aching to pay back with interest the taunts and insults of the over-fed and bombastic Yankees of the Yorktown lines.

A part of Huger's division from Norfolk had arrived through Petersburgh and the south side of the James; rapid progress was made with defensive works and obstructions to prevent gunboats ascending the river; earthworks of magnitude arose on every side around Richmond; and the speedy appearance of Yankee encampments north of the Chickahominy gave eloquent indications that things were coming to a crisis. The earthworks had been designed by Lee more than ten months ere our army reached their position. They were constructed in different shapes, to suit the conformation of the ground; they swept all the roads, crowned every hillock, and mounds of red earth could be seen in striking contrast with the rich green aspect of the landscape. Redoubts, rifle-pits, casemate batteries, horn works, and enfilading batteries were visible in great number, in and out of the woods, in all directions; some were mounted with heavy siege pieces, of various calibre, but the majority were intended for field guns. Heavy ordnance was scarce, and home-made cannon often proved worthless and [220] brittle, in many instances killing those who put them to the “proof.”

It was reported that the enemy's gunboats and iron-clads were approaching up the river, and had contemptuously “snuffed out” several mud batteries that had the temerity to fire. The Monitor, Galena, and other iron-clads, were actually at City Point, fifteen miles from Richmond, and feverish excitement possessed all, save the calm, cold, smiling gentlemen of the War Office. Many large boxes from the various departments stood on the sidewalks ominously labelled “Lynchburgh,” and I could not help smiling to see how the featured of bystanders lengthened while gazing upon them. “Well,” said they, “I suppose Johnston is going to give up Richmond like every thing else, and will continue to ‘fall back’ until we are all swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.” There was not the slightest trepidation observable in the Government offices; all things went on as usual, and President Davis took his evening ride as placidly as ever. It was seen, however, that the enemy could never come up the river to Richmond, for heavy works had been hastily erected and mounted at Drury's Bluff. The immense raft was considered impregnable; the crew of the late Merrimac manned several large rifled pieces, the banks and woods swarmed with sharpshooters, while several excellent rifled field batteries were ready, with the supports, to the rear.

At length, when the enemy's gunboats came within easy range, the sailors at the land batteries on the south side, and the guns of the Washington Artillery corps on the north bank, poured such a stream of shot and shell into them as to present an unbroken sheet of flame from the woods. At the same time care was taken that our firing should be accurate. No sooner had the gunboats opened the shutters of their ports, than every gun was directed at the vulnerable point, and a shower of small shot poured in, so that the gunboats were soon rendered useless, and “backed out” to greater range.1 Dozens of our shell, we could perceive, exploded among their gunners below deck, and [221] such was the destruction that none of the crews ventured to appear above board. Their firing, however, was hotly maintained, but, as our position was on a bluff, their shell passed overhead, and did but trifling damage. This lasted for several hours, when the discomfiture of the foe was so complete, that all their gunboats and iron-clads withdrew in disgust, and never troubled us again. From Northern accounts we learned that not less twenty gunners were killed in, one iron-clad alone, and several boats so much shattered internally, that they were quietly taken down to Fortress Monroe for repairs, and members of the press were forbidden to visit or inspect them. It was admitted that our shore batteries had fully repulsed them, and this acknowledgment from men accustomed to the falsification of facts speaks volumes for our success.

Notwithstanding the efforts of Government to prepare for the approaching conflict, the ominous look of large packing-boxes on the pavements, and the removal of iron safes, led thousands to believe the army would evacuate Richmond, and perhaps give up Virginia also, as untenable. Many conveyed property to the interior, and there existed a feverish excitement among the little merchants. Jews and Germans were converting every thing into cash at ruinous rates of discount, sometimes paying four hundred dollars in paper for one hundred dollars in cash; while others of their brethren changed goods into tobacco, which they stowed away in cellars, preparatory to McClellan's arrival; though very secretly accomplished, the thing was known, and no notice taken of it by our authorities. The idea of giving up Richmond was heart-breaking, but so doubtful were appearances that it was not until Governor Letcher, in an audience with President Davis, had been positively assured that “Virginia should not be given up, but defended until the streets of Richmond ran with blood,” that any certainty was felt regarding ministerial measures. When the Governor rehearsed the substance of his interview with the President to the assembled Legislature, a popular outburst of feeling ensued: all swore to reduce the place to ashes rather than surrender, and the faces of all were flushed with patriotic pride as they armed themselves for the coming conflict. The enemy, indeed, had [222] vigorously pushed their advance to the neighborhood of the capital, and on the right of their line were but four miles distant from it.

To understand the posture of affairs at this time it is necessary to form an intelligible idea of the locality and of the positions occupied by the rival armies. Richmond is situated at what may be considered the head of the Yorktown peninsula. On the south side the peninsula is washed by the James River; on the north, by the York River, to within seventy miles of the capital. The York River is continued by its tributary the Pamunkey River, which approaches within a few miles of the capital. At the foot of the peninsula, where the James flows into Chesapeake Bay, are Newport News and Hampton Roads. So much for the general geography of the Richmond peninsula, as shown on ordinary maps.

The approaching battle-fields may be represented by an imaginary square, the sides of which indicate the four quarters. At the bottom or south will be Richmond, and the rear of our army; the upper side, or north, will represent the rear of McClellan's forces. We must now suppose that a river rises in the south-west, and runs easterly, but in the centre of the diagram flows rapidly north-eastwardly-this is the Chickahominy, cutting the imaginary equator diagonally; and the equator itself is the common front of both armies. It will thus be seen that McClellan's right rested north, and his left south of the stream, the communication being maintained with both wings by several bridges, his centre resting on both sides of the stream at Bottom's Bridge.

From Richmond there are five roads which cut the Chickahominy at right angles, in the following order, from west to east: the Brook (or Hanover Court-house) Turnpike; the Mechanicsville Turnpike, (the village of Mechanicsville being on the north side of the river, and the headquarters of Fitz-John Porter, commanding the Federal right wing;) the Nine Mile Road; York River Railroad; the Williamsburgh Road; the Charles City Road; and the Darbytown Road. From the curve of the river across our front, our left and the enemy's right rested on the stream, but at the Charles City Road (our right and the enemy's left) were far from the stream, it being many miles to their rear.

The whole front, a distance of about seven miles, was [223] strongly defended by field-works of all kinds, to suit the ground. Between our left and the enemy's right, the ground dipped, the head of the stream being in the centre, but friend and foe had high ground which commanded Mechanicsville Bridge; the pickets of either army being within a hundred yards of the bridge. This bottom land on our left being partly well timbered by the swampy nature of the ground, was the scene of daily skirmishing, and from the superior position of their guns, and their closer proximity to the bridge, it was indisputably in the enemy's possession, and was well defended by elaborate works. The distance of the enemy's right was not more than four miles from Richmond; that of their left about seven miles.

McClellan did not attempt to push his left and centre across the Chickahominy until more than a week after the tents and flags of his right were seen around Mechanicsville; in fact, the weather was unsuitable, and the proposed line of formation was in an unhealthy swamp of woods and fields. The circumstances left McClellan no choice. Between Richmond and the Chickahominy there is an insensible fall of the land, and we had already occupied the relatively higher position, where the lands were better cultivated and drier, and less encumbered with timber. Our line being thus formed, McClellan had no alternative but to camp his forces in counter line, although he must have seen that his hospitals would soon be crowded, from chills, fevers, ague, and rheumatism among his troops.

Having taken up his position, McClellan began to fortify various points, and particularly the continuations of the five roads mentioned which passed through his lines. Thousands of men were daily employed in throwing up earthworks, building new or repairing old roads, felling timber to uncover our front, and locate his divisions, so that for a few days scarcely a shot was exchanged by pickets, save on our left, and there Fitz-John Porter's sharpshooters and our own were blazing away night and day. As it was for some time considered probable that the enemy would attempt to force the James, our right was extended two miles towards it; but after the repulse at Drury's Bluff, there seemed to be no further indications of any new attempt, and Longstreet removed his division, and camped in regular line across the Charles City road. [224] Our effective force, including Huger's arrival from Norfolk, was about eighty thousand; it could not have been much more, for the strength of the several divisions was not near their maximum; and our army, as well as McClellan's, was terribly weakened by sickness and ailments of various kinds; in our ease arising from insufficient clothing, poor flour, and bad bacon, owing to the poverty of our commissariat. McClellan confesses to have lost thirty thousand men, from all causes, since his operations began on the peninsula (March) up to the middle of May. This appears incredible, but we have his own words to vouch for the fact. Our loss from all causes was great, but not a tenth of this number. The transports of the enemy brought immense supplies of every kind up to the head of the York River, (West-Point,) and depots were numerous up the Pamunkey, being easily supplied thence to the army by excellent roads, and the York River railroad, which Johnston, in retreat, wisely or unwisely, left intact. The Northern merchantmen also ascended the James River, steamed up the Chickahominy, and made immense deposits of all things along its banks, conveniently in the rear. Guns and munitions were thus abundantly provided, and ere many weeks McClellan's army was snugly provided for in their lines before Richmond.

Our generals, as usual, were calculating upon the capture of this booty, before many suns had set. In fact, it has been suggested, and I believe it to be true, that Johnston's only reason for leaving the York River Railroad untouched in his retreat, was to invite the enemy to make immense deposits at the depots in West-Point, and along the Pamunkey, in order eventually that himself and Jackson, by combined movements, should capture all, and replenish our exhausted stores. Be this as it may, it is certain that inconceivable quantities of baggage and materiel accumulated in the rear, and so confident were Northern merchants of McClellan's success, that they also gathered immense stores in the rear, so as to be able to open sales in Richmond simultaneously with its occupation! Ridiculous as this may seem, the most incontestable facts prove it to be true.

Both armies had now been nearly a month in position, and did nothing from day to day but skirmish, and waste [225] ammunition in fruitless cannonades. Our men were camped in the woods and fields adjacent to the roads; picket-guards, strong bodies of skirmishers with supports, presented an unbroken front to the enemy, but they did not seem inclined to take the initiative. Whole brigades were in line in open fields, night and day, within a mile of the enemy, inviting an attack, yet the foe never came from the woods, but contented himself with throwing up formidable redoubts, and creeping towards Richmond inch by inch. It was evidently McClellan's wish to avoid a field fight, his idea being either to starve us out, or gradually get near enough to shell Richmond at discretion. Every inducement was held out by Johnston to draw the enemy from their works and woods into the open space before us, but his endeavors were unavailing.

At length it became known to our commanders that McClellan designed moving his left and centre nearer to us, and it was determined to attack him before his heavy masses could be brought up in proper order. Several reconnoissances were made to test the truth of the information we had received, and it was also confirmed by the daily reports of our pickets. In due time all doubt was removed. General Casey drove in our pickets, and camped on the Williamsburgh road, within a mile of us; the left centre and centre of the enemy down the railway and Nine Mile Road were at the same time thrown forward, and every appearance indicated that they meant to precipitate an action. In this attitude of expectation I must leave the two armies for a short time, in order to follow the fortunes of Jackson in — the Shenandoah Valley.

1 A late Northern paper says: “The armor of the Galena, which was pierced by the projectiles of the rebel batteries below Richmond, was three inches thick. The Monitor, has thus far stood the fire with her five-inch plates, but as guns of enormous calibre and projectiles of great momentum are in vogue, it is safe to increase the thickness of the armor.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
George B. McClellan (14)
Joe Johnston (6)
Fitz-John Porter (2)
Fitz-Hugh Lee (2)
Stonewall Jackson (2)
Benjamin Huger (2)
J. Davis (2)
Longstreet (1)
Abraham Lincoln (1)
Letcher (1)
Casey (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: