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Chapter 33:

  • June twenty-sixth
  • -- commencement of the week's campaign before Richmond -- battles of “Mechanicsville,” “Beaver Dam Creek,” and “Ellison's Mills” -- terrific battle scene -- preparations for a further advance.

The reader may picture to himself a party of officers belonging to the “ragged rebels” seated together at my window, comparing notes, and speculating on the probabilities of speedy hostilities. “McClellan seems to think he has not sufficient troops, and asks for more. He makes the startling admission that he has lost not less than fifty thousand men since his arrival on the peninsula in March! I cannot comprehend how this can be, unless sickness has decimated his ranks. As he owns to have had one hundred and eighty-five thousand at that period, he must have one hundred and thirty-five thousand men now, unless the scattered remains of Banks's, Fremont's, Milroy's, and Shields's corps have been gathered and sent to him. There cannot be a doubt, however, that he has drawn largely upon McDowell, who has been hovering around Fredericksburgh for the past two months. As there is water communication between him and McClellan, I should not be surprised to find, when the next battle comes off, that McDowell is either with him, or has largely reenforced him. Conjecture as we may, this continual line of ice-wagons passing under our windows all day, shows that the hospitals are being prepared for emergencies.”

“Orders have already been issued to ‘clear the hospitals,’ I learn,” said another, “and that I regard as one of the best of signs. Our commissariat, also, has been unusually active during the past week in delivering extra supplies, and every man is furnished with sixty extra rounds of ammunition. All the field-forges and blacksmiths' shops, in and out of the army, have been busy night and day for the past week, and hundreds of horses have passed through the hands of the farriers. All [322] these things mean something; but more remarkable than all is the fact that Jackson, instead of returning to the Valley, as the enemy expected, has turned the head of his column towards Hanover Court-House, on the enemy's right and rear!”

“This explains, then,” said one, “why Lee sent him such heavy reenforcements. After his brilliant series of victories over the Federals, he fell back, as usual, to recuperate, and the Yankees, expecting his speedy reappearance among them, detached several corps to watch for and overwhelm him if he advanced. Thus, the force of Milroy, Shields, Banks, Fremont, and McDowell, which were primarily intended to advance from the west upon Richmond, and cooperate with McClellan on the east in reducing our capital, are scattered up and down the Valley, strategically, to watch and capture the redoubtable ‘Stonewall,’ while the Texan and two other brigades are sent round to reenforce him at Charlottesville. But instead of running into the snare prepared for him, Jackson knows his opponents are beyond supporting distance of McClellan, so is ordered to advance rapidly on their right and rear, while we cooperate by an attack in front. This is evidently the plan, and, if properly executed, will redound to the glory of Lee, who framed it. McClellan, however, is fully aware of this movement, and although he cannot prevent the impending ‘crash,’ he is energetically preparing to meet it. Fitz-John Porter, you know, commands the right, McClellan the centre, and Heintzelman the left.”

Heintzelman is a crafty old fellow,” said another, “and is not to be caught with chaff. Do you know I have seen large volumes of smoke ascending along their whole line? I knew it indicated destruction of stores, and heard General Almsted say as much on Sunday,. (June twentieth.) ‘ Old Heintzelman,’ said he, is a wily old major; see those large bodies of smoke ascending on their left — they have been frequent for the past few days, and Mac is preparing for the worst.”

“ But I have seen no peculiar disposition of force in our lines for an aggressive movement, if one is contemplated.”

“ There is no particle of doubt that it is contemplated, but Lee will not weaken any point of his lines until the decisive moment, for McClellan might attack on a weak side. When Jackson is in position, you will see Lee's divisions move as if by magic!” [323]

“He has changed all our brigades entirely within the past week, and commanders now have different troops; what does all that mean?”

“I do not know,” said another, “that my reasons are correct, but I think Lee has simply acquiesced in the long-expressed desire which State regiments have had of being brigaded together, so that if successful or otherwise, they have only themselves to thank or blame. This plan of brigading excites great emulation, and State pride will carry the boys through difficulties they might not attempt if joined with other troops. Whatever the reasons, the thing is done, as far as practicable, and the commands so changed and divided that I scarcely know what regiments are commanded by this or that general, although up to the present time I was well informed.”

In short, however we might speculate, it was generally known that a grand action was inevitable, for Jackson's movements from Gordonsville were rapid, and fully known to half the people of Richmond. On Wednesday, June, twenty-fifth, it was rumored that he had reached Hanover Court-House, fifteen miles to the right and rear of the enemy, and the general anxiety was oppressive. Rockets at night were continually ascending on our left, which Jackson answered, and his last orders were to move next day in the rear of Mechanicsville. Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's divisions suddenly marched from the Williamsburgh road on Wednesday, and bivouacked on the Mechanicsville road, Huger and others being left to hold the right against any attack. General Ambrose Hill's division was on the Meadow Bridge road, to the left of Longstreet, and General Branch's brigade occupied the extreme left on the Brook Church (or Hanover Court-House) road.

On the north bank of the river, at Brook Church Bridge, the enemy had collected in force, to dispute the advance of Branch, but on learning that Jackson was in their rear, they offered but a feeble resistance. Branch's brigade, therefore, crossed over rapidly about three P. M., and pursued the enemy down the stream, and passed the Meadow Bridge, where General Ambrose Hill was crossing. Thus far events had kept Jackson on our extreme left, endeavoring to get farther in the enemy's rear; Branch's brigade was the centre, and Ambrose Hill's division the right of our forces, which had crossed. In this order they [324] fought and pursued the enemy vigorously, capturing many field. works and some cannon. The fight from Meadow Bridge was obstinately maintained, the rattle of musketry and booming of field and siege-pieces being well-nigh deafening. The day being fine, a splendid view was obtained from Longstreet's position, on the south bank, of the progress, of the battle on the north side. The advance of our men through the green fields could be plainly seen, in face of the volleys of musketry incessantly poured in upon them from every wood and thicket. Porter's field-pieces were admirably worked, and occupied every position of value; the movements of his infantry were executed without confusion.

From this position the enemy were seen to be gradually falling back, making it evident that Jackson was advancing too close upon their rear, although as yet he had not fired a shot; while the confusion, clouds of dust, roar of ordnance, and excitement of couriers round Porter's Headquarters at Mechanicsville, told how vigorously Branch was pushing forward our centre, and driving the enemy out of the earthworks they had erected at various points. Hugging the north bank, Ambrose Hill maintained an unbroken line, and from the appearance of smoke rising closer and closer to Mechanicsville, it was evident that he was rapidly gaining ground, and felt certain of. storming the village before sunset. Branch was still some distance behind; yet Hill, with his fourteen thousand men, determined to push on, and drive off the enemy that held the bridge, so as to open and clear the way for Longstreet and D. H. Hill. After much hard fighting this was accomplished, and the latter Generals pushed forward across Mechanicsville Bridge with their divisions, and soon formed line at right angles with the river. Meanwhile Ambrose Hill had re-formed his troops, and commenced an attack upon Mechanicsville itself, which brought on a terrific fight.

This place had been admirably fortified by Fitz-John Porter, who, as an engineer and artillerist, had bestowed much care and labor upon the works. Its strength was such that if Jackson had not been hovering in the rear of the enemy, it is probable that Hill would have felt himself too weak to attempt its capture. Artillery on both sides now opened with a terrific roar, and, as evening fell, the flash of guns and long lines of [325] musketry fire could be seen in bright relief against the blue and cloudless sky. After a deafening cannonade of half-an-hour, and While showers of shell were screaming through the air, and lighting up the face of friend and foe when they burst, loud yells from the distant woods assured us our men were advancing to the assault. For a moment a deathlike silence reigned over all; and then again, our approach being seen, the enemy's artillery opened with extraordinary rapidity, until it seemed as if every tree in the forest was cracking and shivering to pieces. Barns, houses, and stacks of hay and straw were in a blaze. By their light our men were plainly visible rushing across the open spaces through infernal showers of grape, and swarming into the breastworks. The explosion of caissons was frequent, and the constant pattering of musketry within the village showed our men were there also. In a little while the Federal guns were silent, a loud noise of many voices was heard, and then a long, wild, piercing yell, as of ten thousand demons, and the place was ours.1 Presently the enemy's artillery might be seen flashing from mounds and hillocks lower down the stream, rapidly throwing shell into the village; but suddenly ours flash from out the darkness not far from them, and the duel continues with much fierceness as Hill is reorganizing for another advance.

While this was progressing at the village, General Ripley's brigade moved still farther to the left and front to attack the intrenched position of the enemy at Ellison's Mills, but owing to the darkness and the strength of the place, had to retire with loss. This mill was situated on ground higher than the country immediately surrounding it, and the water which worked it ran through a swamp, debarring all assault in front. The road ran beside this swamp, and up a rise situated between the Federal camps on the right and their field-works to the left of the mill. Their artillery swept all approach through the fields and by [326] the road. All timber was carefully cleared away, and the only possible method in which the position could be attacked was by crossing the creek and swamp higher up, and getting in the rear. In the excitement and darkness, Ripley advanced his line through the open fields, and had reached the road and swamp in front, when suddenly the enemy opened with grape; at seventy yards, and mowed down whole files of our men. The word to “charge” ran from wing to wing, and our men running down the bank to the road beneath, were stopped by the impassable swamp and abattis; to the right, up the rising road, cannon also blazed in their faces, and well-posted infantry poured in showers of small shot. Our loss at this point numbered several hundreds, and was an unnecessary sacrifice of human life. Retreat was the only alternative, and under cover of the darkness, it was effected with little additional loss. From Ellison's Mills and Beaver Dam Creek, (the latter two miles down the Chickahominy,) the enemy maintained an incessant cannonade until late in the night, and the luminous flight of shells made a beautiful and comparatively harmless pyrotechnic display, which was witnessed with pleasure by thousands.

When Ambrose Hill had captured Mechanicsville, Branch's brigade arrived upon the scene, and dispositions were instantly made for renewing the conflict early next morning. Ellison's Mills on our left, in front, and Beaver Dam Creek on the right, in front, were considerable obstacles to an advance. These positions were equidistant and within range of each other: they completely commanded the roads, and all approach to them was guarded by artillery, which threw twenty-four pound shells into every thicket and bush to our front. Ambulances, carriages, and litters were busy in collecting and conveying the wounded to Richmond; prisoners were collected, spoil secured, and various divisions put in proper order and position for Friday's operations. The tramp of men was incessant; artillery and ammunition wagons toiled along; stragglers were brought in; captured cannon and stores sent to the rear, and from Brook Church turnpike to Mechanicsville, a distance of several miles, lights were flitting in fields and woods, searching for the wounded, or burying the dead. The enemy had suffered more severely than ourselves, though protected by frequent field [327] works and rifle-pits, which had to be carried with the bayonet. The character of Porter's troops, however, was not the best, for had they fought as ours did, the number of those lost on either side would have been reversed.

As we anticipated, McClellan had been heavily reenforced after the battle of “Seven pines.” Among the first prisoners I encountered were the “ “Bucktail rifles” and “Pennsylvania reserve corps,” which formed part of General McCall's division” hurriedly sent from McDowell's army round Fredericksburgh! McCall, then twelve thousand strong, together with parts of Fremont's and Shields's Valley troops, had reached McClellan, and had augmented his force by at least twenty thousand men. We were evidently outnumbered, but this news came too late. The prisoners, numerous as they were, spoke confidently of McClellan's success, and seemed to pity us for daring to attack him. They did not know where he intended to make his “big fight,” but as heavy forces were posted at Gaines's Mills, (his centre on both banks,) it was possible our overthrow would be consummated there. I never saw such impudent and bombastic fellows as these Pennsylvanians were-always excepting New-England troops. Although they had been soundly thrashed by Jackson in the Valley, and by Lee at this place, they spoke of “strategic movements,” “change of base,” etc., as solemnly as donkeys.

About midnight, our preparations being completed, Brigadiers Featherstone and Pryor moved up towards Beaver Dam Creek on the right, and Brigadier Maxy Gregg, towards Ellison's Mills, on the left, Jackson being still to the enemy's rear, and converging towards the Chickahominy, in the direction of Coal Harbor, near Gaines's Mills. Featherstone's Mississippians, in advance, hugged the river, and halted on a wooded slope near the stream, within five hundred yards of the position of Beaver Dam Creek. The movement was effected silently, and in the dim light I could plainly see the work before us. A farm-house was situated about half a mile from the river, on high ground which sloped towards the bank. A creek ran in front of the dwellings, and at right angles to Featherstone and the river. No bridges were discovered on which to cross and get in the rear, where rose majestic woods filled with troops. The “rise” was crowned with strong breastworks, commanding all [328] approaches, and rifle-pits on the flanks covered the creek. Pryor, and his Louisianians, occupied higher grounds to the left of this position, screened by woods, while the entire front was open fields.

Featherstone, who commanded, had been to consult with superior officers, and returning about four A. M., (Friday, June twenty-seventh,) found the enemy had discovered his covert, and were vigorously shelling it. His men jumped to their arms, and advanced in the twilight-when from the mound to the left in front, from the banks of the creek on the flanks, and from the elevated rifle-pits to the rear, came rapidly and more rapidly the flash of artillery and musketry. The disparity of numbers and position would have appalled any troops but those selected to storm the place. Skirmishers advanced to the front, and, occupying bushes on the edge of the creek, maintained a brisk and deadly fire, and in a short time cleared the opposite bank, while the main body advanced with loud shouts to the attack. Volunteers from both brigades constructed temporary bridges on which to cross, but the passage was obstinately disputed and many were killed.

Once across, the infantry fight became animated, while three companies of artillery poured showers of shell into the enemy's works, and silenced several guns. Pryor, on the left, was slow in his advance; but Featherstone, riding over, soon urged them into rapid motion, and as our right had pushed some distance ahead towards the left rear of the Federal position, the Louisianians assailed the right with terrific yells, and finding a passage across the creek, were soon on a line with our right. The enemy's infantry, though numerous, seemed disinclined to venture on open ground, so while our wings held theirs in check, an assault in front was determined upon. For this, however, Pryor deemed our force insufficient; and having sent for reenforcements unknown to Featherstone, Brigadier Wilcox came on the scene with his Alabamians. The chief command would now have devolved on Wilcox, but he waived his right, and our artillery opened at shorter range with a terrific noise; suddenly the cannonade ceased, and up sprung our centre, rushed across the creek, up the “rise,” over the dry ditch, and in a few moments were swarming over the parapet, shooting and bayoneting the troops defending it. [329]

The sight at this moment was awfully grand. Men standing on the parapet were fighting in every conceivable attitude, and as the sun brilliantly rose over the tree-tops, illumining the scene, the semicircular line of fight, with its streams of fire, bursting of caissons, shouts, yells, and charging on the right and left — the centre occupied by the strong redoubt, crowds of combatants rushing in and out, with a sea of heads swaying to and fro round our banner floating on the wall-all was soul-stirring, sublime, and horrible. The fight on and around the hill, supports advancing from the woods, the volley and rush of our men to prevent it — the occasional discharge of cannon in the works-men clambering up and tumbling from parapets — the yells, shrieks, and shouts of friend and foe in that central position, clouded with vapor, and its floating banner-all spoke of a terrible attack and a desperate resistance. One wild yell!-out poured the enemy; and as they rushed across the open ground to their brethren in the woods, there came Southerners through the opening in pursuit — reeling, bleeding, shouting, powder-blackened, and fainting, madly firing random shots, and sinking from fatigue. Quickly the line was formed in rear of the works; all joined in the final charge; cannon belched forth grape and canister into the woods, tearing down limbs and trees; then one ringing shout passed along the line; “double-quick” was the order given, and drawing the enemy's fire, our men replied at fifty yards, yelled, charged into the timber, and scattered them like chaff before the wind. All was over!-the foe hastily retreated through the wood, where our cavalry could not follow. Cannon, small arms, prisoners, and stores, were the trophies of victory; Wilcox took up the advance, while, wearied with several hours' severe fighting and loss, the other two brigades rested round the well-contested redoubt.

In the midst of all this din, loud reports from the left, and stray shell screaming over head, told that Gregg's South-Carolinian brigade was similarly engaged at Ellison's Mills. Profiting by Ripley's discomfiture the previous evening, Gregg determined to cross the swamp some distance higher up, while engaging the enemy's attention in front. At the moment, therefore, that the engagement opened on his right-fully [330] convinced he had naught to fear from any force sent from Beaver Dam Creek to operate on his right flank-he crossed the greater part of his command a mile above the battery, and screened them in the timber; then posting a cloud of skirmishers in front of the guns to draw their fire and annoy the enemy's supports, the word was given. Our artillery opened fired, and at the same instant our infantry rushed in from the rear and seized the work; others, ascending the rising road, poured into the Federal camp, and subjected the enemy to a destructive two-sided fire, while shells poured thick and fast on their line of retreat. Gregg displayed his usual judgment in this brilliant affair, and his success doubtless expedited matters at Beaver Dam Creek.

It was now past eight A. M., and since both routes were open, troops began to move in strong columns, shouting and yelling vigorously as they passed the positions, and saw guns, prisoners, and stores strewn on every side, with fatigued, dusty, and ragged brigades resting in the shade. “Time” was evidently an object with General Lee; he knew McClellan had endeavored to force Porter into an energetic resistance thus far, so as to gain time to protect his centre on the north bank, situated in the neighborhood of Gaines's Mills, near the river. Cavalry scouts were, therefore, rapidly pushed ahead, and infantry followed, batteries being at hand to withstand any sudden exhibition of force, and open the fight, should the enemy feel desirous of trying the fortunes of war in any of the very large open farms intervening between us and Gaines's property. Ellison's Mills and Beaver Dam Creek were,. in fact, the impediments thrown out to obstruct our advance; and, though brilliantly fought actions, were simply considered as preliminary to others of greater importance within a few hours' march.

The advance, therefore, was prosecuted with vigor, and it was scarcely nine A. M. ere the several divisions were rapidly approaching the enemy. General Ambrose Hill was in the centre, bearing towards Coal Harbor; Generals Longstreet and A. P. Hill proceeded along the edge of the Chickahominy on the right, while Jackson was still far to the left, threatening the enemy's right rear as he gradually converged towards the river. In this order the three columns proceeded [331] through the country towards Gaines's Mills, but were frequently halted and formed in line to invite a combat with the enemy in fair open ground. They would not accept our frequent challenges, however, but slowly retired through the woods, feeling confident in the strength of their position at the mill.

Arriving at Hogan's plantation, one and a half miles west of the mill, General Lee took up temporary quarters there, while the columns of Ambrose Hill and Longstreet halted in the open to await the arrival of Jackson's right at New Coal Harbor. Unacquainted as I was with the country, I had several narrow escapes from horse pickets stationed on. roads that ran through dense woods; more than once I ran the gauntlet of their pistol-shots; until, being by no means inclined to offer my life a sacrifice to motives of curiosity, I returned to our advance lines scattered through the timber, and hitched my horse among scones of others round Hogan's house. Here Lee, Longstreet, and a crowd of dignitaries were gathered in council upon the doorsteps and grassy sward, and as I had never before seen so many of our generals together, I amused myself by making such observations as I could; solacing myself with a smoke, and in the mean time studying an interesting chapter in physiognomy.

1 Pickett's brigade, of Ambrose Hill's division, always distinguished itself. Brigadier-General Pickett is a Virginian, but was appointed to West-Point as a cadet from Illinois. He entered the old service as Brevet Second Lieutenant Eighth Infantry, July first, 1846; was breveted Captain, September thirteenth, 1847, for meritorious services; and gazetted Captain Ninth Infantry, March third, 1855. He joined his mother State when it seceded, and has proved an excellent officer.

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