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Chapter 3:

  • The battle of Mechanicsville.
  • -- the battle of Coal Harbour or Gaines' Mill. -- . -- ride over the battlefield. -- success at the White house. -- . -- Reflections on the battles before Richmond.

The real importance of the Pamunkey expedition, in giving General Lee a perfect insight into the position of the army of McClellan, now manifested itself in the most brilliant light. As the Federal Commander-in-Chief had fortified himself most strongly on his right wing, which rested on the small village of Mechanicsville, five miles north-east of Richmond, General Jackson had been ordered with his army from the valley of the Shenandoah, numbering between 25,000 and 30,000 men, to fall upon the enemy's right flank, and, turning it, to give Lee the opportunity for a general attack. General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, known alike to friends and foes as “Stonewall,” from the steadiness and rock-like firmness of front which his command always presented to the enemy, had come up by rapid marches, without the enemy's knowledge, to execute this order. General Stuart's cavalry command and one division of infantry were sent to strengthen him, and this was the beginning of the sanguinary and to us successful seven days fighting before Richmond.

During the night of the 26th we arrived at the camps of [37] Jackson's famous soldiers, which had been pitched near Ashland, a station on the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, and were greeted by them with loud cheers. After a short period of repose we were again in the saddle. General Stuart had received directions from General Jackson to cover his left flank, so we marched with great caution, sending out numerous patrols and reconnoitring detachments. Our march was directed towards Mechanicsville, where the enemy's right wing rested, as I have said, on strong fortifications. With the exception of encounters with small patrols, we saw little of the enemy until five o'clock in the afternoon, when Jackson's vanguard attacked them, and was soon engaged in a sharp skirmish. At the same time the distant thunder of cannon was sounding over from Mechanicsville, where Longstreet had attacked the enemy in their strong position. Jackson at once brought up his troops with his usual celerity of movement, and towards six o'clock the battle was at its height.

Our cavalry was in reserve, and as we had reason to fear an attack on the left flank, General Stuart despatched me with a small body of men on a reconnoitring expedition, which was so far successful that, after about half an hour's ride, we came upon a strong detachment of the enemy's cavalry, who instantly set to work to chase us. We returned at a hard gallop, the enemy behind us in hot pursuit. General Stuart, perceiving this, placed two pieces of horse-artillery in the road, which, as soon as we had passed them, greeted the enemy with grape-shot. This created extreme confusion among our pursuers; they left their dead and wounded behind them, and took to immediate flight, followed by one of our regiments. Meanwhile the battle was going in our favour; the enemy were driven from one position to another, and by ten o'clock at night were retreating. We encamped for [38] the remainder of the night upon the battle-field, and rose with the earliest beams of the sun.

27th June 1862.

In the immediate neighbourhood of Coal Harbour, a small collection of houses some fifteen miles distant from Richmond and ten or twelve miles east of Mechanicsville, the enemy, to the number of 60,000 men, had taken a new position, strengthened by natural as well as artificial fortifications. Jackson had with him in all, including his reinforcements, about 40,000 men, every one of whom followed with enthusiasm and entire confidence their beloved, admired leader. Our cavalry force occupied its old position on the left flank of our army, and during the forenoon of the 27th had several encounters with the enemy's horse, all which, as was usual at that time, terminated in our favour.

One of these encounters, an affair of a few minutes, was with a newly-organised regiment of Federal Lancers. They stood 300 yards from us in line of battle, and presented, with their glittering lances, from the point of each of which fluttered a red-and-white pennon, and their fresh, well-fitting blue uniforms turned up with yellow, a fine martial appearance. One of our regiments was immediately ordered to attack them; but before our Virginia horsemen got within fifty yards of their line, this magnificent regiment, which had doubtless excited the liveliest admiration in the Northern cities on its way to the seat of war, turned tail and fled in disorder, strewing the whole line of their retreat with their picturesque but inconvenient arms. The entire skirmish, if such it may be called, was over in less time than is required to record it; and I do not believe that out of the whole body of 700 men more than twenty retained their lances. Their [39] sudden and total discomfiture furnished a striking proof of the fact that this weapon, formidable enough in the hand of one accustomed to wield it, is a downright absurdity and encumbrance to the inexperienced.

About two o'clock in the afternoon the battle became general along the lines, and at three o'clock raged in its full fury. The fire of musketry rolled continuously, and more than 150 howitzers and Napoleon and Parrot guns opened all around us, and united in one incessant roar. The ground being not favourable for cavalry operations, we occupied a place on the left wing of the line of battle, but were nearly all day under fire of the enemy's cannon. General Stuart, accompanied by his Staff and personal escort, pressed forward with his two batteries of horse-artillery, which, under the command of my gallant friend John Pelham, soon did most admirable execution. The enemy at once concentrated the fire of five batteries on this point, and every kind of missile hurtled heavily through the smoky air, spreading death and destruction on all sides. I had many a hot ride during the afternoon through this tempest of shot and shell, and it appears now almost incomprehensible that I escaped uninjured.

It was about five o'clock when General Stuart returned with us to his cavalry, which had been, and were still, suffering severely from the fire of a battery that had been boldly pressed forward to a favourable position, and kept thundering down on our much-exposed horsemen with rapid and terrible discharges. Just as we were galloping along the line, the enemy opened upon us with grape and canister, and our men began to waver a little, the ranks getting into some confusion. At this moment General Stuart, who had to ride a few hundred yards farther to meet Colonel Fitz Lee, turned round to me, saying, “Captain, I wish you to remain here with my Staff and escort until I come back, to give a good [40] example to the men.” So we had to stand for many minutes in this diabolical fire of canister, which came rattling along the hard dry ground, or howled over us right and left-a pretty severe trial. It requires but little courage to attack the enemy, or even to ride about composedly under fire, in comparison with what is demanded to sit quietly in face of several batteries, from which, with every momentary puff of smoke from the mouths of the guns, one may reasonably expect the messenger of death. A shell which exploded directly over our heads tore nearly to pieces the captain of the squadron nearest to me, with whom I had just been talking, and killed or wounded several of the men. But our example had a telling effect; the ranks closed up and remained in good order until the command was given, and the long line of horsemen, soon in rapid trot, disappeared behind a range of friendly hills.

General Stuart and Staff now galloped forward again to our artillery, which in the mean time had lost many men and horses, but was still answering with the greatest energy the galling fire of the numerous batteries of the enemy. Just at this time a little incident occurred, which, in the very carnival of death, provoked our hearty laughter. One of our Staffofficers, Captain , whom we had often joked about the nimble and successful manner in which he dodged the shells of the enemy, and who had this day again made the politest obeisance to their missiles, annoyed at our raillery, had declared that he would never again bow at their approach, and was sitting with the utmost gravity bolt-upright in the saddle, when a 12-pounder solid shot screamed through the air only a few feet over his head. Down went the head not merely to the saddle, but, with the body to which it was still securely attached, to the earth, amidst the convulsive shouts of his comrades and the cannoneers. Another incident which we witnessed about the same time, produced no less merriment [41] amid the fury of the battle. A wounded man was borne along by two of his comrades, his limbs hanging motionless and his head dangling bout as if life was nearly extinct. The fire of the enemy was still murderous, and one of the carriers, struck by a musket-ball, fell to the ground, dropping his charge, who, seeing himself in great danger, suddenly revived, and, jumping up, took to his heels with the most surprising agility. The explosive laughter which followed him in his rapid flight all along our lines absolutely drowned for a few moments the tumult and hurly-burly of the engagement.

About six o'clock in the evening I was sent by General Stuart to order to the front two squadrons of our Georgia regiment to attack one of the Federal batteries which, without proper support, had been making a very bold advance. The enemy had brought up to the distant heights twenty pieces of rifled ordnance, which, by undue elevation, firing too high for the effect they desired, were playing upon an open space of ground over which I had to ride. The fire was so terrific that I found one of our reserve batteries, not actively engaged at the moment, entirely deserted by its gunners, who had sought protection with the horses in a deep ravine, and who cried out to me to dismount and join them, or certain death must be my fate. I pushed on, and reached my destination in safety; but galloping back I felt a stunning blow across the spine, and at the same moment my horse rolled over with me. I was confident the animal had been struck by cannon-ball; but, to my great surprise, I was not able to discover any wound. As I was myself unhurt, I remounted my brave animal, and continued my way. A solid shot had passed close to my horse's back, and the current of air set in motion by its passage had knocked over both horse and rider. Afterwards, during the war, I witnessed many similar cases of prostration of men and animals by “windage.” [42]

At seven o'clock in the evening the battle had taken the most favourable turn for our arms. At this time the enemy, who had offered throughout the day the most obstinate resistance, intrenched in very strong positions, and attacking us in the centre with 25,000 regular troops, the elite of McClellan's army, began slowly to give way before the impetuous valour of our men, who drove these veterans from one intrenchment to another, until, at eight P. M., they were in full retreat, and the victory was ours.

Thousands of prisoners, among whom were two generals, several colonels, and many inferior officers, a large number of field-pieces, and many flags, fell into our hands. General Stuart, with his cavalry, was immediately sent in pursuit of the enemy's flying columns, which we chased for nearly five miles, until the darkness of the night stopped our further progress. Returning, we were compelled to ride with great caution, for the field was strewn with wounded men, many of whom had crept to the edge of the highroad to get within reach of the ambulances. There is no sadder sight than that of a battle-field after the conflict is over. Happily, night at this moment veiled from us its full horrors; but there was an overwhelming sense of utter hopelessness in riding among so many poor fellows, whom one would have so much liked to assist, even with the “cup of cold water,” --brave fellows, groaning in their agony, and calling upon every passer-by for help — with an entire consciousness on our part of the fearful aggregate of the misery, and, alas! of the little we could do for its alleviation.

We encamped upon the field of battle. About midnight I felt myself touched on the shoulder; and when, grasping the hilt of my sword, I abruptly demanded who was there, a mild voice answered me, “General Jackson.” The great Confederate leader was in search of General Stuart. Stuart, who slept on my right, was immediately aroused; and Jackson, accepting [43] my invitation so to do, sat down on my blankets by his side. I left them alone, those grand warriors, in their midnight council, and wandered about, meditating on the stirring events of the day. I was deeply impressed by the blackness of the night and the profound stillness of the slumbering camp. Here and there a camp-fire shed a red glow around, and the stillness was only too mournfully interrupted by the groans of wounded and dying men, who, not many hours before, had been full of health and hope.

At the early dawn of morning, on the 28th of June, all was in motion again, as General Stuart had received orders to proceed at once with his cavalry to the White House on the Pamunkey river, where immense supplies for McClellan's army had been collected. I was exceedingly disappointed, when, ordering my horse to be saddled, my mulatto servant reported that my brave chestnut was unable to rise, in consequence of the injuries sustained by the heavy contusion of the previous day-injuries from which it never recovered. I had no choice, therefore, but to remain behind until I could procure another animal. But I was not idle. Acting in concert with Captain Fitzhugh, of General Stuart's Staff, and assisted by a dozen couriers, I employed myself in collecting and placing under guard the prisoners that were still coming in by fifties and hundreds from every part of the extensive battlefield. Among these prisoners was a major of artillery, who had served with General Stuart in the old regular army of the United States, and who had been acquainted with Captain Fitzhugh before the war. He was a most intelligent and agreeable man, but seemed greatly annoyed by his capture. After some hesitation, however, he accepted the rude hospitality of our little camp, and shared our meagre breakfast, consisting of soup and hard bread. He talked very sensibly of the war and of the recent battle, and expressed his great admiration for Lee, Jackson, and Stuart. [44]

About 10 A. M. I was able to turn the prisoners over to one of Jackson's officers; and then, mounting a horse which was kindly offered me by one of our couriers, I set out for a ride over the field of the fight. It was, indeed, a sad and cruel spectacle. Death had raged fearfully in many places, especially where our troops had been compelled to storm the strong intrenchments of the enemy. On some of these perilous slopes the dead bodies might be seen piled three or four deep. I was struck here by the piteous contrast presented by the bodies of two of our dead which were lying side by side. I can never forget the sight; I can see them now-one a man of more than fifty, who had been shot through the head, and whose silvery white hair was dabbled in his blood; the other, next to him, a lad of sixteen, whose frank face was lighted up by clustering fair hair, and whose small hands were crossed over his heart, where the enemy's bullet had struck him.

Among Jackson's men on the previous day I had looked with astonishment at a soldier from Mississippi--a perfect giant, whose appearance had attracted the more attention from a vest of bear-skin that he wore. Here among the dead I found him again, with a small hole in the breast, which had been sufficient to make an end at once of all his strength and vigour.

Many stories had been recited in camp about a tremendous bayonet-fight, hand to hand, during the battle, between our Texans and the New York Zouaves, and it was said that two of these determined antagonists had pierced each other through and through with their formidable and fatal weapons, and that their dead bodies had been found standing erect in the very attitude in which each had received his deathwound. Curiosity carried me to the spot. An obstinate struggle had indeed taken place there between the troops named, which had ended in the utter annihilation of the much-vaunted Zouaves, whose bodies, dressed in flashy red [45] uniforms, were scattered about all over the ground like the scarlet poppies in a corn-field; but the never-erring bullet of the famous Texan marksmen had brought them down, not the bayonet. I carefully examined many of the corpses, and found only three or four with bayonet-wounds, and these had been received evidently after the bullets. These accounts of bayonet-fights are current after every general engagement, and are frequently embodied in subsequent “histories,” so called; but as far as my experience goes, recalling all the battles in which I have borne a part, bayonet-fights rarely if ever occur, and exist only in the imagination.

About mid-day I returned to our encampment, where I found, to my great delight, a fresh horse that Captain Fitzhugh had procured for me, and a company of our cavalry which was just starting to join our comrades at the White House. As the officer in command pretended to know the way very well, I made up my mind at once to join them; and after a march of more than six hours, discovered, to my intense disgust, that the captain had missed his road completely. As night was now approaching, and squads of the enemy's cavalry were reported in every direction, nothing was left to us but to return to our starting-point, which we reached again about midnight. Our return not a little surprised and annoyed Captain Fitzhugh, who, in the mean time, had received intelligence from General Stuart, and orders for me to join him on the following morning.

During our march back to camp, passing one of our picket-posts, we found our men there in great excitement, and were informed by them that the enemy had poisoned all the wells and springs in the neighbourhood, in consequence of which several of their number were in a dying condition. Three or four, indeed, were very bad; but although I do not love the Yankees, I am quite sure they were entirely innocent [46] of this. The sufferers had been made ill by the too abundant use of bad apple-brandy, which will kill anybody.

The first streak of day of the 29th found us once more in the saddle, marching gaily along through the dense green forests of oak and hickory. We had a long ride before us, and as we had information from Stuart that active work was to be done, we hastened forward as rapidly as possible. The distant thunder of cannon soon announced to us that the fight had opened; but eagerly as we pushed our horses, it was nearly twelve o'clock when we reached a plateau about two miles from the White House, only to learn that the battle was over. At the foot of this plateau extended, about two miles in breadth, and in length as far as the eye could reach, the green fertile valley of the Pamunkey, whose yellow waters flowed directly past the “plantation,” or estate, of the White House, the property of our Colonel, William H. F. Lee. This wide verdant flat was covered with thousands of tents and storehouses, and formed the main depot of the Federal army, numbering, before the late battles, at least 150,000 men. The enemy's cavalry, forced to fly by the celerity of Stuart's attack, had, in their rapid retreat, set fire to all the principal buildings; and from more than a hundred different points vast volumes of smoke were rising in the air, while the stately mansion of Colonel Lee was wreathed in flames. All over the field our horsemen were busy as ants, here rescuing from destruction quantities of valuable provisions, there enjoying luxuries of which they had long been deprived, that were scattered in the greatest profusion on every hand. I found General Stuart on the very brink of the Pamunkey, where he had established his headquarters in a delightfully cool spot, beneath the boughs of a gigantic plantain, regaling himself with iced lemonade, which he shared with me, and which fell upon my tongue like nectar. Ice, lemons, crushed sugar, and many other dainties and delicacies, which we knew only by [47] recollection, were heaped around us in large piles, for the benefit of any one who would reach out his hand to take them. The General was in excellent spirits, and received me most cordially, losing no time in recounting to me the splendid results of his expedition. He had broken the enemy's cavalry by his first attack, taken many prisoners, captured untold wealth of spoil, and, what amused and delighted him most of all, disabled and driven off a Federal gunboat by the fire of his dismounted sharpshooters and two pieces of horse-artillery. After a few minutes' rest, my curiosity led me through the burning encampment. Never in my life had I seen such enormous quantities of commissary stores-never had I supposed that an army of invasion would voluntarily encumber itself with such an incalculable amount of useless luxuries. Hundreds of boxes of oranges and lemons were piled up together, many of which, broken, sent the golden fruit rolling all over the ground. Great pyramids of barrels of white and brown sugar, and of salt fish, and eggs packed in salt, were blazing on all sides. One of the burning barrels of eggs we knocked open, and found its contents roasted a merveille, which gave us, with other edibles within easy reach, such a repast as we had not enjoyed for many months. Not far from us, as we thus feasted, were little mountains of hams of bacon, and boxes of arms, uniforms, and equipments for more than 10,000 men. An equal number of the latter we discovered in the river, as well as two transports, laden with whisky and other liquors, which had been sunk by the enemy on our approach, but which we raised and secured with little difficulty. A large number of railway carriages and new locomotive engines, and a pontoon train, also fell into our hands. In strolling through the more distant camps, I had the good fortune to secure a fine horse which had been left behind by his Federal owner in the hurry of his departure; but I lost my prize very soon afterwards. [48]

In one of the houses near by I discovered the body of a handsome young man, an officer, who had been killed in one of the late battles. The body had been so skilfully embalmed that one could almost believe the poor fellow only slept. I set a guard over the corpse to protect it from casual injury, and it was soon afterwards delivered to the relatives of the deceased. The report was circulated in camp, and obtained some credence, that it was one of the French princes of the Orleans family, who were then serving on the Staff of General McClellan, and had taken part in the recent engagements; but this story was never believed by General Stuart or myself.

Late at night I returned exceedingly weary to camp, to find such rest as the myriads of musquitoes would allow me.

The following day the work of saving, and destroying what could not be saved, out of the spoils at the White House, was continued, and then we moved off to join the army of General Lee, at that moment pursuing the enemy on his retreat to Harrison's Landing, on James river. We left behind one regiment as a guard over the property, estimated at millions of dollars in value, which we had collected to be transported to Richmond and the military depots of our army. While the operations I have just detailed had been going on under Stuart at the White House, General Lee had been very active-engaging the enemy and driving him further back every day. That we might regain the main body as speedily as possible, we marched for the remainder of the day without stopping in the hot sun, and encamped at nightfall upon the exact spot on the Chickahominy where, a few weeks before, we had made so narrow an escape. At daybreak next morning we received orders to move as rapidly as we might eight miles higher up the river, to ford it in the neighbourhood of Bottom's Bridge, and, falling upon the flank of the Federal army, to intercept its hasty retreat; but upon reaching this point we received counter orders, as the [49] Federal army had already passed, and we rode back in full gallop to Forge Bridge, our starting-point. Here we found that the enemy, anticipating our movement, had posted artillery and sharpshooters in advantageous position on the river-bank, and we were accordingly received with a very determined resistance. Soon, however, Pelham came up with his horse-artillery, and, by a well-directed fire, opened a passage for us. The enemy retreated in precipitation, leaving their dead and wounded all along the course of their flight, and we were able to take but a very few prisoners. The sun was now pouring down with intense fervour, and as our horses were wellnigh exhausted with our rapid marching and counter-marching, we were compelled to take a few hours' rest on the roadside. We lay down in a corner of the fence beneath the shade of some cherry-trees hanging full of their delicious fruit, the bunches unfortunately just a little too high to serve our parched mouths with grateful refreshment. Stuart and I were standing on the highest rail of the fence, trying with difficulty to pluck some of the cherries, when he laughingly said to me, “Captain, you charge the Yankees so well, why do you not attack this cherry-tree and bring it down?” Without hesitation I jumped from my elevated position, grasping the higher part of the trunk, and breaking down the tree, amid the loud cheers and laughter of the Staff and the soldiers around, who finished the spoil, now so easily to be gathered, in an incredibly short time.

In the midst of our mirth over the fallen cherry-tree, we were interrupted by the heavy boom of artillery brought to us from the heights of Malvern Hill, where a sanguinary battle had just begun, and we were again ordered into the saddle. From the weary condition of our horses, however, our march in the direction of the cannonade was but a slow one; and it was not until late in the evening that we arrived upon the field of action, where the fate of the day had already been decided, [50] the enemy having retreated under cover of his gunboats on James river. For the first time at Malvern Hill, in the progress of the American war, was it satisfactorily shown how important in a battle is the concentration of a large number of pieces of artillery upon one point; and the army of General McClellan was only saved from their utter destruction by sixty guns, which, being very favourably posted in his centre, poured dismay and death into our attacking columns. The effect was more disastrous than had been before produced by artillery. In this battle our losses were very heavy, and I may say that the victory was ours only from the ignorance of our position on the part of the enemy, who retreated exactly at the moment when he had gained the most important success.

As this battle was the last of the famous seven days fighting before Richmond, I may be allowed to submit a very few remarks in review of the memorable struggle and its brilliant results. The fight began on the 26th June at Mechanicsville, and ended on the 2d July after Malvern Hill. McClellan, whose lines extended across the Chickahominy in a semicircle around Richmond, from the James river to the strong position of Mechanicsville, had in the first two days of the contest been completely whipped by Jackson on the right, and that portion of his army north of the Chickahominy had been driven to the south side, where the subsequent engagements of Fraser's Farm on the 29th, Willis's Church on the 30th, and, last of all, Malvern Hill, drove him in rapid retreat to his unassailable place of refuge at Westover, on the James river. At this point a large flotilla of gunboats protected him from any further attack on our part, and numerous transports supplied him with abundant provisions, ammunition, and reinforcements. McClellan's retreat was indeed masterly, and too much credit cannot be paid him for the skill with which he managed to hold his own, and check the advance of our victorious troops at Malvern Hill. His final success, [51] however, in saving his army, was due to the inexcusable tardiness and disobedience of orders displayed by some of our Confederate generals. The fault was certainly not in General Lee's dispositions.

Our whole loss in killed and wounded was about 9000 men — that of the enemy amounted to 16,500, besides several thousand prisoners. The amount of artillery and ammunition, and more especially of small-arms, equipments, and commissary stores, that fell into our hands, was enormous.

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