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Chapter 8: Sequels of Seven Pines.

  • The forces under command of G. W. Smith after Johnston was wounded
  • -- the battle of the 1st -- Longstreet requests reinforcements and a diversion -- Council held -- McLaws alone sustains Longstreet's opposition to retiring -- severe fighting -- Pickett's brave stand -- General Lee assigned to command -- he orders the withdrawal of the army -- criticism of General Smith -- Confederates should not have lost the battle -- Keyes's corroboration.

Major-General G. W. Smith was of the highest standing of the West Point classes, and, like others of the Engineers, had a big name to help him in the position to which he had been suddenly called by the incapacitation of the Confederate commander.

I found his Headquarters at one o'clock in the morning, reported the work of the commands on the Williamsburg road on the 31st, and asked for part of the troops ordered up by General Johnston, that we might resume battle at daylight. He was disturbed by reports of pontoon bridges, said to be under construction for the use of other reinforcements to join the enemy from the east side, and was anxious lest the enemy might march his two corps on the east side by the upper river and occupy Richmond. But after a time these notions gave way, and he suggested that we could renew the battle on the Williamsburg road, provided we would send him one of our brigades to help hold his position and make the battle by a wheel on his right as a pivot.

As the commands stood, Smith's division on our left was at right angles to the York River Railroad, facing east, his right near Fair Oaks Station. Besides his division of ten thousand, he had Magruder's and other commands of fresh troops near him,--twenty thousand. [104] My left lay near Smith's right, the line extending parallel to the railroad for a mile, facing north; thence it broke to the rear, and covered the ground from that point to the swamp, the return front facing the enemy's third intrenched line. Smith's part of the field was open and fine for artillery practice. The field fronting on the railroad was so shut in by heavy pine forest and tangled swamp that we had no place for a single gun. D. H. Hill's division was in reserve near the Casey encampment.

The enemy stood: Sedgwick's division in front of Smith; Richardson's division in column of three brigades parallel to the railroad and behind it, prepared to attack my left; on Richardson's left was Birney's brigade behind the railroad, and under the enemy's third intrenched line were the balance of the Third and all of the Fourth Corps. So the plan to wheel on Smith's right as a pivot, my right stepping out on the wheel, would have left the Third and Fourth Corps to attack our rear as soon as we moved.

Besides, it was evident that our new commander would do nothing, and we must look to accident for such aid as might be drawn to us during the battle.

The plan proposed could only be considered under the hypothesis that Magruder would come in as the pivotal point, and, upon having the enemy's line fully exposed, would find the field fine for his batteries, and put them in practice without orders from his commander, and, breaking the enemy's line by an enfilade fire from his artillery, would come into battle and give it cohesive power.

I left Headquarters at three o'clock, and after an hour's repose rode to the front to find General Hill. Wilcox's brigade was on my right on the return front, Pryor's brigade on his left, and R. H. Anderson, Kemper, Colston, Armistead, and Mahone occupied the line between the Williamsburg road and the railroad. Pickett's brigade [105] was ordered to be with General Hill at daylight, and Maurin's, Stribling's, and Watson's batteries, of Pickett's brigade, to take position on the right of Armistead's.

I found General Hill before he had his breakfast, enjoying the comforts of Casey's camp. Pickett had passed and was in search of his position, which was soon disclosed by a fusillade from the front of Richardson's division. A party of “bummers” from Richmond had found their way into the camp at Fair Oaks, and were getting such things as they could put their hands on. They were taken in the gray of the morning for Confederate troops and fired upon. This made some confusion with our new troops, and part of them opened fire in the wrong direction, putting two or three bullets through General Hill's tent before he got out of it. Hood's brigade of Smith's division, the pivotal point, came under this fire, and was immediately withdrawn. Hood reported his position good, but his orders were to retire.

Our cavalry had established communication with headquarters, and gave prompt notice of movements as they occurred. The pivot was moving to the rear, but battle on the Williamsburg road steadily advanced, with orders to develop the enemy's battle front through its extent along the railroad; not to make the fancied wheel, but to expose his line to the practice of our batteries on the Nine Miles road.

Our infantry moved steadily, engaging French's brigade of Richardson's division, which was led by one of Howard's regiments. French was supported by Howard's brigade, and Howard by Meagher's, and the firing extended along my line as far as the return front of my right. But Magruder was not on the field to seize the opportunity for his artillery. He was nowhere near the battle,--had not been called. General Whiting, however, saw the opportunity so inviting, and reported to his commander at half after six o'clock,-- [106]

“ 1 am going to try a diversion for Longstreet, and have found, as reported, a position for artillery. The enemy are in full view and in heavy masses. I have ordered up Lee with four pieces. The musketry firing in advance is tremendous.” 1 General Smith had parties posted along the heights of the Chickahominy in close observation of the movements of the enemy's forces on the east bank. These parties reported from time to time that the enemy was moving his forces down the east bank and crossing them over to take part in the fight. The accounts proved false, but they continued to come to Headquarters, and were forwarded to my command on the Williamsburg road and gave us some concern. Failing to receive approval of his chief, General Whiting reported at nine o'clock,--

If I don't receive an answer in half an hour, I shall commence withdrawing my forces.2

The answer he received was to throw back his right and take position a little nearer to the New Bridge fork of the Nine Miles road,3 thus swinging the pivot farther back. General Smith complained that the enemy was getting into the interval between our lines, but position between two fires was not the place the enemy wanted; he could not know that Smith wouldn't shoot. Under this long and severe infantry fight there was no point on my part of the field upon which we could post a single gun. Part of Armistead's new troops gave way, but the gallant brigadier maintained his ground and soon collected his other regiments. Before this I had reported ready, and awaiting a guide, the brigade that was to be sent over to the Nine Miles road. At half after ten o'clock, General Smith sent word that he had heard nothing of the brigade expected to come to his support, and renewed his reports of the enemy crossing over and concentrating against us [107] on the Williamsburg road. He repeated, too, his wish to have his cavalry keep close communication between the wings of the army. This close communication had been established early in the morning and was maintained through the day, and the reports of the enemy's crossing were all false, but our new commander seemed to forget. At the same time he wrote me,--

I have directed Whiting to take close defensive relations with Magruder. At any rate, that was absolutely necessary to enable a good defence to be made whilst you are pivoting on Whiting's position.4

Whiting's position, instead of being pivotal, began its rearward move at the opening fire at daybreak, and continued in that line of conduct until it reached a point of quiet. General Smith was informed that the brigade called for by him would not be sent over; that his troops were doing nothing, while all of mine were in severe battle, except a single brigade, and the enemy was massing his fighting force against me; that the grounds were so flooded that it was difficult to keep up our supply of ammunition; that with the aid of his troops the battle would be ours.

But just then he held a council with Generals McLaws and Whiting and Chief Engineer Stevens, and submitted the question, “Must the troops be withdrawn, or the attack continued?”

All voted in favor of the former except McLaws. In a letter, since written, he has said,--

I alone urged that you be reinforced and the attack continued, and the question was reconsidered, and I was sent to learn your views.5

Before General McLaws found me, I wrote General Smith,-- [108]

“Can you reinforce me The entire enemy seems to be opposed to me. We cannot hold out unless we get help. If we can fight together, we can finish the work to-day, and Mac's time will be up. If I cannot get help, I fear that I must fall back.”

General McLaws reported of his ride to my lines,--

I went and found you with J. E. B. Stuart. You were in favor of resuming the assault, and wanted five thousand men.6

Nothing was sent in reply to McLaws's report, but we soon learned that the left wing of the army was quiet and serene in defensive positions about the New Bridge fork of the Nine Miles road.

At the first quiet of our battle, after the left wing quit the field, I ordered the brigades withdrawn to defensive position about the trenches at Seven Pines, but before the order reached the front the fight was renewed by Hooker's division upon Wilcox and Pryor, and reached out to our left near Fair Oaks. In the heat of this, General Wilcox received the order to retire, and in undue haste pulled his command out, assumed authority over Pryor, and ordered him off. Pickett, the true soldier, knowing that the order was not intended for such emergency, stood and resisted the attack. Colston was sent to his aid, and the attack was repulsed. Immediately after this repulse was a quiet advance upon Pickett's right. The commander asked, “What troops are these?” “Virginians!” “Don't fire!” he ordered; “we will capture the last one of these Virginians.” Just then the Virginians rose and opened a fearful fire that drove him back to his bushy cover, which ended the battle of Seven Pines. Pickett was withdrawn to position assigned for his brigade, our line of skirmishers remaining near the enemy's during the day and night. General Wilcox reported of his battle, when [109] he pulled off from it, that he was doing as well as he could wish, but General Hooker reported, “Pursuit was hopeless.”

The failure of the enemy to push the opportunity made by the precipitate retreat of General Wilcox, and Pickett's successful resistance, told that there was nothing in the reports of troops coming over from the east side to take part in the battle, and we were convinced that the river was not passable. I made an appeal for ten thousand men, that we might renew our battle without regard to General Smith and those about him. It received no more consideration than the appeal made through General McLaws.

Then General Lee, having been assigned to command, came upon the field after noon by the Nine Miles road, and, with General Smith, came over to the Williamsburg road. A similar proposition was made General Lee, but General Smith protested that the enemy was strongly fortified. At the time the enemy's main battle front was behind the railroad, fronting against me but exposed to easy enfilade fire of batteries to be posted on his right flank on the Nine Miles road, while his front against me was covered by the railway embankment. It is needless to add that under the fire of batteries so posted his lines would have been broken to confusion in twenty minutes. General Holmes marched down the Williamsburg road and rested in wait for General Lee. Like General Huger, he held rank over me. General Lee ordered the troops back to their former lines. Those on the Williamsburg road were drawn back during the night, the rear-guard, Pickett's brigade, passing the Casey works at sunrise on the 2d unmolested. Part of Richardson's division mistook the camp at Fair Oaks for the Casey camp, and claimed to have recovered it on the afternoon of the 1st, but it was not until the morning of the 2d that the Casey camp was abandoned. [110]

The Confederate losses in the two days fight were 6134; the Union losses, 5031.

It seems from Union accounts that all of our dead were not found and buried on the afternoon of the 1st. It is possible, as our battle was in the heavy forest and swamp tangles.

General Smith has written a great deal about the battle of Seven Pines during the past twenty or thirty years, in efforts to show that the failure of success was due to want of conduct on the part of the forces on the Williamsburg road. He claims that he was only out as a party of observation, to prevent reinforcement of the enemy from the east side of the river, and that he kept Sumner off of us. But he waited three hours after the enemy's ranks and lines had been broken, instead of moving with and finishing the battle, thus giving Sumner time to march from the east of the river, and strike him and beat him to disorder, and change the lost battle to success. He shows that Hill's and Longstreet's divisions could have gained the battle unaided,--which may be true enough, but it would have been a fruitless success, for the enemy got forces over to protect those of the west side; whereas, the stronger battle, ordered by the four divisions, could and would have made a complete success of it but for the balky conduct of the divisions ordered to guard the flanks. Instead of six hours hard work to reach the enemy's third line, we could have captured it in the second hour and had the field cleaned up before Sumner crossed the river.

General Keyes, the commander of the Fourth Corps, in his “Fifty years observations,” says,--

The left of my lines were all protected by the White Oak Swamp, but the right was on ground so favorable to the approach of the enemy, and so far from the Chickahominy, that if Johnston had attacked them an hour or two earlier than he did, I could have made but a feeble defence comparatively, and every man of us would have been killed, captured, or driven into the swamp or river before assistance could have reached us.

General Smith lay in wait three hours after the enemy's positions were broken and carried, giving ample time for the march of the succoring forces. The hour of the attack was not so important as prompt and vigorous work. If the battle had opened at sunrise, Smith would have made the same wait, and Sumner's march would have been in time to beat him. All elements of success were in the plan, but balky troops will mar the strongest plans. He tries to persuade himself that he intended to join our battle on the Williamsburg road, but there was no fight in his heart after his maladroit encounter with Sedgwick's division on the afternoon of the 31st. The opportunity for enfilade fire of his artillery along the enemy's battle front, at the morning opening and all of the forenoon, was waiting him; while reports of the enemy crossing the river, reinforcing against my single contest, were demanding relief and aid.

He reported sick on the 2d and left the army. When ready for duty he was assigned about Richmond and the seaboard of North Carolina. He applied to be restored to command of his division in the field, but the authorities thought his services could be used better elsewhere. He resigned his commission in the Confederate service, went to Georgia, and joined Joe Brown's militia, where he found congenial service, better suited to his ideas of vigorous warfare.

1 Smith's War Papers.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Smith's War Papers.

5 Ibid.

6 Letter from General McLaws.

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