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Chapter 23:

  • The enemy's position
  • -- his intention -- the plan of operations -- movements of General Jackson -- daring and fortitude of Lee -- offensive-defensive policy -- General Stuart's movement -- order of attack -- critical position of McClellan -- order of Lincoln creating the army of Virginia -- arrival of Jackson -- position of the enemy -- diversion of General Longstreet -- the enemy forced back South of the Chickahominy -- abandonment of the Railroad.

When riding from the field of battle with General Robert E. Lee on the previous day, I informed him that he would be assigned to the command of the army, vice General Johnston, wounded, and that he could make his preparations as soon as he reached his quarters, as I should send the order to him as soon as I arrived at mine. On the next morning, as above stated, he proceeded to the field and took command of the troops. During the night our forces on the left had fallen back from their position at the close of the previous day's battle, but those on the right remained in the one they had gained, and some combats occurred there between the opposing forces. The enemy proceeded further to fortify his position on the Chickahominy, covering his communication with his base of supplies on York River. His left was on the south side of the Chickahominy, between White-Oak Swamp and New Bridge, and was covered by a strong entrenchment, with heavy guns, and with abatis in front. His right wing was north of the Chickahominy, extending to Mechanicsville, and the approaches were defended by strong works.

Our army was in line in front of Richmond, but without entrenchments. General Lee immediately commenced the construction of an earthwork for a battery on our left flank, and a line of entrenchment to the right, necessarily feeble because of our deficiency in tools. It seemed to be the intention of the enemy to assail Richmond by regular approaches, which our numerical inferiority and want of engineer troops, as well as the deficiency of proper utensils, made it improbable that we should be able to resist. The day after General Lee assumed command, I was riding out to the army, when I saw at a house on my left a number of horses, and among them one I recognized as belonging to him. I dismounted and entered the house, where I found him in consultation with a number of his general officers. The tone of the conversation was quite despondent, and one, especially, pointed out the inevitable consequence of the enemy's advance by throwing out boyaux, and [109] constructing successive parallels. I expressed, in marked terms, my disappointment at hearing such views, and General Lee remarked that he had, before I came in, said very much the same thing. I then withdrew and rode to the front, where after a short time General Lee joined me, and entered into conversation as to what, under the circumstances, I thought it most advisable to do. I then said to him, substantially, that I knew of nothing better than the plan he had previously explained to me, which was to have been executed by General Johnston, but which was not carried out; that the change of circumstances would make one modification necessary—that, instead, as then proposed, of bringing General A. P. Hill, with his division, on the rear flank of the enemy, it would, because of the preparation for defense made in the meantime, now be necessary to bring the stronger force of General T. J. Jackson from the Valley of the Shenandoah. So far as we were then informed, General Jackson was hotly engaged with a force superior to his own, and, before he could be withdrawn, it was necessary that the enemy should be driven out of the Valley. For this purpose, as well as to mask the design of bringing Jackson's forces to make a junction with those of Lee, a strong division under General Whiting was detached to go by rail to the Valley to join General Jackson and, by a vigorous assault, to drive the enemy across the Potomac. As soon as he commenced a retreat which unmistakably showed that his flight would not stop within the limits of Virginia, General Jackson was instructed, with his whole force, to move rapidly on the right flank of the enemy north of the Chickahominy. The manner in which the division was detached to reenforce General Jackson was so open that it was not doubted General McClellan would soon be apprised of it, and would probably attribute it to any other than the real motive, and would confirm him in his exaggerated estimate of our strength.

By the rapidity of movement and skill with which General Jackson handled his troops, he, after several severe engagements, finally routed the enemy before the reenforcement of Whiting arrived; he then, on June 17th, proceeded, with that celerity which gave to his infantry its wonderful fame and efficiency, to execute the orders which General Lee had sent to him.

As evidence of the daring and unfaltering fortitude of General Lee, I will here recite an impressive conversation which occurred between us in regard to this movement. His plan was to throw forward his left across the Meadow Bridge, drive back to the enemy's right flank, and then, crossing by the Mechanicsville Bridge with another column, to [110] attack in front, hoping by his combined forces to be victorious on the north side of the Chickahominy; meanwhile the small force on the entrenched line south of the Chickahominy should hold the left of the enemy in check. I pointed out to him that our force and entrenched line between that left flank and Richmond was too weak for a protracted resistance, and if McClellan was the man I took him for when I nominated him for promotion in a new regiment of cavalry, and subsequently selected him for one of the military commission sent to Europe during the War of the Crimea, as soon as he found that the bulk of our army was on the north side of the Chickahominy, he would not stop to try conclusions with it there, but would immediately move upon his objective point, the city of Richmond. If, on the other hand, he should behave like an engineer officer, and deem it his first duty to protect his line of communication, I thought the plan proposed was not only the best, but would be a success. Something of his old esprit de corps manifested itself in General Lee's first response, that he did not know engineer officers were more likely than others to make such mistakes, but, immediately passing to the main subject, he added, ‘If you will hold him as long as you can at the intrenchment, and then fall back on the detached works around the city, I will be upon the enemy's heels before he gets there.’

Thus was inaugurated the offensive-defensive campaign which resulted so gloriously to our arms, and turned from the capital of the Confederacy a danger so momentous that, looking at it retrospectively, it is not seen how a policy less daring or less firmly pursued could have saved the capital from capture.

To resume the connected thread of our narrative: preparatory to this campaign, a light entrenchment for infantry cover, with some works for field guns, was constructed on the south side of the Chickahominy, and General Whiting, with two brigades, as before stated, was sent to reenforce General Jackson in the Valley, so as to hasten the expulsion of the enemy, after which Jackson was to move rapidly from the Valley so as to arrive in the vicinity of Ashland by June 24th, and by striking the enemy on his right flank, to aid in the proposed attack. The better to insure the success of this movement, General Lawton, who was coming with a brigade from Georgia to join General Lee, was directed to change his line of march and unite with General Jackson in the Valley.

As General Whiting went by railroad, it was expected that the enemy would be cognizant of the fact, but would not, probably, assign to it the real motive; that such was the case is shown by an unsuccessful attack [111] of the 26th, made on the Williamsburg road, with the apparent intention of advancing by that route to Richmond.

To observe the enemy, as well as to prevent him from learning of the approach of General Jackson, General J. E. B. Stuart was sent with a cavalry force on June 8th to cover the route by which the former was to march, and to ascertain whether the enemy had any defensive works or troops in position to interfere with the advance of those forces. He reported favorably on both these points, as well as to the natural features of the country. On June 26th General Stuart received confidential instructions from General Lee, the execution of which is so interwoven with the seven days battles as to be more appropriately noticed in connection with them, of which it is proposed now to give a brief account.

Our order of battle directed General Jackson to march from Ashland on the 25th toward Slash Church, encamping for the night west of the Central Railroad; to advance at 3 A. M. on the 26th, and to turn Beaver Dam Creek. General A. P. Hill was to cross the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge when Jackson advanced beyond that point, and to move directly upon Mechanicsville. As soon as the bridge there should be uncovered, Longstreet and D. H. Hill were to cross, the former to proceed to the support of A. P. Hill and the latter to that of Jackson.

The four commands were directed to sweep down the north side of the Chickahominy toward the York River Railroad—Jackson on the left and in advance; Longstreet nearest the river and in the rear. Huger, McLaws, and Magruder, remaining on the south side of the Chickahominy, were ordered to hold their positions as long as possible against any assault of the enemy, to observe his movements, and to follow him closely if he should retreat. General Stuart, with the cavalry, was thrown out on Jackson's left to guard his flank and give notice of the enemy's movements. Brigadier General Pendleton was directed to employ the reserve artillery so as to resist any advance toward Richmond, to superintend that portion of it posted to aid in the operations on the north bank, and hold the remainder for use where needed. The whole of Jackson's command did not arrive in time to reach the point designated on the 25th. He had, therefore, more distance to move on the 26th, and he was retarded by the enemy.

Not until 3 P. M. did A. P. Hill begin to move. Then he crossed the river and advanced upon Mechanicsville. After a sharp conflict he drove the enemy from his entrenchments, and forced him to take refuge in his works, on the left bank of Beaverdam, about a mile distant. This position was naturally strong, the banks of the creek in front high and almost [112]

Map: Williamsburg and Yorktown.

[113] [114] perpendicular, and the approach to it over open fields commanded by the fire of artillery and infantry under cover on the opposite side. The difficulty of crossing the stream had been increased by felling the fringe of woods on its banks and destroying the bridges. Jackson was expected to pass Beaverdam above, and turn the enemy's right, so General Hill made no direct attack. Longstreet and D. H. Hill crossed the Mechanicsville Bridge as soon as it was uncovered and could be repaired, but it was late before they reached the north bank of the Chickahominy. An effort was made by two brigades, one of A. P. Hill and the other Ripley's of D. H. Hill, to turn the enemy's left, but the troops were unable in the growing darkness to overcome the obstructions, and were withdrawn. The engagement ceased about 9 P. M. Our troops retained the ground from which the foe had been driven.

According to the published reports, General McClellan's position was regarded at this time as extremely critical. If he concentrated on the left bank of the Chickahominy, he abandoned the attempt to capture Richmond, and risked a retreat upon the White House and Yorktown, where he had no reserves, or reason to expect further support. If he moved to the right bank of the river, he risked the loss of his communications with the White House, whence his supplies were drawn by railroad. He would then have to attempt the capture of Richmond by assault, or be forced to open new communications by the James River, and move at once in that direction. There he would receive the support of the enemy's navy. The latter movement had, it appears, been thought of previously, and transports had been sent to the James River. During the night, after the close of the contest last mentioned, the whole of Porter's baggage was sent over to the right bank of the river, and united with the train that set out on the evening of the 27th for the James River.

It would almost seem as if the government of the United States anticipated, at this period, the failure of McClellan's expedition. On June 27th President Lincoln issued an order creating the ‘Army of Virginia,’ to consist of the forces of Fremont, in their Mountain Department; of Banks, in their Shenandoah Department; and of McDowell, at Fredericksburg. The command of this army was assigned to Major General John Pope. This cut off all reenforcements from McDowell to Mc-Clellan.

In expectation of Jackson's arrival on the enemy's right, the battle was renewed at dawn, and continued with animation about two hours, during which the passage of the creek was attempted, and our troops forced their way to its banks, where their progress was arrested by the nature of [115] the stream and the resistance encountered. They maintained their position while preparations were being made to cross at another point nearer the Chickahominy. Before these were completed, Jackson crossed Beaverdam above, and the enemy abandoned his entrenchments, and retired rapidly down the river, destroying a great deal of property, but leaving much in his deserted camps.

After repairing the bridges over Beaverdam, the several columns resumed their advance, as nearly as possible as prescribed in the order. Jackson, with whom D. H. Hill had united, bore to the left, in order to cut off reenforcements to the enemy or intercept his retreat in that direction. Longstreet and A. P. Hill moved nearer the Chickahominy. Many prisoners were taken in their progress; the conflagration of wagons and stores marked the course of the retreating army. Longstreet and Hill reached the vicinity of New Bridge about noon. It was ascertained that the enemy had taken a position behind Powhite Creek, prepared to dispute our progress. He occupied a range of hills, with his right resting in the vicinity of McGhee's house, and his left near that of Dr. Gaines, on a wooded bluff which rose abruptly from a deep ravine. The ravine was filled with sharpshooters, to whom its banks gave protection. A second line of infantry was stationed on the side of the hill, overlooking the first, and protected by a breastwork of logs. A third occupied the crest, strengthened with rifle trenches, and crowned with artillery. The approach to this position was over an open plain, about a quarter of a mile wide, commanded by a triple line of fire, and swept by the heavy batteries south of the Chickahominy. In front of his center and right the ground was generally open, bounded on the side of our approach by a wood, with dense and tangled undergrowth, and traversed by a sluggish stream, which converted the soil into a deep morass. The woods on the further side of the swamp were occupied by sharpshooters, and trees had been felled to increase the difficulty of its passage, and detain our advancing columns under the fire of infantry massed on the slopes of the opposite hills, and of the batteries on their crest.

Pressing on toward the York River Railroad, A. P. Hill, who was in advance, reached the vicinity of New Cold Harbor about 2 P. M., where he encountered the foe. He immediately formed his line nearly parallel to the road leading from that place toward McGhee's house, and soon became hotly engaged. The arrival of Jackson on our left was momentarily expected, and it was supposed that his approach would cause the extension of the opposing line in that direction. Under this impression, Longstreet was held back until this movement should commence. [116] The principal part of the enemy's army was now on the north side of the Chickahominy. Hill's single division met this large force with the impetuous courage for which that officer and his troops were distinguished. They drove it back, and assailed it in its strong position on the ridge. The battle raged fiercely, and with varying fortune, more than two hours. Three regiments pierced the enemy's line and forced their way to the crest of the hill on his left, but were compelled to fall back before overwhelming numbers. This superior force, assisted by the fire of the batteries south of the Chickahominy, which played incessantly on our columns as they pressed through the difficulties that obstructed their way, caused them to recoil. Though most of the men had never been under fire until the day before, they were rallied, and in turn repelled the advance of our assailant. Some brigades were broken, others stubbornly maintained their positions, but it became apparent that the enemy was gradually gaining ground. The attack on our left being delayed by the length of Jackson's march and the obstacles he encountered, Longstreet was ordered to make a diversion in Hill's favor by a feint on the enemy's left. In making this demonstration, the great strength of the position already described was discovered, and General Longstreet perceived that, to render the diversion effectual, the feint must be converted into an attack. He resolved, with his characteristic determination, to carry the heights by assault. His column was quickly formed near the open ground, and as his preparations were completed, Jackson arrived, and his right division—that of Whiting—took position on the left of Longstreet. At the same time, D. H. Hill formed on our extreme left, and after a short but bloody conflict forced his way through the morass and obstructions, and drove the foe from the woods on the opposite side. Ewell advanced on Hill's right, and became hotly engaged. The first and fourth brigades of Jackson's own division filled the interval between Ewell and A. P. Hill. The second and third were sent to the right. The arrival of these fresh troops enabled A. P. Hill to withdraw some of his brigades, wearied and reduced by their long and arduous conflict. The lines being now complete, a general advance from right to left was ordered. On the right the troops moved forward with steadiness, unchecked by the terrible fire from the triple lines of infantry on the hill and the cannon on both sides of the river, which burst upon them as they emerged upon the plain. The dead and wounded marked the line of their intrepid advance, the brave Texans leading, closely followed by their no less daring comrades. The enemy was driven from the ravine to the first line of breastworks, over which our impetuous column dashed [117] up to the entrenchments on the crest. These were quickly stormed, fourteen pieces of artillery captured, and the foe driven into the field beyond. Fresh troops came to his support, and he endeavored repeatedly to rally, but in vain. He was forced back with great slaughter until he reached the woods on the banks of the Chickahominy, and night put an end to the pursuit. Long lines of dead and wounded marked each stand made by the enemy in his stubborn resistance, and the field over which he retreated was strewn with the slain. On the left the attack was no less vigorous and successful. D. H. Hill charged across the open ground in front, one of his regiments having first bravely carried a battery whose fire enfiladed his advance. Gallantly supported by the troops on his right, who pressed forward with unfaltering resolution, he reached the crest of the ridge, and after a sanguinary struggle broke the enemy's line, captured several of his batteries, and drove him in confusion toward the Chickahominy, until darkness rendered further pursuit impossible. Our troops remained in undisturbed possession of the field, covered with the dead and wounded of our opponent; his broken forces fled to the river or wandered through the woods. Owing to the nature of the country, the cavalry was unable to participate in the general engagement. It rendered valuable service, however, in guarding Jackson's flank, and took a large number of prisoners.

On the morning of the 28th it was ascertained that none of the enemy remained in our front north of the Chickahominy. As he might yet intend to give battle to preserve his communications, the Ninth Cavalry, supported by Ewell's division, was ordered to seize the York River Railroad, and General Stuart with his main body to cooperate. When the cavalry reached Dispatch Station, the enemy retreated to the south bank of the Chickahominy, and burned the railroad bridge. During the forenoon, columns of dust south of the river showed that he was in motion. The abandonment of the railroad and destruction of the bridge proved that no further attempt would be made to hold that line. But, from the position the enemy occupied, the roads which led toward the James River would also enable him to reach the lower bridges over the Chickahominy and retreat down the Peninsula. In the latter event, it was necessary that our troops should continue on the north bank of the river, and, until the intention of General McClellan was discovered, it was deemed injudicious to change their disposition. Ewell was therefore ordered to proceed to Bottom's Bridge to guard that point, and the cavalry to watch the bridges below. No certain indications of a retreat to the James River were discovered by our forces on the south side of the [118]

Genral Stonewall Jackson

[119] Chickahominy, and late in the afternoon the enemy's works were reported to be fully manned. The strength of these fortifications prevented Generals Huger and Magruder from discovering what was passing in their front. Below the enemy's works the country was densely wooded and intersected by swamps, concealing his movements and precluding reconnaissances except by the regular roads, all of which were strongly guarded. The bridges over the Chickahominy in rear of the enemy were destroyed, and their reconstruction by us was impracticable in the presence of his whole army and powerful batteries. We were therefore compelled to wait until his purpose should be developed. Generals Huger and Magruder were again directed to use the utmost vigilance, and to pursue the foe vigorously should they discover that he was retreating. During the afternoon of the 28th the signs were suggestive of a general movement, and no indications of his approach to the lower bridges of the Chickahominy having been discovered by the pickets in observation at those points, it became inferable that General McClellan was about to retreat to the James River.

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