previous next

Chapter 35:

  • Retrospect
  • -- additional particulars from one of Stuart's cavalry -- capture of depots and stores during the action -- public feeling at Richmond -- McClellan begins his retreat to the James river -- operations on the South bank of the Chickahominy -- commencement of the pursuit -- the railway Merrimac -- difficult nature of the country.

At break of day I was sent to the capital, and had to pass over the greater part of the battle-field. Turning with a sickening sensation from the sight of bloodshed and the hundreds of inanimate bodies which lay on every hand, I galloped off towards Gaines's House, and felt much relieved with the refreshing air. The lofty Federal camp beyond the creek, on the edge of the Chickahominy, in the south-eastern quarter of the field, was still standing, and so many tents crowned the hill that it seemed as if it were still occupied; but this fact was being ascertained by six pieces of our artillery, which were rapidly shelling it, without eliciting a reply. Leaving the field, and plunging into the woods, I rode at a rapid rate towards Hogan's House, overtaking and meeting ambulances, private carriages, omnibuses, and other vehicles, all engaged in errands of mercy. I could have turned to the left and crossed the Chickahominy near Hogan's House, which would have taken me to Magruder's quarters at Garnett's Farm, seven miles from Richmond; but as my orders led me on the north bank to Mechanicsville, and thence to town, I had excellent opportunities for viewing the route taken by our army.

The quarters of General Sykes had been in a house near Hogan's, and among other things, a friend handed me several Northern illustrated papers brimful of “Federal victories” extravagantly sketched. The large open fields around were the camping and drill grounds of Porter's large force of “regular” infantry and artillery. The retreat had been conducted with much order, and comparatively few stores fell into our hands; [347] the enemy having burned them beforehand, together with many wagons, the ashes of which were still smoking. Passing on towards Beaver Dam Creek, deserted encampments were visible in the woods on either side of the road, among which I strolled for some time, observing that they contained many valuable medicines, which, together with other useful things, were under guard.

Beaver Dam Creek and Ellison's Mills were totally deserted, and except for a few wounded men limping about, a stranger would not have recognized these places as the scenes of the terrible struggle in the twilight of Friday morning. The hot sun presently made us aware that there were bodies in the woods not yet buried, and, although parties were at work here and there, it was several days ere all the putrefying matter was covered. The neighboring houses were badly shattered by shot and shell, and in many instances nothing remained but a solitary and shaky chimney of brickwork. Mechanicsville was converted into one vast hospital; many citizens, old and young, satisfied their curiosity by lounging about the breastworks, or idly gazing on the crowds of prisoners passing on their way to Richmond. As I trotted over the wooden bridge which had been held by my old regiment, imagination began to picture the straits to which McClellan had been reduced by the generalship of that modest and unassuming professor of the Christian religion-Robert E. Lee!

Maintaining his front unbroken, and parallel with theirs on the Chickahominy until Jackson should appear at Hanover Court-House, threatening their right and rear, Lee rapidly masses his troops on our left wing. Branch at the same time crosses the stream at Brook Church Bridge, drives the foe past Meadow Bridge, where Ambrose Hill instantly crosses, joins forces and uncovers the front of Mechanicsville Bridge, where Longstreet and D. H. Hill cross and join forces. Marching by three routes, Mechanicsville, Ellison's Mills, and Beaver Darn Creek successively fall, and the enemy is vigorously pushed to Gaines's Mills, where Jackson joins us and completely routs their entire right wing, ind pierces their centre from the rear! Driven across the river, McClellan's right and right centre are doubled up in the low swampy lands, behind his left centre and left. But now that he has his whole force on the south bank, [348] and has lost all communication with his depots on the York River, will he, in desperation, taking advantage of the presence of our heavy forces on the north bank, concentrate and hurl his entire strength against our right, and endeavor to seize Richmond before we can recross to repel the attack? This would be a bold stroke, but it would take more time to prepare for such a movement than Lee will grant, and even if he did essay such a feat, our defences and force are sufficient to hold him in check until our left could cross and take him in the rear. He is thoroughly aware of our style of fighting by this time, and would not hazard his existence in such an enterprise, and will undoubtedly retreat towards the James River.

Such was the current of my thoughts when the clattering of hoofs behind induced me to turn, and I saw it was an old friend attached to Stuart's cavalry, who had participated in all the adventures of his dashing chief. His news interested me.

As soon as Ambrose Hill had taken Mechanicsville, and Jackson's advance through the country had cut off the Federal communication with their depots on the Pamunkey and the head of York River, Stuart had been ordered to advance rapidly and secure whatever was possible ere the enemy had time to destroy it. On Thursday, therefore, he moved down the Branch turnpike, and proceeded towards the Pamunkey, where his presence was least expected or desirable, as large quantities of all kinds of stores were piled ready for burning. As Porter was not then defeated, the order had not arrived for their destruction, so that Stuart captured scores of horses, wagons, ambulances, and immense supplies of every kind, besides several hundred prisoners. My informant, who was there, expressed great surprise at the extensive depots captured, and stated that vast quantities of ammunition, many weapons, and several cannon fell into our hands. Having properly secured all these invaluables, Stuart destroyed half a dozen schooners, having first seized the cargoes; several others slipped cables and escaped. Proceeding through the country, every Federal establishment was visited, large or small, and every thing of value appropriated. At the head of York River much United States property was taken, and wagon-loads destroyed for want of transportation; but among the most singular discoveries made, was that of great quantities of dry goods and [349] groceries, held by private individuals, who were waiting for McClellan's triumphal entry into Richmond to transport their stocks, and philanthropically open business to feed the hungry and clothe the naked rebels! It was difficult to convince the owners of such valuables that McClellan was beaten, for they laughed at such an idea and thought us all mad; but when marched to town, and accommodated with lodgings in our tobacco-warehouses, in company with hundreds of men in uniform, their astonishment was amazing. Yet such was the implicit reliance of the North in McClellan's promises of “pushing us to the wall,” possessing Richmond “in six days,” and daily editions of “victories,” etc., printed in the Herald, Times, and Tribune, that many large houses sent confidential agents to Richmond to effect sales a few days before the time assigned for his entry into our capital, so that they might secure the cream of the market in sales or barter. That such was really the case, is proved by the fact that several of these agents made their way from Washington via Gordonsville and Lynchburgh, and were nearly choked with vexation when arrested in Richmond, and compelled to see hundreds of Federal prisoners pass the windows of rooms in which they and other “commercial travellers” were confined!

Expecting to hear. our guns open every moment, I felt uneasy in town, and was desirous of getting out to camp again as soon as possible. The people of Richmond, however, seemed perfectly easy in their minds, and carried on their usual avocations with the utmost unconcern. Many stores in the principal streets were converted into comfortable hospitals, while crowds stood round the doors reading the list of inmates, parents hoping to find the names of their sons, and other relatives or friends anxious to be informed of the fate of those dear to them. These lists were of great service, for the sufferers were deposited in whichever infirmary was nearest, there being no such thing as State or regimental hospitals. Business of all kinds was brisk; wagons, carts, carriages, and ambulances were passing and repassing in long lines through every thoroughfare, while grey-haired gentlemen “buttoned-holed” each other at street-corners, or gathered round any horseman who seemed to have lately arrived from the field. Cavalry-men galloping towards the War Office always awakened interest, and I saw [350] several couriers encircled by a crowd of idle questioners, and so pestered with inquiries that they could not dismount to breakfast for a full half-hour. Squads of prisoners, under mounted escort, were passing to and fro; in front of tobacco warehouses, just opened for their reception, long lines of prisoners stood in single file, having their names registered before entry, while the rooms and windows of all the stories were crowded with men from every branch of the service.

Hitching my horse to a lamp-post, I went into a restaurant and called for a few eggs and a small steak; for which, together with a cup of warm “rye” coffee, I was charged five dollars only I Mounting again, I lit a cigar, cursed all extortioners and usurers, and was soon on my way down the Nine Mile Road, determining to reach Gaines's Mills by passing the Chickahominy near Magruder's quarters at Garnett's Farm. When I arrived — about ten A. M.-Magruder was about to make an attack on the enemy's left centre, not more than a mile distant, and standing on one of the breastworks I could plainly see their immense line of fortifications, from which they kept up a continual discharge of shells. The Seventh, and Eighth Georgia had been sent down to attack this mammoth battery, which swept both sides of the railroad; they had driven in the outposts, and under a murderous fire, jumped into the battery; but other places to the rear opened upon them, rendering it impossible to stay there, so that they were withdrawn with considerable loss. What Magruder meant in attacking this stronghold with such a small force, unsupported,, none could imagine. It was now certain that the enemy were all on t1e south bank, and in greater force at this point (their left centre) than anywhere else; hence, to make any impression at all, required heavy forces. If this was merely a diversion, the thing is explained, but Magruder evidently did not look upon it in that light, for surrounded as he was by his own and Governor Letcher's staff, he rode about in a great fume, swearing and cursing like one half-tipsy. Nothing more was attempted during Saturday at this important point, and, except skirmishing among the pickets, all was quiet along our right, held by McLaws, Huger, and others.

As the day advanced, it became known that McClellan had withdrawn all his forces from the north bank, and that their [351] camps had fallen into our hands. To prevent any attempts to force our right, Longstreet and the Hills recrossed their divisions from Gaines's Mills, and began to march to the rear of Magruder and Huger's forces, taking up the line of march on the Charles City and Darbytown roads in the direction of James River, so as to come up with the enemy in that quarter and bring on an engagement. Early on Sunday morning it was ascertained they were in strong force to our right, on a plain of pines at a place called Frazier's Farm, about eighteen miles from Richmond, (three miles from James River and their gunboats,) occupying a line with a six miles' front, in a swampy, thickly timbered, and irregular country. To ascertain their true whereabouts, Lee sent the First North-Carolina Cavalry to reconnoitre, who plunged into their camps at break of day, and galloping to and fro in all directions, lost many men. Early on Sunday morning, also, Mississippi and Louisiana pickets at Magruder's and Huger's front were attacked in force, but instead of giving ground, drove the enemy down the roads and through the woods, into and past their breastworks, and found them to be deserted. Far from profiting by this discovery, and commencing the pursuit, these generals allowed the foe to pass across their front, instead of piercing his line of retreat by advancing down the Nine Mile road, the railroad, and the Williamsburgh road, which would have cut these forces of the enemy into so many fragments. Thus, strong forces were allowed to pass unmolested from the left to the right of the enemy, which were halted at Frazier's Farm and Malvern Hill, and caused much trouble and unnecessary destruction of life afterwards.

On Sunday afternoon, however, (twelve hours after the vacation of the enemy's breastworks had been announced by pickets,) Magruder began to move down the road in pursuit, and met with little resistance. Long lines of casemated batteries arose on every hand, all approach being protected by rifle-pits, felled timber, and other obstructions, so that it seemed McClellan had been fearful of surprise, and, instead of the “on to Richmond” movement, had prepared for a siege! Large supplies of ammunition and commissary stores were discovered on every hand, and from the number of overcoats, knapsacks, and [352] other articles lying around, it was evident they had “skedaddled” in a great hurry. In one place I saw four tiers of barrels, fifty yards square, in a blaze, scores of barrels being all strewn round, containing ground coffee, sugar, rice, molasses, salt, tea, crackers, flour, meal, etc., the heads of the barrels being broken and their contents lying on the ground. A little hut used as a post-office and news-depot contained papers, letters, United States mail-bags, account-books, stationery, and similar things, but everywhere the torch had been applied, so that as our troops advanced in line of battle they marched over red smouldering ashes.1

While our troops were thus cautiously advancing through the deserted camps, a strange phenomenon came into sight on the line of railroad from Richmond. Mr. Pearce (Government ship-builder) had constructed an iron-clad one-gun battery on the framework of a freight-truck; the front and sides being cased with thick iron plates, having timber inside eighteen inches thick, the sides and front slanting towards the top, which was open. A thirty-two pound rifle had its mouth through an embrasure in front, a well-protected locomotive shoving it forward, the driver being protected by a surrounding wall of cottonbales! Its motion was slow, for the battery weighed some sixty tons, and several shaky wooden bridges had to be crossed. Having arrived at a point where the Nine Mile Road crosses the railroad, General Griffith, of the Mississippi Brigade, was speaking to the engineer, when the enemy fired a shell at it, a fragment of which struck Griffith, and he shortly afterwards expired beneath a tree. The “Railroad Merrimac” instantly advanced, and was soon engaged in dispersing the flying enemy, its large shells exploding right and left in the woods with loud detonations.

Large columns of white sulphurous smoke now rose up into the sky, their beautiful spiral forms and broad-capped tops looking like mammoth pillars of ivory rising from the dark and distant line of timber. The enemy were destroying ammunition; but to prevent further waste of such valuables, the “Merrimac” ran along towards “Savage station,” and routed several [353] batteries drawn up to oppose its progress. The destruction caused by this single gun was very great; for, having arrived within full view of the enemy's retreat, their long lines of wagons and glitter of bayonets presented conspicuous marks for the gunners, who fired constantly on every side, inflicting much loss.

When our infantry arrived at “Savage station,” we found the enemy's rear-guard drawn up to receive us, consisting of Casey's and Sickles's men. Our troops hailed their presence with loud cheers, and commenced the attack with great fury, but the enemy seemed disinclined to prolong the contest to any length, so decamped in great haste, leaving much baggage and valuables behind, including a whole service of silver with the crest and name of “Dan Sickles” engraved thereon. Passing over the disputed ground, our men continued the pursuit until far in the night,when they changed their route towards Frazier's Farm, on the south, while Huger continued to advance towards it from the north side.

When the enemy had left their camps on the north side, however, and the Hills, together with Longstreet, had recrossed to reenforce our right, Jackson was left to pursue them on to the south side, and if possible get in their rear, so as to place them between two fires. He endeavored to cross, but the enemy held the bridge with much gallantry. Jackson, however, occupied their attention with a vigorous cannonade, while he constructed bridges higher up stream, and thus crossed his force within a few hours, on Sunday afternoon. Thus Jackson was advancing towards the enemy's right flank; Huger in their rear; Longstreet, Magruder, and the Hills on their left flank, while General Holmes was hastily endeavoring to make a long circuit round the latter, and cut off McClellan from James River. The whole country occupied and traversed by these moving armies was a mixture of swamp and sand-hills, broken up into numerous brooks, intersected by few roads, and those of such a wretched description that four men could not pass abreast in many places; and being thickly timbered, our advance was slow and tedious-artillery and wagons being far to the rear.

Where the enemy had secreted themselves in this densely [354] timbered and swampy country, none could tell; whether they had sought any of the James River landings, or pushed for the mouth of the Chickahominy, was a matter of speculation, for there were no indications of their whereabouts when we resumed the pursuit on Monday morning, (June thirtieth.) It reminded me of hunting a fox among furze-bushes; but the misery of it was, all were obliged to advance slowly, for McClellan was still superior to us in force, and it was possible that over-haste might bring us suddenly upon him, drawn up in battle array, before we could arrange our scattered forces for defence. 2 Such tedious, slow, fatiguing marching I never [355] before witnessed, over flints and rocks or heavy sand: our columns creeping along through the timber, now halting, then advancing, and halting again-first forming line of battle, and then resuming the march, under a scorching sun, along dusty roads, with clouds of sand getting into the eyes and mouths of the men, who were not allowed to leave the ranks even to get a canteen of water. Sometimes couriers dashed past to the rear, saying, “We've found 'em!” --advanced artillery would throw a few shell; a short silence; and the slow, snail-like motion of our columns would recommence.

It was said the enemy were in force at Frazier's farm-Huger approached in the rear of this place, and we in front, so that if the fox was found, dispositions seemed perfected for running him down. Fortune, however, is variable, and we had wearily marched far towards evening, ere we received any tidings of the ubiquitous McClellan, retreating through the forests by narrow by-paths. It was now generally considered he had made good his escape, and that all our toil was in vain; for even had we overtaken him, many thought it a dangerous undertaking to attack his masses with one or two exhausted divisions, as it was certain he would open the fight with his extreme left-troops that had marched but little and were entirely fresh, under the immediate command of Heintzelman and McCall.

1 Major Bloomfield, of Magruder's staff, found an immense Federal flag in these camps, which McClellan had received from New-England ladies, to whom he promised that many days should not elapse ere it floated in triumph over the captured capital at Richmond!

2 A leading journal remarked on this subject:

Those who have not understood the delay in bringing the retreating McClellan to decisive battle, would need no further explanation than a simple view of the scene of operations. The country is level and covered with almost unbroken forests, filled with dense undergrowth, and interspersed with swamps. There are but few places where one can see a hundred yards around him. McClellan had therefore admirable opportunities for concealment. It must be borne in mind, also, that his army is very strong and well appointed; and under the pressure now upon them, his men are exhibiting more than their ordinary courage. McClellan is doubtless fighting with his best troops and bravest generals, and is exerting the utmost energy, under the most powerful of motives. Under these circumstances it is necessary to be very circumspect, lest our pursuit leads us into a murderous ambuscade, for which such a country affords many opportunities. We have to hunt McClellan on each morning, after his night's retreats, as men hunt tigers in their lair and the jungle.

Hence it is, that for several days past, the morning has been consumed in reconnoitring after the fugitive McClellan, and finding out his new position; and the battle that should ensue has been delayed till evening. Morning returns to find McClellan gone again, when a fresh hunt takes place.

But the danger that McClellan may receive such supports as might extricate him from his present dilemma, creates a great desire to see him at once brought to extremity. Already there are rumors that reenforcements have arrived in James River. We doubt much, however, whether effectual help can be brought in time to save him. Our latest Northern papers (June twenty-seventh) state that Fremont's, McDowell's, and Banks's command are to be consolidated under General Pope, and sent to reenforce McClellan. A division of McDowell's troops under General McCall is stated, on the same authority, to have already joined McClellan at that date; and this was doubtless true, for McCall has arrived.

Our generals fully share the universal desire to put final victory beyond the reach of contingency, by securing it at once, and have put forth their utmost diligence to accomplish this result. Those who murmur at the delay do but murmur at the wilderness of the Chickahominy and its bogs and swamps. If the deferring of our hopes shall, however, result in the accomplishment of our grand object by the simple blockade of McClellan, we shall have occasion to rejoice that it has occurred. Every additional day multiplies the terror of McClellan's condition, and puts him more and more in our power.

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

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

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
George B. McClellan (20)
Magruder (10)
J. E. B. Stuart (5)
Stonewall Jackson (5)
Benjamin Huger (5)
Longstreet (4)
Robert E. Lee (4)
James McCall (3)
Dan Sickles (2)
Fitz-John Porter (2)
Merrimac (2)
McDowell (2)
Griffith (2)
Sykes (1)
John Pope (1)
Pearce (1)
McLaws (1)
Letcher (1)
Holmes (1)
Hogan (1)
D. H. Hill (1)
Heintzelman (1)
Fremont (1)
Frazier (1)
Casey (1)
Bloomfield (1)
N. P. Banks (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June 30th (1)
June 27th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: