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Chapter 26:

  • Battle of the Chickahominy, or “seven pines”
  • -- the plan of battle -- annihilation of the enemy's left -- loss of either army -- General Johnston wounded.

On Friday, the thirtieth of May, our camps presented nothing unusual, nor were any movements in progress that indicated the early commencement of hostilities. During the night, a thunderstorm of unusual violence shook the heavens, and rain fell so heavily that the whole face of the country was deluged with water. The men in camp were exposed to all the violence of the storm, and the roads were rendered impassable, with mud three feet deep. The enemy were even worse off than ourselves, as the bottom lands at the head of the Chickahominy were flooded, and the stream itself much swollen. Active operations on their right were impossible.

Early in the morning (Saturday, May thirty-first) it was whispered that Johnston intended attacking their left; but in answer to the inquiry, “In such weather?” it was answered that the bridges were washed away, rendering it impossible for McClellan to send over any of his right and centre to the assistance of his left, and that a large force would be thrown against his left, effectually crushing it before reenforced. Huger's division, it was understood, was to move down the Charles City road, (our extreme right,) and thus outflank and turn the enemy's left, while Longstreet pushed our right down the Williamsburgh road, (two miles from Huger,) and Whiting advanced his division near, and down the railroad, (our right centre,) thus hotly engaging the enemy at three points. As I have already said, it was impossible for McClellan's right and right centre to be engaged, the bridges having been washed away by the floods.

I was informed of the intended movement at six A. M., was soon in the saddle and away, since the opening fire was to come [238] from Huger at eight o'clock. The affair was not known to any in town, but as I saw heavy columns of troops moving towards the Charles City road, I spurred along through the mud, and soon came up with the infantry advance of Longstreet toiling through the mire on the Williamsburgh road. Regiments and brigades occupied woods on each side the road, ready for orders to move, but hour after hour passed, and no gun from Huger told of his whereabouts. The heavens were surcharged with clouds, rain-drops fell thickly, and from the unusual silence of pickets to the front, I supposed the action had been postponed. I saw Longstreet and others were mortified at Huger's slowness; President Davis, and members of his Cabinet, seemed perplexed, and rode from point to point, anxiously expecting to hear Huger's guns open; but when, near noon, it was ascertained he was not yet in position, Longstreet determined to open the action and fight it alone. Our whole front was occupied with thick woods on marshy ground, the water in many places being two feet deep. I cast my eye to the rear, and saw brigades forming battle line in the woods: a courier dashed up the road, and soon after the chain of pickets began to “pop” rapidly in the front, a large body of sharpshooters dashed across the open in skirmishing order, entered the timber to the right and left of the road, and ere many minutes were rapidly firing in the front.

Now began the slow advance of our regiments through the woods in support, and a few pieces of artillery were endeavoring to push up to the front through the frightful depth of mud. Horses were lashed and goaded, but all to no purpose; artillerymen were up to their middle in mire, tugging at long ropes, but their progress was very slow indeed; for the gullies, holes, pools, and rocks, threatened to capsize them at every turn. The enemy were reported in strong force at Barker's Farm, a large open tract about a mile distant, and well protected by a series of well-mounted redoubts and field-works.

As soon as our pickets had advanced and begun to skirmish, they were met by several regiments to the left of the road, but immediately a finely drilled regiment of North-Carolinians (the “Fourth” ) advanced up the road at “double-quick!” took the enemy in flank, delivered a volley, and dispersed them. This cleared the way, and our regiments were slowly advancing [239] through the woods, up to their middle in mud and water, having to brush off occasionally a cloud of skirmishers that disputed their passage. Casey, who commanded the Federals at Barker's Farm, was heavily reenforced by several brigades, and seemed inclined not to dispute our advance very vigorously until we emerged from the woods into the open farm, and in front of his earthworks and batteries. His pieces then opened fire with shell, but not one of ours could be brought to the front to reply, so that shot and canister were tearing through the woods, and inflicting considerable loss upon us.

The North-Carolinians, having dispersed the first body of the enemy, marched into the woods on the left of the road, and advanced on Barker's Farm comparatively covered; Mississippians and others having worked their way through the swamp, did the same to the right. No attempt was made by our troops to advance far along the road, for hostile batteries swept its entire length through the farm. When our advance, therefore, had arrived at the edge of the woods, the open space in front was seen covered with troops, several batteries at the same time blazing away and rendering all advance impracticable. General D. H. Hill commanded on the right, and Brigadier-General Anderson the left of the road; but until their whole force could come up, they ordered their men to lie down for a short time, and allow the shell and grape-shot to pass harmlessly over them. Hill was impatient to begin, but, as the line was not formed, he obeyed the advice of his men, and dismounted, but, instead of going to the rear, he quietly leaned upon his horse's neck, and criticised the enemy's fire.

As the various brigades moved into line, driving all before them, our line of fire seemed to be more than a mile in extent, though Huger and Whiting, on the right and left, had not yet used a cartridge. The enemy now began to move forward his infantry, mistaking our inaction for indecision, but was severely punished; for as our men received orders they moved forward in solid line, presenting an unbroken sheet of musketry fire. As there were no earthworks to the right and left of our advance, it was determined to flank and attack their centre.

One of our batteries now opportunely appeared in the open, and beginning to work vigorously, drew upon it the fire of the enemy. Taking advantage of this, several of our regiments [240] crept through the low brushwood in front of the redoubt, and at a given signal from the flanking parties, made a rush for the guns, cleared them, and, entering pell-mell into the earthwork, bayoneted all who opposed them. The guns, both inside and outside the work, were all captured.

Rapidly re-forming, though under fire of new works which opened in all directions, we once more advanced, and this we did again and again on various points, until about 3 P. M., when the battle raged with great fury. Additional pieces were arriving to assist us, but their progress was very slow on account of the roads, which were beyond all description boggy, and broken by immense mud-puddles, half drowning the unfortunate cannoniers, and upsetting caissons and ambulances. It was impossible, of course, to go through the woods, and as Casey's first line of defence was broken, troops and ammunition wagons were all moving to and fro along this one miserable narrow road in the greatest confusion. The enemy's position and camps, to my great surprise, I found comparatively dry, the water having drained off. Pleased with the firm, level ground, our mud-covered men of the Lynchburgh battery now lashed their horses into a gallop, and dashed off through Casey's camps to the front with a wild cheer.

The line formed by our men now advancing through and past the camps to attack fresh positions, which vomited shell and grape upon us, was truly magnificent. I recognized Anderson, with Louisianians, North-Carolinians, etc.; Jenkins with his South-Carolinians; Wilcox and Pryor, with Mississippians and Alabamians. Floridans, Mississippians, and Georgians had opened the fight, and, after resting, were advancing again; so that when their unearthly yells rang from wing to wing, the enemy stopped firing for a moment, and suddenly reopened again with terrific fury. Their vigorous onslaught told plainly that Casey had brought up Sedgwick, Palmer, and other divisions, and was calculating much upon the impassability of abattis that covered the front of his batteries and earthworks. Busy as I was, dashing about from point to point, it was impossible to learn what regiments were yelling so much in this place, or keeping up such incessant musketry fire in that; all that I could perceive was, that their masses of infantry, though brought into action with much ability, precision, and neatness, never pretended to [241] offer us much resistance, but gradually fell back, or broke into confusion after a few volleys, when our men yelled and charged. Their resistance, however, was much stouter than at first, and they did not seem to place so much reliance on their earthworks, which now successively fell into our hands, with scores of dead lying in and around them in all directions.

It was now about four o'clock, and Longstreet's corps, under D. H. Hill, had driven the enemy a mile through their camps, capturing prisoners, stores, cannon, flags, redoubts, and whole camps of tents still standing. Still the fight continued with great fury. In fact, the attack down the Williamsburgh road had been so vigorously pushed that we were far in advance of our general line, and our attack seemed to be triangular, Whiting and Huger having attempted nothing right or left. It was apparent also that we had progressed too far, and the enemy pushed forward a large force, against which our exhausted men could not successfully contend. Determined to hold the ground until reenforced, our troops occupied several of the enemy's field-works, turned the captured guns upon them, and by murderous discharges of musketry succeeded in checking their advance. By this time it was nearly dark, and General Johnston determined to move up Whiting on the left, in order to draw off some portion of the enemy's force. This movement relieved the pressure on Longstreet and Hill, who, reenforced and rested, advanced again, and drove the enemy entirely off Barker's Farm and the surrounding openings into the woods.

Whiting's attack now absorbed their whole attention. As we had advanced too far from our general line, they thought to attack Longstreet on the left flank and rear; but this was anticipated, and retiring with loss, they paid undivided attention to Whiting, who was advancing through the woods parallel with and not far from the railroad. It was much too late for this attack to have been begun, and the approach of darkness made any important result impossible. Cannonading, however, went on fiercely, and it was deemed possible that a large battery in the woods might fall into our hands; but the space all around it had been cleared of timber, and the ground was so swampy that the work seemed to be placed on a small island. The Tennesseeans moved forward and drove back the infantry; our artillery progressed slowly up a miry lane, and were compelled to fight [242] at every turn. Johnston and his staff rode to the front, and while ordering an attack, a battery opened from a thicket, and a piece of shell wounded him severely in the groin: the shock stunned him, he fell from his horse, broke two of his ribs, and was conveyed from the field with little hope of recovery.

The Tennesseeans charged through the woods, dispersing the infantry, and advancing to the battery through water up to their middle, took it, but had to retire for want of support. By this time it had become so dark that it was impossible to proceed farther; the flash of artillery was incessant; shells screamed through the air in luminous flight, and, bursting, made a beautiful pyrotechnic display; but it was impossible for our infantry to feel their way in the gloom. The enemy's musketry flashed in the darkness like sheets of flame; but their fire, except in so far as it served to protect the flanks of their batteries, was a mere waste of ammunition. Keyes commanded the Federals at this point, and had prepared his line with great precision and care ;1 but had Whiting commenced earlier, there can be no doubt he would have driven them on a line with Longstreet's advance down the Williamsburgh road. As it was, the latter officer, with Hill as coadjutor, had made a fearful gap in the left wing of the enemy, but without producing any decisive result. We had gained a battle, but nothing more.

As I rode down through the enemy's camps, gazing at the destruction on every side, I met Franks, one of Longstreet's aids, looking as blue as indigo. “What's the matter, Franks? Not satisfied with the day's work?” I inquired. “Satisfied, be hanged!” he replied. “I saw old Jeff, (Davis,) Mallory, Longstreet, Whiting, and all of them, a little while ago, looking as mad as thunder. Just to think that Huger's slowness has spoiled every thing! There he has been on our right all day and hasn't fired a shot, although he had positive orders to open the fight at eight o'clock this morning. It is true that Longstreet and Hill fought magnificently, as they always do, and [243] have gained a brilliant victory; but had Huger obeyed orders, we should have demolished the enemy; as it is, their left is routed and demoralized, and we have gained nothing more substantial than a brilliant battle, when it was intended to have embraced an attack at three points, and all along the line, if the enemy accepted it. Johnston is wounded, you know, but is awfully mad about the miscarriage of his plans; the doctors say he will recover. Just to think that our best generals will poke themselves in the front-Sydney Johnston was lost in that way, and I have seen both Longstreet and Hill foolishly riding in front of the enemy not less than a dozen times to-day. Hill must be a shadow or an immortal, for he exposed himself often enough to get his quietus a dozen times to-day.” My friend rode away towards Richmond, and I to the captured camp.

Teams were already hauling away cannon, stores, tents, and other booty; ambulances by the dozen were slowly moving off to the rear; while stretcher-bearers, in long, solemn procession, conveyed away the wounded men to temporary field-hospitals. Lamps flitted about in all directions, camp-fires were burning, and men cooking supper from the abundance of all things found in tents and commissary stores. General Casey's effects were all seized, including his wardrobe and private papers. His mess-table stood, as it had been left ready for dinner; the plates and cups untouched; beds, bedding, camp furniture, desks, clothing, arms, provisions, stationery, and all things in abundance were found, including a hundred barrels of whisky, which had already been tapped, and half emptied by our weary men. Prisoners were coming in every minute; dead and wounded lined the roads, or lay scattered through the fields and woods, and, as night advanced, their moaning was distressing to hear. Every thing of use or value was soon conveyed to the rear, and long before morning little remained on Barker's farm, save the wounded, the dying, and the dead, piles of old clothes, and general rubbish unfit to be conveyed away. Our own wounded were rapidly conveyed to Richmond by ambulances, private carriages, and the railroad-trains, which ran all night without interruption.

As morning approached, every thing was prepared for the reception of the enemy, should they advance; but General [244] Pryor and others, who held the battle-field, were ordered to fall back to our original position, should they attack in force. Several who deserted the enemy under cover of the darkness, informed us that Heintzelman, Sumner, and others had arrived; the former being second in command to McClellan, who was also present, and intended to “push” us. When morning broke, the pickets opened in a lively manner upon each other, and the attack began. Pryor's troops were of such excellent metal that they refused to fall back, and it was not until after they had thrashed twice their own number, and were in danger of being flanked, that they quietly fell back across the farm. The enemy did not follow; and Pryor's men sullenly occupied their old ground, south of the battle-field; none but a strong picket-guard being left to hold the place. Next morning (Monday) the enemy occupied Casey's camp-ground again, but betrayed no inclination to accept our invitations to advance nearer Richmond.

While this was progressing on Sunday, down the Williamsburgh road, the enemy endeavored to dislodge Whiting's advance, near the railroad, from the ground captured the evening before. A lively fight was the consequence, during which our forces withdrew to their original lines, whither the enemy dared not follow. This latter skirmish was productive of little good, and we lost several promising regimental officers, including the brave Lomax, Colonel of the Third Alabama Volunteers-a man whose brilliant promise was worth a hundred such combats. If Huger had been tardy in his movements down the Charles City road on Saturday, he was stirring and lively enough on Whiting's left in this fight, and must have marched his men unmercifully through the mud. He looked hale and hearty, and laughed good-humoredly as his advance moved into the woods, preparatory to the engagement. His attack, however, was countermanded, and the whole line assumed its original position, to lie idly on their arms for another month.

Our army seemed little affected by this victory; it did not cause any confusion or laxity whatever, and except for about half a mile square, in the vicinity of the Williamsburgh road, there was little to disturb the peace and quiet of our lines in the sunshine of Sunday morning. Except for the ambulances and carriages, conveying away the wounded to Richmond, there [245] was little to indicate the slaughter of twelve thousand Federals the day before. Our own actual loss was not more than a third of that number, incredible as it may seem.2 There was much inquiry among the soldiers at other parts of the line regarding the particulars of the engagement, but the victory was looked [246] upon as a matter of course. Notwithstanding the vigilance of guards, many persons from Richmond rode out to see the field, but invariably brought something for the wounded, and took one or more to town in their conveyances; oftentimes providing for them in their homes, tending them with paternal care, and paying private surgeons to treat them rather than allow them to be roughly handled in the Government hospitals. Too much praise cannot be bestowed on the noble-hearted Virginians, male and (particularly) female, who were ever ready with open arms to succor the poor, ragged, bleeding Southern boy, fresh from the field of victory; for had many of us been sons rather than strangers to them, their care, comforts, watchfulness, and Christian charity could not have been greater. The loving care and kindness bestowed on our unprepossessing, ragged soldiery can never be effaced from the memory of any who saw it on this and numerous other trying occasions.

1 General Erastus D. Keyes, United States army, is from the State of Maine; entered the service as brevet Second Lieutenant Third Artillery, July first, 1832; and in 1861 was Major First Artillery, commission dating October twelfth;1858. He has risen rapidly during the war, and is about forty-five years of age. His division behaved well at “Seven pines,” and although General Whiting assailed it furiously, was so well placed and projected by batteries that all our efforts were of little avail.

2 General Johnston says in his report: “We took ten pieces of cannon, six thousand stand of arms, one garrison flag, four stand of regimental colors, a large number of tents, besides much camp equipage and stores. Our loss was four thousand two hundred and eighty-two killed, wounded and missing; that of the enemy is stated by their journals to have been ten thousand, although, no doubt, that figure is far below the truth.”

In the following address, the President, from his own personal observation and his past career, has shown himself to be a judge of good fighting, for none have fought more bravely than himself. Such testimony and such praise will appeal gratefully to the feelings and pride of our army, and will excite still more that affectionate gratitude for them which animates our whole land. For no halting testimony and no niggard praise does the President pay our heroes: “Nothing could exceed the prowess with which you closed upon the enemy, when a sheet of fire was blazing in your faces!” Noble men! The President says, he can neither ask nor desire any thing better:

Executive Office, June 2d, 1862.
to the army of Richmond.
I render to you my grateful acknowledgments for the gallantry and good con. duct you displayed in the battles of the thirty-first of May, and with pride and pleasure recognize the steadiness and intrepidity with which you attacked the enemy in position, captured his advance intrenchments, several batteries of artillery and many standards, and everywhere drove him from the open field.

At a part of your operations it was my fortune, to be present. On no other occasion have I witnessed more of calmness and good order than you exhibited while advancing into the very jaws of death, and nothing could surpass the prowess with which you closed upon the enemy when a sheet of fire was blazing in your faces!

In the struggle in which you are on the eve of engaging, I ask, and can desire, but a continuance of the same conduct which now attracts the admiration and pride of the loved ones you have left at home.

You are fighting for all that is dearest to men; and though opposed to a foe who disregards many of the usages of civilized war, your humanity to the wounded and the prisoners was the fit and crowning glory to your valor.

Defenders of a just cause, may God have you in his keeping. Jefferson Davis.
The General will cause the above to be read to the troops under his command.

The following, printed in extremely large type, appeared, by General Butler's orders, in his organ, the New-Orleans Delta, June twelfth, 1862: “On May thirty-first, Richmond was evacuated, and General McClellan took possession of the city! General Banks had driven Stonewall Jackson headlong to the foot of General McDowell, who before this had probably kicked him over the border. So end the drama!-it is enough” (!) Comment is unnecessary.

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