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Chapter 36:

  • Pursuit of McClellan continued
  • -- battle of Frazier's Farm, June thirtieth -- terrific fighting -- total rout of the enemy -- capture of Major -- General McCall -- precarious position of General Hill -- his genius and daring -- Gossip with a Contraband.

It was now about half-past 5 P. M., and the sun was fast sinking behind the woods, when Ambrose Hill's column halted; cannonading was plainly heard on our left, in front, from the supposed route of Huger, and couriers brought word that the Federals were disputing his passage across a creek. To our front the roads ascended, with a few fields on either hand, and among the timber on the high ground I saw small spiral columns of light-blue smoke ascending, which assured us that troops of some kind were there. Shortly after wards a few musket-shots were heard in that direction, and some of the cavalry came galloping down towards us with the news that the enemy occupied the open high lands constituting “Frazier's Farm,” five miles north-east of Darbytown, on the Newmarket road. The place was represented as good for defence; the woods right and left of it swarmed with skirmishers; the ascending grade of the road was swept by cannon, while all attempts to flank their left would meet with broadsides from the gunboats at Curl's Neck, in the James River, two and a half miles distant.

Nothing daunted, Hill sent word to the rear for our artillery to hurry forward, and immediately commenced his advance. Throwing our regiments to the right and left of the road, in skirmishing order, a lively fire soon ensued, the enemy gradually giving ground before us. This system was pursued by them until we had traversed half a mile, when we came upon their first line of infantry, and fighting commenced in earnest. Sixteen guns now began to belch forth shell, canister, and grape upon us with a stunning roar, and the only battery we [357] had upon the ground could not be brought into position to reply. Yet never wavering or halting, our various regiments pressed forward under an incessant storm of lead. To add to our horrors, the gunboats of the enemy now threw immense shells at us, which tore off the tops of the trees, and so entangled our feet with the debris that it was like advancing over felled timber. Such monster shells I never saw. At the same time, long iron bolts, continually tearing through the timber, looked like small lamp-posts.

Still, “onward” was the word, and heroically did our wearied men rush forward to contend with the fresh and untouched divisions of the enemy. Now driven back, fresh troops poured in to take their place, and our men continually found themselves opposed to several “reliefs,” ere any other of our regiments came up. But once hand-to-hand with infantry, and out of the way of cannon, our fellows advanced manfully to the contest, and soon smashed up their first line of defence. Drawing artillery from our front into the middle of their camps, so as to sweep the rising ground, a second line confronted us, and the fighting was even more terrible than before. Volleys upon volleys streamed across our front, and in such quick succession, that it seemed impossible for any human being to live under it. Our firing was quick but irregular; and the men, as usual, proved such adepts with the rifle, that officers were tumbled over every moment.

Footing having been secured on the high ground, the struggle was more equal, and the whole scene was observable at a glance. We were in the timber, on the edge of the field, whereon Frazier's house stands-woods to our left, right, and front, whence the enemy in strong force poured incessant volleys upon any who dared approach their guns, now in full play in the open fields. When our line was re-formed, however, and the wings began to press forward, Featherstone, Pryor, and Wilcox pushed the centre vigorously, and the first-named, making a rush for the guns, seized them, but had to fall back under the fire of a heavy force, and suffered much. Wilcox and Pryor performed prodigies of valor with their exhausted brigades, yet McCall's resources seemed to have no limit, for as soon as one regiment was vanquished another was pushed forward in its place, so that it required [358] great efforts to drive them back. Featherstone and Fields made another dash at their batteries, but were so shattered they could not hold them. At last, after resting some time, these two commanders rushed at them again, and secured the guns beyond all hope of redemption, for our whole line advanced simultaneously with loud yells, and drove the enemy handsomely from the field about half-past 8 P. M., after one of the most stoutly contested battles through which we had as yet passed.

Pushing our column forward again, we followed up the enemy's retreat, and did not halt until they were driven more than a mile; but although frequently assailing us in the darkness, it was only for a few moments, for our troops invariably charged upon them, but seldom firing. While our advance was pushing forward, and the enemy's gunboats lit up the heavens with vivid flashes, and shell and iron bolts whizzed and screamed through the air, tearing down the trees like things of pasteboard, a singular incident occurred in the captured camps round Frazier's house. Some Virginia and other troops were leaning on the guns, and conversing about the battle, when a party of horsemen rode up, the chief of whom said: “Who guard these guns?” “We do,” was the answer. “That's right, boys,” was the pleasant reply; “don't let them fall into the hands of the enemy; heavy reenforcements will arrive shortly. What brigade are you?” inquired the speaker, for it was so dark nothing could be distinguished. “Forty-seventh Virginia!” was the quick reply. Two of the horsemen turned to flee; but our men detecting the mistake they had made, fired and killed them; the third person, whom they arrested, proved to be no other than Major-General James McCall, United States Army, one of those who had commanded in the engagement.

Though late in the night, the enemy determined to make another effort for the recovery of the guns and battle-field, so that while our column moved ahead, unmindful of further danger, a. flash of light broke upon their path, revealing the enemy again drawn up in battle array, supported by fresh artillery. Fatigued as we were, from marching over twenty miles, and fighting for several hours, this apparition of the enemy [359] again appearing to our front, with fresh troops, seemed to dishearten all, for it was now ten P. M., and dark as Erebus. Fighting in the woods is unpleasant at any time, stumbling over fallen timber and stumps; but to find an enemy excellently posted on well-known ground at ten o'clock on a moonless night, with swampy timber on either hand, and a solitary, dusty road to retreat by, and no artillery in support, was sufficient to appall the best of troops; much more so a body of men who had travelled more than twenty miles on a hot and dusty road, without refreshment, and had but just been relieved from a four hours contest.

Surprised but not discouraged, our men rapidly formed, under a storm of shot, and taking aim at the stream of fire before them, stubbornly contested the ground inch by inch, and sullenly fell back in admirable order, fighting as they went. Thinking to annihilate our small band of heroes, and recapture all that had been lost, this fresh corps of the enemy now advanced with loud cheers; but our fire was so accurate and well-timed that they soon slackened their pace, and moved forward more cautiously. The position of General Hill was precarious in the extreme. His division was badly shattered by the previous fight, and he was fully a mile from the battle-field, and obliged to accept another engagement. Holding his ground, he sent for reenforcements; none were within several miles of the spot. Remembering the heroes of Wilcox and other generals who had fought with such fury a few hours before, but were now resting in the rear, he dashed off, and, finding them re-forming, hurriedly explain. ed how matters stood; his appeal was answered with deafening yells. Running forward at the “double-quick,” these Spartans began to yell more loudly the nearer they approached the scene of conflict; when it was found that the cheering of the Yankees had subsided, and that they were in full retreat again, fort thinking our unearthly noises proceeded from a fresh division advancing to the attack, they were 10th to engage them; slinking off in the darkness, they did not fire another shot.

It was fortunate for Hill that the enemy did retire; for although he had handsomely whipped them in the first engagement, and bravely held his ground against their fresh divisions in this last encounter, it was not possible he could have [360] successfully withstood them with his few torn and wearied brigades, had they been sufficiently courageous to push their temporary advantage. With his men under arms, therefore, and excellently posted, he remained in position nearly an hour, expecting other demonstrations in his front; but all was still, until the distant tramp and shouts of Magruder's division agreeably broke upon the ear, as they gaily marched upon the scene, and relieved him of all further anxiety. Gathering the remnants of his gallant division, almost decimated by continual hard-fought engagements, Hill retired to the rear to recruit and re-form, while Magruder's men bivouacked in the enemy's camps, among guns, prisoners, and spoil; their hearts pained by the heartrending cries of the wounded and dying. The scene upon this, as upon all battle-fields, was truly painful and horrible. The engagement had been obstinately contested, and was a bloody one; for placed as the enemy were upon rising ground, well protected by artillery, every inch had been stoutly contested, and was marked by prostrate bodies of friend and foe.

When the engagement commenced it was not expected that Hill would be left to maintain the contest alone. It was thought that Huger1 would have fallen upon the enemy's rear; but, as usual, that commander was behind time, and Hill, as a consequence, was almost annihilated. It was said that Huger would have arrived in time to assist in the sanguinary contest, but on the way found the enemy had destroyed the bridge over a [361] creek, and hotly disputed his passage with many guns. An artillery duel ensued, in which we vanquished them. Our cavalry rode over to secure the pieces, but were met by a strong force of infantry and obliged to return. Hearing the firing at Frazier's, the Federal commander retreated, after delaying Huger more than five hours, and joined forces with McCall against the heroic Hill.

Had not Hill's division been made of steel, rather than flesh and blood, they could not have withstood the many hardships of these trying days, for after fighting desperately at Mechanicsville on Thursday, they marched to Gaines's Mills and fought five hours on Friday; rested part of Saturday; travelled a circuitous route and a terrible road of forty miles on Sunday and Monday, achieving another brilliant victory, unassisted, against great odds! Hill, however, is a general of genius, and had it not been for the scientific handling of his men, few would have slept uninjured on the torn and bloody field on Monday night. All were prostrated with fatigue, and lay on the ground without fires, or covering, or food, too weary to think of any thing but rest.

To show the character of the fighting. for the past few days, I will merely state that when Featherstone's and other brigades went into action on Friday morning, each mustered an. aggregate of from two to three thousand men, but when returns were made late on Monday night, they could not muster more than from five hundred to one thousand fit for duty! Colonels, majors, and captains without number were absent on the rolls — a few killed, the majority wounded, and several sick! Such mortality could not be long sustained; yet though we suffered considerably under the many disadvantages of ground, insufficient force, and the absence of artillery, I must again affirm, from a close inspection of the field, that the enemy's loss doubled ours, not including the hundreds of prisoners, thousands of small arms, and many cannon captured. Singular as this may seem, such is the fact,, attested by all who were eye-witnesses of this and-other engagements, and if there is one cause more than another to which it is attributable, it was undoubtedly owing to the visible protection of a just and protecting God!

On either side of the road, through the thickly growing [362] forests of sedged pines, lamps and lights were flitting through the night, where dead and wounded lay in scores. Most of the fighting had taken place in the timber, and deep marks in the light sandy soil, with bodies of friends and foes scattered in profusion, told where regiment had met regiment in the shade, and rushed together in the deadly shock of battle. Standing near Frazier's house and looking towards Richmond, the land gradually falls, but at this spot more abruptly; so that the enemy drawn up in battle array on the open farm, screened from sight by timber on all sides, had an unbroken view of our approach, and could tear us with their heavy batteries, no matter how we might manoeuvre, while from the river came mammoth shell and iron bolts from their gunboats, snapping the trees as if they were matches. This selection of ground again shows the genius of McClellan; but it also fully demonstrates to all, that though superior in numbers, transportation, and materiel, he declined meeting us openly with any thing like equal numbers. The whole army had long desired a fair fight in open ground-we had frequently proffered it, though of inferior force-but this long-desired equality we never enjoyed; had we done so, all would have willingly placed their hopes and expectations on a single battle, fully convinced that we could vanquish them in less than an hour. On the contrary, this vaunted army, on which so much care and treasure had been lavished-this General McClellan, who was “pushing us to the wall,” and gaining new “victories” every day!-rears breastworks on every hand to protect his army against “a few miserable rebels,” who assail him in his strongholds, destroy his right wing in two days, rout his centre on another, and close up with his rear-guard in the very face of his gunboats! Still they shout with stentorian lungs, “On to Richmond!” “Victory! Victory!” “Another great battle! another big smash — up of the rebels!” etc.

Truly this battle was more than an ordinary one, all things considered, and will prove the never-fading honor of Hill, if the impetuous spirit of that gallant soldier does not meet with an untimely fate. He was everywhere among the men, leading and cheering them on in his quiet and determined manner. He saw the overwhelming numbers with which they had to contend, but calmly planning his designs, he was fiery in the [363] execution of them, giving counsel, as if in private life, but mounting his horse and dashing to the front whenever his battalions began to swerve before the masses of the enemy. Discovering their weakest point, he assailed it with fury, and ordering up the whole line, led them into the conquered camps, hat in hand, and never rested a moment until the enemy were driven a mile beyond! Nor was he contented then, for knowing the value of time, he pushed his advance far ahead, and so punished the enemy that they recalled a whole army corps to arrest his ardent progress.

Returned from viewing as much of the field as was possible in the darkness, I observed a light in Frazier's house, from which also there was smoke ascending. Feeling somewhat cold, I entered, and, as I expected, found it occupied by many of the wounded. Before the fire sat a middle-aged negro wrapped in a blanket and shivering.

“What's amiss, uncle?” I inquired, taking a coal and lighting my pipe.

“De Lor bress you, massa — de chills, de chills, sar!”

Supposing a little liquor would not hurt him, I gave him a drink, as also to the wounded, as far as it went.

“ Were you here, uncle, during the fight?” I asked, taking a stool.

No, sar!-dis chile was in de woods! de best place, I tink, when dem ar bullets come a whistlin‘ and singin‘ roun‘ yer head. Was I scart, eh? I tink I was scart — it was worse nor half a dozen starts to dis darkie. Well, you see, massa, it was dis way. When ole massa hert de Lincumbites was comin‘ round‘ dese diggins, “ Pete,” says he, “I'se gwine to Richmon‘, an‘ I wants you ter see to things, an‘ mine de Lincumbites don't run off with any thing; dey won't hurt you,” says he, “but if dey only catches me, I'm a gone chicken!” Well, massa, one ebenin‘, while I eat supper, up comes a whole lot of Lincumbites, and says dey, “ Where's de master, nigger?” “In Richmon‘,” says I, an' went on eatina; but a big fellow says to me, “Hi, nigger, you're wanted out here,” an' I went out. “How many chickens has yer got? ” says one. “ Who's dem turkeys ‘long to?” says another. “If yer don't bring me out some milk I'll burst yer head,” says some one in de crowd. “Pull dat bed out here,” [364] says some one. “ Tuch him up wid de bayonet,” cried another, an' ‘kase I couldn't begin to speak to 'em all, somebody kicks me on the shin, and I runs in de house. One of de men wid traps on shoulders next comes, and makes 'em kind oa quiet, but I finds out dey hab taken my supper, and de bed, an' de chairs, and didn't leave me my ole pipe!

Ef dis is de Union folks, tinks I, dey won't suit dis darkie, sure! so after dey stole all de chickens, and de turkeys, and cabbage and taters, I tought it was about time for dis chile to leave. So I packs up two or tree things in a yaller handkercher, and puts out. “Halt, dar!” says a big feller wid a gun. “Where's you gwine, darkie? ” “I'm gwine to Richmon” , “ says I, ” to massa, to get somethin‘ to eat. “ ” Oh! yer tick-head nigger, “ says he, ” doesn't yer know we'se d! Grate Liberation army ob de Norf, an' come to set all de niggers free? “ ” I'se a free colored pussun, any how, “ says I, ” an “ kin go anywhere I'se a mind,” says I; an' was goin‘ to pass him, when he hits me wid de gun, and two soldyers seizes me by the scruff ob de neck, an' hauls me up before de kernel.

“Where did you find this colored feller? ” says he, smoking a cigar, big like, and frowing out his legs. “Where did you cotch de conterbran‘?” says another, “drinkin‘ whiskey. I guess dese unfortunate peoples don't know de blessin‘ of de Union, an' de ole flag!” “I'se a free man, sar,” says I. “Hole yer tongue,” says he, getting kind oa red; “if dese people don't know de blessin‘ ob liberty, an' don't ‘preciate us, dey must be taught, dat's all! Is dar no diggin‘ to be done, captin?” says he to another one lyin‘ on a bed. “I guess so,” says he, “ dare's nofing like it.” “ Take him off to de guard house, sargent,” says he, and kase I said, “I'se free,” de sargent begins an' kicks de clof out ob my pants. An‘ dare dey hab me, massa, more nor a week, diggin‘ ebery day, an' feeding “ me an' lots of other darkies on black beans an' pork massa's hogs won't eat. But when I hear de firing” goin‘ on--“now's de tithe for dis chile,” says I, and I gets out ob de way rite smart for an ole darky. Fust I gets to de right, but de bullets fly so mighty thick I runs off somewhat else; den one ob dem big screechin‘ things comes along, an' I begins to say my prayers mighty fast; den while I lay b'hind a tree, our folks comes up, makin‘ big noise, an' I lays bery [365] close to the groun‘; but which way I go, it seems as if some darned bullet was chuckin‘ in to me, so I gets mighty scart, an' runs clar into de swamp, and dar I stays until jist now, when I crawls home agin‘ shiverin‘ in ebery joint! Nobody talk to me, massa, of de Norf. I knows how it is-dey only wants to work de life out ob de colored folks, an' den dey gives 'em deir “free papers,” to let 'em starve when dere's no more bressworks to dig. Dey can't fool dis chile — h knows more nor he wishes to know about deir Grate Norfern Libratin‘ Union army; but ef all de darkies are done to as dey did to dis pussun, de darkies better stay wid ole massa, an' lib as he like, and have doctors to look at 'em, and hab dimes to spen‘. Lor‘ hab mercy on us, massa, but dere's many dead folks lying aroun‘ ole massa's place. De Yanks used to talk big ebery day ‘fore yer come along, and dey was going to do debble an' all, but I guess dey knows as much about ole Virginny now as I did before dey trabbled from the Norf to give de Suvern boys a shake! Big fools, an't dey, to tink dey're good as us, whose born on de ole place, and grow up wid white folks' children? Why, dey an't half as good as some darkies, if dey is white folks and talks big!

1 Major-General Benjamin Huger appears to be near sixty years of age. He is of medium height, thick-set, and stout; full face, ruddy complexion, with grey hair, heavy grey moustaches, grey eye, slow of speech and motion, evidently slow of thought, and sits his horse uneasily. Like most of our generals, his uniform is much worn, and far from imposing, so that few would take him for a major-general. He is brave to a fault, but that does not compensate for the want of a quick, penetrating intellect, and rapidity of movement. When the Norfolk Navy Yard (Virginia) was destroyed and evacuated by the Federals, April twentieth, 1861, he was appointed commander of that post, and elaborately fortified it with hundreds of guns found there, bidding defiance to all the vast armaments fitting out at Fortress Monroe. He evacuated the place in April, 1862, according to orders, and served, as we have shown, at “Seven pines,” and during the “week's campaign” before Richmond. The army has spoken bitterly of his “slowness,” and he was removed from active operations, and appointed Chief of Ordnance. He entered the old service at an early age, and when hostilities commenced was Brevet Colonel, Chief of Ordnance, being stationed at the extensive arsenal of Pikesville, in Maryland. He has a son in our army, who has greatly distinguished himself as captain of artillery.

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D. H. Hill (10)
Benjamin Huger (5)
James McCall (4)
Wilcox (3)
George B. McClellan (3)
Featherstone (3)
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Magruder (2)
Frazier (1)
Curl (1)
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April, 1862 AD (1)
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