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Chapter 29: seven days battles around Richmond.

Mr. Davis wrote substantially the following account, which is condensed. For the full text see “The Rise and fall of the Confederate Government.”

When riding from the field of battle (Seven Pines) 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. On the next morning he proceeded to the field and took command of the troops. During the night our forces on the left had fallen back, but those on the right remained in the position they had gained, and some combats occurred there between the opposing forces.

Our army was in line in front of Richmond, but without intrenchments. General Lee immediately constructed earthworks. They were 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 proper utensils made [307] it improbable that we should be able to resist.

The day after General Lee assumed command, I was riding out to the army, and I found him in a house in consultation with a number of his general officers. Their tone was despondent, and one, especially, pointed out the inevitable consequence of the enemy's advance by throwing out boyaux, and constructing successive parallels. I expressed my disappointment at their views, and General Lee remarked that he had, before I came in, said very much the same thing.1 I soon withdrew and rode to the front, where General Lee joined me, and entered into conversation as to what, under the circumstances, I thought it most advisable to do. I answered, substantially, that I knew nothing better than the plan he had previously explained to me, which was to have been executed by General Johnston, but was not carried out; that the change of circumstances would make one modification necessary — it would be necessary to bring the stronger force of General T. J. Jackson [308] 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as we were then informed, General Jackson was hotly engaged with a force superior to his own, and, before he could be withdrawn, it was necessary to drive the enemy out of the Valley. For this purpose, and to mask our design to make a junction of Jackson's forces with those of Lee, a strong division under General Whiting was detached to go by rail to join General Jackson, and, by a vigorous assault, 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, 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 reinforce 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.

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 the enemy's right flank, then, crossing by the Mechanicsville [309] Bridge with another column, to attack in front. I pointed out to him that our force and intrenched 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, 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.” 2


From President Davis to Mrs. Davis.

Confederate States of America, Executive Department, June 11, 1862.
... I am in usual health, though the weather has been very inclement. The roads to the different positions of the army could not be worse and remain passable.

The enemy is intrenching and bringing up heavy guns on the York River railroad, which not being useful to our army nor paid for by our treasury, was of course not destroyed. His policy is to advance by regular approaches covered by successive lines of earth — works, that reviled policy of West Pointism and spades, which is sure to succeed against those who do not employ like means to counteract it.

Politicians, newspapers, and uneducated officers have created such a prejudice in our army against labor, that it will be difficult, until taught by sad experience, to induce our troops to work efficiently. The greatest generals of ancient and modern times have [311] won their renown by labor. Victories were the results. Caesar, who revolutionized the military system of his age, never slept in a camp without intrenching it. France, Spain, and Great Britain retain to this day memorials of Roman invasion in the massive works constructed by the Roman armies.

I will endeavor, by movements which are not without great hazard, to countervail the enemy's policy. If we succeed in rendering his works useless to him, and compel him to meet us on the field, I have much confidence in our ability to give him a complete defeat, and then it may be possible to teach him the pain of invasion, and to feed our army on his territory. The issues of campaigns can never be safely foretold; it is for us to do all which can be done, and trustingly to leave our fate to Him who rules the universe.

Our infant son, William Howell, lay at the point of death, and Mr. Davis, who could not come, wrote.

Richmond, June 13, 1862.
... My heart sunk within me at the news of the suffering of my angel baby. Your telegram of the 12th gives assurance of the subsidence of disease. But the look of pain and exhaustion, the gentle complaint, “I am tired,” which has for so many years oppressed me, seems to have been revived; [312] and unless God spares me another such trial, what is to become of me, I don't know. Dr. Garnett will, I hope, reach you this morning. He carried with him what he regarded as a specific remedy. ... My ease, my health, my property, my life I can give to the cause of my country. The heroism which could lay my wife and children on any sacrificial altar is not mine. Spare us, good Lord.

I was out until late last night on the lines of the army. The anticipated demonstration was not made, and reconnaissance convinces me that the reported movement of the enemy was unfounded. He keeps close under cover, is probably waiting for reinforcements, or resolved to fight only behind his own intrenchment. We must find, if possible, the means to get at hi'm without putting the breasts of our men in antagonism to his heaps of earth. Beauregard claims by telegram to have made a “brilliant and successful” retreat, and pleads his constant occupation as the cause of his delay to reply to the inquiry made through the Adjutant-General, as to reason for his retreat and abandonment of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. There are those who can only walk along when it is near to the ground, and I fear he has been placed too high for his mental strength, as he does not exhibit the ability [313] manifested in smaller fields. The news from the Valley of Virginia confirms the report of the flight of the enemy, and the danger to our troops has been mainly passed. We have sent reinforcements who, as fresh troops, will move in front of the old command ... I saw a little boy yesterday in the street, he had his trousers rolled up and was wading in the gutter; he looked something like Jeff, and when I persuaded him to get out of the water, he raised his sunny face and laughed, but denied my conclusion. Mrs. Greenhow is here. Madam looks much changed, and has the air of one whose nerves are shaken by mental torture. General Lee's wife has arrived, her servants left her, and she found it uncomfortable to live without them.

From the President to Mrs. Davis.

Richmond, Va., June 21, 1862.
... We are preparing and taking position for the struggle which must be at hand. The stake is too high to permit the pulse to keep its even beat, but our troops are in improved condition, and as confident as I am hopeful of success. A total defeat of McClellan will relieve the Confederacy of its embarrassments in the East, and then we must make a desperate effort to regain what Beauregard has abandoned in the West.


From the President to Mrs. Davis.

Richmond, Va., June 23, 1862.
You will no doubt hear many rumors, as even here the air is full of them. Be not dis turbed, we are better prepared now than we were on the first of the month, and with God's blessing will beat the enemy as soon as we can get at him. ... I am nearly well again. The heat and dust are very oppressive. The wagon-trains move along in a cloud which quite conceals everything except the leading team; this, of course, refers to the roads around our main encampments.

General G. W. Smith, after the manner of Beauregard, has taken a surgeon's certificate, and is about to retire for a season to recruit his health. General J. E. Johnston is steadily and rapidly improving. I wish he were able to take the field. Despite the critics who know military affairs by instinct, he is a good soldier, never brags of what he did do, and could at this time render most valuable service.

From the President to Mrs. Davis.

Richmond, Va., June 25, 1862.
... Skirmishing yesterday and today, but not of a character to reveal the purpose of the enemy, and designed to conceal our own. Van Dorn is at Vicksburg, and [315] preparing to make a desperate defence. Bragg may effect something, since Halleck has divided his force, and I hope will try, but there is reason to fear that his army has been woefully demoralized. Butler, properly surnamed the “beast,” has added to his claim for infamous notoriety by his recent orders, and report charges him with wholesale peculations, and daily selling licenses for private gain.

For instance, two respectable gentlemen assured me that he sold permits for the export of salt, at the rate of five dollars per sack. How much better it would have been had the city been left a pile of ashes!

The offensive-defensive campaign which resulted so gloriously to our arms was thus inaugurated, and turned from the capital of the Confederacy a danger so momentous that, looking at it so retrospectively, it is evident that a policy less daring or less firmly pursued would not have saved the capital from capture. The President wrote substantially as follows:

General J. E. B. Stuart was sent with a cavalry force, on June 8th, to observe the enemy, mask the approach of General Jackson, and to cover the route by which he was to march, and to ascertain whether the enemy had any defensive works or troops to interfere with the advance of those forces. He [316] reported favorably on both these points. 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.

According to the published reports, General McClellan's position was regarded at this time as extremely critical.

During the night I visited the several commands along the intrenchment on the south side of the Chickahominy.

In one of these engagements our loss was small in numbers, but great in value. Among others who could ill be spared, here fell the gallant soldier Brigadier-General Richard Griffith. He had served with distinction in foreign war, and when the South was invaded was among the first to take up arms in defence of our rights.3

Our troops slept upon their arms. The enemy retreated during the night, and by the time thus gained, he was enabled to cross the White Oak Creek and destroy the bridge.

It is an extraordinary fact that, though the capital had been threatened by an attack from the sea-board on the right, though our [317] army had retreated from Yorktown up to the Chickahominy, and, after encamping there for a time, had crossed the river and moved up to Richmond; yet, when at the close of the battles around Richmond McClellan retreated and was pursued toward the James River, we had no maps of the country in which we were operating; our generals were ignorant of the roads, and their guides knew little more than the way from their homes to Richmond. It was this faaldefect inpreparation, and the erroneous answers of the guides, that caused General Lee first to post Holmes and Wise, when they came down the River road, at New Market, where, he was told, was the route that McClellan must pursue in his retreat to the James. Subsequently he learned that there was another road, by the Willis church, which would better serve the purpose of the retreating foe.

The President was on the field every day during the seven days fight, and slept on it every night, and in the sixth day's fight he had taken his position in a house near the field and received a message from General Lee to leave it, as the enemy's guns were bearing upon it. Within a few minutes after Mr. Davis left it, the house was riddled.

Even thus early the presence of foreigners in the army of the North began to be noticed, [318] and the ranks of the Federal Army were filled up from this year forth with foreigners of all sorts and conditions of men, July 18, 1862. Of 237 dead Union soldiers who had served in these battles under the command of Colonel Woodbury, of Michigan, it was said there was but one who was American born.

These men sacked and burned without the sympathy a common language would have necessarily created.

When McClellan's army was in retreat, to the fatigue of hard marches and successive battles, enough to have disqualified our troops from rapid pursuit, was added the discomfort of being thoroughly wet and chilled by the rain. I sent to the neighboring houses to buy, if it could be had, at any price, enough whiskey to give each of the men a single gill, but it could not be found.

The foe had silently withdrawn in the night by a route which had been unknown to us, but which was the most direct road to Harrison's Landing, and he had so many hours the start that, among the general officers who expressed their opinion to me, only one thought it possible to pursue effectively. That was General T. J. Jackson, who quietly said, “They have not all got away, if we go immediately after them.”

... General Lee was not given to [319] indecision, and they have mistaken his character who suppose caution was his vice. He was prone to attack, and not slow to press an advantage when he gained it. He ordered Longstreet and Jackson to advance, but a violent storm which prevailed throughout the day greatly retarded their progress. The enemy, harassed and closely followed by the cavalry, succeeded in gaining Westover, on the James River, and the protection of his gun — boats. His position was one of great natural and artificial strength, after the heights were occupied and intrenched. It was flanked on each side by guns of his shipping, as well as by those mounted in his intrenchments. Under these circumstances it was inexpedient to attack him; and our troops, who had been marching and fighting almost incessantly for seven days, under the most trying circumstances, were withdrawn in order to afford them the repose of which they stood so much in need.

Several days were spent in collecting arms and other property abandoned by the enemy, and, in the meantime, some artillery and cavalry were sent below Westover to annoy his transports. On July 8th, our army returned to the vicinity of Richmond.

The siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of a campaign which had been [320] prosecuted after months of preparation, at an enormous expenditure of men and money, was completely frustrated.

General Lee was now gaining fast the confidence of all classes; he had possessed that of the President always. The Richmond Dispatch of July 19, 1862, said,

The rise which this officer has suddenly taken in the public confidence is without a precedent. At the commencement of the war he enjoyed the highest reputation of any officer on the continent.

The operations of General Lee in the short campaign which is just over were certainly those of a master. No captain that ever lived could have planned or executed a better campaign. It was perfect in all its parts, and will be set down hereafter as among the models which the military student will be required to study.

The army under General Johnston on May 31st, from official reports,. showed an effective strength of 62,696.

Deduct the losses sustained in the battle of Seven Pines, as shown by the official reports of casualties, say, 6,084 and we have 56,612 as the number of effectives when General Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Before the seven days battles around [321] Richmond, reinforcements to the number of 24, 50 were brought to the army, so that at the beginning of the contest with McClellan, Lee had 80,762 effectives for battle.

If we adopt as correct the Confederate loss as given by Swinton, say 19,000, then it would appear that when McClellan reached the James River with “8s,000 to 90,000 men, he was being pursued by Lee with but 62,000.” 4

When the news of our great victory over such long odds came to Raleigh, everyone was breathless with excitement. The telegraph office was separated by a narrow alley from my room in the hotel. As I walked my ill baby to and fro by the window, a voice came from the street, “Tell us what you know, please.” Just then a crowd filled the alley and another voice cried, “Boys, I can take it off as it passes.” Another one said to me, “Do tell us it is a victory ;” and as a telegram from the President to me was recorded, every word was shouted to the crowd. At the end of the message someone said, “Don't hurrah, you will scare the sick baby.” The crowd could not keep silent long, and after they reached the middle of the street they shouted themselves hoarse. One old man [322] stopped in the alley and called up-“I say, madam, we will pray for your poor baby; don't be down-hearted.”

From the President to Mrs. Davis.

After the siege of Richmond was raised, the President wrote to me as follows:

Richmond, July 6, 1862.
... Had all the orders been well and promptly executed, there would have been a general dispersion of McClellan's army, and the remnant which might have been held together could have only reached the James River by first crossing the Chickahominy. Our success has been so remarkable that we should be grateful, and believe that even our disappointments were ordered for our gain. McClellan certainly showed capacity in his retreat, but there is little cause to laud a general who is driven out of his intrenchments by a smaller and worse armed force than his own, and compelled to abandon a campaign in the preparation of which he had spent many months and many millions of dollars, and seek safety by flying to other troops for cover, burning his depots of provisions, and marking his route by scattered arms, ammunition, and wagons. The reinforcements sent to him may [323] advance. His army would never have fought us again if we had been left to an even-handed settlement of the issue which he made and we joined.

It is reported that all their forces now available are to be sent to the James River, and one great effort is to be made to defeat us here. Our army is greatly reduced, but I hope recruits will be promptly sent forward from most of the States, and there are many causes which will interfere with the execution of the enemy's plans, and some things they have not dreamed which we may do. If our ranks were full we could end the war in a few weeks. There is reason to believe that the Yankees have gained from England and France as the last extension, this month, and expect foreign intervention if we hold them at bay on the first of August. My great grief at the loss of the Virginia is renewed and redoubled by our want of her now in the James River. The timber for the completion of the Richmond was burned at Norfolk, and the work on her has been thus greatly delayed; it is uncertain when she will be finished. The batteries on the river, eight miles below here, will stop the gun-boats, and we must intercept and defeat any land force which attempts to take them from the land side. Our troubles, you perceive, have not ended, but [324] our chances have improved, so I repeat, be of good cheer.

I went to Richmond for a short visit immediately after the seven days fight, and the odors of the battle-field were distinctly perceptible all over the city. The ladies during the battles had spent the greater part of their time on the roofs of their houses, watching the course of the smoke and gleam of battle, and as the lurid light drifted down to the Peninsula they rejoiced and thanked God; when it shone nearer to the city they prayed for help from above. The President slept upon the field every night, and was exposed to fire all day.

About this time Mr. Davis gave me news of the Sumter.

From President Davis to Mrs. Davis.

Confederate States of America, Executive Department, July 7, 1862.
... The Sumter was found to be unseaworthy, and as she could not be prepared at Gibraltar, she was laid up there, the crew discharged, and the officers ordered to go home. Becket sailed from Hamburg, and reached Nassau about the middle of June on his way home. Captain Semmes sailed from England, and reached the same port a few days [325] thereafter, and finding orders which assigned him to a new vessel 5 now under construction, returned from Nassau to England to superintend the building of his vessel, and took Becket with him. ... Nothing important from the army to-day; the enemy are still sending off demoralized troops, and are said to be still receiving reinforcements. If, as is reported, they are leaving the Southern Coast and the Tennessee line, we may expect another great effort in this region, and will be able to bring up some troops to aid us.

The Confederate women looked on at the struggle with ever-increasing interest; they offered their jewels, their plate, and everything of value they possessed which would be useful to their country. One of these devoted patriots said to me, “I tried, and could not make up my mind to part with my wedding.ring, and it was so thin from wear; else I think I could have given it up.”

There were some quaint appeals made to Mr. Davis, and his sympathy and sense of humor brought him into correspondence with the writers, or induced him to make as quaint endorsements on their letters.

One girl, whose sweetheart was a gallant soldier in the Fifth South Carolina Regiment, [326] and who had fought bravely all through the seven days battles, made the following earnest request:

Dear Mr. President: I want you to let Jeems C., of company oneth, 5th South Carolina Regiment, come home and get married. Jeems is willin‘, I is willin‘, his mammy says she is willin‘, but Jeems's capt'in, he ain't willin‘. Now when we are all willin‘ ‘ceptin‘ Jeems' captain, I think you might let up and let Jeems come. I'll make him go straight back when he's done got married and fight just as hard as ever.

Your affectionate friend, etc.

Mr. Davis wrote on the letter, “Let Jeems go,” and Jeems went home, married the affectionate correspondent of Mr. Davis, returned to his regiment, and did fight as well as ever.

1 Mr. Davis told me at the time that some generals of high rank had urged in council that we should not maintain a line of defence north of James River, and that General Lee answered, with considerable feeling, that such a course of argument, pursued to its legitimate results, would leave us nothing, except gradually to fall back to the Gulf of Mexico. --Colonel William Preston Johnston, Belford's Magazine for June, 1890.


The chief danger was that, while Lee with his main body was assailing and turning McClellan's right on the north side of the Chickahominy, McClellan might make a show of resistance there, and with his superior forces cross the Chickahominy with his main body, and, breaking through our centre, go right into Richmond.

The understanding with General Lee was, that President Davis should stay with our centre, and if McClellan made that attempt he should hold the centre as long as he could.

--Colonel William Preston Johnston, Belford's Magazine, June, 1890.

3 Mr. Davis leaned over him and said, “My dear boy, I hope you are not seriously hurt.” The General grasped his hand and said, “Yes, I think fatally; farewell, Colonel.”

4 Colonel Taylor: Four Years with Lee,

5 The 290, or the Alabama.

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