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The charge of Cooke's cavalry at Gaines's Mill.

by Philip St. George Cooke, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.
In “The century” for June, 1885, there is an article on the battle of Gaines's Mill, signed by Fitz John Porter, in which appear singular errors of statement regarding the action of the “Cavalry reserve,” affecting also the conduct and reputation of its commander. He says [see p. 340 of the present volume]:
“We lost in all twenty-two cannon; some of these broke down while we were withdrawing, and some ran off the bridges at night while we were crossing to the south bank of the Chickahominy. The loss of the guns was due to the fact that some of Cooke's cavalry, which had been directed to be kept, under all circumstances, in the valley of the Chickahominy, had been sent to resist an attack of the enemy upon our left. The charge, executed in the face of a withering fire of infantry and in the midst of our heavy cannonading as well as that of the enemy, resulted, as should have been expected, in confusion. The bewildered and uncontrollable horses wheeled about, and, dashing through the batteries, satisfied the gunners that they were charged by the enemy. To this alone I always attributed the failure on our part longer to hold the battle-field, and to bring off all our guns [with few exceptions1] in an orderly retreat. Most unaccountably this cavalry was not used to cover our retreat or gather the stragglers, but was peremptorily ordered to cross to the south bank of the river.” [Footnote: “See ‘Official Records,’ Vol. XI., Part II., pp. 43, 223, 273, 282.--F. J. P.” ]

To silence forever the injurious statements and insinuation of the last sentence, I give here evidence of two witnesses who were present, and whose high character is known to all. Major-General Wesley Merritt, colonel Fifth Cavalry, superintendent United States Military Academy, writes me, April 8th, 1885:

“ The cavalry remained, with you in immediate command, on that portion of the field, until after midnight on the 27th of June, 1862. It provided litter-bearers and lantern-bearers for our surgeons who went over the field of battle, succoring and attending the wounded. . . . The cavalry was the last force to leave the field and to cross the Chickahominy,2 and the bridge on which it crossed, between 12 midnight on the 27th and 2 A. M. on the 28th of June, was, I think, rendered impassable by your order.

Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Martin, assistant adjutant-general United States Army, wrote me from Fort Leavenworth, April 30th, 1885 :

The artillery did not drive the enemy from his front; the enemy was not driven from his front, but the charge of your cavalry did stop the advance of the enemy, and this enabled Porter's troops to get off the field. I am by no means alone in the belief that the charge of the cavalry at Gaines's Mill, on June 27th, 1862, saved Fitz John Porter's corps from destruction. . . . You did not direct your command at once to cross the river. There were no frightened men in your vicinity. All the frightened men were far to your right; you could not have reached the retiring crowd; and if you could have stopped them, you could have done more than Porter himself did do, and he was amidst them, for I saw him. Your command, at least a part of it, was the very last to cross the river.

It should be observed that in the short extract from “The century,” above, General Porter repeats the assertion that the cavalry caused the loss of the (22) guns,--emphasizes, makes plainer, the meaning of the opening sentence: to the charge “alone I always attributed the failure on our part to longer hold the battle-field and to bring off all our guns in an orderly retreat.”

Captain W. C. Weeden, commanding Battery C, 1st Rhode Island Artillery, reports, Vol. XI., Pt. II., p. 282, “Official Records,” the loss of a section by stress of the enemy's attacks; the two other sections “held in support in rear of Griffin's brigade” opened fire; “The smoke had filled the whole field to the woods, and it was impossible to direct the fire. The batteries were limbering to the rear in good order” when, he says, the cavalry fugitives ran through them, but he only lost one more piece “mired in the woods.” But General Griffin reports that the artillery “opened fire upon the enemy advancing upon our left; but it was too late; our infantry had already begun to fall back, and nothing being left to give confidence to the artillerymen, it was impossible to make then stand to their work.” And that was just when the cavalry did go in and give confidence to the three batteries on the left, and the saving work was done.

I have examined the “Official Records” and found reports of about twenty batteries engaged in the battle, and the above is the only mention of the cavalry fugitives to be found in them; their losses are attributed to other causes. Here I will give the account of the loss of whole batteries:

General Truman Seymour reports, p. 402, of Captain Easton, “This gallant gentleman fell and his battery was lost with him.” [345]

Captain Mark Kerns was wounded, but “loaded and fired the last shots himself, and brought four of the guns off the field.” Of another battery he reports, “No efforts could now repel the rush of a successful foe, under whose fire rider and horse went down, and guns lay immovable on the field.”

Captain J. H. Cooper, Battery B, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, reports, p. 410:

The remaining infantry falling back, we were compelled to retire from our guns. The charge being too sudden and overpowering, it was impossible to remove them, many of the horses being killed by the enemy's fire.

Was General Porter prevented from bringing off all these guns by the cavalry charge?

General Porter says, p. 322:

“Just preceding this break” (in Morell's line) “I saw cavalry, which I recognized as ours, rushing in numbers through our lines on the left.”

All the evidence goes to disprove this very deliberate statement, and that all the infantry on the left had broken and was fast disappearing before the first advance of the cavalry. Again he says:

General Cooke was instructed to take position, with cavalry, under the hills in the valley of the Chickahominy — there with the aid of artillery to guard our left flank. He was especially enjoined to intercept, gather, and hold all stragglers, and under no circumstances to leave the valley for the purpose of coining upon the hill held by our infantry, or pass in front of our line on the left.

What strange folly of self-contradiction is betrayed between this order “to guard our left flank” and the violent condemnation in the first extract, which we have been considering, of the march to resist an attack of the enemy on our left, . . . in a “charge executed in the face of a withering fire of infantry, and in the midst of our heavy cannonading as well as that of the enemy.” Could a poet laureate say more?

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them
Volley'd and thundered--
. . . . . .
Then they rode back--

Ay, there's the rub.

When I reported to General Porter before the battle, I remember that he proposed that I should take post in the narrow open meadow on the extreme left. I urged that the flank of the army was virtually covered by the Chickahominy; that, moreover, it was covered by three reserve batteries and 3 29-pounder batteries on the opposite side of the river; while the position I had taken on the hill-slope was within view, and also within cavalry striking distance. If I had gone there, I should not have been able, when the time came, to face, and, with artillery aid, to stop the enemy in the flush of his success. To some such objections which I made General Porter evidently yielded, instead of “enjoining” me; for the cavalry remained quite near his first station, Adams's house; and I was there with him repeatedly. An order “under no circumstances to leave the valley for the purpose of coming on the hill” would have been to a general officer not only unprecedented, but insulting.

How strange, to military ears, would sound an order “to intercept, gather, and hold all stragglers” on the extreme front and flank!--and the warning not to “pass in front of our line on the left!” Such extravagance of action — marching, with no earthly object, between two lines of fire — is seldom thus forestalled! Seriously, this passes the bounds of sanity. But it is emphasized by his map, which represents my cavalry as actually making a flank march between the lines of battle,--Morell's and Longstreet's.

It seems necessary to add the statements of eye-witnesses, from different points of view,--men of well-known high character,--to corroborate my assertions and my corrections of the misrepresentations of the part played by the cavalry and myself in the battle, as found in “The century” article.

Next morning, at Savage's Station, the Prince de Joinville approached me with both hands extended, saying with empressement, “I saw you make your charge yesterday” ; and next day he wrote to the Due d'aumale [see “New York times,” August 13th, 1862]:

. . . “Those fresh troops rush in good order upon our left, which falters, flies, and passing through the artillery draws on in disorder the troops of our center. The enemy advances rapidly. The fusillade and cannonade are so violent that the projectiles striking the ground raise a permanent cloud of dust. At that moment General Cooke charged at the head of his calvary; but that movement does not succeed, and his horsemen on their return only increase the disorder. He makes every effort, aided by all who felt a little courage, to stop the panic, but in vain.”

The Comte de Paris wrote to me, February 2d, 1877:

. . .

I was with De Hart's battery on the crest of the hill when you advanced on our left. . . . The sacrifice of some of the bravest of the cavalry certainly saved a part of our artillery; as did, on a larger scale, the Austrian cavalry on the evening of Sadowa. . . . The main fact is, that with your cavalry you did all that cavalry could do to stop the rout.

General W. Merritt wrote me, February 2d, 1877:

I thought at the time, and subsequent experience has convinced me, that your cavalry and the audacity of its conduct at that time, together with the rapid firing of canister at short range by the battery mentioned, did much, if not everything, toward preventing the entire destruction of the Union army at Gaines's Mill. The circumstances were these:

The enemy had emerged from a wood, where his ranks were more or less disorganized, into an open field. Instead of finding the way clear before him he was met by a determined charge of cavalry and a heavy artillery fire. In his mind a new line of fresh troops were before him. It was but natural, at that stage of our military experience, that he should hesitate and halt, to prepare for a new emergency. He did so; and that night the cavalry bivouacked as near the scene of these events as the enemy did.

Brevet Lieut.-Colonel J. P. Martin wrote to me, March 24th, 1870:

It is my opinion that but for the charge of the 5th Cavalry on that day, the loss in the command of General Fitz John Porter would have been immensely greater than it was; indeed, I believe that the charge, more than any other thing, was instrumental in saving that part of the army on the north bank of the Chickahominy. [346]

You were the last general officer of General Porter's command on the field on the left, General Porter himself leaving before you did; you had, therefore, an excellent opportunity of seeing what was going on.

Colonel G. A. H. Blake, United States Army, wrote me, June 16th, 1879:

About sundown you advanced the brigade under a warm fire and I deployed the 5th and 1st Cavalry in two lines, and a little to the rear of (the interval of) reserve batteries of artillery, which had opened a rapid fire. The infantry of the left wing had then disappeared from the top of the hill. You then rode off to a battery further to the left, where Rush's Lancers had been ordered. The 5th Cavalry soon charged, and I saw no more of them. You had ordered me to support them; there was a warm fire, and the smoke and dust made everything obscure. I saw none of the 5th, after it was broken, pass through the battery, which was very near. It was soon forced to retire, and was followed by the 1st in its rear.

Finally, General William N. Grier, United States Army, wrote me, July 19th, 1879:

The reserve was stationed on the hill, . . . in full view of the slopes of the hill, down to the timber through which the enemy debouched in large numbers. The United States batteries were on the slope of the hill, a little to our right front. You ordered the 5th to make a charge, directing me to make a second charge after the 5th would rally. I never saw that regiment again on that day, after it was enveloped in a cloud of dust, making the charge — but soon after saw a battery or two emerge from the dust, . . . withdrawing from the contest. I then wheeled my squadrons into column of fours, at a trot along the top of the hill, until getting in rear of the batteries — receiving the enemy's fire at a loss of an officer and many men and horses — and, as I then supposed, saving the batteries from further loss.

The orders actually given were to support the batteries to the last moment, and then charge, if necessary, to save them.

Detroit, June, 1885.

1 Insertion by General Porter in the revision of his article for the present work.--Editors.

2 Major William It. Powell, of the 4th Regular Infantry, wrote to the Editors on September 8th, 1885: “Probably not much credit attaches to the particular organized force which was the last to cross the Chickahominy River after the battle of Gaines's Mill; but in order to settle the question I desire to state that the cavalry was not the last to cross the river — even if they did leave at the time General Merritt states. The 4th United States Infantry was the last organization which crossed, and that regiment passed over about two hours after daylight on the morning of the 28th, and a bridge had to be partly relaid to enable it to do so. This regiment was posted on the extreme right flank of the army at the battle of Gaines's Mill, and was ordered to support Weed's battery. Weed was afterward reenforced by Tidball's battery, and the 4th Infantry held its position from the commencement of the engagement (about 11 A. M.) until twilight of the 27th, without receiving an order or stirring from its position until Weed reported that he had no more ammunition, and retired from the field by way of the Cold Harbor road, covered by the 4th Infantry. Night came upon time regiment as it was retiring on this road. It went into bivouac in line of battle, in the Chickahominy Valley, on the road by which it retired from the field. When daylight came we expected orders to renew the engagement, and took up our march to return to the battle-field, about a mile land a half distant. It was then that some wounded were met, who informed us that all the army had crossed during the night. We then marched from Grapevine Bridge to Alexander's Bridge, in sight of the enemy's pickets, and when we arrived on the south side we were astonished to find that it was thought we had been captured. We learned afterward that orders had been sent to the 4th Infantry during the action, but the officer who started with them was killed; another who took them was wounded before they could be delivered, and an orderly who was subsequently dispatched — with them did not arrive at his destination, and was never heard of afterward.”

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