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On the Confederate right at Gaines's Mill.1

by E. M. Law, Major-General, C. S. A.
By 5 o'clock on the 27th of June the battle of Gaines's Mill was in full progress all along the line. Longstreet's and A. P. Hill's men were attacking in the most determined manner, but were met with a courage as obstinate as their own by the Federals who held the works. After each bloody repulse the Confederates only waited long enough to re-form their shattered lines or to bring up their supports, when they would again return to the assault. Besides the terrific fire in front, a battery of heavy guns on the south side of the Chickahominy was in full play upon their right flank. There was no opportunity for manoeuvring or flank attacks, as was the case with D. H. Hill on our extreme left. The enemy was directly in front, and he could only be reached in that direction. If he could not be driven out before night it would be equivalent to a Confederate disaster, and would involve the failure of General Lee's whole plan for the relief of Richmond . . . . It was a critical moment for the Confederates, as victory, which involved the relief or the loss of their capital, hung wavering in the balance. Night seemed about to close the account against them, as the sun was now setting upon their gallant, but so far fruitless efforts.

While matters were in this condition Whiting's division, after crossing with much difficulty the wooded and marshy ground below Gaines's Mill, arrived in rear of that portion of the line held by the remnants of A. P. Hill's division. When Whiting advanced to the attack a thin and irregular line of General Hill's troops were keeping up the fight, but, already badly cut up, could effect nothing, and were gradually wasting away under the heavy fire from the Federal lines. From the center of the division to the Chickahominy swamp on the right the ground was open; on the left were thick woods. The right brigade (Law's) advanced in the open ground, the left (Hood's) through the woods.

As we moved forward to the firing we could see the straggling Confederate line lying behind a gentle ridge that ran across the field parallel to the Federal position. We passed one Confederate battery in the edge of the field badly cut to pieces and silent. Indeed, there was no Confederate artillery then in action on that part of the field. The Federal batteries in front were in full play. The fringe of woods along the Federal line was shrouded in smoke, and seemed fairly to vomit forth a leaden and iron hail. General Whiting rode along his line and ordered that there should be no halt when we reached the slight crest occupied by the few Confederate troops in our front, but that the charge should begin at that point in double-quick time, with trailed arms and without firing. Had these orders not been strictly obeyed the assault would have been a failure. No troops could have stood long under the withering storm of lead and iron that beat into their faces as they became fully exposed to view from the Federal lines. As it was, in the very few moments it took them to pass over the slope and down the hill to the ravine, a thousand men were killed or wounded.

Law's brigade advanced to the attack in two lines, the 11th Mississippi regiment (Colonel Liddell) and the 4th Alabama (Lieutenant-Colonel McLemore) forming the first line, and the 2d Mississippi (Colonel Stone) and the 6th North Carolina (Colonel Avery) the second. Hood had a similar formation on our left, but just as we came under fire, and before reaching the slope where the charge began, General Hood passed rapidly across my rear at the head of the 4th Texas regiment, closely followed by the 18th Georgia, both of his brigade. They came up on my right, extending our line in that direction. The 1st and 5th Texas regiments and the Hampton Legion of the same brigade remained on the left in the woods. Passing over the scattering line of Confederates on the ridge in front, the whole division “broke into a trot” down the slope toward the Federal works. Men fell like leaves in an autumn wind, the Federal artillery tore gaps in the ranks at every step, the ground in rear of the advancing column was strewn thickly with the dead and wounded; not a gun was fired in reply; there was no confusion, and not a step faltered as the two gray lines swept silently and swiftly on; the pace became more rapid every moment; when the men were within thirty yards of the ravine, and could see the desperate nature of the work in hand, a wild yell answered the roar of Federal musketry, and they rushed for the works. The Confederates were within ten paces of them when the Federals in the front line broke cover, and, leaving their log breast-works, swarmed up the hill in their rear, carrying away their second line with them in their rout. Then we had our “innings.” As the blue mass surged up the hill in our front, the Confederate fire was poured into it with terrible effect. The target was a large one, the range short, and scarcely a shot fired into that living mass could fail of its errand. The debt of blood contracted but a few moments before was paid, and with interest.

Firing as they advanced, the Confederates leaped into the ravine, climbed out on the other side, and over the lines of breastworks, reaching the crest of the hill beyond with such rapidity as to capture all of the Federal artillery (fourteen pieces) at that point. We had now reached the high plateau in rear of the center of General Porter's position, his line having been completely cut in two, and thus rendered no longer tenable. From the flanks of the great gap where Whiting's division had torn through, the Federal lines gave way in both directions. R. H. Anderson's brigade, till then [364] in reserve, passed through on the right, and led the way for Longstreet's division, while on the left the roll of musketry receded toward the Chickahominy, and the cheering of the victorious Confederates announced that Jackson, Ewell, and D. H. Hill were sweeping that part of the field.

The battle was won; the Federal infantry was in full flight toward the swamps of the Chickahominy and the bridges in their rear, leaving a large portion of their artillery in the hands of the Confederates. But the fighting was not all over. Several Federal batteries, posted in reserve on the further side of the plateau which the Confederates had gained, opened a rapid but rather ineffective fire, with the view of covering the retreat of their infantry. The 4th Texas and 18th Georgia regiments of Hood's, and the 11th Mississippi and 4th Alabama of Law's brigade, continued their advance across the plateau directly upon these batteries. And here occurred an incident of the battle which has been a subject of much acrimonious dispute among Federal officers, especially Generals Porter and Philip St. George Cooke, the latter commanding the cavalry on Porter's extreme left next to the Chickahominy. In order to protect the guns upon which Law and Hood were advancing, General Cooke withdrew a portion of his command from the low grounds near the river and ordered a charge by a battalion of the 5th United States Cavalry upon the advancing Confederates. Our line was ragged and irregular, as every soldier knows will be the case after such fighting as it had passed through, and the opportunity seemed favorable to check its farther advance and save the batteries from capture. The charge was directed upon the center of the Confederate line, which was halted and partly re-formed to receive it. Though delivered in most gallant style, it was repulsed with heavy loss, including all but one of the officers who entered it. This episode consumed scarcely more time than it takes to write it. In the meantime, those of the cavalry who escaped retreated through the artillery they were attempting to save, and in the confusion of the retreat most of the guns were captured.

General Porter represents this charge as having been made on his extreme left (Longstreet's right), and beyond the stream along which his infantry line was originally formed, and severely censures General Cooke, charging him with throwing the artillery into confusion by retreating through it and preventing it from checking the Confederate advance. His statement as to the locality of the cavalry attack and his charges against General Cooke cannot be reconciled; for, had Cooke's cavalry attacked where General Porter says it did, it would have been utterly impossible for its line of retreat to have passed anywhere near the position of the batteries, and its flight after the repulse could have had no effect whatever upon the loss of the guns. Hood's and Law's line of advance was directly across the plateau from the left center of Porter's original line, where they had broken in, passing south of and near the Watts house on the plateau; and as the cavalry charge was made upon them, and they captured the guns, it follows that the charge could only have been made there, and not half a mile nearer the Chickahominy, where it would have been objectless, and indeed ridiculous. I speak positively on this point, as I was an eye-witness of the whole affair, commanded the troops who received the charge, and was engaged in the capture of the guns. Whatever may be said to the contrary, it is certain that the batteries, having no infantry supports, did not check our advance for a moment. The diversion by the cavalry, on the other hand, did delay their capture for the short period it took to repulse it, and gave time for the artillerists to save some of their guns.

While these events were taking place on the plateau, heavy firing was going on immediately upon the left of the gap in the Federal line through which we had passed, now some distance in our rear. As the front was clear, my brigade was halted and re-formed. This had scarcely been done when a Confederate cheer rose from the woods in the direction of the firing, and a large body of Federals rushed out upon the plateau on our left and, rear, retreating rapidly and in great confusion. Part of them passed to our left, while the greater portion were running across our rear in the attempt to escape to the Chickahominy swamp in that direction. My rear rank was faced about, and they were called on to surrender. No attention was paid to the first summons, and a few shots were fired into our ranks. A volley from our rear rank, which now faced them, induced them to listen to reason, and they at once threw down their arms in token of surrender.2 The 1st and 5th Texas regiments and the Hampton Legion (Hood's brigade), which it will be remembered were on the left of Law's brigade in the original line of [365] attack, had not driven the Federal line in their front at the same time with the rest of the division; but they had now forced it, and were closely following the fugitives. The prisoners, about 800 in number, were turned over to the 5th Texas regiment, which was close on their heels.

1 this description of the fighting in front of Morell's line is from an extended paper on “the fight for Richmond in 1862,” which appeared in “the Southern bivouac” for April, 1887.--Editors.

2 These troops were the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, of McCall's division, and the 4th New Jersey, Slocum's division. The 11th lost 50 killed, and 634, including wounded, were made prisoners.

Colonel J. H. Simpson, of the 4th New Jersey, explains the circumstances of the capture in a letter written from the military prison, Richmond, Va., July 8th, 1862, in which he says:

“ To relieve my friends of all apprehension about my safety, I write to say that I am now here a prisoner of war, with a large portion of my regiment, and in good health and spirits. My regiment was posted in the wood to sustain the center in the battle near Gaines's Mill, on Friday, June 27th, and nobly did it hold its ground till about an hour after the right and left wings of the army had fallen back. Mine (4th New Jersey) and Colonel Gallagher's 11th Pennsylvania Reserve were the last to leave the front, and only did so when we found that the rest of the army had given way, and we were literally surrounded by the infantry and batteries of the Confederate forces.

Being in the woods, and trusting to our superior officers to inform us when to retreat, and not being able to see on account of the woods what was going on toward our right and left, we continued fighting probably an hour after every other regiment had left the ground. The consequence was inevitable. We were surrounded by ten times our number, and though we could have fought till every man of us was slain, yet humanity, and, as I think, wisdom, dictated that we should at last yield. . . . Our casualties, so far as known, were: killed, 38; wounded, 111,--total 149,--besides 75 missing, of whom a number probably was killed and wounded. Considering the great jeopardy in which we were, I look upon it as a great mercy we all were not shot down.

” Editors.

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