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Chapter 7: Seven days campaign. The attack

When Gen. Lee, on June 1, 1862, took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he brought with him his personal staff, — Col. R. H. Chilton, Adjutant, Col. A. L. Long, Military Secretary, and Majs. Taylor, Venable, Marshall, and Talcotts, as Aides. He retained the chiefs of all departments, — Corley as Quartermaster, Cole as Commissary, Guild as Medical Director, and myself as Ordnance Officer, — and all matters of routine went on as before.

The chances of a successful campaign against McClellan had increased greatly when Johnston fell, wounded, as has been already told. Johnston had proposed the concentration at Richmond of a large force, to be drawn from points farther south. Lee would be able to bring this about more effectively, occupying, as he had done, the position of Military Adviser to the President. He had, as yet, never commanded an army, and his accession to his present command did not at once inspire popular enthusiasm. His only active service had been in West Virginia, where he was Department Commander in the fall of 1861. This campaign had generally been considered a failure, but should have been recognized as a success, for there had been at least no loss of men, nor any serious reverse. It was absurd for the Confederacy to seek to occupy so extensive and mountainous a [110] country as West Virginia, so close to the great state of Ohio, and with a population strongly favoring the Federal cause. It was impossible to supply our armies over their long and difficult roads. Mountain barriers in that section not only gave the country to the Federals, but proclaimed peace. This came to be recognized after one campaign. With this for a result, and no battles having been fought, an idea arose that Lee would not be an aggressive commander. This was strengthened when Lee's first care was to select a line of battle and begin to fortify it. To some of the amateur critics, who wrote for the public press, this seemed little better than a confession of cowardice.

The Richmond Examiner, edited by Pollard, was conspicuous in the bitterness of its attacks. Through some of these I chanced upon an interview which impressed me very forcibly at the time, and which proved to be quite a prophetic estimate of Lee as a commander. It came about as follows: On the staff of the President was Col. Joseph C. Ives, a graduate of West Point in the class of 1852. He was born in New York and appointed from Connecticut, but had married in the well-known Semmes family of Georgia and Alabama, and had joined his fortunes with the South. He served on the staff of President Davis during the whole of the war. While in no way conspicuous, he impressed all who met him as particularly intellectual, and as an unusually accomplished officer.

When Lee had been in command about two weeks, I had a long ride with Ives about our lines, one afternoon, during which he referred to these newspaper attacks and asked if I thought they in any way impaired the confidence of the army in Lee. I had seen no such effect and told him so, and then went on to say: ‘Ives, tell me this. We are here fortifying our lines, but apparently leaving the enemy all the time he needs to accumulate his superior forces, and then to move on us in the way he thinks best. Has Gen. Lee the audacity that is going to be required for our inferior force to meet the enemy's superior force,—to take the aggressive, and to run risks and stand chances?’

Ives's reply was so impressive, both in manner and matter, that it has always been remembered as vividly as if to-day. He reined up his horse, stopped in the road, and, turning to me, [111] said: ‘Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is Gen. Lee! His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too.’

It is needless to say that I did live to see it many times over. But it seems, even yet, a mystery how, at that time, Ives or President Davis or any other living man had divined it. No one could meet Lee and fail to be impressed with his dignity of character, his intellectual power, and his calm self-reliance; but all those qualities might be recognized without deducing from them, also, the existence of such phenomenal audacity, except by an inspiration of genius.

The principal feature of Lee's proposed plan had long been the bringing down of Jackson from the Valley to attack the enemy's right wing. Even before Jackson had extricated himself from the pursuit of his enemies, on June 8, Lee had written him to set on foot the arrangements to mislead the enemy as to his intentions.

The arrangements adopted were both elaborate and effective. Not only were all sorts of exciting false rumors set on foot throughout the Valley, but Whiting's division, from before Richmond, and Lawton's large brigade — arriving from Georgia nearly 4000 strong — were sent by rail from Richmond to Staunton about June 11, to create the impression that Jackson's raid was about to be repeated with a much larger force. Meanwhile, Jackson's force was marched again to the Shenandoah near Port Republic, about the 11th, after Shields and Fremont had fallen back to the neighborhood of Strasburg. Here Jackson took five days of rest preparatory to the movement upon Richmond.

During most of this period, by all the rules of the game, Mc-Clellan was in default for not attacking. He had come within arm's length, but allowed the initiative to Lee. McDowell had been taken from him, so that he had nothing to gain by waiting, while his enemy had the opportunity both of reenforcement and of fortification. Lee was, indeed, doing his utmost in [112] each direction. McClellan seemed to have been subconsciously aware that he ought to attack, and that his advantage was being lost by every day's delay; for his reports to Washington represented his army, from day to day, as being only held back from a general advance by waiting for some slight additional advantage, which a day or two would bring.

On June 2, which was his best opportunity, he was only waiting for the water to fall in the Chickahominy. On June 7 he was waiting for McCall's division (about 10,000 strong) which arrived on the 12th and 13th. On June 16 he was waiting for two days to let the ground harden. On June 18 the general engagement might begin at any hour. On June 25 ‘the action will probably occur to-morrow, or within a short time.’ And at last he was right, for Lee began it on the 26th, and during the interval, since June 2, the advantage had shifted from McClellan's side to Lee's.

As the game and the players now stood, the game was Lee's for a great success, — the greatest ever so fairly offered to any Confederate general. His strategy had been good and had been carried through without a flaw. Jackson's entire army, reenforced by Whiting's division and Lawton's brigade, had been brought down secretly from the Valley and, on the night of June 25, was encamped at Ashland within 13 miles of Mechanicsville. It was about 18,500 strong. Meanwhile, Lee had drawn together, available for battle, around Richmond, about 65,000 other troops, and had fortified his lines on the southeast between the Chickahominy and the James, enough to make them quite secure with half his force. McClellan's right flank was but a single corps, Porter's not over 30,000 strong, and separated from the Federal centre by the Chickahominy River and about four miles of distance. Under these circumstances, with even fairly good tactics, Porter's corps should have been practically destroyed, and with it the Federal line of supply from the York River. That once accomplished, the capture or destruction of the remainder of McClellan's army, during their retreat to the James River, would have been an easier task than the first.

All this was in the game which Lee set out to play on June 26, and the stakes were already his if his execution were even half as [113] good as his plan. At the beginning there was every promise that it would be. Two days before, a confidential order had been issued to general officers and heads of departments, which is given in part, in contrast with Johnston's method, as developed at Seven Pines.

General orders no. 75.

Headquarters in the field, June 24, 1862.
Gen. Jackson's command will proceed to-morrow from Ashland toward the Stark (or Merry Oaks) Church, and encamp at some convenient point west of the Central Railroad. Branch's brigade of A. P. Hill's division will also, to-morrow evening, take position on the Chickahominy near Half-Sink.

At three o'clock Thursday morning, 26th inst., Gen. Jackson will advance on the road leading to Pole Green Church, communicating his march to Gen. Branch, who will immediately cross the Chickahominy and take the road leading to Mechanicsville.

As soon as the movements of these columns are discovered, Gen. A. P. Hill, with the rest of his division, will cross the Chickahominy near Meadow Bridge and move direct upon Mechanicsville.

To aid his advance the heavy batteries on the Chickahominy will, at the proper time, open upon the batteries at Mechanicsville. The enemy being driven from Mechanicsville and the passage across the bridge opened, Gen. Longstreet, with his division and that of Gen. D. H. Hill, will cross the Chickahominy at or near that point, Gen. D. H. Hill moving to the support of Gen. Jackson, and Gen. Longstreet supporting Gen. A. P. Hill. The four divisions keeping in communication with each other and moving en echelon on separate roads, if practicable, the left division in advance, with skirmishers and sharp-shooters extending their front, will sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position above New Bridge, Gen. Jackson bearing well to his left, turning Beaver Dam Creek, taking the direction toward Cold Harbor.

‘They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy's rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy. Any advance of the enemy toward Richmond will be prevented by vigorously following his rear and crippling and arresting his progress. . . .’

But one grave error had been committed. Among the preparations which Lee had made for the occasion had been a forced reconnaissance of the enemy's rear, which was made by his cavalry commander, Stuart, between June 11 and 15. Stuart, with about 1200 men and two guns, passing well behind the enemy's right, had gotten into his rear and discovered [114] that his right flank did not extend for any distance northward from the Chickahominy and rested on no natural obstacle. But the expedition could not safely return, Stuart thought, by the route taken in going. He determined, therefore, to make the circuit of the Federal army, crossing the Chickahominy below by a bridge which he expected to find.

In this he was disappointed, but with great resource he got safely across, partly by swimming, and partly by rebuilding a bridge, and brought off his guns and a few prisoners.

But this raid, though ordered by Lee and handsomely conducted, had one unfortunate effect. It would have been much better to have obtained the necessary information by scouts. It seriously alarmed McClellan for his rear. But for it the probabilities are that he would never have given the subject any thought, and he would certainly not have been prepared with a fleet of loaded transports on hand when he was, soon after, forced to change his base to Harrison's Landing on the James River. It is hard to estimate the difference in the result, had McClellan been taken by surprise on this occasion and been forced, perhaps, to retreat down the Peninsula. On the whole, therefore, the éclat of our brilliant raid cost us much more than its results were worth. Where important strategy is on foot, too great care can scarcely be used to avoid making any such powerful suggestions to the enemy as resulted in this case.

It is interesting to note that the enemy got no intimations of what was going on until June 24. On that day a deserter from Jackson's force was brought in. After trying in vain to pass himself off as a Union prisoner, escaped from Jackson, he had told of Jackson's march and its supposed intent to attack Mc-Clellan's flank.

McClellan wired the story to Stanton, and also sent out two negroes to go along the railroad and investigate, but Stuart's pickets were too vigilant for the negroes to pass them. Stanton gave some credence to the deserter's story, but it cut small figure among the rumors which McClellan was receiving from his detective bureau. He believed that Beauregard had arrived and that Lee now had 200,000 men.

On June 25 he made his first forward movement by advancing [115] the skirmish-lines of several brigades and taking up a portion of the neutral ground in front of our picket-lines, near the Williamsburg road. Sharp skirmishing ensued and lasted all day, the Federal losses being reported as about 700, and our own about 400. The affair was called Orchard or Oak Grove Skirmish.

Before issuing order of battle No. 75, Lee had had on June 23 Longstreet, A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill, and Jackson, to meet in conference at his headquarters to arrange all details. Longstreet had asked Jackson to fix the date on which the attack should be made. The latter named June 25. Longstreet suggested that he allow more time, and the 26th was agreed to.

When summoned to this meeting by Lee on Saturday, June 21, Jackson was near Gordonsville. He started on a freight train bound to Richmond, but left the train before midnight that night at a station where he spent Sunday, attending church twice.1 At midnight he set out on horseback for the conference at Richmond about 50 miles away, arriving about 3 P. M.

Had he kept on the freight train to Richmond, he would have arrived early Sunday morning. His brigades on the march also kept Sunday in camp. It was usually the general's custom to keep account of Sundays spent in fighting or marching, and to make up for each by a week-day rest, and sermons, at the earliest opportunity.

On the march from Gordonsville the railroad was utilized for the infantry, as far as could be done, by picking up the rear brigades and carrying them forward. Artillery and cavalry marched all the way.

On Tuesday morning, June 24, Jackson's infantry was at Beaver Dam Station, on the Virginia Central road, about 18 miles from Ashland, where they were expected to encamp that night, and about 25 miles from the Virginia Central R. R. near the Stark Church, whence order No. 75 required Jackson to march at 3 A. M., Thursday, June 26.

We now enter upon the story of performances. The orders governing the beginning of the action were simple and explicit. Every officer must have realized the supreme importance of [116] time, even without the hint given by Lee in his order fixing the hour of Jackson's march at 3 A. M.

It is, therefore, a great surprise to see that instead of crossing the Virginia Central R. R. at 3 A. M. on the 26th, they do not begin to cross it until 10 A. M. on that date. That is practically a whole day late, because, with the distance still to be traversed, it will be too late to commence the great battle intended, in time to win it and gather the fruits of victory.

Had Jackson pushed his march to Ashland on the night of the 24th, about 18 miles from Beaver Dam, as Lee's order contemplated, he would have had only six miles to march on the 25th, and his men would have been in excellent condition to set out at 3 A. M. on the 26th, with less than 10 miles to go to reach the enemy. The result of crossing the Central R. R. at 10 A. M. was to fight the battle a day late and at Gaines Mill, three miles nearer McClellan's main army, thus losing the opportunity to cut off Porter's corps at Beaver Dam. This opportunity, the cream of the whole campaign, was lost by Jackson's not demanding of his troops better marching on the 24th and 25th.

His biographers have found many excuses for him, but, however good or bad these excuses may be, they will not be dwelt upon here for two reasons:—

First. The object of the narrative is neither praise nor blame, but only that military students may realize, more fully than they could without such an example, the infinite value of hours when a battle is on foot, and how easily hours may be lost.

Second. The excuses of the biographers will best be given after finishing the whole story; for, unfortunately, this loss of the first day is not the only, nor is it the worst, failure of Jackson during these Seven Days, to come to time as was expected of him. He nowhere, even distantly, approached his record as a soldier won in his every other battle, either before or afterward. As one reads of his weak and dilatory performance day after day, and recalls what he had always been before, and always was afterward, one feels that during these Seven Days he was really not Jackson. He was a different individual. He was [117] under a spell! Nothing that he had to do was done with the vigor which marked all the rest of his career.

Crossing the Central R. R. at 10 A. M. on the 26th, he marched but eight miles farther that day, going into bivouac about five o'clock, at Hundley's Corner. He was here in easy reach of Porter's rear and in full hearing of the heavy cannonading and musketry going on at Mechanicsville, which will be told of presently.

He describes the march, as follows, in his official report:—

‘Pursuing the Ashcake road we crossed the Central R. R. about 10 A. M. Approaching the Totopotomoy Creek, the Federal picket crossed to the south side of the stream, and partially destroyed the bridge, and, by felling trees across the road farther on, attempted to delay oar advance. After the Texas skirmishers had gallantly crossed over, Reilly shelled the woods for the purpose of driving the enemy from it, in order that we might safely effect a lodgment beyond the creek. Whiting rapidly repaired the bridge and the march was resumed. That night the three divisions bivouacked near Hundley's Corner. . . . We distinctly heard the rapid and continued discharges of cannon which announced the engagement of Gen. A. P. Hill with the extreme right of the enemy.’

Gen. Stuart, in his official report, says: —

‘At Dr. Shelton's we awaited the arrival of Gen. Jackson, sending a squadron in advance to seize and hold the bridge at the Totopotomoy. The enemy, anticipating us, had torn up the bridge, and held the opposite bank, and obstructed the road, without, however, making any determined stand. Capt. W. W. Blackford, Corps of Engineers, assigned to duty with my command, set about repairing the bridge, and in a half-hour, with the details furnished him, the bridge was ready. Passing Pole Green Church, Gen. Jackson's march led directly toward the crossing of Beaver Dam Creek opposite Richardson's. Reaching that point he bivouacked for the night.’

Gen. Trimble, in his official report, writes: —

‘On the 26th we moved, with the army, from Ashland in a southerly direction, passing to the east of Mechanicsville in the afternoon, and at 4 P. M. distinctly heard the volleys of artillery and musketry in the engagement of Gen. Hill with the enemy. Before sundown the firing was not more than two miles distant, and, in my opinion, we should have marched to the support of Gen. Hill that evening.’

Now we will go back to the Chickahominy, where Branch's brigade, some eight miles above the rest of A. P. Hill's division [118] at Meadow Bridge, is under arms and expecting to receive the signal to advance not later than 4 A. M. It does not come until after 10 o'clock. As soon as it was received, Branch crossed the Chickahominy and moved toward Mechanicsville, the enemy's pickets falling back before him.

At one point the road pursued by Branch approached, within a short distance, a road upon its left, which was being followed by Ewell's column, and the two generals had a brief meeting, but there was no other communication between the columns until the next day. Meanwhile, since an early hour in the morning, the divisions of A. P. Hill at Meadow Bridge, and of D. H. Hill and Longstreet at the Mechanicsville bridge, two miles below, had been under arms and anxiously awaiting the sound of Jackson's guns.

President Davis was on the ground, having ridden out from Richmond, not only to see, but anxious to participate in, the coming battle. A few siege-guns had been mounted on the low bluffs along the Chickahominy Valley, and they were now manned for use, in case our crossing at the Mechanicsville bridge was resisted. But hour after hour passed, and there came no sound of conflict from the direction of Jackson's advance.

At 3 P. M. A. P. Hill, of his own motion, decided to wait for Jackson no longer. It is strange that he should have taken this responsibility without orders from Lee, who was within two miles, and who, it seems, would not have approved it. Henderson states that, ‘A message from Lee, ordering Hill to postpone all further movement, arrived too late.’2 Doubtless Lee wished, now, to make a fresh start on the morrow, as Johnston had wished at Seven Pines.

The enemy made slight resistance to Hill's advance, and fell back through Mechanicsville to his works behind Beaver Dam Creek, opening the road to Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's divisions. A. P. Hill's division moved so rapidly that it arrived at Mechanicsville a mile and a half ahead of Branch's brigade. No advantage was gained, however, by thus anticipating the coming up of Jackson. The enemy held, behind Beaver Dam Creek, an intrenched position quite impregnable to assault. [119]

It had not been intended to attack it with infantry, but to threaten it with artillery, while Jackson passed to the rear and cut off the enemy's retreat.

Already Jackson, in spite of his slow march and the time wasted at Totopotomoy Creek, was within three miles of the enemy's line of retreat and with no force opposing him but a few cavalry. But here he stopped his march, which had only been about 13 miles that day, and went into bivouac, regardless of the roar, not only of artillery, but, presently, of musketry also, appealing to him from Mechanicsville. For with haste and poor judgment Davis, Lee, Longstreet, and the two Hills, not content to merely cannonade the enemy in his position, were beginning to wreck whole brigades of infantry, as must now be told.

The position was one in which good troops could repulse treble their numbers if assailed in front, but it was easily turned. Jackson, three miles off to the northeast, was already in easy reach of Porter's line of retreat, and had but to push his advance a mile or two, and Porter would have been compelled to retreat precipitately or be caught in a trap.

On the 26th of June, in the latitude of Richmond, the sun rises at 4.38 A. M. and sets at 7.27 P. M. and twilight lasts until about 8.30 P. M. There was no moon. As already told, Gen. Jackson arrived at Hundley's Corner at 4.30 P. M. and went into bivouac there for the night, after having marched from Ashland about 11 miles off in an air line, and perhaps 12 to 14 by the roads traversed.

At Mechanicsville the firing commenced at three o'clock, and rapidly grew heavy. It was at first a long-range duel with the Confederate siege-guns on the Chickahominy, and then with the field-batteries accompanying Confederate brigades as they came up. A. P. Hill's five brigades of infantry were also put into action as soon as they could be formed, and advanced within range of the enemy's intrenched lines, when they opened fire both of artillery and infantry. Thus the battle was maintained until dark. Meanwhile, as the hours of daylight were closing, under urgent messages from Lee and President Davis, two regiments of Ripley's brigade of D. H. Hill's division were launched in a direct charge on perhaps the very strongest point [120]

Battle of Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862

[121] of the whole Federal position. A more hopeless charge was never entered upon. They were the 1st N. C. and the 44th Ga., raw regiments, which had never before been under fire. Their behavior illustrated the morale inspiring the army. Had they been given anything to do which it was possible to do, they would have done it, and become seasoned veterans in their first battle.

They dashed across a wide plain through a storm of musketry, shells, and canister, and some even went across Beaver Dam and into the entangled slashing close under the Federal lines. There they were killed until their bodies lay, as a Federal account described it, ‘as thick as flies in a bowl of sugar,’ before the survivors realized the trap into which they had been sent, and got back as best they could.

The 1st N. C. suffered 142 casualties, including all three field-officers and the adjutant. The 44th Ga. lost 335, including its Col. and Lt.-Col., —a regimental loss seldom equalled in so short a time. The total casualties of this battle were about 1350 and included 14 field-officers. The Federals reported their loss as 361.

Porter, in his report, says that only during the night, by reports from scouts and outposts, did the Federals become aware of the close proximity of Jackson's force, and it was recognized at once that McClellan's army was in a very critical condition. He writes: —

‘But for the conception of the idea of a flank movement, changing our base by the left flank to the James River, our position would have left but one alternative — a hasty abandonment of our attack on Richmond, and a retirement by the way we had advanced.’

This conception, as before told, had been developed two weeks before by Stuart's raid, and it had not only been developed, but, what was much more important, already transports had been loaded and many important preparations for carrying it into execution had been made in advance. The matter was decided in McClellan's mind during that night, though no orders were issued. Porter's corps was ordered to withdraw to a strong position upon the north bank of the Chickahominy in close connection with the rest of his army. [122]

This position, about three miles in rear of Beaver Dam, had already been noted and selected by the Chief Engineer, Gen. Barnard.

Porter, however, remained in his intrenched position until daylight, and then began to withdraw down the Chickahominy in good order, carrying with him guns of position which had been posted along the Chickahominy. The Confederate batteries reopened their fire at dawn, and the Federal rear-guard replied heavily for over two hours. Had Jackson's corps made an early start, and been pushed as Jackson was wont to push, both before and after this Seven Days spell, he would have struck Porter's corps on the flank as it marched toward Cold Harbor. But the advance was so late and slow that when at last, about eight o'clock, it appeared in rear of Porter's position, having marched about three miles, the last Federal soldier had withdrawn, and Jackson's artillery fired by mistake into the head of Hill's advancing column. The trap was sprung, but the bird had flown.

Gen. Gregg gives the following account: —

‘Early in the morning of the 27th I received orders from Gen. A. P. Hill to take the advance with the 2d brigade and to drive the enemy from their position on Beaver Dam Creek at Ellison's Mill. The brigade advanced to the attack. Slight resistance was made here by the enemy, and the passage of the stream, which presented a strong natural obstacle, was gained. Many Confederate soldiers, wounded or killed in a preceding unsuccessful assault, lay in the road toward the crossing of the creek, and had to be moved aside to allow the passage of our artillery. A small bridge, broken up by the enemy, had also to be repaired. This was toward eight o'clock in the morning. Crossing Beaver Dam Creek, the brigade advanced along the road among piles of knapsacks and other property, and burning stores abandoned by the enemy, with skirmishers — out to the front and left. Coming into the edge of an open field, Capt. Cordero's company, 1st S. C., deployed as skirmishers, were fired on by artillery in front, and Lt. Heise and a soldier were wounded. Capt. W. T. Haskell's company of the same regiment, advancing in open order, discovered that the forces meeting us in front from the left were those of Maj.-Gen. Jackson, and entered into communication with them so as to to avoid the risk of future mischiefs.’

At last then, the morning half gone, the four Confederate divisions were united and within three miles of the enemy. Porter had gone into the position selected behind Boatswains' [123] Creek, with three divisions of infantry, six regiments of cavalry, and 20 batteries, — in all about 27,000 men and 80 guns. The position was naturally strong, and it was being strengthened hourly with abattis and rifle-pits.

Its development covered only about two miles of convex front. Its left flank rested on the open Chickahominy bottom, where heavy batteries from the south side secured it from being turned. Its right flank was its weak point, its protection there being only tangled thickets which also covered much of the front. Where this was lacking were generally three lines of infantry, partially under cover, and abundant artillery so placed that its fire was over the heads of the infantry. His force was enough to cover his front six deep. Two bridges gave connection to the south side, and over them, during the action, McClellan sent Slocum's division (9000) of Franklin's corps with two batteries, and French's and Meagher's brigades of Sumner's corps, as reenforcements, — say about 14,000 men. Porter himself was, perhaps, the hardest opponent to fight in the Federal army. No one in it knew better how to occupy and prepare his ground for defence, or was more diligent to do it; and in his corps were concentrated all of the regular regiments of the old Federal army.

To attack such a position was no easy proposition, and Lee's force, checked and 1300 weakened by the ill-advised affair at Mechanicsville, had no margin to spare over the size of its task. Indeed, had McClellan reenforced Porter as he should have done, with a whole corps, he might have won a great victory. But he allowed himself to be imposed upon by the demonstrations made by Magruder and Huger, under orders from Lee, and neither attacked with his left, nor strengthened his right sufficiently. He weakly left the question of sending reenforcements to his four corps commanders. Franklin sent Slocum's division, and Sumner sent French's and Meagher's brigades, but Keyes and Heintzelman reported that they could spare nothing.

As it was, therefore, the fight should result in Lee's favor by a reasonable margin, provided it was well managed and its force not squandered in partial attacks. But this took place to an extent perilously near losing the battle. It did lose the precious hours of daylight necessary to gather any fruits of victory, and [124] made the victory much more bloody than it need have been. The importance of time should have been appreciated and the march pushed to locate the enemy's new position and develop it with strong skirmish-lines. Then, at the most favorable points, our utmost strength should have been marshalled and concentrated for simultaneous assaults of infantry, supported upon each flank by concentrations of batteries. It was but waste of time and blood to launch any small assault against that position, as had been done at Beaver Dam.

The fact that we finally carried the position by a general charge, after the repulse of many partial ones, shows that our men were good enough and that we had enough of them to have made a success early in the afternoon, had our energies been first concentrated for the effort.

During the morning of the 27th, the Confederates moved with a slowness only to be understood by remembering the inexperience, in handling such large bodies, of many of our generals and staff-officers. By noon, however, we had developed the enemy's position. On our left Jackson was at Cold Harbor with four divisions, —his own, Ewell's, Whiting's, D. H. Hill's, — and Lawton's large brigade in addition. He confronted the Federal right. A. P. Hill, with Longstreet in reserve, confronted their left.

Porter, in the Century, writes: —

The column of these troops [Jackson's] came a little earlier than those under Longstreet and A. P. Hill, but were more cautious, and, for some hours, not so aggressive.

What happened was this: D. H. Hill's division, crossing the Chickahominy behind A. P. Hill, had been pushed out to the left by Lee's battle order and brought up behind and in support of Jackson's forces early on the 27th. But in the slow marching of the morning, D. H. Hill, with characteristic aggressiveness, had managed to pass Jackson's force and to take the lead. On approaching Cold Harbor and discovering the enemy's position, Hill at once moved his division up to the edge of the swamp held by the enemy upon the other side, and opened upon them with a battery. His battery was quickly answered by 10 guns, and [125] after a brief action was withdrawn, crippled. Just at that juncture came orders from Jackson withdrawing Hill into some woods in rear, where the head of Jackson's long column was already standing halted. In his official report, Jackson thus explains his object in this manoeuvre:—

‘Soon after, Gen. A. P. Hill became engaged, and, being unacquainted with the ground, and apprehensive, from what appeared to me to be the respective positions of the Confederate and Federal forces engaged, that, if I then pressed forward, our troops would be mistaken for the enemy and be fired into, and hoping that Gen. A. P. Hill and Longstreet would drive the Federals toward me, I directed Gen. D. H. Hill to move his division to the left of the road, so as to leave between him and the wood on the right of the road [from which he is withdrawing D. H. Hill], an open space across which I hoped the enemy would be driven. Thus arranged, it was in our power to distinguish friend from foe in case the enemy should be driven as expected.’

It is not necessary to comment upon this too elaborate explanation of how more than a half of Lee's army was paralyzed for three hours, just on the verge of battle, further than to say that the inaction, and the excuse for it, are both unlike anything ever seen in Jackson before or after these Seven Days. D. H. Hill was withdrawn about 2 P. M. It was about 2.30 P. M. when A. P. Hill's advance, pressed as rapidly as he was able to bring up his six brigades, developed into a battle.

Porter, in Battles and leaders, further describes the fight made by this single division (about 12,000 men) which had had, only the evening before, sharp losses at Ellison's Mill.

Soon after 2 P. M., A. P. Hill's force, between us and New Cold Harbor, again began to show an aggressive disposition, independent of its own troops on its flanks, by advancing from under cover of the woods, in lines well formed and extending, as the contest progressed from in front of Martin's battery to Morell's left.

Dashing across the intervening plains, floundering in the swamps, and struggling against the tangled brushwood, brigade after brigade seemed to almost melt away before the concentrated fire of our artillery and infantry; yet others pressed on, followed by supports as dashing and as brave as their predecessors, despite their heavy losses and the disheartening effect of having to clamber over many of their disabled and dead, and to meet their surviving comrades rushing back in great disorder from the deadly contest. For nearly two hours the battle raged, extending more or less along the whole line to our extreme right. [126]

The fierce firing of artillery and infantry, the crash of the shot, the bursting of shells, and the whizzing of bullets heard above the roar of artillery and the volleys of musketry, all combined, was something fearful.

Map: Gaines Mill or Cold Harbor

‘Regiments quickly replenished their exhausted ammunition by borrowing from more bountifully supplied and generous companions; some withdrew temporarily for ammunition, and fresh regiments took their places, ready to repulse, sometimes to pursue, their desperate enemy, for the purpose of retaking ground from which we had been pressed, and which it was necessary to occupy in order to hold our position.’


It is to make one almost sick of regret to read of such desperate valor so lavishly wasted upon an impossible effort, while three times as many men stood by and looked on. A. P. Hill's account of it in his official report is as follows:—

The incessant roar of musketry and deep thunder of artillery told that the whole force of the enemy was in my front. Branch becoming hard pressed, Pender was sent in to his relief. Field and Archer were also directed to do their part in this murderous contest. Braxton's battery, accompanying Archer, had already opened. They were ordered to turn the enemy's left. These two brigades under their heroic leaders, moving across the open field, met the enemy behind an abattis and strong intrenchments at the base of a long wooded hill, the enemy being in three lines on the side of this declivity, its crest falling off into a plateau, and this plateau studded with guns.

My front now presented a curved line, its convexity toward the enemy. Desperate but unavailing attempts were made to force the enemy's positions. The 14th S. C., Col. McGowan (having hurried up from picket duty on the other side of the Chickahominy, and arriving in the thickest of the fight), on the extreme left, made several daring charges. The 16th N. C., Col. McElroy, and 22d, Lt.-Col. Gray, at one time carried the crest of the hill, and were in the enemy's camp, but were driven back by overwhelming numbers. The 35th Ga., Col. Thomas, also drove through the enemy's line like a wedge, but it was all of no avail. Gregg and Branch fought with varying success, Gregg having before him the vaunted Zouaves and Sykes's regulars. Pender's brigade was suffering heavily, but stubbornly held its own. Field and Archer met a withering storm of bullets, but pressed on to within a short distance of the enemy's works, but the storm was too fierce for such a handful of men. They recoiled and were again pressed to the charge, but with no better success. These brave men had done all that any soldiers could do. Directing their men to lie down, the fight was continued and help awaited. From having been the attacking, I now became the attacked, but stubbornly, gallantly, was the ground held. My division was thus engaged fully two hours before assistance was received. We failed to carry the enemy's lines, but we paved the way for the successful attacks afterward, in which attacks it was necessary to employ the whole of our army on that side of the Chickahominy.

About four o'clock reenforcements came up on my right from Gen. Longstreet, and later, Jackson's men on my right and centre, and my division was relieved of the weight of the contest. It was then continued on more equal terms, and finally the extreme left of the enemy's line was most gallantly carried by Hood's brigade.

At seven o'clock the General-in-chief, in person, gave me an order to [128] advance my whole line and to communicate this order as far as I could to all commanders of troops. This was done, and a general advance being made, the enemy were swept from the field and the pursuit only stopped by nightfall, and the exhaustion of our troops. The batteries of Crenshaw, Johnson, Braxton, and Pegram were actively engaged, Crenshaw and Johnson pretty well knocked to pieces. Pegram, with indomitable energy and earnestness of purpose, though having lost 47 men and many horses at Mechanicsville, had put his battery in condition for this fight also.

Lee's official report of this battle was not written until eight months afterward, during which period Jackson's great military genius had manifested itself undimmed by any spell; and with increasing brilliancy on the fields of Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Harper's Ferry, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg. There was, most wisely and properly, every disposition to ignore and forget the disappointments felt during the Seven Days, and the facts are glossed over with but brief and, as it were, casual mention, but they are plainly apparent.

Lee by no means designed that A. P. Hill should alone engage the whole of Porter's force. He had had a personal interview with Jackson during the morning, and he knew that the head of his column was at Cold Harbor before 2 P. M. He expected it to immediately envelop and to turn Porter's right. He says that Hill

‘Immediately formed his line nearly parallel to the road toward McGehee's house, and soon became hotly engaged. The arrival of Jackson on our left was momentarily expected, and it was supposed that his approach would cause the extension of the enemy's line in that direction. Under this impression Longstreet was held back until this movement should commence.’

Hill went into action anticipating that Jackson's whole force would almost immediately be demonstrating or attacking upon the enemy's right flank. Why were they not? The head of the column was up, but it was hidden from the enemy's view in the woods, and its whole length, stretching for miles back, was simply standing idle in the road. Had the divisions even been closed up and disentangled from ordnance wagons, artillery, and ambulances, and massed near Cold Harbor, the time would not have been entirely wasted, but this was not done. Stern [129] necessity, at length, forced Lee to call upon Longstreet's division to aid A. P. Hill. Three brigades were advanced within musket range as supports, but held back from the charge while the remaining three were held near at hand and ready for action. At length, — probably about 4.30, — aroused to action both by the receding sounds of A. P. Hill's battle, and by urgent messages from Lee, Jackson sent D. H. Hill's division back into the wood from which he had withdrawn it before two o'clock. He also sent a staff-officer to his other divisions with instructions, quoted by Henderson, as follows:—

‘The troops are standing at ease along our line of march. Ride back rapidly along the line, and tell the commanders to advance instantly in echelon from the left. Each brigade is to follow as a guide, the right regiment of the brigade on the left, and to keep within supporting distance. Tell the commanders if this formation fails at any point, to form line of battle and move to the front, pressing to the sound of the heaviest firing, and attack the enemy vigorously wherever found. As to artillery, each commander must use his discretion. If the ground will at all permit, tell them to take in their field-batteries and use them. If not, post them in the rear.’

That the troops were still standing halted along the line of march appears in the official reports, as well as in the time consumed before they were able to make their power felt in the battle. This required from one to two hours.

Winder, commanding Jackson's division, reports: —

‘Left bivouac near Totopotomoy Creek at about 5 A. M., being in the rear of the column, except one brigade. The march was slow and tedious [about seven miles during the whole day]. Firing was heard on the right. Between 4 and 5 P. M. I received orders from Gen. Ewell to move up rapidly. I ordered the ordnance wagons and artillery to halt, and moved the brigade from the column filing to the right through a wood and swamp, to the point where I heard the heaviest fire.’

Lawton's official report says: —

‘In the order of march toward the battle-field on that day my brigade brought up the rear of Gen. Jackson's army, and was, therefore, the last to engage the enemy. I had remained at a halt for several hours, more than two miles from the point where the brigade afterward entered the field, and was not ordered forward until nearly 5 P. M. I then marched rapidly on, retarded much by the artillery and ambulances which blocked up the narrow road.’


While Jackson's troops were being brought up, the noise of battle waned, until an ominous silence seemed to possess the field as the sun drew near the horizon. Then the storm arose again and soon swelled to a magnitude never before heard on this continent.

It was about seven o'clock when at last D. H. Hill, Ewell, Lawton, and a part of Winder were all hotly engaged in the swampy tangle in front of the Federal right, and, though in great confusion, were making headway through it, and several Confederate batteries were returning the Federal fire. Opposite their left, Whiting's two brigades had just arrived, being directed by Lee as they approached from Cold Harbor, and two of Winder's brigades were also close at hand. A. P. Hill's brigades, though much diminished, were still holding their lines, and Longstreet was all in position. It was, practically, anybody's fight. A fresh division to Porter would have easily held his lines until night. It might even have enabled him to make an effective counterstroke, though the natural obstacles behind which his lines were located, offered but one or two possible opportunities. Two fresh brigades, French's and Meagher's, were en route to him, but were yet too far off to lend any aid.

But Lee, at last, was putting forth his whole strength. He issued orders for an advance of every command, regardless of the troops upon its right or left. A general advance was made, not simultaneous in its beginnings, but pressed to success by Whiting's two brigades supported by Longstreet on our extreme right, by Lawton's and Winder's brigades in the centre, and by D. H. Hill with Garland's and parts of Ripley's and Rodes's brigades upon our left.

Had it been made two hours earlier, the fruits of the victory would have been important. As it was, they were so trifling as scarcely to be worth mention. Porter fell back in fairly good order under cover of his superior artillery, and our artillery could not be gotten forward across the swamps. Blessed night, for which the defeated pray, had let down her mantle while the firing was still severe, and before we could even feel fully assured of our victory. Under its friendly cover, and the protection of the French and Meagher brigades, by 4 A. M. the whole Federal [131] army had crossed the Chickahominy, damaging the bridges behind them, and leaving us, as the fruits of victory, but 22 guns, 2836 prisoners, and about 10,000 small-arms.

The Federal casualties were reported as: killed 894, wounded 3107, missing 2836, total 6837.

The Confederate casualties cannot be exactly divided, but I estimate the total losses of the different divisions for this battle, as follows:—

A. P. Hill'sdivision,6 brigades,2688
Longstreet's division,6 brigades,1883 (Only 5 engaged.)
D. H. Hill'sdivision,5 brigades,1423
Whiting'sdivision,2 brigades,1017
Ewell'sdivision,3 brigades,764
Jackson'sdivision,3 brigades,91 (Only 1 engaged.)
Lawton'sdivision,1 brigades,492

The heavy character of much of the fighting is shown by some of the regimental losses, although in many instances the reports give only the total casualties for the Seven Days, and do not distinguish between the battles. The charge by Whiting's two brigades, under Hood and Law, was notable for being driven home on the first effort, without halting to open fire. The 4th Tex., the first regiment to enter the enemy's works, lost 44 killed and 206 wounded. There was no thicket or obstruction to seriously check the advance at this portion of the field, and part of the ground traversed was exposed to but little artillery fire.

Trimble, of Ewell's division, made the following observations in his official report: —

‘The subjoined list of killed and wounded best shows the severity of the conflict, and a comparison of those of different regiments fairly illustrates the superiority of a rapid charge over a standing fight, not only as the best mode of securing victories, but doing it with smaller loss. The 15th Ala. and 21st Ga., numbering 1315 men, stood under a destructive fire for an hour or more, returning the enemy's volleys all the time, and advanced half a mile, with only fragments of companies, at the close of the day. Their loss in killed and wounded was 251 men. The 16th Miss. and 21st N. C., numbering 1244 men, passed under as hot a fire an equal distance in 15 minutes, losing in killed and wounded only 85 men.’


Briefly, it may be said of this battle that it seems to have been left in the hands of the division commanders until it was nearly lost. Only at the last moment was the hand of the general in command revealed. But had Jackson's march that morning been pushed with the fierce swiftness natural to him on such occasions, and had he, during A. P. Hill's attack, thrown his whole force upon McClellan's right, a comparatively easy victory would have resulted. As has been stated, the enemy's right flank was his weakest point. It was not found. D. H. Hill would have attacked it even before A. P. Hill's battle, had not Jackson stopped and withdrawn him, instead of reenforcing and pushing him, as it was naturally expected that Jackson would do — although no man ever needed pushing less than D. H. Hill. In the Century War book, he wrote of this occasion:—

‘Had Jackson's command gone in on the left of the road running by the McGehee House, Porter's position would have been turned and the line of retreat cut off.’

1 Henderson says it was Frederick Hall, other reports say Louisa C. H.

2 Hend. II., 16.

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