previous next

How the Seven days battle around Richmond began. [from the Richmond, Va., Times, July 1, 1900.]

The dash and romance of war is supposed to surround the cavalry branch of the service, but at times the red artillery comes in for its share, as was the case in the opening of the Seven Days fight around the capital of the Confederacy.

Everyone knows that for a week General Lee, in command of that grand old organization, the ‘Army of Northern Virginia,’ attacked, defeated and drove the ‘Army of the Potomac,’ under General McClellan, from one battlefield to another, finally penning him up on the banks of the James River, under shelter of the Federal gunboats, but very few at this late day can recall the incidents preceding the opening of the first day's fight at Mechanicsville, and how General Lee manoeuvered to uncover the heavy works built by McClellan across the road leading from Richmond to and beyond the Chickahominy river.

For weeks after the battle of Seven Pines General McClellan had been gradually extending his lines to the north of Richmond, until [91] he had heavily fortified his position all the way from the White House, on the Pamunky river, to where the old Central Railroad, now the Chesapeake and Ohio, crosses the Chickahominy river, his forces being estimated at from 90,000 to 120,000 men, fully equipped with all the best arms, ammunition, commissary and quartermaster stores.

A glance at the map will show that this position, fortified as it was, menaced the Capital City, and that, unless some means could be devised to protect it, there was little to prevent the capture of our beautiful city. That little was General Lee and his three divisions under Longstreet, Hill and Jackson. The latter, it is true, a week before the Seven Days fight began, was in the Valley of Virginia, giving one commander of the three divisions of the Federal army opposed to him a whipping one day, another the day after, and keeping all of them guessing where he was or whose turn it was next to be attacked and routed. While they were guessing Old Jack and his foot cavalry slipped off, and before General Banks (Jackson's quartermaster and commissary general) and his subordinates knew his whereabouts he was on General Lee's left flank, as we will see later on. There is no doubt about the fact of McClellan's ability. He was a fine general, and had under him a fine body of well equipped troops, but he was no match for General Lee, either in strategy or hard fighting.

During these weeks General Lee had been lying quietly between the Chickahominy and Richmond, gathering together such forces as he could induce Mr. Davis to give him, and while the small arms and artillery were not effective, nor the ammunition as good as that of McClellan, still there was no hesitancy on the part of General Lee in attacking McClellan and his army.

Our battery (Marmaduke Johnson's) had for some weeks been camped in the field between Colonel John B. Young's house, afterwards purchased by Mr. Ginter, and Emmanuel Church. On the Brook Road, near the Yellow Tavern, was the Hanover troops acting as pickets; between us and Richmond, Branch's Brigade of North Carolinians.

On the 24th of June, 1862, in the afternoon, orders were issued for us to move out the Brook Turnpike, and in a very short while, with the cavalry in front, our battery in the centre and Branch's Brigade in the rear, we were swinging down the road towards the northwest. As we passed the gate of Mr. Stewart's beautiful place several of the ladies of the family were gathered to watch the troops [92] go by. I stopped and requested that they would send word to my father that our battery had been ordered off, we knew not where. This message was very kindly and courteously delivered, and I am satisfied that it was due to the fervent prayers of that righteous man that my life was preserved through the three or four special incidents which I shall relate as I go on.

Just before dark we crossed the Chickahominy—at that point a very small creek—at a place called ‘Half Sink,’ then belonging to Hon. John Minor Botts. Here we found the first Federal pickets, but before any shots could be exchanged, they made off in great haste, and we went into camp for the night.

By daylight next morning we were again on the march. From time to time we found the Federal cavalry disposed to contest our advance, and from where we crossed the Chickahominy to Atlee's Station, on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, we had an almost continual skirmish. Just before reaching the railroad the enemy made a very determined stand, and we lost two or three men, but captured the guidon flag of the Federal cavalry. The last stand by the Yankees was on the field in front of the large white house on the right-hand side of the Chesapeake and Ohio road going from Richmond. Our guns were run up and one round from a section of the battery routed the cavalry, and we saw no more of them. The occupants of the house above referred to could not sufficiently express their delight at again being in the midst of Confederate soldiers. There was nothing about the house too good for us, and while the quality of the rations given us was not what we would have expected in olden times, it was furnished with such a hearty good will and with so many expressions of joy that it was as nectar of the gods to us.

It is probable that the road forked somewhere near this point, as we saw no more of the Yankees, and finally reached Mechanicsville. The advance of Branch's Brigade, our battery and the cavalry had uncovered the Meadowbridge road, whereupon General A. P. Hill crossed over and attacked the enemy just beyond Mechanicsville. A short distance before we reached the extreme left of our line the road was cut out from the hill, leaving a protected point where the surgeons had established a field hospital. To the right and forward of this point McIntosh's battery was doing good work, opposed to a battery of ten-pound Parrotts on the other side of the creek.

Captain Johnson ordered the writer forward to report to General Branch, to state that the battery was up, and ask where he desired [93] it to be put into action. Here occurred one of the first of the Providential protections that had been before alluded to. Five times I rode the little mare to the top of the hill in order to get over to where General Branch had established his field headquarters, but failed each time to force her against the shells bursting along the whole line to the right of McIntosh's battery. I then tied her under the hill and proceeded on foot. After some little difficulty I reached General Branch and reported. Just as I was about to receive his instructions a courier on horseback rode up, and at the same time a shell burst immediately over our heads, killing the courier and wounding several other men. Had I been on horseback I would probably have met the same fate as the courier.

Our battery was put into action, and the firing continued until late in the night, probably until 10 o'clock. The only guide we had to the location of the Yankee battery was the flash of their guns, but after the time mentioned the firing gradually grew less and we turned in to strengthen our position by throwing up earth-works in front of the guns.

As soon as it was light the next morning we resumed the duel, and for probably two hours a hot artillery fight was kept up; finally, however, the Federals withdrew. Again I had evidence of the interference of Providence. McIntosh's Battery had taken the reverse of an earth-work thrown up by General McClellan, but as it was on the south bank of the creek it had not been used until McIntosh found it an excellent place for his guns. Our battery crowded in close to McIntosh's, and as much room as possible was made for the protection of our men. Just before the firing ceased on the morning of the second of the seven days a sergeant of McIntosh's Battery and the writer were standing side by side watching the effect of the firing of our guns. Through the smoke and a very short distance off I noticed a peculiar looking object coming towards us, and in the twinkling of an eye I recognized it as a 3-inch rifle or 10-pound Parrot shell that had lost its balance and was turning end for end, coming quickly towards us. There was hardly time to say ‘drop,’ but I dropped as close to the ground as possible; my comrade endeavored to do the same thing, but just as his back bent the shot struck him between the shoulders and tore out about twelve inches of backbone. This, as I said, seemed another direct interposition of Providence. ‘Two shall be standing in the field—the one shall be taken and the other left.’

Shortly afterwards we were ordered to cease firing, limber up and [94] take the road to Mechanicsville. At this point, probably, my story should end, as the title of the article would indicate, but there are two or three incidents that happened during the afternoon of the second day that came under my eye, and probably no man now living recollects these special episodes, and I will endeavor to relate the occurrences of the second day as briefly as possible.

Leaving Mechanicsville to take the road to Gaines' Mill, which road is at right angles with the main road and for a short distance runs on a level and then descends very sharply to the level of the creek, at the same time turning abruptly to the right. About a hundred yards in front there was a bridge, the road there turning to the left to reach Ellerson's Mill. Here on the evening previous there had occurred one of the most sickening slaughters imaginable. The Yankees had breast-works and batteries with infantry supports on the hill to the left of Ellerson's Mill. The creek had been dammed until the entire meadow had been overflowed and no body of infantry could ever have crossed this open space as long as the Yankees chose to keep them from doing so. A Colonel Williams, commanding an Alabama Regiment, I think, did, however, make an attempt to cross this overflowed meadow, and as a consequence his entire command was cut to pieces. In a space of less than 100 yards there lay two hundred and sixty dead Confederates, and no one knows how many had been wounded and carried off. The impression made upon the troops passing at that point was not calculated to increase their courage, as it was supposed that in the very near future we would again run up against McClellan and might have some further trouble with him. A short distance beyond Walnut Grove Church, I think, there was a large field. On the far side of this field there was a large body of woods, and as we marched along the road we saw the glint from shining muskets and easily recognized a large body of troops gathered on the edge of the woods. Our guns were immediately unlimbered, skirmishers were thrown forward, and the troops on the other side followed suit. Before any firing, however, begun, the men recognized each other and we found that we had struck the head of Jackson's column on its memorable march from the Valley to help General Lee in his hour of dire need. Great were the shouts and congratulations from one to the other as we met, but we were under rapid marching orders and had to leave Jackson's men, hoping to see them later.

At last our battery reached Gaines' Mill, and pulling up to the [95] top of the hill, found several batteries waiting for orders, among them Pegram's, Crenshaw's, the Dixie Battery and others.

The fighting in the woods to the right of the road and about 150 feet therefrom, was terrific. Fitz John Porter, as true and gallant a soldier as ever fought, was holding the right of McClellan's line with some of the best troops in the army, among them Sykes' Brigade of regulars. Just after we halted, General R. E. Lee and staff rode up and stopped, evidently regarding this point as the most critical along the whole line. Several efforts were made to get General Lee to retire, as now and then one of our men or horses would be shot. He refused, however, to leave and it was well he did not, for about that time a South Carolina brigade commenced coming out of the woods perfectly panic-stricken. General Lee ordered our guns unlimbered, then turning to the men around him, among whom I recall Major Lindsay Walker and Captain Hampden Chamberlayne, his adjutant, remarked: ‘Gentlemen, we must rally those men.’ Immediately galloping forward himself, he called on the South Carolinians to stop and for the sake of their State go back to their work. The panic stopped and the men gallantly rallied, and led by General Maxey Gregg and the equally gallant A. C. Haskell, the line was reversed and the thunder of musketry grew as loud as ever. At this time there was no cheering—every man was fighting with his mouth closed and standing his ground with all the courage he could command—and never anywhere do I recall a heavier fire than on the left of our line, General A. P. Hill, that magnificent fighter of the Light Infantry Division, showing himself the man he always was. Just about that time a very distinguished and well known lawyer of Richmond, one of the most dignified men in Virginia, a man of fine appearance and elegant manners, whose dignity would not on any occasion cause him to proceed out of a slow walk, rode up to our battery on a little pony. Captain Johnson, knowing him well, called him by name and asked what he was doing at that place at that time; his reply was: ‘I have always wanted to see a great battle, it has been the ambition of my life, and now that I have an opportunity, I intend to witness it.’ Captain Johnson begged him to return, but could not induce him to alter his mind. Finding that the old gentleman was determined to see the battle, he advised him to take his position on the hill about a quarter of a mile in front of our battery and on the left side of the road. Just in front of him there was an open space containing probably five or six hundred acres, beyond on the other side of the creek was posted General [96] Porter's artillery—some twenty-one guns. The old gentleman took his position, raised his green silk umbrella, and as it was an exceedingly hot day, pushed his tall silk hat from his forehead in a rather undignified manner. Just then Crenshaw's Battery was ordered forward to defend the left of our line against a flanking movement, and gallantly they went in at a full gallop, turning into the open space above mentioned and commencing to fire as soon as they could get their guns unlimbered. Of course the Yankees began to fire as soon as the guns appeared beyond the edge of the woods. Our attention was called to this firing, and before Crenshaw could begin to fire, our dignified friend had let down his umbrella, crammed his silk hat on the back of his head, and using the umbrella as a whip, was riding the pony down the hill towards the road at his utmost speed. Considering the man and the circumstances I do not remember ever to have seen a more ludicrous sight. He passed our battery at full gallop, with his heels and arms still flying; riding along the guns the men ridiculing him and calling him to come back, that the battle had just begun. Captain Johnson called to him and said: ‘You seem to have been easily satisfied, sir.’ In the distance we could hear his reply: ‘I think I have seen as much of a battle as I ever care to see again in my life.’

Our battery was then moved forward to relieve Crenshaw's, and as we reached the edge of the woods we saw coming over the hill to our left and rear the leading brigade of Jackson's Division.

I have no recollection previous to this of having heard with it afterwards became so famous and what has carried with it victory upon many a hard-fought field, then and now known as the ‘rebel yell,’ until these men of Jackson's, coming in on a double-quick, passed to the left of our battery down into the woods, brigade after brigade melting into the shadows of the dense thickets that lined this creek.

Our guns began firing immediately, and though the addition of this battery and the whole of Jackson's Division had been pushed against Fitz John Porter's front, so far as we could see, they did not give back one inch, but fought like true soldiers, and except for the increased noise of the musketry and cannon it would not have been known that additional troops were engaged. I have no ideal how long we remained there, but long enough to empty our limber chests and caissons, and finally to be ordered out with a loss of fifteen men and nineteen horses. Here I again recall another of the Providential interferences. My horse had been shot almost as soon as we reached the field, and when the battery was ordered out I wanted to get away [97] from there as quickly as possible. As one of the caissons passed I seized the fifth wheel, mounted to the top of the caisson, and changed my mind about as quickly as I got up. The air above me seemed to be so full of shrieking shells and whistling minie balls that I thought the closer I could get to the ground the better, So I tumbled off the caisson and began running along the ground again. Just as I reached the ground two men of the battery climbed, as I had done, to the top of the caisson, and as they reached the seat a shell burst immediately over the caisson, killing two horses, the driver and these two men; whereas I, running immediately by the side of the caisson, was not injured in the least.

As we reached the road coming out we met Longstreet's Division, with Pickett's Brigade in front, George and Charley Pickett and Dorsey Cullen leading the advance with the men fresh from Richmond, coming up at a double quick. These leaders I had known from boyhood, and as I clasped the hands of these gallant men one at a time, tears of excitement forced themselves from my eyes, and I remarked: ‘Unless you break that line we are badly whipped.’ Wheeling to the right Longstreet pushed his division across the creek and up the hill, and it was only then that the Federal line broke and the yells of our men rang through the gathering darkness shouts of victory, the firing evidently showing that at last General Porter's gallant men had been forced from their position, and the battle of Cold Harbor and Gaines' Mill of the seven days bloody battle around Richmond had been won.

In writing this article I have been led by a desire to state as a fact for future history that Branch's Brigade, Duke Johnson's Battery, and, I think, the Hanover Troop, were the instruments used by General Lee to bring on the great battle he proposed to fight in order to drive McClellan from the gates of Richmond.

In thinking over the stirring events of the day it seems to me that I would give all I have on earth to feel the good little mare under me, doing her best to keep up with Lieutenant Haskell, the blood flowing hot through my veins, the shouts of the men, the rattle of the guns, the dust, noise, thunder of cannon and rattle of musketry, that indeed was excitement, and now that I am old I long for the tingle of the nerves and the mingled feeling of fear and hope that will never come again. I often think that the man who gave up life in those days when the soldier's life was the only true living, can alone be called blessed.

J. B. M.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July 1st, 1900 AD (1)
June 24th, 1862 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: