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Personal Reminiscences of Seven days battles around Richmond. [from the Baltimore, Md., sun, June, 1902.]

The Fortieth anniversary.

By Prof. James Mercer Garnett, Ll.D.
Old Confederates may recall that this week is the anniversary of the very days of the Seven Days battles around Richmond, just forty years ago—June 26 to July 1, 1862.

It was on Thursday afternoon, June 26th, that General A. P. Hill opened the series with his battle at Beaver Dam creek, near Mechanicsville. It was not intended that this battle should begin until General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson had gotten into position with his forces from the Valley. To deceive McClellan, General Whiting had been sent to Staunton by rail with reinforcements for General Jackson, but these were at once recalled, and Jackson's foot cavalry, then encamped near Weyer's Cave, was marched with all haste to Richmond to turn McClellan's right flank. We lost no time on the way until near Richmond, when we were considerably delayed by the obstruction of the roads, and on one occasion by taking the wrong road, so that it was not possible to reach the vicinity of Richmond by June 26th, as had been agreed upon by Lee and Jackson in their midnight interview a few days before, Jackson having left his troops and ridden to Richmond with one courier for this interview. Discretion would seem to have dictated postponing the first attack until the next day to give time for General Jackson to get into the desired position, but valor got the better of discretion this time, and, though the attack was made by General A. P. Hill with characteristic impetuosity, it was but to be repulsed that afternoon with the loss of many brave men.

That night General Fitzjohn Porter withdrew his forces to the previously selected, almost impregnable position at Gaines' Mill, which he would have done anyhow, for General Jackson's movement necessitated that. Here the Federal troops were found in their excellent array next morning. General Jackson's forces were compelled to halt awhile this day at a certain cross-roads to allow General [148] D. H. Hill's troops to take the extreme left, so that the battle on the right had already opened and had been under way for some time before General Jackson's two divisions—his old division, which had just completed the whole of the memorable Valley campaign, and General Ewell's division, which had participated in all of it except the battle of McDowell and the advance to Franklin—got into position.

The attacks of Longstreet and A. P. Hill, Whiting, and Hood, though sometimes repulsed, finally carried the apparently impregnable position. Hood's Texans claimed to have made the breach.

It was late in the evening before Jackson's old division, in which the writer served as a staff officer of the ‘Stonewall’ Brigade, then commanded by General Charles S. Winder, of Maryland, that type of gallant officer and courteous gentleman, was brought into action. Shortly before dark General Lee ordered a charge to be made across the whole field. I can only speak particularly of what fell under my own observation. Into the woods and through the swamp we went, the men wading waist-deep and the water reaching the saddle girths of the horses. Emerging on the other side we came upon a fierce battle raging all around. Some of the troops were still lying down, and on giving the command, by General Winder's direction, that it was General Lee's order that all troops on the field must charge, one regimental commander replied that if I would bring him the order from his brigade commander he would obey it. There was no time to waste in that way, so I left him to his own cogitations and rode on. The cannon around the McGhee house ‘volleyed and thundered,’ and as it was now dark the flashes of the guns seemed to be directly in our faces, and it was easy to hear the orders of command from the enemy's officers. Poor Mitchell, of our staff, a gallant youth who had joined us but a few days before as a volunteer aide to General Winder, was killed in this charge. Night fell with the entire field in the possession of the Confederate troops and large supplies of small arms and cannon. That night General John F. Reynolds (afterward killed at Gettysburg), commanding a brigade of Pennsylvania reserves, was brought to our headquarters, having unwittingly ridden into our lines, so close together were the opposing armies.

Next day, by direction of General Jackson, on whose staff I had formerly served, I was directed to take charge of all ordnance stores on that portion of the field. In discharge of this duty, and with a proper regard for No. 1, I supplied myself with an excellent artillery officer's saddle, which was about to be appropriated by an infantryman, [149] and a dark blanket, with ‘P. R.’ in the centre, that served me in good stead for the rest of the war, and went home with me from Appomattox.

As the Federals had destroyed the bridges over the Chickahominy, we were detained this day (Saturday, June 28th), and Sunday, too, in reconstructing them. It must be premised that at this stage of the war we had no regular pioneer corps, and bridges were built for General Jackson's command by detailed men under Captain Mason, an old railroad contractor. It was he of whom it is said that on one occasion, when General Jackson told him he would soon send him drawings for a certain bridge, which drawings his engineer officer was making, he replied: ‘Never mind about the “picters,” General; the bridge is ready.’ Although he did not know much about ‘picters,’ he had had considerable experience in bridge-building. The bridge was finished Sunday, but not in time for us to cross in the face of the enemy and assist Magruder in his fight that afternoon near Savage Station. Next morning we were over bright and early, passed through Savage Station, where the hospitals were filled with Federal wounded, and marched on to White Oak Swamp. Here was a most unaccountable delay. Of course, the bridge had been destroyed, and it was not possible to cross without one, for General Franklin, commanding McClellan's rear guard, had lined the hills with cannon, supported by infantry, and an artillery duel went on all day across the swamp, but that did no good and little harm. Here we lay from about noon doing nothing but chafing under the delay, which has never been satisfactorily explained. Jackson's staff officers attributed it to his own physical fatigue, saying that he went to sleep and they could not arouse him, but I have never understood why the army could not have marched a little farther up the swamp to the right and forced a crossing at Brackett's Ford, even in the face of the enemy. There was undoubtedly much wondering and objurgation. ‘Old Jack’ certainly did not come up to the Valley.

We had to lie there all day and let Longstreet and A. P. Hill fight the notable battle of Glendale, or Frazier's farm, on that memorable Monday, June 30th, without our assistance, which aid would have insured an early victory and perhaps destroyed half of Mc-Clellan's army, the leading corps having already gone on to Malvern Hill. Why the troops on the extreme right did not come to their assistance—Magruder, Holnes, and Huger—it is not for me to say. I am writing only as to my own experience. Perhaps the detour was [150] too great, or the enemy in their front too threatening, but whatever it was, we missed it, and the result was the battle of Malvern Hill next day, Tuesday, July 1st.

It is hard to write about the battle of Malvern Hill, which seems to the subordinate a perfectly useless fight. General D. H. Hill, it is said, advised against it, and it would have been well for us if his advice had been taken. But ‘Mars' Robert’ had unbounded confidence in his men, and, as at Gettysburg, thought them invincible. He had good reason for this confidence in the men, but where the field is extensive and out of view, it is hard to secure the necessary co-operation between the several parts of a large army. Certainly it was not secured that day, and the battle was fought by detachments, which were successfully repulsed.

Our brigade, consisting of the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Twenty-seventh, and Thirty-third Virginia regiments, lay under arms in the woods most of the day, losing a few men and officers from the gunboat shells, and it was late in the evening before the brigade was sent into action. We marched through a field on the right, in which was a deserted house that was supposed to be General D. H. Hill's headquarters, but if it had ever been, he and his staff were wise to have deserted it, for it seemed to be the central target of all McClellan's artillery—at least we thought so from the numbers of shot and shell that were falling around it. We could not find General D. H. Hill, to whom we were directed to report, so we marched down a hill, across a stream, and up the hill on the other side to find ourselves on the edge of a large plateau filled with Federal infantry and artillery. But it was then dusk, and perhaps it was fortunate for us that we could not see how many they were.

The bullets, shot, and shell fell thick and fast. Our men fired perfectly at random and in the air, and I heard that one man shot off the head of a comrade in front of him, but I will not vouch for the truth of the story. However, such was the danger that General Winder's aide-de-camp remarked to me: ‘You look out for me, and I'll look out for you, and let us both look out for the General.’ It was a very pertinent remark, for any one might have been killed there in the dark, and no one else would have been the wiser until daylight. When the fire slackened somewhat I moved a short distance to the right to see what might be the prospects of a flank movement, and I approached near enough to hear the commands of the Federal officers, but seeing a dark body of troops that seemed to be coming in my direction, I beat a hasty retreat. We fired [151] until about 10 o'clock at night without doing a particle of good as far as I could see—except keeping up a noise and perhaps deterring a Federal advance—when we were withdrawn and bivouacked in the woods for the night, tired, worn out, disgusted, and with nothing to eat, but glad to have gotten off with our lives.

Next morning the whole plateau was silent and deserted, all of McClellan's army gone. It doubtless would have gone anyhow without a fight, as he was making for Harrison's Landing, to accomplish his celebrated ‘change of base.’ He conducted his retreat well, and as a ‘stern chase’ is always a ‘long chase,’ we did not attempt to follow.

After a short rest we marched for Westover, but took the wrong road, so that McClellan's army was all collected between Westover Heights and the banks of the James river before we got there. Here, unfortunately, the cavalry, which had reached there first with some artillery, could not resist the temptation to let fly a few shots, which had no other effect than to disclose to the enemy our presence, and, of course, the cavalry was soon driven off and the heights were occupied by a large body of troops. A surprise being now out of the question, no attack was made, and the army soon withdrew to the vicinity of Richmond, not caring to stay longer in that malarial region, which, as it was, proved very deleterious to the health of the troops.

Thus ended the Seven Days battles, and thus Richmond was relieved from the presence of McClellan's army. This was a great feat to have accomplished—the driving of McClellan's army from within five miles of Richmond to the James river, at Westover, with great loss of life and military stores; but if General Lee's plans had been carried out that army would have been destroyed. Not as much was effected as was hoped for, but it is easy to be wise after the fact, and much, very much, was accomplished.

Richmond breathed free, and the Army of Northern Virginia, after a little rest and recuperation, buckled on its armor to meet its old foe, reinforced by Pope's army, on the plains of Manassas.

The garrulity of an old soldier is proverbial, and anniversaries bring reminiscences, especially of wartimes. If the younger people will read and study the civil war, which appears now to some to be ‘ancient history,’ they will learn what war was forty years ago.

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