|In my last I spoke of the secrecy with which the "foot cavalry" moved
from the green fields and clear streams of the Shenandoah Valley to the swamps
of the Chickahominy. I am now to speak of those seven days of smoke and noise,
and heat, and bloodshed, and wounds, and groans, and sufferings, mingled
with loud hurrahs and rejoicing during which Gen. McClellan made his celebrated
"change of base" from the Pamunkey to the James. "The situation" at Richmond
in May had been indeed gloomy.
The evacuation of Norfolk, and the destruction of the ironclad Merrimac
(Virginia) left James River open to the gunboats of the enemy, with only
a few hastily constructed earth works, and some incomplete "obstructions"
to bar their passage to the wharves of Richmond. The wildest panic ensued.
The Confederate congress adjourned, many of the citizens fled from the city,
and the preparations of the government for any emergency which might arise
gave color to the rumor that it was proposed to evacuate Richmond without
a battle for its defence.
But the Legislature of Virginia passed vigorous resolutions calling upon
the president to defend Richmond at every hazard, and to the last extremity.
A meeting of citizens (addressed by the Governor of the State and the Mayor
of the city) enthusiastically endorsed the action of the Legislature, and
President Davis assured the committee that he had no purpose of evacuating
the city. On the morning of the 15th of May Commodore Rogers with the Galena,
the Monitor, the Aroostook, the Port Royal and the Naugatuck, made an attack
on the unfinished batteries at Drewry s Bluff (Fort Darling), nine miles
below Richmond, and received a repulse, which was of the utmost importance
as breaking the prestige of the gunboats, blocking the way to Richmond, and
restoring the confidence of the people.
McClellan was, however, enveloping Richmond with a cordon of intrenchments
(temporarily broken by the Confederate victory of Seven Pines), and was only
waiting for McDowell's corps to swoop down from Fredericksburg and join him
at Hanover Courthouse in order to make his contemplated assault on the "doomed
city." But Jackson's splendid Valley campaign thwarted this plan. On May
24th McDowell received his order from President Lincoln to cooperate in the
movement to "capture or destroy Jackson and Ewell's forces," and at once
replied to the Secretary of War: "The President's order has been received
-- is in process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us."
We have seen how Jackson eluded the snare set for him, beat his enemies in
detail at Cross Keys and Port Republic, deceived them as to his plans, and
hastened to obey the orders he received from General Lee to join him on the
Chickahominy. This great commander, who had succeeded to the command of the
army on the wounding of General Johnston at Seven Pines, had sent Stuart
on his famous "ride around McClellan," had discovered the weak point of his
antagonist, and was thus prepared to strike so soon as Jackson should arrive
at the designated point on the enemy's flank.
In his official report General McClellan seeks to make the impression that
his movements during the seven days' battles were simply a preconceived "change
of base," and a number of writers have adopted this theory and write as if
Lee simply endeavored to prevent McClellan from fulfilling his purpose of
moving to the James and was badly repulsed in all of his attacks.
Things did not look that way to an eyewitness and active participant in those
stirring scenes, and I do not see how any fair minded man can read McClellan's
dispatches for several weeks before, during, and just after this " change
of base" without seeing clearly that it was forced and not voluntary.
E.G. On June 25th he telegraphs to Washington:
"The rebel force is stated at 200,000, including Jackson and Beauregard.
I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be
true; but this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position
and repulse any attack." * * * Again:
"June 27th, 1862, 3 P.M. -- We have been fighting nearly all day against
greatly superior numbers. We shall endeavor to hold our own, and if compelled
to fall back shall do it in good order, upon James river if possible." *
* * (Italics mine.) "June 28, 1862, 12:20 A.M. -- I now know the full history
of the day. On this side of the river (the right bank) we repulsed several
very strong attacks. On the left bank our men did all that men could do --
all that soldiers could accomplish; but they were overwhelmed by vastly superior
numbers, even after I brought my last reserves into action. Had I 20 000
or even 10,000 fresh troops to use tomorrow I could take Richmond; but I
have not a man in reserve, and shall be glad to cover my retreat and save
the material and personnel of the army. If we have lost the day, we have
yet preserved our honor, and no one need blush for the Army of the Potomac.
I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I still hope to retrieve
our fortunes. I know that a few thousand men more would have changed this
battle from a defeat to victory."
These and other quotations which I might make show conclusively that McClellan
did not "change base" according to some preconceived plan, but that he was
driven from the field by Lee's army.
But I must return to the movements of "the foot cavalry."
General Lee's order of battle contemplated that Jackson should bivouac on
the night of the 25th of June near the Central Railroad, eight miles east
of Ashland, and to advance at 3 A.M. on the 26th, so as to turn the enemy's
work at Mechanicsville and on Beaver Dam Creek and open the road for A.P.
Hill, D.H. Hill and Longstreet to cross the Chickahominy and unite with him
in sweeping down towards the York River railroad, and thus cut McClellan
off from his base of supplies at the White House. But the burning of the
bridges and the blockading of the roads by the enemy so impeded our march
that we only reached the vicinity of Ashland that night, and were not able
to move again until sunrise on the morning of the 26th, and even then we
made such slow progress that we only reached Pole Green Church in the afternoon,
just as that gallant soldier, A.P. Hill (impatient of further delay, and
unwilling to wait longer for Jackson to turn the position), had crossed the
Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and was leading his heroic "Light Division"
down on the position of the enemy at Mechanicsville. I shall never forget
the scene among the "foot cavalry" when Hill's guns announced that the great
battle had opened. Cheer after cheer ran along the whole line, and the column
hastened forward with the eagerness of veterans to reach their "place in
the picture near the flashing of the guns." But we were too late that evening
to get into the fight or help our comrades by turning the strong position
which they were assailing.
As we lay down in our bivouac, near Pole Green Church, with orders to move
at "early dawn," the muttering of the fight just closing, the dashing about
of staff and general officers and the talks of the men around the Camp fires,
all betokened the eve of a great battle.
We broke camp the morning of the 27th and moved forward to the sound of the
guns, which told that A.P. Hill, supported by Longstreet (who had crossed
the bridge opposite Mechanicsville so soon as Hill drove off the enemy),
was renewing his assault upon the strong position on Beaver Dam Creek, which
our move was designed to flank. My own regiment, the Thirteenth Virginia,
was deployed as skirmishers, and we were thus in advance of the whole of
Jackson's column, and the first to enter the deserted camps from which the
enemy fell back on our approach, and to see and converse with a number of
prisoners whom we captured. But the sound of the battle ceased as we flanked
the enemy's position at Ellison's Hill and compelled him to yield to the
gallant attack in his front and fall back to his still stronger position
about Cold Harbor and Gaines' Mill. The whole of General Lee's columns north
of the Chickahominy (A.P. Hill, Longstreet, D.H. Hill, and Jackson) now moved
on the position which McClellan had skillfully chosen and heavily entrenched.
D.H. Hill was united to Jackson, who was to make a detour to the left in
order to attack on that flank, and at the same time prevent the enemy from
retreating toward his base at the White House, while A.P. Hill and Longstreet
moved nearer to the Chickahominy.
The Army of the Potomac awaits us behind their strong entrenchments and the
great battle of Cold Harbor and Gaines' Mill is about to begin.
Cite: Southern Historical Society Papers
Vol IX. Richmond, Va., September, 1881. No. 9
Reminiscences Of The Army Of Northern Virginia.
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Section: Main ::
Order of Battle