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J. William Jones

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Order of Battle
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.

Paper #1 :: Paper #2 :: Paper #3 :: Paper #4 :: Paper #5 :: Paper #6 :: Paper #7 :: Paper #8 :: Paper #9

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