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Chapter V of Recollections of a Private by Warren Lee Goss

 

From the beginning of the Peninsular campaign, it had been the expectation of McClellan, and undoubtedly the intention of the administration, to reinforce the army before Richmond, by marching McDowell’s force overland to its support.

McClellan, with this in view, had made his base of supplies at White House, and early in his operations before the rebel capital, had thrown forward his right wing, at Hanover Court-House, to clear away all opposition to McDowell’s advance. The Union army was pressing upon Richmond, arousing the fears of the Confederate leaders, and inspiring confidence and hope in the Union cause.

The disturbing factor, which prevented the desired junction of forces, was the fear of Stonewall Jackson working upon the apprehensions of the war-council at Washington.

Lee had entrusted this able soldier with the execution of a bold and ingenious plan to prevent any combination of our forces. After engaging and threatening Fremont’s army at Franklin, Jackson turned and attacked the portion of Banks’s force at Front Royal, hurling him in retreat down the valley, and following him to within two miles of Harper’s Ferry.

The sudden appearance of Jackson at Winchester, shattered, as if by the crash of a cannonade, the combinations which had been formed for the defeat of the rebel army, and undoubtedly saved that army from present defeat, and the Confederate capital from capture.

McDowell’s order to advance and reinforce McClellan was countermanded, and he was instead sent to head off and catch Jackson, who had thus upset the plans of McClellan, confounded the war-council at Washington, and paralyzed and rendered noneffective the force of sixty thousand men, under McDowell, Banks, and Fremont. Then, by secret movements which baffled detection, Stonewall Jackson united his force with that of Lee, in time to take part in the final and decisive attack on the Union army before Richmond.

Lee, keen-eyed and astute, had written to Jackson, under date of June 16, 1862: “The present seems favorable for a junction of your army with this. . . . Unless McClellan can be driven out of his intrenchments he will move, by positions under cover of his heavy guns, within shelling distance of Richmond.”

Thus Lee reinforced his own army with the army that had already disrupted the Union plans.

The fundamental weakness of McClellan’s position before Richmond was that his communications with his base at White House was nearly a prolongation of his line of operations before the Confederate capital. This situation required that a large force should be posted on the east side of the Chickahominy, to cover and protect his communications.

To this disadvantage in position was added a moral one, which had great influence in all calculations made by the eminently cautious and able Union commander. This was the inefficiency of his secret service bureau, which persistently magnified the numbers in the rebel army. When Lee had eighty thousand, this bureau reported a force of two hundred thousand; thus by its blunders playing an effective part for the Confederate leaders. It hampered the action of the Union commander in every battle, and exaggerated into timidity and fatal indecision his bias for hesitation. It was a common conceit among the soldiers that the spy system of our army was run in the interests of the Confederacy.

Lee, having produced as it were, by one blow, the concentration of his own army, and the division of his enemy, determined to attack, defeat, and destroy in detail, the separated wings of the army before him.

McClellan, meantime, comprehending the difficulties of his situation, and the impossibility of receiving reinforcement from McDowell, debated the advisability of changing his base to James River, which would give him a shorter line of operations against Richmond, and one free from the inherent difficulties presented by that at White House. Had he been able to change his base at once, it would have given him the prestige of doing from choice that which was afterward forced upon him.

When, on the morning of June 25th, 1862, he found Jackson within striking distance of his right wing, McClellan immediately penetrated Lee’s real purpose, and decided to withdraw Porter’s corps to the south side of the Chickahominy, and with his united army effect the change of base to James River.

As a necessary preliminary he engaged the threatening rebel force with Porter s corps, for, as he states in his report, an immediate withdrawal without fighting would have exposed the rear of his army, and enabled Jackson to intercept the movement to the James.

McClellan supposed the attack on his right wing was being made by Jackson’s force alone, while the stubborn resistance met led the rebel commander to suppose that the entire Union army was in his front. Both assumptions were an illustration of the mistakes which are the inseparable incidents of war.

The position of Porter had almost the aspect of a forlorn hope, attacked as he was by nearly sixty thousand men. 

The plan of the Confederate commander was for Jackson to so manoeuvre as to uncover the passages of the stream at Meadow and Mechanicsville bridges, then crossing his whole force, sweep down the north bank of the Chickahominy and break McClellan’s communications with White House. But by various devices, put in operation by the Union commander, Jackson was delayed, and did not arrive until a day after the time expected. 

The principal device used to delay Jackson was the sending out, with light marching orders, of a force, consisting of the Eighteenth Massachusetts and Seventeenth Pennsylvania regiments, a battery of flying artillery, and a squad of light cavalry, under command of General Stoneman. 

GAINES’S MILL.

On the afternoon of June 25th General A. P. Hill, after crossing the Chickahominy, drove away the small force of observation stationed at Mechanicsville, thus enabling him to unite the division of Longstreet and D. H. Hill with his own. He then began a movement down the north bank of the Chickahominy, where he encountered McCall s division intrenched on the almost perpendicular bank of Beaver Dam Creek. The Confederate army was advancing by the Mechanicsville road, which runs nearly parallel at this point with the commanding intrenchments of the Union line, and thus unconsciously exposed his flank to the artillery and musketry fire.

The Union guns withheld their fire until the head of the rebel column was nearly across the creek, when they suddenly poured in a destructive artillery and infantry fire, causing the enemy to break and fly in confusion. Although constant firing continued until nine o’clock in the afternoon, no further attempt to force the passage was made. The Confederate loss, as estimated by Longstreet, was four thousand men, while that of the Union army loss was not over three hundred. The next morning Jackson came up and turned the Union position, when Porter prudently fell back to Gaines’s Mill.

The battle of Gaines’s Mill was fought by Porter against over whelming odds, June 27th. Porter’s force, numbering only 20,335 men, described the arc of a circle on the hills between Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy, and covered the approaches to the bridges which connected this wing with the south banks of the river. Sykes’s division on the right was in the woods and clearings extending to the rear of Cold Harbor, while Morell’s on our extreme left, occupied a wooded crest rising abruptly from a deep ravine. The ground in front was open, but on that side from which the Confederates made their approach was a thick and tangled wood, through which ran a sluggish stream. McCall’s division, which bore the brunt of the previous day s encounter, was posted in the rear, forming a second line.

The Confederate force, numbering nearly sixty thousand men, began the attack at about 2.30 in the afternoon. General A. P. Hill led the attack, and from the stubborn resistance met was soon of the opinion that the entire Army of the Potomac was in his front.

The deadly fire of our infantry and artillery hurled back and disorganized the attacking forces. For two hours the incessant roar of the conflict was heard. About four o’clock Jackson’s and Longstreet’s divisions came into the fight, and a general concerted attack was made on the compact lines of the Union position. Our men answered the rebel yell with defiant cheers, and drove back their hosts which came swarming out of the woods and across the ravine.

The conflict was incessant up to seven o’clock, yet the Union lines were not broken, and it seemed that night only would end the contest.

Such was the situation when Whiting’s troops, en masse, came across the ravine and up the hill, through the smoke, with wild yells. The Union lines, struggling with this overwhelming force, were broken about sundown, near the centre of Morell’s division. Our forces at this point were falling back, under cover of the heavy guns, to a new position (not in confusion, but coolly and in order), when an unlooked-for event occurred. Suddenly there came a troop of cavalry, wildly rushing upon the artillery, whose gunners had, up to this time, stood firmly to their work. Thinking that they were being charged by the enemy, they were thrown into confusion and deserted their guns. It proved to be the Union cavalry, commanded by St. George Cook, who had received orders to keep below the hill, but had charged the enemy in the face of a terrible fire, and been thrown back upon the Union line and batteries, with horses frantic and uncontrollable.

Jackson, seizing this pivotal moment, with an impetuous charge, took possession of the crest, and the Union force, stubbornly fighting, fell back to the woods on the Chickahominy. Here the approaches to the bridge were crowded, in dire confusion, with skulkers, stragglers, and the wounded; but at this critical moment French’s and Meagher’s brigades, opportunely sent by Sumner, arrived on the field, and under cover of their steady columns, the worn-out and shattered battalions were re-formed.

Our left wing was still unbroken, but the key to the Union position having been carried, they were forced to fall back also. Welcome night dropped her sable mantle over the terrible scenes of the conflict, and silently the heroic men, who had withstood the enemy against a superior force, retreated to the south of the Chickahominy, destroying the bridges to prevent pursuit.

The curious part of this battle was, that while 60,000 men attacked 20,000 under Porter, and supposed, as shown by their report, that they had the entire Union army in their front, the main body of the Union army, numbering over 70,000 men, was confronted by 25,000 Confederates, behind the defenses of Richmond. So much it is necessary to say that the chapter which follows may be clearly understood.