Day dawned fair and pleasant on June 26, one of the flawless mild summer mornings that often follow thunderstorms in eastern Virginia.1 Lee was early astir. Notice was sent to the President that headquarters would be on the Mechanicsville turnpike,2 and the Secretary of War, similarly advised, was told to call on the troops guarding the James River water-line if he needed assistance in repelling any attack by the Federal forces south of the Chickahominy.3
Bad news came with breakfast. Down the river, opposite New Bridge, artillery fire broke out hotly and lasted half an hour.4 From Jackson arrived a dispatch explaining that his command had been delayed in its march and had not reached Ashland until the evening of the 25th, whereas the plan had stipulated that the divisions were to camp that night west of the Central Railroad between Ashland and Richmond, •about six miles nearer the chosen field of battle. That was a poor beginning for the advance, and it could not be wholly redeemed by the assurance Jackson gave that he would start at 2:30 on the morning of the 26th. At best, Jackson could not cross the railway until 6 o'clock — three hours late.
Jackson reported, also, that his cavalry pickets had been driven in and that the telegraph wire had been cut near Ashland.5 That was ominous! Perhaps the plan had been discovered. The attack of the previous day on the Williamsburg road might have been delivered in order to discover whether the Confederate forces on that sector had been reduced for a concentration north of the Chickahominy.6
p123 Lee's apprehension increased but his purpose was not shaken. He would go on. From the Dabbs house he rode over to the Mechanicsville turnpike, out of which the regiments of D. H. Hill and Longstreet were streaming.7 The artillery had been sent ahead,8 and the campfires had been replenished along the front the men had left in order to create the impression that the former lines were still occupied in full strength.9 By 8 A.M.10 all the units of the two divisions were in position, masked behind the crest of the hills overlooking the Chickahominy from the south.11
Lee rode out to an advanced artillery position and surveyed the verdant panorama.12 He was on one of the high points of the long heights, which ran roughly from west to east. •Half a mile away, in front of him, the two channels of the Chickahominy, so insignificant in drought, so formidable in flood, meandered through a wide, boggy meadow, fringed with trees not so high as those that mar the view today.13 Straight down from the eminence where Lee stood, across two broken bridges and then northward up the other side, like the shaft of an arrow, ran the sandy Mechanicsville turnpike to the little village whose name it bore, a village perched midway a row of hills almost as elevated as that on which Lee stood.
Mechanicsville was thus in the centre of the scene. It occupied a magnificent site and was an important crossroads,14 but in itself it was a poor place. Its half-dozen houses, residences, stores, and p124 saloon had been badly treated by the moving armies. On the west of the turnpike was a grove that had been cleared of underbrush, and in the farther fringe of this grove was a looted and deserted beer-garden. East of the road stood the best and least-damaged house of the village. Flower-beds adorned its front yard; honeysuckle and woodbine ran on a trellis over the porch. From the yard a large vegetable garden stretched toward the river.15
On either side of the village, the land formed a slightly rolling plain, clear •for a mile to the eastward and for a mile and a half to the westward, except for low thickets along the course of the few small streams that flowed down to the Chickahominy through shallow ravines. North and east of these fields, which the frequent rains had kept green under the summer sun, spread woodlands of oak and of pine, broken here and there by clearings p125 and dotted at intervals with the white dwellings of the planters. West of the village the crossing opposite the Meadow Bridges was hidden by the trees.
•About a mile east of Mechanicsville, scarcely observable amid the surrounding growth, was the declivity through which ran the often-mentioned Beaver Dam Creek, where the main Federal position was supposed to be. Fed by several branches that had their source •two miles or more up the watershed, the stream wandered through ravines until it found its way into the Chickahominy.
The panorama was as pleasant as could be found in many a mile. At intervals, newly dug parapets stood out from the verdure, for the Federal artillery commanded the hills on the south side.16 In the village, through strong binoculars, blue-coated infantry could be seen; along the ridge, at intervals, little knots of horsemen might be picked out in the field of the glasses; afar off, McClellan's observation balloons were in the air.17 But so quiet was the landscape, in the clear morning light, that it was hard to realize that war gripped the countryside, or that thousands of armed men would soon be struggling across it.
Observers on the Richmond side of the valley did not gaze long to the east, or even at the village. Their thought was of Meadow Bridges, where A. P. Hill was waiting. From the woods opposite that point, there might break out at any time the fire of the skirmishers of Branch's brigade. This command, it will be recalled, had been sent to Half Sink. Its instructions were to cross the Chickahominy and to move on Mechanicsville, clearing the road for Hill's crossing at the Meadow Bridges, as soon as the movements of Jackson and of Branch were discovered.18
If Jackson were delayed in crossing the railroad, it followed that Branch would be later in marching on Mechanicsville than had been contemplated in orders, but no further word had come from him or from Jackson. It would be afternoon before the village could be taken. Still, the sun did not set until 7:17,a and Lee would have at least six hours in which to drive the Federals. Everything depended on Jackson and on Branch. Jackson was a p126 known quantity; Branch was a man of forty-one, a Princeton graduate, a former congressman and not a professional soldier, but he had some knowledge of the country and had acquitted himself well in the action at Hanover Courthouse. It would have been better, perhaps, if the important liaison with Jackson had been entrusted to a more experienced officer.
Branch's proposed line of march from Half Sink to Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862. Branch's route is indicated by the broken line.
Noon at last by the chiming of far-off Richmond bells; no sound of battle from the north side; no smoke, no dust as of a moving column. Major Richardson on the outermost redoubt south of the Chickahominy and adjoining the turnpike reported p127 that he believed the enemy was leaving the earthworks on the opposite heights, but he was not certain.19
Another anxious hour crept by, and another. The President, the Secretary of War, and a number of public men had ridden out.20 There was enough of conversation and of high company. But to Lee, the suspense must have been akin to that of the tortured morning on the flank of Cheat Mountain, nine months before, when he had waited so long for the sound of the volleys that Colonel Rust had never ordered. The stakes were so immeasurably vaster now! The sun was beginning to slant. The shadows were creeping eastward. Three o'clock was drawing on, and it began to look as if the whole plan might have to be cancelled, for the Federals who had driven in Jackson's pickets had certainly reported his advance by this time. Night would give McClellan opportunity of covering his threatened flank with strong reinforcements from the south side.21 The fates that thus far had kept Lee from fighting a single battle seemed to be leagued once more against him.
At 3 o'clock — and how long it was in coming! — Major Richardson reported that he was satisfied the enemy was evacuating the gun-positions immediately opposite him.22 With Longstreet and D. H. Hill, Lee went out on the redoubt to see for himself. Although there was some movement around Mechanicsville, there was nothing definite, nothing to indicate any sudden alarm.
The hour had not long passed when there rolled down the valley a rattle of musketry. Blue-coated figures began to emerge from the fringe of woods on the far side of the river, below the Meadow Bridges. The attack was being delivered at last! Quickly on the heels of the Federals a Confederate skirmish line appeared. Behind the skirmishers the woods seemed suddenly alive with men, spreading rapidly northward. They halted, formed line of battle, and began to sweep eastward toward Mechanicsville.23 The effect was electric. The village and the country round about woke up with a start. Bugles echoed. p128 Horsemen sprang to saddle. A line was quickly formed at Mechanicsville.24 From the fields behind the earthwork where Lee was watching, the lounging soldiers of D. H. Hill and Longstreet sprang up.25 Orders rang out. The gunners stood to their pieces, anxiously awaiting the word of command.
The Confederate line on the other side of the River was now moving steadily eastward, almost unopposed by the fleeing Federals. Soon it was evident that some of Hill's artillery had reached the road that led from the Meadow Bridges toward Mechanicsville, for while the road could not be seen, the boom of guns could be heard from beyond the advancing infantry and the smoke of their fire was visible.
There was other smoke, too, across the Chickahominy. Rising faintly over the village and far beyond the Federal line, it was in a most significant position — directly on the line of Jackson's expected advance. His guns must be in action: "Stonewall" and his famous valley soldiers must be close at hand.26 Late as it was, the plan seemed now to be working out! Hill was coming down the heights to clear the Mechanicsville bridges, and Jackson would soon be turning Beaver Dam Creek. If the summer sun lingered long enough, victory might still be won.
A. P. Hill's advancing line was nearing Mechanicsville now. No Federal batteries remained on the plain to oppose it. The Federal infantry, which manifestly was not strong,27 was withdrawing rapidly toward the eastward.
But as the Confederates approached Mechanicsville, a heavy artillery fire was opened upon their columns. Evidently the Federals behind Beaver Dam Creek were ready for them. The whole stream seemed to be covered with the smoke of the Union batteries. Hill must not advance too far before Jackson turned the creek. Otherwise he would be torn to pieces. Quickly Lee called to him one of D. H. Hill's volunteer aides who knew the p129 country, Lieutenant Thomas W. Sydnor of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, and ordered him to ride at once to A. P. Hill and direct him to suspend all movement until further orders.28
On Hill went to the village, the fire upon him heavier every minute. On his left, the shells were taking his men almost in flank. He began to manoeuvre in that direction.29 The situation was becoming confused. The firmness of the Federal stand on Beaver Dam Creek did not indicate that Jackson was close enough at hand to turn that stream at its headwaters. What was wrong?
Four o'clock found Hill in the village. The turnpike was cleared. D. H. Hill could cross at last and go to support Jackson — if Jackson were there. Longstreet would follow and form on A. P. Hill's right. Down the hill from the south side went D. H. Hill's leading brigade. Lee's outspoken Carolina critic, General R. S. Ripley, was leading it. Soon he reached the first of the two broken bridges over the Chickahominy. A few planks were thrown across it. The troops hurried on. At the second bridge there was a longer delay, but soon the Georgians and North Carolinians were climbing the hill toward Mechanicsville.30 Ripley's artillery was to follow him before another brigade of infantry took the road. The batteries were ready. They made the first difficult crossing. The second was too much for them. No pioneers were at hand — some one had blundered about that. The gunners had to turn bridge-builders. Half an hour was lost.31 While the men were still struggling in the water, an insistent cavalcade came down to the bridge and passed on over. At its head was President Davis, riding, as always, to the sound of firing. With him were excited staff officers, Cabinet members, and politicians.32
Lee had waited to see the column well under way. Owing to the delay in repairing the span at the second bridge, it was nearly 5 o'clock before he left Richardson's battery-position to p130 cross the river.33 When he arrived at Mechanicsville, he found chaos. Hill, he discovered, had not waited till Jackson and Branch were opposite the Meadow Bridges. Instead, Hill had despaired of their arrival, had disregarded his orders, and had moved on his own responsibility.34 He did not know where Jackson was — did not know when "Stonewall" would turn the creek and force a withdrawal of those fiendish batteries that were tearing his ranks. The village was his. Only Federal dead and wounded remained west of Beaver Dam Creek. But what good did this do? The ground was completely open. The men had no cover. The enemy's fire was on a wide arc. The few guns that Hill could put into position seemed to make no impression on the enemy.35 Hill had carried out his orders and had formed a line of battle for general advance to the eastward, on a front of •about a mile and a quarter.36 This had availed little. In the face of the continuous fire, some of the regiments had gone forward to the edge of the declivity of Beaver Dam Creek, where there was some cover, even if the ground was within range of the Federal infantry. Where these troops found lodgement a wild, bootless battle was in progress along the creek. Only part of one brigade had been able to cross and it had accomplished nothing.37 The others barely held the fringe of the thicket facing the stream. Some commanders had halted their men and had made them lie down in line, as they could not hope to storm the Federal position or live in the open. Fortunately the enemy's artillery fire was a little high, else the whole division would have been slaughtered.38
Full extension of Confederate front of attack, Battle of Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862.
(After original of Colonel H. L. Landers, U. S. A.)
All over the plain, the spiteful shells were bursting in fury. p131 Riders went down; horses were slain; guns were disabled. Many of the green troops were in a frenzy. Lee sat through it all as if he thought he was invulnerable. Nearby, though, was the President, with members of his Cabinet and a coterie of politicians. One explosion might kill all of them. They must go to a place of safety.
Lee rode over to Davis. "Mr. President," he asked with a frigid salute, "who is all this army and what is it doing here?"
p132 Davis knew what Lee meant. He squirmed in his saddle. "It is not my army, General," he said.
"It is certainly not my army, Mr. President, and this is no place for it."
Davis was stunned. "Well, General, if I withdraw, perhaps they will follow me." He lifted his hat and rode down the hill. His companions, crestfallen, trooped after him. He disappeared, and Lee did not know till later that Davis had gone only far enough to get out of his sight. Then he halted quickly, but not before a soldier at his feet had been killed by an exploding shell.39
Evening was drawing on — what could be done? It was Lee's to decide. He expected Jackson's turning movement against the Federal right to begin at any moment.40 The whole army was so confident of "Stonewall's" immediate arrival that some of the troops were told that he was already on the flank and in the rear of the enemy. A little later, these troops thought they heard his guns.41 But what if Jackson did not come up? How could the general plan be saved from ruin? How could McClellan be prevented from attacking on the south side or sending heavy reinforcements to the north side? Quickly Lee dictated an order to Huger, telling him to hold his trenches at the point of the bayonet, if need be, and advising him where he could get help if he required it.42 A cavalry demonstration on the extreme Confederate right beyond White Oak Swamp was also ordered as a means of ascertaining the enemy's strength and of keeping him from withdrawing troops to the Confederate left.43
As for Hill's battle, a direct assault on Beaver Dam Creek was out of the question. The strength of the Federal position was only too well known to Lee and to the senior division commanders. They had never intended to give battle there.44 The p133 only possible way of winning the position was to turn it. That was what Jackson was to do on the Confederate left — would he never come? If he did not, it was too late in the day to send another column there, even if the slow march of D. H. Hill and Longstreet from across the Chickahominy could be hastened.45 The only hope was to try the extreme right, where the ridge fell away toward the Chickahominy. The venture would be desperate, but there was no alternative. If Lee halted in front of the Federal position, McClellan might attack on the south side of the Chickahominy the next morning or might reinforce his troops on Beaver Dam Creek overnight and oppose a large force to Jackson. If the Federal right could be turned, the gain was obvious. If the attempt failed, McClellan might at least be kept from sending a heavy column to oppose Jackson.46
The decision was made more quickly than the reasoning that prompted it can be retraced. Pender's troops, in some confusion, were already far on the right. Ripley, who commanded the only brigade of D. H. Hill's division that had yet completed the crossing of the Chickahominy, was ordered to move still farther to the right and to turn the enemy's flank. Several messages were p134 sent to hurry him forward, one of them by President Davis himself.47 Soon Ripley was up; soon he was moving forward. He did not know the ground, of course, and he took the exposed route over which Pender had already moved.48 Time was lost at the very outset. Casualties were sustained that might have been avoided.
MECHANICSVILLE, VIRGINIA, SCENE OF LEE'S FIRST BATTLE
This photograph was taken in April, 1865, from the field across which Ripley and Pender advanced.
The roar of the artillery continued as twilight came on. The rattle of small arms from the valley of Beaver Dam Creek was ceaseless. Lee waited and hoped, but hoped in vain. For the ambulant wounded, limping back across the fire-swept field, brought news of the failure of Ripley's flank attack. The men of the 1st North Carolina and of the 44th Georgia were not led far enough to the right to get below the hill on the eastern side of the creek when the Federals were making their stand. Instead, the attacking column plunged down a hill, in the very face of the enemy, falling in windrows at every step. The few that reached the bottom found themselves within the easiest point-blank range of the Federal infantry. Those who escaped unhurt cheated death. Rhett's battery, coming up from the Chickahominy, took position •within 1200 yards of the Federal guns and somewhat reduced the enemy's fire; another battery added the weight of its metal, but it was in vain.
Darkness settled, and the remnants of Ripley's and of Pender's men were called back from the tangle around the creek and were given such shelter as could be found •a few hundred yards from it.49 By 9 o'clock the infantry action was over. The artillery-duel continued for another hour, and, on some parts of the line until even later.50 The regiment of Anderson's brigade that had succeeded in crossing the creek, beyond the Old Church road on the Confederate left, was withdrawn to the right bank of the stream.
Lee's first battle was finished. Fought where he had not expected to be engaged, it had carried the Confederates no farther than the prepared position of the Federals, and there it had been p135 a ghastly failure.51 With 56,000 men north of the Chickahominy, or crossing it, Lee had been able to get only 14,000 into action and had lost nearly 10 per cent of them, with no other gain than to drive the enemy from the plain around Mechanicsville. The Federal loss could only be surmised, but from the nature of the action, it had to be regarded as trivial.52 And this was the result of days of hard planning and careful preparation! Where Lee had expected to turn Beaver Dam Creek and to sweep down the Chickahominy, with all the advantage of surprise, something had gone wrong with Jackson, and A. P. Hill had been halted and bloodily repulsed.
The plan, of course, was disclosed to McClellan now. The whole element of surprise was lost. The Federal commander could reinforce his right or attack Richmond on his left. Lee could only hope that Jackson would turn the creek during the night,53 so that the original battle plan could be carried out. Until 11 o'clock at night he worked to prepare the troops and to make the dispositions for an attack at dawn and then, wearily, he went back across the river to rest.54 A doubtful mind would have asked if the man who had failed at Cheat Mountain, and failed at Sewell Mountain, and failed at Mechanicsville had in him the stuff of which victory was made. If Lee had such misgivings that clean, starlit June night, he stifled them. It was his duty to go on — and he would!
1 2 B. and L., 327; Waldrop in 3 Richmond Howitzers, 40.
2 Lee's Dispatches, 17.
3 O. R., part 11, p617; 1 R. W. C. D., 136.
5 Lee doubtless knew already that telegraph line had been broken as the Federals had been at or near Ashland for several days.
6 Lee to Davis, June 26, 1862; Lee's Dispatches, 15‑16.
9 2 B. and L., 351.
11 O. R., 11, part 2, p640. Longstreet, op. cit., 123, stated that no special effort was made to conceal the presence of the troops, but Joel Cook, op. cit., 244, said the trees completely concealed them from Federal view. Marshal Foch once expressed to the writer the opinion that Lee's plan was shaped, in part, by the fact that the foliage at that season made it easy to conceal his troop-movements.
12 It is probable, though not altogether certain, that his post of observation was on Ravenswood Farm, west of the pike and directly on the crest overlooking the Chickahominy valley.
14 Southeastward one road an along the ridge toward Cold Harbor. The Old Church road ran to the northeast, the Mechanicsville and Hanover Courthouse road to the north, and still a fourth road cut to the northwest to join a highway that ran from the Meadow Bridges road, which crossed the Chickahominy, •one and three-quarter miles upstream.
15 Joel Cook, 231. It is possible that Cook confused his directions and that he referred to the substantial brick house west of the road.
16 Joel Cook, 228.
17 R. E. Withers: Autobiography of an Octogenarian (cited hereafter as Withers), 183.
20 1 N. C. Regts., 138, 181.
21 Marshall, 91.
24 2 B. and L., 352.
26 Marshall, 93.
27 The village was occupied by the 5th Penn. Infy. and by two companies of the 4th Penn. Cavalry. Six companies of the 1st Penn. Rifles had been on picket near the Meadow Bridges. The 8th Ill. Cavalry was patrolling the roads by which Jackson was advancing. Cooper's battery of six •12 pdr. Napoleons had been at Mechanicsville but had been withdrawn at 3 P.M. (O. R., 11, part 2, pp339, 406, 409).
28 2 Henderson, 16 on the authority of Sydnor's letter. Henderson did not give the time at which Sydnor was dispatched, but the circumstances and Lee's subsequent orders make it almost certain that the message was sent about 4 P.M., before Lee crossed the river.
32 2 B. and L., 352.
35 An exciting picture of the handling of a Confederate battery in this phase of the battle will be found in F. W. Dawson: Confederate Reminiscences (cited hereafter as F. W. Dawson), 48‑49.
36 Pender was on the right, opposite a bridge that crossed the creek at Ellerson's grist mill. On his left was Field, and on Field's left was Archer, these two occupying approximately the •five-eighths of a mile between the Cold Harbor and the Old Church roads. Most, if not all of J. R. Anderson's brigade was north of the Old Church road, holding the extreme left. Gregg was in reserve, and Branch, who had just come up, was in support of the attacking divisions.
37 O. R., 11, part 2, pp491, 836, 877. General Lee stated that this regiment, the 35th Georgia, crossed to communicate with Jackson. A. P. Hill affirmed that it forced its way over in the course of its advance; J. R. Anderson, to whose brigade the regiment was attached, intimated that it was sent over the stream to ascertain the location of the Federal line, which Anderson had believed to be on the near side of the creek.
39 This story appears in various forms. The writer has used that of Mrs. Burton Harrison, op. cit., 72‑73; Mrs. Harrison left the reader to infer that Mr. Davis had just come out from Richmond, but other accounts, already cited, indicate that he had probably arrived on the field before Lee.
41 History of the Fourth South Carolina Volunteers, 97.
44 See supra, note, p111, n8. Longstreet in May had proposed that the Confederate army make its stand behind the little watercourse. Smith, as already noted, had urged that the attack of May 29 be cancelled because he did not think the creek could be passed (p133)except at great sacrifice of life (Longstreet, 82, 85‑86; G. W. Smith, 148‑55). The stream ran southward through a wide and deep ravine, the lofty sides of which, to the east and west, were covered with thick underbrush and woods. The Old Church road crossed the creek •a little more than half a mile northeast of Mechanicsville, at a point where high hills on the eastern side of the stream afforded commanding artillery positions, which the Federals had fortified. •Three-quarters of a mile downstream from this point, the Cold Harbor road crossed the creek •a mile and a quarter southeast of Mechanicsville. Here was located Ellerson's grist-mill, with a hay-field under the hill to the west of the stream. The water had here been diverted into a deep, wide mill-race. The only practicable crossing at Ellerson's Mill was over a narrow bridge, which the Federals had destroyed. On the hill east of the mill was the strong Federal position, with epaulements and rifle pits. The position was not of uniform depth, but on the south side of the road the hill led to a wide plateau, ample for deployment manoeuvre. From this eastern hill the Federals could enfilade any direct approach to Ellerson's Mill from the west. Finally, to hold an assaulting column under Federal fire, trees had been felled on the western side of the stream. Marshall, 81, 93. For a detailed description of the Federal position, including facts that the Confederates could not have learned at the time, see O. R., 11, part 2, p384, and 2 B. and L., 384.
45 Longstreet stated (O. R., 11, part 2, p756) that "some time after dark the rear brigade of my . . . division succeeded in crossing the Chickahominy," but Featherston,º whose brigade was leading Longstreet's division, said it was "about 10 o'clock" when he crossed (ibid., part 2, p781). As D. H. Hill's troops arrived, they took up a line of battle under the crest of the ridge, east of the pike (O. R., 11, part 2, p640). The movement of the two divisions was slow not only because they had to use the same road, but also because the artillery of each brigade had to follow it up •half a mile of a road deep in sand.
46 Marshall, 94; R. E. Lee, Jr., 415, the latter quoting a statement made by General Lee to Cassius F. Lee in 1870.
51 The gallant 44th Georgia had lost 335 of the 514 with which it had entered the battle (O. R., 11, part 2, p656), and the 1st North Carolina had sustained 142 casualties (O. R., 11, part 2, p976). Ripley's total killed, wounded, and missing numbered 575 (O. R., 11, part 2, p976). The entire cost of the field to the Confederates was around 1350 men (Alexander, 121). As the Confederate casualties during the Seven Days' Battles were not separately reported for the several engagements by all the commanders, it is almost impossible to give accurate figures.
54 Marshall, 96. Marshall did not identify the headquarters for the night other than to say they were in "a house near the Mechanicsville Road, at the top of the hill overlooking the bridge." This may have been Ravenswood.
a the sun did not set until 7:17: Close enough for government work, as they say. According to the U. S. Naval Observatory — speaking of government — on June 26, 1862, the sun at Mechanicsville (37N37, 77W22) set at 1935h EST. Now Eastern Standard Time did not exist in 1862; mean local time for the town, 2°22′ (2°37) west of the 75° central meridian, would therefore be a bit less than 16 minutes earlier: Freeman's figure should be 7:19.
All that is nautical sunset, of course. Twilight extends that another half hour or so.
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Robert E. Lee
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