Two tasks Lee had on the morning of June 27, 1862. If his plan was not to fail utterly, he must drive the Federals from Beaver Dam Creek, were they found still there, and, secondly, he must pursue them down the north bank of the Chickahominy and either force them to fight away from the cover of their entrenchments and heavy guns or else compel them to retreat.1 The cloudless sky gave promise of a scorching day. Whatever else happened, rain was not apt to interrupt the army's movements.
Giving orders for his heavy ordnance to move down the valley and to play from across the river on the line of the expected Federal withdrawal,2 Lee snatched up a hasty breakfast and started for Mechanicsville, whence the sound of renewed infantry and artillery fire was already to be heard.3 Arriving at the village, while the shell were breaking there,4 he dispatched Major Walter Taylor to find Jackson and to show him his route, and then he quickly prepared to turn, from the north and from the south, the slaughter-pen on Beaver Dam Creek. Before the turning movement could be organized, the Federals ceased fire and evacuated the position.5
Now for the pursuit and the new attack! Repairing quickly the bridge opposite Ellerson's Mill, Maxcy Gregg soon had his brigade across the stream, and in a short time was moving uphill beyond the plain little grist-mill that had won so unhappy a name p137 from the battle fought over it on the 26th.6 The road of Hill's advance, which Gregg was to lead, ran eastward along the heights of the Chickahominy •five and a half miles to Old Cold Harbor and thence •six miles and a half to Dispatch Station, on the York River Railroad, McClellan's main line of supply. Nearer the Chickahominy, Wilcox, whose brigade was at the head of Longstreet's division, found a broken bridge and beyond it a track that crossed the flats and paralleled the Old Cold Harbor road eastward for •three miles.7 North of the routes by which Longstreet and A. P. Hill were to travel, there were two others by which Jackson and D. H. Hill could advance until they were within •two and a half miles of Old Cold Harbor. Then they might have p138 to follow the same road. If all went as planned, therefore, the four columns could each move on the heels of the enemy toward the York River Railroad.
Lines of advance of the Army of Northern Virginia in pursuit of the Federals,
By 9 o'clock, A. P. Hill and Longstreet were well under way. D. H. Hill had with him a young lieutenant who had been reared in that vicinity and knew every bypath, but some of Hill's brigadiers and all the commanding officers of Jackson's column were embarrassed from the outset by a lack of competent guides. The maps issued officers proved unworthy of the name, and showed no details of the ground north of the Chickahominy. The route of each division was indicated by a red line which unhappy experience was soon to show the Confederates did not correspond even approximately to the roads they were to follow.8 The reproduction will illustrate the crudities of the map.
THE CRUDE MAP OF THE VICINITY OF RICHMOND, USED BY THE CONFEDERATE HIGH COMMAND DURING THE SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES OF 1862
The errors and inadequate detail of this map were responsible for some of the failures of Lee's initial operations to prevent the threatened siege of Richmond by McClellan. After an original in the Confederate Museum, Richmond.
Waiting near Mechanicsville until the last brigade of Longstreet's division was moving, Lee followed the line of march of that command, crossed the lower bridge, picking his way carefully through the ranks,9 and soon was on ground where burning stores and abandoned supplies evidenced the rapidity of the Federal withdrawal. He had not gone far before he found that contact with the enemy had already been established. In the peach-orchard of Fairfield, the home of William Gaines, •about a mile eastward, a battery of Federal artillery was blazing away.10 Hill's advance had brushed the rearguard of the enemy,11 and, what was equally exciting, had been fired upon by Jackson's artillery.12 For Jackson was at last on the ground, and the head of his column was near Walnut Grove church, •about two miles east of Ellerson's mill, where his route touched A. P. Hill's.
To that little wayside church Lee rode and found Jackson talking to A. P. Hill. After a few minutes, Hill withdrew, and Lee sat down on a cedar stump to confer with the redoubtable commander of the valley army. It was the first time many of Lee's staff-officers had been close to Jackson and they were curious p139 to see the man who had dazzled the Confederacy by his victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic, less than three weeks before. Equally curious were Jackson's aides to have a glimpse of their new general-in‑chief.13
There is no record of what passed between Jackson and Lee. If Jackson made any explanation, it doubtless was to say that on his march he had enjoyed none of the anticipated advantages of a surprise. On the contrary, the Federals had acted precisely as if they had been expecting them, as, indeed, they had.14 After leaving Lee on the evening of the 23d, Jackson had rejoined his command on the 24th. Its march had been slow and difficult on account of mud, heat, and high water.15 On the 25th, part of the army had moved only •five miles.16 Instead of reaching the Central Railroad on the evening of June 25, Jackson had scarcely made Ashland. He had moved his first division at 3 A.M. on the morning of the 26th,17 but many of his men were unaccustomed to marching in a low country along sandy byways. The officers knew nothing of the roads. His progress had been so slow that it had been 9 o'clock before he had crossed the Virginia Central Railroad.18 He had at once notified General Branch of that fact.19 Not until 3 o'clock had he reached the Totopotomoy Creek, approximately •four and one-half miles from the railroad. At that p140 point, he had found that the Federal pickets had partially destroyed the bridge. Skirmishers had been sent across and Reilly's battery had shelled the woods. It was the smoke of this fire that had been observed from the south side of the Chickahominy just about the time A. P. Hill started from the Meadow Bridges. The engineers having quickly repaired the crossing of the Totopotomoy, Jackson's advance had continued. There had been some alarms and rumors of impending attacks by the enemy. A few obstructions had been encountered in the road. The troops, tired and nervous, had groped their way forward. Jackson had continued his advance to Pole Green church, as his orders had directed, and had gone a little farther to Hundley's Corner, where Ewell's division, which had been moving by roads nearer the railroad, had rejoined the main column. It had then been 4:30 P.M. The sound of A. P. Hill's battle had been audible, and the sun had still been nearly three hours high, but there Jackson had halted and there he had bivouacked, molested only by a few Federal skirmishers who had been driven back after sundown with little difficulty. At least one of Jackson's brigade commanders had thought Jackson should have continued his march,20 but Jackson had not asked or received counsel from his subordinates.21 On the morning of the 27th, some of Jackson's units had moved early, but others had not been aroused by their officers when the firing had been resumed in front of Mechanicsville.22 The march to Walnut Grove church had been but little interrupted by the enemy — and here Jackson was!
He considered that he had discharged the first part of his mission, as far as the conditions permitted, and he made no apologies for halting at Hundley's Corner.23 Lee, for his part, appears to have raised no question: he simply told Jackson to hasten his march on Cold Harbor. As D. H. Hill was to continue in support, Jackson would have under his command considerably more than half that part of the army on the north side of the p141 river. His advance would turn Powhite Creek, the only nearby stream on which it was believed that the Federals could make a stand while maintaining direct contact with their forces south of the Chickahominy. If this movement did not itself force a Federal retreat, it would put Jackson on the line of the Federal communications with the York River Railroad and in position to fall on the Unionists when A. P. Hill and Longstreet drove them.24
The interview over, Jackson rejoined his command, and Lee rode on to the head of Hill's column, which he instructed to press forward and to attack the enemy as soon as located.25 Then Lee turned into the lane that led to Selwyn, the home of William Hogan, set in a fine grove of trees overlooking the Chickahominy.26 It was now about noon, and so far as the situation was known to Lee, it was altogether favorable. For just east of the Hogan House was the military road that led down to New Bridge, Lee's intermediate objective. This crossing had been partially destroyed by the retreating Federals, but under orders that Lee immediately issued, it could be reopened at nightfall.27 Then Lee would be in close touch with Magruder and could quickly reinforce the southside in case McClellan attacked there. The most serious danger in Lee's plan of campaign seemed to be safely overcome.28 Besides, A. P. Hill and Longstreet were advancing rapidly, and if Jackson and D. H. Hill did equally well, it could not be long before the battle was joined, with every promise of success.
Longstreet and A. P. Hill soon rode up to the Hogan house,29 and news began to come in that indicated the proximity of the Federals. From across the river, General W. N. Pendleton, chief p142 of the reserve artillery, sent word that he could see the enemy in great force east of Powhite, Doctor Gaines's house, which occupied a knoll, •three-quarters of a mile down the Chickahominy from Selwyn.30 The topography of the country made it probable that the Federals would give battle there. Between Doctor Gaines's plantation and the reported position of the enemy, was the watercourse known as Powhite Creek. On the Confederate maps this appeared as a straight stream, flowing from the north into the Chickahominy. Almost directly opposite the mouth of this creek were the Federal lines on the south side of the river. It seemed altogether probable that the Federals held a continuous front, north and south, along Powhite Creek to the Chickahominy and thence across that stream,31 and were awaiting attack there.
Lee proceeded to make his first plan of the day in the expectation that the battle would be fought on Powhite Creek. Huger was advised of the state of affairs and was urged if the Federals showed any disposition to abandon their front on the south side, to press them hard.32 Pendleton was told to employ against the Federals the long-range guns that Lee had ordered into action early in the morning and had subsequently directed to cease firing lest they interfere with the pursuit.33 As Jackson and D. H. Hill were marching toward the Federal rear, turning Powhite Creek, a sharp attack would force the Federals from that stream and would throw them into the very mouth of Jackson's artillery. A. P. Hill was directed to assault as soon as possible, with his full strength. Longstreet's division, which was still coming up, was to be placed in reserve to support Hill in rear and on the right.34
The plan, in graphic terms, is shown on the opposite page.
Lee's first, mistaken assumption of the situation as he approached Gaines's Mill,
Meantime, about 11 o'clock, D. H. Hill had arrived at Old Cold Harbor, whence led the road to Dispatch Station. He had found the enemy in strength across another road that linked Old Cold Harbor with Grapevine Bridge over the Chickahominy, and about noon, he had attacked hotly along the upper stretch of a p143 little stream that ran from east to west.35 Lee heard nothing and knew nothing of D. H. Hill's affair to the eastward, though he had sent staff officers to hasten Jackson's advance.
The first intimation that Lee had that the infantry had come together was the sound of rapid volleys about 1 P.M. from the Cold Harbor road on which A. P. Hill was advancing to the eastward. Riding thither, Lee found that Maxcy Gregg's South Carolina brigade had reached the point where the Cold Harbor road crossed Powhite Creek at Gaines's Mill. The ground there was somewhat similar to that at Ellerson's Mill, and the enemy p144 was perched on the hill east of Powhite Creek to dispute that passage. Gregg, however, moving rapidly, crossed with slight difficulty about 1:30 P.M.,36 and was soon in pursuit of the enemy.
THE WRECK OF GAINES'S MILL AFTER THE OPERATIONS OF 1862 AND 1864
The initial brush in the battle that took its name from this structure occurred on the dam of this mill.
This was a suspiciously easy beginning if the Federals had really intended to make a stand on Powhite Creek, as Lee had supposed! Why did not the enemy contest the crossing? Why was no artillery in position? Passing uphill from the creek, Lee came to an open plateau, with crops under cultivation, and small woods on the horizon. There was no sign of a Federal line of battle to the east, but there was firing from the south and southeast. Bullets began to fall about Lee. His staff officers suggested that he retire out of range. Instead, he pushed on to a point where Marmaduke Johnson's battery was awaiting orders. At that moment, from a stretch of woods to the southeast, in the vicinity of what was known at New Cold Harbor, some of Gregg's troops began to roll back. Not knowing what had happened, Lee ordered Johnson to unlimber and to prepare to meet an attack. "Gentlemen," he said to his staff and to the officers of the battery, "we must rally those men." He spurred his horse into a gallop and soon was in the midst of the fleeing infantry, calling on them to stop and for the honor of their state to go back and meet the enemy. The panic was local and short-lived. Gregg himself was on the scene in a few minutes and led his men quickly and steadily back into the woods. Soon the fighting there was as hot as before.37
The enemy was at bay — and not, as Lee had supposed, on a line running north and south but more nearly on a front extending from east to west, curving widely to the north like the outer side of a drawn bow. Such reconnaissance as was possible under the heavy and increasing fire of the Federals showed the terrain falling away on the south and southeast into a wooded, boggy bottom, through which ran a sluggish little stream known as Boatswain's Swamp.38 This watercourse was not on Lee's map and its presence explained why McClellan had not stood on Powhite Creek. The position selected by the Federals was stronger p145 and more compact than a north-and‑south front would have been. Rising on the south of Boatswain's Swamp was a long hill, with steep grades facing the north and the west.39 In rear of this hill the ground sloped off to the wide flats of the Chickahominy.
This, then, evidently was the main Federal position, and the approaches to it were bad. There were only two roads, both narrow. One of them ran straight downgrade from New Cold Harbor to the swamp and thence due south to the home of Mrs. Watt on the crest of the hill. The other road started at almost the same point, went southeast across the swamp and up the hill and then followed the crest eastward, past the McGhee house, to the highway from Old Cold Harbor to Grapevine bridge. Except on these two roads, which ran for part of the distance p146 through a thick, high growth and crowding underbrush, the only line of attack was across the fields and through the wooded swamp. It was a terrible position to have to assault. Of the ground on the left, where Jackson was to take position, Lee could see nothing. The heavy thick intervening forest along the McGhee house road effectually cut off vision.40 So far as Lee could ascertain, the general topography was as shown on page 145.
The prisoners taken at Mechanicsville and the stragglers picked up along the road all belonged only to Fitz John Porter's V Provisional Corps, but the volume of fire and the calmness of the Federals in taking position and awaiting attack convinced Lee that the greater part of McClellan's army was in his front.41 In that case, Lee reasoned that they would extend their flank to meet him, as otherwise Jackson would be between them and their base. As Jackson's arrival on the Confederate left was momentarily expected, the Federals were likely to start their shift to the right at any time. If, therefore, Hill engaged them now and Longstreet waited with his fresh troops till the enemy began to move, there was every reason to hope that McClellan, in making for the roads to Dispatch Station, would be trapped by Jackson, as shown on the opposite page.
Assumed situation in early afternoon, June 27, 1862,
A. P. Hill made his dispositions with speed. Waiting only long enough to see that Longstreet was coming into position, Hill ordered his men forward at 2:30 P.M., on a front of three and a half brigades, from the woods that fringed the south side of the Gaines's Mill-Cold Harbor road.42 Most of Hill's troops had never been in action until the previous day, but they did not seem shaken by the reverse at Mechanicsville.43 In front of Hill's right, west of the road to the Watt farm, was a cleared field surrounding the Parsons house, which had a fenced-in garden. To the south of the house was a small orchard on the brow of the ridge overlooking Boatswain's Swamp.44 On the left and centre p147 of Hill's line of advance, open ground led into a wood that ran down to the swamp and beyond it.
At the word of command, Hill's right brigades moved across the field past the Parsons house and to the brow of the ridge. Then the Federal artillery from the other side of Boatswain's Swamp opened on them a devastating fire of shrapnel.45 Men began to fall fast, but the lines swept on and disappeared from Lee's sight as they plunged downward toward the swamp. A moment more and there came the crash of an overwhelming Federal volley, delivered at •500 yards.46 Right and left the fire swelled along the swamp and echoed against the ridges with a roar that men who were to pass through many battles never forgot to the end of their days.47 Hill had put three batteries into service to cover p148 the advance, but though they were well served, only Crenshaw's on the left gave any real protection to the attacking force.48
It was oppressively hot in the glare of the full afternoon sun.49 The smoke hung over the hill so heavily50 that Lee could only judge of the progress of the action by the sound of the firing. On the left, Gregg evidently was advancing. In the centre and on the right, as well as they could be distinguished, the Confederate volleys for a while seemed farther away; then they remained stationary for a time; then they were closer. And soon, with a sinking of heart, observers on the fringe of the wood saw men struggling back over the shell-swept crest. Some were running in panic; some were attempting to hold their formation; others were rallying under their officers and were forming where the grade afforded shelter. In a few moments, the fugitives were back in the woods fronting the Cold Harbor road.51
They had a dreadful tale to tell. When they had descended from the ridge, they had found themselves in thick underbrush along the swamp. At some points the swamp was a deep ravine, out of which a man could hardly climb;52 elsewhere it was •sixty feet across, with the stream completely lost in bog;53 farther down it was a mere ditch, over which a soldier could leap.54 Behind the ditch, or in the swamp, the Federals had a line, and beyond that a second, at some points close to the swamp and at others, half way up the hill. As far as different men had been able to see this second line, it had consisted of felled timber, of knapsacks against fences, of piled logs — of anything that would stop bullets and give shelter.55 On the crest of the hill, there seemed to be massed reserves or a third line, with an abundance of artillery. Archer had come within twenty paces of the first line and had been compelled to fall back.56 J. R. Anderson had made three charges, and one of his regiments had penetrated the line, but when his centre had wavered, he had retreated, and in doing so had confused Field's brigade, which was supporting him.57 Two of Pender's p149 regiments had likewise entered the Federal lines but had been beaten back.58 Branch's command had been confused.59 Only Gregg had succeeded in crossing the swamp on the left, where the woods ran well up the flank of Turkey Hill,60 and there he remained.
Some of the units were rallying, even as the others withdrew, and were now pressing a forlorn, second assault,61 but it was now nearly 4 o'clock and there was no denying the fact that A. P. Hill had sustained a costly repulse. From the sound of the firing in the swamp, it was believed that the Federals had themselves taken the offensive.62 This of itself was convincing evidence that there had been no weakening of the Federal left to meet the long-expected movement of Jackson on the right.
Lee had, therefore, to scrap his previous plan of action, and to arrange for a general assault all along the line as soon as the troops could be put in position. Thus far, only A. P. Hill had attacked. If he exhausted himself in futile affrays, there was danger that the tragedy of the 26th would be repeated and that victory would be lost because the whole army could not be thrown into action simultaneously. If, again, Hill were now attacked, his shattered division could not stand. Help must be had at once. Lee kept sending messengers to Jackson, urging him to hurry forward, so that the general assault could be delivered; but as immediate assistance could only be assured on the right, Lee dispatched orders to Longstreet to make a diversion in Hill's favor.63
Before Longstreet moved, perhaps before he received Lee's message, Jackson's doughty and eccentric lieutenant, General R. S. Ewell, came down the road from Old Cold Harbor and reported. His division was immediately behind him, he said; Whiting's two brigades and Lawton's Georgians were not far away. D. H. Hill was engaged on the Federal right, Ewell said, and Jackson's p150 own division, after having been delayed in reaching Old Cold Harbor by taking the wrong road, was coming up.
Lee at once ordered Ewell to support A. P. Hill on the right of the road leading to the McGhee house and directed him to send back officers to quicken the march of Whiting and Lawton.64 As Ewell prepared to throw in two brigades on the ground where A. P. Hill's left had been fighting, Longstreet started a demonstration with four of his brigades, and the second phase of the battle began on a wider front.
Jackson, it now developed, had reached Old Cold Harbor ahead of his division, which had marched very slowly.65 He had found D. H. Hill engaged hotly with the enemy on the upper stretches of Boatswain's Swamp, with his line drawn east and west, to the left of A. P. Hill but not in contact with him. Jackson knew little of the ground or of the disposition of the Union forces. Expecting that A. P. Hill and Longstreet would drive the enemy across his front, from west to east, in accordance with Lee's first plan, Jackson had become apprehensive that the Confederate attacking force would confuse his own men with the Federals. For that reason, Jackson had ordered D. H. Hill to break off the action and to take a position that would put open ground in front of him. He had not been in that position long, however, before the sound of the firing on the Confederate right gave proof that A. P. Hill was being hard pressed and was facing south. Jackson consequently had ordered D. H. Hill to change front again and he now directed him to advance against the enemy.66
Jackson's own brigades, unacquainted with the country, were drifting badly. Some of D. H. Hill's units became confused in reaching their position, and by no means all of them were ready when Ewell went forward on their right; but those who could be brought up emerged from the woods that sheltered them on the western side of the Cold Harbor-Grapevine Bridge road and crossed an open field that led downgrade to a belt of heavy timber.67 Making their way over the stream, which here was little more than a brook, they reached the southern edge of the p151 woods, where the Federals had felled some timber.68 Beyond them stretched upward for •400 yards a wide field of young corn.69 Then came the first Union line, held by the regular infantry of Sykes's division, protected in part by the irregularities of the ground and in part by a fence, and supported by excellent artillery.70 Well in rear of this line, and so washed and sunken at points as to afford admirable shelter, was the road that ran across the crest of the eastern side of the hill past the McGhee house to the Cold Harbor-Grapevine Bridge highway.71 The McGhee house itself was south of the road along the crest and was set on commanding ground, surrounded by fences, outbuildings, and an orchard.72 East of that large property, beyond the Cold Harbor-Grapevine Bridge road, there was a copse near the Confederate front, then open ground and a tangle of small, second-growth pine.73
D. H. Hill's progress to the southern end of the woods along the upper waters of Boatswain's Swamp had been easy, but beyond that point his every attack was met with a quick counterthrust.74 At length, when Garland's and G. B. Anderson's brigades found their progress halted by the fire of a battery near the McGhee house, Hill ordered the artillery stormed by a separate column, the 20th North Carolina, while Garland and Anderson assaulted the infantry. The guns were taken and retaken, but the two brigades meantime reached the road on the crest in front of the McGhee house and found shelter there.75 D. H. Hill was not so close to victory at this point as he subsequently thought, but he was in position to co-operate effectively if a general assault was ordered. Jackson, meantime, was busily employed in bringing up his own division and in arranging artillery support for D. H. Hill p152 from guns that had been delayed on the road.76 As the battle roared toward its climax, Jackson's spirits rose. Sending officers to all his division commanders, he said, "Tell them that this affair must hang in suspense no longer; sweep the field with the bayonet!"77 When all were on the march to their positions, he rode over toward New Cold Harbor to report to Lee.
By this time Trimble's and Richard Taylor's brigades of Ewell's divisions were feeling the strength of the Federal centre. Ewell's left was not in contact with D. H. Hill nor his right with A. P. Hill. Taylor's brigade was driven off the field, and Gregg's men, who had advanced across the swamp in Hill's major charge, were being forced slowly back. Trimble fared better. His regiments extended their flanks and contrived to keep up a vigorous fire until reinforced a little later by the 5th Texas and a part of Hampton's legion. One private in Trimble's command, finding a loose horse, mounted and rode up and down the ranks at a critical moment, rallying the men, who took him to be an officer of rank.78
Beyond Ewell's front, A. P. Hill's survivors were holding on to the crest in front of the Parsons house, facing a fire that was, if anything, stronger than ever.79 Still farther to the right, Longstreet's demonstration was taking form. Except for his skirmishers, Longstreet had kept his men under the shelter offered by a hill and a small wood80 during Hill's first attack. Pickett's brigade was on his left, next A. P. Hill and three other brigades, temporarily under Wilcox, were in line on Longstreet's right. As they now began to deploy, they found themselves on difficult ground. A plain, •one-quarter mile or more in depth, part of it in wheat, stretched from the eastern bank of Powhite Creek to Boatswain's Swamp.81 The edge of Boatswain's Swamp was deeply scarped, dammed on its lower stretch, and covered by a belt of partially felled timber much less thick than farther upstream.82 Where the swamp turned from west to south, into the valley of p153 the Chickahominy, the timber gave way to open fields.83 Across these fields from the hill occupied by the Federals, and from the heights of the south side of the Chickahominy, there was breaking a cross-fire of shell which no troops could endure.84 Behind the eastern side of Boatswain's Swamp, on the flank of the hill, were Federal sharpshooters, above them a line of infantry behind felled trees, and at an elevation of •about forty feet above the second line, the Federal artillery and reserves were well covered.85 No sooner did the demonstration disclose the strength of the position in his front than Longstreet saw that a diversion would simply be a waste of life. He could only help A. P. Hill by converting the demonstration into an assault and he accordingly paused to bring up troops for that purpose.86
Such was the situation after 5 P.M. — Longstreet preparing for a general assault on the right, A. P. Hill's men on the right centre, delivering a desultory fire, Ewell fighting on the centre with both flanks in the air, Jackson's diversion, Whiting, and Lawton coming up to plug the holes in the line, D. H. Hill in a favorable position but still encountering stiff resistance, the Federals unshaken and reinforced, their powerful artillery firing fast. If the battle was to be saved, the full weight of the Confederate army must be thrown against the enemy. No time must be lost in hurling Jackson's unemployed troops into the struggle.
At the end of the first phase of the battle, when A. P. Hill had been almost worn out, Ewell had come to his rescue; and now, with the issue still in doubt, down the same road from Old Cold Harbor rode Jackson, dust-covered, with his dingy cadet cap pulled down over his weak eyes, sitting awkwardly on an ugly horse, and sucking a lemon. Lee went up and greeted him.
"Ah, General," said he, "I am very glad to see you. I had hoped to be with you before" — which was a tactful way of saying he had hoped Jackson would have arrived earlier.
Jackson nodded his head quickly and made some brief reply, unintelligible in the deafening din from the woods to the south of them.
"That fire is very heavy," Lee said. "Do you think your men can stand it?"
p154 Listening a moment, Jackson answered bluntly: "They can stand almost anything! They can stand that."87
After a brief conference on the proper disposition of the troops not yet in line, Jackson rode away. Meantime Lawton, with his 3500 Georgians, the largest brigade in the army, had joined Ewell without reporting to Lee, and was making his fire felt. Soon Lee saw up the road his brilliant assistant of Sollers Point, General W. H. C. Whiting, who had been feeling his way to the right from Old Cold Harbor, where the various commands of Jackson's column had been much confused. Lee at once ordered Whiting to support A. P. Hill's right, just as Ewell had been thrown in to relieve A. P. Hill's left.88
Ere long the head of Whiting's division was in the road. Lee rode toward it and inquired for General John B. Hood, leading the Texas brigade of that command. Hood came up on his horse and saluted. Briefly Lee told him what had happened — how the troops on the front were fighting gallantly but had not been able to dislodge the enemy. "This must be done," he said quietly. "Can you break his line?"
"I will try," answered Hood, stoutly enough.89
As Lee turned his horse's head to ride away, he lifted his hat. "May God be with you," he said.90
It would take time for Hood and Law, who commanded Whiting's other brigade, to pass down the road and deploy for action. Meantime, Gregg's men were leaving the swamp, and from the centre and right of A. P. Hill's division, more weary soldiers were seeking the rear. Whiting would help, but Longstreet must not delay. Unless he acted speedily, the day might be lost. Lee hurried a staff officer to Longstreet to tell him so.91 Anxiously he waited.
Louder and louder the battle roared through a half hour of uncertainty, as the shadows lengthened and twilight began to settle where the woods were thickest. Then, from beyond the p155 Parsons house came a strange, shrill, sustained cry, as if thousands of men were calling on the dogs in a fox hunt. It was the "rebel yell."92 Whiting's men were going into action. They had established contact with Longstreet, and his brigades also were pressing forward.93
From his position, Lee could not see what had happened next, but it was a drama that gave Hood's Texans a place in his heart that no other command ever won.94 E. M. Law's brigade was on the right, next Pickett, who held Longstreet's left. Hood was on the left of Law. Whiting's orders were that his two brigades should advance in a double line, straight for the edge of the ridge where Hill's men still hung on. Then they were to start the double-quick, trailing arms, and were not to fire a shot. As they went forward, Hood saw a gap and an open field between Law and Pickett and he quickly moved the 4th Texas across Law's rear and into this gap. The movement was flawless; the whole division swept onward, the 4th Texas ahead of the others. The fire grew faster. So did the pace of the men. By the hundred they fell, but without a break in the alignment. They were passing through Hill's ranks; they were plunging down the grade into the swamp. A thousand had fallen now, but scarcely a musket had been fired from the attacking division. The men were within •twenty yards of the Federal front line — within ten — and then, suddenly, as if the same fear had seized every heart, the Federals were leaving their works, were running, were throwing their arms away. Over the second line they swarmed, spreading panic. Through swamp, in pursuit, the Texans crashed; up the hill and over the second line they rushed, and then, as the bluecoats spread in a confused mass, the Confederates loosed their volley, where every bullet reached its mark.95 A break had been made. If it could be widened, the enemy would be routed.
The hands on Lee's watch were pointing to 7 o'clock. The sun was below the forest on the other side of the Chickahominy.96 p156 Lee had in line every man he could hope to place there. It was time for the final thrust. Before he knew the full measure of success that had attended Whiting's assault, he gave orders to A. P. Hill to start a general advance and to communicate the word to right and to left.97 It was scarcely necessary. The orders given at intervals during the afternoon, the hard riding of the staff officers, and the steady marching of thousands of boys had not been in vain. Longstreet's columns were moving;98 Lawton had not halted since his brigade had gone into action; Ewell was full of fight, cheering for the Georgians; every one knew that Jackson had arrived; D. H. Hill had seen his opportunity, and his regiments had rushed for the McGhee house about the time the Texans had broken through the swamp.99 In fifteen minutes, as if some animated jig-saw puzzle had suddenly fallen into place, the full design of the assault showed itself. Through fast-gathering twilight, the Federals yielded slowly and stubbornly in front of the Confederate left, gave ground rapidly in the centre, and on the right, where Whiting had made lodgment, broke wildly, carrying their support with them.100 A reckless cavalry charge by part of Lee's old regiment and fragments of other units confused the Federal artillery.101 Fourteen fine guns, foul from firing, some of the very pieces that had balked the Confederates the previous day at Ellerson's mill, were captured after a gallant defense. One brave cannoneer, desperately wounded, dragged himself up by the spokes of a wheel, pulled the laniard and fired into the very faces of the charging Confederates.102 A battery on the p157 road to the Watt house discharged a round of double-canister into the attacking column at point-blank range and in the confusion managed to limber up and escape.103 Two Union regiments were taken on Whiting's front104 and large detachments everywhere. Small groups of brave men held out here and there; the reserve artillery got away; Sykes's regulars kept their formation, as became their traditions. Cheers rose from the Federal right as the defeated troops met reinforcements.105 Elsewhere, as darkness settled, the Union troops made for the Chickahominy flats south of the hill, where it was futile to attempt to pursue them.106
Lee had won his first victory and promptly dispatched to the President a message in which he prefaced announcement to that effect with the characteristic phrase, "Profoundly grateful to almighty God."107 But it was a heavy price he had paid. There had been, Longstreet said, more feats of individual valor than he had seen on any field.108 The slaughter of officers had been tremendous. The list of the fallen read like a roster of the Southern aristocracy. The 1st Texas had lost nearly 600 of its 800.109 The 4th Texas had seen all its field officers killed or wounded and had finished the battle under the command of a captain. Its casualties had numbered 252.110 The total Confederate dead and wounded, though never separately tabulated, could not have fallen below 8000, and in some brigades the slain were so numerous that twenty-four hours scarcely sufficed to bury them.111 And there might be a like butcher's bill on the morrow!
Nor had the Confederates on the south side of the Chickahominy escaped casualties. Knowing the impetuosity of his army, Lee had apprehended that Magruder's men might not be willing to sit quietly behind their fortifications and see their comrades across the river winning glory at the cannon's mouth. He consequently p158 had taken the precaution in mid-afternoon to order Magruder not to take the initiative except when certain of success and when acting in co-operation with the forces north of the Chickahominy. Through some misunderstanding, however, a reconnaissance had been converted into an attack by General Toombs and some 400 men had been lost in a clumsy and futile operation at Golding's Farm.112 Lee got the unhappy details late in the evening, but had little time to ponder them.
To plan for the next move, Lee now rode back to Selwyn, the Hogan house, where he conferred with Jackson and Longstreet.113 It was a night of groaning and of misery for the thousands of wounded, a night of sorrow and of expectancy for the man who issued late orders to his lieutenants and then gave humble thanks to the God of Battles that the grip of the enemy on Richmond had been loosened.
3 Marshall, 97.
5 O. R., 11, part 2, pp491, 758, 780, 782, 836. The Confederates assumed that this withdrawal meant that Jackson had just then turned the creek, but in reality orders for a retreat had been received before 2 A.M. and the movement had been under way since that hour. Only a rearguard of one brigade, supported by a few well-handled batteries, had been left to cover the retirement (O. R., 11, part 2, pp223, 272, 399‑400).
8 Taylor's General Lee, 65‑66; R. Taylor, 86‑87; 2 B. and L., 361.
9 Morgan, 134‑35.
10 O. R., 11, part 2, pp248‑49. For valuable notes on the Hanover homes that figured in this battle, and for constant counsel in solving the problems of this most confused campaign, the author is indebted to his friend J. Ambler Johnston.
13 2 Henderson, 26; 2 B. and L., 353; 9 S. H. S. P., 557.
14 McClellan had prompt notice of the first dispatch of reinforcements to Jackson (O. R., 11, part 3, p224), but there had been much conflict in reports regarding later troop-movements and after June 12 there had been a vigorous correspondence among the Union authorities concerning the transfer of large numbers of men from Lee to Jackson. This kept up until after Jackson had been engaged at Gaines's Mill (O. R., 12, part 3, pp376, 377, 378, 387, 389, 391, 392, 394‑95, 396, 406, 411, 421, 424, 425, 429, 434, 440, 442, 445, 447; O. R., 11, 1, 48, 271; ibid., part 3, pp232‑33, 234, 238). By June 20, McClellan had been satisfied that Jackson had been heavily reinforced from Richmond, though other Federal authorities still doubted it (O. R., 11, part 1, p48). On the night of the 24th, a deserter had given McClellan news of Jackson's approach (2 B. and L., 326; O. R., 11, part 1, p49). The next day McClellan had been convinced that Jackson was moving to his right and rear (O. R., 11, part 1, p51; part 3, p253), and on the 26th, great clouds of dust, invisible from the south side of the church, had confirmed every suspicion (2 B. and L., 327).
15 Hotchkiss in 3 C. M. H., 285; G. W. Nichols: A Soldier's History of His Regiment, 39. None of Jackson's subordinates had been experienced in handling large bodies of men and they could not keep the column closed up or speed its movement. His 18,500 troops were spread out on •fifteen miles of road (H. H. McGuire to Jed Hotchkiss, March 30, 1896, MS., McGuire Papers).
16 Diary of B. Y. Malone, edited by W. W. Pierson, Jr., James Sprunt Historical Publications, vol. 16, no. 2 (cited hereafter as Malone), 21‑22.
21 O. R., 11, part 2, pp233, 490, 491, 514, 528, 552‑53, 562, 614, 620‑21; 2 Henderson, 17; Hood, 25; W. H. Palmer to W. H. Taylor, July 24, 1905, Taylor MSS.; N. A. Davis, 43‑44; Worsham, 98; H. H. McGuire to Jed Hotchkiss, March 30, 1896, MS. — McGuire Papers.
24 Lee's orders were verbal, overheard by no one else, and their content has been the subject of much speculation, but Jackson's subsequent movements and Lee's message to Huger from the Hogan house (Lee's Dispatches, 18), leave scarcely any ground for doubt as to what Jackson understood his duty to be.
26 Joel Cook, 171. Cook confused Selwyn and Fairfield, the home of William Gaines.
28 Magruder, however, later insisted that as the bridge was fully commanded by the Federal guns at Golding's Farm, it was not a practicable crossing until after the enemy evacuated that position (O. R., 11, part 2, p662).
29 Marshall, 97; 2 English Combatant, 133.
30 O. R., 11, part 2, p535. This message was dispatched at 9 o'clock and is here assumed to have reached Lee by noon. Powhite is pronounced Pow-height and took its name from a tribe of Indians that had lived in the vicinity. It was long the home of William Hartwell Macon, father and son.
31 Lee's Dispatches, 18.
34 Longstreet, 125.
38 In the Tidewater section of Virginia, a stream of this sort, as well as the adjacent overflowed land, is styled a swamp.
39 The eastern part of this high ground was known as Turkey Hill, and the whole of it was sometimes so designated.
40 There is a good general description of the ground in Charles A. Page: Letters of a War Correspondent, 4.
42 O. R., 11, part 2, pp492, 883. Archer was on the right, then Anderson, then Branch on a half-brigade front, with Gregg on the left. For the location of the woods along the road, see ibid., part 2, p272.
47 R. L. T. Beale, 24.
50 And, curiously enough, not over the swamp; McHenry Howard: Recollections, 140.
52 Worsham, 100‑101.
61 O. R., 11, part 2, p897.º It should be noted that the number of assaults delivered by Hill is variously reported at different points along the line. Each account described the attacks on a comparatively narrow front, where quite often the reporting officer wrongly assumed that a general assault was in progress.
65 McHenry Howard: Recollections, 137‑38.
66 O. R., 11, part 2, pp348, 361, 553, 624, 641; 2 B. and L., 355. The last-cited authority may be interpreted to mean that D. H. Hill's second position was almost perpendicular to the line A. P. Hill was drawing •a mile to the westward.
68 2 B. and L., 355.
74 This was more confidently delivered because the Federals knew that reinforcements would soon be up. Bartlett's brigade arrived at 4:30 P.M. and went into action at 5 (O. R., 11, part 2, p477).
75 O. R., 11, part 2, pp354, 367, 369, 371, 373, 624, 641, 644, 649; 2 B. and L., 356; Hickory Co. E., 26th N. C. Regiment, 5. The captured guns were Hayden's section of Edwards's Battery, 3d U. S. Arty. (O. R., 11, part 2, pp356, 451; N. W. Curtis: From Bull Run to Chancellorsville, 120‑21).
77 Dabney, 455.
87 Cooke, 84; Cooke: Life of Stonewall Jackson, 200. Cooke was at this time an officer on Stuart's staff, and he gave this story in detail, but it is plain from his Wearing of the Gray, 46‑47, that he did not personally witness the meeting. Mrs. McGuire, 125, represented Jackson as answering: "General, I know our boys — they will never give back."
89 Hood, 25.
90 J. B. Polley: Hood's Texas Brigade, 57.
91 Longstreet, 127, perhaps adorning the tale a bit.
92 28 S. H. S. P., 96.
94 N. A. Davis, 114‑15; Reagan, 145.
96 The time of the different movements of any battle is usually difficult to determine. Especially is this true of Gaines's Mill, which is perhaps the most confusing of all the engagements Lee fought. Generally speaking, the hour given by an officer awaiting attack (p156)is more apt to be accurate than that reported by the average officer making the attack. A commander who is late, or is called upon to make a complicated movement, usually underestimates the time required and will generally assume the hour is earlier than it actually is. The more hotly an officer is engaged, of course, the less likely is he to consult his watch or to estimate accurately the flight of time. In this battle, Confederate officers on the right state the time with less inaccuracy than those on the left, but there is little agreement among them, and the student has to reconcile their statements as best he can. Although the Federals were on the defensive, their figures differ materially. Porter says it was 2 P.M. when Hill attacked (O. R., 11, part 2, p224); Butterfield and Morell say it was 2:30 (ibid., 273, 316). Morell and Butterfield put the second phase of the battle at 5:30; Porter at 6. Butterfield stated the final attack was "shortly after 6," Morell gave 6:30, Colonel R. M. Richardson maintained it was 7:30 (ibid., 327), and Porter wrote that it came "just as darkness was covering everything from view" (ibid., p225).
102 2 B. and L., 346.
105 2 B. and L., 358.
109 Reagan, 145.
112 Lee ordered a report made to the Secretary of War, but in the rush of subsequent events the matter was dropped. See O. R., 11, part 2, pp661, 689‑90, 695‑96; J. J. McDaniel: Diary of Battles, Marches and Incidents of the Seventh South Carolina Regiment (cited hereafter as McDaniel), 6.
113 A. R. Ellerson in T. N. Page, Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier, 715.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Robert E. Lee
Richmond National Battlefield
(US Park Service)
Richmond Battlefields Association
Seven Days: primary sources
Gaine's Mill (Dowdey at Bucktails)
(John's Military History)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 19 Mar 11