The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chapter 6

The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe

CHAPTER VI.
THE BATTLE OF THE CHICKAHOMINY OR COLD HARBOUR, JUNE 27TH, 1862.

NOW commences that series of combats from June 26th to July 1st, known by the name of “The seven days under Richmond,” terminating in the defeat and final retreat of MacClellan. The Chickahominy, whose borders were about to be the scene of an eager and decisive struggle between the two hostile armies, is a river with small current, winding much, which takes its rise above Richmond, running north and east of the city, and falling into the James to the south, far below Richmond. Its borders are marshy, and covered with trees and brushwood. The banks are low, and at the least overflow of the water, the stream, generally narrow and insignificant, becomes a lake, covering all the plain to the woody hills which rise at a certain distance on both sides. Several bridges cross it; that of Mechanicsville, four miles from Richmond, and that of New Bridge, eight miles, are very important points.

MacClellan’s position has been already described. One part of his army had crossed the southern bank and was about five miles from the city. The rest of his troops remained on the north bank of the Chickahominy, and extended in the form of a crescent to the neighbourhood of Mechanicsville, where it had been agreed that General MacDowell should post himself, thus covering the Federal right flank, and protecting its communications with the Federal base at the White House. In the presence of such foes as Johnston and Lee this disposition of the troops was a grave blunder. But here MacClellan was the victim of the feeble and changing policy at Washington. If MacDowell’s 40,000 men had marched to join his standard, his position would have been sheltered from all surprise. It was precisely this right flank, left defenceless, because too much reliance was placed on MacDowell, which became the point of the Confederate attack.

The army Lee was preparing to hurl against the enemy was composed of the élite of the Southern population. Among the common soldiers were many men of good education and high social position. This explains the character which the contest had taken. The war was one of invasion on the part of the North. Thus all the Southern youth, naturally impatient and ardent, had thrown body and soul into it with enthusiasm. The feeling that everybody ought to become a soldier for his native soil, and a legitimate indignation at the thought that a fraction of, the country had sent an army to reduce them to obedience, attracted to the Confederate ranks the flower of the youth, and all that was most vigorous in the district. Restive under discipline, and hard to manage, these men still gave proof of precious military qualities. They could especially be counted on when the enterprise was perilous. Among the generals, it is enough to mention A. P. Hill, whose dash was irresistible; Longstreet, remarkable on the contrary for his quiet and obstinacy; the already celebrated Jackson, nicknamed “Stonewall,” and others who made a name afterwards.

Till now, General Lee had passed for being a man of exaggerated prudence, but his plan of attack against MacClellan indicated a hardiness which, on the contrary, bordered upon rashness. Informing himself accurately as to the positions occupied by the enemy and his forces, knowing also that a great part of the Federal army had crossed the Chickahominy and were in his ront, Lee had decided to cross to the north bank with the major portion of his troops, leaving only 25,000 men for the protection of the city, and risk all on the chances of the battle he was about to deliver. It was, perhaps, very inconsiderate, but, like his later flank movement at Chancellorsville, and his entry, in 1864, into Pennsylvania under the very eyes of General Hooker, this hardiness had its source in a true military inspiration, revealing the qualifications of a great captain.

On June 26th, 1862, General Jackson put his troops in motion about 10 o’clock, a.m. In consequence of the rapidity with which he had descended some mountains in Western Virginia, the bulk of his train had only rejoined very late in the night; by this his departure in the morning was delayed. General Branch, of A. P. Hill’s division, immediately crossed the marshes with his brigade and marched on Meadow Bridge. But the obstacles met with made his progress very slow. General A. P. Hill waited a long time without receiving any news of Jackson or Branch. He well knew the engagement had begun, but the enemy’s forces in his front gave no signs of trouble. At 3 o’clock, p.m., feeling that if he delayed longer, the success of the whole combination would be compromised, he gave orders to commence the attack. Field’s brigade precipitated itself on the bridge and took it. The whole division followed, and, turning to the right, marched on Mechanicsville. Received by a sharp fire of artillery it still pressed on, and routed the Federals at Mechanicsville. But this was only an affair with the outposts. The true line of defence chosen by the enemy was rather more than a mile in the rear, on the left bank of a watercourse, Beaver Dam Creek; this bank, higher than the right bank, commands the latter. The Federal left was supported on the Chickahominy, the centre was stationed at Beaver Dam Creek, and the right leaned on some thick woods which bordered the road from Mechanicsville to Cold Harbour. A road crossed the watercourse and ascended towards Ellison’s Mill. This was the only way by which Confederate artillery could attack the Federal position, and the fire of the Federal cannon had an entire sweep of it. To the south of this creek there was also a small valley, but so marshy that infantry could not manœuvre there. Besides, it had been strewn with trunks of trees thrown across it. The Federal position, naturally so strong, had been chosen with extreme care; several lines of infantry and artillery possessed the heights, and die pits extended from the base to the top of the hill. General Fitz-John Porter, the most able of the Northern divisionary generals, commanded at this point. It was here that the Federal troops, crowded back from Mechanicsville, sought a refuge. General Hill’s soldiers pursuing the enemy were soon under the fire of the Beaver Dam Creek batteries. Perceiving that the position was too strong to be carried by assault, and hoping every moment to hear Jackson’s cannon, on the enemy’s rear, General Hill halted. To his right, however, he twice attempted to cross the Beaver Dam Creek stream at Ellison’s Mill, but without being able to touch General Porter’s left. At 9 o’clock, p.m., the combat ceased. The Federals had been dislodged at Mechanicsville, but held their own at Beaver Dam Creek. The Confederates passed the night on the ground they had conquered. They had lost between three and four thousand men; the Federals much less.

At 6 o’clock, p.m., General A. P. Hill’s offensive movement having laid open the Mechanicsville Bridge, the divisions of D. H. Hill and Longstreet were able to cross the Chickahominy, the former taking the direction of Cold Harbour to co-operate with Jackson, the latter going to the help of A. P. Hill, in order, on the following morning, to be in line.

Up to this time, in spite of some delays caused by the difficult nature of this woody and marshy country, Lee’s plan had perfectly succeeded. The four divisions of Jackson, A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill, and Longstreet had crossed the Chickahominy, and although the Federals still held out at Beaver Dam Creek, there was no doubt that when Jackson fell on their flank, they would be obliged to abandon this position. Indeed, this calculation was verified by the event. General MacClellan, at the news of Jackson’s approach, gave orders to General Porter to retire on New Bridge.

In the night of the 26th of June, Porter sent the greater part of his cannon and waggons to the south bank of the river; and a little before day, the Federal troops withdrew, burning all they could not carry off. General Jackson had arrived on the borders of Tottapotamy Creek, a marshy watercourse, with steep banks covered with thick wood. He found the bridge in flames, and heard the enemy on the other side cutting timber in the forest to bar his road. The Texas Brigade, commanded by Wood, was sent on in advance as scouts. An opportune fire of some howitzers into the woods made the enemy take flight, and the Confederates promptly repaired the bridge and crossed. Continually pushing the Federal rear-guard before him, Jackson passed the night at Hundley’s Corner; and the next day, June 27th, at dawn, resumed his march on Cold Harbour. D. H. Hill, during the morning, rejoined him with his division, and from that time formed the advanced guard of the Confederate left.

On the morning of the 27th, Longstreet in the centre drove Porter’s troops before him, and A. P. Hill went further to the left to Gaines Mill, more than a mile from Cold Harbour, in order to give a helping hand to D. H. Hill and Jackson. Thus, therefore, on the morning of June 27th, at ten o’clock, MacClellan withdrew his right wing, to find a place where he could deliver a last battle to the north of the Chickahominy, the four Confederate divisions pressing him smartly with their united forces. Up to this point everything had succeeded to General Lee’s satisfaction. The Federal general-in-chief felt that his plan of campaign had failed, and that there was only left to him the choice of two alternatives, equally dangerous. He could no longer think of preserving his communications with the White House* on the Pamunkey; Jackson was already master of it. Should MacClellan risk a battle in its aid, and victory not declare for him, his line of retreat towards the James River would be lost. His only choice was between an abandonment of the position he occupied, and a retreat, or the rapid concentration of his forces south of the Chickahominy, followed by an assault on the lines at Richmond. The latter would have been the most daring, inasmuch as it would have presented his flank to the enemy; but, perhaps, his great numerical superiority might have allowed him to crush Magruder and Huger’s 25,000 men before Lee could fly to their succour. However this may be, MacClellan decided on retreat. As Jackson, at the head of the Confederate left wing, barred his road to the Pamunkey, where, up to the present, his base of operations had been, there remained to him only two lines of retreat; the first, that which the Confederates had followed in May, coming from Yorktown; this was much the longest, and exposed him to the daily attacks of the victorious Confederates, which might lead to the entire destruction of his army; the second carried him through the White Oak Swamp to the James River, and was hardly more than thirty miles long. The nature of the country traversed would permit him to conceal his movements, and arrest the enemy’s pursuit at critical points. He chose this latter route. He hoped thus to accomplish a change in his base of operations, which he had long desired, in order to begin a new campaign against Richmond, with this difference, indeed, between the movement he wished for and that he was compelled to take, that in the former case he would not have had to experience the frightful losses in men and treasure which were about to attend its actual execution, and that what would have been an offensive movement became an obligatory flight before a conquering enemy.

Having then decided on the White Oak Swamp, MacClellan saw that, in order to give time to the bulk of his army to defile, the right wing under General Porter must be sacrificed to cover the Federal retreat. Porter, therefore, withdrew from Beaver Dam Creek, and occupied a very strong position at Cold Harbour, where MacClellan had ordered some formidable works to be constructed, which extended over a series of heights from the Chickahominy to Cold Harbour. A boggy watercourse, Powhite Creek, traversing a very woody country, flowed at the foot of these heights. The left occupied an elevated ground covered with trees, very precipitous, and overlooking a ravine which descended to the Chickahominy; the right, a sheltered position in the woods behind. Cold Harbour. The tufted brushwood of this ravine, hid thousands of sharpshooters; half-way up the height there extended a fine of infantry, and behind, a second line protected by parapets formed of the trunks of trees; a third line crowned the summit, which likewise bristled with artillery. At the foot of this really impregnable position, a plain, somewhat more than 500 yards wide, stretched, overlooked by the fire of this triple line of defence, and swept by the huge Federal batteries south of the Chickahominy. The watercourse already mentioned rendered all approach in front, over the soft ground, very difficult. On all sides, in the plain, trees had been cut down, for the double purpose of laying open the Confederates, and, the trunks being strewn all about on the ground, of keeping the enemy longer exposed to the shower of grape-shot all around them. This line of battle covered the approaches of the bridges which connected the two wings of the Federals.

General Lee had fixed his headquarters in a house on Hogan’s plantation, and there quietly awaited the moment when he should give the signal to engage. Hill and Longstreet’s columns had halted on the plain, till the arrival of Jackson’s right at Cold Harbour should be signalled. Lee, calm and collected, was seated beneath a verandah in the rear of the house. A crowd of officers were on the walks and greensward. They conversed in whispers, while their chief, aside and alone, seemed buried in his own thoughts, his fine countenance impressed with a serious air, but without a shade of inquietude or irresolution. Presently a courier arrives full gallop, on a horse white with foam, and presents a letter to the general. After having thrown his eyes over the paper, Lee mounts his horse without losing a moment, and a report spreads that Jackson is approaching, and the battle going to commence.

Longstreet’s division, coming from Beaver Dam Creek, had, in an hour, arrived at a place near the Chickahominy, opposite the new Federal position. It was there that Lee rejoined it. He wore his simple uniform of grey cloth with brass buttons, three gold stars on the collar alone indicating his rank; on his head was a grey felt hat with broad brims; riding boots, and leather gloves, with large gauntlets, completed his costume. His confident look, fine figure, and ease on horseback made him an accomplished cavalier. Such lie appeared to his soldiers, many of whom saw him now for the first time.

At the same moment A. P. Hill, whose division had suffered so much the evening before at Mechanicsville, and which reckoned now only 11,000 bayonets, precipitated four of his brigades on the enemy’s left at Cold Harbour. But although Hill kept on supporting them with all the soldiers he had left, in spite of repeated efforts, the Federals retained their positions. It was their turn to charge the exhausted troops of Hill. Lee counted on Jackson’s arrival to turn the hostile lines, but he saw that while waiting Hill would be crushed; he therefore ordered Longstreet to feign an attack on the Federal left and centre. The latter instantly advanced, but taking notice of the immense strength of the enemy’s works, he felt that his feigned attack must be changed into a real one, if he wished to afford Hill any real help. Five brigades rushed to the assault in double quick time, but were received by a fire so terrible that they recoiled cowed.

Night was approaching, and none of the attacks had finished. Happily at this moment the noise of the firing increases towards the Confederate left, and re-echoes loudly in the distance. A cry of joy and enthusiasm rises in the Southern ranks. “It is Jackson! it is Jackson!” the soldiers repeat to one another.

It was indeed he. He had marched all day, guided by the cannon which he heard thundering in the direction of the Chickahominy, and fearing to arrive too late, so much was his march delayed by unforeseen obstacles, watercourses, marshes, felled trees, abominable roads. He reached Cold Harbour at half-past five, when Longstreet was just assaulting the left of the enemy’s position. He immediately ordered D. H. Hill’s division to charge. Hardly was the order received before the latter rushed through everything, the marsh, the river, the brushwood, and the obstacles raised to guard the extreme right of MacClellan, thrusting everything he met before him, and at nightfall, by a last charge, he put the Federals to rout. General Ewell, however, had still to strive for four hours before he could render himself definitively master of the ground. It was not till ten o’clock at night that all the Federal position was abandoned.

Whiting’s division arrived to succour Longstreet just when the latter had been arrested by the crushing, fire of the Federal batteries. Hood and his Texas brigade were charged to snatch a victory from the enemy on that side. Already three of the four regiments which composed it had been cut down by the Federal fire, when Hood came and found the fourth regiment acting as a reserve, the men lying flat on their stomachs. He made it advance by the right flank to an orchard. “The ground,” says an eye-witness, “was covered with the dead and dying. Every instant the ranks opened for panic-stricken fugitives to pass through. In front of us was the old 3rd Brigade who, but a few minutes before, had started with cheers to storm the fatal palisade. But the storm of iron and lead was too severe; they wavered for a moment; half of the column lay writhing on the ground, the remainder, throwing down their arms, sought refuge in flight. At this instant, General Hood, who had in person taken command of our regiment, commanded in his clear ringing voice: ‘Forward, quick march!’ We were but 500. We had as supports behind us two regiments, one from Texas and one from Georgia. Hardly had we gone ten steps when our colonel fell dead. Volleys of musketry, and showers of grape, canister, and shell ploughed through us, but were only answered by the stern ‘Close up—close up to the colours!’ And onward we rushed over the dead and dying without a pause, until within about one hundred yards of the breastworks. We had reached the apex of the hill, and some of the men, seeing the enemy just before them, commenced to discharge their pieces. It was at this point that preceding brigades had halted, and beyond which no one had gone, in consequence of the terrible concentrated fire of the concealed enemy. At this critical juncture the voice of General Hood was heard above the din of battle: ‘Forward, down on them with the bayonet!’ We made one grand rush for the fort, down the hill, across the creek and fallen timber, and the next minute saw our battle-flag planted upon the captured breast-work. The enemy, frightened at the rapid approach of pointed steel, rose up from behind his defences, and started for his second line at full speed. One volley was poured into their backs, and it seemed that every ball found a victim, so great was the slaughter. Their works were ours, and as our flag moved from the first to the second tier of defences, a shout arose from the shattered remnants of the 4th Texas. . . . Right and left it was taken up, and rang along the line for miles, long after many of those who started it were in eternity.”

Supported by the reinforcements continually sent him, Hood pursued the enemy, took fourteen cannon, an entire Federal regiment, and rendered himself complete master of their works. This charge cost the Confederates 1,000 men. Once sure that the key of the Federal position was in his hands, Lee advanced his whole army and energetically crowded back the Northern troops toward the Chickahominy, crushing everything in his way. But during this time the darkness had become profound; the Southern army itself lost its alignment, and the country was ill-adapted for a night pursuit. An order was therefore given to camp on the battle-field.

The Federals retired in disorder towards the bridges, a large number of them being a prey to unspeakable terror. Riderless horses ran about affrighted in all directions; balls whistled; here and there fell an unfortunate, hit unawares; upset waggons, ambulances, cannons blocked the way; the poor wounded, limping, groaning, losing all their blood, dragged themselves into the midst of the affray; the officers in vain addressed their soldiers to restrain them, seeking to reason with them, supplicating them, and in spite of themselves, carried away by the torrent of fugitives,—above all, the growling of the cannon, clouds of smoke rising over the field of battle, the red disc of the sun settling below the horizon,—formed a spectacle impossible to forget.

Order Was partly restored at the bridges; during the night most of the troops crossed the river; at 6 o’clock, a.m., the soldiers of the regular army were the last to go over, after which the bridge was set on fire.

This contest at Cold Harbour was one of the most seriously disputed of the whole war. The Confederate victory determined the campaign. The losses of the two armies were great; from 7000 to 8000 on the Confederate side, from 6000 to 7000 on that of the Federals.

General Lee the same night despatched to Richmond the following letter:—

Head-quarters, June 27th, 1862.

His Excellency President Davis.

Mr. President,—Profoundly grateful to Almighty God for the signal victory granted to us, it is my pleasing task to announce to you the success achieved by this army today.

The enemy was this morning driven from his strong position behind Beaver Dam Creek, and pursued to that behind Powhite Creek, and finally, after a severe contest of five hours, entirely repulsed from the field.

Night put an end to the contest. I grieve to state that our loss in officers and men is great.

We sleep on the field, and shall renew the contest in the morning.

I have the honour to be,
Very respectfully,
R. E. LEE, (General).

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