Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 4

Camp-Fires of General Lee


STONEWALL JACKSON reached the pass of White Oak Swamp shortly before noon, and found Franklin strongly posted and a]waiting him. The Federal commander had improved his time well, and had some eight or ten batteries posted to cover the passage, while the infantry, consisting of nine brigades, were drawn up in line of battle.

Jackson’s force was much larger than that of the Federals—besides his four divisions, he had twenty batteries—and yet it was utterly out of his power to use his men with any advantage. There was but the single defile, the swamp on his right and left being almost as impassable as the rapids below Niagara. If he advanced, it must be along that narrow passage commanded by the guns of Franklin. Daring as was the Confederate leader, his military instinct caused him to shrink from the terrible attempt. To throw his men into that narrow defile was only to invite their slaughter, and, though the rank and file would have shrank at no risk for their beloved leader, they could not be expected do that which was impossible. But Jackson knew the penalty of delay. His force formed the strongest half of the Confederate army, and while it stood waiting on the borders of White Oak Swamp the Unionists were making good their escape. They needed but little more time in which to place themselves beyond his reach. Stonewall Jackson was not the man to stand idle in the face of any danger, no matter how great. Several of his batteries were drawn up above the pass with the object of silencing the Union guns before the decisive charge should be made by his infantry. For a time it appeared as if Jackson was to succeed in his purpose. A couple of Union batteries were silenced and most of the guns destroyed by the projectiles. The situation was a hopeful one for the assailants, when Franklin opened with his rifled ten-pounders, which were placed so far back as to be almost beyond range of Jackson’s guns. They inflicted great injury upon the Confederates.

All this time the infantry on both sides were under arms, expecting the battle to open. They were glaring across the pass at each other, chafing with fury and suffering severely from the artillery. So soon as the Union guns could be silenced the Confederate battle-yell would make the welkin ring, and they would swarm through the narrow passage as though rushing “to a festival.”

But, despite the utmost efforts, the Union batteries were not silenced. The precious hours slipped by, and the boom of cannon to the southward told Jackson how sorely he was needed there. His daring soul chafed at the enforced delay, but there was no help for it. He was not the one to lose his head in any crisis, no matter how trying. No temptation could induce him to make such an assault as that of “Bob Toombs” a few days before at Golding’s farm, where the only thing accomplished was the loss of a large number of men and a renewed proof of the fact that a man is pretty certain to prove his ridiculous incompetency on the very first opportunity.

Hour after hour passed; the flaming sun beat down on the soldiers all through the sultry afternoon, and the cannon roared and boomed. Men shrieked and many were torn to pieces, and still the opposing forces glared at each other, awaiting the order to leap at each other’s throats. But when darkness began creeping through the woods, the situation was unchanged. The Confederates remained on the borders of the swamp and had not made a single attempt to force their way. Thus the most formidable leader in the Confederate army, with about half the army itself, was held at bay all day, when his presence at Glendale, a few miles northward, would have overwhelmed the Federals. The powerful left wing of Lee’s army was paralyzed, and no word could be sent to or received from it.

Some two or three hours after the arrival of Jackson in front of Franklin, Longstreet and A. P. Hill reached Glendale, the second point exposed to attack from the Confederates. They had nearly twenty thousand men, under the leadership of the foremost generals in the service. McCall’s division, in the centre, was the first to receive their charge. He had arranged his soldiers in two lines, with Meade on the right, Seymour on the left, Reynolds’s brigade in reserve, and his front protected by five batteries.

The Confederates, by way of introduction, dropped several scores of shells among the Unionists, and then charged with their wonted dash and vigor. McCall’s division had borne the brunt of the preceding day’s fighting, and they were in sore need of rest; but they fought valiantly, and repelled the first assault. Seymour and Meade were quickly assaulted in succession by the Confederates, who were searching for the weakest point in the line of defence. Hill quickly found it, in the shape of an open breach between McCall’s division and Hooker’s, and he immediately attempted to turn them one after the other. Hooker found himself assailed with such fury that he was forced to bring up all his reserves and a regiment from Sumner’s corps to the help of Grover, commanding the First Brigade. Still farther to the right, Seymour’s left wing, consisting of Seymour’s brigade and a couple of German batteries from the reserve artillery, were attacked with the same impetuosity. The gunners were put to flight, and the rest, finding themselves between two fires, ran pell-mell back toward Hooker’s brigade. The latter parted, so as to allow them to pass through their ranks, and then, closing up, delivered a murderous fire upon the Confederates, who in the ardor of their charge had become somewhat separated from one another. Two of Hooker’s regiments drove Longstreet’s men at the point of the bayonet upon McCall’s brigades, who in return received them with a hot fire.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick had received reinforcements from Franklin, at White Oak Swamp, who found he had no need for so many men. They quickly occupied the space vacated by Seymour’s disorganized troops, and the line of battle was restored, though the Federals had lost considerable ground. But the valiant Confederates were not dismayed, and continued the assault with their old-time vigor. Swerving off from the line held by Sedgwick and Hooker, they concentrated against McCall’s right and Kearny’s left. The latter was able to hold his own, but McCall gave way. Near sunset the Fifty-fifth and Sixtieth Virginia made a furious charge on Randol’s regular battery, near Meade. The assailants, trailing their muskets in one hand and assuming the form of a  >  went across the open space on the double quick, yelling like so many madmen. The grape was poured into the singular formation, and the Virginian dropped thick and fast; but the gigantic human wedge came with the speed of a whirlwind straight for the guns, and nothing could stay it. The gunners were killed, the cannon captured, and Meade was forced to fall back. Within less than an hour another charge captured Cooper’s battery, in the centre of McCall’s line, but after a furious struggle the Ninth Pennsylvania retook it, and the Confederates were forced to abandon Randol’s battery.

The sun was low in the horizon, and the sounds of battle began to die out. Hill and Longstreet, with their two splendid divisions, had done some of the finest fighting ever seen, but they had attempted impossibilities. From the northward came the sullen roar of Jackson’s cannon, where, as we have shown, he was held all through the day by Franklin. Magruder ought to have appeared on the field of battle long before, but remained unaccountably absent. The Confederate army was cut in twain, and there was no means of bringing the wings together. Believing the Unionists had more than sufficient reserves within call, Hill and Longstreet gave up the ground they had won, in order to extricate and gather their forces together.

Having shown the results of the Confederate demonstration against the upper and central points of the Union line, it only remains to narrate what took place on the extreme south, at Malvern Hill, on the bank of the James.

Wise’s Legion, as we have already stated, had run a race down the James in the hope of reaching and occupying Malvern Hill ahead of the Unionists; but, having started too late, they arrived too late, and while pushing vigorously forward suddenly came against Porter’s division, posted on Malvern Hill. The Confederates were at immense disadvantage, and, though they made a brave attack, it was not successful.

Several gunboats were waiting at Haxall’s Landing, and General McClellan had gone on board the Galena with a view of making a reconnaissance up the river. The Galena sent a few of its Parrott hundred-pound shells into the woods in quest of the Confederate reserves. Little actual damage was done, but the terrific racket made by the awful missiles as they shattered the trees right and left produced its effect on the assailants, and, being recognized by the Unionists tramping wearily southward toward the river, filled them with the joy which comes to the shipwrecked mariner when at last he sees the friendly sail approaching.

Hour after hour the dreadful retreat continued. Every hut and cabin by the wayside was turned into a hospital, and the surgeons, with coats and vests off and sleeves rolled up, worked through the stifling heat until the perspiration streamed from them and they were scarcely able to move from exhaustion. Over the long, wearisome miles the sick, wounded and well soldiers straggled toward the James. Sometimes the drivers of the teams were thrown into a panic by the shelling and firing, and a general smash-up of everything threatened; but among the disorganized multitude there were cool heads and stern wills who kept matters in tolerably fair shape. The sight of the gleaming James as it wound peacefully southward on its way to the sea was delight unspeakable to the Federals, and never were famishing pilgrims so overjoyed at sight of the haven of refuge toward which they had been struggling so long.

The battle of Glendale was one of the fiercest of the war. It was inconclusive, though the Confederates took the most trophies. Among their prisoners was General McCall, who was captured while wandering through the woods in quest of his lost command; but before sunset on the 30th of June the last vehicle of the almost interminable wagon-train reached Malvern Hill, where vigorous preparations were under way to repel the assault sure to be made very soon.

The configuration of the James at Haxall’s Landing is such that the Union forces could not remain there. The stream becomes so narrow above City Point that vessels on their way to Haxall’s were exposed to batteries along the bank which were capable of sinking them. Harrison’s Landing, therefore, was selected as the most favorable point for the establishment of dépêts for the army.

The wagon-train having safely reached Haxall’s, the necessity no longer existed for holding the positions at the outlet of White Oak Swamp and Glendale. Franklin, at the former, began withdrawing in the evening, and the troops at Glendale did the same. The movement continued through the hot, sultry night, and at daylight the next morning the whole Federal army was concentrated around Malvern Hill, which was placed in the best possible condition for defence.

Malvern Hill is an elevated plateau about three-fourths of a mile wide and twice as long. McClellan’s left and centre were posted on the hill, the right curving backward through the woods toward, a point on the James below Haxall’s Landing. Believing that Lee’s main attack would be directed against his left, McClellan posted heavy masses of infantry and artillery on Malvern Hill. Porter’s corps held the left, the artillery, including the reserve, amounting to sixty guns. The gunboats on the James covered the left flank.

General Lee had determined to make a most formidable attack on the Army of the Potomac before it got beyond the reach of his terrible forces. He was under greater disadvantage than earlier in the campaign, but his grim resolution was never affected by the danger which impended. The last battle of the Peninsula was at hand.

The concentration of the Union army had enabled Lee to unite the wings of his own army. The powerful division under Jackson, held powerless so long at the passage from White Oak Swamp, was released, and at last the whole Confederate army was gathered together for a furious onslaught. Lee’s line was formed with Jackson’s divisions on the left and those of Magruder and Huger on the right. Longstreet and A. P. Hill formed the reserve, on the left, and took no part in the engagement. The ground was so unfavorable for manœuvring that the afternoon was half gone before the line of battle was completed. Then Anderson’s brigade of D. H. Hill’s division attacked Couch, but was obliged to fall back. The movement was a feeler, as may be said, the intention of Lee being to storm the plateau of Malvern on the left. He had massed the troops of Jackson, Magruder and Huger, therefore, on his right. Before making a demonstration Lee issued an order stating that he had selected his positions so that his artillery could silence that of the Unionists, and that as soon as it was done Armistead’s brigade of Huger’s division would dash forward with a shout and carry the battery directly in front of them. Lee was sure the shout would be heard by every one on his right. He therefore announced that the outcry was to be the signal for an advance all along the line; the instant it was made all the troops were to rush forward with fixed bayonets.

About six o’clock in the afternoon General D. H. Hill was talking with his brigade commanders, when a thunderous shout fell upon their ears. They stopped speaking, listened and looked significantly at each other.

“That’s the signal!” exclaimed General Hill, and the others expressed the same opinion.

Without an instant’s delay the advance was ordered, but there was either a mistake of the signal or the other divisions failed to hear it; for when Hill advanced, he did so alone. Neither Whiting nor Magruder nor Huger stirred, while the splendid division of the gallant Hill dashed against the tier upon tier of batteries trained upon them. There could be but one result. The immense advantage was on the side of the Federals, who mowed down the Confederates in winrows. They pushed forward with the most desperate valor, only to be driven back again and again, until the plain was strewn with the dead and dying. Magruder and Huger afterward advanced to the support of the decimated force, but they did so in such a disjointed fashion that they contributed no support at all. To quote the report of General Hill, “instead of ordering up one or two hundred pieces to play on the Yankees, a single battery was ordered up, and knocked to pieces in a few minutes; one or two others shared the same fate of being beaten in detail. The firing from our batteries was of the most farcical character.” When darkness came, the battle was still raging. The gloom was lighted up by the red flashes of the guns, and the rattle and roar was overpowering; but as the night advanced the fire slackened, and at a comparatively early hour it died out altogether.

It cannot be denied that the last battle on the Peninsula was ill-managed by the Confederates. Stuart, with his splendid cavalry, was still wandering somewhere in the Peninsula, and thus his invaluable services were lost to Lee; Hill, Magruder and Whiting had no communication with one another, and were thus unable to give that mutual support which was indispensable.

The six days’ fighting had ended at last. The frightful first campaign against Richmond by way of the Peninsula had closed in rout and disaster to the Federals. The failure to capture the capital of the Confederacy was utter and complete. As we have stated, McClellan showed rare skill and brilliant military ability in extricating his enormous army from its dangerous position. Few commanders could have done so well—none, better. The last battle, at Malvern Hill, was a defeat for the Confederates, but the campaign itself was a victory of magnificent proportions.

As is generally the case, the atmospheric disturbances caused by a great battle brought on violent tempests of rain, and the armies were drenched as completely as if they had been floundering all day in the James River. The necessity for the removal to Harrison’s Landing still existed, and during the night the troops were withdrawn to Harrison’s Bar, on the James. Colonel Averill, with a regiment of cavalry, a brigade of regular infantry and a battery, covered the rear. General J. E. B. Stuart, having found his way back from the labyrinths of the Lower Peninsula, was sent by Lee after the retreating Federals; but he saw that McClellan had taken up Go strong a position to be assailed, and he withdrew in the direction of Richmond. Finally the Army of the Potomac reached Harrison’s Landing and found the rest of which they were in such imperative need.

And what was the cost of this tremendous campaign? The Army of the Potomac, June 20, when reunited before Richmond, had an effective force of one hundred and four thousand seven hundred and twenty-four men fit for duty, and eleven thousand two hundred and eighty-nine unfit for duty. On the 4th of July following, when the corps commanders made their reports, fifteen thousand two hundred and forty-nine men had been lost, of whom fifteen hundred and eighty-two had been killed, seventy-seven hundred wounded, and six thousand were missing, fully as many more having gone to the hospitals from sickness and exhaustion caused by the fearful strain to which they had been subjected. The malarial marshes of the Chickahominy were as deadly to the Unionists and Confederates as were the shell and the bullet. General Lee’s losses were scarcely short of twenty thousand men, exclusive of five thousand more who were rendered unfit for service by the same causes which acted against the Unionists. Thus the Confederate chieftain sustained the loss of more than one-fourth the effective force of his entire army.

After this prolonged and terrific struggle both armies rested. McClellan carefully fortified himself at Harrison’s Landing, and while he was thus engaged Lee fell back to the environs of Richmond, where he devoted himself to recruiting his army and getting ready for the next great campaign.

The North and the South were sobered by the events in the Peninsula. The self-confidence on both sides had given way to a proper appreciation of the tremendous proportions of the conflict between the two sections. Recruiting progressed rapidly on both sides, and, while the war raged in other portions of the country, intelligent and farseeing people saw that the decisive struggle was to be fought in front of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

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