Washington and Lee University

Camp-Fires of General Lee

CHAPTER II.
McCLELLAN'S RETREAT.

GENERAL STUART having secured the knowledge so important to General Lee, the latter decided to hurl his army against the Union right wing at Mechanicsville, while Jackson, who was daily expected from the Shenandoah, was to advance still farther to the left, cut off the Union base of supplies at White House, and then assail the rear. Stonewall Jackson terrified the authorities in Washington into summoning back General McDowell, who was on his way to reinforce McClellan, thus leaving the Union army in a condition to invite the attack, which was not delayed. As McClellan confidently expected McDowell, he had left his right wing comparatively unfortified, and that point, as was inevitable, was the one against which General Lee directed his assault.

McClellan knew that not only were the promised reinforcements denied him, but that the terrible Stonewall and his division were marching rapidly down the Shenandoah Valley in the direction of Richmond. Realizing his peril, he determined to abandon the York River Railroad and change the base of supplies to James River, seventeen miles distant. To succeed in this important movement, it was necessary for the right wing to hold its position against all assaults until the rest of the army, with its forty miles of wagon-train, should pick its way through the White Oak Swamp; but before this movement began, General Lee had struck his blow. Generals A. P. Hill and Longstreet crossed the Chickahominy and attacked the Union right at Mechanicsville. A small Federal force behind entrenchments was soon dispersed and driven back toward Beaver Dam Creek. The Mechanicsville bridge being thus opened, General Longstreet, in obedience to Lee's orders, threw his division across the creek. Hill, who had pushed forward for a mile or two, found himself brought to a standstill by the powerful position of the Unionists on Beaver Dam Creek. Nevertheless, he advanced, but was met with such a determined resistance that he was obliged to fall back. It was beyond his power to cross the stream in the face of such a murderous discharge of musketry and cannon, and, night coming on, the attack ended for the time; but at daylight the impetuous Hill renewed the attempt to cross the stream, at a point lower down. While thus engaged the Federal troops were observed to be rapidly falling back from their almost impregnable position. This was caused by the arrival of Stonewall Jackson, who had passed around the right flank above and forced the Federals to fall back on the main army below. Hill moved steadily onward, and at noon was in front of the formidable position held by the Union army near Cold Harbor.

General McClellan had posted his army on a ridge along the southern bank of Powhite Creek, a small stream which empties into the Chickahominy below New Bridge. He had filled a deep ravine on his left with sharpshooters, while his right rested on elevated ground. His line of battle curved backward and was protected by difficult approaches. The ground was covered with-matted undergrowth in some places, and was spongy and swampy in others. Breastworks of felled trees and of earth had been hurriedly thrown up, and behind them the vast lines of infantry, supported by artillery, confronted their assailants. Fitz-John Porter commanded the Union forces, with General-Morell on his right and General Sykes on his left. Slocum's division, and afterward the brigades of French and Meagher, reinforced Porter, who coolly awaited the Confederate attack.

Hill opened about noon, and the battle which followed was desperate and bloody. So great was the anxiety of General Lee that in company with General Longstreet he had ridden from his headquarters, on the Nine-Mile road, and now watched in person the behavior of his troops under fire. His coolness, his serene and majestic presence, in the swirl of the conflict were like those of the great Von Moltke, whose placid face never flushed and who felt not an additional pulse-throb when he saw the French empire crumbling into nothingness. at Sedan before the advance of the Prussian eagles.

Hill assaulted the Federal lines with that dash and daring so characteristic of him, but he made no more impression than if he had charged against the side of a granite mountain. The Federal artillery did dreadful execution, and the infantry poured a merciless fire into the Confederate lines; but so impetuous was the rush of the assailants that three of Hill's regiments reached the crest of the hill, where the Union troops were stationed, and for a brief while the fight was hand to hand. But it was all in vain; mortal man could not stand the fiery sirocco that swept the earth, and the Confederates were forced to give way after two hours' hard fighting, having met with great loss and accomplished but little.

Meanwhile, General Lee was listening for the sound of Stonewall Jackson's guns; but nothing was heard, and the situation became critical. Lee, with his masterly genius, grasped every detail and fully appreciated the peril which threatened him. He saw that McClellan would probably send enough reinforcements to Fitz-John Porter to enable him to attack him in turn, or, knowing how small was the force defending Richmond, might overwhelm it and make a hurried march against the city. Longstreet was sent to the relief of Hill, and he advanced under a fierce fire to make a feint upon the Union left. While thus engaged he caught the thunderous roar of guns and heard the tumultuous shouting on the left of Lee's line. He knew what it meant: Stonewall Jackson had arrived. Having hurled his troops into action, Jackson galloped to Cold Harbor, where General Lee was so anxiously awaiting him; and when they met, the scene took place with which our first chapter opened.

Generals Lee and Jackson having hastily formed their plans, the latter dashed back to his command, and instantly a great change took place in every part of the field. Whiting and a portion of Jackson's old division quickly moved to the right to support Longstreet and to take position between him and the remnants of A. P. Hill's division. As soon as these and a few other movements were completed General Lee ordered an attack along the whole line, and in a few minutes the long stretch between Cold Harbor and the muddy Chickahominy was aflame with fire, and the earth quivered with the shock of the contending armies. Porter's troops were worn out with their five hours of fighting, but the rattle of musketry and the roar of cannon roused them again as a giant is roused by new wine. Their artillery was reinforced, and converged wherever the Confederate battalions gleamed through the smoke and mists of battle. On the right, near McGee's farm, the cannoneers found the Confederates at the very throats of their cannon. The assailants fell in swaths, but others seemed to spring from the ground, and many cannoneers were driven from their guns; but they rushed back the next minute to recapture the pieces. Ewell was pounding away between McGee's farm and New Cold Harbor, but for a time without result. Seeing his straits, Jackson sent three brigades of his old, division against the wood of New Cold Harbor. This was the weakest point of the whole Federal line, and it was assailed with the fierceness of so many tigers. The Federals made a brave defence, but were compelled to fall back. Their ammunition ran low, and they were in the last stages of exhaustion. In the narrow angle of the wood where artillery could not be used the soldiers fought singly, striking at a foe wherever found, and the conflict became blind, aimless, and, indeed, useless. At this critical moment, as the sun was sinking in the hot summer sky, Stonewall Jackson dashed up with his last reserves and ordered a general attack.

There could be but the one result. General Hood and his fiery Texans charged the Federal left with an impetuosity which carried everything before it. All in vain did the Federal artillery converge its fire upon them. As the men went down before the iron sleet the ranks closed up, and never a man faltered. Halting only long enough to fire, they rushed forward with their wild yells until the cannon were reached. The artillery-horses, wild with terror, galloped away, and the artillerymen who remained behind were trampled under the feet of' the furious legions from the Lone Star State. Far over on the extreme left Longstreet had carried forward a similar movement. The Unionists fought bravely, but were compelled to give way, though they saved most of their guns and were able to check Longstreet's movement toward Alexander Bridge. But the Confederates were conquering everywhere. Two Federal regiments, while fighting like heroes in the woods near Cold Harbor, found themselves completely surrounded, and the greater number were killed or wounded. The survivors were forced to surrender. Ewell and D. H. Hill succeeded in planting their artillery on the summit of the hill held so long by Sykes's division, which was crushed by the fire.

The retreat of the Federals on the left and centre threatened to become a disastrous rout, and the situation of the Army of the Potomac was critical in the highest degree. Only a single passage remained by which they could make their way to the other side of the Chickahominy. If that were seized by the Confederates, the Army of the Potomac would be blotted out as though it had never existed. The North would receive a blow likely to prove mortal, and one which would shake every town, village and hamlet in the country to its very centre. But not yet. The terrific efforts of the Confederates had exhausted them, and they halted to reform their lines. Night was closing in, and there came a lull in the fearful tumult, when the combatants on each side were able to halt and learn the condition of affairs.

The losses on each side were frightful. Thirty-five thousand Federals were engaged, of whom one-fifth were killed or wounded. The loss of the Confederates was fully as great, but they had gained a victory of transcendent importance. They had captured many guns and prisoners and checked the advance upon Richmond, which a short time before looked as if it were to be irresistible. The magnificent Army of the Potomac, trained to the highest point, finely disciplined, thoroughly armed and under the command of skilful officers, not only filled the hearts of the North with hope, but caused the gravest alarm throughout the South. From elevated positions in Richmond men could look off with their glasses and plainly see the Union soldiers at work in their entrenchments, and the “Stars and Bars” seemed to be intertwined, as may be said, with the Stars and Stripes which floated above the besieging forces.*

We have alluded to the consternation in Richmond when it was found that the Unionists were hammering at the very gates of the city. The Confederate Congress hastly adjourned, President Davis sent his family farther south, and there were general preparations on the part of all to move. But all was now changed. Under the splendid leadership of Lee and his skilled and intrepid lieutenants, the army of invasion had been hurled backward; its grip upon the throat of the South had been shaken off, and it was seeking affrightedly for some path of escape from the wrath of its master. The enormous importance of the Confederate victory was moral rather than physical, for, in point of fact, the victory itself was not complete.

The severe fighting at Gaines's Mill and the inaction of the Federals on the other side of the Chickahominy led General Lee to think that he had engaged and defeated the larger part of the Army of the Potomac, and that McClellan was so environed by difficulties and dangers that he would be forced to surrender his entire command. Thus it came about that, while on the north side of the Chickahominy thirty thousand Union troops were assailed by twice as many Confederates, twenty-five thousand Confederates on the south side held in check more than twice as many Unionists.

While Lee was quietly preparing to capture the Army of the Potomac on the morrow, that army was making desperate efforts to gather itself together and flee from under the avalanche about to fall upon it. Generals, colonels, captains and subordinate officers were hunting up their men and putting companies and regiments in shape; privates were rushing hither and thither in the effort to find where they belonged; the sick and wounded received scant attention, but it was the best that could be given under the circumstances; the dead, who were stretched everywhere, were scarcely thought of, for what avail was it to give them any care? There was but the single overwhelming desire, “How shall we escape the crouching tiger that is gathering his muscles for the fatal leap?”

When men are intent on flight, little time is required to make preparation. The sultry summer night had no more than fairly closed in when the head of the long line of fugitives debouched from the wood and began tramping across the Alexander bridge. A squadron of cavalry had held it during the day, so as to turn back the panic-stricken Federals who might seek to escape. Hour after hour the swarming multitude tramped over the bridge, until in the small hours of the morning the last wounded man and the last cannon were safely across the stream. The regulars were the last over, and they immediately turned about and destroyed the splendid structure that had served them so well.

While this mournful procession was passing, General McClellan and his leading officers were gathered together near the south entrance to the bridge, holding a council of war. The countenance of the youthful commander was grave and he talked in guarded and serious tones. The firelight which fell on the faces of the others showed they fully appreciated the gravity of the situation. The splendid Army of the Potomac was beaten, and what should be done?

This memorable conference was marked by a most extraordinary incident: McClellan, the embodiment of caution and hesitation, suddenly astounded his officers by the proposal to capture Richmond while the main body of its defenders were too far away to offer any defence. His officers, however, had little difficulty in dissuading their leader from the project. One cannot but speculate as to what would have been the outcome of such an achievement. Unquestionably, McClellan could have taken the city, and a most remarkable complication would have followed. He, in turn, would have been besieged by the Confederates and cut off from his supplies, and, with the country around him intensely hostile, could not have sustained himself very long. But the very hour it was known that McClellan was in Richmond the Federal government would have poured forward reinforcements to his assistance; then, in all probability, Stonewall Jackson might have dashed into the national capital with his daring raiders and thrown everything into confusion. However, all this is but conjecture, and, as such a condition of affairs can never occur again, it is idle to continue the thought. It may be added that General Lee more than once seriously considered the expediency of “swapping queens,” or trading capitals, and it is a most interesting question as to what would have been the result had the extraordinary trade ever been made. But McClellan was soldier enough to understand that a retreat was necessary and a change of base had become inevitable. His connections had been severed, and his only hope now was the James River, where the Union gunboats could keep the Confederates at a safe distance.

On the night following the battle Lee sent this telegram to Richmond:

HEADQUARTERS IN THE FIELD, June 27, 1862.

His EXCELLENCY, PRESIDENT DAVIS—

MR. PRESIDENT: Profoundly grateful to Almighty God for the signal victory granted us, it is my pleasing task to announce to you the success achieved by this army to-day.

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 honor to be, very respctfully,

(Signed) R. E. LEE, General.

It was impossible that Lee should know the intentions of McClellan. The latter might give battle with a view of preserving his communications; he might retreat down the Peninsula or down the James. The Confederate chieftain could only wait until McClellan's movements were developed. That he should be compelled to do so was a great disadvantage, but there was no help for it. He did all that was possible. Ewell's division was sent to seize the York River Railroad, and Stuart, with his cavalry, was ordered to co-operate with him. Reaching Dispatch Station, the Federals retreated across the river, and Ewell, after destroying a part of the railroad, awaited further orders.

Looking southward through the shimmering air, Lee saw vast clouds of dust rolling upward toward the sky. There could be no mistaking the meaning: the Army of the Potomac was retreating. Lee suspected that McClellan intended to escape down the Peninsula; accordingly, he sent orders to Ewell to move from Dispatch Station to Bottom's Bridge, on the road connecting Richmond and Williamsburg, with a view of checking McClellan if he attempted to cross the Chickahominy at that point. Discovering no sign that such was McClellan's intention, Ewell joined Jackson on the following day.

General Ewell, in the mean time, had pushed down the road to the White House in quest of the Federals; but they were gone, and his errand was bootless. McClellan conducted the retreat in masterly style; and when morning came, the condition of his army was infinitely improved over that of the previous evening. Lee, having satisfied himself that the Unionists were making for the James River, saw the important advantage they had gained by the skill with which McClellan had masked the movement. The Federals were so far on their way and in such good form that it was impossible to turn their retreat into the rout that had been intended. Stuart's cavalry, which could have rendered such effective service in harassing the Federals, had penetrated so far in the Peninsula that it may be said it was lost for the time, inasmuch as it did not reappear during the campaign. Ewell's soldiers, who returned during the night, were so exhausted that they were as helpless as logs until they could procure a few hours' sleep.

All through the night the vast trains of the Army of the Potomac were plodding steadily forward toward White Oak Swamp. They had gained twenty-four hours which were of inestimable importance, and they improved them to the utmost. The bridge in front of Frazier's farm had been reopened, and General Keyes, with his two divisions, had encamped at Glendale, near Nelson's farm. There he remained to cover the retreat of the army through the gloomy morass. The wagons, five thousand in number, and a drove of twenty-five hundred cattle passed safely over the single road, and in the stifling heat of the next day they pushed steadily toward the James.

It was a sad and pitiful sight. The ambulances were overcrowded with the sick and wounded, whose white bandaged faces sometimes peered out upon the moving figures or dropped back with groans of anguish when the jolting of the vehicle made the pain of their wounds greater than they could bear. Others had crawled out of the hospital and were tottering along as best they could; but many a poor fellow had overestimated his strength, and, giving out, dropped by the wayside, waiting for the Confederates to hold the canteen to his fevered lips and to gather him in with the hundreds of prisoners already taken. Unto many a boy in blue, as he lay gasping by the roadside, Death was kind enough to steal forward and close his eyes in the last, long sleep, while the thoughts of the dying soldier wandered away to his Northern home, where father and mother, brother and sister, and perhaps sweetheart, would look longingly for the form that they should never see again. It was the same with the ardent Southerner who had left his loved ones in such high spirits and with such proud hopes of the triumph that awaited the cause so dear to his heart. The terrible missiles of war know no discrimination, and the bullet crashing through the brain, the shell rending limb and body, stretched many and many a brave Confederate low. Far to the southward, in the Carolinas, in Georgia and the Gulf States, the long lists of the dead would be scanned through blinding tears and with bated breath by their friends searching for the name they dreaded to find.

Ah! how often it was found 1 and how again and again the roll of the fallen should grow and expand until the despairing ones should feel that Death would never be content until all were taken!

By fairy hands their knell is rung,
By forms unseen their dirge is sung:
There Honor comes, a pilgrim gray,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay,
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell a weeping hermit there.


[Notes]

* Respecting the flag adopted by the Confederacy, General Joe Johnstone said a short time since:

“At the battle of Manassas—you Northerners call it Bull Run—the Stars and Bars proved a failure because they were so much like the Union colors. Indeed, both armies mistook their enemies for friends, and vice versâ. After the battle I had resolved to discard this flag, and called for each regiment to produce its State colon. This they were not able to do, and I asked the army for new designs. Among those presented, one by General Beauregard was chosen, and I altered this only in making it square instead of oblong. This flag was afterward adopted by the Confederate armies. It was a Greek cross of blue on a red field, with white stare on the blue bare. The flag was designed by a Colonel Walton, of Louisiana, and presented to General Beauregard.”


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