An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
THE SEVEN DAYS
(a) BEAVER DAM AND GAINES'S MILL
IMMEDIATELY upon taking command, General Lee established his Headquarters at “Dabb's House,” about two miles from Richmond on the Nine Mile Road, and convened a council of his Division commanders to consider the plan of defence. This conference, held on June 3rd at a place called “The Chimneys,” on the Nine Mile Road near the scene of battle of May 31st, was quite protracted, the first question discussed being whether the army should take a position nearer to Richmond and there await the enemy, or whether it should seek to resist his further advance. After the consultation was over I heard from General Lee that a number of officers were in favour of withdrawing nearer to Richmond. Our line where it approached the river was within reach of the enemy's artillery on the north side, and it was argued that the enemy could drive us from the position. General Lee said to me, “If we leave this line because they can shell us, we shall have to leave the next for the same reason, and I don't see how we can stop this side of Richmond.”
The ground on our left was more favourable for us, as compared with the enemy's position, than any we could have taken between that point and Richmond, and possessed this other advantage, that as long as we held it General McClellan was forced to have part of his army north of the Chickahominy and part on the south, a circumstance which subsequently proved fatal to his campaign. I understood from others that Generals Longstreet and D. H. Hill agreed with General Lee. What General Johnston's purpose had been can only be conjectured from the fact that he had brought his army almost into the suburbs of the city, probably with the design of inducing McClellan to advance from the Chickahominy and fight with that river in his rear.1 From what was subsequently observed of General McClellan's character I think it is extremely doubtful whether he would have accepted the challenge, unless he could have brought down McDowell and other large reinforcements.
General Lee immediately resolved to take up a line further from Richmond, and accordingly advanced the troops along the Williamsburg and Charles City Roads.2 His plan was formed very soon after he took command. Indeed, the general features of it had been sketched before he left Richmond, and, as has been related, he had concerted with Jackson plans to bring about the withdrawal of General McDowell from Fredericksburg. When, however, it became apparent that no movement of Jackson's small force could effect any result which would induce the recall of General McClellan's army, General Lee turned his attention to other means of dislodging that army, and formed the plan of operations which resulted in the Seven Days' Battles round Richmond, and the retreat of McClellan's army to the James.
He immediately ordered a line of earthworks to be constructed along our front, extending from the Chickahominy above New Bridge, across to the Charles City Road and beyond. These works were very slight. Some heavier fortifications for artillery were erected along the ridge just south of the Chickahominy from the Nine Mile Road towards our left, and the guns from these batteries replied with good effect to those of the enemy on the north side in the vicinity of New Bridge, Hogan's and Gaines's houses. The erection of these works met with great opposition, not only among some officers in the army, but among the press and politicians of Richmond. It was considered that General Lee was merely an engineer, and that the troops under him would be more familiar with a spade than a musket. I remember hearing an officer of some rank speak very contemptuously of this “digging,” as he called it. The progress of the works was very slow. The men were unused to such labour, and it was not until June 21st that they began to approach such a state of forwardness as to enable General Lee to proceed with the other measures he contemplated. He bore the abuse and ridicule which were heaped upon him by the press of Richmond and the South (with few exceptions) in silence. Nothing diverted him from the execution of his purpose. He visited the lines almost daily in person, and sent members of his staff constantly to observe the progress of the work.
General McLellan's army lay then part on the north and part on the south of the Chickahominy, the two wings connecting by New Bridge and several other bridges below. His line of communication was the York River Railroad, his depot of supplies being at the White House on the Pamunkey. Lee's plan was to use the line of works which he had constructed so as to enable him to hold the direct approaches to Richmond with part of his army, while with the remainder, to which Jackson's force was to be added when the proper time arrived, General Lee resolved to cross the Chickahominy and fall upon the enemy's right wing.3 His idea was that by directing the movement so as to threaten the York River Railroad he would draw the whole of McClellan's army to the defence of that line, if it was the purpose of that officer to retain his connection with the White House and continue to use that depot.
General McClellan selected the left bank of Beaver Dam Creek as the extreme right of his line. Fortifications were erected at various points along the line, connected by rifle pits, the fire from which swept the open ground on the right bank of the creek over which troops advancing from the direction of Mechanicsville would be obliged to pass. The passage of Beaver Dam was difficult along the entire front of the Federal position, and impracticable for artillery except by the roads which were commanded by the guns of the works. Trees were felled along the right bank of the stream to impede the advance of infantry, and detain them under the fire of artillery and musketry at short range from the entrenchments on the opposite side.
The dispositions of General McClellan were well taken to defend himself from attack by the Confederate army around Richmond, but there was one weak spot of which General Lee proceeded to take advantage. There were other roads leading down the Chickahominy towards the York River Railroad, besides those commanded by the enemy's position on Beaver Dam.
These roads run along the narrow ridge between the waters of the Pamunkey and the Chickahominy and lie beyond the routes which General McClellan had undertaken to defend. Beaver Dam has its source on the south side of that ridge, and the Totopotomy and other small tributaries of the Pamunkey rise on its northern slope.
By moving along this ridge the right of the enemy's line on Beaver Dam could be turned, and, the position carried, the way would then be opened for a force crossing from the south side of the Chickahominy at Mechanicsville Bridge to reach the enemy's communications without going too far from the city.
While his works were slowly progressing, General Lee took measures to ascertain the position and arrangement of the enemy's forces on the north side of the Chickahominy. General J. E. B. Stuart, with a detachment of cavalry, was directed to reconnoitre the country between the Chickahominy and the Pamunkey in the rear of the enemy. This order was executed with great skill and entire success. General Stuart, with 1200 men and a battery of horse artillery, on June 12th proceeded by way of Hanover Court House in the direction of Old Church. Finding Hanover Court House in possession of the enemy's cavalry, Stuart proceeded down the Pamunkey River, and, crossing the Totopotomy, made the entire circuit of the Federal Army, returning on the 14th to the south side of the Chickahominy by way of Forge Mill.4 He found that the enemy's fortifications did not extend beyond the right of his line on Beaver Dam, and that the dividing ridge between the two rivers was unoccupied. From all that he observed there was no indication of an intention on the part of General McClellan to change his base of operations. Roads had been repaired and opened to aid the railroad in supplying the army on the Chickahominy, and immense stores were collected at the White House. But the most valuable and important information obtained by General Stuart was the fact that the enemy had neglected to fortify the ridge between the head waters of the Beaver Dam Creek, a small tributary of the Chickahominy which it enters about two miles below Mechanicsville Bridge, and an affluent of the Pamunkey. It was by the road running along this ridge that General Lee expected to reach the enemy's communication and turn the strong position at Ellerson's Mill on Beaver Dam Creek. The character of these two streams was such as to make it very difficult to cross with troops and artillery, but the high ground lying between them, which forms the watershed between the Chickahominy and the Pamunkey, affords a practicable road to the York River Railroad.
J. E. B. STUART
General McClellan had fortified the left bank of the Beaver Dam Creek very strongly, so as to arrest any movement down the Chickahominy by the road from Mechanicsville to Cold Harbor, but a force moving along the ridge above referred to would turn the position of Ellerson's Mill, which barred the Mechanicsville road, and render it untenable. The reconnaissance of General Stuart indicated that the importance of guarding this avenue to his rear had escaped the attention of the Federal commander. General McClellan did not perceive the object of this bold reconnaissance; he supposed that the destruction of stores and “a little éclat” were its only results. He was soon to learn that it had a far more terrible significance. On June 14th at midnight he telegraphed to Secretary Stanton, “All quiet in every direction. The stampede of last night has passed away. Weather now very favourable. I hope two days more will make the ground practicable. I shall advance as soon as the bridges are completed and the ground fit for artillery to move.” Within two days, guided by the information obtained by the expedition to which General McClellan attached so little importance, General Lee had sent the order which put Jackson in motion to take his part in the contest that was to bring to nought the hopes and designs of the Federal Commander.5
In order to mislead the enemy, rumours were diligently circulated that General Jackson was preparing to move northward, and to give weight to these rumours, Whiting's division and Lawton's brigade were sent to reinforce his. Lawton's brigade, then approaching from the coast of South Carolina, was ordered to turn aside at Burkesville and proceed by way of Lynchburg, as if to join Jackson. Whiting's troops took the cars by day in Richmond, and some appearance of haste was given to the movement, the object of which was not concealed. I was sent myself to the depot while the troops were being taken on the cars, with some orders to the officer in charge as to the necessity and importance of despatch if they were to be in time to help Jackson in his advance. These troops did not reach the Valley. When they arrived at Medium's River, west of Charlottesville, they met the van of Jackson's army moving towards Richmond.
On June 23rd, on entering our headquarters after an absence of a few hours, I found indications among the staff officers present of something mysterious going on. Several general officers arrived, and General Lee was in his room upstairs in company with a number of his Division Commanders. I soon learned that a mysterious stranger had arrived, and that he was no other than the famous chieftain of the Valley. He had come very quietly and almost unattended. I had never seen him, and his presence was, I believe, unknown to any except those at General Lee's Headquarters. He departed with equal secrecy and the meeting broke up. At this meeting the general plan of operations was explained and discussed, and the several officers returned to their commands to prepare to put them into execution.
General Jackson expressed the belief that his army would all be at Ashland by June 23rd. General Lee allowed him extra time in case of any unlooked for delay, and formed his plans on the supposition that Jackson would not be ready to move from Ashland before June 25th. This was told me by General Lee.6
The General remained in his room nearly all day after the meeting, of which I have spoken, broke up. In the interval between that time and the beginning of the movement, he made a thorough examination of the defensive plan once, and possibly twice. On June 24th he gave to his staff the confidential order of battle, with instructions to prepare copies themselves, and forward them at once to the several division commanders.
Those orders were substantially as follows: The army was disposed with Huger's division on the Charles City Road extending over towards Darbytown Road on the right, and towards the Williamsburg Road on the left; Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's divisions were on the same wing, but did not occupy the lines. Magruder's command, consisting of D. R. Jones' division, McLaw's division, and Magruder's own division under General Griffith, connected with Huger's left, and extended across the New Bridge on Nine Mile Road up the Chickahominy towards Mechanicsville. His line connected on the left with that of A. P. Hill, whose division covered the Chickahominy from Mechanicsville Road, beyond Meadow Bridge. Branch's brigade of Hill's division was at Half Sink, near the crossing of the Fredericksburg Railroad. The cavalry was on our extreme left. Wise's brigade was on the James River in the vicinity of Chaffin's Bluff, supporting the river batteries, and there was cavalry on the New Market, or River Road, and the Darbytown Road, forming an imperfect connecting-link between the main body and the troops on the James.
General Holmes with about 6000 troops had come from North Carolina, and was encamped on the south of the James near Proctor's Creek. The orders assumed that Jackson would be ready to move from Ashland on the 25th. They directed him to march from Ashland on that day and encamp that night near and west of the Central Railroad, in the vicinity of Merry Oaks Church. From this point he was to move at 3 A.M. on the 26th, taking the road towards Pole Green church, where he was expected to halt at night. This route runs along the dividing ridge, to which I have referred, between the head waters of Beaver Dam Creek, and those of the Totopotomy. By moving on this road, General Jackson would turn the strong position held by the enemy on Beaver Dam Creek at Ellerson's Mill, about a mile east of Mechanicsville, and he was directed to do so in the orders.7
As soon as General Jackson's progress had begun, General Branch was to cross at Half Sink, and move down the north side of the Chickahominy, so as to open Meadow Bridge for the passage of A. P. Hill's division. Hill's movement was not to begin until he was apprised of Jackson being sufficiently advanced to be ready to turn Beaver Dam. Hill was then to cross the Chickahominy and advance directly upon Mechanicsville, opening Mechanicsville Bridge for Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's divisions. These were to be massed on the Mechanicsville Road, concealed from view of the enemy, early on the morning of the 26th, and were to cross the Chickahominy as soon as Hill's advance should have opened the way. After passing the river, D. H. Hill was to march to the support of General Jackson, and take position on his right, but somewhat in his rear. Longstreet was to take a similar position with reference to A. P. Hill, and the four columns were then to sweep down to Chickahominy in echelon, Jackson in advance extending well to his left, and moving so as to threaten the York River Road. General Stuart was to cover General Jackson's front and left, extending towards the Pamunkey, and as Jackson approached the railroad Stuart was to guard particularly against the advance of any troops from the direction of the White House.
Information had been received that about 10,000 troops had reached that point on their way to join General McClellan, and one object in making Jackson extend so far to the left was to cut off that force and prevent its junction with McClellan. The information turned out to be untrue, the force alluded to being only a part of one of McClellan 's divisions, with perhaps some absentees returning to their commands. While these movements were progressing Generals Huger and Magruder were to hold the lines in front of McClellan's left wing, observe him closely, and upon any indication of withdrawal attack vigorously.
General Lee, in conversing with me about these operations, said, as the orders themselves clearly indicate, that his idea was to compel General McClellan to come out of his works and give battle for the defence of his communications with the White House. With this view, Jackson was to advance so as to threaten the railroad, and it was expected that if an engagement ensued, it would be brought on by him and D. H. Hill, so that Longstreet and A. P. Hill could fall upon the left of any force that might engage the former commands. It will be seen that this general idea controlled General Lee's movements in the important operations of Friday 27th.
If McClellan should abandon the railroad, General Lee expected that he would either attempt to cross the Chickahominy below the railroad bridge and move to the York to place his army under the protection of his gunboats, or that he would retreat to the James. General Lee also told me that he did not anticipate a battle at Mechanicsville or Beaver Dam. He thought that Jackson's march turning Beaver Dam would lead to the immediate withdrawal of the force stationed there, and did not intend that a direct attack should be made on that formidable position. General Lee selected the bridge at Mechanicsville as the place for the main body of the troops drawn from the Richmond lines to cross, and made his arrangements for a rapid advance against the enemy on the north side of the river. For it was expected that the rapidity of the intended movement would most effectually prevent the advance of the enemy towards Richmond. Should the troops sent across the Chickahominy promptly effect a junction with those of Jackson near Mechanicsville, and should the measure adopted to avoid the resistance at Beaver Dam prove successful, the enemy would be forced to give battle before he could carry our lines south of the Chickahominy, or to abandon his communications. On the other hand, should General McClellan refuse the battle and concentrate his whole army south of the Chickahominy for a rapid movement against Richmond, our troops could recross the river and attack him in the rear while he was assailing the entrenchments in his front.8
The perils attending the enemy if he adopted such a course of action were so great and so apparent that General Lee had little apprehension, or rather little hope, that it would be attempted by General McClellan. Although it cannot be denied that General Lee's plan was attended with some risk to Richmond, it was far safer than to remain inactive while the adversary was constantly increasing his strength, and far less hazardous than a direct assault upon the strongly fortified line of the enemy south of the Chickahominy.
Celerity of movement was one of the essential features of the plan of operation, not only that the enemy might be deprived of the opportunity for preparation, but also to diminish the danger that might arise from the absence of the troops engaged beyond the Chickahominy. For these reasons, General Lee desired to force a decisive engagement on the first day.
As I have said, General Jackson supposed his army would be at Ashland by the 23rd. His orders required him to move from Ashland to the Virginia Central Railroad near Merry Oaks Church, so as to be in a position to march thence at 3 A.M. on the 26th. Longstreet and D. H. Hill moved out on the Mechanicsville Road at an early hour on the 26th, and were cached behind the high hill just south of the bridge, and in the woods in rear of it, ready to take their respective parts. General Lee accompanied these troops in person, and all eyes were anxiously turned towards Meadow Bridge, watching for the movement of A. P. Hill upon Mechanicsville, by which the bridge would be opened for the passage of the troops of Longstreet and D. H. Hill. The enemy had some works on the north side at and to our left of Mechanicsville which covered the bridge and the road leading from it to the hamlet, but A. P. Hill's route would bring him upon the flank of this position, and it was thought would enable him to dislodge the enemy without difficulty.
The troops lay on their arms from about 10 o'clock A.M. until nearly 4 P.M., without any appearance of a movement from above. No one could account for the delay. At one time it was thought that the whole movement would fail, as if we then abandoned it, the enemy would get knowledge of the plan and of Jackson's approach, which would have thwarted the whole scheme. It turned out that General Jackson had been disappointed in his expectation of the arrival of his troops at Ashland. Instead of getting there in time to march to Merry Oaks Church on the 25th, he had to begin from Ashland the movement that was directed to be made against the Central Railroad on the 26th.9 This was not made known to General Lee on the 25th, for what reason I never knew. Had it been, the whole movement would probably have been postponed until the 27th, as General Lee would not have counted on the co-operation of Jackson in turning Beaver Dam on the morning of the 26th if he had known that that officer would have to march from Ashland to reach his appointed position.
About 4 P.M. A. P. Hill's troops were seen approaching Mechanicsville from the direction of Meadow Bridge. They soon dislodged the enemy from his first position and pursued him towards Beaver Dam. An ineffectual attempt was made to drive him from his entrenched position at Ellerson's Mill. The position was very strong. Immediately in front was the milldam, which was impassable. Trees had been felled on the margin of the stream to keep the advancing troops under fire as long as possible. The creek could only be crossed at one or two points, and the bridge on the road from Mechanicsville had been torn up. General Hill threw a bridge across the creek on his left above the position of the enemy, but the troops attacking the enemy in front being repulsed, the brigade which was to have crossed by this bridge was recalled. The ground on the side occupied by the Federals rose from the stream. One field work with artillery and infantry, just to our left of the road leading up the hill from the stream, commanded the direct approach to the bridge from the direction of Mechanicsville and the slope of the hill on that side of the creek down which the assaulting party had to move. Another to our right of the road, also manned with artillery and infantry, had equal command of the opposite slope immediately on its front, and gave an enfiladed fire on troops approaching the bridge. A third work to the left of the one first mentioned also commanded the bridge. The cross fire from these three works swept the whole front along which the troops had to advance to cross Beaver Dam.10
A. P. HILL
The attempt was very injudicious, as night was approaching, and with morning Jackson might confidently be expected to turn the position. Indeed, at that time nothing had been heard of him, but before Longstreet and D. H. Hill crossed the Chickahominy, which they began to do as soon as A. P. Hill had gained Mechanicsville, the smoke of artillery had been seen beyond Mechanicsville, apparently on the road from Atlees to Pole Green Church, which was supposed to proceed from Jackson's guns. Had this been true, Jackson might still have been expected to turn Beaver Dam in time. It seems, however, that the firing alluded to was done by General Stuart, who preceded Jackson and occasionally shelled the woods in front of him as he advanced.11
A. P. Hill's troops had pursued the enemy rapidly from Mechanicsville towards Ellerson's Mill, and had begun the attack on that position. General Lee thought that, if he halted in front of Beaver Dam, General McClellan might reinforce that position, and as Jackson was very far to our left, might accumulate on him. He therefore considered it best to allow the attack on this strong position to proceed, in order to prevent troops being moved from it against Jackson before communication had been opened between that officer and the main body.
Such was certainly McClellan's best policy. Had he held Beaver Dam in force in front of A. P. Hill, and moved a strong body of troops to meet Jackson, he would have effectually covered the right of his position at Ellerson's Mill and been able, with the force at that point, to threaten the flank and rear of any troops we might have sent from Mechanicsville to support Jackson. Had he succeeded in driving Jackson back towards Atlees, he could have fallen upon the left of our position at Mechanicsville.12
The attack itself on Ellerson's Mill was not properly conducted. It should not have been made directly, but A. P. Hill should have followed up the partial movement he made on the enemy's right, and thrown a strong force across Beaver Dam above Ellerson's, so as to take the works at that point in reverse.
It was evident that Jackson's movement had so far produced no impression, as the enemy was found to be still occupying his works in force at Beaver Dam, and he vigorously resisted every effort made to cross, but it being confidently expected that Jackson would soon be felt on his right, the attack was maintained with obstinacy, and a brigade of D. H. Hill's division was sent to reinforce A. P. Hill. It was now nearly dark. The bridges over Beaver Dam had been destroyed, and although the attacking force made its way to the bank under a most destructive fire from the works on the opposite side, it was found impossible to cross.
Jackson's prescribed march should already have made his presence felt on the enemy's right, unless he had encountered a serious opposition, and it was assumed that, had such been the case, it would have been made known.13 His arrival being therefore momentarily expected, and its effect upon the enemy being regarded as certain, the efforts to find means to cross Beaver Dam were continued until nearly 9 P.M., and were attended with serious loss.
Attempts were, at length, made to find a practicable passage higher up the creek, and although the troops made their way up to the right bank under a destructive fire from the enemy's entrenchments, it was impossible to effect a crossing in the increased obscurity. The troops were accordingly withdrawn and the engagement ceased about 9 P.M.
The troops behaved very bravely. They forced their way through the fallen timber under the deadly cross-fire from the three works I have mentioned, none of which were more than 300 and two less than 300 yards from the stream. The dead lay on the margin of the dam and on the broken bridge immediately under the works of the enemy. Our loss was heavy; that of the enemy in this action could not have been large.
Thus the first, and one of the most important parts of General Lee's plan miscarried from the outset. Instead of uniting all of his forces north of the Chickahominy in time to bring the enemy to a decisive engagement on the 26th June, when that day closed he was still in front of Beaver Dam and his communications with Jackson were not yet established.
General Lee remained at Mechanicsville consulting with Longstreet and the two Hills until about 11 P.M., when he rode back to the south side of the Chickahominy and remained for the night at a house near the Mechanicsville Road, at the top of the hill overlooking the bridge. He returned to Mechanicsville before sunrise on the 27th, and as we rode down the hill to the bridge a sharp fire of musketry with some artillery was heard for about half-an-hour in the direction of the battle-ground of the previous evening. Preparations had been made to cross Beaver Dam above and below Ellerson's, but before they were completed the firing ceased, and soon after our arrival at Mechanicsville it was reported that the enemy had retreated.14 This was caused by the progress of Jackson on his right, and demonstrated the correctness of the original plan. Had Jackson been able to turn Beaver Dam on the afternoon of the 26th, the loss at Ellerson's would have been prevented.
D. H. Hill had moved from Mechanicsville to support Jackson according to his orders, and about 8 A.M. on the 27th Longstreet and A. P. Hill began to cross Beaver Dam below Ellerson's, Longstreet being nearer the Chickahominy. The enemy retreated very rapidly,15 abandoning the camps in rear of Ellerson's, and leaving a considerable quantity of stores, tools, etc. He fell back by the road to Gaines's Mill and burned a number of waggons as he retreated.
Longstreet and A. D. Hill pushed on rapidly, and by 12 noon arrived near Hogan's house, opposite New Bridge, which was found to have been partially destroyed. A force was immediately put to work to repair it, so as to open communications by that route with our troops on the opposite side of the Chickahominy. It was made passable during the afternoon, and was used for the removal of the wounded from the battlefield of Gaines's Mill that night.
Apart from the question of the danger to Richmond involved in General Lee's plan, which I have already discussed, there is the question of the risk incurred in placing the Chickahominy between the two wings of the army, and in leaving only Magruder's and Huger's divisions to oppose so large a force of the enemy on the south side of that river. Even before we had opened up New Bridge, we were not much further from Richmond by way of Mechanicsville than General McClellan himself. He could not have moved upon Richmond from the south side until he had forced the works held by Magruder and Huger, and it was supposed that they would resist him long enough to enable General Lee to rejoin them before McClellan could reach Richmond. After we got possession of New Bridge and held both sides of the Chickahominy at that point, immediate communication between our troops north and south of the stream was practically restored.
Besides, it must be remembered that General Lee had no other reasonable alternative to that which he adopted if he would act at all. He could not have attacked General McClellan's right without crossing the Chickahominy, and to have attacked his left, strongly entrenched with artillery in formidable works commanding every avenue of approach, and with the ground on each side of the roads rendered impassable for troops by the forests, which had been felled and left lying with tangled branches and trunks of trees, was a much more dangerous plan than that he adopted. No bold movement was ever made without assuming some risk, and in all the circumstances the movement for General Lee was attended with as little danger to the point he had to defend as could have been required by any prudence short of that which ventures nothing and gains nothing. Had he refrained from this movement he could have done nothing but await the action of General McClellan, who could have brought such a force upon him in time as to make the offensive impossible. The disparity between General Lee and his opponent could have been increased until the campaign of McClellan in 1862 would have been like that of Grant in 1864, when General Lee's strength was so far reduced that he could only endeavour to extend his small numbers to oppose a thin line along an extended front to the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.
By noon on the 27th, it was found that the enemy had made a stand beyond Powhite Creek, which flows by Gaines's Mill to the Chickahominy, and General Lee decided to adhere to the plan of operations which I have explained. As Jackson, thrown well out to the left, was threatening to cut the York River Railroad, General Lee's expectation was still that McClellan, if he intended to hold that line of communications and retain his position on the Chickahominy, would move out to give battle. Finding the enemy in position behind Powhite Creek, General Lee supposed that Jackson's movement would cause McClellan to draw this force to its right to oppose Jackson, and so enable him to throw Longstreet and Hill upon its left and rear.16 He and Jackson had a meeting near Walnut Grove about noon, and there General Lee explained his plans.
In accordance with this plan, it was not intended that Longstreet and A. P. Hill should advance until the enemy moved to meet Jackson's attack, but their troops found themselves engaged with the enemy as soon as they reached the vicinity of New Bridge, while Jackson's column far to the left had not yet reached the York River Railroad.
About 2.30 P.M., General A. P. Hill, pressing toward the York River Railroad, met the enemy near New Cold Harbor, and, hastily forming his line of battle, soon became hotly engaged with a superior force. Nothing had been heard of Jackson since noon, and for two hours General Hill with his single division encountered the greater part of the Federal troops north of the Chickahominy with conspicuous gallantry and courage.17
The battle raged fiercely and desperate efforts were made to force the enemy's position; three regiments, the 16th and 22nd North Carolina, and the 35th Georgia, carried the crest of the hill east of Dr. Gaines's house, and forced their way into the enemy's camp, but had to fall back before overwhelming numbers, and it was soon apparent that they could not do more than hold their own until help came. The enemy occupied a range of hills, his right resting in the vicinity of McGehee's house and his left near that of Dr. Gaines on a wooded bluff which rose abruptly from a deep ravine east of the house of Dr. Gaines; the ravine was filled with sharp-shooters to whom its banks gave shelter; a second line of infantry was stationed on the side of the hill behind a breastwork of trees, the branches of which made a strong abattis, while a third line of infantry entrenched occupied the crest of the bluff, which was crowned with artillery. To approach this position, the troops had to cross the open plain about a quarter-of-a-mile wide, commanded by this triple line of fire and swept by the heavy batteries south of the Chickahominy. In front of the Federal centre and right the ground was generally open, bounded on the side of our approach by a wood of dense and tangled undergrowth, and traversed by a sluggish stream which converted the soil into a deep morass.
The attack expected to be made by Jackson was so long delayed by the difficulties he encountered on his march18 that Longstreet was ordered to make a diversion in A. P. Hill's favour by a feint on the enemy's left; in the course of this demonstration the great strength of the position held by the enemy was discovered, and Longstreet perceived that to render the diversion effective, the feint must be converted into an attack. He resolved with characteristic promptitude to carry the heights occupied by the enemy by assault; his column was quickly formed near the open ground, and his preparations were completed when Jackson arrived, and his right division, that of Whiting, took position on the left of Longstreet; at the same time D. H. Hill formed on our extreme left, and after a short but bloody conflict, forced his way through the morass and obstructions, and drove the enemy from the woods on the opposite side. Ewell advanced on Hill's right and engaged the enemy furiously; the first and fourth brigades of Jackson's own division filled the interval between Ewell and A. P. Hill; the 2nd and 3rd brigades were sent to the right to support Longstreet; the arrival of these fresh troops enabled A. P. Hill to withdraw some of his brigades, wearied and reduced by their long and arduous conflict.
The line being now complete, General Lee ordered a general advance; on the right the troops moved forward with steadiness unchecked by the terrible fire from the triple lines of infantry on the side of the hill, and the cannon on both sides of the river, which burst upon them as they emerged upon the plain. Their dead and wounded marked their intrepid advance; the brave Texans leading were closely followed by their no less daring companions.19 The enemy were driven from the ravine to the first line of breastworks, over which our impetuous column dashed up to the entrenchments on the crest; these were quickly stormed, 14 pieces of artillery captured, and the enemy driven into the fields beyond. Fresh troops came to his support, and he endeavoured repeatedly to rally, but in vain; he was forced back with great slaughter till he reached the woods on the banks of the Chickahominy, and night put an end to the pursuit. Long lines of dead and wounded marked each stand of the enemy in his stubborn resistance, and the field over which he retreated was strewn with the slain.
On the Confederate left, the attack was no less vigorous and successful. D. H. Hill charged across the open ground in his front, one of his regiments having first bravely carried a battery whose fire enfiladed his advance. Gallantly supported by the troops on his right, who pressed forward with unfaltering resolution, he reached the crest of the ridge and after a sanguinary struggle, broke the enemy's lines and captured several of his batteries, and drove him in confusion toward the Chickahominy, until darkness rendered further pursuit impossible. Our troops remained in undisturbed possession of the field covered by the Federal dead and wounded, and their broken forces fled to the river and wandered in the woods.