An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
THE SEVEN DAYS
(b) WHITE OAK SWAMP TO MALVERN HILL
GENERAL LEE'S plans now depended first upon whether General McClellan would retreat from the Chickahominy or not, and secondly upon the direction of that retreat. On the morning of the 28th it was ascertained that none of the enemy who had opposed us at Gaines's Mill remained north of the Chickahominy, but as he might yet intend to give battle to preserve his communications, the 9th Cavalry supported by Ewell's division was ordered to seize the York River Railroad, and General Stuart with his main body was ordered to co-operate. When the cavalry reached Dispatch Station the enemy retreated to the south bank and burned the railway bridge.
During the forenoon clouds of dust south of the Chickahominy showed that the Federal Army was in motion; the abandonment of the railroad and the destruction of the bridge proved that no further effort would be made to recover his communications with White House,1 but the roads which led to James River would also enable General McClellan to reach the lower bridges over the Chickahominy and retreat down the Peninsula; if he adopted the latter course it was necessary that our troops should continue on the north bank of the river, and therefore until the intention of General McClellan was discovered it was considered injudicious to change their disposition.
For information as to what was happening on the south side of the Chickahominy, General Lee had to rely upon the vigilance of the troops charged with watching and reporting the movements of the enemy on that side of the river. Several orders were sent by General Lee enjoining vigilance, but the whole of June 28th was lost to the pursuit in waiting this intelligence. General Lee first learned of the retreat on the morning of the 29th, from information obtained by two officers belonging to General Longstreet's engineer corps, who had crossed from the battle field of the day before by way of New Bridge to the south side of the river. They discovered that the pickets of General Huger were in line in front of the enemy's entrenchments on the south side of the river, and communicated to those pickets the fact that they were watching the vacant fortifications of General McClellan. A very short examination revealed the fact that the whole line of General McClellan's works on the south side of the Chickahominy had been abandoned and that his retreat had already begun and had been carried on without interruption for a whole day.2
Pursuit was immediately ordered and the troops of Generals Longstreet and A. P. Hill were directed to recross the Chickahominy at New Bridge and move down the Darbytown Road towards the Long Bridge Road. Those of Generals Huger and Magruder were ordered to march, the former by the Charles City Road to take the Federal army in flank, and the latter by the Williamsburg road to attack its rear. General Jackson and his own division, accompanied by D. H. Hill's division, was ordered to cross the Chickahominy at Grape Vine Bridge and march by way of Savage Station in pursuit of the retreating enemy. General Magruder reached the vicinity of Savage Station about noon, where he came upon the rear guard of the retreating army. He mistook the resistance which he met for a renewal of the enemy's movement against Richmond. Under this belief, as soon as he encountered the enemy's rear guard at Savage Station he sent to General Huger, who was marching down the Charles City Road, for reinforcements, and two brigades of Huger's division were sent to his support. When it became apparent that the force on Magruder's front was only covering the retreat of his main body Huger's troops were sent back by General Lee's order, but valuable time was lost in the pursuit by this delay. Jackson's line of march led the flank and rear of the enemy at Savage Station across the Grape Vine Bridge, but the latter was delayed by the necessity of rebuilding the bridge. Magruder attacked the enemy at Savage Station late in the afternoon of the 28th, but entirely mistaking the character of the resistance to him, he attacked with only one division and two regiments of another. Owing to the lateness of the hour and the small force employed by General Magruder the result was not decisive, and the enemy was enabled to continue his retreat under cover of darkness, leaving several hundred prisoners with his dead and wounded in our hands, but the time thus gained enabled General McClellan to cross White Oak Swamp without interruption, and destroy the bridge leading over it.3
Jackson did not reach Savage Station till early on the 30th. He was then directed to pursue the enemy on the rear road he had taken, and Magruder was ordered to follow Longstreet on the Darbytown Road. As Jackson advanced he captured great numbers of prisoners, and collected so many arms that he had to detach two regiments for their security. The enemy had, however, crossed White Oak Swamp before he came up. Longstreet and A. P. Hill, continuing their advance on the 30th, soon came upon the enemy strongly posted across the Long Bridge Road and about one mile northwest from its intersection with the Charles City Road. Huger's route lay to the right of the enemy's position, Jackson's to the rear, and the arrival of their commands was awaited to begin the attack.
Meanwhile, on the 29th General Holmes had crossed from the south side of James River with part of his division, and on the 30th, reinforced by General Wise with a detachment of his brigade, he moved down the River Road, and came upon the line of the retreating army near Malvern Hill. Perceiving indications of confusion among the enemy, General Holmes opened upon his columns with artillery. He soon discovered that a number of batteries advantageously supported by an infantry force superior to his own, and assisted by the fire of the gun boats in the river, guarded this part of the line. Magruder, who had arrived at the Darbytown Road from the direction of Savage Station, was ordered to reinforce Holmes, but he did not reach the latter in time to attack. General Huger reported that his progress down the Charles City Road was obstructed, but about 4 P.M. firing was heard in that direction, which was supposed to indicate his approach. Longstreet immediately opened with one of his batteries to give notice of his presence. This brought on the engagement,4 but Huger not coming up on the enemy's flank, and Jackson having failed to effect the passage of White Oak Swamp, Longstreet and Hill were without the support they expected. The battle raged furiously till 9 P.M.; by that time the enemy had been driven with great slaughter from every position but one, which he maintained until he was able to withdraw under cover of darkness.5
At the close of the struggle nearly the whole field remained in our possession, covered with the enemy's dead and wounded. But for Jackson's delay at White Oak Swamp, General Lee would have this day inflicted on General McClellan the signal defeat at which his plans aimed. That Jackson could have crossed the Swamp but for some unaccountable delay on his part is shown by the following letter which I have received from General Wade Hampton:—
June 13, 1871
MY DEAR SIR,
In accordance with your request, I give you a few memoranda, which may aid you in preparing your Life of Lee. Where the field of operations was so large as it was during the late war, each actor on the scene could necessarily take in only such portion as came under his own observation, and it is only by comparing all the accounts given by those who participated in the events narrated that [an] historian can come to a correct conclusion. The first point to be considered in the preparation of an history of the war is the truth. To establish this you will have to consult all authorities, and I feel assured that in all cases the truth will redound to the credit of General Lee. Feeling this, I shall state frankly such incidents as I think may prove of value to you, giving you in all cases such facts as came under my personal observation, and within my own personal knowledge. My only interest will be to subserve the interests of truth and to vindicate General Lee, and I hope that you will not regard me as reflecting on any other officer, when giving my statement of what was accomplished and what was left undone.
Great as is General Lee's fame, and wonderful as were the results he accomplished, the former would have been if possible greater and the latter still more wonderful if his plans had always been carried out and his conceptions realised. I shall not venture to blame anyone because these results were not accomplished and I only propose to state the simple facts in regard to a few of the operations in which I had a part. This I give as my contribution, small as it may be, to the memory and the fame of our great chief. Should any of the facts be of value to you, you can use them as you think best.
Taking these few facts in chronological order, I begin at the Seven Days fighting around Richmond, where Lee delivered his first blow. Returning to the army, from which I had been absent some time, on account of a wound received at Seven Pines, just as these movements began, I was given command of two brigades of Jackson's corps. One of these had to be sent back to guard prisoners and I retained the other, the Taliaferro Brigade, to which the Hampton Legion had been attached, until the retreat of McClellan to Harrison's landing. This brigade was placed under my command on Saturday June 28th, the brigade being then in front of Grape Vine Bridge, near Cold Harbour. The enemy withdrew from our front on Saturday night, leaving only a small picket guard [at] the bridge. We were inactive all Sunday and did not cross till the night of that day. On Monday 30th about 10 A.M. or a little later the head of our column appeared before White Oak Swamp, where we found a battery of the enemy in position on the opposite side of the stream. General Jackson moved up some of [the] artillery and soon drove off this battery, dismounting one of its guns, which was left on the field. General Jackson then rode across the creek, taking some cavalry, Ashley's old brigade I think, and remained over some little time. The enemy, moving up with cavalry, recrossed the stream and I was ordered to repair the bridge.
In the meantime the artillery of the enemy was concentrated so as to command the bridge, and finding that many men would be sacrificed in rebuilding it, General Jackson ordered the work discontinued. My brigade then took position on the crest of the hill, the right resting on the public road, the left extending down to White Oak Swamp. While here we could readily hear firing at Fraser's6 Farm above us, and I remember seeing Captain Fairfax who had been sent by Longstreet to ask for reinforcements. It was practicable for us to have moved by the right flank and thus join Longstreet, for I made a movement with a division of cavalry between these two very points in 1864, coming from White's Tavern, down the White Oak Swamp, crossing where Jackson halted and turning the flank of the enemy who were stationed below.
There are various places too where the swamp can be passed. While we were in position, I rode into the swamp in my front, below the road, and to my surprise found no difficulty in crossing it. This I did and I came out on the opposite side, just in rear of the right flank of the enemy. Carefully reconnoitring them I recrossed and reported the results of my observation to General Whiting and afterwards to General Jackson. The latter enquired if I could make a bridge across the stream, to which I replied that I could make one for infantry, but not for artillery, as in attempting the latter my presence would be detected, owing to the fact that we should have to cut down trees in order to clear a road for wheels. General Jackson directed me to make the bridge, and taking a detail of 50 men I put it up in a very short time. It may be well to state too that the stream here was so narrow and shallow that it offered in reality no obstruction to the passage of troops.
As soon as the bridge was constructed I made another reconnaissance of the enemy, whom I found in the same position and totally unsuspicious of our presence, though I approached their line to within 100 or 150 yards. Returning I reported to General Jackson, stated to him the admirable position we should secure for an attack, and urged that an attack should be made. He sat in silence for some time, then rose and walked off in silence. We remained in position all night and in the morning the enemy had withdrawn. We encountered him next at Malvern Hill, and I believe that battle would never have been fought had we struck them on the flank and in rear in White Oak Swamp.
If you refer to Dabney's Life of Jackson, you will find mention made of the strange delay at White Oak Swamp, and various conjectures on the cause. What did cause it I cannot say, nor do I venture to criticise the great and good soldier who made it. I only state facts, facts which in justice to General Lee should be known. Doubtless some of General Whiting's staff are cognizant of these facts, and of my own staff who accompanied me across the stream I recall Major T. G. Barker, and Lieutenant Wade Hampton, Jr., the latter serving me temporarily, as his Chief General J. E. Johnston had been wounded and was absent. He has read this communication and his recollection agrees with mine as to everything stated herein. Doubtless Major Barker will also confirm all that has been said, and an examination of the ground will prove that I am correct as to its topography. Yours very truly,
Early on July 1st Jackson reached the battlefield of the previous day, having succeeded in crossing White Oak Swamp where he captured a part of the enemy's artillery and a number of prisoners. He was directed to continue the pursuit down the Willis Church Road, and soon found the enemy occupying a high range extending obliquely across the road in front of Malvern Hill. On this position of great natural strength the enemy had concentrated his powerful artillery, supported by masses of infantry, partially protected by breastworks. His left rested near Crew's house, and his right near Binford's. Immediately in his front the ground was open for a width of from a quarter to half a mile, and sloping gradually from the crest was completely swept by the fire of his infantry and artillery. To reach this open ground our troops had to advance through the broken and thickly wooded country traversed nearly throughout its whole extent by a swamp passable in but few places and difficult at that. The whole was within range of the batteries on the heights, and of the gun boats on the river, under whose incessant fire our movements had to be executed.
Jackson formed his line with Whiting's division on his left and D. H. Hill's on his right, one of Ewell's brigades occupying the interval. The rest of Ewell's and Jackson's own divisions were held in reserve, and Magruder was directed to take position on Jackson's right, but before his arrival two of Huger's brigades came up and were placed next to Hill. Magruder subsequently formed on the right of these brigades, which, with a third of Huger's division, were placed under his command. Longstreet and A. P. Hill were held in reserve and took no part in the action, their troops having been relieved in the first line by Magruder. Owing to ignorance of the country, to the difficulty of communication through the dense forests, and to the broken character of the ground, the whole line was not formed until late in the afternoon. The obstacles presented by the woods and swamps also made it impracticable to bring up a sufficient amount of artillery to oppose successfully the extraordinary force of that arm employed by the enemy, while the field itself afforded few positions favourable for its use and none for its concentration. Orders were issued for a general advance at a given signal,8 but the causes referred to prevented concerted action among the troops.
D. H. Hill pressed forward across the open field and engaged the enemy gallantly, breaking and driving back his first line, but as a simultaneous advance of the other troops did not take place he found himself unable to maintain the ground he had gained. Jackson sent to his support his own division and that part of Ewell's9 held in reserve, but owing to the increasing darkness and the intricacy of the forest and swamp they did not arrive in time to render the desired assistance. Hill was therefore compelled to abandon part of the ground he had gained after suffering severe loss and inflicting heavy damage upon the enemy.
On the right the attack was gallantly made by Huger's and Magruder's commands. Two brigades of the former commenced the action, the other two were subsequently sent to the support of Magruder and Hill. Several determined efforts were made to storm the hill at Crew's house, the brigades advancing bravcely across the open field raked by the fire of a hundred cannon and the musketry of large bodies of infantry. Some were broken and gave way, others approached closely to the guns and drove the infantry back, compelling the advanced batteries to retire to escape capture, and mingling their dead with those of the enemy. But for want of concert among the attacking columns their assuaults were too weak to break the Federal line, and after struggling gallantly, sustaining and inflicting great loss, they were compelled successively to retire. Night was approaching when the attack began, and it soon became difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The firing continued until after 9 P.M. but no decided result was obtained; part of the troops were then withdrawn to their original positions, others remained on the open field and some rested within a hundred yards of the batteries that had been so bravely but so vainly assailed.
General Stuart with his cavalry, after seizing the York River Railroad, on June 28th had proceeded to the vicinity of the White Housse, and secured a large amount of property, including more than 10,000 stands of small arms partially burnt. Leaving one squadron at the White House, he in compliance with his orders, returned to guard the lower bridges of the Chickhominy. Moving off again on July 1st, after a long march he reached the rear of the army at Malvern Hill on that night at the close of the engagement.
On July 2nd it was discovered that the enemy had withdrawn during the night, leaving the ground covered with dead and wounded, his route exhibiting evidence of precipitate retreat. The pursuit was at once resumed, General Stuart with his cavalry in the advance, but a violent storm which prevailed throughout the day greatly retarded our progress. The enemy, harrassed and closely followed by the cavalry, succeeded in gaining Westover on James River and the protection of the gun boats. He immediately began to fortify his position which was one of great natural strength flanked on each side by a creek, and the approach to his front commanded by heavy guns of the shipping in addition to those mounted in his intrenchment. It was deemed inexpedient to attack him and in view of the condition to those mounted in his intrenchment. It was deemed inexpedient to attack him and in view of the condition of our troops, who had been marching and fighting almost incessantly for seven days under the most trying circumstances, it was determined to withdraw in order to afford them the repose of which they were in so much need. Several days were spent in collecting arms and other property abandoned by the enemy, and in the meantime some artillery and cavalry were sent below Westover to annoy his transports. On July 8th the army returned to the vicinity of Richmond.
The Federal Army should have been destroyed. Its escape was due to the causes already stated, of which the most prominent was the want of timely and correct information. The character of the country enabled General McClellan to conceal his retreat, and added much to the difficulties which beset the march of our pursuing column. But if the enemy's army was not destroyed, the siege of Richmond was raised, and the object of campaign, which had been prosecuted after months of preparation and an enormous expenditure of men and money, completely frustrated. More than 10,000 prisoners, including officers of rank, 52 pieces of artillery, and upwards of 35,000 stands of small arms were captured.
The stores and supplies of every description that fell into our hands were great in amount and value, but small in comparison with those destroyed by the enemy. His losses in battle exceeded our own10 while his subsequent inaction shows in what condition the survivors reached the protection to which they fled.
REGION OF THE SEVEN DAYS' FIGHTING