Official Records of the Rebellion

Official Records of the Rebellion

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The information in my possession soon after the close of this action convinced me that Jackson was really approaching in large force. The position on Beaver Dam Creek, although so successfully defended, had its right flank too much in the air, and was too far from the main army to make it available to retain it longer. I therefore determined to send the heavy guns at Hogan’s and Gaines’ houses over the Chickahominy [p.55] during the night, with as many of the wagons of the Fifth Corps as possible, and to withdraw the corps itself to a position stretching around the bridges, where its flanks would be reasonably secure, and it would be within supporting distance of the main army. General Porter carried out my orders to that effect.

It was not advisable at that time, even had it been practicable, to withdraw the Fifth Corps to the right bank of the Chickahominy. Such a movement would have exposed the rear of the army, placed as between two fires, and enabled Jackson’s fresh troops to interrupt the movement to James River, by crossing the Chickahominy in the vicinity of Jones’ Bridge before we could reach Malvern Hill with our trains. I determined then to resist Jackson with the Fifth Corps, re-enforced by all our disposable troops in the new position near the bridge heads, in order to cover the withdrawal of the trains and heavy guns, and to give time for the arrangements to secure the adoption of the James River as our line of supplies in lieu of the Pamunkey.

The greater part of the heavy guns and wagons having been removed to the right bank of the Chickahominy, the delicate operation of withdrawing the troops from Beaver Dam Creek was commenced shortly before daylight and successfully executed.

Meade’s and Griffin’s brigades were the first to leave the ground. Seymour’s brigade covered the rear with the horse batteries of Captains Robertson and Tidball, but the withdrawal was so skillful and gradual and the repulse of the preceding day so complete, that although the enemy followed the retreat closely and some skirmishing occurred, he did not appear in front of the new line in force till about noon of the 27th, when we were prepared to receive him.

About this time General Porter, believing that General Stoneman would be cut off from him, sent him orders to fall back on the White House, and afterwards rejoin the army as best he could.

On the morning of the 27th of June, during the withdrawal of his troops from Mechanicsville to the selected position already mentioned, General Porter telegraphed as follows:

I hope to do without aid, though I request that Franklin, or some other command, be held ready to re-enforce me. The enemy are so close that I expect to be hard pressed in front. I hope to have a portion in position to cover the retreat. This is a delicate movement, but relying on the good qualities of the commanders of divisions and brigades, I expect to get back and hold the new line.

This shows how closely Porter’s retreat was followed.

Notwithstanding all the efforts used during the entire night to remove the heavy guns and wagons, some of the siege guns were still in position at Gaines’ house after sunrise, and were finally hauled off by hand. The new position of the Fifth Corps was about an arc of a circle, covering the approaches to the bridges which connected our right wing with the troops on the opposite side of tile river.

Morell’s division held the left of the line in a strip of woods on the left hank of the Gaines’ Mill stream, resting its left flank on the descent to the Chickahominy, which was swept by our artillery on both sides of the river, and extending into open ground on the right toward New Cold Harbor. In this line General Butterfield’s brigade held the extreme left, General Martindale’s joined his right, and General Griffin, still farther to the right, joined the left of General Sykes’ division, which, partly in woods and partly in open ground, extended in the rear of Cold Harbor.

Each brigade had in reserve two of its own regiments. McCall’s division, having been engaged on the day before, was formed in a second [p.56] line in the rear of the first, Meade’s brigade on the left near the Chickahominy, Reynolds’ brigade on the right, covering the approaches from Cold Harbor and Dispatch Station to Sumner’s bridge, and Seymour’s in reserve to the second line, still farther in rear. General P. St. George Cooke, with five companies of the Fifth Regular Cavalry, two squadrons of the First Regular and three squadrons of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry (Lancers), was posted behind a hill in rear of the position and near the Chickahominy, to aid in watching the left flank and defending the slope to the river.

The troops were all in position by noon, with the artillery on the commanding ground and in the intervals between the divisions and brigades. Besides the division batteries there were Robertson’s and Tidball’s horse batteries, from the artillery reserve; the latter posted on the right of Sykes’ division, and the former on the extreme left of the line, in the valley of the Chickahominy. Shortly after noon the enemy were discovered approaching in force, and it soon became evident that the entire position was to be attacked. His skirmishers advanced rapidly, and soon the firing became heavy along our whole front. At 2 p. m. General Porter asked for re-enforcements. Slocum’s division, of the Sixth Corps, was ordered to cross to the left bank of the river, by Alexander’ bridge, and proceed to his support.

General Porter’s first call for re-enforcements, through General Barnard, did not reach me, nor his demand for more axes, through the same officer.

By 3 p. the engagement had become so severe, and the enemy were so greatly superior in numbers, that the entire second line and reserves had been moved forward to sustain the first line against repeated and desperate assaults along our whole front.

At 3.30 p. Slocum’s division reached the field, and was immediately brought into action at the weak points of our line.

On the left the contest was for the strip of woods running almost at right angles to the Chickahominy, in front of Adams’ house, or between that and Gaines’ house. The enemy several times charged up to this wood, but were each time driven back with heavy loss. The regulars, of Sykes’ division, on the right, also repulsed several strong attacks. But our own loss under the tremendous fire of such greatly superior numbers was very severe, and the troops, most of whom had been under arms more than two days, were rapidly becoming exhausted by the masses of fresh men constantly brought against them.

When General Slocum’s division arrived on the ground it increased General Porter’s force to some 35,000, who were probably contending against about 70,000 of the enemy. The line was severely pressed in several points, and as its being pierced at any one would have been fatal, it was unavoidable for General Porter, who was required to hold his position until night, to divide Slocum’s division and send parts of it, even single regiments, to the points most threatened.

About 5 p. m., General Porter having reported his position as critical, French’s and Meagher’s brigades of Richardson’s division (Second Corps) were ordered to cross to his support. The enemy attacked again in great force at 6 p. m., but failed to break our lines, though our loss was very heavy.

About 7 p. they threw fresh troops against General Porter with still greater fury, and finally gained the woods held by our left. This reverse, aided by the confusion that followed an unsuccessful charge by five companies of the Fifth Cavalry, and followed as it was by more determined assaults on the remainder of our lines, now outflanked, caused [p.57] a general retreat from our position to the hill in rear, overlooking the bridge.

French’s and Meagher’s brigades now appeared, driving before them the stragglers who were thronging toward the bridge. These brigades advanced boldly to the front, and by their example, as well as by the steadiness of their bearing, reanimated our own troops and warned the enemy that re-enforcements had arrived. It was now dusk. The enemy, already repulsed several times with terrible slaughter, and hearing the shouts of the fresh troops, failed to follow ip their advantage.

This gave an opportunity to rally our men behind the brigades of Generals French and Meagher, and they again advanced up the hill ready to repulse another attack.

During the night our thin and exhausted regiments were all withdrawn in safety, and by the following morning all had reached the other side of the stream. The regular infantry formed the rear guard, and about 6 o’clock on the morning of the 28th crossed the river, destroying the bridge behind them.

Our loss in this battle in killed, wounded, and missing was very heavy, especially in officers, many of whom were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners while gallantly leading on their men or rallying them to renewed exertions. It is impossible to arrive at the exact numbers lost in this desperate engagement, owing to the series of battles which followed each other in quick succession and in which the whole army was engaged. No general returns were made until after we had arrived at Harrison’s Landing, when the 1osses during the whole seven days were estimated together.

Although we were finally forced from our first line after the enemy had been repeatedly driven back, yet the objects sought for had been obtained. The enemy was held at bay. Our siege guns and material were saved, and the right wing had now joined the main body of the army.

The number of guns captured by the enemy at this battle was twenty-two, three of which were lost by being run off the bridge during the final withdrawal.

Great credit is due for the efficiency and bravery with which this important arm of the service (the artillery) was fought, and it was not until the last successful charge of the enemy that the cannoneers were driven from their pieces or struck down, and the guns captured. Diederichs’, Knieriem’s, and Grimm’s batteries took position during the engagement in the front of General Smith’s line on the right bank of the stream, and with a battery of siege guns, served by the First Connecticut Artillery, helped to drive back the enemy in front of General Porter.

So threatening were the movements of the enemy on both banks of the Chickahominy that it was impossible to decide until the afternoon where the real attack would be made. Large forces of infantry were seen during the day near the Old Tavern, on Franklin’s right, and threatening demonstrations were frequently made along the entire line on this side of the river, which rendered it necessary to hold a considerable force in position to meet them.

Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.54-57

web page Rickard, J (20 June 2006)


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