The Seven Days

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Early Work of a Master

  


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W HEN THE SUN came up at 4:38 on Thursday the 26th of June, the busiest man in the two armies was John Bankhead Magruder. The day before, he had received his copy of Gen­eral Orders No. 75, which, he wrote, "directed me to hold my posi­tion in front of the enemy against attack and at all hazards [and] to make such demonstrations as to discover his operations." As Ma­gruder and his troops did not know Lee had formed his assault force of what he considered to be his best commanders, Major Brent, the ordnance officer, reported that Magruder's men felt they held "the post of honor."

"Prince John," always attentive to the amenities, had arranged for his staff to have their meals at the family table of the house in which the general had his headquarters. The officers slept in tents in the farmhouse yard, but at breakfast they sat down to a linen-covered table with china and silver. That morning the group was excited and tense. Along with the exhilaration that came at the prospect of a big offensive, Magruder and his staff had reason to feel apprehensive.

In his orders, Lee had revised Jackson's halt on the night of June 25, and instructed the Valley commander to push beyond Ashland five or six miles to make camp across the tracks of the Virginia Cen­tral (about eight miles from the battle area), and to move out at three in the morning. With Jackson's reputation for fast marches, Magruder could expect the Confederate offense to open across the river as early as seven o'clock. Instead of the welcome sounds an­nouncing Jackson's approach, the first firing from across the Chicka­hominy fell on Magruder's position at Dr. Garnett's farm, command­ing the approaches to the New Bridge crossing.

The day before, new heavy Federal guns ---the 4 1/2 -inch Rodman rifles and the 30-pounder Parrotts from McClellan's siege train­---

 

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had opened on Magruder from entrenched positions at Dr. Gaines's farm on the north bank of the Chickahominy. Magruder's heaviest piece along the river was a 12-pounder Napoleon and his longest ranged gun was a 3-inch rifle, firing a 10-pound shell. (The pounds of howitzers and guns designated the weight of the projectiles) Ma­gruder's two batteries had been quickly overwhelmed. After two gunners were killed, several wounded and half a dozen horses dis­abled, the pieces were withdrawn from the range of the heavier Federal metal. It was an ominous beginning for the morning of June 26 when the Federal siege guns across the river again forced Ma­gruder's light batteries to withdraw from their position at the New Bridge crossing.

Originally placed at Dr. Gaines's farm to support the advance McClellan had planned for the 26th, the Federal guns were then fir­ing only to silence the Confederate batteries. Magruder naturally suspected the heavy guns had been brought up for some reason con­cerning him. The fourteen hours of daylight ahead looked very long when his acting, chief of artillery, Stephen D. Lee, reported "there was but little prospect of injuring the enemy's batteries" across the river.

Since Magruder's command had been absorbed into Johnston's army and the artillery organization changed after Lee had taken command, Magruder's batteries had not fared well. Colonel Henry C. Cabell, commanding the new reserve, protested to Pendleton that twelve guns were replaced by ten of inferior caliber, and Colonel Lee stressed the need of at least one heavy gun. Lee, who was tem­porary artillery chief, rated Magruder's fully manned batteries from "efficient" to "very efficient," but the action across the Chicka­hominy on the 25th and 26th bore out his stress on the need of guns of heavier calibre.

As it was too late to do anything about that, Magruder began fir­ing those batteries stationed from Mrs. Price's farm, near the river, across Nine Mile Road at Old Tavern, and to the York River Rail­road where his lines joined Huger's. At intervals he stirred up his skirmishers. As if pleased with the legend of their great demonstra­tions at Yorktown, Magruder's infantry put on a very convincing show, and made each bustle appear the prelude of a general advance. For a demonstration to be effective, the soldiers had to be willing

 

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to fight, and Magruder had some soldiers from the Deep South who regarded combat as one of life's simple pleasures. There was a Mis­sissippi brigade (later famous as "Barksdale's Mississippians") com­posed of the tallest, hardest, most powerful men in the army. In the 17th Mississippi Regiment thirty-five men stood more than six feet one inch, and ran to two hundred pounds and better. There were a lot of bear hunters from the canebrakes in this brigade, marksmen so ac­curate that at times the enemy took them to be sharpshooters. One of the gunners in the 1st Company of Richmond Howitzers, who supported the brigade, said the Mississippians liked "the racket" of guns near them, and whooped and hollered with delight.

These irrepressible soldiers were commanded by a forty-eight­-year-old Philadelphian, Richard Griffith, who had lived for more than twenty years in Mississippi. A banker in Jackson with some mil­itary experience in the Mexican War, the well-liked brigadier had only three more days of life.

Magruder's command was composed of three divisions of two brigades each, and Griffith's brigade was in Magruder's own division. The other brigade in Magruder's division was composed of Georgia regiments, commanded by their state's most imposing citizen, Howell Cobb.

A planter of wealth, Cobb at forty-seven had behind him a distin­guished political career. He had been speaker of the house when only thirty-four, secretary of the treasury in Buchanan's administra­tion, and was elected governor of Georgia as a Unionist in the period of the compromises in 1850 and 1851. Some believed his moderation on secession prevented his being elected president by the Confederate delegates at Montgomery. With no great future as a soldier, the broadly intelligent man was an able administrator and natural leader. General Cobb was clean-shaven, with rather heavy features, a fine brow and serious mien.

Major General D. R. ("Neighbor") Jones commanded another of Magruder's divisions. A member of the great West Point class of 1846, he was plagued by ill health, and in seven months was to die of heart disease. "Neighbor" Jones was a stately South Carolinian with a gentle, friendly expression, and his agreeable personality made him one of the best-liked men in the army.

 

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 Cobb's fellow Georgian politician, Robert Toombs, commanded a brigade in Jones's division. Toombs, a few days away from his fifty-second birthday, was a man of violence, intemperate in all things, and some believed that his tumultuousness had caused him to miss beating Davis for the presidency. Bob Toombs was one of the most brilliant and magnetic of the secessionist leaders. He had amassed a fortune as a lawyer, built a big plantation, and won great prestige in the U. S. Congress and Senate. He possessed the qualities that would have made him a good soldier except for the impatience with discipline and great ego which made it impossible for him to subordinate himself to anyone. But he was a fighter.

Jones's other brigade, also of Georgia regiments, was commanded by George T. Anderson, Magruder's only brigade commander with Regular Army experience. Not a West Pointer, "Tige" Anderson had served in the Mexican War, after which he had been commis­sioned captain in the Regular Army. He had resigned two years before secession. Never spectacular and not destined to advance be­yond brigadier, the steady-eyed Georgian maintained a level of de­pendable competence.

Magruder's third division was commanded by another profes­sional, Lafayette McLaws, a classmate of Longstreet's at West Point. McLaws was one of those sound soldiers without flair, and his steady performance was never colored by a high moment. An enor­mous bushy beard half covered his broad face and his eyes peered out with something of an owlish appearance.

McLaws's two citizen-soldier brigadiers, Paul Semmes and Joseph Kershaw, were among the best of the nonprofessionals with the army. A Georgia planter-banker just turned forty-seven, Semmes, with a seignorial mustache and beard, was distinguished looking in the romantic tradition. He was the brother of Admiral Raphael Semmes, the Confederate sea raider.

From Camden, South Carolina, where his father had been mayor, forty-year-old Joe Kershaw was a lawyer and state legislator, a lit­erate man of diligence, enthusiasm and contagious courage. Clean-­shaven except for a drooping blond mustache, he had fine features and a resolute expression, and was much admired by the South Carolinians in his brigade. Kershaw's regiments were led by an un-

 

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usually high caliber of field officers, mostly drawn from positions of prominence in civilian life and distinguished by gallant personal qualities.

All these troops of Magruder's command gave weight to the demonstration by their special eagerness to come to issue with the enemy. As their general had been edged further from the center of things, so the officers and soldiers had remained on the periphery since Johnston's withdrawal to Richmond. Probably every man ex­cept Magruder ---who knew too much about their dangerous posi­tion ---was trying to incite counter-movements. To Magruder, the more racket the guns and foot soldiers made, the more nervously he looked at the climbing sun.

By seven o'clock, the hour when Magruder could begin to expect Jackson, A. P. Hill's positions were deserted along the river to Ma­gruder's left, and the last man had gone from Longstreet's camps behind Magruder's lines. Behind Huger's lines were only the ashes of the campfires built up by D. H. Hill's brigades when they started moving away from the front between two and three in the morning.

D. H. Hill's and Longstreet's divisions had passed to the north of Richmond, and at seven o'clock were moving along the Mechanics­ville Turnpike to the high bluff over the Chickahominy across from the Mechanicsville bridges. A. P. Hill's division, except Branch's bri­gade, had shifted up the north-south arm of the river and were massed in the woods across from the Meadow Bridges. Branch's bri­gade had marched on northward to the narrow crossing at Half Sink to establish contact with Jackson. At Magruder's back an un­natural silence hung over the flat farmland, emptied of troops and guns, between his lines and Richmond.

 

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The sky was cloudless following a couple of showery days. After the mild fragrance of the early morning, the sun began to grow warm. The dragging hours, to nine o'clock and then to eleven - twice the time allotted for Jackson's eight-mile march - were marked by the growing warmth of the sun. By noon it was hot. Not only was there no sound of activity from across the Chickahominy, but no word had come from Lee. The commanding general had left

 

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the Dabbs house during the morning to join the troops on the Me­chanicsville Turnpike.

In his "post of honor," Magruder bore out Colonel Long's impres­sion that he lost his poise when acting under another's authority. At Yorktown, he had shown no strain when confronting McClellan's whole army alone. On the morning of the 26th, needing communi­cation with his superiors, he denied himself the relief of writing to avoid revealing his anxiety.

At midday he gathered his staff to the family table for a gourmet dinner. No comfort came. The most light-hearted members of the staff showed the strain, and nobody had an appetite. After the fail­ure of the meal, Magruder galloped along his lines, where the firing continued sporadically. Soldiers temporarily out of line, with no awareness of the danger, lounged in the shade of trees, laughing and joking. Magruder rode back to his headquarters house, from where he could look through binoculars to the other side of the river. The scene lay as still as a painting.

At two o'clock, the splendid "Prince John" could stand it no longer. He called his ordnance officer, Major Brent, the friend and lawyer from his carefree days at San Diego. Since Brent had given him legal counsel, Magruder was inclined to turn to the major when he needed advice. As Major Brent had none that day, Magruder's control broke and he gave his staff officer a message to take to Gen­eral Lee's field headquarters. Wishing to avoid asking the command­ing general what was going on, he instructed Brent to report that nothing untoward was happening on his front and leave the rest to Lee.

Leaving the New Bridge area, Brent rode through the woods as the quickest way to the Mechanicsville Turnpike and reached that road beyond the abrupt ending of the city around Venable Street. Turn­ing northward, he passed farms, small and large, where children played in the yards, and two-storied stage taverns whose shaded bal­conies were deserted.

Where the ground rose in a long swell toward the bluffs overlook­ing the river, Brent passed the idle troops of D. H. Hill and Long­street. The men were resting in the shade with no sign of activity. They had been waiting there since eight in the morning and, having moved out at two, some of the men were dozing. Individual officers

 

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were pacing nervously while others sat on the ground in small groups of friends. Gunners were fussing around their pieces, adjust­ing the horses' harnesses and inspecting the ammunition box on the caissons.

Toward the top of the rise, where the high earthen mounds of permanent gun positions stretched off on either side of the road, the artillerists stood in weary alertness in the open, the sun beating down on them. Off to one side of the road, President Davis was sur­rounded by an entourage of civilians and handsomely dressed staff officers - all noticeably silent. As Brent passed the group, he thought "a pall of gloom" hung over them. Beyond them he saw Lee's staff, equally subdued. Then he saw the general standing alone near the earthworks, his gaze ranging across the Chickahominy Valley.

As Brent approached the graying general, with his exterior of massive calm, Brent detected a touch of dishevelment in the usually meticulous dress. The bow of Lee's tie had slipped around a little in the opening of the collar of his uniform. When Brent reported that Magruder's troops were alerted across their whole front, and that the enemy had made no threatening moves, Lee thoughtfully perceived what was behind the message.

"I suppose you have come to find the cause of our delay, for General Magruder must be anxious. We have been waiting for Gen­eral Jackson, from whom I have not heard." He paused, to stare off across the river, and then added, "I wish you to remain here until I am ready to send a message to General Magruder."

It was then three o'clock. Staff officer Brent found nothing curi­ous in the absence of couriers arriving or being dispatched, as the commanding general and his staff simply waited for the long over­due arrival of Stonewall Jackson. (Lee had received a morning mes­sage from Jackson saying that he was running late.) From where Brent stood beside Lee, the movements that would begin the action --- signaling Jackson's approach --- would be clearly visible on the panorama unfolding across the Chickahominy.

From the marshy-banked bottom of their bluff, the overflowed river formed a swamp about three quarters of a mile wide. On the opposite bank the ground sloped upward to a plateau on which the crossroads village of Mechanicsville dozed. Mechanicsville itself was only a cluster of frame houses, with a saloon and a destroyed

 

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beer garden, and one fine two-story house with a "Greek revival" porch of the 1840’s and a garden enclosed by a white picket fence.

The Turnpike, running through the village, became the Old Church Road on the other side, where it bore to the northeast. Three miles from Mechanicsville, hidden by timber, its eastward course ran across the direction of Jackson's march from the north. His destination was Hundley's Corner, which lay two miles north of the Old Church Road. The enemy retiring on the Old Church Road would cross Jackson's front.

Another road ran southeast from Mechanicsville across a flat open field before it dipped into the shallow valley of Beaver Dam Creek. The woods on the high bank of the opposite side of the creek could be seen as a fringe, marking the line of Fitz-John Porter's position at Ellerson's Mill. This was the position which Jackson's approach would cause to be evacuated. Past Ellerson's Mill, the unseen road took a winding course to Cold Harbor, and this Cold Harbor Road would be a line of pursuit when the enemy retired.

A third road ran north bearing to the west, toward the river cross­ing at Half Sink. Down this road Branch's brigade would march to herald Jackson's approach. One and a half miles west and a little north of Mechanicsville, the Meadow Bridges crossed the Chicka­hominy in the north-south course of the river, where on the western bank A. P. Hill's new division was waiting hidden in a fringe of trees. No direct road led from the Meadow Bridges to Mechanics­ville, and Hill's troops would move by several short roads to enter the road from Half Sink about three quarters of a mile from the vil­lage.

While Major Brent was surveying the countryside, the oppressive silence was broken by rifle fire, sharp and solid, from the direction of the Meadow Bridges. The slumped figures on the plateau stirred into sudden movement. Officers hurried forward, bringing up their binoculars. Through his glasses Brent saw the dark dots of Federal pickets falling back fast from their side of the Meadow Bridges. Faintly in the distance under the crackle of rifle fire came the sound of drums and fifes. A red battle flag fluttered out of a belt of woods, and toy-sized soldiers in mottled gray swung in columns of fours out of the last angle of the roads on the zig-zag course to Mechanics­ville.

 

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"Those are A. P. Hill's men," General Lee said, as if commenting on the weather. Orders went to Longstreet and D. H. Hill to pre­pare to cross the Chickahominy.

On the opposite bank, the Federal regiment began to withdraw from the village, dark blue clumps moving slowly across the field toward a prepared position in the shadowy ravine of Beaver Dam Creek. East of the village a six-gun Federal battery opened with rolling blasts, and puffs burst near the road into which A. P. Hill's column was turning. More shell fire broke near the advancing col­umns, and several men fell in Hill's skirmish line.

A second brigade appeared behind Hill's advance and deployed to the left, taking a course north of the brigade moving on the village. Then a gun battery ran out between the infantry columns, the horses at a gallop, the gunners swaying on the iron seats, and in an incredibly short time wheeled into position. Men quickly detached the caisson from the gun carriage, plunging horses were moved back with men hanging onto the bridles. An officer's hand came down and the guns fired in battery.

A. P. Hill's advance column neared the village and began to de­ploy. More men dropped. Federal sharpshooters were firing from a dip in the ground east of the village. Another Federal battery, north on the plain, had opened on the second brigade. Stragglers broke off from the advance brigade, the men cringing away from the shell bursts. It was Field's Virginia brigade, and the men were going into battle for the first time.

Nearby came the shouts of officers and the muffled rattle of equip­ment as thousands of men fell into columns of march. D. H. Hill's troops were moving along the road cut between the high bluffs where the heavy guns were placed. The sun glinted on the rifle barrels as the van slushed through the marshy edges of the Chicka­hominy to the swampy water. There the column crowded to a halt. Officers began to yell back, a staff officer pushed his horse uphill off the side of the road. No pioneers had come up to lay the bridges. A line of infantry ran toward the remaining bridge supports across the swamp, and began to lay planks for a footbridge.

General Lee turned to Brent and told him to inform Magruder that he expected to reach New Bridge before dark. He could reas­sure his general that the bridge to his position in front of Richmond

 

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 would be rebuilt and connections established for the divided army.

 As Brent turned to go, three of Hill's brigades were deploying across the plateau north of Mechanicsville as far as he could sec, and Hill had another battery in action. Shell bursts were breaking heav­ily across his front. Ominously, artillery fire rolled along Beaver Dam Creek, where the Federals were supposed to evacuate their prepared position at Jackson's approach.

Riding off, Brent had the feeling something was wrong. He de­cided to tell General Magruder that he did not think General Lee would reach New Bridge that night.

 

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Powell Hill's movement across the Meadow Bridges was not, as Lee thought, the signal for Jackson's approach. At nine o'clock that morning, Jackson had sent Branch, at Half Sink, a message that he was then crossing the Virginia Central tracks, six miles from Ash­land. According to Lee's orders, Jackson should have started his march from the railroad tracks at three in the morning. Though he was running very late, six hours behind schedule, he had only eight miles farther to go. A. P. Hill, like Magruder, had found the drag­ging minutes a deepening strain on his highly strung nerves. At three o'clock he could bear it no longer.

Hill had heard nothing from Branch or Jackson since early morn­ing. He reasoned that by the time his five brigades crossed the Meadow Bridges, deployed, and cleared Mechanicsville for the passage of Longstreet and Harvey Hill, Jackson would certainly have moved eight miles.

Once somebody said that A. P. Hill made a premature assault on the Beaver Dam Creek position, and it has been endlessly repeated until accepted as fact. Hill forced the Meadow Bridges before Jack­son or Branch had been "discovered" --- as in General Orders No. 75 --- but not for the purpose of making an assault. In anticipation of Jackson, he crossed to execute his orders of drawing the enemy from Mechanicsville to clear the river crossing for D. H. Hill and Longstreet, in order that their troops might get over before the day ended and be in position to cooperate with Jackson when he arrived. Lee endorsed Hill's report in which he wrote, "Three o'clock

 

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having arrived, and no intelligence from Jackson or Branch, I de­termined to cross at once rather than hazard the failure of the whole plan by longer deferring it. . . . It was never contemplated that my division alone should have sustained the shock of this battle, but such was the case. . . ."

Insofar as Hill's crossing of the Meadow Bridges, before Branch was discovered, constituted a personal interpretation of Lee's order, it was an impulsive act. Yet, it was the kind of impetuosity that sometimes wins battles, and Lee did not reproach his generals for erring on the side of initiative. Hill's over-eagerness was based on his concern for the commanding general's major plan. Where the new Light Division encountered trouble was in executing the part of the order which directed him to drive the enemy from Mechan­icsville.

When his brigades moved away from the river, his columns came under, as he said, "a murderous fire" from the Federal guns --- first

 

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from the two batteries retiring from Mechanicsville and then from mostly unseen batteries firing from the hill on the bank of Beaver Dam Creek. Having committed himself, Hill had no choice except to go forward. After the long strain of waiting, Hill, as well as his troops, was caught up in the action.

It was the first time Powell Hill had taken his new command of six brigades into battle and, a proud man, he was proud of the force he had named the "Light Division." Lithe and graceful in the sad­dle, he rode across with the first wave and surveyed the developing action. Hill was something of a dandy, with a variety of changes of dress, and once appeared in battle wearing a fireman-red hunting shirt. For battle he usually wore, as on that day, a simple gray flan­nel fatigue jacket and a black felt hat slouched forward on his fore­head to shade his eyes. He undoubtedly reflected his excitement. All the men were excited, and a strong sense of communication existed between the brigadiers and "Little Powell" - as his men called him in the only affectionate diminutive given a Confederate general.   -

Hill had developed a quick friendship with Charles Field, the stocky Kentuckian leading the first brigade across the bridges. Thirty-four-year-old Charlie Field was a good-humored man, quick to laughter, with a broad face which reflected aggressive resolution. One of Hill's three professionals, he was at that stage the best brig­adier in the division and one of the best in the army.

After Field crossed the Meadow Bridges the road bore north for a short distance along the Virginia Central tracks before it inter­sected another road that sliced sharply back to the southeast. After a narrow stretch through farm country, this road cut back to the northeast. About three quarters of a mile from Mechanicsville, this road intersected yet another --- the road from Half Sink that slanted southeastward into the village. As Field's brigade of something over two thousand men approached this elbow that led toward Mechan­icsville, the head of the column came under converging artillery fire. As the columns turned toward Mechanicsville, the regiments deployed off the road.

While the tight-faced troops began moving in battle lines over the plain, a Richmond gun battery galloped out on the field. Com-

 

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manded by the scholarly, bespectacled young Willie Pegram, the gunners drew a galling fire upon themselves as soon as their battery opened. This was the battery Major Brent had seen.

Ahead, the village of Mechanicsville was cleared of the enemy. Field swung his Virginia regiments to their left, directly facing the Federal position along Beaver Dam Creek about one mile away. On       his left, a Federal battery of six guns began playing over his lines, and Hill sent forward the South Carolina battery of David McIntosh (Pegram's brother-in-law) to attract the enemy gunners. At the same time Hill ordered Joseph R. Anderson's brigade to its left, moving by a different road than Field's, to take the enemy battery in reverse.

West Pointer Anderson, the progressive industrialist who owned the Tredegar Iron Works, was a good soldier. His untested Georgia regiments moved like veterans in their swing to take the destructive Federal battery in reverse. Anderson's brigade pushed north of the Old Church Road, toward Jackson's line of march.

After Anderson came the brigade of long-faced, long-bearded James Archer. A forty-five-year-old Marylander and Princeton graduate, Archer was a lawyer who had served in the Regular Army as captain. Not close to Hill, he was a capable soldier who had been transferred from a regiment in Hood's brigade to take command of Hatton's former brigade when Smith's division was dissolved after Lee took command. On crossing the bridge, Archer moved off the road in support of Field's left, drifting northward across the plain toward Anderson's right flank. Archer's brigade reached the south side of the Old Church Road, near where it was crossed by Beaver Dam Creek.

After Archer moved to Field's left, Dorsey Pender's brigade ad­vanced from the road across the open plateau to come up on Field's right. Though his recently formed brigade was another addition to the division, twenty-eight-year-old William Dorsey Pender, Hill's third professional, was the man closest to his heart. Pender's de­voutness made him a strange intimate for Hill, who was notably in­different to religion. A dark man and as intense as Hill, Pender was both ambitious and a headlong combat soldier. His close calls in action were the only secrets he kept from his wife, with whom he shared his deepest thoughts in extremely tender letters.

 

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Pender's brigade was formed partly of the remnants of the brigades of Pettigrew and Hampton, both of which had been cut up at Fair Oaks where Pettigrew had been wounded and captured and Hampton wounded. There had been some shuffling of regiments when Lee, to placate Davis, made an effort to brigade state regi­ments together. Believing in the policy no more than had John­ston, Lee entered a formal protest as a means of checking sudden upheavals in command structure, but conformed where he could in order to sustain his good relationship with the President. Thus Dorsey Pender, except for two battalions, commanded all North Carolina regiments from his native state. Pender's brigade passed to the east of deserted Mechanicsville, moving toward Fitz-John Por­ter's stronghold at Ellerson's Mill.

The last brigade, Maxcy Gregg's, followed the road to Mechan­icsville in support of Pender. Gregg, a wealthy South Carolina law­yer, planter and scholar, was the general next closest to Hill per­sonally. The forty-seven-year-old citizen-soldier held the passionate convictions of separatism which came to Powell Hill and the other professional soldiers only after the invasion.

His brigade was formed of equally fervid South Carolinians, mostly of privileged backgrounds; Gregg's original regiment had contained twenty-seven doctors and thirty lawyers. Gregg and his hot-bloods complemented one another, and zealous Maxcy Gregg had an aura of gallantry that made him in that June a little special among the untried generals from civilian life. With graying hair and pale, thoughtful eyes, he had a cheerful expression, and, when mounted at the head of his troops, he lacked only a lady's handker­chief on his sword (he was a bachelor) to appear the chevalier of ancient legend.

As Gregg's brigade moved toward Mechanicsville, the enemy's artillery fire was spraying the area with bursting shells and some solid shot. As neither Gregg nor his men had ever fought in a bat­tle before --- some of the soldiers watched in awe as a solid ball ricocheted through the ranks --- Hill sent them in reserve where they could take cover in a declivity.

By the time Gregg reached the field and the other four brigades were deployed, it was near five in the afternoon, past the hour when there could be any reasonable explanation for Jackson's continued

 

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absence. Momentarily expecting him, Hill's lead brigades became engaged with the enemy.

 

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Field and Archer had advanced across the plain between the Cold Harbor Road and the Old Church Road to the thickets on the edge of the slope down to Beaver Dam Creek. As the two lines of battle were carried forward in the momentum of advance, neither Archer nor Field moved toward the creek with the intent of forcing a crossi­ng. Expecting Jackson on their left, they were advancing toward the enemy on their front. In that innocent phase of gallantry in the war, it was their pride to advance with ordered lines to display to the enemy their fearlessness of him. When Field and Archer neared the slopes down to the creek, the fire from the Federal batteries grew so severe that the men were ordered to move down onto the hillside to get out of the range of the guns posted on the opposite crest.

In clambering through the thickets over the brow of the hill, the men did not know the terrain. The stream itself was no more than ten feet wide, but the briary slopes on both sides ended in sheer, slippery banks higher than a man's head. On the opposite slope, Porter's infantry was formed in tiers of rifle pits below the guns on the crest.

These were formed of two brigades, those of John F. Reynolds and Truman Seymour, of McCall's division, the last units to join McClellan. Well-trained troops containing a high quality of general officers --- including future army commander George Meade, whose brigade was in reserve --- these Pennsylvania reserves were no more battle-wise than Field's Virginians and the new regiments with Archer. The Confederates did not know who was shooting at them. They only knew they were safer in front of the enemy rifles than the artillery, and they could shoot back.

Off the open plain and in a line with the Federal infantry, their precarious perch on the slope forced Porter's guns to overshoot. Keeping their heads down, the men of the two Confederate bri­gades opened a ragged exchange with the enemy's rifles, and held

 

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their position, waiting for Jackson to come up on the enemy's flank.

Farther north, on the other side of the Old Church Road, Joseph Anderson had missed the Federal battery he had been sent to take in reverse. Showing his coolness, Anderson stretched his brigade toward the direction of Jackson's expected appearance. Using the cover of a heavy thicket, he got a regiment across the creek where its banks were less steep.

During this action, shortly after five o'clock, Jackson's approach seemed imminent. Around this time the skirmish line of Branch's liaison brigade appeared out of the brush on the road from the north. In Lee's General Orders, Hill was to move out when the columns of Branch and Jackson were "discovered." As the ground lay, Jackson's columns could not have been "discovered" by Hill at all. The wood-fringed banks of Beaver Dam Creek and belts of timber lay between Hill and Jackson's line of march, about three miles to the northeast of Anderson's position.

With three more hours of daylight, Jackson's arrival would give the army the reward of Hill's anticipation. He would have to come soon, as Hill's division was fighting alone on a front of almost two miles of open plain. Because of a neglect to provide pioneers and the necessary equipment for crossing over the destroyed bridges below Mechanicsville, no troops from D. H. Hill's or Longstreet's divisions had come to A. P. Hill's support.

Around the same time that Branch's advance skirmishers were seen, one brigade of D. H. Hill's division had completed a crossing by the footbridge. Ripley's brigade, which had joined D. H. Hill the day after Seven Pines, began to form in order as the men moved up the three-fourths-of-a-mile slope from the river to Mechanics­ville.

As soon as Ripley's brigade was over, General Lee left his ob­servation post behind the breastworks and rode across the river. In the battle litter around the village, Lee learned for the first time that A. P. Hill had attacked without waiting for Jackson. However, the appearance of Branch indicated that the Valley troops were at last at hand. While Lee was talking to Powell Hill, President Davis and a large entourage galloped up and halted nearby. Grim-looking Har-

 

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vey Hill had also crossed over and took yet another position near the crossroads village. The presence of these three groups around Mechanicsville seemed to bring confusion to the action.

Various accounts intended to clarify the action have only deep­ened the confusion. In the suspense of waiting for Jackson, no one seemed to know, then or since, who was giving orders or to what end.

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In reconstructions of the battle, a letter written thirty-five years after the war has been used as evidence of actual disobedience on the part of A. P. Hill. Captain T. W. Sydnor, of the 4th Virginia Cavalry and a native of the region, wrote that he had warned Lee the night before of the danger of quicksand south of the Old Church Road. This was in the area where Archer's Tennessee and Alabama troops were clinging for survival to the smoky slope of Beaver Dam Creek. As a result of this warning, Lee sent Sydnor with a verbal message to Hill, after Hill had crossed the Meadow Bridges, not to bring on a general attack. According to Sydnor, after the battle Lee asked Hill in Sydnor's presence if he had not received the message during the afternoon and Hill said he had. This account has been accepted in support of the charge that Hill brought on a general attack against Lee's wishes.

A number of items make Captain Sydnor's long memory suspect, fundamental among which is the fact that Hill did not deliver a general assault. In his report Hill wrote, "Their [the Federal] posi­tion along Beaver Dam Creek was too strong to be carried by direct assault without heavy loss, and expecting every moment to hear Jackson's guns on my left and in rear of the enemy, I forebore to order the storming of the lines."

Lee confirmed this. "Jackson being expected to pass Beaver Dam Creek above and turn the enemy's right, a direct attack was not made by Genl Hill."

Around four, when Sydnor's message was supposedly sent, Lee assumed Powell Hill was "driving the enemy from Mechanicsville" ---according to orders ---because Jackson was coming up. At that

 

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time he had no reason to warn Hill against making an assault. Even if Sydnor did deliver a message with the warning about quicksand on the Confederate left, no attack was made by Archer in that area. The only attack ordered against the Federal position was from the Confederate right, east of Mechanicsville, and this was after Lee came on the field. It was given by Lee, President Davis, and D. H. Hill. It was this order, to Ripley's brigade, that led to the much discussed slaughter at Ellerson's Mill, in the heart of Porter's stronghold where the Cold Harbor Road crossed the creek.

Ripley was ordered in to support Pender's brigade, whose two right regiments had been mangled in moving against the obstacles at the foot of the Cold Harbor Road. Dorsey Pender, advancing on the line of the Federal regiment retiring from Mechanicsville, had pushed forward rashly on his own initiative, and his sudden change of plan had divided his force and brought disorder to the regiments' movements.

Hill's report, protecting his friend Pender, was evasive. "Pender was ordered to support these brigades already engaged and to take position on the right of Field . . ." In the same paragraph in which he stated he forebore "to order a storming of the lines," he wrote, "The 38th North Carolina . . . and the 34th North Carolina . . . of Pender's brigade, made a gallant but abortive effort to force a crossing."

Pender, addressing his report to Hill, wrote, "I was ordered by you to support General Field . . . but soon found that, by taking the direction General Field was going, left his right much exposed to a heavy fire of artillery . . . This artillery I saw obliquely to the right and further down Beaver Dam Creek than I saw any troops going. I at once changed direction of two of my regiments, so as to bring them to the right of this artillery." Pender, manfully as­suming responsibility and not trying to minimize the consequences, then said he "succeeded in getting within 150 or 200 yards before we were opened upon, but when they did open upon us it was destructive . . . within less than 100 yards of the enemy's rifle­pits, [the 38th North Carolina] had to fall back."

The 34th North Carolina had swung too wide in getting into position, and did not come up until the 38th was reeling back. In-

 

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tense young Pender reacted personally to this repulse and deter­mined to silence that battery. He shifted the wobbly line of the 34th regiment farther to the right, across the Cold Harbor Road, to make, he said, "as much diversion as possible in that direction."

As no attack had been planned in the area where a hundred-yard millpond obstructed the line of advance, Pender's right flank was overlapped by Porter's left flank, strongly posted on the opposite bank of the creek. On the sharply rising hillside, Seymour's brigade fired from rifle pits, and the battery that plagued Pender was blast­ing away on the crest. But on Porter's left, this hill sloped away southward to the Chickahominy, and Pender formed the opinion that the Federal flank could be turned from the Confederate right.

It was at this juncture that Ripley rode into Mechanicsville ahead of his brigade, then forming for battle below the village, and here the confusion began. Roswell Ripley was a West Pointer from Ohio who, marrying into a Charleston family, had left the army and gone into business in Charleston. An opinionated man, Ripley was even more contumacious than D. H. Hill: where Hill respected some superiors, Ripley was against them all. His Georgia and North Carolina regiments had arrived on June 1, too late to participate in the Battle of Seven Pines, and the men were moving toward their first action.

About his orders at Mechanicsville, Ripley reported, "Upon com­municating with General A. P. Hill . . . it was arranged that my brigade was to cooperate . . . " with Pender in getting around the Federal battery commanding the Cold Harbor Road.

A. P. Hill reported that he had asked Ripley for help "in turning the enemy's left," and had said nothing about the battery.

General Lee wrote only that Ripley "at a late hour united with Pender, in an effort to turn the enemy's left." He also said nothing about the battery.

D. H. Hill reported that Pender had asked him directly for help from Ripley. He also said that he had received "several" messages from Lee and one from Davis to send in a brigade. As Ripley's was the only one across the river, he ordered it in to support Pender.

Ripley's troops had first formed in line of battle on the hill lead­ing from the Chickahominy to Mechanicsville. While he was mov­ing his lines forward to turn at right angles, he reported, "I re-­

 

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ceived orders to assault the enemy from General Lee and also from Major-General D. H. Hill, the latter of whom directed me to send two regiments to support General Pender, on my right, and attack the battery in front with the remainder of my force." Here nothing was said of turning the enemy's left.

In the confusion of these accounts the one certainty is that, Cap­tain Sydnor's 1897 letter to the contrary, A. P. Hill was the only general who had not ordered Ripley to assault. Of Lee's part in the orders, Colonel Marshall wrote, "General Lee thought that, if he halted in front of Beaver Dam Creek, General McClellan might accumulate on [Jackson]. . . . He therefore considered it best to allow the attack on the strong position to proceed, in order to pre­vent troops being moved from it against Jackson before communica­tion had been opened [with Jackson]."

In the orders showered upon Ripley in his first action, Lee's ob­jective, and possibly Powell Hill's, was a flank movement designed to pin down Federal troops in conjunction with Jackson's expected appearance. D. H. Hill, cooperating with Pender, held the limited objective of taking the Federal flank battery. President Davis, caught up in the spirit of battle as at Fair Oaks, seemed to have in mind no more than a support of Pender in a general advance on the right. Judging by Ripley's reports and his actions, his only pur­pose was to charge straight ahead, taking the batteries by as­sault.

Considering that Lee, Harvey Hill, Pender and Ripley had all been professional soldiers, the blindness with which the hastily formed assault force moved forward reflected the effects of the con­fusion on inexperienced generals. There was no controlling com­mand. Lee, expecting Jackson and unsettled by the long silence from the area of his approach, was trying to salvage the bad situation that had developed at the Federal stronghold --- a position he had designed his first day's assault to avoid. There was nothing that could be called a channel of command from him to Ripley and Pender through the two Hills.

Pender, whose impetuosity had brought on the attack in the Eller­son's Mill area, expected support from part of Ripley's command in renewing his assault while Ripley extended his other regiments to encircle the Federal flank. If Ripley had ever understood that his

 

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movement was to turn the enemy's flank, either he forgot it or the effect of leading troops in combat constricted the play of his facul­ties.

In the rush, nobody reconnoitered the ground to be crossed. Pend­er's earlier attack had been made on both sides of the Cold Harbor Road that ran for about one mile generally east from Mechanics­ville and then bent to the south along the banks of an abandoned millrace. Here it paralleled the creek before bending back to cross at Ellerson's Mill. In Pender's earlier attack, the troops on the stretch of the road paralleling the creek exposed their flank to the Federal infantry on the opposite hillside. Ripley's two right regiments, in forming to follow partly over Pender's course, shifted farther to the right of the road to pass beyond the stretch along the millrace.

In approaching Ellerson's Mill, Ripley's two regiments crossed the cultivated fields of the substantial Catlin farm, which spread from the road for about half a mile to a belt of timber. The timber marked the beginning of the rough slope down to the Chickahom­iny, and the covered slope offered the only approach to the Federal flank. Ripley’s battle line, composed of the 44th Georgia and 1st North Carolina, extended short of these woods, and no shift in alignment was made to take advantage of the cover.

Assertively self-confident Ripley, then thirty-nine, had seen no action since the Mexican War, when his boldness had won him two brevets for gallantry. Until he came to Richmond on June 1 he had been active with the organization of South Carolina troops, and evidently had not considered the changes made since the Mexican War. His lines swept past the grove around the Catlin farmhouse in splendid array, as if advancing against smoothbore cannons and muskets accurate at little more than sixty yards. D. H. Hill had gotten no guns over to support the infantry, and the Federal gun­ners on the opposite plateau took their time, without danger or in­terference, to direct shrapnel and large grapeshot on the orderly lines of men walking into their first fire.

Beyond the Catlin outbuildings the ground began a gradual slope toward the creek, and here the men came within range of rifles that fired better than 400 yards. Under this storm of lead the numbed men stumbled through hedges and scrambled over ditches, going on like automatons toward the fringe of woods bordering the creek at

 

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the bottom of the hill. Men dropped too fast for the lines to close up, and gaps appeared. Mounted field officers and line officers fell faster than the men. The colonels and lieutenant colonels went down wounded, two mortally. A major was killed outright, and eighteen captains and lieutenants fell, killed or wounded.

On the men plunged to the abatis around the millpond in the line of their advance. Ripley recognized the uselessness of trying to go any farther. As they would lose as many men going back as they had going in, he ordered the troops to take such cover as they could find and hug the ground.

On their left, Pender's 34th North Carolina Regiment also hud­dled along the ground. From their inadequate cover in the slow­-falling dusk, the survivors returned the fire as well as they could, chiefly to break the concentration of the rifle fire that had come at them during their advance.

Sometime before dark, around eight, D. H. Hill's first field bat­tery moved up to their support. Captain Rhett's South Carolina gun­ners mercifully brought relief from what Ripley called "the storm of shell and canister which had been poured upon" the infantry. Before dark a second battery came up, and under cover of the eight guns the men of the shattered regiments climbed out of their trap when night came.

With their withdrawal, though the guns kept growling at one an­other, Lee's first battle ended. The enemy was strongly entrenched in the position which Lee had expected to be evacuated at Jackson's approach. As far as anyone knew, the earth had swallowed up Jackson. Lee had one worry which he kept to himself: he had not reached the New Bridge crossing to connect with Magruder. Major Brent had been sound in advising Magruder not to expect the rest of the army to establish a connection with him that day.

 

6

 

Tactically, the first battle of the Seven Days was a Confederate failure from beginning to end. Having planned for the unfamiliar pieces of the complex machine to fall into place on an exact time­table, Lee had made no preparation to assume control of the ac­tion. It cannot accurately be said that his staff work was poor; it was

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nonexistent. No use was made of the staff to discover why the pieces were not coming together, even after Lee crossed the river. At the Battle of Mechanicsville Lee could be likened to a future genius at a stage before his powers of execution were sufficiently developed to express his concepts.

Lee's admirers have viewed him as the complete soldier and have tended to put the blame on Jackson and A. P. Hill. In turn, Jackson's admirers have tended to blame Lee and A. P. Hill. As no legend grew around Powell Hill, between the charges of the Lee and Jackson camps the impression has been allowed to stand that "impulsive Hill" attacked single-handed the Federal stronghold where Lee wished to avoid battle. Placing the onus on Hill would seem to minimize Jackson's failure to come up or communicate, and Lee's to take command when his overly ambitious orders were disrupted. The need of a scapegoat was caused by the unwillingness of the Confederates, any more than the Federals, to accept the fact that the enemy could contribute to the failure of an action. This became particularly true as the legends grew about Lee, and at Mechanics­ville the defenders overlooked one of the guilty parties, Fitz-John Porter.

After all, Hill was ordered to "drive the enemy from Mechanics­ville," and in doing this his troops were drawn into action against McCall's division on Beaver Dam Creek. As he was supposed to cross the Meadow Bridges when Branch was "discovered," and as Branch was discovered around five o'clock, Hill only anticipated the signal by two hours. No one has mentioned the point that if Hill had waited and obeyed the letter of the order, he would have moved across the Meadow Bridges around five o'clock, when Branch was "discovered."

As it was, had Jackson come up at all, Hill's anticipation would have salvaged the lateness of Jackson's arrival. Then A. P. Hill would have been praised for his initiative. He would also have been praised for his initiative had Porter withdrawn from Beaver Dam Creek at Jackson's approach. For Jackson was on Porter's flank and rear at five o'clock, but Porter failed to do his part according to Lee's plan.

Along with Porter's refusal to cooperate, the army was not ready for its assignment. Among Lee, Longstreet, D. H. Hill and Major Stevens some one was responsible for the failure to provide pio­-

 

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neers and equipment for the troops to cross the Chickahominy, where they had waited in position for eight hours. General Pendleton, chief of artillery, remained on the Williamsburg Road, and spent the greater part of the day making a reconnaissance of Huger's front. The larger portion of the cavalry, out screening the left of Jackson's march, did not advance ahead of him or Branch to clear the way of the enemy horsemen who delayed them all day.

In the action on the Mechanicsville plain, the breakdown in com­munication was complete. While no critic fails to mention that A. P. Hill crossed without advising Lee that he had not "discovered" Jackson, Hill's oversight was typical of the procedures in the army that day. Jackson and Branch, the liaison, remained out of contact with both Lee and Hill, and Lee allowed himself to become little more than an anxious spectator.

After the battle, D. H. Hill, the first Confederate general to mag­nify the action, directed his criticism at Lee. Harvey Hill had ap­parently disliked receiving all those orders from Lee, and one from Davis, and he was highly critical of the 575 casualties sustained in Ripley's brigade. "We were lavish of blood in those days," he wrote bitterly.

At Seven Pines, where nothing was accomplished, Hill lost 1100 men in Rodes's brigade and nearly 3000 of a 9000 man division, a loss of higher than 30 per cent. In the adjoining futilities at Fair Oaks, four brigades of Smith's division lost 1260 men and three of four general officers, for 15 per cent losses in a very short time. The 1350 Confederate losses at Mechanicsville (nearly half taken in Ripley's Napoleonic heroics) were distributed between Ripley's men and the five brigades brought onto the field by Hill. This con­stituted a bare 10 per cent casualties sustained by troops engaged for upwards of five hours. At Seven Pines, Harvey Hill's friend Johnston was in command.

About Mechanicsville, the deeply religious Hill permitted bias to color him to the extent that he reported, "The three batteries of Jones' battalion, of my division . . . drove the Yankee artillery off the field." All reports agreed that the Federal guns had been driven off the plain to the Federal side of Beaver Dam Creek before Ripley's brigade had moved out. Ripley reported that he had re­ceived no artillery support during his advance. Major Jones himself

 

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confirmed Ripley's report that Captain Rhett's battery brought the first of D. H. Hill's guns into action, engaging the enemy's artil­lery across Beaver Dam Creek at dusk. Jones reported that his other two batteries got across so late they went into bivouac at Mechanics­ville.

It was also Hill who wrote, "It was unfortunate for the Confed­erates that the crossing was begun before Jackson got in rear of Mechanicsville. The loss of that position would have necessitated the abandonment of the line of Beaver Dam Creek, as in fact it did, the next day." This if ignores the imponderables.

McClellan did not decide to abandon the position on Beaver Dam Creek until one o'clock the next morning. It is possible to assume that the assault, which placed troops 200 yards from his lines, in­fluenced his decision in his next move. In the realm of ifs, had the Confederates waited on the other side of the Chickahominy until Porter withdrew from Mechanicsville --- as Lee never planned --- logistics might very well have prevented Lee from catching Porter. The springing of the trap had been faulty, but the initiative had been seized and pressure was being exerted on McClellan.

The casualties must be weighed against the advantages of getting A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill and Longstreet across the river and onto the field by about ten o'clock that night. Three large divisions would be in position by daylight to initiate the originally planned pursuit when Jackson at last flanked Porter out of the stronghold. On that night, as the guns died away across the narrow front and the wounded were brought out, nobody was thinking of what future historians might say. The one question in the minds of the men was, "Where is Jackson?"