The Battles of the Peninsula.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
CAMP AT HARRISON'S BAR, ON THE
JAMES RIVER, July 4, 1862.
The events of the past week can only be correctly told by a compilation and comparison of the reports of all the men engaged in them, but careful observation and research have satisfied me of the general truth of the subscribed accounts of the movements of this army for the past seven days.
Facts show that General McClellan had men in formed of the intention of the rebels to attack his right flank with an overwhelming force, and that he set rapidly at work to prepare for their reception. After the abandonment of our line of communication on York river, the rebels appeared on the right flank of our army with a force of some eighty thousand men, made up of "Stonewall" Jackson's army from the Shenandoah Valley — forty thousand strong — which had come down by way of Hanover Court House, and fifty thousand men from Richmond, under Generals Hill and Longstreet, who crossed the Chickahominy at Mechanicsville. These forces joined at Mechanicsville.
About noon on Thursday the rebels took up their line of march, and were met by General McCall's division on the left and General Stoneman on the right, and the engagement soon became general. A mile and a half from Mechanicsville McCall had dug rifle pits and thrown up an entrenchment upon a hill commanding the line of approach. To this point our troops fell back, and opened a raking fire of shell, canister and grape with terrible effect upon the column of advancing rebels. From our protected position our loss was immaterial, while that of the enemy must have been enormous. Still they continued to approach confident in their overpowering numbers, and the terrific fire of artillery raged until eight o'clock in the evening.
While the right wing of the rebel army was approaching by this road, the left wing was coming down by the road further to the right, where Gen. Stoneman had met, and a skirmish between artillery and cavalry took place, but then Stoneman gradually fell back, not having a sufficient number of men to warrant an engagement. Gen. McCall had been reinforced by Gen. Morrell's division, and could have had the position against the enemy, but for the force to the right. On that account he fell back during the night to New Bridge, where a junction was formed with Gen. Sykes' force and Col. Hunt's reserve artillery, and the portion of the army which had been sent to Old Church was ordered to fall back, burning the bridges as it passed, and making ready for a warm contest. Gen. Stoneman was sent to conduct the retreat before the rebels, and to prevent the landing at White House from a surprize. How he did it has been previously told.
The portion of Gen. Porter's corps which had been stationed at Old Church was Gen. Butterfield's brigade, and the business of destroying the bridges and obstruction the passage of the rebels was given to the forty-fourth New York regiment, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Rice. The work was most effectually executed.
Before daybreak on Friday morning the army formed upon a circle of rolling ground and prepared itself for the approach of the enemy, Gen. Fitz John Porter commanding in person. At sunrise the enemy appeared, pressing down through the fields, along the road and through the open woods of the old camping ground and previous headquarters of Gen. McClellan. From their disposition it was evident that their numbers were overwhelming and that the whole force was engaged.
On the right, as the bridges were destroyed, Major Robertson's battery took up positions at each obstruction and severely annoyed the approaching columns of rebels until they came up to the main body of the army. The artillery engagement continued, growing more and more severe until eleven o'clock, when battalion after battalion of rebel infantry came up, pouring in volleys of musketry, but they were met by our men in a most determined manner. About noon Gen. Porter sent for reinforcemtns, and soon afterwards Gen. Solcum (of General Franklin's corps) came up and the scene of carnage grew more and more appalling. Some ninety, pieces of artillery, including the whole of Col. Hunt's reserve, and other batteries belonging to the different divisions, were in position, doing constant and deadly execution, while the rebels had been able to bring up only a few pieces.
At each relief the rebel forces it could be seen that fresh troops were engaged while on every side the different brigades were all pushed forward twice, and most of them three times, and still they flinched not nor gave an inch, but forced the enemy back at all points. Towards night it was plain that unless some unlooked-for event occurred the day would be ours notwithstanding the superior strength of the enemy; his force mustering full eighty thousand, while ours was less than thirty thousand, all told. At five o'clock Col. Cook's cavalry, impatient of inaction, advanced to the front without orders, and charged upon the enemy in the woods. They were met with a sweeping fire, and threw them into confusion, and they ran pell mell into our artillery park, frightening the horses, which broke and run, and a terrible scene ensued. This was at the centre, and come near proving badly disastrous, but the temporary advantage of the rebels was checked for a time, and the fortunes of the day were wavering — now favoring the rebels, and now witnessing their repulse by determined charges. At one time a superior force singled out General Griffin's brigade and advanced upon it. The General, who is an artillery officer, and knows how to wait, remained quiet until they came up to a proper range, when he fell upon them and drove them back precipitately to their position.
Gen. Morrill's division, with Gens. Martindale, Griffin and Butterfield's brigades, held the left; and Gen. McCall's division, with the brigades of Gens. Reynolds, Mead and Orde, were on the right. Gen. Sykes' division in the centre, and Slocum's division was held in reserve. As the engagement continued, the heavy pressure, on both flanks caused them to fall back gradually, and the enemy followed until near night fall, when our forces crossed the Chickahominy, the enemy not deeming it best to pursue.
The loss was heavy on both sides, but necessarily largest with the rebels, although nearly half the line and field officers of our forces were killed our wounded.
Among those killed are Col. Black, of the 62d Pennsylvania; Col. McLean, of the 83d, Col. Skilling, of the 14th New York; Col. Grove, of the 22d Massachusetts, Major Blitz, of the 12t New York; Major Russell, of the Regulars, and Major Neagle of the 33d Pennsylvania; while Col. Stockton, of the 16th Michigan, was wounded and taken prisoner. Lieut. Weld, of Gen. Porter's staff, was taken prisoner while conveying orders.
The courage with which the army fought and manly resistance made was largely owing to the bravery of our officers, Colonels and Generals. Among those who particularly distinguished themselves were Generals Porter, Morrell, Sykes, McCall, Martindale, Griffin, Butterfield and Slocum, and Colonels Black, McLean and Grove, and Lieut. Col. Rice; all of whom bravely cheered and encouraged the men amidst the greatest dangers, proving their just claim to the reputation of gallantry which has so long been accorded to General Porter's division.
Our artillery did terrible execution. At one time Captain Martin's battery, having fired all its grape and canister, the gunners were ordered to load with anything they could lay hands upon, and the result was that the rebels were treated to heavy showers of cobble stones, pebbles, bits of iron, knots of wood, pieces of iron rods, and the like, each volley scattering among the rebel ranks and sweeping away whole companies.
Thus closed one of the severest battles of the war, proving to our soldiers that they could stand their ground against fearful odds, and showing the rebels that overwhelming numbers are not all that is necessary for victory. The loss of either side is unknown as yet. The rebels admit a loss of 20,000 killed and wounded, a number equal to more than two-thirds of our whole force. We were compelled to leave our killed and wounded on the field, and lost sixteen guns, knapsacks, &c.
On Friday night the rebels opened a terrific fire of artillery upon Smith's division, near the Chickahominy, which was replied to in the same energetic manner b Capt. Ayres, Arnold's reserve, and other batteries of the division. Our whole army was then across the Chickahominy, and had suffered largely in the battles at Mechanicsville and on the Chickahominy, as well as from continual artillery and infantry skirmishes along the whole line for several days. Communication could not longer be kept open with White House, and the railroad and telegraph were destroyed on Saturday noon. The army was materially reduced in consequence of its long marches, by sickness, and wounded and killed, and had received no reinforcements, while it was never as large as it should have been. The rebel army had all concentrated at Richmond, accumulating a force more than double that of our own; in fact an army equal to our own had been sent to attack our right flank, and the rebels had still another of larger size in our front, entrenched and fully prepared to resist any direct attempt to fight our way into Richmond.
What then was to be done? To remain was to be entirely surrounded, cut off from supplies, and at the mercy of the enemy. To attempt to go to Richmond then was perilous, and to cross the Chickahominy was no better. Nothing was left them but to fall back to a new line of communication and supplies, and await the result of subsequent events. The army, after concentrating handsomely and successfully, was compelled to fall back entire, to preserve itself from overwhelming numbers, and open and preserve a communication by way of James river; and early on Saturday morning the train of ammunition, supplies and baggage wagons was ready to march, led off by Gen. Keyes' corps, consisting of Gen. Couch and Peck's divisions to protect the front and open the road. These forces were followed by the corps of Gen. F. J. Porter, and the whole proceeded towards the James river, at a location opposite City Point.
The supplies which could not be moved were destroyed, the cars and engines loaded and blown up or run into the Chickahominy. The sick and wounded too feeble to walk, and not far from one thousand in number, were left at the hospitals, and Dr. Joseph S. Smith with assistant surgeons, stewards and nurses were detailed to take care of them. Hospital stores and provisions were also left to supply their wants.
General Heintzelman's corps, consisting of Hooker's and Kearney's divisions, and General Smith's division of General Franklin's corps, were directed to protect the rear, while Colonel Averill, with the Third Pennsylvania cavalry and a battery of light artillery, maintained a position in the extreme rear. General Heintzelman took the Charles City road, General Smith the direct Oak Swamp road and McCall was afterwards placed on the extreme right.
On Saturday, before General Sumner's corps was fairly under way, the rebels came up to the Chickahominy and made the best of their way across, wading and constructing hasty rafts, and meeting no opposition until they had passed some two miles on the road, when they formed in line of battle and made a hurried and most desperate onslaught upon General Sedgewick's division of General Sumner's corps, when the division returned to the fight, supported by General Richardson's division, and showed the rebels that they too could dash rapidly upon the foe.
The first onslaught by General Meagher's Irish brigade resulted in the capture of four of the enemy's guns and two regiments of infantry. Gen. Meagher was slightly wounded. At this time the fight waxed warm, and both corps were engaged for some two hours fighting bravely and driving the enemy back over two miles. All the officers and troops behaved in the most excellent manner, especially Brigadier Generals Gorman, Dana, Meagher and Burns. Meagher's Irish brigade won great credit. Fearing and knowing the presence of much superior numbers, General Sumner ordered his army to retrace theirs steps hurriedly, leaving their killed and wounded on the field. General Sumner received a wound in his left arm.
From that time down to Tuesday night the retreat was characterized by a continuous succession of severe engagements, and the complete repulse of the enemy at every point; neither officers nor men taking food or rest, but untiringly attending to the duty of bringing back the army and equipments to a place of safety and a new and more advantageous base of operations.
General McClellan and his whole staff of Generals of corps (Porter, Franklin, Heintzelman, Keyes, Sumner, and others) were continually in the saddle, taking neither rest nor sleep, and guarding with faithful care each exposed or doubtful point.
The rebel army in front of Richmond commenced advancing in force on Saturday morning, and by noon pressed too heavily upon the rear of Gen. Smith's division, and a sharp artillery engagement ensued, lasting, with terrible severity until a late hour in the evening. On Saturday night the rear of the army had fallen back to White Oak swamps in the most perfect order.
Two gun of Amt's Gorman battery were lost during the afternoon, and four guns of Randall's batter, but all the pieces were disabled by blows from a sledge hammer, so as to be of no service to the enemy.
On Sunday the retreat was continued through White Oak Swamps, the enemy appearing with cavalry and light infantry, as if reconnoitering our movements, and light skirmishes occurred during the day.
Gen. Peck's ammunition train — formerly Casey's — became tangled in a cross road in the swamp and was blown up.
The train of General Porter's corps was compelled to cut a new road, and, passing along as rapidly as possible at one time found itself between the two lines of battle, but through the coolness and intrepidity of Captain Norton, Corps-Quartermaster, the teamsters were all kept from panic and safely brought through the dismal retreat; although Captain Norton had furnished the wagons with matches to set them on fire, and pistols to shoot the horses should it become necessary to abandon the train.
It was late in the night before the army had crossed White Oak bridge, and it was already on the road for Monday's march. The bridges were destroyed, and more than usual caution was exercised to keep perfect watch of the enemy and guard against any surprise, as the stillness of Sunday had led to suspicions.
It was early discovered what the plans of the rebels were and what their movements had been. They had employed all the previous day in getting a force as far around our right flank as possible and another to our left, intending to cut off the rear guard if possible. The attacks commenced simultaneously on the two wings and after a short pause, an overwhelming and determined force pressed up to the rear. Gen. Heintzelman's corps, on the Charles City road, received the enemy finely, and maintained their position without flinching, doing most destructive execution, repulsing the enemy and driving him back repeatedly.
No so with McCall. His division was far outnumbered by the enemy, and while finding that everything depended upon maintaining his position and beating back the enemy, to give ample time to the trains to get out of the way also maintain the even balance of affairs, he also fought to desperation. Finding the great responsibility resting upon his success, and choosing death rather than defeat, he rode to the extreme front, and in person gave orders and encouraged his men to more earnest efforts. General McCall was severely wounded, and during the momentary repulse the army was forced back and the wounded men taken prisoner.
General Seymour immediately succeeded to the command, and continued the fight until assistance enabled him to force back the enemy.
The division on Wednesday reported ready for duty only four hundred and seventy-two men!
In front General Smith sustained one of the severest artillery engagements of the campaign. At times the infantry were engaged, and once the enemy seemed to have the better of the day. All the horses of Mott's battery were killed, and the gun's left on the field for a short time in face of the enemy's charge, but the rebels were driven back and the guns recovered. Hancock's brigade and Brook's Vermont brigade behaved nobly. Gen. Brooks was wounded in the knee.
The fight continued all the afternoon, the wounded having been mostly saved and taken to Haxell's Landing, a point a few miles below, on a bend of the James river, when night closed the engagement.