The Battle of The Peninsula
The engagement at Turkey Creek was one of the severest the army has sustained, and the loss was heavy; but the James river was reached, and the army felt a ray of hope as the heavy booming of the Galena's guns echoed around them. During the night the army fell back across a peninsula to another bend of the river further down, and known as Malvern Hill, a slight imminence, will calculated for a desperate resistance and permanent position, but exposing the supplies below. Wagon trains, in the mean time, proceeded towards Harrison's Bar, some miles still further below, where the headquarters were to be stationed and supplies were ready to land.
But all the trains had not got away. The immense train of siege guns were still waiting a clear road, and on Tuesday General McClellan gave the command of the position and preparations for the defence to General F. J. Porter, than whom a cooler, braver officer and a more perfect gentleman does not live.
During the night and early in the morning the eminence and its slopes had been planted with artillery rising tier above tier with the heaviest guns, until nearly two hundred pieces were ready for the reception of any foe, desperate enough to approach. General Porter, himself an old artillery officer and instructor, took personal supervision of a batter of beautiful 92 pound rifled guns, the excedence of which does credit to our recent improvements in artillery warfare.
The force under General Porter were his own corps, General Morrell's and Syke's divisions, Colonel Hunt's reserve artillery of ninety-six pieces, including the heavy Connecticut artillery, which did such fearful execution at Yorktown; General Couch's division, General Meagner's Irish brigade, and General Sickles brigade kindly volunteered during the day by General Heintzelman to his brave companion in arms at just the right time, and when his experienced eye thought them of service. They were quite acceptable. Such little exchanges of courtesies on a battle field are appreciated when heat and toil have exhausted a brave band. One who looked on as General Porter advanced to receive the proffered aid stated to us that neither the General nor himself could suppress a trickling tear at the unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness of a General in whose corps he had served all along in front of Yorktown and until recently.
The force of General Porter was stationed with General Couch on the Quaker City road, at the extreme right, with General McCall on the left, and General Sykes' division of regulars in the centre.
Here again was the army which had engaged the enemy at Mechanicsville and Chickahominy face to face with nearly triple their number, as before. The enemy seemed in no haste to make the attack; in fact, he though it necessary to bring up all his available force before doing so. At ten o'clock, the enemy's line was found to extend in a half square; his right wing extending nearly to James river, and his left wing directly in front and facing the river in a parallel line, when he opened fire from an eighteen gun batter placed near our lines under cover of the woods.
It was immediately responded to, and at the same time the gunboats on the rivers swept out the line on the right, compelling the rebels to abandon their dead on the field. The action became general as soon as the position of the rebels and their approaches were fully discerned. As the battle progressed and the enemy advanced, the roar of the siege guns and heavy artillery was terrific beyond any language of description. Nearly fifty shells a minute were exploded above and amid the solid columns of the approaching enemy, and so continued during the day with no apparent cessation, and up to nine o'clock in the evening.
The determined manner in which the enemy pressed up showed that they had determined to make this a decisive battle, either to capture the Union army or drive it into the river. The rebels could depend less upon their artillery from lack of numbers and our better position, and, therefore, pressed column after column up in feverish haste, to see them break before the iron hail of our shot, and either fly precipitately or march rapidly out of danger.
All this time, and up to near one o'clock, our infantry were resting upon their arms and waiting the moment when the hardihood of continually advancing columns should render it necessary to merit them with the bayonet. It had been determined that very little musket ammunition, comparatively, should be expended, but that the enemy should rather be kept back at the point of the bayonet, under range of the artillery.
Colonel Hunt, in command of the artillery, hand his horse shot early in the day and mounted another, and personally directed the operations until a second was shot under him. At one o'clock the rebels came up in solid phalanxes and pressed forward towards the guns, supported by column after column as far as the eye could reach, and presenting one of the most fearful as well as interesting sights imaginable.
For some miles around, with the exception of a point on the left, the country is almost entirely cleared of forest, and one of the largest and most beautiful estates extend, over which the eye sweeps at pleasure.
The fearful havoc of the rapidly bursting shells from guns ranged so as to sweep any position far and near, and in any direction, was terrible to behold. The burning sun, which had poured down its terrible heat during the previous few days and up to noon had become over clouded and the day was comparatively cool. Still the dust and smoke partially concealed the dreadful carnage.
The enemy's guns were by no means without their effect on our side, and the dead and wounded were literally covering the field, while as the enemy advanced nearer and nearer, the old dwelling turned into a hospital and immediately under fire; still the surgeon and nurses, never flinched, and the stretchers and ambulances came in with their loads of wounded. As the enemy approached General Morell's division met them, received their distant fire, and, advancing, poured in volley after volley while the several pieces of artillery directed to this point threw canister and grape, and as it were, mowed them down by battalions. The enemy could not bear it, and our troops fought against a second relief of fresh troops in several instances and then charging, drove them from the field. Another column came up in front of General Sykes, when the regulars met them in a most admirable and determined manner. Perfectly disciplined, they obeyed each order with promptness and precision, and with as much coolness as if merely at dress parade with gloves and shining buttons.
Colonel Warren, commanding a division, made a most desperate charge, and was warmly complimented by Gen. Porter for his bravery and the efficiency of his men. At the right a most desperate effort was made to divide the army and penetrate to the hill over a rising sweep of ground, extending down in a less sloping manner and offering a better progress to troops advancing up the hill. But they sadly mistook this point of attack. Gen. Meagher, wounded though he was, was there with his brigade, and the boys only wanted to be let loose to send each successive approaching column skedaddling down the hill as fast as they could be filed into place and ordered to advance.
As the battle grew warm, Gen. Griffin, until recently in command of Griffin's battery — and the battle of Chickahominy was his first command — who had, during the idleness of the infantry, again taken his accustomed place directing one wing of the artillery, but seeing that the services of his brigade were needed, returned to his command, and at his first advance was met by ten regiments of rebels.
On the right the rebels were later in their approach, but when they advanced it was with a desperate attempt to turn the flank. General Couch's division had seen less service perhaps, than any other, and was fully prepared to received them, and the men were impatient to get into section.
They were gallantly led by Generals Howe, Abercrombie and Palmer, and held their own without a moment's flinching, until, when the day seemed to waver, they gave a new impetus to the fight, which seemed to extend along the whole line in a contest which lasted over an hour, when he drove the enemy from the field, his men climbing over the piles of dead as they advanced in the charge. His horse was shot from under him during the engagement. It was now approaching night, and the fortunes of the day had only wavered momentarily at times towards the rebels, and the fight was growing desperate. The troops were getting used to the smoke, dust and din of battle, and the roar of cannon and bursting of shells, more terrific than ever, seemed to have less effect upon the rebels. They pressed up with fearful determination, column after column of fresh troops, and the courage of the whole army was at its best.
Even the General-Commanding showed signs of apprehension for the result and the safety of the heavy siege train, so dreaded at Yorktown, and the other artillery and ammunition. But it was no time for faltering. Troops who had fought with courage, gallantly repulsing the enemy at every step for five days, must use desperation now.
The line of the enemy's attack was concentrating, and Gen. Porter rode in front of the army ordering the two wings of Morell and Sykes, and Crouch, to concentrate, and withdrawing Meagher placed him in a position on the left, to flank the approaching columns, with orders to charge at advantageous opportunities, and giving the same orders to Butterfield's brigade of Morell's division, and Col. Warren of Gen. Sykes', and to Gen. Abercrombie and Gen. Crouch's.
At this moment, Gen. Sickles' brigade came up proffered by Gen. Heintzelman, and was received by Gen. Porter, and conducted to a point a little neglected.
The engagement now became a scene of madness — a force of thirty thousand contending against fully three times their own number, plunging in with rapid charges and deafening shouts, and successfully driving them from the field. A brilliant charge of the New York Forty fourth, under Col. Rice, captured a secesh flag, with the motto "Seven Pines." Our troops were in no condition to follow the enemy beyond the rage of the artillery, and they contented themselves with leaving them at a range where the effect of the artillery was most terrible. The roar of musketry died away, and the engagement became an artillery contest, neither side attempting to advance.
The force formerly beaten by a mishap of a cavalry blunder at Chickahominy, had, in the battle of Malvern, successfully repulsed the rebels in every quarter. Our killed and wounded were numbered by thousands, and what the loss of the rebels was can be imagined.
As night closed in the firing gradually ceased until not an alarm gun was heard.
Detachments of each company were sent out to gather in the wounded and bury the dead, and, judging from the appearance of the field, nearly the whole of the army was out recognizing friends and members of their companies killed and wounded, and bringing them off.
The Union and rebel soldiers minglied promiscuously in the search and separation of those of either side, hardly noticing that a few minutes before they had been opposed to each other in deadly combat.
All the wagons, guns, and the immense siege train were safely removed to Harrison's Bar by Wednesday noon, and the army was set to work to recruit and organize.
At an early hour on Tuesday morning, Gen. McClellan went to Harrison's Bar to make arrangements for landing supplies, and at noon dined with Colonel Ingalls on board the Canonicus.
The scenes of the battle field are both touching and interesting.
While the engagement goes on and a man here and there falls, one wounded and another dead, the dead body is left lying in the position in which it fell, the soldier sometimes grasping his half loaded musket and ramrod, or loaded and aiming as if to again discharge it; another dying after a few minutes or an hours' consciousness, with hands clasped or any little keepsake lying upon his bosom, as if his last breath had been a prayer for the loved ones away.
The wounded, if their injuries are slight, are allowed to walk away, or, if more serious, one or two comrades lay down their arms and lead him off, until met by the stretcher-bearers, when they are laid upon the stretcher and taken to the ambulance in waiting in a protected spot, to take them to the place selected as a temporary hospital, where surgeons are in attendance to receive them.
Here, then, come the trying scenes. The physician discriminates between those mortally wounded and those who will probably live, and the operations are affecting in the extreme.
One mortally wounded soldier asks, "Doctor, what do you think of my case, is it dangerous?" With a feeling which brings tears to the eyes of men of the stoutest hearts, the Doctor replies, both for the surgeon and the spiritual adviser, that there is little or no hope, and the soldier closes his eyes for a few moments in despair, then rising, he looks earnestly for a sympathizing friend, and earnestly makes the same inquiry.
Major Barnum, of the Twelfth New York, was mortally wounded, and while lying breathing his last a friend asked him if he had any message, to which he replied, "Tell my wife that in my last thoughts were blended my wife, my boy and my flag." He asked of the physician how the battle went, and when told that it was favorable to us, he said "God bless the old flag—," and expired with the prayer finishing inaudibly with his closing lips. A braver officer never urged his men to gallantry.
I met one soldier with a ball through his leg and bleeding to death surely and rapidly.
"Oh," said he, "what will Mrs. Ellis and Jennie do? Poor William is dead — how his mother and sister loved him. And he would have enlisted if I had not. O dear, O dear!"
And beseeching me to take a message to them, said: "Poor Mrs. Ellis; poor me, I have no mother and sister to weep for me; I might as well fight those wicked rebels as not."
Another, shot through the lungs, clasped a locket to his breast and moved his lips till I put down my ear and listened for his last breath:
"You'll tell her, won't you?"
Tell who or where I could not ask, but the locket was the picture of one who might be wife, sweetheart or sister.
At one place apart from the rest men were carried to have legs and arms amputated. At three different times I saw parties of men carrying away the amputated limbs for burial. When the battle is over, details of men from regiments go over the field and pickup and recognize the bodies of the dead, carrying them to a convenient place, and laying them face to the enemy ready for burial.
The report that General Porter was wounded is incorrect. At one time during the engagement on Tuesday, while General Meagher's Irish brigade was coming up at double quick from one quarter and General Porter was advancing to receive them and conduct them to their position, the General's horse was mired, and threw him over his head, and happening to be in sight of the rebels, they cheered lustily.
A very interesting incident is told of Colonel Averill, of the Third Pennsylvania cavalry, while at the battle of Malvern. The Colonel had the conduct of the extreme rear all through the retreat, and while at Malvern he was accidentally left without any artillery to protect the rear and some hundreds of wagons. He immediately set about dividing his cavalry and maneuvering them like artillery, to give the appearance of its presence, and that Generals sending out orders, so completely deceived the enemy that they made no attempt to approach, and the wagons of ammunition were, all but twelve, safely brought off — these were burned.
Particular mention should be made of nearly every officer in the army, for not one passed without one and sometimes five or six engagements.
But to Gen. Morell, at Mechanicsville, Gen. McCall, Gens. Butterfield, Martindale and Griffin. Gen. Sykes, Col. Warren, commanding brigade in Sykes' division, too much praise cannot be given.
At the battle of Chickahominy the same officers and men were engaged and nobly conducted themselves, especially the regulars and reserve artillery, under command of Col. Hunt. The admirable manner in which they were posted served and maneuvered, and their rapid movements and coolness, waiting the advance of the enemy until in proper range, then pouring shot and shell upon them, went generally noted.
Gen. Sumner at the battle near Chickahominy, Gens. Sedgwick and Richardson, Gen. Couch, Gen. Meagher and the Irish brigade, and Gen. Sickles and the whole of Gen. Porter's corps, received equal praise.
I cannot do justice to the subject by particularizing for in fact every General in the army, their aids, and especially Captain Jackson, a son of the late J. P. Jackson, President of the New Jersey railroad, aid to General Franklin; Captain Locke, Adjutant to General Porter; Captains Kirkland and Mason, and Lieutenant Monteith, all aids to General Porter; every one did his duty, and the fighting of near a dozen severe battles, at which the enemy were repulsed every time, and the retreat before an overwhelming force to a place of safety and communication cannot be too highly praised. The retreat has been completely successful, and every way creditable to the army who are still ready and willing to do and die for the cause of the Union. NORWAY.