Confederate mistakes allowed the Union army to escape.
Continuing McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign,
our selection from History of the War of Secession by Rossiter Johnson published in 1895. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Place: Eastern Virginia
On the morning of the 27th Porter had eighteen thousand infantry, two thousand five hundred artillerymen, and a small force of cavalry, with which to meet the attack of at least fifty-five thousand. Longstreet and the Hills had followed the retreat closely, but, warned by the experience of the day before, were not willing to attack until Jackson should join them. The fighting began about two o’clock in the afternoon, when A. P. Hill as sailed the center of Porter’s position, and in a two-hours’ struggle was driven back with heavy loss. Two attacks on the right met with no better success. The effect on the new troops that had been hurried up from the coast was complete demoralization. The Confederate General Whiting says in his report: “Men were leaving the field in every direction and in great disorder. Two regiments, one from South Carolina and one from Louisiana, were actually marching back from the fire. Men were skulking from the front in a shameful manner.”
But at length Jackson’s men arrived, and a determined effort was made on all parts of the line at once. Even then it seemed for a time as if victory might rest with the little army on the hills; and in all probability it would if they had had such entrenchments as the men afterward learned how to construct very quickly; but their breastworks were only such as could be made from hastily felled trees, a few rails, and heaps of knapsacks. The Confederates had the advantage of thick woods in which to form and advance. As they emerged and came on in heavy masses, with the Confederate yell, they were answered by the Union cheer. Volley responded to volley, guns were taken and retaken, and cannoneers that remained after the infantry supports retired were shot down; but it was not till sunset that the National line was fairly disrupted, at the left center, when the whole gave way and slowly retired. Two regiments were captured, and twenty-two guns fell into the hands of the enemy. In the night Porter crossed the river with his remaining force and destroyed the bridges.
This was called by the Confederates the Battle of the Chickahominy; but it takes its better-known name from two mills (Gaines’s) near the scene of action. The total National loss was six thousand men. The Confederate loss, never properly ascertained, was probably much larger. Some of the wounded lay on the field four days uncared for. This action is sometimes called the first battle of Cold Harbor. The armies under Grant and Lee fought on the same ground two years later.
Lee and Jackson believed that they had been fighting the whole of McClellan’s forces, and another mistake that they made secured the safety of that army. They took it for granted that the National commander, driven from his base at White House, would retreat down the peninsula, taking the same route by which he had come. Consequently they remained with their large force on the left bank of the Chickahominy, and even advanced some distance down the stream, which gave McClellan twenty-four hours of precious time to get through the swamp roads with his immense trains. He had five thousand loaded wagons, and two thousand five hundred head of cattle. General Casey’s division, in charge of the stores at White House, loaded all they could upon transports, and destroyed the remainder.
Trains of cars filled with supplies were put under full speed and rim off the tracks into the river. Hundreds of tons of ammunition and millions of rations were burned or otherwise destroyed. At the last moment Casey embarked his men, and with what he had been able to save steamed down the Parnunkey and York Rivers and up the James to the new base. At the close of along dispatch to the Secretary of War on the 28th General McClellan said: “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacriﬁce this army.”
When General Magruder, who had been left in the defenses of Richmond, found that the National army was retreating to the James, he moved out to attack it, and struck the rear-guard at Allen’s farm. His men made three assaults, and were three times repelled. Magruder complained that he lost a victory here because Lee had left him but thirteen thousand men.
The National troops fell back to Savage’s Station, where later in the day Magruder attacked them again. He had a riﬂed cannon mounted on a platform-car, with which he expected to do great execution. But there was an ample force to oppose him, and it stood unmoved by his successive charges. About sunset he advanced his whole line with a desperate rush in the face of a. continuous ﬁre of cannon and musketry; but it was of no avail, and half an hour later his own line was broken by a counter charge that closed the battle. He admitted a loss of four thou sand men. Sumner and Franklin, at a cost of three thousand, had thus maintained the approach to the single road through White Oak Swamp, by which they were to follow the body of the army that had already passed. But it was found necessary to burn another immense quantity of food and clothing that could not be removed, and to leave behind two thousand ﬁve hundred sick and wounded men.
Jackson, after spending a day in building bridges, crossed the Chickahominy, and attempted to follow McClellan’s rear-guard through White Oak Swamp; but when he got on the other side he found a necessary bridge destroyed and National batteries commanding its site, so that it was impossible for his forces to emerge from the swamp.
But meanwhile Hill and Longstreet had crossed the river farther up-stream, marched around the swamp, and struck the retreating army near Charles City Cross Roads on the 30th. There was terriﬁc ﬁghting all the afternoon. There were brave charges and bloody repulses, masses of men moving up steadily in the face of batteries that tore great gaps through them at every discharge, crossed bayonets, and clubbed muskets. Only on that part of the line held by McCall did the Confederates, with all their daring, succeed in breaking through. McCall, in his report, describes the successful charge: “A most determined charge was made on Randol’s battery by a full brigade, advancing in wedge shape, without order, but in perfect recklessness. Somewhat similar charges had been previously made on Cooper’s and Kern’s batteries by single regiments, without success, they having recoiled before the storm of canister hurled against them. A like result was anticipated by Randol’s battery, and the Fourth Regiment was requested not to ﬁre until the battery had done with them. Its gallant commander did not doubt his ability to repel the attack, and his guns did indeed mow down the advancing host; but still the gaps were closed, and the enemy came in upon a run to the very muzzles of his guns. It was a perfect torrent of men, and they were in his battery before the guns could be removed.” General McCall himself, endeavoring to rally his men at this point, was captured and carried off to Richmond. In Kearny’s front a similar charge was made three times; but every time a steady musketry ﬁre drove back the enemy that had closed up its gaps made by the artillery.
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