Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 15

by Dan O'Connell on December 26, 2012 · 0 comments

June 1st
One of the many that fell in the fighting on May 31st was Gen. Joseph Johnston. Ignoring pleas from staff officers he rode to the front to watch Whiting’s attack. He was struck in the right shoulder by a round and then knocked from his horse by the force of a nearby explosion. Command of the Confederate Army fell to MG Gustavus Smith. No sooner had he learned of his new authority than President Davis and his advisor Robert E. Lee arrived to get an assessment of the situation. Although Smith readily admits that he made a poor impression at the meeting the two men rode back to Richmond and left him to control the next days fight.

The armies did the best they could to solidify their positions in the darkness. COL Cross, of the 5th NH, attempted to reconnoiter his position at the railroad and nearly stumbled into tents belonging to the enemy. About 0100 Cross set out to investigate lights in front of his line. When he was stopped by a challenge from a picket of the 2nd Alabama. Wisely Cross identified himself as a wounded man from the 5th Texas and asked refuge by the fire. The picket allowed him on his way and he managed to make it back to his own regiment. Shortly after his return a man gathering firewood stumbled into his camp and was asked what regiment he belonged to. The answer of 5th Texas got him captured. “From this prisoner it was learned that the enemy was in large force in front with strong pickets on our right flank.” A quick adjustment was made to the line and a short action just at daybreak drove the skirmishers back adding seven additional prisoners.

The skirmishing activity in front of the 5th NH was indicative of Smith’s decision to continue the attack on the Federals south of the river. Smith’s plan dictated that Longstreet would continue down the Williamsburg road and then veer off to the north and unite with Whiting for a fight at the railroad. The decision to attack here was surely based on poor estimation of the situation. Smith was heading directly for the part of the Union line that was manned by the fresh troops of BG Israel Richardson and BG John Sedgwick who had crossed their divisions over the Grapevine Bridge to reinforce this portion of the line. Longstreet threw 6 brigades into the attack. Progress was agonizingly slow in the thick underbrush and visibility reduced to just yards. Nevertheless the assault moved forward until it struck the Union line at BG Oliver Howard’s 1st Brigade position*. The combat opened at extremely close range, between 30 and 50 yards. The “most violent firing began on both sides” and this time it was the poorly trained and inexperienced soldiers of MG Benjamin Huger’s Confederate brigade that broke under the pressure of their first combat. His troops “stampeded” to the rear and cowered under cover while MG D. H. Hill tried in vain to rally them. Whiting’s forces never managed to get into the fight in support of Longstreet and the attack stalled. Unable to gain any ground after five hours of confused attacks and counterattacks, Smith called off further efforts. About 1130 the guns on both sides went quiet and the Confederates began a retreat towards Richmond.

One of the most poorly commanded and executed battles of the war led to nothing but massive losses (at this point in the war these kind of casualty reports were considered staggering). GEN McClellan, who had exercised almost no command authority during the battle, wrote to his wife that “victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.” Johnston’s plan to wipe the southern shore of the Chickahominy clean of Federal forces was a complete failure. The plan actually produced the opposite effect. Reaction to Johnston’s move sent a flood of Union troops across the river and ultimately defeated him. At 1400 GEN Robert E. Lee arrived at the Hughes house and relieved Smith. The Army of Northern Virginia had a new commander.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)

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