Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 2

On the March (Left Column)
While the troops gathered McClellan remained at Alexandria to oversee the final details of the operation. No facet of the campaign was overlooked. Logistical support facilities were established at Fort Monroe, Cheeseman’s Creek, and Ship Point. An impressive engineer force complete with 160 Bateaux (wooden boats), canvas boats, portable trestles, and 30 wagons of assorted engineer tools was organized. An intelligence estimate of the enemy situation was formulated. Despite the best efforts of the men assigned to this detail their efforts (including a remarkably accurate estimate of Magruder’s strength supplied by a double deserter from Wool’s command) McClellan dismissed them as “vague and untrustworthy.” This lack of faith and McClellan’s tendency to increase these estimates without justification would play a large role in the campaign.

McClellan reported to Fort Monroe on 2 April with a promise that “the grass will not grow under my feet.” Good to his word the operation kicked off 36 hours later. At 0600 on 4 April two divisions of BG Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps departed Newport News on the Lee’s Mill Road. The lead division, under BG William F. Smith, marched unopposed until they reached Watt’s Creek when his “skirmishers frequently encountered the rebel pickets”. These pickets were driven back for about two miles when “the country opened and Young’s Mill appeared.” A reconnaissance of the Confederate defense revealed no heavy guns so Smith deployed three regiments of his 2nd Brigade to advance on the enemy works. After a brief exchange of fire that wounded one soldier of the 5th Vermont the Confederate forces retired. The Union troops occupied the abandoned works, established pickets of their own, and settled in for the night.

On 5 April Smith took up the march again but was slowed when “rain began about 7 o’clock and continued pouring in torrents making the roads well nigh impassable.” The struggle through the sodden landscape exhausted the troops and Smith called a short respite at Warwick Court House. After resuming the move the column traveled just a short distance when the “fortifications around and about Lee’s Mill’s came in sight.”

BG John Davidson, 3rd Brigade commander, deployed his men to face the challenge. The 7th Maine was sent forward as pickets while the 33rd New York, 77th New York, and 49th New York hastily formed a line to center the Union position. An artillery battle began in earnest with Wheeler’s Battery (1st Pennsylvania ) answering the Confederate guns. To get a better idea of what they were facing Davidson had an aide, LT Long, climb a tree and observe the enemy position. The young LT reported that two regiments of infantry were manuevering against the left flank of their position. The 49th New York was thrown back at “an obtuse angle” to counter the threat. These positions were maintained until 1900 when the Union troops fell back about a mile. The days activities cost Davidson 3 killed and 12 wounded. The pickets of the 7th Maine also suffered two losses. LT Swan of Co A and Bugler Brown of Co D were captured. Magruder reported 1killed, 4 wounded, 1 missing, and 2 deserters for the days encounter.

On the March (Right Column)
On the right flank of McClellan’s march up the peninsula the III Corps troops of BG Samuel Heitzelman moved west from Hampton on the Yorktown Road without opposition. They soon developed problems of another kind. The intelligence concerning the viability of the roads in the area was seriously flawed. When the rains came the roads turned to quagmires. BG Oliver Howard would later write of the campaign that the roads;

” …which on our arrival had been beautiful and smooth, without rut or stone, had become miry and treacherous…”

Additionally, Heitzelman reported that they were “embarassed by the want of guides and misled by unreliable maps.” Nevertheless, his Corps moved “to the front of the rebel batteries at Yorktown.” Around the 1000 Heitzelman’s artillery, the 10lb Parrots of 5th US Battery D, Battery C of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, and Battery C of the Massachusetts Light Artillery began to trade shots with the enemy gunners. The effectiveness of fire from both sides was questioned by LT Henry Kingsbury, of the 5th US Artillery who stated that because of “the extreme softness of the ground, many of the shells being deeply buried before exploding.” The cannonade continued until 1630 without pause. The guns of the Rhode Island battery expended 216 rounds of ammuntiton. The artillerymen of the US battery suffered 2 killed and 3 wounded in the exchange of fire. The Massachusetts Battery also reported the loss of 2 killed and 3 wounded. The Rhode Islanders reported that Private John E. Reynolds was wounded in the thigh and later died from complications of the amputation.

As the activity settled into a stationary fight the marksmen of the 1st US Sharpshooters went to work. The men of this command had been “confined to skirmishing and clearing the woods along the road” during the march. Now under the cover of the artillery fire COL Hiram Berdan’s men moved into protected positions in a peach orchard. According to Magruder, at a range of 600 yards they made it “dangerous for our men to expose their persons.” Berdan claimed hundreds of casualties created by the fire of his men while Magruder claimed 3 wounded and 5 horses killed. The effort cost Berdan 2 killed and 4 wounded. This sparring continued until sunset when darkness brought an end to operations.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)





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