Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 7

Attack Continued
The entry of Pickett’s men into the battle renewed the Confederate assault. The 18th Virginia and the 19th Virginia replaced the 10th Alabama and 19th Mississippi. These two regiments retired to reorganize and resupply. The 28th Virginia formed a reserve as the assault continued with fresh troops. The Confederate attack ran directly into a counter-attack that was being mounted by four New York regiments (70th,72nd,73rd and 74th). With “the enemy evidently re-enforced” a desperate struggled at close range raged with litlle progress being mad by either side. A turning point occured when the remaining New Jersey troops on the Federal left ran low on ammunition and fell back.

The left flank of the Union advance (70th New York) was now uncovered and received fire from two directions. As Pickett strengthened the attack there the New Yorkers were the only thing standing between the Sumner’s forces and complete disaster. Should they falter then the entire forward line of Union soldiers were threatened with destruction. Despite repeated calls from COL William Dwight badly needed reinforcements had not yet arrived so there was nothing to do but try and hold the line. CPT Willard of the 72nd New York arrived to announce what must have been perfectly clear to Dwight; that they were being flanked and taking fire from two directions. As he delivered the message he was shot and killed with a bullet through the brain. With every volley the ranks of COL Dwight’s regiment were horribly thinned. Dwight’s men held on; for three hours they withstood a horrible pounding as “the dead and wouded fell thick and fast” before being driven from the field. A very bitter COL Dwight would write in his report that he felt abandoned on the field. He felt that the 73rd and 74th New york regiments had reserves available in his rear he received “no practical aid from any regiment.” Their role in the Battle of Williamsburg would cost them more than half their strength, 22 of 33 officers were killed or wounded.

The Confederate leadership pressed their attack on the beleaguered New Yorkers. The battery of guns from the 1st US artillery were badly pressed without infantry support.The gunners fought to the end but the guns fell to the advancing Confederates. CPT Pelham of Stuart’s Horse artillery attempted to retrieve the captured pieces but all their horses were killed before they could accomplish the task. Eventually four pieces would be recovered. Both sides poured more forces into the fight. BG John Peck’s regiments (55th NY, 62nd NY, 102nd PA, 93rd PA. and 98th PA) restored order at this point of attack but elsewhere the Confederate advance continued. A line composed of the 9th Alabama and 28th Virginia entered the woods but were met with a withering fire. A steady stream of reinforcements was put into the fight and the Union line broke. The timely arrival of the 4th New York battery, entering the fray on a side road cut to bypass a mired forage train, finally stalled the Confederate advance. The exhausted 9th Alabama was relieved by the 2nd Florida but in the confusion of battle when the 9th retired the 2nd Florida followed. At the same time Kearny’s division of Federals arrived on the scene. Out of reserves and running short on ammunition the Confederates were beaten back. The fight in front of Fort Magruder reached a bloody standstill.

Hancock’s Flanking Column
While the fight raged at Fort Magruder BG Winfield S. Hancock and five regiments (5th WI, 49th PA, 6th ME, 7th, ME, and 33rd NY) and six guns of the 1st New York completed their march in search of the left flank of the Confederate line. They were surprised to find that a crossing of Cub Creek at an earthen dam was unguarded. The crossed the last major obstacle and were even more surprised to find the last two redoubts of the enemy works unoccupied. Hancock wasted no time in seizing the works and establishing a skirmish line with the 5th Wisconsin. The strong defensive line across a low ridge commanded the enemy position held by three companies of the 6th South Carolina, under LTC Steedman. Hancock dispatched a messengerto his division commander BG W. F. Smith to send the promised reinforcements because the situation promised success.

While Hancock waited the Confederate commander, COL Micah Jenkins, took stock of his resources. He had the Palmetto Sharpshooters, six companies of the 5th South Carolina, six companies of the 6th South Carolina, the 4th South Carolina Battalion and 5 guns from the Richmond Howitzers and Richmond Fayette Artillery. He did not have enough to resist a vigorous assault should the Federals attempt to make one. BG Stuart realizing the danger began to police up troops wherever he could find them. He forwarded a couple of sections of artillery, part of the 14th Alabama, and a portion of his cavalry brigade to strengthen the line. Fortunately for the Confederates here the Union reinforcements meant for Hancock had been recalled when the situation in the center looked dire. When informed of the decision not to reinforce the opportunity on the left, Hancock refused the order to withdraw. Instead he sent his engineer, LT Farquhar, to plead his case. To gain more time he also opened his guns on the nearest redoubt forcing it to be abandoned. Then Steedman’s position was forced to retire to Fort Magruder. When Farquhar did not return Hancock assumed that he would not be reinforced but maintained his position.

The Confederates had no trouble reinforcing the danger area. Longstreet released four brigades of MG D. H. Hill’s Division to go to the aid of the beleaguered left. The arrival of Hill reversed the tactical situation. Unsupported, Hancock was now in danger of being attacked by a superior force. The Confederates did not waste the chance to take advantage of their apparent numerical superiority. BG Jubal Early, the first to arrive with his brigade (24th VA, 38th VA, 23rd NC, and 5th NC) requested permission to assault a Union battery. Longstreet deferred to the overall army commander, GEN Joseph E. Johnston, who had arrived at the scene. Johnston authorized the attack as a means to gain more time for the removal of the trains. The attack began almost immediately after permission was granted.

Eagerness to join the fight spelled disaster for the attackers. No time had been spent investigating the ground to be covered. Shortly after stepping off the line became badly broken in the thick undergrowth and rutted terrain. The 38th Virginia failed to even get the order to advance. All sense of order was lost as the regiments stumbled through the forest in varying directions. The first to emerge was the 24th Virginia, led by Early. Seeing none of the other regiments Early decided to go it alone and moved forward against the guns. After the Virginians set off the 5th North Carolina also came out of the forest and were ordered to join the attack. Unfortunately their location left them about 900 yards of open ground to cover before they could fall in next to the 24th Virginia. It would be a trip that none of the survivors would ever forget.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *