Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 9

Moving Franklin
The fall of Yorktown gave McClellan the opportunity to initiate another portion of his overall strategy. BG William B. Franklin’s division, which had been disembarked were reloaded onto the boats for a cruise up the York River to West Point. This move was originally planned for the beginning of the campaign but McClellan was unable to gain the cooperation of the US Navy. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, preoccupied with the threat posed by the C.S.S. Virginia and the batteries covering the river at Yorktown, opted away from the move. Now with the Virginia a scuttled, burnt out hulk and Yorktown taken there was no reason not to support McClellan’s plan.

By depositing Franklin’s division men at this point McClellan hoped to cut off the Confederate retreat from the area. Again the execution of this plan proved more difficult than anticipated. The disembarkation of Franklin’s division created an important mission for LTC Alexander and his 50th New York Engineers. The shallow water at the landing sites made the transfer of troops, animals, and material from deep draft vessels necessary. Using available materials a 400 foot long improvised system of rafts, gangplanks, and mobile wharves was constructed that allowed “the main body of infantry (say 8,000 men)” to be landed in 3 hours. Further modifications allowed the landing of artillery, complete with horses. In his after action report Barnard could not help but make some fun at the officers of the other branches of service. When discussing the landing procedures he found “officers of great intelligence entertained very crude ideas on the subject” and left the matter for him to work out. As with the operations around Yorktown, engineer ingenuity made the implementation of the plan possible.

The landing was hardly a surprise to the defenders of the area and BG Franklin was well aware that his operations were being observed. In his report Franklin wrote that “the enemy’s cavalry and infantry were seen in the woods surrounding the plain upon which we landed.” He also understood the threat that they posed to his developing beach head. He realized that there was “something to be feared from the enemy.” His concerns were verified when skirmishing action during the night resulted in two prisoners being taken that confirmed the “enemy was in large force in our front.”

Indeed much of the retreating Confederate army was a short march away at Barnhamsville. MG Gustavus Smith’s reserve division of Confederate infantry was given the responsibility to protect the Confederate trains retreating from Yorktown. The appearance of transports and gunboats on the river alerted him to the possibility of action. Understanding the possible impact of fire from the gunboats, Smith decided to form a defensive line outside the range of their guns and attempt to contain the Union landing. However when it seemed like the Federals were not going to advance from the landing area (an illusion probably created by the difficulties of the landing) Smith opted to attack.

Eltham’s Landing
The appearance of the large number of transports and gunboats carrying Franklin’s men could hardly go unnoticed. Confederate cavalry scouts reported their presence to Johnston at Barhamville before the landings began. Johnston understood the potential threat posed by Franklin’s men to the passage of his supply trains. He dispatched MG Gustavus Smith to “prevent the enemy from advancing” beyond the beach head until the all important wagons had cleared the area. Smith conducted a personal reconnaissance and determined they could approach the enemy position along two avenues of approach. BG W. H. C. Whiting’s division was tasked with driving “the skirmishers from the dense woods and endeavor to get position in the open ground between the woods and the river.” From this location it was hoped that artillery could be brought up to engage the Union ships in the river.

To accomplish this mission the Texas Brigade, of BG John Bell Hood, would move north up the Barhamville Road with the detached infantry of Hampton’s Legion supported by the 19th Georgia on his right. In a seemingly odd weapons status decision Hood had his men moving to contact with unloaded rifles. Immediately upon entering the woods the Texans (1st, 4th, and 5th Texas) were engaged by the Union pickets and this decision nearly cost him his life. While arranging his men for the sweep through the trees a Union picket took aim at Hood. Fortunately one of his soldiers ( PVT John Deal of the 4th Texas) had disregarded the order to remain weapons clear and shot down the would be sniper. The rest of the Texans quickly loaded their weapons. Determined to drive the Federal line of BG John Newton’s brigade back. The skirmishing became an open gunfight in the thickly forested area. Despite the “gallant and obstinate resistance” of the 31st New York and 32nd New York the Federal line was pushed back. In about two hours of heavy skirmishing Hood’s men steadily advanced inflicting nearly 200 casualties on the Union defenders (the bulk suffered by the two NY regiments). In a comment that was echoed by other reports from these operations Newton would complain of “inhuman barbarities” being committed on “some of the wounded.”

When the skirmishing reached the edge of the woods the Union line was reinforced and the drive forward was stopped. An effort was made to bring the Federal fleet under artillery fire but the range proved too great for the Confederate guns. The Confederates withdrew and the Union troops reoccupied their previous positions. They made no effort to move forward until they were reunited with McClellan’s right wing on May 12th. The time spent in loading and transporting Franklin’s men nullified any advantage that might have been gained by their move. Once again delay doomed the Federal strategy to a status of “too little, too late.”

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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