Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 11

At the River
The reconnaissance of the new Confederate line made it obvious that further movement toward Richmond would depend on successfully negotiating the obstacle presented by the Chickahominy. On May 20th BG John Banard, Chief Engineer for the Army of the Potomac, was ordered to conduct a personal reconnaissance of the area around Bottom’s Bridge to determine the requirements for bridging the river. He found that;

“The Chickahominy, considered as a military obstacle, consists of a stream of no great volume, a swamp, and bottom land. The stream flows through a belt of heavily timbered swamp, which averages 300 to 400 yards wide.”

“Although…the stream was no obstacle for infantry, the swamp and the bottom lands were impracticable to cavalry and artillery. It was necessary to provide bridges…”

He also found that the near bank was already occupied by Federal troops and that the Confederates seemed willing to concede passage of the river with “no serious resistance.” The Engineer Brigade was immediately ordered forward and began an intense period of construction to provide the required crossings.

Banard’s evaluation of the Confederate defense was not entirely accurate. The 4th Michigan Infantry and a squadron of the 2nd US Cavalry, escorting LT Bowen of the Topographical Engineers on a reconnaissance near New Bridge, engaged the 5th Louisiana and three companies of the 10th Georgia. The Confederates were pushed back with considerable loss (reported by the Confederate commanders as 18 K, 26 w, and 34 m). On the 23rd an effort by two regiments of Confederate infantry (8th and 9th Georgia) supported by two guns of the Wise Artillery and the 4th Virginia cavalry to reoccupy Mechanicsville was repulsed by Union forces after a brief skirmish. Other skirmishes were reported but nowhere was there a concerted defensive effort in front of the river.

While the crossings were being built several other important events took place. McClellan, disappointed with the performance at Williamsburg, reorganized his army. By shifting divisions away from the existing corps he formed two additional corps of two divisions. Not surprisingly command of these two new corps were given to his staunch supporters; BG William Franklin and BG Fitz John Porter.

On the 17th the I Corps troops of MG Irvin McDowell, which had initially been withheld from the operation, were ordered to link up with McClellan at the Pamunkey River via an overland route. A reconnaissance of the proposed route was done by the 6th PA Cavalry (Rush’s Lancers) on the 23rd. Rush’s report indicated that the area around Hanover Court House held an enemy force of “3,000 infantry, six pieces of cannon, and 300 cavalry.” This report led directly to the next major clash of the opposing forces.

Misconceptions, Miscalculations and Mistakes – The Battle of Hanover Court House
Rush’s report and other “intelligence that a very considerable force of the enemy was in the vicinity of Hanover Court House…thus threatening our communications…or to impede McDowell’s juncton” with the Army of the Potomac caused McClellan to act. Claiming that he was taking “every possible precaution against disaster” he dispatched newly appointed Corps commander BG Fitz John Porter to deal with the situation. Porter assigned his first division commander, BG George Morell, the task of clearing the Confederates from the expected path of the I Corps reinforcement.

On May 27th Morell advanced his troops with the 1st US Sharpshooters (Berdan’s) and the 25th NY in the lead. They struck the expected resistance at the Kinney Farm. The 25th NY deployed skirmishers with Companies B and C on the right of the road , Companies E and G on the left backed by F and K. The remainder of the regiment (A, D, H, I) formed a reserve. The advance moved toward the home of Dr. Thomas Kinney until they received “a heavy volley” from the Tar Heels of the 28th NC. The Confederate commander, COL James Lane, took the opportunity to attack the stunned enemy. He reported that the New Yorkers were “flushed like so much game” and driven back. The skirmishers were regrouped on the reserve where they held until the growing Union strength caused the Confederates to retire in some disorder. Nearly surrounded the troops of the 28th NC made a dash for safety. Many of the men exhausted from the march and the fight fell by the wayside to be captured.

Morell, believing that they had struck the main body of the enemy, moved the bulk of his force forward to support the attack. The badly shot up 25th NY was relieved and joined the 2nd ME at the crossroads of the New Bridge and Hanover Courthouse roads. Unfortunately, these units were left unsupported in front of the undiscovered main body of the Confederate force in the area. The immediate Confederate commander on the scene, COL Charles Lee, received a report from a cavalry captain that the force in front of him amounted to a “marauding party which might be captured by prompt action.” LTC Barber was sent with three companies of the 37th NC to accomplish the supposedly easy task. Barber found that the Federals at the crossroads represented a much larger force than expected and sent back a report. Undeterred Lee sent forward the remainder of his regiment and ordered the 12th NC to cover his right flank. Two guns of Latham’s Battery were brought up and opened a brisk fire on the Federal line. The barrage was maintained until counterbattery fire struck the caisson of one piece killing or wounding most of the crew. The disabled gun was removed and the rest of the action was conducted without artillery support.

With BG Lawrence Branch now on the scene the 18th NC was ordered to support the 37th. Just as the 44th NY moved into place to strengthen the defense at the crossroads the Confederate seized the initiative. The 18th NC attacked, “but the enemy’s force was much larger than had been supposed” and they were driven to cover. The attack was reinforced by the 37th NC. After negotiating undergrowth “so dense as to retard its progress” the 37th linked up with the 18th and the attack was rejoined. The attack struck the 25th NY and the 44th NY squarely as they were trying to form their line. The renewed assault drove the Union artillerymen from their guns. Caught in a crossfire the remaining members of the 25th NY collapsed and were followed into a new position in a ditch behind a fence line by the 44th. The rallied men held out there waiting for help. The heavy volume of fire behind him alerted BG Morell to the situation. He countermarched COL James McQuade’s 2nd Brigade to the aid of Martindale. The reinforcements (14th NY, 62nd PA, and 9th MA) returning from the faulty advance turned the tide. In the scramble to get away the Confederates lost 731 men captured (many from the retreat of the 28th NC) .The incomplete summary of other losses totaled 73K and 195W. The brunt of the battle for the Union was carried by the 25th NY, 44th NY and 2nd ME. They accounted for roughly half of the 365 Federal casualties.

The losses were accrued for nothing. Branch’s force had been grossly overestimated. It was not large enough to impede McDowell’s advance at any rate. They had been sent to Hanover Court House to guard the approaches to the Virginia Central Railroad. The path for McDowell’s advance no longer needed to be cleared as the order for him to operate in conjunction with McClellan was revoked. The rout of MG Nathaniel Banks by MG Thomas Jackson at the First Battle of Winchester forced the Lincoln Administration to recall McDowell for protection of the capital.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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