Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 13

Hill’s Attack
MG D. H. Hill’s independent decision to begin the attack started in ragged fashion. The hasty nature of the order left the brigades scrambling to get into battles order. BG Samuel Garland’s brigade (5th NC, 23rd NC, 24th VA, 38th VA, 2nd FL, and 2nd MS Bn) advanced with the 2nd Mississippi Battalion out front as skirmishers essentially unsupported. The attack designed for 22 brigades was starting off with only one as a result of the confusion on the roads. Fortunately they struck some of the rawest troops on BG Silas Casey’s Federal line.The 103rd Pennsylvania broke at the first volley and streamed back to the main line in a disorganized rout, although the commander MAJ Gazzam claimed that the “nature of the ground” was responsible for the confused retreat. Gazzam claimed that the marshy thickly wooded area made it “impossible to retire in order.” Garland’s men, still operating alone, pulled up in front of the Federal defense manned by the remainder of the 2nd Brigade troops (85th PA, 101st PA, and 96th NY) of BG Henry Wessells. As the only available targets they drew fire from all the Union guns. As they waited for the support of Rodes’ Brigade and Anderson’s Brigade Garland noted that “we were losing heavily.”

The arrival of Anderson’s Brigade (27th GA, 28th GA, 49th VA and 4th NC) overlapped the Union line and threatened a battery of Federal guns. MG Casey had ordered the battery forward about a quarter mile in front of the rifle pits to take advantage of the exposed flank of Garland’s attack. With the pressure now being applied by the arrival of Confederate reinforcements he ordered a counterattack to cover the removal of the artillery. BG Henry Naglee moved forward with three regiments of his own 1st Brigade (104th PA, 11th ME and 100th NY) and one regiment from the 3rd Brigade (92nd NY). The troops moved over a worm fence and were struck by a fierce fire from “in front and flank”. Losses mounted steadily and Naglee scrounged the rear for fresh troops. He sent the 55th NY of Couch’s Division forward. The New Yorkers “charged bayonets” but they could not turn the tide. At 1500 Naglee was forced to admit “that we could not hold our position much longer” and ordered a retreat.The Union attack fizzled and they were forced to join the the Federal guns (one gun was lost) in the move back.

The removal of the Federal guns allowed the newly arrived King William Artillery (VA) to play on the arriving Union reinforcements before shifting to counter battery fire. BG Robert Rodes Brigade (5th AL, 6th AL, 12th AL,12th MS, and 4th VA Heavy Artillery) joined the fray and targeted the Union redoubt holding six artillery pieces. Led by the 6th Alabama they attempted a frontal assault on the enemy position. The initial assault “fell like grass before the sythe”. Despite the heavy losses the attack was maintained until the brigade of BG Gabriel Rains (13th AL, 26th AL, 6th GA, and 23rd GA) came up on his right and the redoubt was overpowered. The retreating Federals left behind the artillery. An effort to spike the pieces was unsuccessful and the guns were taken intact. A brief attempt to retake the redoubt failed when the captured guns were turned and operated by the 4th VA Heavy Artillery (serving as infantry). Casey’s division no longer existed as an organized military body when the Union retreat reached BG Darius Couch’s secondary line of defense at Seven Pines. Reinforcements and supplies were rushed forward from MG Samuel Heintzelman’s III Corps. On the Confederate side Garland’s badly mauled brigade was pulled back for reorganization as fresh troops were deployed. The battle here died out for the night.

May 31st Fighting Continues
Hill’s attack stalled in front of the second line of Federal defenses. The intended flank attacks on the Union line never materialized and Hill again took matters into his own hands. He sent word to Longstreet that he needed “another brigade”. COL Micah Jenkins, leading BG R. H. Anderson’s brigade was sent forward. Jenkins “with a portion of this force” (6th SC and the Palmetto Sharpshooters) was sent to the far left in an effort to get into the enemy rear. The aggressive Jenkins rolled up two Pennsylvania regiments (23rd and 61st) and continued on. They were joined by the 5th SC and “our advance continued in this steady manner” to push the Union forces back until they reached the Williamsburg Road behind the main Federal line. The chance that they might be cut off was too much for the Union commanders and the line was abandoned, leaving the eighth artillery piece to fall into Confederate hands. This success came at a very high price. Jenkins lost more than a third of his force.

While Hill’s men carried the full weight of the battle, Longstreet struggled to untangle the mess he had made on the roads to the battlefield. About 1600 a messenger from Longstreet finally reached Johnston with a report of the battle. Longstreet bemoaned the lack of action on the left and MG G. W. Smith agreed stating that he felt “it seemed that no real attack was likely to be made” from that front. Johnston immediately set forth to rectify the situation. At 1600 he ordered BG W. H. C. Whiting, who was leading Smith’s division, to abandon their reserve role and assume the duties of forming the attack on the left. Whiting set three brigades in motion. COL Evander Law led the way down the Nine Mile Road with BG James Pettigrew’ s brigade behind and BG John B. Hood’s brigade on the right, or south of the road. They made rapid progress as the daylight failed and Johnston sensing success ordered “all troops move forward as fast as possible.” While gains continued to be made the cost was high. In four hours of fighting Whiting’s four brigades lost 1283 men.

Across the river the discounted chance of Union reinforcement was about to begin. In one of the rare moments of command initiative for the Union forces MG Edwin Sumner, reacting to the growing sound of battle, staged his men for a cross river advance. At 1430 he was authorized to release his divisions. BG John Sedgwick sent his division across the Chickahominy. BG Israel Richardson’s men attempted to follow but struggled at their bridge. The crossing became so bogged down by men wading “nearly up to their middles” on the partially submerged bridge that he redirected two brigades to the Grapevine Bridge.

Sedgwick’s men made an immediate impact on the battle. The 1st Minnesota fell in on the right of Couch’s beleaguered troops and helped to drive off “repeated and furious charges” of the enemy. The remainder of the division moved up and was joined by Richardson’s men in a line that ran parallel with the Richmond and York River RR and than turned north at a ninety degree angle along the road to the Chickahominy crossings. The fighting slowed as darkness settled but the stage was set for a renewed struggle at sunrise.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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