Johnston continued to retreat until he was literally under the spires of Richmond. On May 31 he finally made his move at Seven Pines. The flooded Chickahominy River had split the Union army, leaving two corps isolated south of the river, which Johnston planned to strike with nearly his entire force. While the plan was a good one, it was poorly executed. There was confusion in orders from the top down, unclear command relationships, and vague objectives. These problems, coupled with muddy roads and poor weather, led to a series of powerful but disjointed Confederate attacks.
Hill’s division drew the task of assaulting Casey’s Redoubt, the fortified lair of Maj. Gen. Silas Casey’s 6,000-man division. Through a confusion of orders Hill’s division attacked alone, with Rodes’s brigade leading the attack over flooded fields and swamps. Hill’s other brigades were slow to support him. The attack was extremely bloody one, but ultimately Rodes and the two supporting brigades routed Casey’s men – the most inexperienced in the Union army – and took a battery of artillery inside the redoubt. They pushed through the camp put came up against a second Union line, where they were pinned down. Robert Rodes was wounded during the attack, and his men were left exposed to enemy fire for hours before Hill finally allowed them to withdraw. Confederate attacks continued all day in other areas of the battlefield, generating heavy casualties but accomplishing little.
After being on the periphery of First Manassas and Williamsburg, Rodes’ brigade had ended up in the thick of things at Seven Pines. On the afternoon of June 1 Blackford somehow manged to telegraph his family:
My dear Mother,
By a most wonderful providence I am thus far preserved. 22 out of 56 of my men taken into the battle yesterday were shot down. 18 were shot within 3 quarters of an hour, leaving but a few alive around me. I did my duty, and so did every man I have. I had not one straggler a thing unprecedented in war, all stood by me to the last.
209 of our Regt. killed & wounded, 88 missing. I had 3 bullets thro’ my clothes, & one cut off my haversack –
The next day he followed up with a letter with the details.
…. at 11 A.M. we moved forward, and at 1 P.M. came upon the enemy’s works by a flank movement made thro’ a swamp 1½ miles broad, the water & mud of which was knee deep. The Yankees were unprepared for an attack here and the surprise was complete. As soon as we emerged from the swamp 1/2 of a mile in front of the Redoubt & camp they opened on us with canister & grape which caused us to lie down for a while. Here I took a prisoner a picket I suppose. I made him give his Enfield rifle & accoutrements to one of my men, and then started him at double quick for the rear, telling him that I would blow out his brains if he swerved an inch to the right or left. He was very grateful and soon entered our lines. I lost four men wounded here by shell.
Presently the word to charge came, and charge we did, thro’ the abatis and thro’ mud, when within 100 yds. of the works the enemy ran and we entered their camp & fort & immediately turned their guns upon them. While passing thro’ the heavy timber of the abatis, our whole left wing & 2 companies of the right became separated from us by some distance. I took command of the rest & led them up I formed them on the fort where soon afterwards the whole battalion joined us, the color was then in the hands of the fourth corpl. of the guard 3 had been shot down in the charge.
After staying in the redoubt about ½ an hour we formed outside & were again ordered to charge and here the great blunder was made. The enemy had good cover, from wh. they could not be driven nor was it desirable to do so. We went forward at the run & lay down within 30 yards of the Yankee line who opened a murderous fire upon us, which we were unable to return with good effect as they were behind logs & we were in an open field – while lying so a regt. of ours made a flank movement and occupied the edge of the cover in front so as to mask all the companies of the regiment except mine (the right) and the next on the left we were there exposed to a tremendous fire for nearly an hour, which killed and wounded 15 of the 47 men I then had by me. I could have put my hand on half a dozen as I lay who were killed or wounded. If one raised his hand even he received a ball so continuous was the discharge that the hiss of the balls over our heads was continuous the poor fellows when hit, would call on me, and upon receiving encouragement from me became perfectly quiet.
Not one man flinched under the terrible trial, save once, when a bullet having struck my haversack where the straps joins a man exclaimed The Capt. wounded? and a movement was commenced, but I called out and all became quiet again. I was perfectly calm under the fire, and prayed to God to avert the storm from me & my men. I had the utmost confidence that he would & I was preserved tho’ the collar of my coat received three bullets my haversack another. Finally the men on our left began to fall back, bidding my men be quiet I told them to wait until I heard the order, all said they wd. stand by me. To my joy I saw the Col. signal me, and off we started. We soon rallied behind the redoubt again. I left 10 wounded severely & 5 killed where we had lain! In the charge with enemy I obtained a fine sword, the blade is a beauty also the most complete haversack I ever saw tis the admiration of all.
Rodes’s brigade had performed well in its first real combat, but at enormous cost, losing 1100 of its 2200 men. The 6th Alabama was hardest hit with a staggering 60% loss with the 12th not far behind with 50%, including their colonel, Robert T. Jones. The 5th Alabama, while far from unscathed, was relatively lucky to lose only a third of its men—30 killed and 195 wounded (sixteen of whom died of their wounds). Of the regiment’s company commanders, only Blackford and two others remained unhurt.
It was a sobering introduction to the realities of war. Blackford closed his letter thusly:
I shall draw a veil forever over the events of Saturday—its horrors will be ever before me I fear. Much nonsense is written about battles and their excitement. I should not say it but our Regt has covered itself with glory. […] is due us. I saw none […] so well. Loss killed & wounded 209, missing 28. 550 only carried into battle.