- 26 Jun 2020 14:11
June 27, Friday
Come dawn, only a Federal rearguard remains at Beaver Creek Dam to slow General Lee’s advance; the rest of Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter’s corps is marching four miles east to another sluggish little stream, called Boatswain’s Creek which affords an even more formidable defensive position. Marsh and fringes of pine trees border its steep banks. On the east side, the ground rises to form a crescent-shaped plateau. Porter deploys his entire V Corps—three divisions—on this high ground. Nearly 80 pieces of artillery are deployed along the crest of the ridge. Porter’s men hastily dig rifle pits and construct crude breastworks with felled trees and pillaged fence rails. Then around noon, they settle back to wait.
When General Lee discovers the Federal withdrawal early in the morning, he sends his four commands eastward in three roughly parallel columns with the aim of hitting Porter’s front and flank. To the north, Jackson and D.H. Hill will head for Old Cold Harbor, hoping again to get behind Porter’s right flank. Longstreet will drive along the north bank of the Chickahominy in support of A.P. Hill, who, in the center, will pursue Porter’s rear guard.
A.P. Hill’s lead brigade encounters the Federal rear guard around noon near a five-story gristmill called Gaines’s Mill—the name that will be applied to this day’s battle. After a sharp skirmish, the Federals fall back. A.P. Hill pushes on for a little less than a mile before reaching the crossroads at New Cold Harbor. There he finds two narrow roads that both, he soon discovers as he sends his skirmishers forward, lead for about 600 yards through open fields and fringes of pine trees down a slope to Boatswain’s Creek—and right into Porter’s new defense line. The resemblance to the previous day’s situation at Beaver Creek Dam is uncanny: Again the Confederates are occupying generally open ground exposed to the fire of an enemy entrenched on the slope of a ravine. Today, however, Lee, who is with A.P. Hill, knows that Longstreet will be coming up soon on his right, and that D.H. Hill and Jackson are expected momentarily at Old Cold Harbor, just a mile to the left.
At 2:30 pm, under the covering fire of his artillery, A.P. Hill starts sending his six brigades forward against the center of the Federal line. The lead units are exhausted from yesterday’s assault at Beaver Dam Creek and from the skirmish at Gaines’s Mill, to the point that some of the men had fallen asleep in a pine thicket with artillery shells falling around them. But when the order to attack comes they surge toward the fire-spitting Federal cannon on the plateau, the field seeming to erupt into “one living sheet of flame” across an uneven advance three-quarters of a mile wide. All semblance of coordination between the brigades vanishes as the men struggle blindly through the swamp and tangle of brushwood on the edge of Boatswain’s Creek, their view of the flanking units blocked by timber and billowing smoke. The Confederates actually succeed in closing with the waiting Federals and savage seesawing hand-to-hand combat breaks out even as more Confederate troops push forward. A little after 4 pm, A.P. Hill concludes that his “brave men have done all that any soldiers could do.” They have been fighting for more than an hour and a half without reinforcement. He orders his brigade commanders to break off contact where possible and rest their men until help arrives.
Longstreet has come up on Hill’s right, but Lee wants to delay his attack until Jackson gets into position on the far left. However, Jackson is late again. In the morning he took the wrong road and didn’t arrive at Old Cold Harbor until after 2 pm, with three divisions and a large brigade trailing somewhere behind. D.H. Hill’s division, under Jackson’s temporary command this day, has preceded him to Old Cold Harbor. Neither Jackson nor D.H. Hill are in communication with Lee, and it is about 4:30 pm before Jackson finally commits Hill’s division on the far left of the Confederate offensive. Hill then advances against his old West Point roommate, George Sykes. He drives straight south and crosses the swampy headwaters of Boatswain’s Creek. Several of his regiments fight their way through the tangled underbrush south of the swamp onto cleared ground, an open plain 400 yards wide separating them from the Federal line. The plain is being peppered by three batteries of Regular US artillery, and Hill orders his men to cross the clearing and seize the guns. The Confederates charge forward and momentarily capture the guns before being pushed back in fierce hand-to-hand fighting.
Meanwhile, in the Confederate center, A.P. Hill’s battered division has finally received some help. One of Stonewall Jackson’s trailing divisions, three brigades of hardened Valley veterans under Major General Richard Ewell, arrive on the field at about 4:30 pm and are sent by Lee to support Hill’s left. They cross a small swampy stream and a ravine to close within 50 yards of the Federal line before being forced to go to ground in combat so deafening that one soldier says afterward that the only way he could tell when he’d fired his musket was by the kick of the breech against his shoulder. The battle now extends all the way to the Confederate far right, where Longstreet’s men are locked in combat with Morell’s Federal division. Originally ordered by Lee to make a “diversion,” Longstreet on his own initiative has “determined to turn the feint into an attack” and sent four brigades charging forward. As in the case of Ewell’s assault, the Federal line holds firm. It is now past 5 pm, and Robert E. Lee is running out of time. He still has not been able to coordinate all his troops for a full-scale assault up and down the line. Presently, the principle reason for this failure, General Stonewall Jackson, comes riding down the road from Old Cold Harbor. Lee doesn’t bother to ask what Jackson has been doing all this time. He simply says, “Ah, General. I am very glad to see you. I had hoped to be with you before.” Having delivered this gentle rebuke, Lee explains over the heavy rattle of musketry in the background that he is preparing an all-out assault and wants to get the rest of Jackson’s forces into line.
While Jackson’s men are getting into line, Fitz-John Porter waits apprehensively at his headquarters atop the plateau. At about 6 pm he notes a sudden ominous silence—a sign of Lee’s preparations across the way. Porter has done a masterful job. His line is still unbroken, but it has been sorely tried. Ammunition is running low, and many of the Federals have been firing so long that their musket barrels are fouled. Worse, Porter has committed all his reserve forces and his lines are now desperately thin. Shortly before 5 pm, Porter had dispatched a messenger to McClellan’s headquarters asking for more reinforcements. Although McClellan has more than 60,000 man at his disposal, he relinquishes only two brigades—Magruder is putting up such a big show that McClellan’s corps commanders report they need every available man south of the Chickahominy to meet an expected attack. At 6:30 Porter notes that the silence along his battlefront has ended. Darkness is still at least two hours away, and the din of musketry has not only resumed but rises to a crescendo as heavy as any heard on the War’s battlefields. At last, after more than five hours of battle, Lee has all his troops in line. Never in the War have the Confederates concentrated so many men on a single battlefront—56,000 man against Porter’s 35,000.
The general assault begins at about 7 pm, though not all units advance simultaneously. Among the last to march into action is Whiting’s division, with brigades under Colonel Evander M. Law and Brigadier General John Bell Hood. Hood orders his men to hold their fire as they advance. He dismounts and personally leads his troops on over a slight crest where survivors of A.P. Hill’s assault are still holding out, and down the long slope toward Boatswain’s Creek into a hail of shells and musketry. On the near bank of a ravine, about 150 yards from the Federal line, Hood pauses to dress his lines. Here he gives the order to fix bayonets and charge at the double quick. Hood’s men surge across the swampy creek and up the slope, still without firing. They push onto the crest, just 10 yards from the New Jersey Brigade’s line in smoke so thick that it is impossible to see twenty yards. And here, for the first time, they open fire. At point-blank range a wall of lead slams into the Union soldiers, and the New Jersey Brigade shatters.
This is the breakthrough Lee has wanted. The Federal line begins to crumble. Porter’s left falls back, at first stubbornly and then in a state approaching panic. In the confusion on the plateau where Hood has broken through, the greater part of two Federal regiments are cut off and captured. As the Confederates pursue the broken Federal ranks, they run head on into artillery that has been massed behind Porter’s left. Wheel to wheel the Federal batteries blaze away with double charges of canister, but there is no stopping the Confederates this time. As the battery commanders struggle to get their cannon limbered up and off the field a squadron of Union cavalry charge through them and into the oncoming Confederates in a desperate attempt to save the guns, but at 40 yards’ range a Confederate volley sends horses and riders sprawling and the few troopers that reach the Federal line are killed. Six of seven officers and 150 of 250 enlisted men are killed or wounded, and the exultant Confederates following the demoralized survivors capture 14 of 18 guns.
A complete rout of Porter’s troops might have ensued, but for the exhaustion of the Confederate attackers, the rapid descent of darkness, and the arrival from the south of the two promised Union brigades. As the beaten Federals retreat across the Chickahominy this night, the tired and overwrought McClellan expresses his bitter disappointment in an extraordinary fashion. In a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, he reports the day’s events, then levels a stinging charge: “The Government has not sustained this army. If you do not now the game is lost.” He concludes: “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.” When this wire arrives in Washington, it so shocks the military supervisor of telegraphs that he censors the most offensive passages before handing the message to Stanton and on to President Lincoln on the morrow. Lincoln, however, in replying to what he has seen of the message, states, “Save your Army at all events.... If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price for the enemy not being in Washington.” The Secretary of War soon learns of the telegram’s complete contents, however. Not only has McClellan further alienated President Lincoln, but he has infuriated the powerful and vindictive Stanton. While McClellan is trying to fix the blame on his own government, Robert E. Lee sends a message to his President thanking God for the Confederate victory.
Lee’s first victory is costly. In the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Porter had, out of perhaps 36,000 for duty, 894 killed, 3,107 wounded, and a huge 2,836 missing or captured—a total of 6,837 casualties. However, out of the Confederate effectives of 57,000, casualties numbered around 8,750, among them many brigade and regimental commanders. But Lee has, at least, silenced his critics. Never again will anyone call him “Granny Lee” or suggest that he displays any “tenderness of blood.”
Late in the night, General McClellan calls a council of war. At 11 pm, when his five corps commanders have gathered before a big bonfire in front of his headquarters tent, the general informs them that the Army of the Potomac will abandon its entrenchments before Richmond and move south to a new position on the north bank of the James River. The announcement astounds McClellan’s officers. True, they are well aware that their chief has been shifting supplies southward for some time. The commanders recognize as well that a complete transfer of supplies is now crucial. Once Fitz-John Porter’s corps withdraws across the Chickahominy this night, there will be nothing to stop the Confederates from sweeping east along the north bank and severing the railroad supply line from White House Landing. That much makes sense, but what stuns many of those present is the announcement that the entire army will also move south to the James, there to seek sanctuary under the protection of a flotilla of Federal gunboats and to await hoped-for reinforcements from Washington.
McClellan is careful to label this movement of men and matériel a “change of base.” But that is merely a euphemism for retreat, a point not lost on the men in the ranks. When Generals Philip Kearny and Joseph Hooker, division commanders in Heintzelman’s II Corps, get wind of the decision this night, they rush to headquarters to protest. The fiery one-armed Kearny rebukes McClellan in such intemperate terms that one of his subordinates will express astonishment that he is not sacked on the spot. Instead of retreating, Kearny and Hooker want to attack Richmond. At this very moment, Federal pickets are less than four miles from the Confederate capital. With the arrival of Porter’s corps, the entire army will be concentrated for the first time south of the Chickahominy. The army can shift its supply base to the James, Kearny and Hooker argue, and still operate against Richmond from its present entrenchments.
But McClellan is rattled. Magruder’s noisy demonstrations south of the Chickahominy has only confirmed in McClellan’s mind erroneous intelligence estimates that Lee has at least 200,000 troops. The Federal commander believes that Lee’s attacks north of the Chickahominy this day are only jabs preparatory to a knockout blow that will come south of the river. McClellan has to save his army, for he is convinced that only his army can save the Union. McClellan can much more easily take his army to safety whence it has come—back down the Peninsula toward Yorktown. But there would be no way to avoid calling that a retreat. Moreover, establishing a base on the James, a score or so miles from the Confederate capital, leaves open the possibility of resuming the offensive against Richmond from the south.
At Vicksburg a mortar bombardment from the south continues and Federal troops begin the active phase of their canal digging on the Louisiana side, across from the threatened fortress.
Lost in the news of the day is a skirmish at Stewart’s Plantation, Arkansas. Down in Louisiana there are three days of Federal reconnaissance to the Amite River, with skirmishing.
One person not happy with the performance of Union General Ormsby Mitchel in central and eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama is his immediate superior, General Don Carlos Buell. Contrary to General Halleck’s optimistic prediction on June 12th, Buell’s march on Decatur has bogged down and he complains of the need to slow down to repair the railroad, especially the bridge that Mitchel ordered destroyed. The destroyed bridge prevents Buell from easily supplying his 31,000 troops on the march, but that is not the only impediment. Confederate guerrillas have wrecked rails and damaged rolling stock. Ordinarily the Tennessee River would serve as an avenue of supply, but hot, dry weather has so depleted the waterway and its tributaries that boats can’t reach Buell’s troops. But when Buell reaches Athens, Alabama, just north of Decatur, he thinks his worst problems will soon be over. He has ordered that a five-day supply of rations for his men be shipped to Athens from the Federal base at Nashville.
In northern Virginia John Pope assumes command of his new Union Army of Virginia. An impressive figure of a man—tall and burly, with a long beard—Pope is credited with fine work in the Federal victories at New Madrid and Island No. 10 along the Mississippi. He has been summoned east because he conspicuously possesses a quality McClellan seems to lack—zest for battle. His new army is to consist chiefly of the three corps strung out to the north and west of Richmond. Irvin McDowell’s corps has one division just across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg and another near Manassas Junction. The corps of Major Generals Nathaniel Banks and John Fremont are in the Shenandoah Valley between Winchester and Middletown. There is an unexpected consequence to Pope’s appointment. Fremont is so angered at the thought of serving under an officer who is junior to him that on June 17 he offered to resign his commission, and today President Lincoln accepts it. It is the end of the military trail for the controversial explorer, soldier, and politician. Fremont’s corps is given to Major General Franz Sigel, an exiled German revolutionary.
For the Confederacy, General Bragg assumes permanent command of the Department of the West. Bragg’s touchstone is discipline. During the fighting at Shiloh he had repeatedly ordered costly, unavailing charges; after the battle he blamed the Confederate defeat on “want of discipline and a want of officers. Universal suffrage, furloughs and whisky have ruined us.” At Corinth, when a Tennessee regiment found its one-year term of enlistment extended by the Confederate conscription act, the men agreed to continue in service but insisted on a brief leave to visit their homes. Bragg held the soldiers in their place by deploying a battery of artillery and threatening to open fire.
Not surprisingly, then, Bragg’s first order of business since replacing General Beauregard at Tupelo back on the 17th has been to whip his army into shape—literally. To be sure, the need for improvement is urgent. Bragg knows he can do little against the superior Federal forces to the north until his army—“the mob we have miscalled soldiers,” as he has condescendingly put it—is better trained, in good health, and of sound morale. But his rigorous discipline and training are imposed with a brutality that appalls his soldiers. In one example, a man who has been was absent without leave for ten days is forced to kneel, his head is shaved bald, he is whipped with a rawhide cord, and he is branded with the letter D on both hips. But for all its cruelty, such treatment has had the desired effect; another soldier will write that “there has been a marvelous change for the better in the condition, discipline and drill of the troops.” Bragg himself is pleased, and will write to his wife that the army has shown a marked improvement, “so that we are now in a high state of efficiency, health, and tone. We shall be on the move very soon.”
But first, of course, Bragg will have to decide where to go. Like Beauregard before him, he is under general instructions from the War Department to strike northward, to Nashville. But decisive action has never been easy for Bragg, and his deliberations on how to accomplish this objective will be made more complicated by Major General Edmund Kirby Smith over at Chattanooga.
The expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
—G. K. Chesterton