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Robert E. Lee Takes Center Stage

By Tom Boeche
6/5/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

At Gaines’ Mill, Lee’s battlefield debut was a tactical triumph that Union General George McClellan turned into a strategic victory for the new Confederate commander.

Hot and humid—June 27th,1862,was a typically insufferable summer day along the Chickahominy River near Richmond,Virginia.

There,straddling the river just outside the Southern capital, a massive Union force of 90,000 lay in wait for the 54,000 Confederates commanded by General Robert E. Lee.But Lee,approaching only his third battle as Rebel commander, was gambling that he could fool his opponent and even the odds as he tried to avert a Union siege of Richmond. So far, his luck was holding. By making noisy demonstrations south of the Chickahominy with two divisions—those of Maj. Gens. John B. Magruder and Benjamin Huger—he had frightened Union Maj.Gen.George McClellan into tying up two-thirds of the Army of the Potomac as a precaution against attack.That had given Lee a numerical advantage as he marched toward the 27,000 troops of Union Maj.Gen. Fitz-John Porter positioned north of the river.

For three months McClellan had maneuvered toward Richmond as he methodically pushed the Rebels across the Virginia Peninsula in a series of battles at Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, Drewry’s Bluff, Hanover Court House and finally Seven Pines— where the cautious Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, had been severely wounded. Briefly, Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith had taken over, but he could not decide what to do next.Disgusted with Smith,Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided the best man for the job was his military adviser, Lee.

Right after taking command, Lee fought McClellan in an inconclusive battle at Oak Grove and then in a battle that proved to be a Union victory at Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville.Now they faced each other near Gaines’Mill.Lee knew the stakes were enormous for the Southern cause,its capital, and his future as commander.

McClellan had given his protégé, Fitz-John Porter, firm orders:“Now Fitz,you understand my views and the absolute necessity of holding the ground.” But over the past two days,the ground had shifted under Porter as he fought off the Rebels at Oak Grove and then Mechanicsville. By the 27th, the ground to hold was a large plateau called Turkey Hill that measured about one by two miles. On this large hill behind Boatswain’s Swamp and about a mile from Gaines’ Mill, McClellan’s chief engineer had laid out the Yankee defensive positions: curved lines made up of some 27,000 blue infantry running along the hill’s slopes.The divisions of Brig. Gens. George Morell and George Sykes were placed in the front line, while Brig.Gen.George McCall’s division formed a second line farther up the hill to the rear.

The Yankee infantry were backed up by more than 90 artillery pieces massed atop the plateau. Several batteries posted south of the Chickahominy also supported the Union left flank. One Federal captain,pleased with his unit’s position overlooking Boatswain’s Swamp,remarked,“We felt we could mow them [Confederates] down as they moved out.” Regardless, early in the morning Porter sent Brig. Gen. John G. Barnard, the chief engineer who had laid out the position, to ask McClellan for reinforcements and additional felling axes.

On the other side of the swamp, Lee’s opposing forces prepared for their attack—a plan based on the concrete intelligence from Maj.Gen.J.E.B.Stuart’s cavalry that revealed not only the isolated position of Porter’s V Corps on the north bank of the Chickahominy but also the fact that its right flank was flapping in the breeze. Lee had ordered Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall”Jackson and his “foot cavalry”back from the Shenandoah Valley to fall on that isolated Union right flank. He hoped to cut off McClellan from his base at White House on the Pamunkey River.But Jackson had arrived late at Beaver Dam Creek,and Porter now had moved east.

On June 27 the Confederates straggled onto the field throughout the day, eventually mustering six infantry divisions with around 54,000 troops. Maj. Gen.A.P. Hill’s Division was in the vanguard. Once the majority of its troops were up, the Confederates planned to launch a frontal attack on the main Union lines along Boatswain’s Swamp,while Stonewall hooked around the Union right flank.Maj.Gen.James Longstreet’s Division was to be held in reserve to the right and rear of Hill, available to exploit any breakthrough.

But there was a problem— Jackson had gotten lost and was marching his men down the wrong road.Meanwhile,the long lines of gray infantry stepped off and struggled to cross the steepbanked creek as sheets of lead and flame burst from the Union positions.Despite the difficult advance,the Confederates managed to hit the Yankees hard.“Hell itself seemed to break loose on our division,” said one Union soldier of the Rebel assault.

While Maj.Gen.D.H.Hill’s Division worked its way around to Porter’s flank, Jackson retraced his steps to get to the right road—a delay that cost him two hours.

A.P.Hill’s brigades foundered badly;many attackers never even reached the banks of Boatswain’s Creek before they were driven back.A Confederate officer described Hill’s beaten division as a “thin and irregular line of…troops…badly cut up and…wasting away from the heavy fire from the Federal lines.”

Hill lost more than 2,100 men and said of his shattered division, “These brave men had done all that any soldiers can do.”

With A.P.Hill’s Division bloodied and stymied, Lee next sent in Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Division as soon as it arrived on the field.Ewell’s three brigades groped their way through the heavy woods, undergrowth and the low-hanging battle smoke and hit the right-center of the Yankee line.

Stiff Union gunfire once again doused the advancing Rebels.The Louisiana Tiger brigade was thrown into the fray but had trouble even seeing its targets.“We fired only at the smoke of their guns,” said one Rebel. The Tigers’ assault was checked and then thrown back. Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble’s Brigade was the next unit to hit the Union defenses.They fell back, regrouped, advanced again and engaged in a stand-up firefight.Although Porter’s lines held firm, many of his units were worn down and low on ammunition, and they fell out of the firing line to rest and replenish their ammo.Porter filled the gaps with reserve units from the division of Brig. Gen. George A. McCall.

Around that time, McClellan— two miles south of the action— finally received Porter’s call for reinforcements.Although Porter had dispatched Chief Engineer Barnard to McClellan’s headquarters early that morning,McClellan did not receive Porter’s message until the afternoon. When McClellan finally did learn of Porter’s need for additional infantry, he sent Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s VI Corps division to the north bank of the Chickahominy.

As the columns of Union reinforcements made their way north of the river, Lee again struck Porter, using Longstreet to try to relieve the pressure on A.P.Hill’s battered ranks.Brig.Gen.George Pickett’s Brigade pitched into the left center of the Union line, but the Yankees threw back the attack as Slocum’s division arrived.

Porter had suffered significant losses,and late in the afternoon he telegraphed headquarters that he was “pressed hard” and feared being “driven from [his] position.”

The sun was setting when Stonewall Jackson’s legions began appearing on the field in the form of divisions commanded by Brig.Gens.W.H.C.Whiting and Charles Winder.Winder’s brigades under Colonels Samuel Fulkerson and Alfred Cunningham were detached to bolster Longstreet’s portion of the line. Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton’s Brigade and Winder’s own brigade deployed on the Rebel left center alongside Ewell.Whiting’s Division,consisting of brigades commanded by Colonel Evander Law and Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood, lined up behind A.P. Hill’s Division.

Finally,the Rebels now had a fully deployed line that both outnumbered and overlapped the Federal position.Determined to prevail,Lee launched a final assault around 7 p.m. On the Confederate left flank, D. H. Hill’s Division of five brigades advanced smartly toward the Yankee lines,but the woods and thickets of Boatswain’s Swamp soon wrecked the order of their lines.Exiting the woods, the Rebel formations faced several hundred yards of open ground sloping uphill toward the Union lines.Hill’s troops pressed forward on the attack, temporarily captured a Yankee battery, and put heavy pressure on the defenders.A Union private in Brig.Gen.George Sykes’Regular division said,“The air at this time was too full of lead for standing room.” Grudgingly, Sykes’ men began to give ground under the weight of the Rebel advance.

Brigadier General Lawton’s especially large brigade—some 3,500 strong—now went into action on Hill’s right,and the new wave of attacks by fresh Rebel troops put irresistible pressure on the Union right flank. Lawton’s troops “uttered that fiendish yell,” a Yankee Regular remembered,“and rushed toward us.”The exhausted Federal lines began to bend and break under the pressure of the gray tide. Lawton pushed his brigade on until they reached the crest of the hill,but as they became badly disorganized,he halted them to regroup. Fortunately, the Stonewall Brigade, as well as the brigades of Brig. Gens.Arnold Elzey and Isaac Trimble, soon joined him on the firing line.

On the Confederate right flank Longstreet’s men moved forward, trying their best to ignore the Union cannon fire from the batteries on the Chickahominy’s south bank.The Rebel lines ran into Boatswain’s Swamp,struggled through the undergrowth, climbed down the steep embankment and scrambled up the far bank toward the Yankee defenses.When they neared the summit the Confederates met what one Rebel infantryman called “a perfect storm of lead right in our faces.”

Lee had ordered Chase Whiting’s Division, some 4,000 infantry in Law and Hood’s brigades, to hit the Federal center. Under Lee’s orders,Whiting told his 4,000 infantry in Law and Hood’s brigades to hold their fire until they reached the enemy works.The Rebels fixed bayonets and double-quicked toward the Yankee lines. Hard-bitten infantry from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas let loose with the famed Rebel yell as the Federal lines wavered.The Union infantry, pressed hard for hours,short on ammunition and struggling with fouled muskets, finally gave way. Jubilant Rebels poured fire into the mass of retreating bluecoats.A Confederate soldier said,“It seemed as if every ball found a victim, so great was the slaughter.”

General Fitz-John Porter had posted Brig.Gen.Philip St. George Cooke’s cavalry on his left flank in a three-quarter-mile wide gap between Turkey Hill and the Chickahominy,instructing Cooke to watch over the Union left.The reserve consisted of two squadrons of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, three squadrons of the 6th Pennsylvania Lancers under Colonel Richard H. Rush,and two squadrons from the 1st U.S.Cavalry.Porter had told Cooke that if the opportunity arose, he should “strike the enemy on the plain.”The opportunity did arise,to the chagrin of the horsemen.

Whiting turned to his 250 troopers and gave the orders,“Trot! March!”As soon as the men and horses were fully underway he shouted,“Charge!”

Riding through their own guns,knocking down artillerists, spooking limber horses and generally creating havoc,the Union horse soldiers raced toward thousands of oncoming Confederate infantry fewer than 300 yards away.The Confederate infantry heard the horses galloping toward them “like the rumbling of distant thunder,”and they opened up a calm,deliberate, deadly fire. Rebel musketry shredded the horsemen. Nearly one quarter of the Yankee attackers fell, including six of the seven officers on the battlefield.Pushed back through their own artillery positions,disoriented Union cavalrymen and riderless mounts crashed into batteries, stampeding the artillery horses. After watching the chaos,Confederate Corporal Edmund Patterson offered his opinion about cavalry on the battlefield. He wrote,“When infantry are fighting, they should keep out of the way.”

The charge was over in minutes,bringing to a close the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. But the battle over Cooke’s charge would rage on for years.Fitz-John Porter blamed Cooke for the loss of many guns and the confusion that forced his army to quit the field in disorder. Porter wrote of the charge,“To this alone I always attributed the failure on our part longer to hold the battlefield and to bring off all of our guns, with few exceptions, in an orderly retreat.”In direct opposition to Porter’s assertions,Cooke claimed that his charge saved the artillery and made possible the somewhat orderly retreat that did occur.

Various other officers defended Cooke’s position. Union General Wesley Merritt castigated Cooke’s cavalry:“the audacity of its conduct at that time,together with the rapid firing of canister at short range…did much,if not everything,toward preventing the entire destruction of the Union army….”Lieutenant Colonel J.P. Martin, however, maintained,“It is my opinion that but for the charge of the 5th Cavalry on that day, the loss in the command of General Fitz-John Porter would have been immensely greater than it was; indeed, I believe that the charge, more than any other thing, was instrumental in saving that part of the army on the north bank of the Chickahominy.”

Confederates also thought the charge affected the battle’s outcome. Rebel General Evander Law credited the attack with buying badly needed time for the Yankees.“The diversion by the cavalry,”said Law,“did delay [the guns’] capture for the short period it took to repulse it, and gave time to the artillerists to save some of their guns.”

It is almost impossible to determine if the impetuous charge of the 5th U.S.Cavalry did more harm than good to the Union cause at the Battle of Gaines’Mill.The postwar feuding between Cooke and Porter could not answer the question conclusively. W.H.Hitchcock,a participant in the action,said,“We certainly did our whole duty, just as we were ordered.”

Gaines’Mill,the daylong slugging match fought without maneuver or finesse,would prove to be a small tactical victory for Lee that McClellan turned into a strategic one.McClellan had intended to consolidate his position along the James River to make it easier to supply his men and keep them under the protection of the Union Navy’s guns. Now losing heart, McClellan ordered a general retreat of his army, forsaking his plans to capture Richmond, to the great relief of Lee and the administration of President Jefferson Davis.

It would be three more years before the Union army would have that opportunity again.

 

Tom Boeche’s most recent contribution to America’s Civil War was an article on McClellan’s campaign in western Virginia.A native Nebraskan,he also has written for Strategy & Tactics and Fire & Movement magazines.

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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