Nearly 50 years after the fact, the legacy of the Battle of Seven Pines still caused one old Union veteran’s blood to boil. ‘No large body of troops engaged in the Civil War was treated with greater injustice than [Brig. Gen. Silas] Casey’s division of the 4th Army Corps, attached to the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular campaign…,’ wrote Corporal Luther S. Dickey, who as a member of the 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment of Casey’s division had fought at Seven Pines. ‘No battle of the Civil War has been more misrepresented than the battle of [Seven Pines]…yet, when the final word is written of the battles between the North and the South, the battle which occurred May 31, 1862, will head the list of the decisive contests of the Civil War, and the division which was made the scapegoat for the [fight] will receive credit for doing more to frustrate the plans of the Confederate commander than any other division engaged in the battle.’
As Dickey bemoaned, the Battle of Seven Pines is often viewed as a relatively small affair, fought by only a few thousand troops with no decisive results. That contest, however, was the first great battle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. No other battle was fought so close to the Confederate capital, and if Casey’s division had not fought as well as it did under the circumstances, or if the Confederate attack plan had not misfired, at least one or two corps of the Army of the Potomac would have been destroyed.
Casey’s division was in Maj. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes’ IV Corps, Army of the Potomac, and consisted of three brigades of infantry and one battalion of artillery. The 1st Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee, consisted of the 52nd and 104th Pennsylvania Infantry, the 56th and 100th New York Infantry regiments and the 11th Maine Infantry. The 2nd Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Wessells, contained the 85th, 101st and 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry regiments and the 96th New York. Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer led the regiments of the third and final brigade, the Empire State’s 81st, 85th, 92nd and 98th Infantry regiments. Colonel Guilford D. Bailey, one of the division’s few Regulars, was in charge of Casey’s artillery battalion. Bailey’s charges were four spanking-new New York batteries: A and H, 1st New York Light Artillery, and the 7th and 8th, New York Independent Light Artillery.
The 103rd Pennsylvania was representative of the caliber of troops in the division. In the fall of 1861, the regiment was assembled several miles northeast of Pittsburgh near the hamlet of Kittanning. It consisted of 10 companies of infantry whose men were recruited from mountainous western Pennsylvania counties. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lehman of the 62nd Pennsylvania, a unit that had been raised a few months before, became the colonel of the regiment. In late February, the regiment entrained for Harrisburg, the state capital, where it received its numeric designation and its colors, equipment and uniforms. On March 2, the 103rd moved out for Washington and Camp Lloyd, where they received the pitiful remnants of the Army’s weapons, including aged Austrian muskets that proved to be bulky and inaccurate.
Casey was in charge of Camp Lloyd and was one of the most seasoned officers from the Old Army. The 54-year-old Rhode Islander and West Point graduate was a decorated veteran of both the Seminole and Mexican wars, and in 1855 was given command of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment. When the Civil War broke out, Casey was a colonel and one of the most senior officers in the Army. Yet other officers of lesser experience and ability were promoted before him. When Casey finally did receive his star, on the last day of August 1861, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan delegated to him the Olympian task of establishing several’schools of the soldier’ to train the incoming recruits. Casey had published a well-received infantry drill manual before the war, and he was the logical choice to organize such a system.
Casey’s important work, however, seemed to go unnoticed. When Lincoln chose the four corps commanders for McClellan’s newly constituted Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1862, Casey remained in charge of the training camp that indoctrinated new troops, like the men from the recently arrived 103rd Pennsylvania. It was not until March 13 that General McClellan finally issued orders for the men currently under Casey’s care to be formally organized into a division and be readied for immediate movement to the field. On March 28, the ‘rawest troops of the army,’ as described by Corporal Dickey, marched out of their training camp. They were, according to one veteran, ‘jubilant and light hearted’ as they marched toward Alexandria. Since they started late in the day, it was not until well after midnight that the volunteers reached their prescribed destination. As they bedded down for the night, they had to endure a snowstorm, and many became sick from exposure.
On March 31, the division shipped out for Fortress Monroe, Va., at the eastern tip of the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers, landing on April 3. There it was directed to march west about six miles, a little beyond Newport News, where it established Camp Casey.
On April 16, camp was broken, and the division started its march up the peninsula. After a few days, Confederates dug in along the Warwick River stopped the advance cold. The strong line of earthworks was anchored on Yorktown and was known as the Yorktown Line. Over the next few weeks, as McClellan carefully marshaled his forces to disperse the Southerners, the men of Casey’s division were ordered to dig trenches and cut timber with inadequate tools, practice drill and engage in patrolling activities. In doing so they got into a few scattered skirmishes with the enemy. In a bit of bright news, the men did receive new shelter tents on April 18.
On the night of May 3 the Confederates abandoned the Yorktown Line and fell back toward Richmond. The next day Casey was directed to form up his men with only their arms and minimal equipment and move out in pursuit of the Rebels. The decision to leave the tents behind would soon plague the division. After crossing the abandoned enemy works, Casey’s tentless men, who also lacked overcoats and blankets, pushed on another seven miles and camped in a heavy rain. One veteran of that march, Captain John Donaghy of the 103rd Pennsylvania, remembered the especially harrowing experience: ‘It rained hard all night and the air was cold and the men were without tents, blankets or overcoats. Tired and sleepy as they were, they could only stand and take the rain. They leaned against trees or crowded together in large groups to keep warm. When they stood thus for awhile some would fall asleep supported on their feet by the others. When the majority of them were overcome by sleep the whole mass would lurch over and fall to the ground, only to gather themselves to renew the process.’ The next morning Casey wanted to send back for the packs and equipment, worrying that he had ‘lost a great many…men from that exposure, as they were obliged to lie down in the mud, exposed to the rain, without any protection whatever.’ But Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner of the II Corps, McClellan’s left wing commander, overruled the division commander. Casey’s troops were ordered to continue pursuing the enemy.
On May 5, a rainy overcast day, the Federals bumped into the next Southern line, a series of redoubts east of Williamsburg that were anchored on Fort Magruder. A sharp one-day battle ensued, during which elements of the III and VI corps engaged a Confederate rear guard. Casey’s division, however, remained in reserve.
After the Confederates retreated the evening of May 5, the Union army continued to move up the peninsula, but at a very slow pace while McClellan brought up the forces he believed were needed to totally overwhelm the enemy. In the meantime, Casey’s soggy soldiers continued to suffer increased illness from their lack of shelter.
By the evening of May 17, Casey’s division was camped at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River. There the men were finally reunited with their packs and were able to rest for two days. From White House, Casey’s division, the smallest and greenest of McClellan’s vast arsenal, was inexplicably ordered to lead the army’s advance on Richmond. On May 20, after a small clash with the Confederate rear guard, it reached the Chickahominy River at Bottom’s Bridge. The span had been partially destroyed, but Casey’s soldiers were able to repair it and cross over. Likewise, the Confederates had set afire the upstream railroad bridge, but the flames were extinguished, and some of the bluecoats used that span to cross the rain-swollen river. On May 25 Keyes’ corps advanced several miles along the Williamsburg Stage Road, which led to Richmond, to a defensible position a mile east of a crossroads called Seven Pines and dug in. That same day the two divisions of Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps took up positions two miles west of the Chickahominy and Heintzelman was given command of the Federal troops south of the river. On May 28, McClellan ordered Keyes to advance again, this time to hold Seven Pines in force. In accordance, Casey’s green troops marched to an advance position three-quarters of a mile west of the crossroads, while the IV Corps’ other division, Brig. Gen. Darius N. Couch’s, occupied Seven Pines.
Having established his troops in a large field that surrounded two identical houses, Casey deployed a picket line that covered the Williamsburg Stage Road. The ‘Twin Houses,’ as they were called, were situated 135 yards south of the road, in line with each other. The surrounding land had been under cultivation, and the open space extended west about 800 yards to a swampy forest filled with tangled undergrowth. While Casey’s pickets were posted near the foreboding woods, the Confederates of Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill’s division waited patiently about 200 yards farther west, concealed by the dense growth.
As soon as his brigades reached their assigned positions, Casey ordered fatigue details to begin at once to fortify the exposed position. His exhausted men erected an earthen redoubt, called Fort Casey, flanked by trenches that stretched out into the thick woods. He next had the men slash timber for two rows of abatis, one to their front, running parallel to the western wood line, and the other about 500 yards behind the fort.
Casey, meanwhile, protested his assigned position to Keyes. Five of the enemy’s seven known divisions were just a stone’s throw away, and most of the rest of the Federal army was deployed several miles to the north, safely behind the Chickahominy. The only other Union troops on the south side of the river were Couch’s division and Brig. Gens. Philip Kearny’s and Joseph Hooker’s divisions of the III Corps. If the Confederates attacked, Casey’s brigades, with their flanks in the air, could not possibly stop them.
On the morning of May 29, the 23rd North Carolina Infantry of Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland’s brigade probed Casey’s pickets. Taking advantage of a heavy fog, they drove the startled Federals back through the woods to the unfinished abatis. Once the Yankees had re-formed, they counterattacked and drove back the Carolinians.
The next day around noon, as the men of the division felled timber, dug trenches and cut firewood, the 23rd North Carolina once again reconnoitered in force and drove the Federal pickets back to the abatis. This time Casey put his entire division on alert while Colonel Bailey’s guns shelled the woods. Casey next sent the 100th New York forward to support the outposts and re-establish the picket line.
To this point in the campaign, Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston and President Jefferson Davis had been feuding about how the campaign should be conducted. Johnston had resented Davis’ insistence that he hold and fight at Yorktown and Williamsburg. Davis resented the fact that Johnston had allowed the invading Federal army to get to within seven miles of the Southern capital. But when the 23rd North Carolina’s probes revealed the presence of the IV Corps near Seven Pines, Davis and Johnston finally came to terms. Casey’s exposed men would reap the full fury of the Confederates’ first offensive of the Peninsula campaign.
Johnston’s hastily devised, ambitious plan was to crush Keyes’ corps quickly, while it was isolated from the rest of the Army of the Potomac by the Chickahominy. (The Confederate commander was evidently unaware that the III Corps had also crossed the river.) Harvey Hill’s four brigades, supported by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s division, were to advance along Williamsburg Stage Road and attack the enemy’s front.
At the same time, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger’s division was to march via the Charles City Road to the south and hit the enemy’s left flank,and Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith’s division, temporarily led by Brig. Gen. William H.C. Whiting, was to fall on the enemy’s right flank. Meanwhile the rest of Johnston’s army would remain on the defensive.
At dawn on May 31, 1862, the day of Johnston’s grand attack, the already worn-out men of Casey’s division were drenched once again. A horrendous rainstorm the night before had flooded trenches and campsites. One soldier remembered that ‘the unfinished rifle pits were filled, and every depression in the roads and elsewhere had become tiny lakes.’ Although his troops were hungry and miserable, Casey wisely put them back to work. All was quiet until about 9 a.m. when one of Johnston’s staff officers accidentally rode into some pickets from the 100th New York. Although the snared Southerner refused to cooperate during his interrogation, Casey surmised that something big was up and notified his superior, General Keyes, of his concerns. Casey’s fears were soon realized when Captain Simon Townsend of the 85th Pennsylvania, also manning the picket line, noticed considerable Confederate activity to his front.
Casey at once ordered Major Audley Gazzam’s 103rd Pennsylvania (Colonel Lehman was sick) to reinforce the pickets astride the Williamsburg Stage Road, where their own Company C was deployed. While Gazzam collected his disparate command, D.H. Hill launched his attack with Sam Garland’s brigade. The 300-man 2nd Mississippi Battalion led as skirmishers. After they had advanced only several hundred yards, the 103rd’s Company C opened fire. Outnumbered four to one, the Keystoners quickly yielded to the advancing Rebels and retreated 50 yards to the rest of their regiment. For a few key minutes–which gave the rest of the division at least some time to gather its forces–the 450 or so men from the 103rd Pennsylvania dueled with 2,000 Southerners. The Confederates cascaded forward, and Captain Reynolds Laughlin, on the far right of Gazzam’s line, noticed that the regiment was being flanked. He called for the men to fall back as quickly as possible.
The tangled undergrowth prevented the 103rd from falling back in any kind of order. To make matters even worse for the Pennsylvanians, Casey ordered his artillery to shell the woods through which they were retreating. Pushed beyond the breaking point, the 103rd fled. A tree limb hit Major Gazzam in the face, knocking him from his mount, while he was frantically trying to reassemble his men. If not for the courage and dedication of some of his men who quickly pulled him to safety, Gazzam, a former attorney from Pittsburgh, would surely have been snagged as a prisoner.
With the 103rd Pennsylvania and the rest of Casey’s picket line smashed, Garland’s brigade began to negotiate the abatis. That bought time for Casey to personally lead parts of six regiments from Naglee’s and Palmer’s brigades, reinforced by Battery H, 1st New York, forward into line about 200 yards behind the abatis. There the desperate Federals dueled with Garland’s winded brigade, bringing it to a standstill.
At that juncture, with most of Casey’s division engaged in front, Huger’s and Whiting’s divisions should have been falling on the Federal flanks and Longstreet’s troops ready to reinforce Hill’s. But because of jealousy, ineptitude and a general lack of coordination, all the follow-up divisions were still bundled up in the rear.
As Garland’s brigade exchanged volleys with Casey’s second line, Hill’s right wing–the brigades of Brig. Gens. Robert Rodes and Gabriel Rains–hurried forward after their advance had been delayed. Rodes’ troops exited the woods on the south side of the Williamsburg Stage Road and entered the fray. Hill detached Rains’ troops, ordering them to advance around Casey’s left flank and take his works from behind. Colonel George B. Anderson’s brigade, meanwhile, was working around the northern edge of the field and the Union right. In all, 6,500 Confederates would be sent against 3,500 Federals.
Casey directed a general withdrawal to the redoubt and its adjoining trenches. But Battery H needed time to move its guns to the rear, and the Confederates were coming fast. The division commander therefore ordered General Naglee to have three regiments on the north side of Nine Mile Road–the 104th Pennsylvania, the 11th Maine and the 100th New York–charge and buy time for Battery H. The spoiling attack, one of the first committed by Federal forces in the war, froze the Confederate advance. ‘I never saw a handsomer thing in my life than that charge was,’ Casey later recalled.
While D.H. Hill waited for his troops to deploy, Casey patched his line together as best he could. He also sent back another frantic request to General Keyes to send up Couch’s three brigades, to help solidify his line. Keyes was in fact sending forward reinforcements, but he did so piecemeal, and curiously he did not communicate with either Casey or Couch. As a result, the few regiments that did come to Casey’s aid were too little and too late.
In front of Hill’s Confederates stood the remains of the smallest division of the Army of the Potomac. The keystone of their final line was the redoubt, manned by six Napoleons from Battery A. Casey’s remaining batteries, the 7th and 8th New York, were poorly deployed, however. Colonel Bailey had ineptly positioned the 8th behind Battery A, with no clear targets, and he situated the 7th New York on the far right of the line, behind infantrymen who presented an obstacle and gave the gunners a poor field of fire.
Casey prayed that Keyes would deliver reinforcements before the long Confederate line advanced for the final blow. But then Captain Thomas Carter’s King William (Virginia) Artillery began an intense cannonade against Bailey’s guns, which were generally ineffective in returning the fire. Soon Rains’ troops were in position and firing on the rear of the redoubt. Hill’s Confederates advanced to within 60 yards of Casey’s line, where they were momentarily stopped by musketry. One Confederate equated the Federal fire with ‘unabated fury,’ and a soldier from the 85th Pennsylvania similarly remembered: ‘We had a full and near view of the enemy and could almost see the whites of their eyes….They presented a most formidable appearance being eight or ten deep….We could take dead aim, and firing in so dense a mass, to miss was almost impossible.’
Knowing that his men could not withstand the fire, Lt. Col. Bryan Grimes of the 4th North Carolina, Anderson’s brigade, ordered his regiment to charge. The subsequent attack, which pierced the 85th Pennsylvania’s line, was, according to one veteran, ‘like an avalanche.’ Colonel Bailey, seeing the conflagration developing on his right, ordered the guns in the redoubt spiked.
As he moved forward to help a gunner perform the task, he was shot dead. The cannons from the 8th New York opened up, and one shell burst prematurely over the heads of the 85th New York, killing or wounding several. That only hastened their decision to retreat.
By 3:30 p.m., sheer pandemonium had enveloped Casey’s faltering line. Hill’s victorious Confederates were swarming in from three directions, Carter’s battery was brought forward to rake the redoubt with canister or shot, and what was left of the division was running to the rear for their very lives, despite Casey’s desperate attempt to rally them. One officer remembered seeing the general ‘raging among his retreating men, hatless, his white hair streaming in the wind.’ Another veteran of the battle wrote, ‘Old Casey was as brave as a lion, and remained while his men would stand; he lost everything but the clothes he stood in.’ At that point, Keyes and two regiments from Couch’s division finally arrived on the field. Shocked by the carnage and may-hem, the IV Corps commander quickly ordered all his forces to fall back to Seven Pines and await the arrival of Heintzelman’s two divisions.
General Hill again ordered his men to press their advantage. By 5 p.m., they had driven what was left of Keyes’ IV Corps and parts of Heintzelman’s III and Sumner’s II corps out of Seven Pines. It was not until later that evening that Johnston finally arrived down the Nine Mile Road with parts of Whiting’s and Longstreet’s divisions. Elements of Sumner’s II Corps led by Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick and some units of Couch’s IV Corps division stopped them, however, about a mile north of the Twin Houses. While observing the twilight battle rage, Johnston was horribly wounded, first in the shoulder by a bullet and then in the chest by a piece of shrapnel, and was quickly evacuated to Richmond. The next day, his second-in-command, Gustavus Smith, brought up some of the other wayward divisions and tried to renew the attack. But the Federals, now fully aware of the Confederate plans, drove them back.
If Huger, Whiting and Longstreet had supported D.H. Hill at Seven Pines on the 31st as ordered, or if Casey’s outnumbered division had not fought as long as it did, there is little doubt that the III and IV corps of the Army of the Potomac would have been wiped out. All told, the Battle of Seven Pines cost both sides about 6,000 men. The casualty tally of Casey’s division was appalling: 177 dead, 934 wounded and 322 missing.
Following the battle, the remnant of Casey’s division retreated to White Oak Swamp to guard the extreme left of the army. While there, McClellan relieved Casey of duty, erroneously believing that he and his division had simply let Hill walk through their position, and ordered the dishonored drillmaster back to White House Landing. The division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. John J. Peck, was subsequently consolidated into two brigades, that of Naglee and Wessells.
Casey’s career never recovered after Seven Pines. McClellan continued to blame him for the Federal collapse on May 31 and refused to acknowledge the tough fight put up by the old Regular’s green division. Though he did get promoted to major general, Casey never again enjoyed a field command and spent much of the rest of the war in charge of troops in the defenses of Washington. He retired from the Army in 1868 after 46 years of service, and died in 1882.
A few weeks after Seven Pines, General Robert E. Lee, Johnston’s replacement, attacked McClellan at Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill, at the beginning of what later became known as the Seven Days’ campaign. Casey’s old division was kept from the fray, relegated to digging trenches near Harrison’s Landing. When the brutal Seven Days were over in July, McClellan held a grand review of the army at Harrison’s Landing. As he passed by Casey’s former troops, the men purposely turned their backs to him.
In August, when the Army of the Potomac was ordered to evacuate the peninsula, Casey’s old division–at McClellan’s behest–was separated from the army and sent down to the backwater of Suffolk, Va., to pay penance for their alleged sins at Seven Pines. From there, in 1863, the division was dispatched to the coast of North Carolina, where it performed admirably in several small but important actions near New Bern, Kingston, Whitehall, Goldsboro and Plymouth.
Casey’s old troops’ misfortunes continued. In April 1864, after many of the men had just re-enlisted and were preparing to go home on a well-deserved furlough, a Confederate division under Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke overwhelmed Wessells’ brigade at Plymouth. The brigade surrendered and was sent to Andersonville, Ga. Of those men, the infamous ‘Plymouth Pilgrims,’ less than half ever returned home.
In 1863, General Casey testified before the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War, a congressional committee that investigated Union military operations, about his role in the Battle of Seven Pines. Casey vigorously defended the mettle of his division and stated: ‘In my humble opinion from what I witnessed…I am convinced that the stubborn and desperate resistance of my division saved the army on the right bank of the Chickahominy from a severe repulse, which might have resulted in a disastrous defeat. The blood of the gallant dead would cry to me from the ground on which they fell fighting for their country had not I said what I have to vindicate them from the unmerited aspersions which have been cast upon them.’
This article was written by Gary Schreckengost and originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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