Battle of Gaines’ Mill: U.S. Army Regulars to the Rescue
June 27, 1862
From America's Civil War Magazine (historynet.com)
BY MAJOR JAMES B. RONAN
In November 1861, Union Major General George B. McClellan was called upon to lend his prestige and organizational talents to the task of commanding the Army of the Potomac, the grand army raised to suppress the Southern rebellion. Over the next few months he organized and trained that army and molded it into the form it would maintain until war’s end in 1865. Ninety-day volunteers were replaced with three-year men, regular units were added as they came East, and brigades and divisions with their own artillery were organized, as were cavalry units. Technical services such as medical, signal and quartermaster units also began to function, and the whole was trained and exercised while defending Washington, D.C. Men from all the states, as well as the far-flung Regulars, concentrated around the capital, drilling in larger and larger units.
The Regulars needed the drill as much as the volunteers–they had been scattered in company-size garrisons for years, chasing Indians. Only one post in the whole United States was garrisoned by all three arms–infantry, artillery and cavalry–prior to the Civil War, and the Regulars had not faced a European-style enemy since 1848.
The Regulars’ evolution mirrored that of the volunteers. The first battalion of infantry and cavalry to come East became a Provost Brigade, separated into a nine-regiment Infantry Reserve Brigade and a three-regiment Cavalry Reserve Brigade. The artillery went into a multiple-brigade Artillery Reserve. By early 1862 the 1st and 2nd brigades, Reserve Division, contained nine exclusively Regular regiments, while the cavalry reserve contained three regiments of U.S. Cavalry. Each division in the Army had a Regular battery brigaded with two or three volunteer batteries, and the Artillery Reserve contained a Regular Horse Brigade (four batteries), a Regular Light Brigade (six batteries), and a fifth Volunteer Brigade with two U.S. batteries. The designation ‘Reserve marked the Regulars as the dependable backbone of the Army.
What was the character of these Regulars? Essentially there were two types of Regulars in two types of organizations. One kind of Regular was the veteran of some years’ service, commanded by West Pointers and commissioned former soldiers. Of the officers who survived the first battle to write reports, nearly all were West Pointers, although the eventual commander of the 2nd Regular Brigade, Major C.S. Lovell, had enlisted in 1831 and been commissioned in 1838. Captain T. Hendrickson, commanding the 6th Infantry, had enlisted in 1819 and was appointed from the ranks in 1838. They possessed all the qualities that make good soldiers: training, discipline and morale. Large portions of their days before the war had been spent in drills and other duties that promoted teamwork and obedience to superiors. Coupled with life governed by Army regulations and the Articles of War, their environment was one of purposeful subordination of the individual. They were inured to hardship and were grouped in the regiments of the Old Army.
The second type of Regular was the recruit assigned to an older regiment or to a regiment of the so-called New Army. They were typical Americans, enthusiastic individuals with no military experience. Their main advantages were the men who led them–the experienced cadres of officers and noncommissioned officers transferred from the Old Army–and their desire to equal or exceed the reputation of the older regiments.
In the infantry arm of the Union Army, soldiers drew on their prewar and early war experiences to help develop effective tactics. As a defensive or delaying tactic, infantry would use cover and concealment to shield itself from an enemy moving toward them. The soldiers would then spring up, firing muskets, shouting and thrusting bayonets to halt the enemy and either drive him away or trap him in the open, exposing him to protracted fire at close range.
Artillerists aided the infantry by massing on important terrain and seeking to place enfilading fire on the advancing enemy. Their main effect was at close range, using canister or spherical case shot. Artillery, like the bayonet and the prearranged shouting, was often an effective psychological weapon, too. Frequently its mere presence would alter enemy plans. The tradition and reputation of the U.S. artillery, as well as the organizing skills of artillery chiefs William Barry and Henry Hunt, made the Federal artillery exceptionally powerful.
Undoubtedly the cavalry was the most glamorous arm. But were mounted regiments to function as light dragoons or heavy cavalry? Should they rely on mobility and firepower, or mobility and shock? Answers to these questions would come soon. At Gaines’ Mill, the three arms of Regulars would demonstrate their capabilities against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces.
Having created an army of 100,000 men, McClellan began to feel pressure to use it. After all, to re-establish its sovereignty the Federal government would have to regain Southern territory. The enormous public expense of raising the army also had to be justified. McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln finally agreed, after a lengthy debate, on a movement from Fort Monroe, up the York-James River peninsula to capture the Confederate capital, Richmond. It is indispensable to you that you strike a blow, Lincoln told the reluctant general. You must act.
Lincoln was adamant that corps be added to the chain of command, an evolutionary step that McClellan was not ready to take. On March 3, 1862, Lincoln presented him with a corps structure and commanders, including one, V Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, a politician turned general. Little Mac was aghast, but he was given a golden opportunity to remedy the situation. He had been ordered to leave garrison and mobile troops to defend Washington from a Rebel thrust via the Shenandoah Valley while he moved south. Left behind were Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell’s I Corps and, not coincidentally, Bank’s V Corps.
The Army of the Potomac moved up the Virginia Peninsula from April 4 to May 27, besieging Yorktown, fighting a battle at Williamsburgand establishing a base at White House on the Pamunkey, a tributary -of the York. Although confronted by only small Confederate forces commanded by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, McClellan’s green intelligence sources somehow convinced him that he was outnumbered. He constantly called for reinforcements and moved slowly, allowing the Confederates to shorten their lines and reinforce Johnston. Although McClellan had been promised that McDowell’s forces would operate with his army, the activities of Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley had so alarmed Washington that the release of I Corps was not forthcoming. McClellan, now near Richmond, was forced to split his army, leaving three corps north of the Chickahominy River, which runs southeast across the peninsula, to await McDowell and protect White House. Meanwhile, two corps were moved south of the river to confront Richmond.
During the operations, Brig. Gen. Fitz-John Porter, as division commander, had justified McClellan’s personal confidence, and on May 18 he assumed command of the Provisional V Corps, containing the two brigades of Regular infantry. On May 20, Porter received command of the artillery reserve of the army, in addition to the guns already in his divisions.
On May 31, Johnston attacked to destroy the two Federal corps south of the river at Fair Oaks. His inexperienced subordinates bungled the converging attack, however, and Johnston himself was wounded and replaced by General Robert E. Lee. Lee knew McClellan well. He correctly predicted to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, McClellan will make this a battle of posts.
After Fair Oaks, McClellan was indeed determined to besiege Richmond. He spent the interval building siege works and conducting local attacks to force Lee into Richmond. Gradually, he moved all his forces south of the Chickahominy, except Porter’s. However, on June 11, Brig. Gen. G.A. McCall’s division of McDowell’s corps arrived at White House and was assigned to Porter. Also on the 11 th, McClellan moved his headquarters south of the river, leaving Porter on the north bank near Mechanicsville, controlling his own divisions, those of Brig. Gens. George W. Morell and George A. Sykes, McCall’s division and all the cavalry not assigned to divisions or army headquarters. Porter now controlled three of the four mounted regiments in the Army of the Potomac, 18 Regular batteries and nine Regular infantry regiments. The cavalry screened his front between Meadow Bridge and the Pamunkey River. Porter’s mission was to await the ephemeral McDowell and prevent a thrust by the Confederates to White House.
On June 10, Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas Jackson had begun moving from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond. Lee conceived a ruse in front of the city while his force, joined by Jackson, attacked and destroyed the exposed V Corps. A reconnaissance by Confederate cavalry (Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s celebrated Ride Around McClellan), however, may have tipped Lee’s hand to McClellan. The Union commander suddenly decided to change his base from White House to the James. His friend Porter and the reinforced V Corps were all that stood between the Rebels and the reorganizing Army of the Potomac,
While McClellan hesitated, convinced that he was dangerously outnumbered, his audacious Southern counterpart continued fine-tuning his own plan of attack. Richmond, Lee told his subordinates, could not be defended against a prolonged enemy siege; it was necessary to go on the offensive. The Union left, South of the Chickahominy, was too strong for a frontal assault, but a turning movement against the weaker of the enemy’s two wings–Porter’s–might welt succeed. Lee intended to attack with Stonewall Jackson’s vaunted foot cavalry, which had proven itself in the just-concluded Valley campaign. While Jackson descended from the valley to fall on the Union right flank and rear, the divisions of Confederate Generals D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill and James Longstreet would begin a frontal attack designed to sweep the Yankees southward. With speed and luck, McClellan’s over-extended army could be trapped between the swiftly closing Confederate pinchers.
The same night that Lee was meeting with his generals, McClellan was having something in the nature of a vision–a gloomy one, at that. Writing to his wife, he admitted: I have a kind of presentiment that tomorrow will bring forth something-what, I do not know. We will see when the time comes.
After a Confederate deserter disclosed to McClellan the frightening news that Jackson was coming down from the Shenandoah Valley to strike the Union rear, McClellan decided to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force to feel out the Southern defenses east of Richmond.
On June 25, the Union Army advanced on the city at Oak Grove, and the next day Lee attacked Porter with 35,000 men at Mechanicsville. Despite Lee’s ability and daring, his amateur generals were very roughly handled by the V Corps, losing 1,350 men to the Federals’ 361. Operations moving the Union Army base continued, however. Freight carriers began leaving White House, while immovable stores were destroyed. Engineers from headquarters, escorted by the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, began a reconnaissance of routes to the James. Other engineers selected a new defensive position for Porter between Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy. At 3 a.m. on Friday, June 27, V Corps was ordered to occupy the new position. Porter disposed his forces on high ground 2,000 yards north of the Chickahominy River. Morell’s 1st Division was placed on the left. To his rear as a reserve was McCall’s 3rd Division. The flank was bordered by Boatswain’s Swamp, and the terrain in front was open and rolling to Gaines’ House, some 1,000 yards away. On Morell’s right was a ravine, the boundary between his division and that of Brig. Gen. George A. Sykes.
Sykes disposed his brigades, Colonel G.K. Warren’s 3rd Brigade and Colonel Robert C. Old Buck Buchanan’s 1st Brigade, from left to right. To their rear Colonel William Chapman’s 2nd Brigade was posted at McGehee’s House and at Watt’s House. In Sykes’ line were the artillery batteries of Captain John Edwards, Captain S.H. Weed, Captain John C. Tidball and Lieutenant H.W. Kingsbury. To Sykes’ left and front a cornfield extended 400 yards. From his position on Sykes’ right, Tidball controlled a slope to the marsh fringed with trees and bushes. A thousand yards to the front was a growth of young pines. In an open field to his left was the 3rd Infantry, within 200 yards of a pine forest. Captain Henry Dehart’s Regular artillerists of McCall’s division would support Morell’s line. Porter had sent a portion of the cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman to White House to cover the base, but he retained the command of Brig. Gen. Phillip St. George Cooke–five companies of the 5th U.S., four companies of the 1st U.S., two companies of the 4th U.S. and one company of the 6th U.S. (Cooke, ironically, was J.E.B. Stuart’s father-in-law.)
Troops were still coming in from Mechanicsville. Captain James Robertson and his gunners had been shepherding them and firing at Rebels from William Gaines’ peach orchard since dawn. He retired on line to Hogan’s House, then changed direction and set up near Gaines’ House. As the last Union troops passed, Robertson moved east, reporting to Adam’s House and then moving to the extreme left of Morell to watch the Chickahominy River bottomlands. Tidball, another Regular, had a similar mission. He was delayed about one hour rounding up stragglers and wagons, but was in action with his guns soon enough.
Around noon Union pickets on Powhite Creek, on Porter’s western flank, made contact with the Rebel advance guard moving toward the Union position. As the Federals scuttled back to their own position, the advancing Confederates were met by musketry and cannon fire from Morell, sending them to the ground. Morell knew the Rebel attackers would have to cross the swampy terrain and climb the 30-foot banks of Boatswain’s Swamp. Around 1 p.m. the pickets to Warren’s front were driven in, but Weed, opening fire at 1,000 yards, drove off the probing Confederates.
By 2 p.m. the ball had fairly opened, as the Confederates attacked in force and lapped against the defenses of Morell and Warren. The seven-hour fight for the life of the Army of the Potomac had begun. Confederate attacks were not coordinated, however, as Lee’s plan was subject to the fortunes of war–a prepared enemy, faulty communication and the surprisingly tardy and petulant Jackson, who had failed to reach Mechanicsville in time for the battle.
As Confederate infantry concentrated on the field, action swung around to Buchanan’s front. His troops were able to enfilade the Rebels attacking Warren and to counterattack Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s troops, which were attacking his front. Between 2 and 4 p.m. the 14th Infantry, under Captain John D. O’Connell, moved into the cornfield to their front and cleared it of enemy skirmishers. On their right, Major Henry B. Clitz, 12th Infantry, provided support to Edwards’ artillery, then formed line and counterattacked to the left to aid Warren. The steady pace and controlled fire of his Regulars effectively disrupted the Rebels. The 4th Infantry, also supporting artillery on the extreme right, repulsed the first of three charges staged by Hill’s men.
Mounting pressure on Warren caused men of the 2nd Brigade, now commanded by Major Charles S. Lovell, to move to his assistance. The 6th U.S. Regiment moved down the hill to Warren’s left and added their fire to that of the 2nd. The 10th and 17th infantries, under Major G.L. Anderson, moved to Warren’s right. Lieutenant John S. Poland, senior survivor of the 2nd Infantry, would recall that two privates, Peter Burns and William Shute, under sentence of court-martial, redeemed their reputations. Perhaps they were in the party of 70 men, surrounded by Confederates, who cut their way back to friendly lines. The firing took such a toll of officers that first sergeants assumed command of companies A, D and K of the 2nd Infantry.
By 3:30 the Rebels had mounted one more attack on Buchanan. A counterattack was launched at the double-quick by the 12th and 14th regiments. Protecting the right flank of the attack was the senior regiment in the U.S. Army, the 3rd Infantry. Reputation and bravery, however, could not prevent casualties. Major Nathan B. Rossell, the commanding officer, was killed, and Sergeant William Hessian was forced to command Company G.
A withering fire caught the 12th and 14th and cut them to ribbons. The two regiments of the New Army, in their first battle, suffered a total of 452 casualties. So anxious to win a reputation were the soldiers of these regiments that Quartermaster Sergeant G.C. Williams of the 14th left the safety of the trains to fight alongside his comrades. Four companies of the 3rd Infantry changed front in a dramatic, successful effort to extricate the new regiments, the older regiment saving the new. The decimated 12th Infantry passed through Lieutenant Kingsbury’s battery on their way in. Kingbury recalled, They were disordered but walking, Captain Reed, Lieutenant Hecksher and the standard rallying them about 150 yards to the rear. Moline crosses on the regimental coat of arms still bear witness to the 12th’s first bloody fight.
Porter, knowing that he was outnumbered and feeling the increased tempo of the fight, called for reinforcements. Around 4 p.m. the VI Corps division of Brig. Gen. Henry Slocum came on the field. His 2nd Brigade, under Colonel Joseph W. Bartlett, reinforced Sykes’ weary Regulars. As afternoon turned to evening, a lull settled over the battlefield. Ammunition was replenished, the wounded were collected, and between details and perhaps a hasty meal the soldiers cleaned their fouled weapons. Bandsmen and hospital stewards carried the wounded to hospitals that were established at Adam’s and McGehee’s houses. Head counts revealed many officers wounded or missing. Major Clitz of the 12th was in the hospital and where was Captain Lay? Delozier Davidson of the 4th had been captured. Three other officers had deserted, and one was under arrest for drunkenness.
Porter was still optimistic. His troops had fought hard and they were not whipped. He felt that he could hold out until dark and then, under its Cloak, complete his mission by crossing the Chickahominy to rejoin the main army. He, like many others, was still looking ahead to the capture of Richmond. Far to the left, Cooke’s cavalry took up position near the Adam’s House, behind Dehart’s and Cooper’s volunteer gunners.
The lull was due to Confederate reorganization and preparation. To quote Jackson’s grudging praise, Porter didn’t drive worth a cent. The Rebels would be forced to use numbers to overcome the phlegmatic Federals. This affair must hang in suspense no longer, said Jackson. Sweep the field with the bayonet! About 6:30 the Confederates began attacking across the front. The onslaught was repulsed, but the Southerners came on again. Despite the earlier respite, the Union defense began to show signs of collapse. Ammunition was running low, and the effects of exertion and climate began to tell on the Yankees. Sykes and his men withdrew to a second line on a ridge to their rear. The 12th Infantry stood fast as the rest of the brigade moved back, volleyed the enemy at 50 yards, and assumed the new position.
By 7 p.m., Lovell on the right and Captain James Robertson on the left saw signs of weakness in the Union line. Rather than withdrawing under cover of darkness, the seemingly indefatigable V Corps gave ground, left to right, to the audacious Rebels. As Morell and McCall yielded to Confederates under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, Federal reserve artillery fired over the heads of the retreating Federals in a desperate effort to halt the onrushing Rebels. The 11th Infantry, led by Major Delancey Floyd-Jones, continued to volley to cover the artillery, as did the 2nd.
To the staccato of the musketry and the roar of cannon were added the thunder of hooves and the blare of bugles as Cooke’s forlorn hope, Captain C.J. Whiting’s 5th Cavalry, rode through the Federals and into the maelstrom of Confederate rifle fire. The brave attack failed, but the smoke the horsemen raised to their front effectively shielded the Federals, and the left flank of the V Corps moved down to the Chickahominy.
The right held on until night approached, but the outcome was the same, save for the guns. To Sykes’ rear had appeared the famous Irish Brigade and Brig. Gen. W.H. French’s brigade, 1st Division, 11 Corps. The Regulars rallied on them as Weed, Tidball and Kingsbury moved their guns away from the Rebels. The 4th Infantry moved by their left flank, interposed themselves between the Confederates and the guns and moved off the field carrying their wounded.
The 4th moved only a short distance, however. Fatigue, darkness and poor communication caused the victorious Confederates to halt in the Union position they had carried. By 9:30 p.m. fighting had died down. Porter safely withdrew across the Chickahominy early on the morning of June 28. The cavalry crossed the river and destroyed the bridges around 2 a.m., but the Union forces suffered the same problems as the Rebels. The 4th Infantry bivouacked north of the Chickahominy and expected to counterattack the next day. A courier sent to them with withdrawal and consolidation orders apparently was killed en route. Captain Joseph B. Collins, senior surviving officer, discovered their plight around 4 a.m. He moved his regiment to Alexander’s Bridge, made some hasty repairs and crossed over, safe to fight another day.
Nine hundred eighty Regulars had sacrificed themselves that day to save the army. The regiments of the Old Army had lived up to their reputation, and those of the New Army had laid a solid foundation for theirs. The V Corps inflicted thousands of casualties on the Confederates. It escaped and rejoined the main army to wreak further havoc on the Army of Northern Virginia at Malvern Hill. During the next 13 months, Lee’s bold maneuvers would frequently dismay his opposition but would also destroy his own army in the process. His force suffered tens of thousands of casualties and did not have replacements for the lost men. Lee often outgeneraled but never conquered the indomitable Army of the Potomac and the men on the right of the line, the U.S. Army Regulars.
This article was written by Retired U.S. Army Major James B. Ronan and originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. Used with permission from historynet.com.
For the best in Civil War history, subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine. Civil War Trust members will receive a 23% discount off of the already low subscription rate. Subscribe Today