Saturday, June 27, 2015

BATTLE OF GAINES' MILL, A bloody Confederate victory!

[Excerpted from Lt. Col. King Bryan of Hood's Texas Brigade:Freedom Fighter for Texas and Southern Independence by Michael Dan Jones, 2013]

Hood’s Texas Brigade received a great boost in its reputation at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862. This battle was part of the Seven Days Campaign, which was part of George B. McClellan’s drive on  Richmond. With a massive enemy within eyesight of the spires of the churches of the capital of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee quickly reorganized the Confederate Army. He added the eight infantry companies of Hampton’s Legion to Hood’s Brigade and sent Whiting’s Division to Staunton, in the Shenandoah Valley, to reinforce Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson had already beaten the Federal Army of Major General Nathaniel Banks and driven him back to the outskirts of Washington, D. C. McClellan reacted as Lee had  hoped. He sent McDowell’s 30,000 man corps to  Washington to protect the capital. The Texans, Georgians and South Carolinians moved by railroads to Lynchburg, then Charlottesville and then marched to Staunton. Also, when the army was reorganized, Colonel J.J Archer was promoted to brigadier general and J.B. Robertson promoted to full colonel and placed in command of the regiment. W. Brown Botts was promoted to lieutenant colonel and Captain John C. Upton of Company A to major. The officers and men were very happy since they now had an all Texan leadership from top to bottom.
          As was his custom, Stonewall Jackson kept his plans secret but the Texans were very curious and speculation was rampant. The first phase of Lee’s plan was accomplished, weakening McClellan, and now he wanted Jackson to reunite with him to turn McClellan’s flank. A. P. Hill’s Division would cross the Meadow Bridge over the Chickahominy to attack Mechanicsville from the east, open the turnpike bridge there for Longstreet’s and D. H. Hill’s men. The four divisions would begin attacks on Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s 5th Federal Corps north of the Chickahominy and capture their supply base at White House. The united Confederate Army would then destroy the rest of the Federal corps south of the Chickahominy. Lee placed the divisions of major generals John B. Magruder and Benjamin Huger in the fortifications around Richmond. In all, Lee had 90,000 men, which was the largest Confederate Army he would ever have. But, as with most battle plans, it didn’t go as planned. McClellan at that time had about 70,000 men.
            Jackson started his army on June 18, boarded a train at Meecham’s Station and arrived at Frederick Hall, 35 miles north of Richmond on June 21, where they went into camp. The army then marched to Ashland, north of Richmond, and arrived there June 25. After drawing ammunition and rations, the men started on June 26, for the attack on Porter’s Corps, but numerous obstacles – taking wrong roads, poor maps, and confusing terrain – put Jackson’s command way behind schedule. McClellan had also anticipated Jackson’s move, and had sent reinforcements to Porter. But A. P. Hill’s men were in place and on time, and with Jackson so obviously late, they launched the attack themselves on Mechanicsville at 3 o’clock. Porter withdrew to a prepared position at Beaver Dam Creek while Hill’s men cleared the way for Longstreet and D. H. Hill. The Confederates hurled themselves against the almost impregnable position before calling off the attack. The Confederates lost 1,485 men killed, wounded and missing, while the Federals suffered just 258 casualties. But when Jackson finally arrived that night on Porter’s flank, the Federal position became untenable and they retreated to another prepared position at Boatswain Swamp, near Gaines’ Mill.
            While the battle was going on without them on June 26, Captain [King] Bryan, leading the 59 members of his company available for duty, trudged on as they heard the sounds of battle as they came nearer the field of conflict. During the day they came across Federal outposts and drove off the pickets. They also encountered a burning bridge, felled trees and other obstructions to their progress to reach their launch off point for the attack on Porter. They got as far as Hundley’s Corner on the 26th, and went into camp there. The next morning, June 27th, they started out again for the battle, which was somewhere in the Virginia countryside, but they didn’t know exactly where. Hood’s Texas Brigade was leading the way for Jackson’s command. While on the way, Whiting’s Division was ordered to support Longstreet on the Confederate right. Hood finally found the Confederate line at Boatswain Swamp and soon encountered General Lee himself. Lee explained the situation, that Confederates had been pounding Porter’s position throughout the day and hadn’t been able to dislodge it. Then he told Hood, “This must be done.” He solemnly  asked, “Can you break his line?” Hood replied he would try.
            Lee had his men positioned in a semi-circle around the Federal position. D. H. Hill was on the left, then Ewell, Jackson, A. P. Hill and Longstreet on the Confederate right. Porter’s position was an extremely strong one. He had two divisions in his corps, about 25,000 men, with the division of General George Sykes on the Federal right, and General George W. Morell’s Division  on the Federal left. The position was on a plateau with two lines of entrenchments, one halfway up the hill and the other near the top. The Federal infantry was supported by plenty artillery. During the battle, 10,000 reinforcements would arrive for Porter. The terrain included a creek the Confederate’s had to cross, swampy ground and trees cut down to obstruct their progress. Whiting’s Division of Jackson’s command moved out to the center-right to take up a position in  the Confederate line, which was where they were needed most at that moment. Laws’ brigade was on the right and Hood’s on the left of the division. The plateau before them was called Turkey Hill.
When the 5th Texas moved with the brigade from Jackson’s command to the center-right, Captain Bryan’s company was put out on the left flank of the regiment as flankers. This would have exposed them to enemy  sharpshooters and artillery, as they were moving along the battle line. It was the job of Company F to prevent the regiment from being out-flanked from the left by a Federal counterattack.

As they  were moving along, Private Fletcher noticed two men bobbing up and down as if they could dodge enemy shots. Fletcher pointed out that they were exposing themselves to more enemy fire, both from the standing and stooping positions. Soon afterwards, he noted that both men were hit by enemy fire. When 5th Texas went into line of battle with Longstreet’s Wing, Company F was on the left of the regiment and they had to advance over rugged ground through a dense forest. Under these conditions, it would be hard to keep in contact with the regiment to the left, the 1st Texas, and possibly leave a gap that the enemy could exploit if the opportunity presented itself.
            The battle alignment of Hood’s Texas Brigade was Hampton’s Legion on the left, then the 1st Texas, 5th Texas, the 18th Georgia on the right, and the 4th Texas in reserve. “The brigade moved gallantly forward, soon becoming engaged from left to right,” said Hood in his battle report. “The battle raged with great fury all along the line as these noble troops pressed steadily on, forcing the enemy to gradually give way.”
When Hood ordered the brigade forward, Captain Bryan and his men let go with the famous “Rebel Yell”, which is an eerie, ancient Celtic war cry that is also reminiscent of an Indian war whoop. Fletcher called it a “Texas Yell” and said, Company “F boys  full well knew its meaning was ‘charge’.” They moved forward through an increasing volume of shot and shell as they approached the first Federal line of battle, a trench line reinforced by logs.  The going for Company F was slow as they had to pick their way through heavy underbrush and fallen trees and tree limbs clipped off by Yankee bullets and shells.
Meanwhile, Hood was looking for a place that would offer a more promising opening, and found it to the right of the 18th Georgia. There, he found a field that was open, up to the Federal breastworks. “Holding in reserve the Fourth Texas, I ordered the advance, and galloped into the open field or pasture, from which point I could see, at a distance of about eight hundred yards, the position of the Federals. They were heavily entrenched upon the side of an elevated ridge running a little west and south, and extending to the vicinity of the Chickahominy,” Hood said. They had to cross Boatswain Creek, and brave fire from Federal artillery. He marched the 4th Texas to the field, dressed ranks and ordered them not to fire until he gave the word. Hood was concerned if they stopped to fire and reload, they would never reach the entrenchments. Moving through the open field, in which earlier Confederate charges had been repulsed, they were able to make swift progress. Colonel John Marshall, commander of the 4th, was killed, along with many others as the concentrated fire of the enemy steadily depleted their ranks. After crossing the creek, Hood gave orders for his men to fix bayonets for the last push forward. “With a ringing shout we dashed up the steep hill, through the abatis, and over the breastworks, upon the very heads of the enemy. The Federals, panic-stricken, rushed precipitately to the rear upon the infantry in support of the artillery . .” Hood  said. The 4th Texas, with support from the 18th Georgia, was the first to break Porter’s strong line.

Brig. Gen John Bell Hood
(Library of Congress)

Back at the 5th Texas’ part of the line, Captain Bryan’s Invincibles were benefiting from the rapidly dissolving Federal battle line. The bullets were still coming fast and furious at Company F, so Captain Bryan gave the command for the men to lie down, and Fletcher was ordered forward to investigate. Using his skills in woodcraft, he crept up on an isolated line of Federals in a peculiar position. He could have shot the Yankee colonel, but he felt it was more important to get back to the company and report his findings to Captain Bryan.  The Federals, who turned out to be the 4th New Jersey Infantry, spotted Fletcher and opened fire on him. While Fletcher wasn’t hit, it did draw the fire of the New Jersey unit onto Company F. It got so hot, Captain Bryan had to move them.  When he was  able to head back toward his company, Fletcher couldn’t find the unit. When he did find them, there was a brief exchange of fire between the 4th New Jersey and the 5th Texas. Private George N. Woods of Company F, was killed in this fusillade close to the end of the battle. He was just 17- or 18-years-old at the time and was one of Captain Bryan’s first recruits, having joined the Invincibles June 8, 1861. He was a member of a farm family in Liberty County at the time of his enlistment. The colonel of the 4th New Jersey, James H. Simpson, realizing his regiment was surrounded and in a precarious position, surrendered the regiment. Simpson later talked to Major Upton, who was an old classmate, expressed his chagrin at having to surrender his sword to a private, rather than an officer. Upton told him he was wise in doing so because the privates had been instructed to kill or capture and the killing was not to stop until the capture was complete.
            In his official report, Simpson said his regiment reached the battlefield about 2:30 p.m. at a double-quick march. His regiment advanced into the woods to support the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves. After about 15 minutes, the New Jersey boys replaced the Pennsylvanians on the battle line. Simpson said they fought steadily for about three hours, until 7 o’clock that evening, when they were relieved by the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves. When they moved to the rear, he noticed a large body of Confederates on his left. “I therefore immediately changed my front so as to oppose these troops and be the better able to cope with them, and at the same time be in a position to cover Colonel Gallagher [of the 11th Pennsylvania], should he be obliged to retreat. The change was effected, but no sooner commenced than the troops referred to, began to pour in upon us a very destructive fire, the hissing of the balls (I can compare them to nothing else) being like that of a myriad of  serpents.” Simpson, realizing he was in danger of being surrounded and cutoff, and seeing the 11th Pennsylvania retreating, he ordered the 4th New Jersey to also retreat. “We had, however, proceeded but a few yards when I noticed we were moving against a large body of the enemy [the 5th Texas], drawn up in several lines, and a battery directly in our rear, to cut us off. The consequence was that being surrounded overwhelmingly on every side, to the front, flanks and rear, like the Eleventh Pennsylvania, which had already been captured, we had to suffer the same fate.” This is when Simpson had to hand his sword over to a private in the 5th Texas.
            After the battle, when he had a chance, Private Fletcher talked to Captain Bryan about the scouting mission. He said, “Captain, I suppose a report now is useless?” The captain replied, “Yes, but little did I expect to see you again. I was forced to move the company, as the position was too hazardous.” Fletcher replied, “ I guess they were shooting at me.” The captain responded, “I thought so, and they would aim lower as you descended.”
            At the end of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, the Federal Army next retreated to an equally strong position at Malvern Hill, where the last battle of the campaign was fought on July 1,  1862. Federal losses at Gaines’ Mill for the North were 6,387 killed, wounded and missing out of 32,214 men engaged. The South lost 8,751 casualties out of 57,016 engaged. Hood’s Texas Brigade’s total casualties were 89 killed, 479 wounded and four missing. The 4th Texas had the most losses, with 44 killed and 206 wounded. The      1st Texas casualties were 14 killed and 64 wounded. Losses for the 18th Georgia were 16 killed, 126 wounded and three missing. Hampton’s Legion suffered two killed and 18 wounded.
 The Bloody Fifth suffered 13 killed 62 wounded and one missing, in the battle, out of 29 officers and 474 men engaged. They had earned their nickname, the “Bloody Fifth.” Company F lost two men killed, Private Woods and Private W. S. Hall (mortally wounded by an enemy bomb), and six wounded, including: privates John V. Sloan, neck; Joseph C. Ross, leg; John R. Moodie, slightly in the back by a bursting shell; G. W. Knapp, leg shot off by an enemy bomb; Basil Crow Brashear, slightly in the arm by a bullet; Jeff Chaison, slightly in the leg by grape shot. Near misses included privates Dallis Bryan, Captain Bryan’s young nephew,  with bullet holes in his canteen and haversack; Peter Mallory, the captain’s cook, two bullet holes in his blanket roll he had over his shoulder; William Schultz, a spent bullet struck the top of his cap and bounded off “without hurting a hair on his head;” and A. C. Vaughn, part of his handle bar moustache cut off by a rifle ball. Captain Bryan got through the battle without a scratch.

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