Lincoln went into the Telegraph Office and rummaged through the telegrams that
were stacked in the in-coming message trays and found the latest telegram from
Edwin Stanton New Bridge June 25,
Several contraband just in give
information that Jackson's force is at or near Hanover Courthouse. I incline to
think that Jackson will attack my right and rear. This Army will do all in the
power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack. I regret my great
inferiority in numbers but feel that I am in no way responsible for it as I
have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity of reinforcements, that
this is the decisive point, and that all the available means of the Government
should be concentrated here. If the result of the action which will probably
occur tomorrow is a disaster the responsibility cannot be thrown on my
shoulders—it must rest where it belongs.
I feel there is no use in my
again asking for reinforcements.
McClellan, Major General
Lincoln took several angry strides toward a large map that hung on the office wall. He
scanned it, looking for Hanover Courthouse; finding it, he looked again at McClellan's
Lincoln frowned and sat down heavily in
a chair by the telegrapher's desk. An expression of uncertainty settled on his
face as General Scott's parting words, uttered so many months ago, came back to
him. There is still time. He thought of the list of troops he had just
made. King's division was at Fredericksburg. It could board the steamers at
Acquia Creek and be with McClellan by sundown tomorrow. Ricketts could be down
there in another day.
he thought; sending King to McClellan would mean that the line of the Rappahannock could easily be breached, bringing Washington within a day's march of that
phantom, Stonewall Jackson. If, in fact, Jackson was now at Hanover Courthouse,
he could march north as King's division was embarking for Fort Monroe. This seemed highly unlikely, but if the Confederates were to break into Washington and
burn the place, the country would be thrown into a panic and Britain might
seize upon the event to break the Union's blockade of Southern ports.This was
the persistent fear clouding Lincoln's vision, it bubbled like a pool of oil in
his mind, making it impossible for him to take any risk, however slight, that
Washington might be lost..
And he had already
made up his mind McClellan had to go. McClellan was too young, too haughty, in
action too timid—a fencer not a thrasher—and his politics and his friends were
wrong. Six months ago McClellan was an asset when Lincoln needed the support of
the Democrats and the army organized, but now it was operating in the field and
the Republicans held the majority in Congress, and Lincoln's comprehension of
the nature of the war was changing. Yes, enough of McClellan and his cronies.
Time to get them out and the Army in the hands of the Republicans.Lincoln rose
from his seat and headed for Stanton's door. Finally, he thought, McClellan will
have to fight.
was close to midnight when McClellan came down the road leading from Gaines
Mill and the Grapevine Bridge, and veered Big Dan into Porter's camp ground
behind Beaver Dam Creek. He had been in the saddle almost sixteen hours. He was
tired, hungry, and his clothes were disheveled. Leading Big Dan through the
camp he came down a row of tents into a clearing and dismounted in front of
Beaver Dam Creek
a tent fly propped on poles, Fitz John Porter was conferring with several staff
officers when he saw McClellan. He broke off the conversation and went outside.
"Hallo, George," he said, clapping McClellan on the shoulder and
tugging him toward the tent.
resisted the pull; turning back to Big Dan he removed a saddle bag and looked
around. "Fitz, let me get this dust off first. "Where can I clean
pointed to a table that stood at the far side of the clearing. There were
several buckets of water on the table and a stack of towels. "Over there, George.
I'll be here when you're ready to talk."
walked across the clearing to the table. Taking off his shirt, he soaked one of
the towels in a bucket and swabbed his face and upper body with it. He was
shorter in height than the average man, but broad-chested with a hard abdomen
and narrow hips. In his youth his family called him "Little Mac" and
this is the name the men in the ranks favored. Putting the towel down, he
opened the flap of his saddle bag and removed a clean shirt and put it on. As
he tucked the shirttail into his trousers, he started to walk toward Porter's
tent, but midway across the clearing he changed his mind and sauntered up the
tent row until he came to Porter's telegraph station.
orderlies were sitting on a bench outside the tent and they jumped up when they
recognized it was McClellan. Inside, a junior officer, looking up from a table
he was working at, got quickly to his feet and stood at attention as McClellan
entered. McClellan saw behind the officer a civilian telegrapher busy at his
key. Signing to the officer to go back to his work, McClellan passed him with a
pat on the shoulder and approached the telegrapher and stood at his side. After
a moment, the telegrapher noticed McClellan and, with a look of surprise on his
face, stopped tapping the key.
you send a message to Washington for me," McClellan said in a polite
voice, almost a whisper.
away, General," the telegrapher replied, and with a pencil he wrote down
on a telegram pad McClellan's dictation.
To Edwin M. Stanton Porter's
Hd.Qtrs, June 25 11:40 p.m.
The information I receive on this
side tends to confirm impression that Jackson will soon attack our right and
rear. Every possible precaution is being taken. The task is difficult but this
Army will do its best and will never disgrace the country. Nothing but
overwhelming force can defeat us.
McClellan, Maj Genl
waited a moment, watching the telegrapher send the message over the wire. Then
he returned to Porter's tent.
John Porter was waiting for McClellan. A lantern was hanging by a hook on the
center tent pole when McClellan came in and, from its light, Porter saw there
were dark hollows around his eyes and the drawn look of his face conveyed the
impression of a man tense and greatly worried. He looked like he needed
something to eat and a great deal of sleep. Inviting McClellan to come in,
Porter took a step into the clearing and called for an orderly to bring a plate
into a chair by Porter's camp table. "Well, Fitz, it looks like you will
be in a dog fight, maybe as soon as tomorrow," he said. He tried to get a
tone of buoyancy in his voice, but his throat was dry from the heat and dust
and instead it cracked.
pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. For several moments he did not
respond, wondering what to say. He went way back with McClellan. They had been
classmates at the Point, had shared the hardships of campaign life in Mexico, and kept in close touch during the years McClellan was out of the army. He knew
McClellan was usually a jovial, carefree character, full of pep. The mood he
saw McClellan in now told him something very bad was about to happen, but he
wasn't sure what.
leaned forward and gave McClellan's arm a gentle tap.
no need to worry, my corps can handle Jackson's," he said.
wan smile momentarily broke the sagging lines of McClellan's face. "I have
no doubt of it, if that's all you have to face."
handsome, athletic-looking man, with dark eyes and a smartly trimmed beard,
Porter projected an professional appearance of cool composure. McClellan was
sure he would keep it in the excitement of battle. Heintzelman, Keyes, and
Sumner, they were good for nothing but being Lincoln's stooges, but Fitz, Fitz
could fight. He had the intelligence, the courage, the temperament that makes a
fighter. In 47' Fitz's performance on the causeway leading to Mexico City's
Belen Gate was testament to that. If any one can beat that devil, Jackson, Fitz can, McClellan thought.
sat in silence for a time while the lantern light threw flickering shadows
across his face. He had been thinking for hours how to say it, but the words
were sticking in his throat.
I'm afraid those monkeys in Washington have put us in a trap. I don't see any
way out of it, but to retreat from here. And your corps must pay the butcher's
bill for it."
was startled by this, his body jerked a little as though reflexively avoiding
something thrown. He shook his head in disbelief as McClellan's words sunk in. Retreat? The army was so close, the effort had been so great, and the army was strong,
too strong to be overwhelmed, too strong to abandon the effort without a
struggle. What did McClellan know that he didn't?
leaned forward, opening his hands.
we've been at this for months." He spoke softly, carefully, trying to
reason it out. "How can we not fight? If it's Lincoln's holding McDowell
back that's got you thinking this, now that Jackson's here he's got no good
reason not to let McDowell go."
angry look suddenly filled McClellan's face. His eyes seemed to redden with
spite. He made a fist with his hand and slammed it down on the table with a
the monkeys are rounding up McDowell's and Banks's and Fremont's troops into an
army to be commanded by John Pope!"
looked at McClellan, aghast.
Pope?" The idea was incredible. How could it be true?
Pope, that's right, John Pope. Lincoln's calling his command, `The Army of
Virginia.' Fifty, sixty thousand men. You know what that means? After our boys
have died like dogs and we're bogged down, he'll send Pope to the rescue. I'll
be the goat and Pope will be the hero."
sat shock still, his hands clenched between his knees. It seemed fantastical.
He remembered Pope from the Point, an upperclassman, brash, pompous, a
name-dropper and glad-hander, who had spent his career in obscure outposts as a
topographical engineer, marking trails on the Great Plains for the wagon trains.
Last he had heard Pope was in Arkansas, just recently promoted to major general
of volunteers. The thought struck Porter that he was senior to him on the
commission list, as were all the major generals Pope would be commanding.
looked beyond McClellan, off toward the dark forms of the pine trees at the end
of the clearing. Why would Lincoln do this? It can't be he's still afraid the
enemy will raid his captured territory. He knows that Jackson's here. It must
be something else, but what?
glanced at McClellan, he looked frustrated, distraught, angry. Could Mac be
right, Lincoln wants the country to think the Republicans have captured Richmond, not the Democrats?
thought of his contacts with Chase and Stanton, when he was in the Adjutant
General's Office in the run up to the war. He knew Stanton as a two-faced
vindictive man, capable of plotting against McClellan, and Chase as the
mouthpiece for the Republicans. They don't want Mac to succeed, is that it?
They fear the quick fall of Richmond will induce a push for peace which leaves
the Negroes slaves and the South intact. They want battles and blood and
causalities to trigger a change in the country first, so that a policy of
freedom for the Negroes will be palatable. But not Lincoln, so far he's been
trying to coax the South back by pushing the policy, the Union as it was. No,
it must be something else.
thoughts were awhirl now; his mind in turmoil, perplexed. It doesn't make
sense, he thought. Lincoln knows Mac can't achieve a decisive breakthrough of
the Richmond defenses without the advantage of overwhelming force. For that, he
knows Mac needs the troops he's giving Pope.
sighed to himself as he considered this angle of things. Here, McClellan's idea
came back to him. Lincoln wants us to bog down. Porter thought
about this. Something about the idea just didn't fit. He remembered the things
Lincoln had done to McClellan—selecting his corps commanders, stripping him of
the authority of general-in-chief, setting up the department system,
withholding troops—through it all, always prodding Mac to get bloody with the
in these thoughts Porter finally felt comprehension strike. He leaned forward
and touched McClellan's arm with his hand, giving him a look that seemed to
say—Now I understand.
it doesn't matter what his reasons are. Lincoln's commander-in-chief. He wants
a bloodbath. Give him what he wants."
flicker of annoyance crossed McClellan's face as Fitz said this. Fitz's words
seared his mind like a hot poker. Of course, that's what Lincoln wants, Fitz,
you got it right. He's playing the role of Commander-in-Chief, insisting that
he pull the strings, manipulating me to do things his way. But I'm no puppet on
a string. There's no way he's going to play me.
reached down to his saddlebag propped against his chair and removed a sheaf of
paper, plopping it on the table.
Pinkerton's report I just received today. Bobby Lee's taken command of the
field and he's got 200 regiments organized in 9 divisions, including Jackson's
and Ewell's. Pinkerton estimates his strength at 180,000 men."
picked up the papers and leafed through them. They were spread sheets, listing
the rebel regiments Pinkerton's spies had found to be part of the rebel army.
Next to the names of the regiments were the names of the colonels, the brigades
the regiments belonged to, and the names of the division commanders.
minutes passed as Porter studied the columns of information. Finally, he set
the papers down. It appeared Lee had a slight advantage in
organization—although Mac had more divisions, Lee had more brigades and, thus,
more regiments. But an important piece of information was missing.
Mac, Pinkerton provides no head count for the men in the ranks. We don't know
whether the regiments are full, or half empty.
waved a hand dismissively. "Taking Pinkerton's estimate of 180,000, with
his count of 200 regiments, gives each regiment 900 men," he said sharply.
shook his head. "Pinkerton's estimate seems way too high. We have 153
regiments, counting McCall's. Our regiment strengths are closer to 700 men.
Lee's are probably less. Remember Seven Pines, Mac, we handled the rebel
attacks well enough."
odds are we will be contending against a force vastly superior to our's."
don't know that, Mac."
know we are too weak to advance against Richmond."
we have the numerical strength at least to hold our positions on both sides of
the river, don't we? Once Lincoln sees us do this, he will know he can
accomplish both his strategic goals simultaneously—capture Richmond and block
raids into his territory—and he will order Pope to come down."
did not respond to this immediately. He looked away, rubbing his temple with a
hand, his thoughts filled with malice toward Lincoln. If I have control of
Pope's Army of Virginia, I can accomplish my objectives simultaneously, he
thought—capture Richmond and hold my base. Damn that monkey in Washington, he expects Pope to operate at his instructions, not mine. Well, I'll be damned
if I will allow it. Either I control all, or nothing at all.
settled slowly in his chair and let his thoughts drift away, to his wife, Mary
Ellen, and his infant daughter and his life before the war. He remembered his
successes and his friends and wished he was running a railroad instead of being
Lincoln's puppet. Shaking his head, like a man waking from a day dream, he
shut the memory off and brought his mind around again to now. He would tell
Fritz what he had decided on his ride.
people will rejoice when they see that I have saved the army from disaster by
gaining a base that is secure."
there we are, Porter thought. He's going to do it. Lincoln wants to see Mac
engaged, holding his own with Lee, before he reinforces him with Pope's army,
but Mac won't play Lincoln's game.
least let's wait until the pressure builds against my front," Porter said.
rose from the chair, and Porter, looking stunned, came to his feet too, his
mouth working to speak. "Wait, Mac, listen to me - -"
cut him off.
Fritz, enough. Lincoln isn't going to control me."
he'll fire you."
let's see if he gets anywhere without me."
picked up his saddle bag and stuffed Pinkerton's report inside. Then he took
hold of Porter's hand and shook it vigorously.
send your heavy baggage over the river as soon as possible," he said.
"As soon as Lee's attack develops, I mean to move the army to James River."
two men's eyes met as Porter said, "All right, Mac, if that's what you
want." Breaking their handshake, they walked together across the camp
clearing to the picket line where Big Dan was standing. McClellan strapped the
saddle bag in place and sprang to the saddle. Settling in the seat, he leaned
down and put a hand on Porter's shoulder. "We can get along well enough
without the help of that whelp, Pope."
as McClellan was turning Big Dan away, an orderly appeared carrying a steaming
plate of food in his hands. Porter tried to persuade McClellan to stay, but he
gave a quick salute and led Big Dan across the clearing and up the lane between
the tents and was gone in the darkness. As he passed into the gloom of the
trees, he thought of the words he had wired to Stanton and shrugged. The
monkeys would get the message soon enough.
That same night
General Lee had ridden Traveller into the front yard of the Widow Dabb's house.
Charles Marshall and Walter Taylor, two of his staff officers, were standing on
the front porch as he came into the yard and they sent an orderly running
toward him. A small crowd of field officers and cavalrymen were in the hard
clay yard, and they all turned to watch General Lee ride in.
nodded at several of the ranking officers and returned a salute tendered by a
cavalryman who was standing close by. Leading Traveller along a row of horses
picketed at the fence, he turned him into an open slot. Dismounting, he raised
the flap of his fan saddle and released the girth and breastplate straps.
Lifting the saddle off Traveller's back, he set it down on the rail of the
fence. Then he took off Traveller's bridle and replaced it a rope halter
handed the rope end to an orderly. "Can you get him some fresh hay and
oats and brush him down?" He said as he ran his hand through Traveller's
hold of the halter, the orderly began backing Traveller away from the fence as
General Lee stepped out into the yard and headed for the house. "Yes sir,
Gen'ral, I reckon I can," the proud orderly called after him.
General Lee stepped onto the porch, Walter Taylor came close to his side and
quietly addressed him: "Mrs. Lee's servant boy came by two hours ago to
say that she hopes you might visit her in Richmond tonight."
Lee stopped and nodded at Taylor. Taking off his Stetson, he swept a wisp of
salty black hair back from his temples. His eyes seemed to sink under his brow
in the gathering darkness, reflective and distant. He had not seen his wife,
Mary, since she had been escorted to the river by a squad of McClellan's
cavalrymen, three weeks earlier. She had ridden over the Meadow Bridge in the seat of a ramshackle spring wagon, pulled by an old mule and emaciated horse and
driven by the servant boy. Sitting behind her, on a leather coach trunk in the
bed of the wagon, were two of her daughters, Mildred and Agnes. When the wagon
clattered over the bridge and came into the rebel lines, General Lee rode
Traveller alongside and his wife leaned down and handed him a tomato. They
spoke briefly together, the wagon rocking and swaying in the deep ruts of the
road, before he turned Traveller back toward the river.
Marshall and Taylor following him, General Lee opened the front door of Widow
Dabb's house and passed down a corridor between the parlor and dining room—two
long rooms with fire places and low ceilings—and went into a small back room
that served as a kitchen. When he entered the kitchen, his colored servant,
Jerome, was standing over a wood-burning range with a fork in his hand, frying
slices of potatoes and onions in bacon grease in a pan. Jerome wore the uniform
of a house servant, white shirt and black wool pants under a striped cotton
coat. He was one of the Danridge negroes that came to Mrs. Lee with her inheritance
of Martha Washington's old plantation on the Pampunkey. The Negro was taller
than General Lee, and thinner: his head shaved bald, his eyes shining like
black china marbles, his skin a deep lustrous black, the purity of his ancestry
from a fierce cannibal people was glaringly evident.
at the sound of foot falls behind him, Jerome saw General Lee's dust-caked face
and frowned. He pointed with the fork at a steaming iron tea kettle sitting at
the back of the range. "Better git washed up, Mister Robert, be'fo I burn
your tators," he said with an exaggerated inflection.
Lee came to the range and looked at the food sizzling in the pan as Jerome
thrust a piece of cloth in his hand. The potatoes and onions were almost ready
to eat, glazed golden brown by the drippings. "The potatoes look
grand," he said. "I'll just be a minute or two." He gripped the
wire handle of the kettle with the cloth and carried it into the corridor,
where he went quickly out the back of the house to the rear veranda. A cook out
of temper can spoil a dish just by the turn of a hand and General Lee was too
hungry to take chances.
wash basin sat on a shelf against the exterior wall. He went and poured the
kettle's contents into it. Setting the kettle down, he took off his
mud-spattered gray coat and hung it on a peg in the wall. Rolling up the
sleeves of his shirt, he picked up a bar of gritty brown soap, and, lathering
his hands, he scrubbed the trail dust from his face. Pretending to ignore him,
a speckled, black hen sat motionless in a nest of hay perched on the opposite
end of the shelf. Chuckling to himself, General Lee wiped himself dry and
pitched the water in the basin over the edge of the veranda. Then he took down
his coat from the peg, and, giving the hen an appraising glance, he reentered
small table flanked by two ladder-back chairs sat in the middle of the room.
The table was covered with a red-checkered table cloth and a place was set with
a tumbler glass, a big silver knife and fork, and a napkin. In the center of
the table a candle was burning in a brass holder. Hanging his coat on the back
of the chair, he sat down and watched as Jerome opened a small door in the side
of the range and removed a strip of beef steak with a pair of tongs and laid it
on a warm china plate. Scooping the fried potatoes and onions from the pan with
a spoon, the Negro lathered them on top of the steak and carried the plate to
the table and set it down in front of General Lee.
as General Lee began cutting into the meat, the sounds of thudding boots and
the clank of a sword dragging on the corridor's plank floor carried into the
the commotion in the corridor, Charles Marshall, who was in the parlor with Taylor, stepped into the corridor and intercepted a rough-looking cavalryman who had
tramped into the house. After a brief conversation, the cavalryman handed Marshall a folded piece of paper and turned away. Pushing his chair back from the table,
Lee took the paper from Marshall and read it. When he finished, he signed to
Taylor, who had followed Marshall into the room, to take it. Then he turned
back to the table and, as he cut into his steak again, said to Taylor: "Please send a courier to A.P. Hill's headquarters. Tell him I wish Branch's brigade
to march at first light across the river, the rest of the division to stand
ready to move across at my order."
Taylor took the paper from General Lee and, reading it as he exited the
kitchen, he went across the corridor into a carpeted room behind the parlor. A
field desk was set up in front of a wide west window. Several cane chairs and a
couple of three legged stools were scattered around the room. An embroidered
blue and white quilt covered a narrow bed made of chestnut wood in one of the
corners. An old mahogany desk was in the corner opposite. When Taylor came in the room, a subordinate staff officer, Captain Mason, was sitting at the
field desk, sifting through a stack of ledgers and letterbooks. Taylor reached over Mason's shoulder and selected a letterbook and sat down next to the
Lee's adjutant, Taylor's primary duty was to supervise the writing and
transmission of the army's movement orders. Opening the letter book, he turned
to a blank page and wrote down, in pencil, the date and time in the right-hand
corner of the page, then the addressee, and finally he wrote down General Lee's
message. When he was done he handed the letterbook to Mason and told him to
copy the message and send it by courier to the headquarters of General A.P.
the time Captain Mason made the copy and had gone to find a courier to carry
the message to Hill, General Lee had finished his supper and was standing at
the side of the table, making way for Jerome to clear the plates and utensils.
Rolling down his sleeves, he buttoned his cuffs and took his coat in his hand
and headed toward the kitchen door. Stopping at the threshold, he turned, and,
with a warm quality in his voice familiar only to those who were members of his
family, he addressed the Negro: "If that hen of your's lays any eggs by
morning, will you poach them for me?"
jet face crinkled with deep criss-crossing grooves that glistened in the
flickering light. His huge nose flared and his mouth spread wide, showing a set
of ragged white teeth, and his eyes brightened with something like affection.
He could have run with the others when the Lincoln soldiers came to the
Pampunkey. He had the intelligence and skills to take care of himself in the
free world he knew was coming at last. But he knew, too, that he still would
have to serve somebody, and he knew no one better to serve at the moment than
gave a throaty mocking laugh. "Now you know Gin'ril, dat ole hen can't lay
no eggs with dem Linkum battery guns busting an' roaring all day."
out of the room as Jerome spoke, General Lee stopped for a moment to reply:
"Well then, you might as well roast her up for dinner tomorrow
time for dat will come soon nuff," Jerome shot back—"when you git
down to nuttin' left to eat but biscuits and beans."
the kitchen, General Lee crossed the corridor and went into the back room
behind the parlor. Except for Walter Taylor, who was busy organizing papers at
the field desk, the room was empty. Lee stepped past him and went to the
mahogany desk that filled the far corner of the room. He took a seat in a
leather swivel chair in front of it and penned a note to his wife, Mary.
June 25, 1862
My Dear Mary:
I have been on our lines all day,
and having finished my supper find it near 10 p.m. with a great deal to do tonight. I expect we will have a fight tomorrow. It is therefore impossible for
me to see you. I pray we may have happy days yet.
truly and affectively, R.E. Lee
the note, he inserted it into an envelope and sealed it, writing "Mrs.
Mary Lee" on the outside of the envelope. He got up and handed it to Taylor. "Ask Jerome to please take this in to Richmond tonight," he said.
"Tell him to stay there with Mrs. Lee until I send for him."
Taylor had left the room, General Lee opened a set of sliding doors and
stepped into the parlor. The room had the air of being well lived in. A sofa
with a carved mahogany frame stood in front of a fireplace, flanked by two fat
horsehair chairs. Next to the sofa a burning oil lamp sat on a marble-topped
table, casting the room in a circle of merry glow. A green carpet covered the
floor. Canvas paintings crowded one wall between two wide windows. A
grandfather clock stood in a corner. Here, in the long months of winter, when
the snow was falling over the house, Widow Dabb would sit in front of the warm
hearth and read. In the summertime, when the twilight spread across the forest,
she would sit in the window seat and watch the light of the sinking sun burn on
the evergreen trees. Remembering his Arlington home for a moment, Lee saw the
room as a pleasant place to be.
Marshall was sitting in one of the horsehair chairs when General Lee entered
the parlor. Sitting on the sofa was a young man dressed in civilian clothes
named Seaton Tinsley. Tinsley's family lived on a farm on the left bank of the
Chickahominy, behind Doctor Gaines's big, double-winged mill pond. When
McClellan came up the Peninsula, Tinsley had gone into Richmond and taken a
position as a clerk in the office of Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary
of the Treasury. Rising from his chair, Marshall introduced Tinsley to General
Lee as he gave the young man a beaming smile.
"Marshall tells me that you know the roads on the other side of the river like the back of
your hand," General Lee said.
sir, I do," Tinsley answered.
then, I want you to look over a map our engineers have made, and tell us if it
correctly shows the roads."
for Tinsley to follow him, General Lee walked across the corridor into the
dining room, where a large piece of canvas was spread open on the dining table.
A burning candelabra hung from the ceiling, throwing a yellow cone of light on
the table. Tinsley bent over the table and examined the details of the map as
Lee began peppering him with questions.
Dabb's grandfather clock was stroking the two o'clock hour when General Lee
returned to the room behind the parlor. Striking a match, he crossed the floor
and lit an oil lamp on the mahogany desk where he had written his note to Mary.
Then he sat down and penned a message to his President.
Jefferson Davis June 26, 1862
A note just received from General
Jackson states that in consequence of the high water and mud, his command only
reached Ashland last night. The enemy has been moving on our extreme left
beyond the Chickahominy. Our cavalry pickets were driven in that direction and
the telegraph wire near Ashland is cut. Tomorrow I will be on the
am most respectfully, your obedient servant
from the desk, General Lee stepped into the corridor and went to the door of
the dining room where Marshall was busy tracing revisions that Tinsley had made
on the canvas map. He held out his letter to Davis as Marshall came to the
door. "Give this to Taylor, tell him to send the original by courier to Richmond at first light."
Marshall hurried away, Lee walked to the back of the house and went out to
the rear veranda. Stepping along the railing he listened to the sounds of the
night, the muffled "yip, yip" of a solitary dog running down
something in the woods, the distant hoot of an owl, leaves tinkling in a faint
breeze, the groggy humming of the insects in the trees. Coming to the end of
the veranda, he stopped in front of the nest of Jerome's speckled hen and
gently slipped a searching hand under the belly of the bird as it clucked
nervously at the intrusion. Finding no eggs, he stepped away from the nest,
with the flicker of a bemused smile on his face, and stood at the veranda
railing, looking up at the black vault of night sky, glittering with diamond
and sapphire stars.
in the dome of the sky, the big dipper hung by its handle, with the two stars
marking the front of the bowl guiding General Lee's eyes across the void to
Polaris, in equipoise over the pole. Standing on end over the pole star, like a
circus clown balanced on a ball, the little dipper seemed to be swinging its cup
to snare the underbelly of Draco, the coiling dragon mythically gliding in the
sky. A frown darkened General Lee's face as, suddenly, the sight of Draco in
flight was carrying him back in time to the Texas plains, and the long June
nights he spent at Camp Cooper in the valley of the Clear Fork. He was in
Ketumsee's tent again, squatting on the earthen floor next to the smoking cook
fire, feeling the pride of the conqueror, impervious to the pathetic plight of
the Comanche chieftain's tribe. Now he was surprised to realize a vague feeling
of kinship with the red man and he wondered why.
a meteor flashed through the stratosphere and disappeared—a pencil-thin streak
of brilliant white light in the sky stabbing at Draco's heart. And General Lee
knew. It had taken the Union decades to occupy the heartland of the Comanches
and crush their resistance to Union rule. It had taken the Union but twelve
months to position itself to occupy the heartland of the Confederacy and now
the Union power was on the verge of administering the coup de grace. With the
dark face of Ketumsee sharply etched in his mind, he knew in his soul his
people's fate was as the Comanches in the end. With no more chance against the
power of the Union than the Comanches had, his people would fight for their
land to the bitter end. A great breath slipped slowly from his barrel chest as
he thought this, because it came to him then that, like Ketumsee, there was
nothing to be done but take the young men of his tribe forward as best he could
to their end.
midafternoon, the next day, General Lee rode Traveller into Longstreet's
headquarters camp as the booming sound of a single gun reverberated among the
bowering sycamores that fringed the Chickahominy's bottomland. At the walk,
Traveller carried General Lee forward into the midst of the tents and stopped
in front of a group of men lounging in the shade of a sweet smelling magnolia
Longstreet sat in a chair with his boots propped against the tree trunk,
engaged in laughing conversation with those about him. He was a big, beefy man
of German descent, with a sandy beard and moustache and thick black hair set
far back on his temples. He had piercing blue eyes and a solid nose laced with
tiny red veins that suggested he was capable of heavy drinking. The son of a
small-time planter, he had entered West Point, in 1838, where he excelled at
horsemanship and little else. Graduating in 1842, he served in infantry
regiments in the west, eventually becoming a paymaster, until he resigned, in
June 1861, and traveled to Richmond where he obtained a commission as a
had been winners and losers among Joe Johnston's division commanders when
General Lee took command of the army. Longstreet seemed for the moment to be one
of the losers. When Johnston was in command, Longstreet had exercised command
of the army's rear guard at Williamsburg and its right wing during the battle
of Seven Pines. Now, except for Whiting, who General Lee had sent away from Richmond with half the size of his original division, Longstreet commanded the smallest
division in the army. The clear winner in the transition was Jackson, whose
command had increased from one division to three. Another winner was A.P. Hill,
who received promotion to major-general rank and now commanded the Army's
largest division of 14,000 men. Stubborn in the idea his way of strategic
thinking was always right, Longstreet would soon prove himself to be a capital
soldier in managing the operations of a corps. Of all General Lee's original
division commanders, only James Longstreet would reach the field at Appomattox:
the night before the surrender, lying on blankets twenty-five yards apart, he
and Lee waited for the army's last dawn together.
Hill is moving now," General Lee said as he reined up. "When D.H.
Hill gets his division over the river, start your division for the New Bridge and follow him across."
stood still as General Lee spoke to Longstreet, his ears pricked forward, black
nose thrust out, his nostrils flaring. Then he felt his master's legs touch his
flanks, and he whirled and was off along the tree line taking long strides.
General Lee ride off, Longstreet shook his head in disapproval: General Lee was
massing 21 brigades of his army—over 56,000 men—on the left bank of the river
to attack the 9 brigades of Fitz John Porter's corps. This left only 13
brigades on the right bank to stand against 24 of McClellan's. To gain a 2 to 1
superiority against the enemy on the left bank, Lee was leaving his army
outnumbered 2 to 1 on the right bank. It's reckless, too aggressive, Longstreet
south a short distance, General Lee brought Traveller to the trot and then a
fast, heaving walk, leading him into the throat of a ravine that cuts the
Chickahominy bluffs and down the long grade to the bottomland. By the time he
came out of the woods into the bottomlands, he heard the cracks and thuds of
flying artillery shells echoing from across the river and he knew A.P. Hill's
brigades were driving the enemy skirmishers through the tiny village of Mechanicsville.
series of mushy tracks, laced with boardwalks, had been built across the
marshes on the right side of the river, leading toward the bridgehead at the
crossing of the main channel. Long lines of D.H. Hill's soldiers were on the
tracks, crowding up to the channel on either side of the bridgehead. Toward the
point where the New Bridge Road met the bridgehead at the channel, the ranks of
men were stepping off into the marsh and wading across the channel in the muck.
In the middle of the roadway, teams of horses, in an artillery train, were
standing still in a long file.
Traveller along the edge of the road, General Lee came up to the bridgehead and
found a company of pioneers working up to their waists in the black water,
reconstructing the burnt sections of bridging that had spanned the main channel
of the river. The pioneers had beams in place over the pilings and were laying
down planking to make a deck for the bridge. As Lee watched the pioneers work,
Jefferson Davis, followed by a band of clattering, dusty horsemen dressed in
civilian clothes, came out of the forest and posted down the road, passing the
infantry and the artillery carriages with their limbers and caissons. Reaching
the bridgehead, Davis sidled his horse to a stop next to Lee's.
Davis, the cavalcade of civilians reined their mounts to a stop in the narrow
space between the artillery train and the shoulder of the road, their horses,
bumping and jouncing and snorting in the sudden confusion. As the throng of
riders got their mounts under control and the dust was settling, General Lee
looked coldly at the President, and, jerking his head toward the crowd of
riders, he said in an incredulous tone, "Who are all this army of people,
and what are they doing here?"
flush of color appeared on Davis's face. No one within ear shot moved or spoke,
but all eyes were upon Davis. He twisted angrily in his saddle and looked upon
the crowd of horsemen: There were several Confederate congressmen, a few
newspapermen, and several of his personal aides, including James Chestnut,
ex-U.S. Senator from South Carolina, and Benjamin Harrison, his military
secretary. From beyond the river bluffs, the roar of artillery and rattling rifle
fire swelled and faded and rose again. Off the sides of the road, the young
brown soldiers wading across the river shot glances at them and the cannoneers
on their limber boxes, and the drivers on their lead horses, watched with rapt
Davis gripped the pommel of his saddle and turned round to face General Lee. "It is
not my army, General," he snapped.
certainly is not my army, Mr. President," General Lee said with a
mocking smile, "and there certainly is no place for it here." For a
long moment no one spoke or moved. Then, slowly, one by one, the riders turned
their mounts around and began to walk them away. Returning to the hard ground
where the road turns upward, several of the horsemen slipped off the road into
the timber, to wait their chance to follow the army across the river.
this time the pioneers had managed to get in place one long strip of rickety
planking across the beams, and General Lee, touching Davis's arm, nodded toward
the bridge. "Follow me across," he said, as Traveller clopped onto
McClellan was standing with Fitz John Porter on the ridge above Beaver Dam
Creek, when D.H. Hill's soldiers came howling through the clover fields of Dr.
Catlin's farm and ran down into the creek valley, as Porter's artillery
batteries, firing canister, some at point blank range, ripped their ranks to
shreds. By the time the survivors of the charge had reached the creek bed, a
thousand dead and wounded men laid in scattered heaps over the ground.
his men get slaughtered, D.H. Hill spurred his horse back and forth along the
ridge of the valley, shouting orders for his artillery to get into action. But,
by the time the first lanyard was pulled, the valley of Beaver Dam Creek was a
pit of groaning darkness and D.H. Hill was furious at General Lee. Slender in
frame, with a face covered with a short black beard, Hill had bright blue eyes
and they radiated his anger now.
the rays of sun were throwing long shadows across the fields, a courier had
come to him with an order from General Lee to attack Porter's left which had
been assailed by several rebel brigades with no success. Hill had ridden
directly to General Lee, finding him with Jefferson Davis on the rise of a
small hill. Riding up, he saw several of A.P. Hill's brigades standing idle in
a field. Reining his horse in front of Lee, he had jerked his head toward these
idle brigades and said, "Why are you calling on me when those men are
standing right there?"
Lee looked at Hill and said nothing. He had ordered A.P. Hill to position the
brigades where they stood, and he had no intention of moving them away. Most of
D.H. Hill's division was jammed up in the river bottom. Longstreet's division
was still holding its position on the right bank of the river, and, to the
northeast, at a place called Pole Green Church, the three divisions under Jackson's command were not yet assembled in battle formation. Though the sun was falling
fast, the enemy still had plenty of time to launch a counterattack and A.P. Hill's
brigades were General Lee's only reserve.
Hill's face reddened and he squinted at General Lee. "It's suicide to
charge the enemy with only one brigade. Let me wait for the rest of my division
to come up."
face was expressionless, his eyes fixed on Hill. He knew Hill was right, of
course, but, he wanted the pressure kept up. "You must send in the men you
have immediately," he said.
Hill wiped a hand across his bearded chin and pulled his horse roughly around
and brought it to stand next to President Davis. "My men will be murdered
if they go in there alone," he said. "Can we not wait until tomorrow
when Longstreet and Jackson will be up?"
Davis wagged an open hand at Hill, signaling him to stop. "This army is under General
Lee's command, sir, not mine," he said.
his head in disbelief, Hill looked from Lee to Davis, his mouth open but no
words coming out. Then, slapping the flank of his horse, he had galloped along
the ridge of Dr. Catlin's farm and, coming upon Pender's brigade at the river
bluffs, he had ordered the men into the carnage.
night finally fell, and the rebel infantry charges were petering out, George
McClellan rode with Porter to Porter's headquarters. For the first mile, they
rode together in silence, each man thinking on what he expected would happen on
the morrow. When they came onto the Gaines Mill Road, under a canopy of
emerging starlight, Porter broke the silence with an emphatic slap of his hand
against his thigh. Excited by the battle action, he was full of himself with
pride and confidence. "My God, George, I know secesh means to throw their
masses against my flanks tomorrow, but if you bring two additional divisions
over here tonight, we have a good chance of whipping them badly."
answering, McClellan put Big Dan to the trot and posted down the wagon road,
leaving Porter behind to hustle his horse to catch up. As he rode, he thought
about what he had seen, the reports he had received. According to Stoneman's
scouts, Lee now outnumbered him two to one on the right bank of the river. This
was good news. It meant the force Lee had left on the right bank was too weak
to prevent him from moving the army south through White Oak Swamp to James River. Satisfied he had calculated right, McClellan abruptly tugged on the reins,
stopping Big Dan in the road to stand as Porter brought his mount alongside.
two horsemen sat silent in the saddle for a time, looking up at the two bears
tumbling round the pole star in the sparkling darkness. Above the bears, they
saw the slithering body of Draco stretched across the vault of sky. Finally,
McClellan turned to Porter and said, "Fitz, we've got Lee now where we
want him. He's too weak on the right bank of the river to stop us from moving
the army to James River, and, with the advantage of the defense, your corps has
the strength to fight him to a standstill over here."
he listened to McClellan speak, Porter shifted uneasily in his seat and his
gaze drifted from the stars to the murky darkness surrounding of the road. When
McClellan had finished, he slowly shook his head. "But George, what will
they say if we retreat without a fight?" he said.
led Big Dan a step closer to his friend's side and placed a hand on his
shoulder. "Fitz, I could reinforce you enough to make it a straight up
fight with Lee for our base, and probably hold it, but then I lose the
opportunity to move to James River. I won't do that."
lowered his rein hand to the pommel of his saddle and looked into the gloom,
his thoughts considering the angles of the situation: Yes, even if Mac reduces
his force on the right bank, by half, he would only be making the match up with
Lee on the left bank even. To have any chance of overpowering Lee's force Mac
has to have overwhelming strength at the point of attack—and that can only come
from Lincoln's new paper army under Pope.
was right. The army would get bogged down if it stayed on the Chickahominy now,
and the country would see Pope as the great man of the hour. Fitz felt bile rise
in his throat at the thought of being rescued by Pope.
turned to McClellan. "All right, Mac, I'm with you, but you must be ready
to reinforce me when the going gets tough."
on, then," McClellan said, kicking Big Dan into a canter as Porter put the
spurs to his horse simultaneously.
mile down the road they came to a bend and saw flickers of lantern light in the
near distance. Slowing to a trot, they continued on until they came to a
checkpoint manned by pickets. Passing the pickets they came upon another
checkpoint and then yet another, until, finally, they reached the fields where
Porter's reserve—Morell's and Sykes's divisions—had been encamped the night
before. Continuing beyond the deserted campgrounds, they crossed over the
trestle bridge by Gaines Mill, and went round the bend of Dr. Gaines's farm
field and led their horses on to the farm lane that goes down to the Stewart
farm house and passes Boatswain Creek.
the west side of the creek, they climbed a rise and came out on a broad
plateau, gleaming silver under the star light of the night. Here the farm lane
forked, the left crossing the plateau in the direction of the Grapevine Bridge, the right going past the Watts family's farmhouse and dropping down a mile's
distance behind it into the Chickahominy bottomland.
the Watt's abandoned house, McClellan abruptly wheeled Big Dan around and
extended his hand to Porter. "Tomorrow I will start Keyes's corps across
White Oak Swamp. Once we have secured the opposite side of the swamp, the
wagons and artillery of the army will follow. I want you to take your position
here. Hold the enemy back until the movement to the James is commenced, then
bring your corps across the Grapevine Bridge."
leaned forward in the darkness and gripped Mac's hand in his own. He looked
into his old friend's eyes. "I will do it, but you must reinforce my
nodded. "I will send you Slocum's division in the morning."
breaking off the handshake, he kicked Big Dan into a loping gait and went
quickly away into the night.
John Porter remained where he was for a time, looking around the plateau,
noting the location of the Watt farmhouse, the orchard behind it, the flat
fields stretching away toward the west, the woods covering the slopes of the
narrow little valley Beaver Dam Creek runs through. Well, Mac, he thought as he
turned his mount and began riding back toward Gaines Mill, I'll do my best to
hold this place but I'm sure going to need Solcum.
guns Fitz John Porter left in battery behind Beaver Dam Creek began to boom as
soon as the Richmond sky blushed in the morning. Behind the guns that answered
them, the men of A.P. Hill's brigades laid on the damp ground along the edge of
the Mechanicsville Pike, listening for the sound of the bugle that would send
them forward into the fields where the enemy's shells were falling. Across the
Chickahominy, the men of Longstreet's division streamed out of the trees on to
the bottomland and waded the channels. And D.H. Hill's division, now joined
with Jackson's command at Pole Green Church, began to advance.
hours later, with the sky over Beaver Dam Creek criss-crossed with hundreds of
white vapor trails, the sound of the Union guns began to lessen, their fire
becoming sporadic and more distant, until, finally, it died out completely. In
the silence that followed, the ta ta of a bugle sounded and thousands of
men in tattered homespun tread forward in skirmish formation past the graying
faces of the dead, strewn down the broad slope of Dr. Catlin's farm. On the far
right of the battle line, the lead regiment of A.P. Hill's men passed over the
little foot bridge at Ellerson's Mill and found the Union rifle pits abandoned.
Moving over the hill and into the trees, the rebel skirmishers went steadily on
as the rest of their fellows splashed over the creek and followed them. A mile
to the right of Hill's line of march, the head of Longstreet's division came up
to the crest of the Chickahominy bluffs and turned down the bank, following the
network of tracks that snake through the woodland toward the swamp ground of
Powhite Creek. Two miles to the left of Hill's line of march, the divisions of Jackson's command, one behind the other, marched in the direction of Bethesda Church.
the center of the rebel advance, A.P. Hill's skirmishers—men from Gregg's South
Carolina Brigade—came to the edge of the brown fields in front of Gaines Mill.
The fields were shimmering with heat waves from the rays of the morning sun and
columns of black smoke curled upward from the piles of burning rubbish and
discarded supplies of the retreating Union army that dotted the landscape.
Spreading out into the fields, the skirmishers walked toward Powhite Creek and
Dr. Gaines's wing-shaped mill pond. Next to the mill dam a wagon bridge,
carrying the road to Cold Harbor over the creek, was ablaze and beyond it a
company of Union soldiers could be seen.
half-mile from the bridge, rebel field officers rode back and forth along the
ranks of the lead regiment of Gregg's brigade. Shouting orders, they led their
men into the fields in front of the creek while the long column stretching back
toward Beaver Dam Creek came to a halt on the road behind them. Thousands of
glittering points of sunlight flashed back to the horizon as the South Carolinians shuffled to a stop in the road and swung their rifles off their
shoulders, the butts in unison dropping to the ground with a great clattering
noise. At intervals along the glimmering line, the color guards of the
regiments unfurled their palmetto ensigns and star-crossed crimson banners and
let them flap and curl lazily in the sultry breeze. Then a trumpet sounded, and
the skirmish line opened fire on the enemy on the other side of the creek.
the Union soldiers saw the rebel skirmishers coming on, they tossed aside the
kerosene cans they had been using to fire the bridging and began to run;
retreating along the edge of the mill pond, they disappeared into a clump of
pine trees on the fringe of its upper reaches just as the South Carolinians
reached the creek bank. Waved forward from the rear of the rebel brigade, a
gang of bronze pioneers, naked to the waist, came running up to the bridge with
canvas tarp and quickly whipped the flames into submission. An hour later the
bridge span was repaired and the five regiments of the South Carolina Brigade
began to cross over the creek.
the fifty or so Union men who had taken refuge in the pine thicket, broke from
their cover and fled west across the field. As they went dashing away, a few
hundred men from the front rank of the forming rebel battle line stepped into
the field and discharged their rifles at the running targets. In the fusillade
many of the Union men were shot and fell down between the green-fleeced furrows
of the field. The rest of them were able to scramble clear of the field and,
running helter-skelter down the Cold Harbor Road, they disappeared into a thick
belt of woods that skirts the Stewart farm lane in front of Boatswain Creek.
the sound of the rebel rifle fire was falling away, a lone figure in blue
raised up from the furrowed ground and staggered several steps in the direction
of the Cold Harbor Road. Seeing the Union soldier was wounded and alone in the
field, someone among the rebel soldiers cried out, "Surrender, you dammed
Yankee." The distant figure in the field kept moving forward for a moment.
Then, he stopped and faced about as the rebel soldiers were turning sideways
again and leaning backwards; their crooked elbows nested against their hard
ribs, they lifted the long barrels of their rifles in the cradles of their
hands and pulled back the hammers with their thumbs. Realizing that he was at
the edge of death, the hapless fellow pulled himself erect and glared defiantly
across the field at the brown faces sighting at him down the barrels of their
long rifles. "Damn you rebel traitors, I will not," he hollered
across the furrows.
hush descended on the crowd of riflemen, each man frozen for a moment in the
attitude in which he was caught when the Union soldier's curse reached his
ears. All of these neophyte man killers, to whom the horror of war was fast
becoming a familiar thing, sucked in their breath as amazement registered on
their grim faces. Then the spell was broken and, their shrill voices choking as
his did with emotion, they screamed hoarse cries of "Shoot him," Kill
him," "Down with the billie boy." And with that, a salvo of
crackling rifle fire ripped along the front rank of the South Carolina Brigade,
and the blue clad figure in the field lurched, then staggered and stumbled as
the tiny leaden spheres of death whistled by his flaying arms and bobbing head
until someone's aim slammed a bullet into his brain.
the dead man's body hit the ground, the drums and trumpets from a rebel
regimental band across Powhite Creek began to play a new tune that the rebel
soldiers had heard the enemy singing in their camps behind the Highland Springs
ravine. Taking up the lyrics of the refrain, the men of the South Carolina
Brigade began to chant in deep rancorous cadences as they advanced in mass
across the field, "We are coming, Father Abraham, the Union to resolve. We
are coming, we are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong."
with his staff officers on the knoll where the Watt house sits behind Boatswain
Creek, Fitz John Porter heard the song, its echo broken by the distance and the
trees. Well, here they come, he thought. Stepping forward, he grabbed the
sleeve of a cavalryman seated on his horse nearby and yelled into his ear—Ride
to Dr. Trent's farm and inform General McClellan that we are engaged with the
enemy. Tell him I call for Slocum." Nodding his head, the trooper kicked
his mount into motion and went galloping across the plain toward the Grapevine Bridge.
of Porter's nine brigades were in position along a curving two mile front, from
the nose of the plateau where Boatswain Creek falls into the swampy
Chickahominy bottomland, to the farm fields where the creek's tributary
streamlets rise in front of the Cold Harbor crossroads. The rest were in
reserve. The first line was near the bottom of the slope that meets the creek,
behind a row of felled trees held in place by sharpened stakes. The second was
at the mid-point of the slope behind a similar barricade. The men of the third
line were hunkering in rifle pits at the edge of the plateau.
array of cannon supported the Union infantry from different sectors of the
field. In the middle ground of the plateau, three sections of rifled field
pieces were in position behind earthen mounds spread in a semi-circle several
hundred yards apart, their muzzles pointing toward the open fields in front of
Gaines Mills and the belt of woodland that blocked the Stewart farm road from
Porter's view. Toward Porter's right, the grade of the slope from the creek
bottom to the plateau flattened out toward the junction point of the two
branches of the creek, which were shrouded by woodland. In this flattened
space, behind the Union infantry lines, six Napoleon field pieces were positioned
in an arc, the center of which was in front of a bridle path that crosses the
main channel of the creek near the point where the streamlets meet. Where the
Stewart farm road enters the waist of the plateau, there were positioned twelve
more cannon. Twenty-four guns in all, with another ten in reserve.
the men of Porter's corps the sweltering sun seemed suspended in its movement
as they strained to decipher the flux of sound carried with the echos of the
rebels' song. Off to the east, they heard the trampling hum of a large mass of
infantry moving into the fields in front of Beulah Church. Closer still, they
heard the shuffling tramp of thousands of feet in the fields in front of
Boatswain Creek. Mingling with the tramp of feet, were the clattering sounds of
metal cups and canteens slapping against legs in marching rhythm, the creaking
and rattling of wagons and artillery carriages moving along the farm lanes that
criss-crossed the countryside.
his station at the Watt House, Fitz John Porter glassed the gaps in the tree
line covering Boatswain Creek and caught glimpses of rebel soldiers at the edge
of the opposite ridge of the creek valley. He could see teams of horses
galloping forward through gaps in the lines of the rebel troops, dragging forward
limbers, field pieces, and caissons. "Tell the cannoneers to start
firing," he yelled to a mounted courier who instantly raced away across
the plateau toward the Union battery emplacements.
later the concussive sound of an explosion was rushing toward the advancing
rebels like the drone of a distant train, rising to a roar with a horrible
velocity across the intervening space. Out in the fields, the rebel
skirmishers, their eyes gleaming above their clenched teeth, bounded forward
with wild yells into the trees as Porter's first shell rained hot fragments of
iron on them. Behind them three ragged lines of soldiers, made up of A.P.
Hill's six brigades, came on like rampaging waves, sweeping into the south
sector of woods that covered the swampy ground behind the Stewart farmhouse.
The men in the first wave rushed through a wide belt of woods, splashed into
the shallow creek water and threw themselves against the opposite bank. With
curses and cries of "send em to hell boys," the defending Union infantry
rose up behind felled trees and withering blasts of rifle fire swept back and
forth in the forest.
a throbbing, thunderous roar of rifle and artillery fire enveloping them, two
solid walls of men collided in the interspaces between the trees. Keen hissing
sounds filled the air, ending with a whine and a thump and a thud as thousands
of ounces of hot lead smashed through the tree branches, rotating and
ricocheting their trajectories in flight, to spend their energy whirring away
harmlessly, or punching a terrible hole in someone's flesh. Amidst the rattle
of rifle fire and the thunder clap
of cannon, men in dirty homespun woolens came rushing with the bayonet. The
struggle became now a scene from hell: the woods filled with the stench of sulphur,
given off from the black powder bursts of thousands of rifles. Screams and
groans of agony issued from the throats of dying men as bayonets were plunged
into the stomachs and rifle butts smashed skulls open—the sheer terror of it
all shocking the defenders and energizing the attackers into a frenzy as they
trampled over dead and wounded bodies, wedged a lane through the crush of
struggling bodies and reached the edge of the cornfields that spread away to
the west in front of the McGeehee house.
just as the rebel breakthrough was happening, a section of Union artillery came
bounding and banging up the wagon road that runs near where the McGeehee house
sits. Shaking the traces and whipping the haunches of the horses, the Union
cannoneers swung the gun carriages off the road into a corn field and, circling
around the fringe of the scrimmage of mad fighters, they came to a stop behind
a snake wood fence. Instantly the cannoneers leaped from their perches on the
limber boxes and, in less than a minute, they had their pieces spraying the
storming front of the wild-eyed rebels with clumps of iron shot the size of
baseballs. The fire of the cannon staggered the rebel soldiers, dwindling their
numbers down to fragments of regiments, but they fought on like hellions for
almost another hour, their angry eyes ablaze behind their blazing rifles,
until, finally, reserves of Union infantry came up and poured massed volleys of
lead into their crumbling flanks and they faded grudgingly back into the
the same time this was happening, a quarter mile farther to the north, another
of Hill's attacks was being beaten back. A mass of his men had came through the
woods to the brow of the hill overlooking the main channel of Boatswain Creek.
For a moment, they had hesitated at the rim, dressing their line, making ready
to plunge down the tree strewn slope to the ravine below. In that moment, a
billowing roll of blue-black smoke suddenly laced the trees midway up the
opposite slope for two hundred yards. A millisecond later, a blast of bullets
surged against the rebel front like wind-driven sleet, ripping huge gashes in
their line. Like men caught out of doors in a hurricane, Hill's soldiers
involuntarily bent forward at the waist and staggered backwards on wobbly legs.
Then, as if they had the means to communicate among themselves by telepathy,
they all flopped on their bellies and cringed against the ground as sheets of
lead punished the earth around them and the whirring shells from Union cannon
exploded above them.
over the farm fields they had crossed over, from the Cold Harbor Road to the
brow of the creek valley, wounded and maimed rebel soldiers were dragging
themselves away from the squall of iron sleet and hail. Some used their hands,
dragging their shattered legs. Others used their knees, the bloody stumps of
arms blown away hanging limply at their sides. Alone or with another, some in
clusters of twos and threes, they moved rearward through a floating haze of
smoke like a stuporous swarm of crabs emersed in fog from the sea.
another wave of men—this time Hill's Georgia Brigade—came from the fields and
moved toward the tree line where the previous waves had crashed. Walking at
first, then running, the Georgians tried to reach the woods in order, but a
sheaf of shells lobbed over the tree line of the creek and exploded in star
bursts over their ranks. Fragments of metal from the Union shells ripped into
their bodies, flipping them about in the air like rag dolls. Despite the
startling rush of shells, the rebel throng, their red flags bobbing amongst
them, bent their heads against the iron tempest and kept coming across the
field. Firing, loading, and firing again, the soldiers in front fell, one by
one, but their spots were taken by others, who fired and reloaded and fell in
turn, the last man a little in advance of those who had fallen before. Finally,
the ebb and flow of the waves of men commingled, and, thus replenished, they
moved on as one to the edge of the creek valley, bounding like greyhounds down
the slope toward the creek, leaping over fallen trunks of trees, twisting their
bodies through clumps of wild azalea and blueberry brambles and reaching the
bottom in tumultuous disorder.
the creek bed, their wildly accelerating charge crashed into a wall of fire, a
blast of converging rifle fire and canister from the opposite side. Staggering
back into the thickets, their dead and wounded scattered over the whole breath
of the slope and in the shallow water of creek bottom, the survivors crouched down
behind rocks and tree stumps, in crevices and holes, and blindly fired back.
little valley now became obscured by a dense bluish-white smoke, pooling like
fog along the stream bottom, punctuated with bright flashes of gold, isolating
each individual fighter as completely as if he was adrift in a boat on an empty
ocean. Taking advantage, the uninjured among the attackers slide down the bank
into the stream and, splashing through the muck, crawled into the thickets in
front of the first tier of Union defenders. Crowding into the thickets, they
bunched up and rushed upon the enemy and found themselves suddenly tumbling
into fifty yards of almost empty trenches. They were in a gap between the
flanks of two Union regiments. By sheer momentum they fought the sparse
defenders hand to hand. Cursing with rage they used their rifles like clubs in
the close quarters, bludgeoning their enemies to the ground, stomping and
kicking savagely at their limbs and faces until the soles of their shoes were
from the second tier of Union trenches, a mob of Pennsylvanians rushed down the
slope of the valley to the berm of the trench and fired a volley into the
Georgians at point blank range. In an instant several dozen rebels fell
backwards against the opposite wall of the trench mortally wounded. The
survivors dived over the trench wall and disappeared in the thick smoke,
slithering like snakes through the underbrush and tumbling into the creek bed.
his vantage point, back by the Cold Harbor Road, A.P. Hill looked over the
field to the tree line that fringed the creek valley. The field was littered
with the dead bodies of his soldiers, and he saw crowds of wounded hobbling
toward him. Broken gun carriages and pieces of splintered caissons were scattered
about. He heard the sound of rifle fire fall away to a spattering, and he knew
the attacks had broken the back of his division. In four hours of fighting, the
division had lost its organization, suffered over five thousand casualties, and
gained only momentary penetrations.
In the lull that
followed the retreat of the Georgians from the Union trenches, General Lee was
a half mile behind Hill, on a wooded knoll overlooking the bridge crossing at
Gaines Mill. He held binoculars in his hands and from time to time examined the
fields where Hill's soldiers were regrouping. From this and listening to the
distant battle sounds, he knew the battle in the creek valley was ended.
all directions couriers arrived and departed with dispatches. Two of his aides,
Walter Taylor and Charles Marshall, took the couriers' reports and passed him
the information and he gave them instructions to relay. When they were alone
again, he stepped away from his aides to where Traveller was tied to a tree. He
put his binoculars in a case attached to the pommel of his saddle.
turned his head at this, and Lee came forward and stroked the stallion's black
muzzle with a hand, his thoughts now on McClellan and the next phase of the
battle. He had ordered Hill's attacks as a means of testing Porter's front,
probing for weak spots, while he waited to see whether McClellan meant to
threaten his flanks. During Hill's battle, Jackson's command had reached Old Church, with Stuart's cavalry going as far as the railroad, but to Lee's surprise Jackson's report was that there was no sign of McClellan. The road was empty down to the
river. On the right flank, Longstreet's column had moved toward Porter's
position along the river bank, watching for signs McClellan was building up
force in Porter's rear, but his scouts, too, reported nothing materializing.
glanced at the sun. It was about 3 o'clock. Only four hours of daylight left.
If McClellan's counterattack was coming from the direction of the railroad, it
would have developed by now. But McClellan still has time to cross more corps
by the bridges behind Porter's position and fight us straight up, he thought.
old boy, let's we find out what Little Mac means to do," he said as he
stripped Traveller's reins loose from the tree and walked him to the edge of
the knoll where Taylor and Marshall were standing.
stepped between the young men and looked over the battlefield again. Except for
the occasional sound of cannon fire there was a strange quiet. The battle torn
fields in front of the woodland covering Boatswain Creek were clear of Hill's
wounded. There were several regiments—Hill's reserve—lying on their arms along
the shoulders of the Cold Harbor Road. Teams of artillery horses, dragging
refurbished batteries of cannon, were kicking up whirls of dust from the ruts.
looked first at Taylor, then at Marshall. "Tell General Longstreet he must
get his division up and be ready to attack the enemy's left in two hours."
"Tell General Hill I know his men are battered, but they must hold the
ground gained in the center at all cost. Tell him his men will be relieved when
Jackson comes up." Nodding to his aides to be off, he vaulted into the
saddle with a careless grace. "We will be found over there," he said
as he led Traveller east toward Beulah Church.
the opposite side of Boatswain Creek, as Lee was riding east, Fitz John Porter
was taking stock of things. The reports from his brigade commanders told him of
the penetrations and casualties the rebel attacks had caused—he had lost thirty
percent of his force in the struggle—and he ordered up fresh brigades from his
reserve. This left him with only two brigades in reserve, so he sent a dispatch
to McClellan explaining the status of his forces and asking where Slocum was.
Then he called for his horse and rode across the plateau to his left flank and
worked his way to his center and then his right flank, looking for deficiencies
as he went and ordering their correction.
he made the circuit of the field, he heard the woods stirring again with
ominous sounds—the trills of bugles, the rattling of artillery carriage wheels,
the confused buzz of soldiers' voices, the strident commands of field officers,
and the humming tread of innumerable feet on the thick mat of dry leaves covering
the forest floor. Lee will use me up this time, he thought. Hurriedly, he
ordered up to the front lines the rest of his infantry reserve and sent a
second staff officer riding to McClellan, this time requesting a corps be sent
across the river.
late afternoon, the sounds of battle rose again to a thunderous roar of noise
along Boatswain Creek. The wild cheering of the men, the rifle volleys,
sounding like the backfiring at a thousand revving engines, the incessant
cannonading, the sounds rolling along the fighting front from one end to the
other and back again. Again and again, first here, then there, the rebels came
pouring into the creek valley and into the corn fields along the flat land,
surging up to the enemy and grappling with them under the fierce fire of their
rifles and shells. Finally, despite the stress of canister fire, a fresh
brigade of rebels swept down into the creek bottom at a dead run and threw
themselves against the opposite bank as the Union infantry in the trenches
blasted them with rifle volleys. Then, as the pressure of the rebels against
the first line of trenches increased in intensity, two batteries of rebel field
pieces—twelve Napoleons—opened from the fields above the creek valley and the
slope on the Union side of the creek became artillery hell.
the cannoneers manning the Union guns on the plateau racheted up the elevation
of their gun tubes to answer this, flights of rebel shells swooped over the
creek like birds of prey and slammed into the wooden barricades with deafening
impacts, smashing the timbers into matchwood and hurling huge splinters in
every direction. As the rebel shells crashed down, a band of Tennesseeans,
clutching their rifles like clubs, scrambled over the bank and raced up the
slope with curdling yells and screams, and, rushing through the jagged gaps in
the first line of barricades, they fought the enemy hand to hand at the second
tier. But yet again, Union reinforcements came sweeping down the slope into the
contested space and forced the enemy out.
the time of this repulse, General Lee reached the ravine that empties the
shallow waters of Bloody Run into Dr. Gaines's mill pond. Passing it, he led
Traveller into a large cotton field owned by a planter named Allerson and
stopped. Ahead of him, a huge dust cloud towered above the pine trees and dusty
ranks of Stonewall Jackson's soldiers were streaming past Beulah Church toward the Cold Harbor Road and Boatswain Creek.
to the sounds of the battle reverberating in the weltering atmosphere, Lee
nudged Traveller into a tight circling walk around the simmering white field,
his eyes taking in the three fingers of ravines that spread into the cotton
field from the east. Looking west across the Cold Harbor Road, he saw aligned
with them, in the waist of the plateau where the Watt house stands, the tips of
the two ravines the streamlets of Boatswain Creek run through. Three weeks
before, when his operations against McClellan were in the planning stage, he
had seen these ravines marked on a map and selected their location as his line
of defense, for it was here that he had expected his center to fight George
McClellan for his base.
in the saddle, General Lee saw the wiry figure of a horseman appear on the
Allerson farm lane, riding toward him on a little sorrel horse. The visor of
the rider's cap partially obscured his face and the rest was covered by a
straggly beard, but Lee knew immediately it was Stonewall and he nodded his
head in satisfaction. Here was a soldier who was his perfect match—a hard core
spirit afraid of nothing, always willing to push his men to the limit of
exertion if there was any chance of crippling the enemy. Give him a direction
and off he would go with no objections. Lee raised his hand in greeting and led
Traveller forward to meet him. Together, we can push the enemy out of Virginia, he thought.
yards down the lane, the two soldiers came together and reined up. Stirrup to
stirrup, they hunched together over the pommels of their saddles and quietly
discussed the progress of the battle.
half hour later, Fitz John Porter was standing on the porch of the Watt house
when one of his staff officers called to him excitedly, "Look, General,
look, they're coming at our right again!"
stepped forward with an expression of dismay on his face. In almost ten hours
of battle, his dwindling troops had fended off three division-size attacks, one
against his center and two against his right. Now, his lines were so thin that
the men were standing in the barricades several yards apart. Their water was
gone, they had had nothing to eat since the night before, and their ammunition
was running low. He could only guess how long their morale would hold.
took the binoculars the officer offered him and scanned the ground beyond the Cold Harbor Road. The sun was behind him now, well down toward the tree line of the
Chickahominy, and its slanting red rays were glistening on the tips of
thousands of rifles swaying in unison above the fresh brigades of rebel
soldiers, marching in long columns over the distant fields toward the belt of
woods in front of the Union line. Handing the glasses back, he stroked his
bearded chin, thinking that now was the time to pull his corps back. But just
then, as he was about to utter the order, Major-General Henry Slocum rode up to
the Watt house to announce the arrival of the head of his division on the
plateau. Finally, McClellan had sent Slocum's division over the Chickahominy.
must be quick," Porter said in a voice full of nervous relief. "Send
a brigade with its artillery battery to the right and bring up the others
behind the center there. The enemy has gotten into our trenches there and they
must be gotten out."
first of Jackson's men to reach the battle front was the Louisiana Brigade, led
by Robertdeau Wheat. Born in Virginia, Rob Wheat was educated at Nashville where he joined a volunteer force and fought with Scott in Mexico. After the war with Mexico had ended, he went to Cuba and fought against Spain, then to Italy where he fought with Garibaldi. Working as a lawyer in New Orleans when the war broke out, he had organized a battalion of volunteers and brought
them to Virginia in 1861. Most of the Louisianians that came east with Wheat
were Creoles from the swamps of the Mississippi Delta and Irish laborers swept
up from the gangs that worked on the canals and wharfs of New Orleans. Known
for their wild brawling and high desertion rates, Wheat's so-called
"tigers" wore dirty white bloomer breeches, striped blue blouses under
grey half vests, colored stockings, russet half boots, and a red cap with a
hemp colored tassel.
Louisianans came running through the belt of woods covering the Boatswain Creek
streamlets as the Union rifle guns opened on them with a barrage. Shells
screamed into the crowns of the trees, shattering the tree tops and crashing
the branches down. A heavy blue smog hung like swamp gas close to the forest
floor. Deep ragged furrows in the mat of dead leaves, cut by the wheels of the
artillery carriages that had gone before, showed the Louisiana soldiers the way
to the front. All around them as they moved forward among the trees, they saw
the ghastly bodies of maimed dead men littering the forest floor; some with
their faces caved in, their eyes hanging from the sockets, jaws blown away,
noses missing, red gaps in the trunks of their bodies, the surrounding flesh
shredded and splinters of bone protruding. Propped against the tree trunks or
laying on the ground beside the dead were the mortally wounded; groaning and
moaning at every labored breath, their hands clutching fistfuls of black leaves
and earth, their eyes wide and beseeching, they begged each passerby to finish
Wheat rode on horseback through the smoking woods, he sipped at a brandy flask and
muttered prayers to himself. He had seen something of war, but never anything
remotely approaching the horrible havoc that engulfed the men around him this
day. Reaching the bottleneck of Boatswain Creek, Wheat led the Louisiana
Brigade through the cowering survivors of the brigades that had gone before.
Sloshing his horse across the stream into a hail of lead, he turned in the
saddle with the brandy flask in his hand, waving at the crowd of wild-eyed
faces creeping forward behind him. "Bury me in the field, boys! Bury me in
the field!" he yelled. Then he threw the flask to the ground and gave his
horse the spurs, and the animal reared and plunged forward into the thickets
and underbrush. Immediately, a rifle volley ripped lead through the thickets
and Wheat's bullet-riddled body toppled from the horse.
now, a sprinkling of the red-capped wharf rats turned and ran back through the
forest, while the rest of them laid down against the bank of the stream. Then,
four regiments of Isaac Trimble's poligot brigade from Ewell's division,
Jackson's command, suddenly emerged from the murk and the Louisianians rose up
from the ground with a yell, and four thousand rebel soldiers lost all sense of
self and charged forward as one furious force into the enemy's defenses and
drove them with the bayonet deep into the McGeehee family's corn field.
charge shattered the front of the Union line, forcing the defenders to fall
back to the knoll where the McGeehee house sits. There, supported by three
batteries, the Union line seemed to stabilize. But just then, the 48th Georgia
Regiment from D.H. Hill's division burst out of the swampy tangle of thickets
on the fringe of the Grapevine Bridge Road and shot down all the gunners
serving the battery protecting the Union flank. With wild yells, rebel soldiers
in brigade formation appeared again on the skirt of the corn field in front of
the Cold Harbor crossroads, and, linking up with more brigades extending to the
forest on the right, they penetrated deep into the corn field.
the ground behind the snake fence at the stream side border of the field, rebel
field pieces unlimbered and the shells whizzed and banged over the lines of men
sprawled on the ground in the field. With bugles blaring and the regimental
snare drums sounding the long roll, the rebels leaped to their feet and swarmed
forward toward the wagon road where the Union survivors in this sector of field
had massed themselves. But, again, in the nick of time, yet another Union
brigade—this one from Slocum's arriving division—countercharged across the
waist of the plateau and shattered the impetus of the rebel advance. And
backward tottered the rebel brigades again.
as the sun was setting behind the Chickahominy, Walter Taylor rode up to James
Longstreet, whose division was now close to Porter's left flank, and
transmitted General Lee's order to attack. Minutes later, Longstreet had his
whole force rushing out of the woods and across the swamp ground and got them
over the north bank of the creek and down to the streambed under the fire of
the enemy's cannonading. At the same time Whiting's division, attached to
Jackson's command, was breaking down into a battle line along the Cold Harbor
Road: Under fire from a Union battery of rifle guns, John Hood's and Evander
Law's brigades formed a battle line in front of the belt of woods that covered
the junction point of the Boatswain streamlets. In the last glimmerings of
daylight, the rebel front scrambled across the intervening fields and came to
the enemy's exhausted defenses.
Hood was moving his troops through the belt of woods in front of Porter's right
center, when General Lee came loping out of the smoke and reined Traveller at
his side. Hood had been stationed with the Second Cavalry at Fort Mason when General Lee was in Texas, and he had often accompanied Lee on long rides over
Ketumsee's prairie ground. Waving a quick salute, Hood told Lee his
dispositions, as the booming of Union guns and the rifle fire in the woods
Lee responded in a tone of cold formality, "General Hood, halt your right
regiments here and wait for Law's second line to pass to the front. Then march
your men by the flank into the field beyond these woods and run them through
A.P. Hill's lines and attack the enemy's center directly."
Lee paused, his dark eyes boring in on Hood's. "This must be done,
can you do it?"
answered General Lee with a nod, and, jerking his horse around, he galloped
through the ranks of the 18th Georgia to the rear of the 4th Texas and drew
rein at the side of its colonel.
the regiment here, Colonel," Hood shouted. "After Law's regiments
have passed you, turn your men to face west and march them into the field
beyond the woods. Tell your company commanders that when they reach the field
they must run like devils for the creek bottom. No firing until I command it.
Send a messenger to the 18th Georgia with my order to follow you and take
position on your left. Get on with it quick."
colonel hesitated, his mouth opening, but Hood had already wrenched his horse
around and was galloping toward the fading light filtering through the forest.
minutes later the men in the front rank of the 4th Texas emerged from the woods
and found Hood seated on his stallion in the middle of the field as shells from
the enemy's rifle guns screeched over him. Hood signalled to the field officers
to bring the regiment forward. Behind the 4th Texas, the 18th Georgia appeared at the fringe of the woods and followed. As the soldiers of the 4th Texas reached the middle of the field, Hood dismounted and, giving the reins to a soldier,
he waved the front line into a run with his sword. As the five hundred men of
the regiment quickened their pace, Hood drew his Colt pistol from its holster,
let loose with a wild yell, and the whole front of the regiment raced with him
for Boatswain Creek.
Porter's front was succumbing to the relentless rebel pressure, crumbling like
pieces of levee under the battering of a hurricane. Down in the creek bottom,
the men of the 4th Texas fixed bayonets and sprang like lions at the enemy's
defenses. The remnants of the Union regiments that met them were now reduced to
isolated groups in the trenches, with huge gaps between them. The field
officers still surviving, could no longer effectively command them and pitched
into the fighting with their pistols and swords wherever the pressure of the
moment carried them.
their Lone Star banners waving above their heads, the Texans rushed up to the
barricades of the second line, in the face of a terrible blast of rifle fire
that knocked down one man out of two. Then they were leaping over the logs into
the trenches in tumultuous disorder, wildly stabbing at the defenders with
Union men still standing fought with the rebels hand to hand for five minutes.
But when they saw no one was coming to their support, they turned their backs
and ran for the crest as the Texans swarmed up the hill after them.
organization now was lost among Porter's infantry brigades as the rebel
soldiers came crashing on. In the center, the second line quickly gave way
under the fierce pressure of the Texans and a head-long dash by everyone for
the crest ensued. On the right of Porter's line, the rebels were also coming on
strong again, across the cornfield and up to the McGeehee house this time,
forcing the Union guns in battery on the farmhouse hill to limber and withdraw
down the farm lane leading toward the Adams house. On the left of Porter's
line, a regiment of Pickett's Virginia Brigade of Longstreet's division swept
through a gap between two Union brigades and joined the wild Texans as they
came clamoring over the crest. Up and down the rebel lines there were great
roars of elation as the men surged forward.
yet, even as Hood's Texans led the rebel charge over the crest and spilled onto
the plateau, the Union cannoneers, spread in an arc in front of the Watt farm
house, still manned their guns. Enveloped in a dense cloud of sulfurous gray
smoke and stifling brown dust, the Union cannoneers worked like demons over
their guns, naked to the waist, wearing tattered and filthy trousers, their
faces and chests glistening with sweaty black grime. Some of the men scrambled
back and forth between the caissons and the pieces, bringing cartridges and
charges to their comrades serving the guns. As the deadly objects were passed
from hand to hand, the black faces of the cannoneers flashed with white-toothed
grins and their bloodshot eyes shined bright with the murderous lust of war.
ticked into minutes and minutes into a quarter hour and still the cannoneers
worked the guns like automatons: the water gone they dispensed with the sponge,
thrusting the cartridge in dry, the charge of canister was rammed in next, then
the priming of the vent, the pulling of the lanyard, and the whirling iron
spray of death went forth from the mouth of the gun to do its horrible
business. As soon as the field pieces had recoiled from the shock of the
discharge, the mad cannoneers set their bruised shoulders against the carriage
wheels again and heaved the guns back into their places, and the next charge
was passed forward to the cannon's smoking mouth. By now their officers were
all shot down and the strength of their crews had dwindled down to twos and
threes, and the enemy was thick in the dust storm swirling around them, but the
Union cannoneers stuck to their guns.
suddenly, there came to the ears of the Union cannoneers a strange pounding
sound rising in volume behind them. Two hundred troopers of the First and Fifth
U.S. cavalry regiments, with pistols drawn, had come up from the river bottom
and were dashing across the plateau on galloping horses. Charging full tilt
through the belts of smoke that were drifting over the field, their thick necks
stretched forward and their manes rippling in the wind, the cavalry horses
hurtled forward, tearing loose from the ground great clumps of earth with their
hooves, trampling in their bad dash over the dead bodies of men and horses and
splintered pieces of gun carriages and wagon wreckage. When the thundering mass
of horsemen broke into segments and streamed into the gaps between the guns,
sweeping on toward the rebels converging, the cannoneers huddled round the
carriage trails and stood gawking in amazement. Neighing and snorting, their
eyes bulging in terror, the cavalry horses surged up against the Texans.
Hearing the thunderous galloping of the horses rolling near them, the men in
the front of the rebel ranks crouched in the murk of dust with bayonet points
cavalry charge suddenly burst upon the wall of spears in the gloom: some of the
horses, savagely spurred forward in a great leap, landed—skewered—in the midst
of the rebel soldiers. But most of the horses balked at the sight of the steel
and began to rear and kick and bite. The Texans shot rider after rider at point
blank range and they fell from their saddles and were trampled under the hooves
of the hysterical horses. Elated, their hearts pumping adrenalin, the Texans
gave a war whoop in unison and raced forward to the Union guns and fought hand
to hand with the cannoneers.
beneath the falling curtain of night, Fitz John Porter's corps finally
collapsed under the relentless pressure of the rebel hurricane. Everywhere
along the line of Boatswain Creek and across the wide plateau, there was a
horrible desolation: mad howls and wild Indian yells of thousands of blood
thirsty men clawing at each other in the swirling smoke and dust, sudden
flashes of rifle volleys, the bang of pistol shots, the scrape of steel against
steel, men on both sides crumbling in clumps, wounded horses croaking, some
riderless ones charging and bucking about in fear while others bent their necks
and calmly cropped bits of grass, the farm fields cannon plowed and trodden,
the trees peeled and splintered, heaps of mangled corpses stinking and swelling
in the heat, teams of artillery horses lying dead in their traces, broken gun
carriages, demolished wagons, wrecked ambulances among a dense litter of rifles
and cartridge boxes, canteens and haversacks. Amidst the carnage and the din,
the crumbling resistance of the Union men turned into a mad flight, the
survivors of the battle swarming westward across the plateau and down into the Chickahominy
bottomland, running like refugees.
Lee rode alone onto the plateau in darkness, leading Traveller by starlight
through the debris of the battle. In the distance he could see the shadowy
multitude of the enemy receding, followed by a dense crowd of Longstreet's and
Jackson's soldiers, and the shouts of men and the rumble of wagons carried to
his ears. Nearer to him, sometimes right at Traveller's feet, he heard the
cries of the pitiful wounded: "Help me Brother, I need a surgeon."
"Water, someone bring me water." "Oh, Mother I am bleeding to
death." And he saw the horrible work of the cannon balls and bullets, Union and Rebel dead mangled and dismembered, the dark mounds of bodies like Comanche biers
waiting for fire.
His eyes as they
roamed shone with a concentrated attention, mirroring his thoughts of the
courage of the men who had struggled in the battle. Shaking his head in wonder,
he leaned forward and patted Traveller's neck reassuringly with his hand. He
had seen with his own eyes that the fate of battles is not always decided by an
army's ordinance and rifles, but by the spirit of its soldiers, and he pledged
himself now to lead the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as far as it
lay in his power.