Reminiscences of the Army
                                    of Northern Virginia *
                                             By J. WILLIAM JONES

                  PAPER NO. 7. OPENING OF SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES.
 
  

In my last I spoke of the secrecy with which the "foot cavalry" moved from the green fields and clear streams of the Shenandoah Valley to the swamps of the Chickahominy.   I am now to speak of those seven days of smoke and noise, and heat, and bloodshed, and wounds, and groans, and sufferings, mingled with loud huzzas and rejoicing, during which Gen. McClellan 
made his celebrated "change of base" from the Pamunkey to the James.  "The situation" at Richmond 
in May had been indeed gloomy.   The evacuation of Norfolk, and the destruction of the ironclad Merrimac (Virginia) left James River open to the gunboats of the enemy, with only a few hastily constructed earthworks, and some incomplete "obstructions" to bar their passage to the wharves of Richmond. The wildest panic ensued. The Confederate Congress adjourned, many of the citizens fled from the city, and the preparations of the government for any emergency which might arise gave color t the rumor that it was proposed to evacuate Richmond without a battle for its defense.

But the Legislature of Virginia passed vigorous resolutions calling upon the President to defend Richmond at every hazard, and to the last extremity.
A meeting of citizens (addressed by the Governor of 
the state and the Mayor of the city) enthusiastically endorsed the action of the Legislature, and President Davis assured the committee that he had no purpose of evacuating the city. On the morning of the 15th of May Commodore Rogers with the Galena, the Monitor, the Aroostook, the Port Royal and the Naugatuck, made 
an attack on the unfinished batteries at Drewry's Bluff (Fort darling), nine miles below Richmond, and received a repulse, which was of the utmost importance as breaking the prestige of the gunboats, blocking the way to Richmond, and restoring the confidence of the people.

McClellan was, however, enveloping Richmond with 
a cordon of intrenchments (temporarily broken by 
the Confederate victory of Seven Pines), and was only waiting for McDowell's corps to sweep down from Fredericksburg and join him at Hanover Courthouse in order to make his contemplated assault on the "doomed city." But Jackson's splendid Valley campaign thwarted this plan. On May 24th McDowell received his order form President Lincoln to co-operate in the movement 
to "capture or destroy Jackson and Ewell's forces," and at once replied to the Secretary of War: "The President's order has been received-is in process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us."

We have seen how Jackson eluded the snare set for 
him, beat his enemies in detail at Cross Keys and Port Republic, deceived them as to his plans, and hastened 
to obey the orders he received from General Lee to join him on the Chickahominy. This great commander, who had succeeded to the command of the army on the wounding of General Johnston at Seven Pines, had sent Stuart on his famous "ride around McClellan," had discovered the weak point of his antagonist, and was
thus prepared to strike so soon as Jackson should arrive at the designated point on the enemy's flank.

In his official report General McClellan seeks to make the impression that his movements during the seven days' battles were simply a preconceived "change of base," and a number of writers have adopted this theory and write as if Lee simply endeavored to prevent McClellan from fulfilling his purpose of moving to
the James and was badly repulsed in all of his attacks.

Things did not look that way to an eye-witness and 
active participant, in those stirring scenes, and I do not see how any fair-minded man can read McClellan's dispatches for several weeks before, during, and just 
after this "change of base" without seeing clearly that 
it was forced and not voluntary.

E. g. On June 25th he telegraphs to Washington:

"The rebel force is stated at 200,000, including Jackson and Beauregard. I shall have to contend against vastly superior odds if these reports be true; but this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack." * * *  Again:

"June 27th, 1862, 3 P. M.-We have been fighting nearly all day against greatly superior numbers. We shall endeavor to hold our own, and if compelled to fall 
back shall do it in good order, upon James river if possible." * * * [Italics mine.]
 

"June 28, 1862, 12:20 A. M.-  I now know the fully 
history of the day. On this side of the river (the right bank) we repulsed several very strong attacks. On the 
left bank our men did all that men could do-all that soldiers could accomplished; but they were overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, even after I brought my last reserves into action. Had I 20,000 or even 10,000 fresh troops to use to-morrow I could take Richmond; but I have not a man in reserve, and shall be glad to cover
my retreat and save the material and personnel of the army. If we have lost the day, we have yet preserved 
our honor, and no one need blush for the Army of the Potomac. I have lost this battle because my force was
too small. I still hope to retrieve our fortunes. I know that a few thousand men more would have changed this battle from a defeat to victory."

These and other quotations which I might make show conclusively that McClellan did not "change base" according to some preconceived plan, but that he was driven from the field by Lee's army.

But I must return to the movements of "the foot cavalry."

General Lee's order of battle contemplated that Jackson should bivouac on the night of the 25th of June near 
the Central railroad, eight miles east of Ashland, and
to advance at 3 A. M. on the 26th, so as to turn the enemy's works at Mechanicsville and on Beaver Dam Creek and open the road for A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill and Longstreet to cross the Chickahominy and unite with him in sweeping down towards the York River railroad, and thus cut McClellan off from his base of supplies at the White House.   But the burning of the bridges and the blockading of the roads by the enemy so impeded our march that we only reached the vicinity of Ashland that night, and were not able to move again until sunrise on the morning of the 26th, and even then we made such slow progress that we only reached Pole Green Church 
in the afternoon, just as that gallant soldier, A. P. Hill (impatient of further delay, and unwilling to wait longer for Jackson to turn the position), had crossed the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and was leading his heroic "Light Division" down on the position of the enemy at Mechanicsville. I shall never forget the scene among the "foot cavalry" when Hill's guns announced that the great battle had opened. Cheer after cheer ran along the whole line,  and the column hastened forward with the eagerness of veterans to reach their "place in 
the picture near the flashing of the guns." But we were too late that evening to get into the fight or help our comrades by turning the strong position which they 
were assailing.

As we lay down in our bivouac, near Pole Green 
Church, with orders to move at "early dawn," the muttering of the fight just closing, the dashing about 
of staff and general officers and the talks of the men around the Camp fires, all betokened the eve of a great battle.

We broke camp the morning of the 27th and moved forward to the sound of the guns, which told that 
A. P. Hill, supported by Longstreet (who had crossed 
the bridge opposite Mechanicsville so soon as Hill drove off the enemy), was renewing his assault upon the strong position on Beaver Dam Creek, which our move was designed to flank.   My own regiment, the Thirteenth Virginia, was deployed as skirmishers, and we were thus in advance of the whole of Jackson's column, and the first to enter the deserted camps from which the enemy fell back on our approach, and to see and converse with a number of prisoners whom we captured. But the 
sound of the battle ceased as we flanked the enemy's position at Ellison's Mill and compelled him to yield
to the gallant attack in his front and fall back to his
still stronger position about Cold Harbor and Gaines's Mill.   The whole of General Lee's columns north of 
the Chickahominy (A. P. Hill, Longstreet, D. H. Hill, 
and Jackson)  now moved on the position which McClellan had skillfully chosen and heavily entrenched. D. H. Hill was united to Jackson, who was to make a detour to the left in order to attack on that flank, and
at the same time prevent the enemy from retreating toward his base at the White House, while A. P. Hill
and Longstreet moved nearer to the Chickahominy.

The Army of the Potomac awaits us behind their strong entrenchments and the great battle of Cold Harbor and Gaines's Mill is about to begin.
 

Taken from the Southern Historical Society Papers
Volume IX Richmond, Va, September, 1861, pages
426 - 429 

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