Cambridge Chronicle - July 15, 1862

 

Headquarters Co. D 22d Reg. Mass. Vols.
Harrison's Landing, Va.
July 15, 1862


Thus far I have given an account of the battle of Gaines Mill, and now I will give a record of the retreat from Savage's Station and the Battle of Malvern Hill.

Our stop at Savage's Station was brief; for at a little past noon we were off again, and with scarcely a halt, continued our march until dark, when we filed off the main road and bivouacked on a steep hill side in White Oak Swamp, and congratulated ourselves on at least one good night of rest; but

"The best laid plans of mice and men
aft gang aglee"

for, at almost midnight, after we just had got into our first sleep, in spite of a heavy rain that was falling, we were roused up by the startling order, "fall in! fall in!" "The guerillas are upon us!" and half dead with fatigue and want of sleep, we fell into our places and waited. All this was occasioned by a blundering coward in a neighboring regiment, who became scared our of what fraction of a wit he ever had, by scampering of some stray mules. If all the "inverted blessings" stowed upon him reached home, my opinion is that he stodd a right smart chance of seeing the place weher Beauregard intended to water his horse.

We stood in line an hour or so, and by the time we got ready to lie down again it was nearly time for reveille, and so another night's rest was lost.

During the forenoon we took up our line of march, but did not advance but three or four miles, and at dark halted in a field by the road side, intending to continue our advance at a later hour in the night, and we could have made up a portion of our lost sleep, had not the same regiment who was responsible for the excitement of the night previous, again become alarmed at the sound of musketry from our pickets, and again we were cheated of our sleep. The alarm soon subsided, but rest was banished, and long before daylight we were again we were again on our way, and reached Malvern Hill at almost noon.

The sight of the James river, with its forest of masts decked with the American flag, filled all hearts with joy. It proved that our communications with our gunboats and transports were safe, and this was a promise of rest; and you can imagine that we needed it, having but a few hours sleep for nearly a week. But no! scarce had we arrived, when a detail called for our regiment and for the Second Maine as a guard for the baggage train, and accordingly we were kept in line at the top of the hill for two or three hours, when we were allowed to go to our new camping ground, a mile and a half distant, only to be recalled and marched back again almost on our arrival there; and we soon became aware of the reason for our speedy summons, as the rapidly nearing sound of cannonading from the road in the direction of Charles City Court House, over which we passed in our morning's march, told us that our rear guard was faithfully covering the retreat, and that the tide of battle was steadily surging to where we were formed. Lines of battle were steadily formed and every thing was made ready to give them a warm reception, but night closed in and still our brave rear guard kept back the anxious forces, to give us ample time to receive them. Strong picket lines were thrown out, orders were given us to lay down behind our stacked guns, sentries posted to give the alarm, and we lay down in our places and gave up the night to our ammunition, baggage and artillery trains and the pickets and sentinels.

But our rest was extremely brief, for we were almost immediately afterwards ordered back to our first position (we were thrown to the front at dark), and morning's dawn found us without rest, in line of battle, and the tide of strife was meanwhile rapidly nearing us, and we each moment looked to see their forces emerge from the woods in our front.

The ground on which we were formed was an immense open field, which gradually rises until it reach a point about a half a mile from the river, when it descends abruptly to the lowlands bordering on its shores. But McClellan had no idea of letting them out of the woods, and accordingly at noon, when the scattering fire from our pickets warned us of the approach of their advance guard, Griffin's battery was thrown to the front just over the brow of the hill, and at about two o'clock opened the ball. My descriptive powers being very feeble, I will give only a general description of the ground and line of battle in our vicinity.

Our division held the extreme left of the line, and our left rested on a hill which was flanked by a road through a deep wooded ravine. This flank was supported by a section of a battery and by the gunboats, who were kept posted by our efficient signal corps. The line of woods opening on this open space was on the draw of the hill, and in a sort of semi-circle, so that as we lay on our hill side, supporting the battery, we were exposed to a cross-fire from two of their batteries posted on their right and centre, and we lost quite a number of men while in that position, as by some means, they had excellent range.

An incident occured at this time which illustrates the coolness of Lieut. Symonds. A piece of shell, weight about ? pounds, came whizzing down, and struck within three inches of his head, tearing a deep hole in the ground, and filling his eyes, hair, and heavy whiskers and moustaches with dirt. He simply raised his hand, and finding there was no damage done, brushed the dirt from his head and beard, and lay down again. When I saw the piece strike, my heart sank within me, for I thought he was struck, and my relief was great when I saw that he was all right. I said to him "What's up, Henry?" "I was thinking," he said cooly, "what a waste of time that wash of ours was this noon." He alluded to a bath which we got from a muddy stream, two inches deep, just before we were called into line the last time. Up to this time we had been lying in double column, closed en masse, and had suffered severely from solid shot, sperical case and shell, and Gen. Martindale seeing this, deployed our columns, and we advanced two paces nearer the brow of the hill, and lay down.

Shortly afterward, the order came, "Fix bayonets! forward! double-quick! march!" and away we rushed over the brow of the hill, and lay down again immediately in the rear of Griffin's battery, which was playing into their ranks murderously. Cass's boys came dashing up just at this moment, and after pouring in a volley, rushed down the hill at a "double-quick"; and, in the mean time, the rebels were advancing down theirs. The two hills met in a ravine at the bottom, and so Griffin waited until the Ninth had got far enough down the hillside to be out of danger, and they poured double charges of grape and canister into the rebel line over their heads - decidedly the smartest artillery practice I ever witnessed.

When the Ninth had advanced nearly two-thirds of the way down the hill, they discovered why the opposite line came on so steadily to meet them , in the face of such galling fire; for, on looking to the left, they discovered two regiments steadily moving forward, with the intention of turning our flank, but their benevolent intentions were frustrated by the order "Battalion! left face! file left! double-quick! march!" Which evolution being performed, pu them in the position of flankers, and they took care of both the two regiments until relieved.

In the mean time, we were lying on the ground, just in the rear of the battery, exposed to a raking and cross-fire from the two regiments above mentioned, and the line of battle in front, but forunately we lost but few men as we kept lying pretty close.

When Cass's men took their new position, as described, their "twin", the Sixty-Second Pennsylvania, rushed in and peppered the rebels until their boxes were empty, when they were relieved by the First Michigan, who were in turn relieved by us.

Just about this time i was struck in the side of the right foot by a spent musket ball, which had the effect of inficting only a bruise, and laming me for a day or two. I remained on the field, however, long enough to see that the boys were doing their job nobly, and that their line was as straight as at dress parade. They disposed of the contents of their cartridge boxes, were relieved by a New York regiment, and retired in order. Night, mean while, closed in on the scene, and so ended the battle of Malvern Hills, in which we were completely successful, and with comparatively little loss.

Our regiment suffered again to the number of sixty killed and wounded; among the latter was Capt. S. J. Thompson, of Woburn, a brave and intelligent officer, who performed his duty faithfully, leading his command in both battles, and not leaving it to his Sergeant. His wound being of a nature unfitting him for service, his loss is felt by those who remain.

In our company, James H. Goldings, a brave and faithful soldier, fell. Corporal Alden and private James Miller were slightly wounded, but are both doing well at this time.

Pickets were thrown out along the whole line, burial parties detailed, fresh troops thrown to the front, and our boys, worn out from eight days continual labor, without rest, lay down on the field of battle [and went to sleep]; as the burial parties of of both sides often approached each other so near that they could each distinguish what was said by the other, and our men could hear them in the woods calling out the different regiments, while the groans that filled the air were heart-rendering.

At midnight, our division, followed shortly after by the rest, left the field of carnage, and took the road leading to this place.

With the light of morning, came a north-easter, whcih increasing with its age, drenched us through and through, while the "sacred soil", ploughed up by the passing troops, the immense trains of wagons, artillery and cavalry, soon became almost impassable from mud; and as we advanced, pressed onward by the cry from the rear, "the enemy are close upon us", the difficulties of the march multiplied as our strength diminshed and mud and rain increased.

However, at dark we reached this place, and after receiving our portion of mud from a camp ground, made arrangements to lie down in it, and as the mud was soft and the rain which still kept up was cool, we were in no danger of suffocation from heat.

Morning came at last, and with it sundry and ? compliments from the rebels in the shape of six pound solid shot, two of which alighted in the mud in our immediate vicinity, causing some little consternation.

Line of battle was formed, artillery thrown forward, and after they opened a spell, the Eleventh Maine and others advanced as skirmishers. The battery was surprised and captured, gunners and all, and so ended the excitement, the latest of the kind. This being satisfactorily settled, suitable dry camping grounds were portioned to each corps, in the edge of the woods skirting the large open field in whcih we lay the previous night, and the troops were dismissed to their various quarters to make themselves as comfortable as possible; and as an abundance of provisions was issued, and Old Sol showed himself just afterward, by the next day, July 4th, the boys were ready and willing to cheer for "the day celebrate, and the man we venerate", both of whcih were done with a will.

Requisitions were drawn for clothing to make good that lost in the late battle and marches, and we were now quite comfortably situated.

Without entering into any extended relation or recapitulation of events, allow me just to call your attention to the amount of labor performed by our division, without rest and mostly with short rations. By a review of my letters, you will see that from the night of June 22d, to that of July 3d, a period of just eleven days, we were almost entirely without sleep, catching short slices of an occaisonal hour or two; and during this time, besides picket and guard duty, we fought two battles, one of them the greatest ever fought on American soil, and marched by a long sweeping circuit from the north bank of the Chickahominy, at New Bridge, completely across the Peninsula to this place, which is twelve miles below City Point - a distance, probably, of over thirty miles.

As the newspapers have published the news from day to day, I will merely allude to the labors of the army of the Potomac, for the period of the "seven days fight".

On Thursday, June 26th, simultaneuosly with the advance of General McCall on the extreme right, Heintzelman extended his lines on the extreme left. Any person with a small vestige os strategy in him, can readily see that the object of these movements was two-fold; first, to distract the attention of the enemy from certain points, where discovery and counter-action would be fatal; and second, to give our trains more time to get out of the way, as the more ground our several rear guards fell back over, the more time would be gained for them.

Of Friday, while Fitz John Porter was giving them "Jesse" at Gaines' Mill, Sedgwick was picthing into them on the other side of the river.

On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, Smith, Hooker, and Casey gave them all they could attend to at Fair Oaks, Savage's and White Oak Swamp, where Kearney, "the one-arm devil", as they call him, laid them out by thousands, strewing the field with their dead, fighting a battle second only to Gaines' Mill, the whole bloody series winding up with Malvern Hills on Tuesday - a series, the summing up of which, if correct accounts can be had, would show a hole in the rebel ranks that 75,000 men would not fill up, while our loss could not be more than one-third that number.

In addition to this, we have gained a position much better adapted to the requirements of our line as a base of operations, and a short time will show the wisdom of the change.

The question is asked frequently, "why, if this thing was so great advantage, was it not done before, when it could have been done with less cost"? Simply, because the old line, as it lay, would have been better, had troops sufficent to hold it, through its entire length, been furnished, and the movement was delayed, from day-to-day, in the vain hope that this would be done. As it was, the next best thing was done and well done too.