Looking from Maine in 2016 to Virginia in 1862, we cannot appreciate how, in the words of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in speaking about Waterloo, the Battle of Gaines Mill was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!”
George Brinton McClellan had split his Army of the Potomac in preparation for his final assault on Richmond in late June 1862. A perceived military genius around whom “Jeb” Stuart had literally ridden rings about 12 days earlier, McClellan concentrated four army corps on the south bank of the Chickahominy River and left the V Corps of Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter alone on the north bank.
Robert E. Lee, the closest to a Wellington that the United States produced in the 19th century (my opinion), decided to attack Porter with 60,000 men, leaving only 25,000 men to face McClellan on the other side of the Chickahominy.
Tired soldiers, difficult terrain, and a misguided Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson kept Lee from launching his attack until around 2:30 p.m., Friday, June 27. The initial assaults went against the V Corps line along Boatswain’s Creek.
Having run roughshod over three Federal armies in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson’s exhausted infantrymen were supposed to simultaneously hit Porter’s extended (and open-ended) right flank.
Had Jackson struck when planned, his divisions would have rolled up the Union line from east to west. Confederate troops would have destroyed V Corps and sent McClellan running for the James River.
McClellan ran anyways, but Porter’s veterans — including the recently bloodied boys of the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment — did not. They fought while “Little Mac” started his army’s wagon train on the road to Harrison’s Landing.
While Porter’s heroes battled equally heroic Confederates amidst the brushy, tree-studded terrain bordering Boatswain’s Creek, McClellan figuratively pointed his horse’s head toward the south. He sent Porter minimal help; only by the grace of God was V Corps able to hold off enemy attacks all afternoon.
Because of the higher terrain on the south bank of the Chickahominy, many Union soldiers watched the battle from afar. “We witnessed this bloody contest across the valley of the river, but the atmospheric condition was such that no sound of artillery or musketry reached our ears,” said Charles Clark of the 6th Maine.
“It was like a phantom battle as it appeared to us,” he said.
Vast troop columns “appeared on the flats across the Chickahominy above us,” noticed Maj. Thomas Hyde of the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment. Raising his field glasses, he studied the distant infantry.
“Dirty gray uniforms,” Hyde realized.
Delayed when his cavalryman guide misunderstood his instructions, Jackson struck late, around 7 p.m. His men could have still helped bag V Corps but for stubborn resistance put up by Porter’s men and the timely arrival of the 1st Division with which marched the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. Besides that division — commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum — up came the brigades of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher and Brig. Gen. William H. French.
The battle raged until the opposing infantrymen could only identify the location of their foes by the muzzle flashes of their firearms. Before darkness settled over the region, Capt. Charles J. Whiting led troopers from the 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in a wild, blown-to-bits charge that failed to stem the Confederate onslaught.
Driven from their Boatswain’s Creek defenses and their lines farther east, the V Corps survivors withdrew across the Chickahominy River as the lead-shredded Union reinforcements bought time.
From the after-action reports, Union commanders reported 6,837 casualties, including 2,836 men captured or missing. Confederate commanders reported 7,993 casualties.
Over the next two weeks, we will examine Gaines Mill from the viewpoints of the 2nd Maine and 5th Maine. The first regiment defended the Boatswain’s Creek line; the second regiment crossed the Chickahominy in mid- to late afternoon and moved out to meet Jackson’s men.
Both regiments left a lot of men on the battlefield.
Next week: Gaines Mill: Part II — the 2nd Maine defends Boatswain’s Creel
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.