Gaines Mill: Part I — “The nearest run thing you ever saw”

 

Until Friday, June 27, 1862, elderly widow Sarah Watt lived in this farmhouse at Springfield Plantation east of Richmond, Va. Then a savage battle raged along a nearby creek and across the farm yard, leaving dead men strewn everywhere and the house pockmarked with bullet holes. Part of the Gaines Mill battlefield, the Watt House is preserved by the National Park Service. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Until Friday, June 27, 1862, elderly widow Sarah Watt lived in this farmhouse at Springfield Plantation east of Richmond, Va. Then a savage battle raged along a nearby creek and across the farm yard, leaving dead men strewn everywhere and the house pockmarked with bullet holes. The Watt House is preserved by the National Park Service; the battle was named after a nearby landmark called Gaines Mill. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

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.

George Brinton McClellan set the stage for the Battle of Gaines Mill by leaving only one Army corps on the north bank of the Chickahominy River. (Library of Congress)

George Brinton McClellan set the stage for the Battle of Gaines Mill by leaving only one Army corps on the north bank of the Chickahominy River. (Library of Congress)

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.

After learning that McClellan had deployed only one Army Corps north of the Chickahominy, Robert E. Lee organized and launched a massive attack to destroy that part of the Union army. (Library of Congress)

After learning that McClellan had deployed only one Army Corps north of the Chickahominy, Robert E. Lee organized and launched a massive attack to destroy that part of the Union army. (Library of Congress)

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.

A young visitor walks across the Gaines Mill battlefield at Richmond National Battlefield Park. The distant treeline borders the east bank of the ravine through which flows Boatswain's Creek. The terrible fighting that engulfed this terrain on June 27, 1862 left the ground covered with dead, drying, and wounded men and horses. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

A young visitor walks across the Gaines Mill battlefield at Richmond National Battlefield Park. The distant treeline borders the east bank of the ravine through which flows Boatswain’s Creek. The terrible fighting that engulfed this terrain on June 27, 1862 left the ground covered with dead, drying, and wounded men and horses. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

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 visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.