As the sun rose east of Richmond, Virginia on Friday, June 27, 1862, Charles W. Roberts knew that his 2nd Maine Infantry boys were “in” for it.
The previous day, Colonel Roberts and the 2nd Maine had listened for hours as Confederate troops attacked Union soldiers entrenched along Beaver Dam Creek. A Pennsylvanian division belonging to Fitz John Porter’s V Corps had held off the determined assaults and inflicted 1,500 casualties on Robert E. Lee’s army.
Belonging to the 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. John H. Martindale and the 1st Division of Brig. Gen. George W. Morrell, the 2nd Maine had held the right flank of V Corps, the only Union force of size north of the Chickahominy River. Since the Beaver Dam Creek fighting was on the corps’ left flank, the Maine boys did not fire a shot.
But Fitz John Porter reported to George McClellan, who had decided to withdraw his Army of the Potomac to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Rather than reinforce Porter after his June 26 victory, McClellan told him to retreat south across the Chickahominy.
So in Friday’s wee hours, V Corps had pulled back and formed a line along Boatswain’s Creek, a Chickahominy tributary flowing through a ravine east of a local landmark called Gaines’ Mill.
George Morrell deployed his three brigades along the high east bank of the creek. From left to right (southwest to northeast) were strung the 3rd Brigade of Dan “Taps” Butterfield, the 1st Brigade of Martindale, and the 2nd Brigade of Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin.
The 2nd Maine defended the creek’s high bank approximately due north of the Watt House, the home of 77-year-old widow Sarah Watt and the centerpiece of Springfield Plantation. The house still stands.
As his men kept busy stacking up tree limbs and fence rails to form rough breastworks, Roberts spoke with his line officers and waited. Poor communications, difficult terrain, and other factors delayed the disparate Confederate attacks until around 2:30 p.m.
Against the 2nd Maine and Martindale’s brigade rushed Alabamians, Mississippians, North Carolinians, Texans, and Virginians, many screaming the feared “Rebel yell.” Federal cannonballs, Minie rounds, and shells eviscerated the oncoming Confederates, who plunged down the ravine’s brushy west bank and splattered across the narrow stream.
Besides the 2nd Maine, Martindale’s brigade included two Massachusetts and two New York regiments. The 13th New York “and the fire-proof and scarred veterans of the 2nd Maine” held the left of Martindale’s brigade, according to a New York World reporter.
Employing Napoleonic tactics, Confederates from the 5th Alabama Infantry “moved up over the crest of a hill opposite, in splendid style, even, steady and resolute, with arms at right shoulder shift, ready for a charge,” the reporter noted.
The Mainers and New Yorkers lay “concealed in the low growth of timber in the valley.” As the Alabamians appeared atop the hill, Union officers yelled, “Up and at them!” The Maine and New York boys “sprang to their feet” and unleashed “one piercing, terrible volley … into the ranks of the confident enemy,” the reporter wrote. “The hill was cleared as though swept by a hurricane.”
Union troops scurried to retrieve the fallen regimental and battle flags of the 5th Alabama. Into the ranks of the 2nd Maine a Maine soldier carried the 5th’s red-silk regimental flag, a trophy that must not be lost.
Continuing all day, the fighting spread two miles to the east as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson tried to break the right flank of V Corps. Along Boatswain’s Creek, the day’s last Confederate assault began after 7 p.m. With Union lead shredding their ranks, Southern infantrymen plunged into the ravine, splashed through the creek, and climbed its east bank.
History still disputes where Confederate troops initially scythed into the Union lines; struck hard, Charles Griffin’s 2nd Brigade fell back, exposing the 2nd Maine’s right flank. Other Confederates pried apart the seam between Martindale’s and Butterfield’s brigades over on the left; with enemy troops already passing his flanks, Roberts pulled his boys back under heavy fire.
Gaines Mill cost the 2nd Maine more than 90 casualties, including many men captured. The ill Lt. Col. George Varney of Bangor vanished during the retreat; “although not wounded” during the fight, Varney “was not entirely recovered from his late illness” when he and Adjutant Lewis P. Mudgett of Stockton Springs went missing.
Today, Richmond National Battlefield Park preserves the Watt House and the land where the 2nd Maine boys fought and died. Accessible from Route 156 — which should be called the “Seven Days’ Battles Highway” — the site offers a few monuments and cannons and several hiking trails that wind down to Boatswain’s Creek.
The exact terrain occupied by the 2nd Maine is not marked. Bring a good map, stand in front of the Watt House (inaccessible to the public), and orient yourself to due north.
Those trees rising immediately across the field and spreading to its left are likely where Charles Roberts and his Maine men caught “it” on June 27, 1862.
Next week: Gaines Mill: Part III — the 5th Maine marches into hell
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.