At 5:30 a.m. on Friday, June 27, 1862, Col. Nathaniel Jackson started the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment toward the fighting — at that moment only a large-scale shootout between opposing skirmishers — nears Gaines Mill east of Richmond.
Jackson’s men marched with the 2nd Brigade led by Col. Joseph J. Bartlett. Fleshed out with the 16th and 27th New Yorks and the 96th Pennsylvania, the brigade belonged to the 1st Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum.
Sent initially to guard Duane’s Bridge (the Union-held river crossing nearest Confederate lines) spanning the Chickahominy River, the 5th Maine soldiers went belly to earth as enemy artillery “opened a severe fire of shot and shell upon us,” said 1st Lt. George Bicknell, the regiment’s future historian.
Around 11 a.m. (Bartlett recalled the time as 10 a.m.), Slocum recalled the 2nd Brigade, and “we had proceeded but a short distance before the enemy sent shell after shell whizzing upon us,” Bicknell noted.
Slocum sent the brigade back to the bridge, which Bartlett’s men sufficiently ripped apart to stop Confederate troops from using it. The shooting intensified across the Chickahominy; about 2 p.m., Bartlett received orders from Slocum “to cross Woodbury’s Bridge and hasten” to reinforce the hard-fighting V Corps infantry of Fitz John Porter.
Bartlett responded immediately; thumping across Woodbury’s Bridge (about 500 yards downriver from Duane’s Bridge) with the 16th New York Infantry in the van, Bartlett’s men marched “up the hill on which the battle was then raging” along Porter’s left flank at Boatswain’s Creek, recalled Lt. Col. Jacob G. Frick of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Busy just then with his regiment, Frick would soon join the 5th Maine, now approaching “where death’s winged messengers flew fast and thick,” Bicknell noticed.
With Confederate reinforcements commanded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson now pressuring his right flank, Porter was in serious trouble. As yet unaware of that threat, Slocum sent Bartlett and the 2nd Brigade first to reinforce Porter’s left flank, then “to the extreme right of the field” (and Porter’s battle line) to assist a division of Army regulars commanded by Brig. Gen. George Sykes.
Tired by their forced march in the hot, still air, Bicknell and his comrades lay down when Nathaniel Jackson halted the 5th Maine in a ravine behind Sykes’ brigades. Bartlett, who had ridden to this point, let his men “rest, of which they were greatly in need.”
Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate divisions continually hammered the Union right flank; his men “unable longer to withstand the fierce attacks and withering fire of the enemy,” Sykes told Bartlett to bring his brigade up to the battle line at 5 p.m.
The 16th New York advanced first “under the most terrific fire of musketry” and two enemy artillery batteries, Bartlett described the lead rain driving horizontally across the battlefield. “Giving three cheers long and loud,” the New Yorkers rushed forward with Bartlett and their colonel leading them.
Anchoring the regiment, Bartlett summoned the 96th Pennsylvania to take position on the left of the 16th. “The murderous fire across the plain” enervated the Pennsylvanians, particularly “some of the line officers,” the disgusted Bartlett growled, so he rode through the hellacious fire “to lead forward the third regiment in line,” the 5th Maine.
Nathaniel Jackson ordered his men to stand, and moving “with an unbroken, unfaltering front” in two lines, the 5th Maine lads “passed over the brow of the hill” and appeared in view of Confederate troops. Bullets zipping past his ears, the sweating Bicknell counted off “some fifteen rods” (about 250 feet) before Jackson told his men to ‘“lie down.’
“In a moment every man was on his face,” perhaps a moment before an enemy brigade “unleashed “a full volley … without the slightest effect,” Bicknell said.
Then Bartlett needed the 5th Maine lads farther to the front. “On,” Nathaniel Jackson ordered.
“Up rose every man,” said Bicknell, standing as “the air was full of bullets.
“No eye turned backward” in search of safety, he noticed. “Intense eagerness pervaded every file” as “home, comfort, life, death” were “all forgotten. Victory was alone thought of, alone desired,” he said.
The 5th Maine lads then marched into hell.
Next week: Gaines Mill: Part IV — “It was more than flesh and blood could resist”
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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.