Heroes tramped into a leaden hail at Gaines Mill, Va. on Friday, June 27, 1862. From chapter 34 in my new book, Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, comes this adapted story involving the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. Nathaniel Jackson.
When George McClellan decided to flee the Peninsula (the man was light on his feet when running away), he hung Fitz John Porter and V Corps out to dry that Friday. McClellan held four other corps from the Army of the Potomac south of the Chickahominy River; Porter and V Corps held the army’s right flank north of the river, and Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia attacked Porter en masse early that morning.
Porter’s divisions held a line along Boatswain’s Creek, a Chickahominy tributary flowing through a ravine east of a local landmark called Gaines Mill. Taking heavy losses, Confederates pounded on the Union defenses.
The 5th Maine belonged to the 2nd Brigade (Col. Joseph J. Bartlett) of the 1st Division (Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum) of VI Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin. The 2nd Brigade was fleshed out with 6th and 27th New Yorks and the 96th Pennsylvania.
Bartlett had started the 2nd Brigade toward the fighting at 5:30 a.m. Sent initially to guard Duane’s Bridge (the Union-held river crossing nearest Confederate lines), the 5th Maine soldiers went belly to earth as enemy artillery “opened a severe fire of shot and shell upon us,” recalled 1st Lt. George Bicknell, who would write the regimental history soon after the war.
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 Duane’s 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 Porter’s hard-fighting infantry.1
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.”
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.
Bartlett needed the 5th Maine lads farther to the front. “On,” 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.”
As “the whistling bullets chimed music to the soldier’s ear,” the 5th Maine lads stepped off with Jackson and his second-in-command, Lt. Col. William S. Heath of Waterville, presenting large targets atop their horses. Bicknell and his men advanced firmly with “no short, timid step.”
From the saddle, Bartlett watched while the “regiment … changed its front in the most soldierly manner, and under the sweeping storm of iron and leaden hail sent up their battle-shout and rushed upon the enemy.” He rode alongside the advancing 5th Maine.
Nathaniel Jackson waved forward his two lines. His men “advanced with a shout” and “involuntarily bent forward their heads” as they marched through “a perfect storm of bullets, shot and shell, which whizzed through the air as thick as hailstones in a storm.”
In the brief silences between enemy volleys, Bicknell could hear the swish, swish, swish as Maine men marched through growing grass. Bullets thudded into a Maine lad here and there, but the lines kept “on—now quicker—quicker still,” Bicknell said, keeping pace with his company.
“No one seemed to breathe,” then the regiment charged, and “the brow of the hills was ours,” he exulted.
The slope behind Bicknell was strewn with 5th Maine bodies. “The wonder is not that they lost so many, but that any escaped,” Jackson said afterwards.
Sources: Rev. George W. Bicknell, History of the Fifth Regiment Maine Volunteers, Hall L. Davis, Portland, Maine 1871, pp. 99-102; Col. Joseph J. Bartlett, Official Records, Series I, Vol. 11, Part I, Chapter XXIII, No. 176, p. 447-448; Lt. Col. Jacob G. Frick, OR, Series I, Vol. 11,Part I, Chapter XXIII, No. 177, p. 450; and “The Fifth Maine in Battle,” Maine Farmer, Thursday, July 17, 1862
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