STORY OF A REGIMENT
A RECORD OF THE MILITARY SERVICE
FIFTY-SEVENTH NEW YORK STATE
WAR OF THE REBELLIN
1861 - 1865.
GILBERT FREDERICK, D. D.
LATE CAPTAIN 57TH N. Y. V. I.
SEVEN DAYS BATTLES.
JUNE 26TH TO JULY 1ST, 1862.
AFTER the rain had ceased and the ground had settled somewhat, General McClellan began to put into execution his plans for advancing. The centre at Seven Pines was pushed forward and the skirmish at Oak Grove resulted, General Hooker being supported by the division of General Richardson. This movement, however, soon ceased, as Stonewall Jackson had come down from the Shenandoah Valley and all the troops that could be spared from the south side of the Chickahominy were massed at Mechanicsville in a grand attempt to destroy the Army of the Potomac, by crushing its right wing and then falling upon its left.
On the 26th day of June the battle began at Mechanicsville, when A. P. Hill attacking our front was repulsed with great slaughter. At night General Porter concentrated all his forces at Gaines’ Mill in a partially fortified position and awaited, with his thirty-three thousand men, the attack of the sixty thousand Confederates. On the 27th about one o’clock, “A. P. Hill, coming straight down from the scene of yesterday’s battle attacked smartly with his own division and was repulsed. Two hours later, joined by Longstreet, he renewed the attack with fury, and a battle of extraordinary fierceness raged until five o’clock. But all this time a powerful enemy was steadily marching toward the battle field. Jackson had found no one to oppose his movement toward the railroad and had turned upon Cold Harbor. Shortly after six o’clock Jackson hurls his fresh divisions into the fight. After a brief but desperate struggle the Union lines are broken at all points and thrown into retreat. And now an unaccustomed cheer rises along the slender Union line. It is the cheer of men over weighted and worn when they learn that help is at hand. It is a reinforcement from the Second Corps; two brigades, good brigades, good men.” They are from the First Division and are commanded by French and Meagher.
General McClellan’ s report has the following sentance: “These brigades advanced boldly to the front, and by their example as well as by the steadiness of their bearing, reanimated our own troops and warned the enemy that fresh troops had arrived.” It was nearly dark when we reached the scene of contest and advancing to the very front line were just in time to check the last charge. Double-quick up the hill we went, cheering and being cheered, when General Doubleday cried out “Whose troops are these?” and was answered “French’s and the Irish Brigade.” “To you then” he responded “belongs the honor of having saved the army of the Potomac this day.” During the night all the troops were withdrawn from the north bank of the river to the south, the Third Brigade covering, the rear and protecting the bridge burners. Before daylight the 28th we were again in our old position at Fair Oaks.
General French says he received instructions about five in the afternoon, of June 27th, to cross to General Porter’s assistance, that he crossed at the Grapevine Bridge, that when the head of his column debouched into the meadow on the opposite bank a crowd of fugitives was encountered and it was with difficulty and at the point of the bayonet he forced his way through them, that on reaching Gaines’ Mill he found the main body of Porter’s Corps in full retreat, that he advanced about three-quarters of a mile beyond Gaines’ Mill and posted his and the Irish brigade on the crest Of the hills commanding the position; that so near were our men to the enemy, several of the latter were taken prisoners by coming into our lines, thinking they were within their own; that by four o’clock the following morning the brigade had crossed the river again, and for twelve hours thereafter the enemy shelled the woods at Gaines’ Mill supposing we were still there.
It is related that after the regiment had taken its advanced position at Gaines’ Mill some one from the rebel front came out between the lines and moved up and down as though looking for something. The man came nearer and nearer to our line and was finally halted by “Who comes there” and answered, “A friend on the opposite side.” When taken prisoner he said he was Adjutant to the Thirty-Eighth Georgia, that his regiment had been in the fight all day and he was out looking for the body of his Colonel. He further said that three lines of the rebels had broken at the advance of our brigade, and that there would be bloody work upon the morrow.
The day following the night-march from Gaines’ Mill was comparatively quiet with us, but on the 29th the retreat to James River commenced. We abandoned our entrenchments at Fair Oaks on Sunday, just four weeks after the battle and moved down the railroad about two miles and took position in an open field near Orchard Station. At nine the next morning the enemy had found us and began moving heavy infantry columns against our front and right. The Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, dashing forward, checked their progress and the brigade retired to Savage Station. Here the rebel General Magruder came out of the woods looking for something, which when found, he gent several brigades to capture. What he found happened to be the old warrior General Sumner and one of the best corps in the Union Army, hence, after spirited and repeated attacks his brigades returned repulsed and broken. The “Land Merrimac,” a Confederate siege gun mounted on a fiat car and protected by iron plates, was conspicuous in these attacks.
At night Savage Station also was abandoned, 2,500 of our wounded being left in the hands of the enemy. The Second Corps crossed White Oak Swamp with the Third Brigade as rear guard, which latter destroyed the bridge and by ten o’clock in the morning occupied a position near Frazier’s farm. An hour after the rebels opened fire from the north bank of the stream with every cannon at their command. They could not get across until the bridge was replaced but acted as though they would tear us all to pieces with shot and shell. General French called it the severest and most destructive cannonading that had occured in this campaign, and the yet living members of the Fifty-Seventh speak of it to this day as having made a lasting impression on their memory.
At evening the brigade was stationed near the broken bridge with orders to hold it at all hazard until the army had secured its position at Malvern Hill. Our guns got perfect range On the bridge builders and kept them so warm with bursting shell during the night that slow progress was made with their repairs. During the same afternoon there was considerable fighting at Glendale on ‘our left, where Hill and Longstreet determined to break through and cut of our retreat, but their efforts were not successful though the fighting was very bitter. Just before daylight we also started toward the James River, and the same morning joined the division.
Here at Malvern Hill, on July 1st, the Army of the Potomac for the first time occupied a good defensive position. Its line was much shorter, and its flanks resting upon the James River could not be turned. The hill also gave a chance for artillery to do its best work. The bulk of the fighting was done in the centre, but directly in our front, the right-centre, there was little to do. Two brigades, the Irish and Caldwell’s, were sent to re-enforce the centre and they ‘helped to repulse two determined charges on Couch. Not until dark did the fighting cease and not until midnight ‘did quiet reign.
The Fifty-Seventh occupied a position on the crest of a hill much exposed to the cannonading during most of the day. “At sundown the brigade was directed to advance in line of battle to meet a body of the enemy a mile in our front, when, night intervening, we lay on our arms until ordered to retire. The success which invariably attended the covering movements of the brigade must be attributed to the habits of discipline acquired in months of active and arduous service. That no disaster occureci is due to perfect obedience to orders and those dispositions made to foil the sagacity of a most enterprising foe.”
This Malvern Hill engagement was the last of the seven days battles, and it was a sorry one for the rebels, as by it we got fairly even with them for Seven Pines an d Gaines’ Mill. The Army of the Potomac stood on Malvern Hill unbroken and when the enemy came on gave them as warm a reception as they could ask. They seemed determined yet to accomplish their object and hurled their battalion in masses on our lines, but with the only result that they were mowed down like grass before a “fire which, for destructivness, has seldom if ever been exceeded in the history of war.” As the day closed on fields populated with Southern dead the enemy seemed disposed to believe that they had found a foernan worthy of their steel and they ceased to pour out further useless blood.’
As night settled again the line of march was taken along the river road to Harrison’s Landing and the seven days retreat had passed into history. When the Landing was reached and the long days of fighting and the longer nights of marching were over, the men fairly fell in their tracks and slept day and night amid mud and rain until the water literally ran into their ears.
During these Richmond fights the soldiers got experiences that were severe but invaluable. Marching all night and fighting all day tested their strength and courage and gave excellent discipline. For the first time they found what it meant to be forced back by the weight of advancing columns, what to receive a charge, to see the lines plowed with solid shot, raked with double canister and melt away before the withering fire of infantry, to hear the cries of the wounded, the groans of the dying and to see the fields of scattered dead. The first sight of so many killed was a shock to the nervous system and caused white lips and trembling limbs and death was expected by the very next volley, but when volley after volley came and hours passed amid the rain of lead, those who lived began to be somewhat at home and even showed signs of pugilism. The first severely wounded man, as one comrade relates, whom he saw and heard on June 1st, was a little German, shot through the abdomen and sure to die. Sitting on the ground with his hands upon his wound, he was crying, “Jesus Maria,” “Jesus Maria” with such plaintive lamentations as brought tears to the eyes of many who heard him. The month of June had made veterans of the Army of the Potomac, and with such the rebels must reckon thereafter.
The losses of the Second Corps during the seven days battles reached 2,420. Phisterer gives the loses of the Fifty-seventh as fifty-two, being eight men killed, one officer and eight men wounded and thirty-Eve missing.
President Lincoln came down from Washington ‘to the Lan4ing and reviewed the army: The Second Corps was in line July 8th, and at five o’clock saluted the President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of all its armies.
An amusing incident occured among the wagons on Monday of the retreat. The drivers were ordered to unhitch and water their teams at a brook near by. But while watering, a rebel battery caught sight of and vigorously shelled them. Such a skedaddle was seldom if ever seen. Mules and drivers flew in all directions, to the infinite amusement of both armies. It resulted’ in the abandonment of many ammunition wagons because neither the mules nor the drivers could be caught and returned to their places. On the way to Malvern Hill one of the boys of Company “I” shot a sheep, skinned and divided it among several comrades. His own part, stuck on his bayonet, was carried aloft regardless of shot and shell, but as he marched along the “bah!” and the “bah!” became so general as to embarrass even a member of Company I, and the ensign was lowered, but, after the halt and the meal, great satisfaction settled upon both his stomach and his conscience and the insinuations of sheep stealing entirely vanished from his memory.
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