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The Peninsula Campaign, Yorktown to Malvern Hill
March - July 1862

With the Union's hopes of a short war having been dashed at Manassas in July of 1861, George B McClellan conceived of a plan to defeat the Confederacy by attacking its Capital, Richmond, from the south and east. Plans called for McClellan's Army of the Potomac to move by sea to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula, then move on Richmond from the southeast while another Union force under McDowell reinforced from the North. However sound the plan may have been, it ultimately failed. President Lincoln's overriding concern for the safety of Washington, McClellan's innate caution and poor intelligence support, one of the wettest springs on record, and Robert E. Lee's superior strategic instincts conspired to frustrate the Union's attempt to decapitate the Confederacy. Richmond's survival, at a cost of more than 35,000 Confederate and Union casualties, including more than 5,000 killed, set the stage for another three years of bloody civil war.

On April 9, 1862 the Seventy First New York Volunteers, now part of the Second Brigade of the Second Division, Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac, was moved by river transport to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. The first battle of the Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of Yorktown, had already begun and the 71st Regiment was soon engaged in what had become a siege at Yorktown that lasted for nearly a month, until May 4th. After remaining on guard duty at Cheeseman's Landing near Yorktown during the fighting at Williamsburg, the 71st rejoined the Second Brigade and by the end of May was encamped near Bottom's Bridge where the Williamsburg Road (US Route 60) crosses the Chickahominy River. They were then moved a few miles south along White Oak and Elko Roads to guard the crossings at White Oak Swamp, which is where we find them on May 31st as General Joe Johnston's Confederates prepared to attack the Union forces guarding the railroad at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks.

The 71st moved from White Oak Swamp to the intersection of Elko Road and Williamsburg Road (VA 156 and US 60) during the late afternoon of 31 May where they bivouacked for the night. The Confederate attack at Seven Pines began earlier that afternoon, followed at about 4PM by an attack at nearby Fair Oaks. Early on 1 June the 71st advanced along Williamsburg Road until engaged by Confederates at Seven Pines. After an exchange of volleys they mounted a bayonet charge and drove their adversaries from the field. The 71st remained in the vicinity of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks for the rest of June, engaging in almost daily skirmishes until June 25th when they were among the lead elements of an attack designed to bring McClellan's siege guns within range of Richmond.

The Battle of Oak Grove began around 8AM on 25 June and by evening the 71st and the rest of Hooker's Division had reached their objectives. This apparent success was short lived though, as General Robert E. Lee, who had assumed command of the Confederate Army after Joe Johnston was wounded on May 31, had been planning his own offensive. Lee's attack at Mechanicsville with 65,000 men on June 26th persuaded McClellan that he was badly outnumbered, and prompted a decision to shift his base of operations to the south on the James River. Thus began the Seven Days Battles, a series of sidestepping withdrawals and holding actions that climaxed on July 1st at Malvern Hill in one of the most violent engagements of the war. After a day of fierce fighting in which 5,000 Confederate and 3,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing; McClellan's Army withdrew to Harrison's Landing on the James River where they enjoyed the security provided by Federal gunboats. The 71st remained at Harrison's Landing until August 15, then marched back to Yorktown from where they were moved by river transport to Alexandria and then marched to Warrenton Junction, just in time for the 2nd Battle of Manassas.

What follows is a description of the Peninsula Campaign in the words of those who fought it, taken from the after-action reports of commanders at every level and on both sides.

Yorktown and Williamsburg

The 71st Regiment was "soon before formidable works of Yorktown, where the brigade was thrown well to the front, and was almost constantly engaged in building redoubts and entrenchments, or on duty on the skirmish line. You were ever vigilant in the performance of this duty, and always ready to take advantage of any carelessness of the enemy. Your vigilance was rewarded, for at early dawn on the morning of the 4th of May, after a night of terrific artillery fire from the enemy, our enterprising comrades of the Fourth Regiment, becoming suspicious of the unusual quiet-ness in their front, made up their minds to find out the cause of it, and, pushing forward, were soon climbing over the Rebel works, thus being among the first to announce their evacuation. The loss in the brigade during the siege of Yorktown was 1 killed and 2 wounded."[3]

The Seventy First remained at Cheeseman's Landing on the York River while the rest of the Excelsior Brigade pursued the withdrawing Confederates to Williamsburg, where heavy fighting gave the Excelsior Brigade its first real taste of battle.[4]

Original leaf from 1862 Harper's Weekly[2]
Harpers Original Leaf

The story of the battle of Williamsburg is an interesting one to the soldiers of Hooker's Division, for upon them fell the brunt of the fighting. The reports of that battle did not do justice to our gallant leader. They were brilliantly colored when referring to other parts of the field, but here in front of Fort Magruder the vision of the author of the report was obscured by the smoke of battle and the volcano of fire that whirled around the vicinity.

Col. William F. Fox, in his work on Regiment Losses, says: "The battle of Williamsburg was fought almost entirely by the Third Corps. Of the 2,239 casualties on that field, 2,002 occurred within its ranks, and three-fourths of them in Hooker's Division; the brunt of the battle having fallen on the Excelsior Brigade and Jersey Brigade, both in Hooker's Division. Your proportion of the loss was enormous; the First Regiment losing 330 in killed, wounded and missing; the Third Regiment, 195; Fourth Regiment, 104; and the Fifth Regiment, 143; a total loss in the four regiments, in killed, wounded and missing, of 772."[5]

Battle of Seven Pines - Fair Oaks

By May 7th, the 71st had rejoined the Excelsior Brigade as the Army of the Potomac continued its march to Richmond. By the end of May, 1862 they were camped on the Chickahominy River at Bottom's Bridge, about four miles east of the current Richmond Airport. The Battle of Fair Oaks, also called Seven Pines, was about to begin.

By the end of May, the Army of the Potomac had moved to within twelve miles of Richmond. McClellan had divided his army, placing two corps south of the Chickahominy River and three to the north. This placed McClellans army in a better position to join up with McDowells corps moving south from Fredericksburg. It was a dangerous deployment, however, as heavy rains had swollen the Chickahominy.

General Joseph E. Johnston sought to take advantage of the divided Union army. He devised a complicated plan whereby two thirds of his army would attack Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's III Corps and Major General Erasmus Darwin Keyes' IV Corps south of the Chickahominy. Johnston's plan called for four different Confederate columns to converge on the Union troops via three roads.

The intricate battle plan, issued verbally, fell apart almost immediately on the morning of May 31. Longstreet, instead of using the Nine Mile Road as ordered, moved down the Williamsburg road, which had been assigned to D. H. Hill's and Benjamin Huger's troops, thus delaying the Confederate attack. Major General D. H. Hill opened the battle at 1:00 pm when his unsupported brigades struck Keye's positions at Seven Pines. The Federals were pushed back under heavy pressure from the Confederates. Longstreet finally supported Hills attack with one brigade, and the Federals withdrew to a third position when the fighting ended around 6:00 pm.

Meanwhile, Whiting finally charged the Union positions at Fair Oaks around 4:00 pm. Major General Edwin Sumner pushed reinforcements across the Chickahominy and these troops blunted the Confederate attack. Johnston, riding along his lines striving to achieve victory in the twilight, was seriously wounded. Major General G. W. Smith temporarily replaced Johnston as the Confederate army commander. The Confederates renewed their attack the next morning, but Longstreets two brigades were repulsed. Smiths apparent inability to effectively assault the Federal positions prompted President Jefferson Davis to replace him with Robert E. Lee. Lee ended the engagement by ordering a withdrawal. McClellan, even though a part of his army was nearly destroyed but for poor Confederate organization, won a tactical victory. The Federals suffered 5,031 casualties and the Confederates 6,134[6]

BGen Heintzelman's report on the Battle of Seven Pines says that on May 25th the Third Corps "was ordered to cross the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge and occupy positions 2 miles in advance of it,and to watch the crossings of the White Oak Swamp." Later in his report, he says that "No portion of General Hooker's division was engaged on Saturday, the first day. On the next morning, Sunday, June 1, a little before 7 o'clock; firing of musketry commenced near the Fair Oaks Station. This soon became heavy, occasioned by an attack by the enemy on General Sumner's corps, on my right. I immediately gave orders for that portion of General Hooker's division to advance between the Williamsburg road and the railroad. General Hooker gallantly led the Fifth and Sixth New Jersey Regiments forward near the railroad. General Sickles' brigade followed, but finding the enemy in force to the artillery, after making the attempt to follow, had to return. General Birney's brigade, on the right of General Hooker, and now under command of Col. J. H. Hobart Ward, promptly and gallantly supported the former. After some fighting General Hooker made a gallant charge with the bayonet, leading himself the Fifth and Sixth New Jersey against the rebel troops and driving them back nearly a mile.

In Sickles' brigade, the Seventy-first, New York, Colonel Hall, after one or two volleys, made a charge and soon drove the enemy before them. In every instance in which our troops used the bayonet our loss was comparatively light, and the enemy was driven back, suffering heavily. Our troops pushed as far forward as the battle-field of the previous day, where they found many of our wounded and those of the enemy."[7]

BGen Hooker reports that "the Second Brigade, the Fifth and Sixth Regiments of the Third Brigade, and Brain-Hall's and Osborn's batteries struck camp at White Oak Swamp Bridge about 3 o'clock on the 31st ultimo, and marched first toward Savage Station, and from thence along the Williamsburg Old Stage road in the direction of the battle, nearly 3 miles distant. The roads were heavy, but presented no serious difficulty to our advance until the column reached the Burnt Chimneys, about 2 miles from our camp, where we first encountered the throng of fugitives from the battle-field, which greatly delayed us from that point onward.

This was Sunday, and its stillness was suddenly broken a little before 7 o'clock by an impulsive musketry fire of considerable volume, which at once discovered the position and designs of the enemy. They had chosen to renew the conflict on the right of where it had ended the night before, and my command, consisting of the Fifth and Sixth New Jersey Regiments and the Second Brigade (Seventieth, Seventy-first, Seventy-second, Seventy-third, and Seventy-fourth New York Regiments), immediately advanced in that direction in column of companies in the order in which they are named. My chief of artillery attempted to follow with his batteries, but was prevented by the miry condition of the fields through which we were compelled to pass. the Second Brigade, under its gallant leader, Brigadier-General Sickles, was actively engaged with the enemy to the left. Soon after leaving camp in the morning this brigade had been detached from my column without my knowledge, with direction to pierce the forest on each side of the Williamsburg road."[8]

BGen Sickles reported that " on Saturday, the 31st ultimo, about 3:30 in the afternoon, this brigade in light marching order moved from its camp at White Oak Swamp to a position on the Richmond and New Kent Old Stage road where it crosses a road leading to Meadow Station. We bivouacked in the pine woods on the right, lying on our arms, and at about 7 a.m. on the following (Sunday) morning we were ordered to follow General Patterson (Third Brigade) along the Stage road to the front, and report to Brigadier-General Hooker, commanding the division. The column was promptly formed and moved forward a few hundred yards, when I was directed by General Heintzelman, commanding the left wing, to form in line on the right of the road in a large field with thick oak undergrowth in front, forming part of Snead's plantation. Before the deployment of the column was completed, Colonel Hall's Second Excelsior being on the right and Colonel Taylor's Third on the left, I was ordered by General Heintzelman to throw two regiments on the left of the road in an opening bordered on the left and front by woods. Colonel Hall [71st Commander] was then directed to take position on the left of the road, his right resting on the road, supported by Colonel Taylor on the left. The Fourth, First, and Fifth Regiments were already in line on the right.

These dispositions were made under an annoying fire from the enemy's skirmishers and sharpshooters, who were in the woods and undergrowth in front. Their fire seemed directed almost entirely upon mounted officers. Some of his sharpshooters were taken in the trees. Skirmishers were thrown forward to silence this fire, and the line moved forward briskly on both sides of the road under a heavy fire, to which the Second Regiment, Colonel Hall, and Fourth Regiment, Major Moriarty, immediately on the right and left of the road, were most exposed. After one or two volleys these regiments were pushed forward across the field at double-quick, and with a loud cheer charged into the timber, the enemy flying before them. The Second, Fourth, Fifth, and First Excelsior having advanced beyond the line I was directed to hold, they were recalled, Colonel Hall's right and Major Moriarty's left resting on opposite sides of the road."[9]

Col Hall's report of June 4th says that " I marched my command on the morning of the 1st instant in advance of the brigade in the direction of the camp lately occupied by the division under the command of General Casey, then occupied by the enemy in force. Not being familiar with the names of the localities where we were engaged, I am only able to state that we continued our advance on the left of the Richmond turnpike, under the observation and direct orders of General Sickles, until exposed to a severe fire from the enemy, consisting of about four regiments, concealed in the woods directly in our front. My regiment charged upon them at double-quick time, driving them from the woods with considerable loss. At this time I received orders to halt my command.

Holding that position, I advanced my skirmishers about 300 yards, and being then supported by the Third Regiment of our brigade on my left and the Fourth Regiment on my right, I continued to advance them about 400 yards farther, where they remained (about 300 yards from the enemy) until they were ordered by General Sickles to join the regiment. Resting on our arms that night in the position above named during the skirmishing on Sunday (1st instant) the enemy were frequently seen to appear before my men and wave a white flag, while continuing to fire upon them. On the following morning, in obedience to orders, I advanced my regiment with the brigade to the earthworks in front, where we remained until relieved this morning. (June 4th)"[10][11]

A Confederate perspective on the Battle of Seven Pines is found in the Reminiscences of John G. Gordon. "Whatever rank may be assigned in history to the battle of Seven Pines, it was to my regiment one of the bloodiest of my war experience. Hurled, in the early morning, against the breastworks which protected that portion of McClellan's lines, my troops swept over and captured them, but at heavy cost. As I spurred my horse over the works with my men, my adjutant, who rode at my side, fell heavily with his horse down the embankment, and both were killed. Reforming my men under a galling fire, and ordering them forward in another charge upon the supporting lines, which fought with the most stubborn resistance, disputing every foot of ground, I soon found that Lieutenant-Colonel Willingham, as gallant a soldier as ever rode through fire and who was my helper on the right, had also been killed and his horse with him. Major Nesmith, whose towering form I could still see on the left, was riding abreast of the men and shouting in trumpet tones: "Forward, men, forward!" but a ball soon silenced his voice forever. Lieutenant-colonel, major, adjutant, with their horses, were all dead, and I was left alone on horseback, with my men dropping rapidly around me.

My soldiers declared that they distinctly heard the command from the Union lines, "Shoot that man on horseback." In both armies it was thought that the surest way to demoralize troops was to shoot down the officers. Nearly or quite half the line officers of the twelve companies had by this time fallen, dead or wounded. General Rodes, the superb brigade-commander, had been disabled. Still, I had marvellously escaped, with only my clothing pierced. As I rode up and down my line, encouraging the men forward, I passed my young brother, only nineteen years old, but captain of one of the companies. He was lying with a number of dead companions near him. He had been shot through the lungs and was bleeding profusely. I did not stop; I could not stop, nor would he permit me to stop. There was no time for that--no time for anything except to move on and fire on.

At this time my own horse, the only one left, was killed. He could, however, have been of little service to me any longer, for in the edge of this flooded swamp heavy timber had been felled, making an abatis quite impassable on horseback, and I should have been compelled to dismount. McClellan's men were slowly being pressed back into and through the Chickahominy swamp, which was filled with water; but at almost every step they were pouring terrific vollies into my lines. My regiment had been in some way separated from the brigade, and at this juncture seemed to reach the climax of extremities. My field officers and adjutant were all dead. Every horse ridden into the fight, my own among them, was dead. Fully one half of my line officers and half my men were dead or wounded. A furious fire still poured from the front, and renforcements were nowhere in sight.

The brigade-commander was disabled, and there was no horse or means at hand of communication with his headquarters or any other headquarters, except by one of my soldiers on foot, and the chances ten to one against his living to bear my message. In water from knee-to hip-deep, the men were fighting and falling, while a detail propped up the wounded against stumps or trees to prevent their drowning. Fresh troops in blue were moving to my right flank and pouring a raking fire down my line, and compelling me to change front with my companies there. In ordering Captain Bell, whom I had placed in command of that portion of my line, I directed that he should beat back that flanking force at any cost. This faithful officer took in at a glance the whole situation, and, with a courage that never was and never will be surpassed, he and his Spartan band fought until he and nearly all his men were killed; and the small remnant, less than one fifth of the number carried into the battle, were fighting still when the order came at last for me to withdraw.

Even in the withdrawal there was no confusion, no precipitancy. Slowly moving back, carrying their wounded comrades with them, and firing as they moved, these shattered remnants of probably the largest regiment in the army took their place in line with the brigade. The losses were appalling. All the field officers except myself had been killed. Of forty-four officers of the line, but thirteen were left for duty. Nearly two thirds of the entire command were killed or wounded."[12]

The 71st Regiment spent the rest of June, 1862 in the area of Seven Pines engaged in almost daily skirmishes with the Confederates. LtCol Coyne recalled that: "During the month that we remained on this field the brigade was called upon to do almost constant picket duty, and the duty was arduous for us, as the regiments we would relieve were frequently forced back by the enemy and we had the line to retake. Thus it was, that whenever we were seen going to the front, the comrades in other regiments would commence to look to their arms, and grumble about Sickles' men always raising a fuss. Thus it became almost a daily battleground for the Excelsior Brigade, and our losses were serious. The twin Houses would often be filled with our wounded, and the rattle of musketry as you pressed back the foe would echo through the woods like a general engagement. You lost in these brief but severe contests, which included the engagement at Oak Grove and Peach Orchard, 322 killed, wounded, and missing."[13]

The Seven Days' Battles

This difficult month culminated in what is known as The Seven Days' Battles from June 25 to July 1, 1862. From BGen Sickles and Hooker's reports on this action, we learn that on June 24th the 2nd Brigade was deployed across the Williamsburg Road immediately behind the forward line of pickets preparatory to a major advance on Richmond. The Second Excelsior was positioned just north of the Williamsburg Road. Now known as The Battle of Oak Grove, the attack began at 8AM of June 25th, and after a heavy day of fighting the Division reports reaching its objective (a report disputed by their Confederate foe, who reports driving "...from their stronghold the famous Excelsior Brigade") at a cost of 28 killed, 262 wounded and 19 missing.

Sickles reports a moment of panic among parts of the 71st - "The most serious demonstration made by the enemy was on my right flank, which at one moment was in great danger of being turned, partly by the force which menaced it, but quite as much by a panic which seized the left wing of the right-flank regiment (Colonel Hall's Second Excelsior). At the moment of this occurrence I was proceeding with Colonel Hall to reconnoiter on the right, where, as Colonel Hall reported to me, the enemy were in such force as to make a farther advance hazardous without re-enforcements.

I had gone only a few paces beyond the color company when a heavy volley attested the presence of the enemy in that quarter. Some one, whom I could not ascertain, exclaimed in a loud voice, "We are flanked; retreat." Instantly the left wing, including the color company of the Second, broke to the rear in disgraceful confusion. Calling aloud to the rest of the line to hold their ground and keep up their fire, which order was gallantly obeyed by the right wing [of the Second Excelsior], under Lieutenant-Colonel Potter, and by the Fourth Regiment, under Captain Donalds.

I used my best exertions, aided by Colonel Hall and Major Hammerstein, of General McClellan's staff, to rally the fugitives. This was soon done, although some of the men, including the color-sergeant, had fled to the open ground in the rear, between the woods and the new redoubt. This occurrence was all the more mortifying, as it happened in the immediate presence of the brigadier-general commanding the division, who was in front throughout the day."[14]

At 7PM Hooker's Division was withdrawn and replaced by BGen Palmer's Division. In his report, Hooker makes "especial mention of Brigadier-General Sickles for his great gallantry in rallying a part of the Seventy-first New York Regiment and returning it to action after it had given way, " and adds that " Especial attention is also invited to the gallant and meritorious services of Lieutenant-Colonel Potter, Seventy-first New York Volunteers whose heroic conduct was conspicuous throughout the day." [15]

A Confederate view of this action is provided by BGen Ambrose R. Wright: "As soon as I became apprised of the condition of affairs I ordered out the First Louisiana and Twenty-second Georgia Regiments, and with them immediately proceeded to the scene of action. The First Louisiana Regiment, Lieut. Col. W. R. Shivers commanding, was ordered to advance upon the right of the Williamsburg road, its left resting upon the road, and the Twenty-second Georgia Regiment, Col. R. H. Jones, was ordered into position on the right of the First Louisiana. These dispositions being made, and the order was given to charge upon the enemy, then about emerging from the woods, and drive them back to their intrenched works. The order was obeyed with alacrity, the troops springing forward with hind cheers, and, advancing through a terrific fire of musketry, routed the enemy and drove them before them for more than a quarter of a mile.

Here their farther advance lay over an open field, behind which, under cover of heavy forest timber and dense underbrush, the retreating foe had taken shelter. With a gallantry and impetuosity which has rarely been equaled and certainly never excelled since the war began, these brave and daring Louisianians and Georgians charged through this open field and actually drove from their cover the whole brigade, supposed at the time to be Sickles'. On our extreme right the enemy still maintained their position in the heavy woods about 400 yards in advance of King's School-House and not more than 1,000 yards in advance of our line of rifle pits.

Colonel Doles, Fourth Georgia Regiment, supported by Colonel Hill's North Carolina regiment, was ordered to advance, engage the enemy, and, if possible, dislodge him from his advanced position in the woods and drive him back beyond the lines occupied by our pickets in the morning. This order was promptly obeyed by Colonel Doles, who, with his small command, now worn-out and completely exhausted by the fatigue and want of rest on the night before and the constant fight during the whole day, rushed forward and soon found themselves confronted by Sickles' brigade, strongly posted in a thick growth of pines. The fire here for twenty minutes was furious and terrific beyond anything I have ever witnessed. But the gallant Fourth pressed on amid a deadly fire and soon the foe began to fall back.

Seizing the opportune moment a charge was ordered, and our men rushed forward, and at the point of the bayonet drove the enemy in great disorder and confusion through the woods to King's School-House, where they were temporarily rallied for a few minutes; but another deadly volley from the Fourth Georgia, followed by a dashing charge, and the enemy fled from their position, leaving us masters of the field and in possession of a great number of prisoners, besides most of their killed and a few of their wounded. While this last movement was progressing I had ordered the First Louisiana Regiment, now commanded by Capt. M. Nolan (Lieutenant- Colonel Shivers having been disabled by a wound in the right arm, received in the morning while charging across the field before alluded to), and the Twenty-second Georgia, supported by Colonels Clarke's and Ramseur's North Carolina troops, to advance and regain the center of our picket line, from which we had been forced to retire by an overwhelming force concentrated against us there about the middle of the day. These regiments, now sadly thinned by their severe losses of the morning, again moved up in good order, and after a feeble resistance by the enemy again took possession of our old picket lines.

The day had now closed and the fight ceased, leaving us masters of the battlefield and in the identical position our pickets occupied when the enemy made the first attack in the morning. The operations of the enemy were conducted by General McClellan in person, and the troops engaged embraced all of Kearny's division and a part of Hooker's, numbering in all not less than 8,000 or 10,000. To oppose this heavy force I had my own brigade, numbering about 2,000 men, and two regiments (Colonels Rutledge's and Hill's) of General Ransom's brigade, about 1,000 men, making my whole force engaged not more than 3,000 men.

The object of the enemy was to drive us back from our picket line, occupy it himself, and thereby enable him to advance his works several hundred yards nearer our lines. In this he completely failed, and although General McClellan at night telegraphed over his own signature to the War Office at Washington that he had accomplished his object, had driven me back for more than a mile, had silenced my batteries and occupied our camps, there is not one word of truth in the whole statement. When the fight ceased at dark I occupied the very line my pickets had been driven from in the morning, and which I continued to hold until the total rout of the Federal Army on the 29th ultimo.

In this severe and long-contested battle all our troops behaved well without exception. But without disparaging the merit of others I beg leave to bring to your notice the gallant conduct of the First Louisiana Regiment in their charge across the field early in the morning, and the very creditable manner in which Colonel Rutledge met and repulsed a whole brigade with his own and Colonel Sturgis' (Third Georgia) regiment. The conduct of Colonel Doles' (Fourth Georgia) regiment challenges our warmest admiration and thanks for the gallant manner in which it rallied late in the evening and drove from their stronghold the famous Excelsior Brigade."[16]

The Battle of Oak Grove turned out to be the last offensive action by the Union forces during the Peninsula Campaign, for on June 26 Lee began his own offensive that persuaded the ever cautious McClellan to give up on his plan to lay siege to Richmond. Lee's opening move was to attack McClellan's right flank at Mechanicsville with nearly 65,000 men while mounting diversions to the south of the Chickahominy to freeze the bulk of the Union Army in place. Thus began the Seven Days' Battles, a series of sidestepping withdrawals and holding actions that climaxed at Malvern Hill and withdrawal of the Union army to the security of Federal gunboats on the James River at Harrison's Landing.

The Confederate attacks on June 26 were not well coordinated and the outnumbered Union forces were in well prepared defenses behind Beaver Dam Creek. The result was costly for Lee and allowed Porter to conduct an orderly withdrawal to new defensive positions behind Boatswain's Creek near Gaines' Mill. Lee resumed his offensive on June 27 and after a hard day's fighting forced Porter to withdraw across the Chickahominy to join the rest of the Union Army.

The Union Withdrawal from the Peninsula

McClellan, having erroneously concluded once again that he was badly outnumbered, decided to shift his base to the James River, and around sunrise on the 29th the Second Division and Sickle's Brigade were moved from the earthworks in front of Fair Oaks a mile or more to the rear toward Savage Station. Their mission was to block any Confederate advance along the Williamsburg road or nearby railroad. The Division remained in that position until about 3PM when it was ordered to fall back to Savage Station. Those orders were soon amended to follow Kearny's Division toward the James River and cross White Oak Swamp at Brackett's Ford. The Division reached Charles City Road about 10PM and bivouacked for the night.

On June 30th, the Division was ordered to cover Quaker Road (now Willis Church Road) over which the Army of the Potomac was withdrawing to the James River.[17]

The withdrawing Union Army encountered a bottleneck at Glendale and Lee ordered his forces to attack them there, but the attacks were disjointed and failed to significantly disrupt the Union retreat. Hooker's description of the Battle of Glendale follows: "The direction of Quaker road is nearly perpendicular to the general course of the James River and crosses at nearly right angles the principal highways leading out of Richmond between the river and the Williamsburg road. Numerous by-roads connect these most traveled highways with the Quaker road, and it was determined that I should establish my division on the one which falls into the last-named road near Saint Paul's Church, the right resting on this cross-road, and the line nearly parallel with and half a mile or more in advance of the Quaker road. A forest covered the area between my position and this road. On my right was Sumner's corps in a cleared field

About 9 o'clock my line of battle was established, Grover on the right, Carr in the center, and Sickles' brigade on the left. "About 11 a.m. some of our army wagons were observed in our front, which on inquiry were found to belong to McCall's division, drawn up in line of battle, his left resting 500 or 600 yards from my right, About 3 o'clock the enemy commenced a vigorous attack on McCall, and after an ineffectual effort to resist it, the whole of McCall's division was completely routed, and many of the fugitives rushed down the road on which my right was resting, while others took to the cleared fields and broke through my lines from one end of them to the other

Soon after this attack was made word was received from General Sickles that the enemy in his immediate front was preparing to turn our left, when all of our reserves were dispatched to strengthen him. No attack, however, in force was made, and Sickles' and Carr's brigades remained in position. The former reports the capture of 150 prisoners, in which are included 1 lieutenant-colonel, 1 captain, 5 lieutenants, and 40 enlisted men, taken by Captain Park, Company F, Second Regiment New York Volunteers, Carr's brigade. To these should be added one stand of colors, all of which were forwarded to the headquarters of General Sumner

From their torches we could see that the enemy was busy all night long in searching for his wounded, but up to daylight the following morning there had been no apparent diminution in the heart-rending cries and groans of his wounded. The unbroken, mournful wail of human suffering was all that we heard from Glendale during that long, dismal night. I was instructed to hold my position until Sumner and Kearny had retired over the Quaker road, and soon after daylight my command was withdrawn and followed them."[18]

Hooker's Division completed the march from Glendale to Malvern Hill at about 10AM on the 1st of July, where it was deployed in line of battle, with Sickle's Brigade held in reserve in the rear of the Brigade's right flank. After an exchange of artillery fire which lasted most of the day, Sickle's Brigade was ordered to assist BGen Fitz Porter's Fifth Corps on the left flank of the army, where most of the day's fighting had occurred. McClellan described the action as follows: "The attack was made upon our left and left center, and the brunt of it was borne by Porter's corps (including Hunt's reserve artillery and Tyler's heavy guns) and Couch's division, re-enforced by the brigades of Sickles and Meagher. It was desperate, brave, and determined, but so destructive was the fire of our numerous artillery, so heroic the conduct of our infantry, and so admirable the dispositions of Porter, that no troops could have carried the position. Late in the evening the enemy fell back, thoroughly beaten, with dreadful slaughter. So completely was he crushed and so great were his losses, that he has not since ventured to attack us.

Previously to the battle of Malvern I had fully consulted with Commodore Rodgers, and with him made a hasty reconnaissance of the positions on the river. The difficulty of passing our transports above City Point was so great that I determined to fall back upon the position now occupied by the army; a position, too, much less extensive than that of Malvern, and therefore permitting me to give the men the rest they so much needed. Accordingly the army fell back during the night of the 1st and 2d of July, reaching this place at an early hour on the 2d. On the 3d the troops were placed essentially in their present positions."[19]

Colonel George B. Hall's report of July 8th provides a sketchy summary of the Second Excelsior's service during the period of June 27 to July 8.

"On the 26th ultimo my command was on duty at the earthworks in front of Fair Oaks; relieved in the evening.
June 27, in duty at earthworks.
June 28, in camp under arms.
June 29, at daylight retreated to second line of defense, near Savage Station.
June 30, held in reserve near Charles City road. Lost 1 killed and 2 wounded (1 severely) 

July 1, moved at daylight toward Malvern Hill, where we formed line near the center and rested till 1 p.m., when, the enemy's batteries having opened on our right, we were moved at double-quick to the extreme right, and took position in a clover-field on a side hill. There rested until late in the afternoon, when the attack was made on the extreme left. We were then ordered to re-enforce the command there, and moved at double-quick about 1 mile. After forming line on hill west of the house we were ordered to re-enforce General Couch; then advanced to the front, formed in support of his battery, which was then shelling the woods in front. Shortly afterward moved to the right to relieve the First Regiment Chasseurs, Lieutenant-Colonel Shaler, and remained in that position about two hours, when we moved forward in line with the Third Regiment of this brigade, and occupied that position until about 1 a.m. of the 2d instant, when we were withdrawn to the rear on the right of the road and in line with the negro quarters before the woods. Holding this position until about 6 a.m., we were ordered to form a portion of the rear guard, under command of Colonel Averell, Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, continuing under his orders until, about 9 a.m., we were relieved and ordered to join our brigade, when we marched to our first camp, near Harrison's Landing, Va.

July 3, in same camp.
July 4, changed camp, about 2 miles distant,
July 5, changed camp to present locality.
July 6, in same camp.
July 7, on picket from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m.
July 8, being relieved by the Fifth Regiment."[20]

For the Confederate perspective on the Battle of Malvern Hill we go again to the Reminiscences of John G. Gordon. "The hour for the general assault which was to be made in the afternoon by the whole Confederate army had come and passed. There had been, however, the delays usual in all such concerted movements. Some of the divisions had not arrived upon the field; others, from presumably unavoidable causes, had not taken their places in line: and the few remaining hours of daylight were passing. Finally a characteristic Confederate yell was heard far down the line. It was supposed to be the beginning of the proposed general assault.

General Hill ordered me to lead the movement on the right, stating that he would hurry in the supports to take their places on both my flanks and in rear of my brigade. I made the advance, but the supports did not come. Indeed, with the exception of one other brigade, which was knocked to pieces in a few minutes, no troops came in view. Isolated from the rest of the army and alone, my brigade moved across this shell-ploughed plain toward the heights, which were perhaps more than half a mile away. Within fifteen or twenty minutes the centre regiment (Third Alabama), with which I moved, had left more than half of its number dead and wounded along its track, and the other regiments had suffered almost as severely. One shell had killed six or seven men in my immediate presence. My pistol, on one side, had the handle torn off; my canteen, on the other, was pierced, emptying its contents--water merely--on my trousers; and my coat was ruined by having a portion of the front torn away: but, with the exception of this damage, I was still unhurt.

At the foot of the last steep ascent, near the batteries, I found that McClellan's guns were firing over us, and as any further advance by this unsupported brigade would have been not only futile but foolhardy, I halted my men and ordered them to lie down and fire upon McClellan's standing lines of infantry. I stood upon slightly elevated ground in order to watch for the renforcements, or for any advance from the heights upon my command. In vain I looked behind us for the promised support. Anxiously I looked forward, fearing an assault upon my exposed position. No renforcements came until it was too late.

As a retreat in daylight promised to be almost or quite as deadly as had been the charge, my desire for the relief which nothing but darkness could now bring can well be imagined. In this state of extreme anxiety a darkness which was unexpected and terrible came to ears and eyes with sand. I was literally blinded. Not an inch before my face could I see; but I could think, and thoughts never ran more swiftly through a perplexed mortal brain. Blind! Blind in battle! Was this to be permanent! Suppose renforcements now came, what was I to do? Suppose there should be an assault upon my command from the front? Such were the unspoken but agonizing questions which throbbed in my brain with terrible swiftness and intensity.

The blindness, however, was of short duration. The delicate and perfect machinery of the eye soon did its work. At last came, also, the darkness for which I longed, and under its thick veil this splendid brigade was safely withdrawn. Large bodies of troops had been sent forward, or rather led forward, by that intrepid commander, General Hill; but the unavoidable delay in reaching the locality, and other intervening difficulties, prevented them from ever reaching the advanced position from which my men withdrew. In the hurry and bustle of trying to get them forward, coming as they did from different directions, there was necessarily much confusion, and they were subjected to the same destructive fire through which my troops had previously passed." [21]

Lee, recognizing that if he remained in defensive positions around Richmond, his Army would eventually be caught between the Army of the Potomac threatening Richmond from the south, and Pope's Army of Virginia to the north; sent Stonewall Jackson to threaten Pope's rear. This maneuver achieved the desired result, and on August 3rd, McClellan was ordered to withdraw from the Peninsula and move the Army of the Potomac to Aquia Creek in support of Pope. The 71st left Harrison's Landing on August 15th, marched to Yorktown via Jones Bridge and Diascund Bridge, and embarked on the 20th for Alexandria. It arrived at Warrenton Junction on the 26th, just in time for the 2nd Battle of Manassas.

[1]American Civil
[2] Son Of The
[3] Speech by Lt Col John N. Coyne at dedication of Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg, July 2, 1893
[4] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/1 [S#12] - #1 Report of BGen Samuel P. Heintzelman
[5] Speech by Lt Col John N. Coyne at dedication of Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg, July 2, 1893
[6]Wiki - Battle of Seven Pines
[7] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/1 [S#12] - #37 Report of BGen Samuel P. Heintzelman
[8] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/1 [S#12] - #38 Report of BGen Joseph Hooker
[9] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/1 [S#12] - #40 Report of BGen Daniel E. Sickles
[10] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/1 [S#12] - #42 Report of Colonel George B. Hall
[11] Authors note: This engagement occurred on Old Williamsburg Road at the west edge of the current town of Seven Pines. Historical signs mark the area of the engagement as well as the forward most advance of the skirmishers.
[12] Reminiscences of The Civil War (Gordon) Chapter IV
[13] Speech by Lt Col John N. Coyne at dedication of Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg, July 2, 1893
[14] Author's note: Company I of the 71st Regiment, in which Lewis Hawley & George Gregory served, would have been in the right wing under Lieutenant Colonel Potter during this engagement
[15] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/2 [S#13] - #40 & 38 Reports of BGen Daniel E. Sickles & Joseph Hooker
[16] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/2 [S#13] - #313 Reports of BGen Ambrose R. Wright
[17] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/2 [S#13] - #36 Reports of BGen Joseph Hooker
[18] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/2 [S#13] - #36 Reports of BGen Joseph Hooker
[19]Civil War Home
[20] Army Operational Report - Series I - Volume XI/2 [S#13] - # 49 Report of Colonel George B. Hall
[21] Reminiscences of The Civil War (Gordon) Chapter IV