Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Battle of Mechanicsville

The Confederate army around Richmond launched its planned attack on McClellan 150 years ago today, in what was called the Battle of Mechanicsville by the South, and the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek by the North. The right of the Union army was in the small hamlet of Mechanicsville. Lee planned for Jackson, who was moving onto the Federal flank, to strike them in the morning. When he pushed them back, he would uncover the bridges over the Chickahominy River, which would allow the divisions of A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill and Longstreet to cross the river and join Jackson in the assault. They would continue to press forward, heading towards Cold Harbor, McClellan's supply depot.
Fitz John Porter, commander of the Federal right flank

However, not everything went according to plan. Jackson returned to his command tired and worn out after his meeting with Lee and the other generals. As they marched forward, he did not make the progress that he had expected. On the morning of June 26th, he ordered his troops to move at 2:30 am, as they were still far from their intended position. However, the columns did not start moving until dawn. Secrecy had also been lost. The Federals had been hearing rumors of Jackson's movement, but they got certain information of it when a deserter came into McClellan's lines and reported Jackson's presence.

The rest of the army did not know of the troubles that Jackson was facing. Longstreet and the Hills waited throughout the day for a courier or the sound of firing, but they heard nothing. Finally, A. P. Hill's patience wore out, as D. H. Hill's had at Seven Pines. “Three o'clock having arrived," Hill later wrote, "and no intelligence from Jackson or Branch, I determined to cross at once rather than hazard the failure of the whole plan by longer deferring it." Hill's 11,000 men struck hard, and drove the Federals back from Mechanicsville. However, they began reforming on Beaver Dam Creek, a marshy stream bordered by high banks on the northern side. The Federals cut down trees to obstruct the stream, and in some places dug entrenchments. Hill knew that it was a strong position, but he still continued to attack, hoping by pressing on them he could drive them back. However, his attacks were beaten back. The troops of Longstreet and D. H. Hill were on hand, but there was little they could do. Lee just hoped that if his men held the Federals in position, Jackson would finally arrive and strike their insecure right flank. D. H. Hill later wrote
The enemy had entrenchments of great strength and development on the other side of the creek, and had lined the banks with his magnificent artillery. The approach was over an open plain exposed to a murderous fire of all arms, and across an almost impassable stream. The result was, as might have been foreseen, a bloody and disastrous repulse. ... We were lavish of blood in those days, and it was thought a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry.

One Federal soldier of the 9th Massachussets later wrote this of the assault,
As the enemy poured into the valley and across the hills and plains, by front and flank, in their thousands, they presented a find display. When about half way down the plains our magnificent batteries opened on them suddenly with shot and shell, followed by a terrific and well directed fire from the infantry. Round after round from our batteries and volley from our infantry, followed in rapid succession, caused at first great surprise; then consternation seized them as they witnessed the great slaughter all along their line. Flesh and blood could not stand it, and the disheartened enemy fell back as rapidly as the situation would admit of, their men falling at every step taken. ... The fighting along the whole line was kept up till dark. The more severely the enemy's lines were repulsed and beaten, the more bloodthirsty and desperate they became. The bravery of their repeated assaults upon our lines was something to be admired; but the slaughter they received from the fire of our troops was deplorable as an afterthought.
Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield
Beaver Dam Creek via CWT
Night put an end to the bloody engagement. Lee's plans had gone very badly. Jackson and his men had arrived on the field many hours after they were supposed to. Worn out, he had ordered his men to pitch camp although they could hear the sounds of battle ahead. A. P. Hill had driven back the Federals, but they had simply taken up a strong position and beat back useless, continued attacks. Lee passed no judgments, hoping that the next day the Confederate fortune could be redeemed.


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