Thursday, July 28, 2011
Liteutenant Colonel James C. Rice.
Numbers 135. Reports of Lieutenant Colonel James C Rice, Forty-fourth New York Infantry of the battles of Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill.
HDQRS. FORTY-FOURTH REGIMENT N. Y. S. VOLS.,
Third Brigade, General Butterfield Commanding, July 4, 1862.
CAPTAIN: As field officer of the day for the 27th day of June last I have the honor to report that at daybreak the brigade the brigade was under arms and in motion toward the field selected as the position of defense against the expected attack of the enemy. The natural character of this position of defense is as extended field of high rolling ground, skirted in front and on the right by a thin copse of woods and a small creek running through a deep ravine. On the left a meadow extends along the banks of the Chickahominy as far as the eye can reach, while the rear is protected by the same river, with the low, marshy ground and the dense growth of forest through which it runs. The ground in front of this position, and which was taken by the enemy as his line of attack, is high and rolling, overlooking the meadow and frequently furrowed by deep ravines and sluggish streams. Over these ravines and streams our forces had previously thrown strong timbered bridges, to gain easy access to those which had been built across the Chickahominy.
As early as 8 o'clock in the morning the reserve, of which our brigade formed a part, had taken its position, while the main force and rear guard were gradually and joining it. The general had assigned to the pioneers of the brigade the duty of destroying three bridge lying between the house of Dr. Gaines and the line of our defenses as soon as the rear guard had passed, and ordered me to take command of the same, and see that the work should be effectually and faithfully accomplished, so as to check the advance of the enemy's artillery. In obedience with this order I at once examined the construction of the bridges, and determined upon the most expeditious manner in which they could be destroyed. Having prepared everything for the speedy destruction of these bridges I rode forward to the rear guard, which was now vigorously pressed by the enemy, leaving the pioneers, with axes and spades in their hands, under the command of Sergeant-Major Kydd, of the Sixteenth Michigan Volunteers, ready to commence the cutting away of the same as soon as I should conduct the rear of the guard safely across. Although the enemy was in sight, he seemed to have mistaken the course taken by our forces, and pressed considerably beyond Dr. Gaines' house, on the main road, before he truly apprehended our position. This fortunate circumstance enabled me to conduct the last of our artillery safely across the bridges, to effectually destroy them, and to securely fall back with the pioneers.
In successfully performing this duty I was greatly assisted by Orderly-Sergeant Grannis, of Company H, Forty-fourth New York Volunteers, and Sergeant-Major Kydd, of the Sixteenth Michigan Volunteers. I would especially commend the conduct of these two non-commissioned officers to the favorable notice of the general. Nor would I forget to speak in terms of admiration of the good order in which the rear guard fell back, and especially of the invaluable services of Captain Robertson, commanding a battery of United States flying artillery, which covered the retreat.
The bridges having been destroyed between the rear guard and the enemy, I reported the fact to the general, who immediately ordered me to superintend the felling of the trees in front of his brigade as an abatis, and the construction of a dam on our extreme left across the stream, to more effectually obstruct the approach of the enemy. The Forty-fourth New York Volunteers, holding the extreme left of the line, had thrown up a temporary earthwork of considerable strength by order of the general, in addition to the other defenses he had ordered for the protection of the brigade. These speedily-thrown defenses eventually saved the left of the line from entire annihilation. Scarcely had these obstructions been thrown up before the line of skirmishers in front of the brigade gave evidence of the approach of the enemy. For nearly two hours, while the enemy was moving his troops into position on our center and right, the skirmishers and sharpshooters of the brigade held in check the right of the enemy's forces, and frequently compelled entire regiments to fall back under cover of the woods to escape their deadly fire. The effectiveness of this line of skirmishers and sharpshooters in front of our masked forces deserves especially notice. They not only constantly reported to the general the movements and disposition of the enemy's forces, but continually thinned his ranks by their unerring fire. I would commend to the favorable notice of the general the commanders of the skirmishers, who so often during the day feel gave their lives to promptly inform him of the movements of the enemy. The names of these officers, belonging to the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers are Captain Larrabee. Lieutenants Gaskell, Kelly, Webber, Becker, and Orderly-Sergeant Grannis.
I would also most favorably mention in this connection the name of Acting Adjutant Lieutenant E. A. Nash, who was with the skirmishers in front most of the day and constantly communicating the various changer in position taken by the enemy. Nor would I forget to mention here the most gallant conduct of Major Barnum, of the Twelfth New York Volunteers, who constantly exposed his life to gain information as to the position of the enemy during the day. This gallant officer now sleeps in death. He fell mortally wounded at the head of his regiment on the 1st instant. His last word were, "My wife, my boy, my country's flag." The thousand streams of the Peninsula are red with the best blood of the North, but none are crimsoned with purer and nobler than that which flowed from his heart-a heart entirely devoted to his country. I would also most favorably mention the gallant con duct of Major Ernest Von Vegesack, aide-de-camp, Major Welch, and Captain Hoyt, whose services during the day were invaluable to the general commanding.
At thirty minutes past 12 o'clock in the afternoon the enemy commenced along our entire line a most determined attack. On the left of the line he was constantly repulsed till 6 o'clock in the afternoon, when an entire brigade of his forces charged upon our lines, broke through the left of the forces on our right, and vigorously attacked the right flank of our brigade. Thus sever pressed on the right and in front by a superior force, the Eighty-third Pennsylvania and the Twelfth New York, which supported it, were obliged to fall back. They were now quickly rallied by the general commanding, who ordered at once the Sixteenth Michigan to their support. Here, animated by the immediate presence and encouraging words of the general, these regiments sustained for a few moments a most murderous fire. Not far from this point of time Colonel McLane, of the Eighty-third Pennsylvania, gallantly fell at the head of his regiment, the noblest soldier of us all-fell honored, loved, mourned by us all. Here, too, fell Major Naghel and many other gallant officers of the same regiment, who freely gave their lives for their country. They all sleep well. Their names are immortal.
At this time the enemy had turned the right of our entire line of battle and the center was falling back, when the commanding officer of the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers with the left wing of the regiment commenced to retreat, and at length to fly toward the Chickahominy. I was in command of the right wing, and as soon as I saw the conduct of the left wing I was fired with indignation and anger, for not a moment before the entire regiment had assured the general, who had visited it under a terrible fire and animated it to deeds of valor by cheering words, that he might depend upon its constancy. With such feelings I at once ordered the right wing to stand firm, and overtook the left before it had reached the river. I halted the columns, seized the colors, rallied the battalion with the assistance of Captain Conner, and in line of battle led it back under a murderous fire to its original position. I regret to report the commanding officer of the regiment and Captain Walsh, of Company e, fled across the river at this time, and did not join their regiment till the next day at 11 o'clock a. m. Scarcely had the regiment been reformed and advanced to its original position before the enemy was closing fast upon our rear and right in overpowering numbers and pouring into our ranks a most deadly fire. The regiment was at once ordered to leap over the earthwork and our its fire into the ranks of the enemy, now closing in upon us from the rear and right. At the same time the enemy had pushed forward a regiment not more than 100 yards to our front, now our rear.
The Eighty-third Pennsylvania and Sixteenth Michigan had quickly changed front to meet the attack of this regiment.
Information was now brought to me by our skirmishers that this regiment desired to lay down its arm and surrender. This information as to the desire of this to surrender, in addition to the fact that our skirmishers had already taken 20 prisoners and were just bringing in 10 others from this very regiment induced me to send out Captain Conner, a trusty officer, to ascertain the facts. At the same time I was impressed with the apprehension that the reason why this regiment so long withheld its fire arose from the fact that it had mistaken us from the opposite direction of our fire for its friends. This apprehension soon proved true. in the mean time the Eighty-third Pennsylvania and the Sixteenth Michigan, not being able to stand the deadly fire of the enemy from the right and rear, joined the Forty-fourth New York.
Now the enemy was drawing nearer around us, but still we poured into his advancing ranks a terrible fire. At this moment Major Von Vegesack, aide-de-camp, informed me that the general had ordered him to bring off from the field the remaining regiments of the order to retreat. I at once sorrowfully beheld the utter hopelessness of the unequal contest and ordered a retreat. The column had scarcely passed by the right flank from the rear of the earthworks and filed into the ravine running for short distance in the direction of the river before the regiment of the enemy in our rear discovered its mistake and opened upon us a severe fire, while along the entire right upon the crest of the hill the enemy poured into our ranks from both musketry and artillery a sheet of iron and lead. Still the column pressed forward across the long meadow, its ranks becoming thinner and thinner, till at length through marsh through and swamp and tangled under wood, dense and almost impassable, amid falling trees and bursting shells, it reached the river, and plunging in, waded to the opposite bank. In this retreat not less than 100 of this fragment of the brigade were either killed or wounded. Having crossed the river, I formed the fragments of the brigade in line and commenced the march toward the headquarters of General McClellan. When opposite the headquarters of General Smith his assistant adjutant-general informed me that the general desired the troops under my command to support him against an expected attack of the enemy during the night, and expected attack of the enemy during the night, and desired that I should place the same in rifle pits to the left of the for this purpose. I promptly obeyed the order, although the command was exhausted and without food or ammunition. General Smith at once ordered rations and ammunition to be served out in abundance to the command, and soon made its wet and weary soldiers comfortable and cheerful by his soldier-like kindness.
My command, well quartered and supplied with food, I started at 11 o'clock at night, and walked with Captain Campbell, of the Eighty-third Pennsylvania, to the headquarters of General McClellan, to report to the general commanding the brigade, when I received orders to bring up my command to that place, which I did on the morning of the 28th ultimo, and reported the same to the general. The Forty-forth New York lost in this battle 5 killed, 22 wounded, and 29 missing. Most of the missing were killed or wounded in the retreat and remained in the hands of the enemy. Captains Van Derlip and McRoberts and Lieutenants Gaskell and Becker were wounded in this battle.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, JAMES C. RICE,