Remember the dead and survivors at Seven Pines
by Rob Neufeld
The 16th camped in swamps and fought at Seven Pines
After a year of battling on coasts and in the West, Confederate and Union armies massed their strengths for a head-on confrontation around Richmond, Va., the Confederate capitol, in the late spring of 1862.
Union General George McClellan converged his 100,000 troops from the east; and Confederate General Joseph Johnston assembled his 90,000-strong Army of the Potomac from Petersburg (to the south) and the Shenandoah Valley (to the west).
Only one western North Carolina regiment—the 16th—got involved in the mutual slaughter at Seven Pines, May 31st and June 1st, after a tropical storm the night of May 30th had turned the swampy ground impassable in parts.
General Erasmus Darwin Keyes, leading the Union fight, moved his troops up out of the swamp to the main road. About the conditions, he said: “From their beds of mud and the peltings of this storm the Fourth Corps rose to fight the battle of May 31, 1862.”
The NC 16th dreaded the sight of flood. Eight months before, fighting at the frontier with Gen. Robert E. Lee in his first field assignment, they’d lived through drenched camp horror on Valley Mountain, WV.
Walter Taylor, aide-de-cap to Lee, wrote in his book, “Four Years with General Lee,” “Never did I experience the same heart-sinking emotions as when contemplating the wan faces and emaciated forms of those hungry, sickly, shivering men of the Army of Valley Mountain.”
Many men died of disease, from epidemics and the elements. James Sutton, a 20-year-old enlistee from the Sylva area, first contracted measles, and then, in the rain, pneumonia.
In a letter to Sutton’s family, cited by J.D. McRorie in the “Sylva Herald,” June 2, 1977, an assistant surgeon reported how “poor Jim,” as the boy called himself, had grieved, in his last moments, about not making it to a big battle. His body was brought back home and buried in the Sutton Cemetery up toward Balsam.
Sutton may have still been alive on Valley Mountain when the 16th had been “awakened by a small deer which leaped off the mountain side into the midst of camp,” as Lt. Benjamin Cathey reported. “In almost a twinkling the little fellow was taken captive without force or demonstration other than our hands and the ‘rebel yell.’”
In Yorktown, just before moving into the Seven Pines battle, the men had eaten oysters and toured Revolutionary War sites, including the spot where British General Cornwallis’ sword had been surrendered.
Now, at the battle for Richmond, the soldiers were seeing a different set of signs. The Federal army was sending up spy balloons, and springing Newfoundland dogs on them as pickets.
Just when the soldiers of the 16th had come down into the swamp, Lt. George Huntley of Rutherford County, moving with the 34th NC regiment, passed them. In a letter held by Hunter Library’s Special Collections at Western Carolina University, Huntley reports, “They was all well but then there is no doubt but what the case is different with them this morning for they was in the fight yesterday certain.”
The worst was yet ahead for the 16th. They went into the heart of the fight the next day—within hearing of Huntley, whose regiment was kept back.
“It was just one continual roar of cannon all day long,” Huntley wrote.
Confederate regiments that were camped further away did not hear the shooting because of stormy winds, and, according to reports, did not join the attack because gun reports had been their signal.
The actual battle will be the subject of next week’s article, with a remembrance of those who died and survived.
For those who survived, their next hell was Mechanicsville, June 26, unless you count the hell of camp in between.
“The mud and slush of the swamps along the Chickahominy,” Cathey wrote, “were obliged to be traversed by day and by night and the only chance for rest or sleep was to drop upon the ground, at length to awaken to see the dirty foam-line tracing the high-tide on our already not overtidy jackets.”
No peace found by local boys at Seven Pines
Johnston’s “9” looked like a “G”; and his writing of “miles” was read as “aines.” Therefore, what was Whiting doing causing a bottleneck at the mouth at 9 Miles Road just outside Richmond? Hadn’t he been directed to go to Gaines Road?
There is and was no Gaines Road in that vicinity, the battleground that spread east to railroad towns.
Johnston did indeed write “9 Miles Road.” Whiting’s men were in the right place.
Among them was a group of Western North Carolina boys, the 16th Regiment—90% unmarried men from counties ranging from Haywood to Gaston. They had enlisted at the end of April, 1861, enthusiastic and strong.
With Whiting’s Division, they arrived at the bottleneck at 6 a.m., after having quick-marched—a relative term—five miles through mud in a torrential storm at night.
They had come from the Mechanicsville area, performing picket duty for several days, drawing fire to get information.
Picketing, Private Joseph Gibson of the 4th N.C. Regiment commented in a letter to his Iredell County parents, “is marching back and forwards” for ten miles. “This marching in the mud there is no fun in it certain and sure.”
“We havent any tents now,” he continued. “I lost all of my close (clothes) and was not able to carry my napsack and it was put in the waggon and the roads was so muddy that they had to throw the napsacks out.”
George Mills of Co. G of the 16th Regiment had a similar experience at this time. “We remained doing picket duty before Richmond until the 29th of May,” he wrote in his 1897 recollection.
At the bottleneck, Mills noted, his company waited for hours. General James Longstreet’s Division was blocking the way, breaking camp and loading wagons.
General Whiting rode to General Johnston’s headquarters to clarify things. Johnston sent out riders to verify Longstreet’s location. By that time, Longstreet had already gone, moving south to the Williamsburg Road, as his Division had been given the role of right flank.
At Williamsburg Road, the most direct route to Seven Pines, another bottleneck occurred. General D.H. Hill was there, as planned. General Benjamin Huger, slow to get going, was coming up on Hill’s and Longstreet’s rear on his Division’s way to the Charles City Road turn-off.
“With three roads available for Four Divisions,” Douglas Southall Freeman wrote in “Lee’s Lieutenants,” “three of the four were…on a single mile of road. Gone was all prospect of an early beginning of battle!”
Johnston’s whole plan had been based on speed because he had to strike at General Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps before Federal reinforcements came
Finally, arriving “at the battlefield around 5 p.m.,” Mills recorded, he and his company advanced against General Silas Casey’s Division, which had had hours to prepare for an attack.
“The 16th moved forward under a galling fire,” Lt. Benjamin Cathey of Co. A wrote in his regimental history. “On coming within fifty feet of the guns we found ourselves confronted by a miry swamp, covered with timber felled toward us, the limbs of the trees being sharpened and forming an impassable abattis.”
A soldier from the 85th Pennsylvania attested, “We had a full and near view of the enemy and could almost see the whites of their eyes. They presented a most formidable appearance being eight or ten deep….We could take dead aim, and firing in so dense a mass, to miss was almost impossible.”
Federal artillery blasted shot over their own infantry and killed Confederates. Rebel sharpshooters got up in trees and shot down officers. Federal reinforcements came and harassed the Confederate flanks.
Mills’ Co. G., positioned right at the abattis, heard the order, “Lie down!” and they obeyed. After a while, looking around, they saw they were alone.
“Under a shower of bullets, the men being often hit,” Mills recounted, “an officer came riding in rear and called out, ‘What are you doing in here? Get out! Get out!’”
Mills’ company pulled out of the swamp, saw Federals firing at anything they saw crossing the field ahead, and side-winded through woods to a wheat field near the railroad where Confederate flags were waving.
That’s when the men learned that Col. Champ Davis, commander of the 16th Regiment had been shot three times, killed, and left on the field the night before. A former state legislator, he’d enlisted as a private, and had been elected to lead.
A combination of Confederate Divisions finally displaced Casey, whose raw companies at the front fled against orders.
In the end, it was a costly, demoralizing stalemate for all involved.
Captain Lewis Webb, of Co. D, 12th Va. Artillery Battalion, “accompanied by my servant boy,” he wrote in his diary, “went down into the City” after the battle, had dinner, which he found wanting, and visited the hospital, where a member of his family was supposedly located.
“Never before had I realized the horrors of war,” he wrote. “In one room I saw three noble looking young men who had each lost a leg. I was forceable struck with their patient, quiet, and almost cheerful countenances.”
A month before, soldiers stationed in Yorktown had known what was coming in the Peninsula campaign.
George Cunningham of Co. L, 16th Regiment, wrote his parents in Haywood County, “We ar eccspecting a big fight every minit at this place…I am a freid it will be a long time if I should live to git through this battle.”
There had been no break between the agreed-upon conclusion of his service and the extension of his enlistment.
With two of his brothers on the front, Cunningham instructed his parents to sell his bacon and his mare to provide for his younger siblings. He already knew that it was going to be a long, deadly war. “I don’t eccspect to see home for any thing if I should stay in war five year.”
Contact Rob Neufeld at RNeufeld@charter.net with materials relating to local soldiers who participated in the battles around Richmond in 1862.
“Lee’s Lieutenants” by Douglas Southall Freeman (Scribner’s, 1942)
“Campaigns of the Civil War” (Thomas Yoseloff, 1881)
“The Civil War in North Carolina: Soldiers and Civilians’ Letters and Diaries, 1861-1865” (McFarland)
“History of the 16th North Carolina Regiment” by George Henry Mills (“The Western Vindicator,” 1897; republished by Edmonston, 1992)
Benjamin H. Cathey’s report on the 16th Regiment in “The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion”
“The North Carolina Standard,” Raleigh, May 7, 1862
“Brigadier General Silas Casey at the Battle of Seven Pines” by Gary Schreckengost, “America's Civil War Magazine” May 2002.
Union troops, with their 32-pdr. field howitzer at the Seven Pines Battlefield, mid-morning, May 31, 1862, photographer George N. Barnhard, Library of Congress Civil War Photo Archive.