Monday, May 28, 2012

Hanover Court House 1862

We was defeated through General Branchs bad management. He was told by a Civilian that the enemy force was small & he believed it...
A Confederate soldier in Branch's brigade.

It seemed that while the American Civil War would not be ended in a single battle, it would end in less than a year since both sides lost that illusion at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). It was May 1862, and General George Brinton McClellan's Army of the Potomac was advancing up the Virginia Peninsula, on their way to Richmond, the Confederate capital. "The enemy are at the gates," implored the Richmond Dispatch on May 16. "Who will take the lead and act, act, act?"

The Dispatch had good reason to be worried; the Yankees were at the gates. In her diary on May 3, Judith White McGuire wrote that "It is distressing to see how many persons are leaving Richmond." On the seventh she noted that more and more persons were abandoning the capital. Even in the very early morning, a river of wagons teeming with clocks, couches, pianos, any family property that could be extricated from homes were moving down the streets. Railroad depots were filled with refugees, too; so were the boats moving westward on the James River Canal. Simultaneously civilians from the Peninsula, running away from the Federals, moved in. The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, sent his wife and children away to North Carolina. The Confederate Congress called for adjournment and its members hastely left for the states they represented. Secretary of War George W. Randolph had the archives of the War Department stowed away in case they also joined the exodus while Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger put the gold reserves on notice for evacuation. The Southern press might have proclaimed that the Battles of Williamsburg and Eltham's Landing were Confederate victories, but those engagements obviously didn't stop McClellan.

However, the soldiers would not leave along with the local populace and politicians. Richmond, declared the Virginia General Assembly on May 14, was to be defended "to the last extremity," assuring President Davis that any loss or destruction of property would be "cheerfully submitted to." "Richmond must not be given up," General Robert E. Lee promulgated in a Cabinet meeting that same day, surprising his colleagues with intensity of his passion; "it shall not be given up!" "To lose Richmond is to lose Virginia," asserted the Dispatch, "and to lose Virginia is to lose the key to the Southern Confederacy." The following day, Governor John Letcher held a huge meeting in front of City Hall to enlist citizens' committees for the defense of the capital. To the audience, Richmond's mayor, Joseph Mayo, stated that if they wanted him to capitulate the city, "So help me God, I'll never do it." Even though he was 70 years of age- old today but really old in the Victorian period- he would obtain a musket and fight at the barricades. Mayo was given three cheers. The boom of Yankee cannon could be heard off in the distance.

Eventually the Yankees made it to the banks of the Chickahominy River, and it did not take them long to erect bridges. Indeed, one structure, the Richmond and York River Railroad brigde, was only partially destroyed. Lieutenant William Folwell of the 50th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac's engineering brigade, recalled that "the Rebels, fortunately for us, burnt only some 80 ft. of the bridge over the channel... What fools the Rebs were not to do their work better..." Seven days later, the bridge was back in business. Near the decimated Bottom's Bridge, the 1st Minnesota (the only regiment from that state in the Army of the Potomac) and the 5th New Hampshire built two bridges. "About 3 companys had to work in the water waist deep all day..." recorded the 1st's Private Matthew Marrin in his diary on May 27, "The whiskee ration taken on going to bed kept us all rite I guess- at least I kept warm." Two days after Marrin wrote this entry, the bridges were finished.

While the construction was taking place, a civilian, one Dr. Pollock, reported that the Rebels were advancing 17,000 men to Hanover Court House, fourteen miles north of Richmond and on the rear of the Army of the Potomac's right flank. For some reason, the Yankees always believed that whatever the locals uttered was true. Consequently, McClellan became worried; if the rebels assualted his flank from Hanover Court House, he reasoned, they would disrupt Yankees' crossing of the Chickahominy. McClellan sent General Fitz John Porter- a confident, cautious soldier, whom he considered to be his best general by the hugest of margins- to deal with this threat, now reduced to 6,000 troops thanks to some further intelligence-gathering on the part of the cavalry.
Gen. Fitz John Porter and staff of seven. Hqrs. 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, Harrison's Landing, James River, Va., Aug. 1862: Major Joseph Kirkland, Colenel Locke, Captain Mason, Major Charles McMillen, Captain John F. McQuade, Major Montieth, Colonel Norton by Matthew Brady.
Those numbers were still off the mark, though. Confederate General Lawton O'Bryan Branch's reinforced brigade numbered about 4,000 men, and he had no intention of outflanking the enemy. Actually, his job was to guard the Virginia Central Railroad, which was the predominant link between the Confederate Capital and the Shenandoah Valley. Posted in the vicinity of Peake's Crossing on the railroad four miles southwest of Hanover Court House, Branch's brigade would be outnumbered three to one in the coming fight.

On May 27, 1862, when the first light of the morning was beginning to show amidst a terrible downpour, Porter and his V Corps embarked for Hanover Court House. The sounds of nature were no doubt there- birds and insects chirping, rain falling heavily to the ground, turning it into a muddy morass. The trees and their green foliage were all wet under an overcast sky. Yet it was the mud that caused the men to gripe in their letters and diaries. "It is a light yellow and as sticky as wax," a private had conveyed to his family back in Massachusettes, and a regular wrote that he "never saw a 'bad road' until I came here..." On this occasion, remembered a member of the 22nd Massachusettes, the path the Yankees had to take to Hanover Court House "was eighteen miles in length, and about one foot in depth." It ceased raining by midmorning, but the mud remained.

The two sides first made contact when the Yankees reached a Rebel outpost at a crossroads at 12:00 P.M. Of course, the Yankees, exhausted from slogging in the mud, grumbled, believing they had done enough for the day. The men of the 25th New York, accompanied by cavalry, bore the brunt of the initial losses before the rest of Porter's command made it onto the field. After perhaps an hour of skirmishing in a woodlot and around the house and barn of one Dr. Kinney, the Confederates quickly withdrew, many of them heading northward to Hanover Court House. Porter, leaving only the 25th and 44th New York and 2nd Maine as well as a two-gun section of artillery behind at the crossroads, and the rest of his men pursued the majority of the fleeing Rebels. He expected them to lead him to their comrades... that, unfortunately, was not so.

In fact, Porter had marched away from Branch's brigade. Rather than retreat, Branch foolishly attacked the Yankees at the crossroads. Union staff officers rode rapidly to Porter to get him to come back while the assailants, wrote the 2nd Maine's colonel, "appeared boldly in front, advancing in perfect order... the Stars and Bars defiantly flying." That flag belonged to the 18th North Carolina, which, according to the 18th's Private William Bellamy, was "ordered to charge the Yankee Battery after marching to the double quick at charge Bayonets for about 300 yards." Storming out of the woods and charging across a wheatfield, the North Carolinians received a heavy dose of led. "In consequence of our men being mowed down like grass," added Bellamy, "we fell back to our original stand..." The Mainers and North Carolinians then fought over a hedgegrow fence. Both sides pushed their weapons through the hedgegrow to fire on the enemy; both sides' rifles became so hot from use that men had to pour water on them with their canteens.

A problem for the Federals arose. At the beginning of the day, they had received 60 rounds per man, but now the Yankees were running short. This situation enabled the Rebels to capture the Yankee artillery, driving the artillerymen away. To make matters worse, the center of the Federal line started to crack open- "a disorderly movement" was how the Union brigade commander, John H. Martindale, referred to the event. The 44th New York, losing a quarter of its men at this moment, would eventually discover 44 holes in its battle flag.

Salvation followed for the Yankees: Porter arrived! Lieutenant Colonel Patrick A. Guiney, 9th Massachusettes, told his wife what happened next:

The woods all round were swarmed with rebels... We met the rebels on the verge of the wood and whipped them out of it in no time- such quick work I never saw- the rebels made a stand in the open field... Again we pressed upon the enemy- captured one of their flags- and drove them in the most indescribable disorder.

More Yankees arrived, and Branch was compelled to retreat rapidly. The fighting ceased with the coming of darkness.

"We whipped them and have driven them from the ground, killing a large number and taking a great many prisoners" was how Porter put it to McClellan. The Yankees suffered 285 killed and wounded, most of them from the Mainers and New Yorkers that held the crossroads; the Rebels, perhaps 270 to 300, including three of the four Robinett brothers of Company G, 37th North Carolina killed. It was the number of prisoners captured that tipped the balance in favor of the Yakees- 731 Confederates compared to only 70 Federals. McClellan, who always believed the enemy outnumbered him, called the Battle of Hanover Court House a "glorious victory over superior numbers." Porter's feet, McClellan told Washington, "has entirely relieved my right flank which was seriously threatened." The battle was "one of the handsomest things of the war..."

Hanover Court House might have been handsome, but it was not so for the broader strategic picture. McClellan's focus on Branch resulted in an entire week's delay in securing his army's position across the Chickahominy. He had absolutely neglected of putting more of the Army of the Potomac on the other side of the river while Porter was fighting it out. As time would soon tell, his failure to do so would nearly cause a disaster for the Union.

No comments:

Post a Comment