Seven Days – June 1862
The Seven Days Battles were fought in and around the City of Richmond Virginia, in June 1862. These were the first battles of that terrible War commanded by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s troops fought Gen. George McClellen’s Union army from the footsteps of the Confederate Capitol at Richmond, down the Virginia peninsula and ended with the Union army retreating back toward Washington.
Visiting battlefields at Malvern Hill, Gaines’s Mill, White Oak Swamp, Beaver Dam Creek, Frayser’s Farm and Glendale, one gets an immediate impression of this beautiful, lowland, country of tidewater Virginia. Rolling fertile farms broken by wood lots give way to a myriad of swamps, creeks and streams.
The fighting during the Seven Days battles was terribly fierce with Union armies conducting a fighting retreat and Lee’s forces blunting themselves against the Union Army rearguard.
On July 1st 1862 at Malvern Hill, Col. Eugene Waggaman of the 10th Louisiana Infantry got his men ready to charge by reminding them that their homes and families in New Orleans were now under the control of Union General Benjamin Butler, said: “Men, we are ordered to charge the cannon in our front and take them. Not a shot must be fired until we get to the guns. Now, men, we are going to charge. Remember Butler and the women of New Orleans. Forward, charge!”
The Union army had thirty-six cannons waiting for these brave sons of Louisiana . After this attack, Confederate Major General D.H. Hill remarked , “It was not war, it was murder.”
The Battlefield at Malvern Hill, with the Parsonage Ruins, and its rolling fields provided clear fields of fire can still clearly be seen today. Looking at the artillery arrayed atop this low hill, one can easily see how Union guns ripped apart Confederate troops as they emerged from the opposite tree line 1/4 mile away.
You can feel it.
And again, at the Battlefields of Gaines’s Mill, the tree line that held the attacking Confederate forces is a mere 60 yards from the Union artillery positions on the Gaines’s Mill Farm. The fighting here, after two disastrous repulses, was close and deadly with Confederate troops finally pushing back the Union Army as it continued its retreat down the Virginia Peninsula.
As 9th Massachusetts veteran Daniel George MacNamara described it, “men fell dead and wounded on both sides like grain before the reaper’s sickle. Guns were captured and retaken by desperate charges and counter- charges. Confederate regimental colors were snatched and taken from their bearers in hand-to-hand encounters. Prisoners were captured in the dense smoke of battle as they became lost and bewildered and separated from their broken and defeated battalions.”
Beaver Dam Creek is a swampy nightmare of a battlefield. It’s clear, when reading about this fight, the difficulties of fighting in terrain like this. I look at this seemingly impenetrable swamp, and I wonder : how could soldiers fight here?
I journeyed on to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, site of the Confederacy’s main arsenal in the East. This iron works was spared destruction by its workers after the City was taken by Union forces in 1865 and still survives today. I photographed the ruins of an old train trestle over the James River and saw the trenches at Chickahominy Bluff, and the James River defenses at Drewy’s Bluff and Fort Darling around Richmond.
My trip around Richmond, Va culminated in a Seven Days Battle reenactment in Elizabethtown, PA. Entitled, “Lee Takes Command” the battle scenarios would be organized by Rear Rank Productions, a dedicated reenactment group. Arranged by the talented Chris Anders, this reenactment was the best I had seen to date . This, I believe, is due to Mr. Anders, his efforts, and the kind of re-enactors he draws to these events.
Serious, dedicated re-enactors bring an attention to detail that is beyond most reenactments you’ll see. For instance, there were three “battles” planned for this Seven Days Battle reenactment, only one of which was open to the public. The two other battle scenarios were for the re-enactors themselves.
These re-enactors go to incredible lengths to become a period soldier. From sewing their own uniforms and knapsacks, to trying remaining in “first person” living as a 19th century civil war soldier throughout the reenactment weekend. Shared some roast beef, skewered on a bayonet, cooked over an open fire. It was delicious.
To make the battle scenarios and experience as close to the actual battles themselves, I watched as one of the re-enactors (an Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran) read excepts from the memoirs of a Confederate soldier who fought at the Seven Days battles in 1862 to his Company. This first-person account explained how the Confederate forces reacted under fire and served to give the re-enactors an idea of how they should react “under fire” during the reenactment. Duck, load, fire, and repeat!
For the first time I experienced being stopped by a sentry as I walked into the Confederate Camp that morning. The sentry was totally serious, and had me halt and state my business. I explained I was there to see the commanding officer, and, skeptical, he took me to his Captain, who grilled me a bit, who then took me to see the commanders’ Adjunct. I was then given a pass to enter the camp! They asked if I was a Union spy….
Here, lingering gun smoke, drifted in huge clouds throughout the meadow during the Gaines’s Mill battle reenactment. Like the actual battle in 1862, the reenactment was held at dusk, the light dramatic and beautiful. I could see that the distance between the Union and Confederate re-enactor armies, after being at the actual Gaines’s Mill battlefield, was accurate. The Union forces were arrayed in a field and the Confederates hidden in the woods. Marching with the Confederate re-enactors, the sound of hundreds of hobnailed boots on the march was distinctive. Troops deploying, maneuvering , forming up for the battle in the woods, the joking, the nervous energy, is what you read in real battle memoirs and its all apparent here too.
I watched and listened as Confederate re-enactors, in the colorful Zouave uniform of the Louisiana Tigers, prepared for “battle” the days waning light. Their commanding officer read an excerpt from Harper’s Weekly, dated June 1862 to get them keyed up for the coming fight.
The excerpt told of the depredations the Union army was then unleashing on New Orleans. The disrespect to southern women and other outages to sensibilities were retold… . I noted as this officer dramatically read this account from almost a century and a half ago a number of these re-enactors- so in the moment!- were actually crying, tears running down their cheeks, for the fate of their Southern women and homes so far away. Others made cat calls during this speech, “Down with the Union!” “Kill Lincoln!”
I made my way around the “battlefield” to the Union side to wait the beginning of the Gaines’ Mill battle reenactment. As the light waned, the start of the fight was quite clear as a chilling, spine tingling, rebel yell, from the throats of hundreds of screaming men, howled forth from the dark woods!
Together with this unearthly battle cry, the shattering blasts and physical concussion you can feel it!- of firing cannons that signaled the opening of the battle. I finally reunited with the Louisiana Tigers, when they charged screaming, their faces now powder stained, bayonets leveled, and crashed headlong into and over me and the Union line in the battle scenario victory.
It was here, later, at the Glendale battle scenario, (fought on the last day of the reenactment) that I got to see and experience something remarkable and chilling. I followed Confederate re-enactors as they marched in battle formation toward the Union positions just over a rise in an open field. As the Rebel re-enactors crested the rise, not 100 feet beyond, was a stunning line of hundreds of Union re-enactors, who, all at once, let off a ripping volley of musketry. I watched, stunned, as this entire line of confederate re-enactors I was following all fall to the ground, “dead and wounded” by the blast of this volley. It was totally shocking but also dreamlike in a way, even knowing this was a reenactment. Being in the moment, seeing men fall down in a heap, large numbers of grown men screaming, crawling on the ground…. I had never seen re-enactors “die” like that. It was extremely dramatic, and heart rending.
As the Confederate forces retreated and reformed for another attack, I overheard a Confederate re-enactor, when prompted to reform his company by his commanding officer, say “all my soldiers are dead on the field” The look on this young mans face, as he said this, was of complete shock, he, it seemed, for a split second, was faced with the reality of real war, as the company of men he had spent the entire weekend with were now being destroyed on “the battlefield” in detail.
Although I was watching a reenactment, I was reminded of sentiments expressed in the many memoirs of the war’s combatants, the pain of having to leave friends, brothers, cousins, on the field after a battle.
The Seven Days Battles in June 1862, seen as clear though costly victories for the Confederacy, were by no means decisive. The two armies would meet again, soon enough and on familiar ground. In August of 1862, Confederate and Union forces would come together and fight it out again, on the fields in and around Manassas, Virginia.