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Battle of Gaines Mill
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
Battle of Gaines Mill
Cold Harbor - This name was common between 1862 and 1864, but after June, 1864 references to Cold Harbor almost exclusively talk about the 1864 battle. Some historians use the name First Cold Harbor for this battle, but that was never a popular name.
Battle of the Chickahominy.
Gains Mill (alt. misspelling).
Campaigns: Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Retreat
It was George McClellan who decided the site for the Battle of Gaines Mill. He showed the position to a staff member, Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, then ordered him to find John Barnard, the opinionated Chief Engineer of McClellan's staff. Barnard was out scouting bridging locations for Fitz-John Porter's corps. Around midnight, following the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek Barnard met with Porter and McClellan to discuss the land near Boatswain Swamp (a creek whose headwaters were in a swamp). Barnard had carefully planned the position of Porter's troops to maximise firing effectiveness of the artillery and infantry.
By 4:00 am McClellan found out that Porter had not defeated Stonewall Jackson, but
General Robert E. Lee did not have the advantage of examining the battlefield before the battle. In fact, Boatswains Swamp didn't even appear on his map. Had it, Lee would have seen a narrow creek running through a relatively steep-sided valley circling a flat-topped knoll. He could, however, tell that he would not have to push Porter back very far to sever McClellan's supply line from White House, a stop on the York Railroad. Lee reiterated his orders to Benjamin Huger and John Magruder, telling them to hold the line at all costs.
As Porter withdrew, A. P. Hill gave chase, slowing at Walnut Grove Church, about halfway between Ellerson's Mill and Gaines Mill. His men had brushed up against Stonewall Jackson's and the two commanders stopped to talk. Lee arrived a few minutes later and Hill left. There is no written record of what the two commanders discussed. Lee's Army continued its eastern march, expecting to run into the 5th Corps behind Powhite Creek. When they reached Gaines Mill (on Powhite Creek) the far side was quiet. Had Porter passed over this obvious choice for a good defensive position?
In fact, Fitz-John Porter had set up further east, at the Watt House east of Boatswain Swamp. Many southerners regarded Gaines Mill as the strongest federal position of the Civil War. The Union left (near the Watt House) was held by Brigadier General George Morrell while Brigadier General George Sykes held the right. George McCall and Henry Slocum provided the reserves, further up Turkey Hill. Opposing them were James Longstreet on the Confederate right, A. P. Hill in the center and Stonewall Jackson on the left. Daniel Harvey Hill, who had been ordered to support Jackson actually crossed in front of him and held the extreme left.
Porter carefully followed Barnard's plans, putting a skirmish line at the bottom of the ravine and his main line about halfway between the creek and the crest of the hill. In some places, though, the main line neared the creek, in others it was further away. Once again, Lee turned to A. P. Hill for an attack. Of the four brigades that tried only Maxcy Gregg [CS] was able to establish a foothold on the far side of the creek and his men were pinned down by artillery fire.
Facing a repeat of yesterday's battle, Lee ordered James Longstreet to create a diversion on Porter's left flank. Before Longstreet received the order Robert Ewell [CS] reported to Lee ready for duty. Soon (2:30pm), Lee organized a single assault on the federal line. Daniel Harvey Hill had success on the Union left, near where Maxcy Gregg's men were pinned down, but once across the creek each of his attacks were met with a strong counterattack by Porter. Meanwhile, Gregg's men were slowly being driven back. Two brigades were pushed in between A. P. Hill and D. H. Hill in an ineffective effort to relieve Gregg.
Again and again Confederate forces swept the field seemingly to no avail. Towards dusk, John Bell Hood's Texans wheeled into position, advancing towards the Union line. General Lee had given the young brigadier special instructions for the attack, telling him to hit the lower skirmish line with bayonets, then empty the barrels of the guns into Porter's main line about halfway up Turkey Hill. This change in tactics, combined with assaults to the left (D. H. Hill) and right (Longstreet) of Hood's point of impact caused the Yankee line to disintegrate, especially in front of Longstreet on the Union left. The retreat at the center and right was significantly more organized, but it was a withdrawal nonetheless.
The rout was so complete that even the federal gunners on the hill were forced to flee, frequently leaving cannon and casons on the battlefield. The 5th U. S. Cavalry made a desperate charge to protect the artillery, but the advancing Rebels easily turned them back with heavy losses. In a later report, Porter would blame the loss of Gaines' Mill on this attack, but the battle had already been lost.
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A. P. Hill
Battle of Gaines Mill was last changed on - August 1, 2009
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