Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

July 1

During the march we captured several rebel scouts, who were standing by the road side watching our movements, and hustled them into our ranks, but every one of them managed to escape before daylight. In this way, we marched all night long without a halt, emerging into an immense open plain, in sight of the James river shortly after daylight. Off to the right lay gunboats and transports riding at anchor, while the immense plain, low flat river land apparently, was entirely covered with wagons, ambulances, forges, etc., etc. There were no troops in sight and the teams and wagons were spread all over in the greatest confusion. After the colonel had taken a view of the surroundings, and noted the lack of defensive measures, and the absence of any one to direct our movements, he halted the column, formed it in line of battle across the road we had marched over, then stacked arms, and ordered the men to rest. Everybody lay down and fell asleep at once. Seth took my horse, and for the first time in three days removed his saddle. Billy lost no time in taking a roll and showing his pleasure at being free of incumbrances. As we were much exhausted, we slept soundly and were not disturbed until about eight o’clock, when the colonel woke me up and said he thought things looked suspiciously like a surrender; and seemed very nervous. He ordered me to ride until I found somebody to report to, and so, accompanied by an orderly, I rode away, traversing vast camps of wagons and artillery, and in fact everything but troops, and wondered what had become of the army. In the course of half an hour’s travel, I found myself in front of a line of wall tents, pitched along the bank of the river. I enquired for army headquarters, and was not surprised to learn that this was the spot, but that the general-in-chief and most of his staff were on the gunboat Galena. I waited a long time for some one to turn up, and was at last rewarded by one of Sumner’s staff officers appearing on the scene. He said orders had already been sent to the brigade to move into position, and explained the absence of troops from the plains by stating that the army was in position on the high ground above, admirably posted, and that the trains were perfectly secure. This put altogether a better aspect on the state of affairs and so, taking a loving view of the beautiful river, and graceful forms of the vessels at anchor, which reminded me so much of home, I turned reluctantly away, and rode back to the brambly wilderness. I met Zook some time afterwards, riding at the head of the brigade, heading for the steep hill above and told him what I had seen and heard. Our orders were to go into position at Malvern Hill, the name of the great hills overlooking the river; and there fight our last fight, and make our last stand, for win or lose, we could no further go; and so our night marches for the present at least were over. When we reached the summit of the high ground above, about half past nine o’clock, we saw a fine open country, gradually sloping back from our position to the rear, fringed with thick woods at a distance of perhaps a mile in our front, to less than half that distance on the left.

The army was collected here, and formed in a semicircle, either flank resting on the James, supported by gunboats on the river. On the left, the ground rises to form a considerable hill, around which were clustered the whole reserve artillery of the army, thirty-two pounders, heavy siege guns, and with twenty, ten, and twelve-pounders sandwiched in or posted lower down the slopes. The field was in every way admirably adapted for the use of artillery; and whenever or wherever a battery could be of use, it was promptly on hand. The enemy were firing a few shells as we advanced, and several dead horses lay about the field. We moved forward a few hundred yards and went into position in the center of the army, our whole corps being in reserve. In this position, we commanded the entire field, and could see everything going on. The day was glorious, bright and clear, and judging from the surroundings, the Army of the Potomac was just as lively as ever and in a most advantageous position. Porter held the left, Heintzleman and Keys the center; and Franklin the right. During the day the artillery fire was almost constant; the enemy at times pushing forward field guns, in the vain attempt to silence our heavy batteries. Towards three o’clock the enemy’s infantry appeared, streaming down the road along the river side, and into the woods in front of Porter, where they formed for the attack. Our dispositions were promptly made, and everything got ready to receive them. They did not keep us long in suspense. Under cover of strong skirmish lines, they advanced in brigade masses, and made a desperate and savage attack upon the great hill, the key to our position. When they emerged from the woods, they were met by the shells of the thirty-two pounders, which exploding in front of them, tore huge gaps in their column. Gallantly closing up the ranks, they advanced at the charge, yelling furiously; the ground seemed to shake to its foundations, as at once hundreds of guns poured forth a storm of iron hail. The whole reserve force of artillery was in full play, and from shell to shrapnel, and thence to cannister, all played its alloted part. Still they advanced, although, as we could plainly see, more than one-half their men already covered the ground. Finally, as they advanced, their left flank became exposed to our artillery, posted in the center, which immediately opened fire with shocking and terrible effect. One battery near to me fired cannister by volley into them, mowing them down by hundreds. It was a dreadful sight, apparently hopeless for the enemy, and yet they persisted; many of them actually got within close range and sustained for several minutes the fire of our infantry. Then they turned, and ran, but only to be succeeded by others equally courageous. Again, and again they reformed at the edge of the wood, set up a wild yell of revenge, and gallantly came forward, hoping against hope, to carry our position. During the action the gunboats fired their hundred pound shells, dropping them into the woods where the enemy formed, by the aid of signal officers, creating dreadful confusion, even if they did not hit anything. And so the fight continued until about six o’clock; the enemy successively sending forward fresh assaulting colums, hoping by force of numbers, to finally carry everything before them. Porter’s men were pretty well exhausted towards evening, and an aide coming to Sumner for assistance, General Caldwell, and Meagher were promptly ordered to his support. They were comparatively fresh, and went into action immediately, contributing much to the final success of the day.

The whole fighting was concentrated on the left, and was a continuous repetition of the story I have attempted to tell, ceasing only at nightfall, when the enemy abandoned the field; leaving it literally covered with their dead and wounded. Their gallantry was superb, and their losses prodigious; and yet at no time throughout the afternoon, was there the slightest chance of their success.

A desultory cannonading was maintained till nearly nine o’clock with some picket firing, but the men were greatly exhausted, and soon after the action ceased, fell asleep in their ranks lying on their arms. While the men slept, many of the officers were obliged to be on the alert. I was continually sent from one point to another, and remained in the saddle during the whole night. Towards midnight those of us on duty observed several columns of troops leaving the field toward the right flank, followed by some of the batteries lately in position near our brigade; later on the great siege guns from Porter’s position went by and to our astonishment, the whole army began to move again, and in a direction away from the enemy; as the great success of the preceding day warranted us in beleiving it would advance at daylight, and take the initiative, we were greatly astonished. General French, who was still sick, yet remained with us, in conversation with Colonel Zook, thought the movement very singular, as he had received no orders and believed with the rest of us that at daylight we should advance. At last he ordered Willie and me to ride over to the moving columns, and find out where they were going. We were soon amongst the troops and accosted a dozen or more commanders of infantry and artillery, none of whom could give us the slightest information. They said they were directed to march down the river, much to their surprise, but did not know their destination.

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