Watching a Battle: Behind the Lines with the 71st Pennsylvania at Seven Pines

     The excitement of going into action for the first time during the Peninsula Campaign was almost too much for some in the 71st Pennsylvania. It was the afternoon of Saturday May 31, 1862 a few miles from Richmond, Virginia and the scene as the Philadelphians arrived on the battlefield was chaos. “As we wheeled to the right into column, there seemed to be some confusion,” remembered First Lieutenant Stephen D. Beekman. “Several artillery horses had broken from their caissons and were dashing down on us at a furious rate; but they were unheeded by our men for by that time, having taken the scene in at a glance, they had in their enthusiasm became almost unmanageable and were suddenly about to dash, orders or no orders, to the front.”

          Also known  as the California Regiment, the 71st Pennsylvania took their place in support of a Massachusetts regiment which gave Beekman the rare opportunity to watch a battle. “What freak of propulsion caused one bullet to whiz not quite near enough to strike my head on the right or dart through my temple on the left or splash through my brain at the front I knew not; but I stood there and paced there, expecting every moment that the deadly fire of the Massachusetts regiment would slacken, that their cartridges would give out, and that we would be moved up a few yards to the fence to give the Rebels a specimen of our quick execution of firing by file, but the order did not come,” he noted.

          Beekman’s account of the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines was published in the June 22, 1862 edition of the New York Sunday Mercury. The lieutenant would resign his commission in the 71st the following month and later serve nearly two years as major of the 174th New York. 

The "twin houses" of the Seven Pines battlefield as captured by George Barnard shortly after the battle. Other than a cemetery and a few scattered historical markers, the battlefield itself has been lost to development. At the time it was fought, Seven Pines ranked as the second bloodiest battle in American history, the first being the Battle of Shiloh fought less than two months before. It would be eclipsed before the end of the year by the Seven Days battles, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Stones River. 

 Sedgwick’s Division, near Richmond, Virginia

June 16, 1862

          Of course, you know all about the hard-contested battle of Seven Pines and also of the subsequent engagement on Sunday following at Fair Oaks in which the Rebel attack was so obstinately and successfully resisted. I do not, therefore, design to give you a full account of the battle or a description of the scene throughout the whole of our three miles line of battle, but only a succinct account of facts and events that came within the range of my vision while in the midst of as hot and incessant a torrent of musketry discharges as the imagination could possibly depict.

          The repulse of Casey’s division and the weakening or worsting of Couch’s reached General William W. Burns’ brigade at about 12 o’clock while leisurely eating our dinner in camp, about two miles on the southeast bank of the Chickahominy near a place called Kid’s Mills. In an instant, our brigade, which is composed nearly entirely of Philadelphians, with our regiment, the well-known “Old California Regiment” in the advance was in line and in column by company and on the road at a rapid and easy pace for the scene of action.

General Edwin V. Sumner

          While on the road, General Ewin V. Sumner and his staff passed our regiment at full gallop. The general looked excited and stern, and as he passed my company, he remarked in quick tone after observing that several of my men had on old and light-colored gray overcoats, “Men, throw those off; they’ll make you a target in this engagement.” And on he dashed to the front and we did not see him again till we reached the battlefield, but we knew without question that we had work before us. We marched on at a steady step over a very muddy road and after the lapse of an hour and a half we crossed the now famous and swollen Chickahominy over a bridge very badly constructed of pine logs lashed together and the swift current sweeping in places for inches over and above them.

We then passed over a marshy flat, up a green and beautiful hillside and past a very comfortable and opulent-looking residence. To our astonishment, we saw many fat cattle in a large barnyard and an old white-headed Negro leaning on the gate. As we passed, some of the men hearing sharp firing in the front asked, “Where is the fight Uncle Tom?” He said, “Not fah, massa; up dah, little space,” and with renewed energy we hurried on through the clearing then through a narrow road in a thick grove. Then we plunged through a swollen brook with water up to the waist and at last emerged into a large open field with a house on it, thick woods surrounding it, and the battlefield burst suddenly into view and in the most terrific earnestness.

Another person who enjoyed the opportunity to watch a battle was Professor Thaddeus Lowe who observed the battle of May 31st from his balloon the Intrepid. One can faintly make out the stars and stripes on his basket; aerial reconnaissance would have a long way to go before it came into its own during the First World War, but the seeds were sown during the Civil War by pioneers such as Lowe. 

As we wheeled to the right into column, there seemed to be some confusion- several artillery horses had broken from their caissons and were dashing down on us at a furious rate; but unheeded by our men for by that time, having taken the scene in at a glance, they had in their enthusiasm became almost unmanageable and were suddenly about to dash, orders or no orders, to the front. There Lieutenant Kirby’s battery was delivering with astonishing rapidity shell after shell interspersed with condiments of canister into a thick grove to the front and right of it from whence the Rebel infantry fire could be seen issuing in time of belching flame. Supporting this battery was John Cochrane’s U.S. Chasseur’s [65th New York Infantry] and most admirably were they firing their fire by file into the ranks of the homespun gentry.

Our regiment marched in perfect order to within about 50 yards of the line and the then living fire, and in perfect order changed direction by the right flank and passed at this distance from the line several regiments moving up to the advance right. Here about a pistol shot from a Massachusetts regiment (the 7th I believe) we halted while the roar of the cannon was only relieved by the sharp, quick snapping report of the Enfield rifle. The whole line was arranged along a high rail fence, directly in front of a thick grove. We halted in this fire and came to a front in column by division which was no sooner done than we heard the whistling and screeching of all kinds of bullets. For several minutes, perhaps 5 or 10, we stood a perfect rain of balls. Our general perceiving that the bullets of the enemy were passing over the heads of the regiments then delivering their fire and were falling directly into our midst gave the order for the men to lie down and hold up their pieces, which they immediately obeyed. Several of the officers did not deign to stoop and among them myself; for one hour I paced up and down in the rear of my company while the men lay on their breasts with their bayonets vertical to the ground.

What freak of propulsion caused one bullet to whiz not quite near enough to strike my head on the right or dart through my temple on the left or splash through my brain at the front I knew not; but I stood there and paced there, expecting every moment that the deadly fire of the Massachusetts regiment would slacken, that their cartridges would give out, and that we would be moved up a few yards to the fence to give the Rebels a specimen of our quick execution of firing by file, but the order did not come. The deadly, spiteful splashing of flame from right to left continued incessantly. Now and then I would see a man rise to his feet, deliberately aim, see the red flash, hear the report, and then see him sit down to load.

Detail of the tattered national colors of the 71st Pennsylvania with the various colored streamers commemorating the numerous engagements in which the regiment took part; the red streamers have battles fought in 1861 and 1862, the orange streamer had battles fought in 1862 and 1863, the blue denoting the 1864 battles. It lost 312 out of 520 men engaged in its first fight at Ball's Bluff in October 1861 and saw action from the Peninsula to Cold Harbor. 

For a second now and then, the fire slackened and then I knew that the Rebels had been sadly cut up and had fallen back to reform and renew the attack, but it was only for seconds. Again the sharp multiplicity of reports would ring in the ear, crack after crack, and after a strange singing, shrieking noise of Minie balls, bullets, and buckshot, then the shrieks of the dying and the deep booming of the battery on our left made the very ground shake. The flame as it issued in volley after volley felt warm on my left cheek and the smoke in great folds passed over our heads, never concealing and continually leaving bold in our front that immovable line of obstinate fire and flame. Twice I saw the Rebels charge and mount the rail fence in the very faces of our men, but it was evident that not a man got over. One bold fellow I spied on the top of the fence for an instant, and then a ball crashed through his brain and it seemed as if the very ball carried him over the other side, for he did not fall; he was swept out of view into the woods.

Twice the battery on the left was most desperately charged upon by the Rebel infantry. They dashed out of the woods with a yell, reached within about three paces of the guns, and then at the terrific discharge of canister accompanied by the death-dealing balls of the Chasseurs, melted literally into thin air. The volumes of smoke disclosing to the senses naught but agonizing groans and short, stifled shrieks of the gory, wounded foe. This battery (Battery I, 1st U.S. Light Artillery) was formerly Ricketts’ and previously John Bankhead Magruder’s who, it was said, was on the field in the woods beyond us. After the battle, a Rebel officer we took prisoner said that Magruder swore in the head of the contest and said “That battery must be taken if it costs a thousand lives.” Two attempts were made and then the baffled general in despair with a deep oath exclaimed “All hell cannot stand that fire!” and retired to the rear.

At last the firing ceased entirely, the gray of evening appeared, night set in, and at about 8 p.m., all was quiet, not even a groan or a shriek was heard. This was the part we took in the battle of Seven Pines and certainly if I speak for myself, I shall never pine for a repetition of the scene. I never fully realized before what an intensity of excitement of my nerves could stand when in a passive condition, nor do I wish for a repetition of the test. The California regiment rested that night where it stood during the day and before daybreak the next day, the whole brigade was moved further to the left and put in a different position in the line of battle. The second and third days’ fighting we were not in. Of course, we heard the violent raging of the battle, the booming of cannon, and the rattling of the musketry.

And thus every hour of our time is engrossed with some new casualty or some deathful event, and before this reaches you I may be dead myself but whether so or not, the remainder of our regiment and our whole army as victors for the Union will go to Richmond and that very soon.

 

Source:

Letter from First Lieutenant Stephen DeWitt Beekman, Co. M, 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, New York Sunday Mercury (New York), June 22, 1862

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