Louder than the Bolts of Heaven: With the 1st Michigan at Gaines Mill

Private John Engle of the 1st Michigan Infantry described the terrifying moments of combat at Boatswains' Swamp near Gaines Mill, Virginia on June 27, 1862. His regiment had just opened fire on the charging Rebels and before long, Engle had burned through most of his ammunition.

“In 20 minutes from the time I fired the first shot, my rifle was so hot that I could hardly hold it in my hands and in ramming down a cartridge, my gun exploded from the heat of the barrel, blowing my ramrod sky-high. We had the patent cartridges and could load with amazing rapidity. I took our orderly sergeant’s gun and continued the fight until we were ordered to fall back. During the fight, one of the Rebel bullets shaved the whiskers on my left cheek, slightly scorching the skin. It made the fire sparkle in my left eye a little, and I sent him my compliments with a good will. But, pshaw, I cannot give you half a description,” he lamented.

During the Seven Days’ Campaign, the 1st Michigan was part of Brigadier General John Martindale’s First Brigade of General George Morrell’s First Division of Fitz-John Porter’s 5th Army Corps. Engle’s letter, originally written to his brother James in Tekonsha, Michigan, saw publication in the August 20, 1862 edition of the Marshall Statesman published in Marshall, Michigan.

 

Two unidentified Union soldiers attired in nine-button frock coats and regulation brass pose with their Lorenz rifle muskets and bayonets. 

Headquarters Army of the Potomac

Harrison’s Landing, Virginia

August 2, 1862

 

Brother James,

          I received your welcome letter last night and was very glad to hear from you and that you all were well. Augustus [younger brother] and I are well at present though we have been ailing with dysentery, a prevalent complaint here. You asked me to write the particulars and incidents of the battles that we have been engaged in. Your request is a pretty hard one for I am no hand at composing. If I were with you at home, I might give you a pretty fair description, for I can talk better than I can write, but I will try and gratify you.

          On the 26th of June commenced our work in earnest. Our brigade was ordered to march about noon towards the enemy near Mechanicsville. The rest of our division had previously moved to the front and on the left of our brigade. When we arrived near Mechanicsville the roar of cannon and fierce rattle of musketry told us plainly that the bloody work had commenced. A part of our brigade was at once deployed as skirmishers on the right to ascertain, if possible, the strength of the Rebels in that direction and our time was chiefly employed till midnight in skirmishing with the enemy. But the right of our division was fighting bravely with the Rebels all the afternoon and held their ground against superior numbers.

A package of Johnston & Dow patent .58 caliber cartridges that Engle mentioned in his account of Gaines Mill. The advantage of these rounds was that the soldier didn't have to tear the cartridge to pour the black powder down the barrel: the soldier simply inserted the cartridge and rammed it home.
(Image courtesy of the Horse Soldier)

At midnight, we were ordered to fall back and about 10 o’clock on the 27th we took position near Gaines’ Mill in line of battle. We formed a line about three miles in length and skirmishers were thrown out in front of each regiment. Cos. D and E were deployed in front of our regiment on the same ground we had drilled over many a time in our daily exercises. Little did we then think that we were going to work in earnest so soon on the same ground.

General John Martindale

In about half an hour, the Rebel skirmishers made their appearance and soon we had warm work. More than once the dirt and sand was thrown on me by the enemy’s bullets and I tried to give them as good as they sent. There was one fellow in particular who got up in a tree so he could see us fair and he shot uncomfortably close. I caught sight of him through the leaves and elevating the sights on my old Enfield, I sent him my best respects twice. No more shots came from that tree.

We held our ground as skirmishers till about 3 o’clock when the main body of the enemy came up and then we were called back and took our post in the main line of battle. By this time, the artillery on both sides had fairly got to work and the shot and shells filled the air, and it was not long before the Rebel infantry in their gray uniforms four ranks deep made their appearance. And let it be remembered we were only two ranks deep throughout that terrible fight. As soon as they came within reach of our rifles, we went at them. To merely say our men fought bravely seems too tame a word.

I will give you a little idea how they fought from my own experience, and I claim to be no better than the majority. In 20 minutes from the time, I fired the first shot, my rifle was so hot that I could hardly hold it in my hands and in ramming down a cartridge, my gun exploded from the heat of the barrel, blowing my ramrod sky-high. We had the patent cartridges and could load with amazing rapidity. I took our orderly sergeant’s gun and continued the fight until we were ordered to fall back. We drove the Rebels back three different times with terrible loss. But the last time they came strongly reinforced and six ranks deep, and our men had received no reinforcements and were nearly exhausted from fighting. Again, the battle raged along the while line; our troops fought obstinately, aye, desperately, and the ground was strewn with heaps of the dead and dying. But on they came, their rear ranks marching behind with fixed bayonets urging their front ranks on. And now our right and left flanks are surged back, being overpowered by numbers and when we were nearly surrounded our regiment was ordered to fall back.

The final Confederate assault at Gaines' Mill occurred near 7 pm and broke the Union line, sending Morrell's division including the 1st Michigan scrambling back over Turkey Hill.
(Map by Hal Jespersen)


During the fight, one of the Rebel bullets shaved the whiskers on my left cheek, slightly scorching the skin. It made the fire sparkle in my left eye a little, and I sent him my compliments with a good will. But, pshaw, I cannot give you half a description. If you had been there, you would say so. After we fell back about half a mile, we met the brave Irish Brigade commanded by the brave Meagher coming to our relief and as they passed to the front, they said to so, “Hold on boys and see us pitch into them.” We did hold on, and the way they did pitch into them with the bayonet was a caution to old soldiers. They drove them back with fierce slaughter and regained all the ground our men had lost. All honor to the Irish Brigade!

Lieutenant Francis Raymond Rice, Cos. A and F, 1st Michigan Inf.

After the battle of Gaines’ Mill, we fell back to Malvern Hill where we arrived on the 29th of June, halted, and stacked arms about one hour, then we were ordered to the battlefield, but the Rebels did not make their appearance that day. We slept on our arms that night. Early the next morning, the roar of cannon told us plainly that the enemy was close at hand, and soon the shot and shell came whistling around us, and our brigade had to stand there and endure it till about 4 p.m. We lost a good many men by the bursting of shells without being able to return the shot with our rifles, but our artillery piled the Rebels in heaps. At 4 o’clock we were called up to within 15 rods of the Rebel line and then our boys went to work and in 20 minutes the Rebel line was wiped out. They had either fallen or fled, and the ground was strewn with the dead and wounded, and their loss was terrible.

As we were going on to the field and were dashing past Griffin’s battery, the old hero called out “What regiment is that?” We replied, “The 1st Michigan!” Says he, “boys, my battery is safe” then turning to his men he said, “Sergeant, double shot those guns!” And louder than the bolts of heaven flashed the loud artillery and the grape and canister shot could be plainly heard crashing through the serried ranks of the Rebels as they fled in dismay from the blood-encrimsoned field. After dark, Cos. D and E were ordered out on picket duty and we were deployed out among the Rebel killed and wounded. Some of our own brave boys with their blue uniforms lay there side by side with their mortal foes. But, oh, how can I describe the scene? There they lay in heaps, friend and foe, horse and rider, in one red burial blent. We stayed on the field till 2 o’clock at night and then commenced our march for Harrison’s Landing.

At daylight, it began to rain and it rained hard all day. I marched with my company till about 9 o’clock in the morning when exhausted nature could stand it no longer and I fell out by the roadside to rest my wearied frame. I lay on the ground about an hour and then feeling a little rested, I got up and staggered through the rain and mud and got to our camp about 4 p.m. I found the mud there about one foot deep on average. I crawled off in the woods and lay down on some poles and slept there until the next morning. And here I am yet but guess you will be glad if I stop, and I will come to a halt and a right about face.

 

John Engle, Jr.

 

Source:

Letter from Private John Engle, Jr., Co. E, 1st Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Marshall Statesman (Michigan), August 20, 1862, pg. 1

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