More In the Wind Than We Bargained For: The Seven Days with the 3rd New Jersey
Charles Hamilton Bacon, a private serving in the Cumberland Grays (Co. F) of the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, was the West Jersey Pioneer’s regular army correspondent. The 32-year-old father of five had been working as a roller in Bridgeton, New Jersey when he joined the Grays in 1861, and soon after taking the field he commenced sending back a superb letters detailing his army experiences. As discussed on John Banks’ blog, Charles was killed in action September 14, 1862, during the Battle of Crampton’ Gap, Maryland and was buried under an elm tree on the Jacob Goodman farm, land now preserved by the American Battlefield Trust.
Among Charles’ final missives are the two letters below describing his regiment’s experiences during the Seven Days battles in June 1862, starting with the Battle of Mechanicsville on June 26th through Malvern Hill on July 1st. The 3rd New Jersey was part of the First Brigade (George W. Taylor) of the First Division (Henry Slocum) of General William B. Franklin’s 6th Army Corps and saw its heaviest action at Gaines Mill on June 27th. And as Charles tells it, by the end of the Battle of Gaines Mill, it was clear that there was “more in the wind than we bargained for.”
His letters describing the Seven Days campaign originally appeared in the July 19, 1862, and August 2, 1862, editions of the West Jersey Pioneer published in Bridgeton, New Jersey. I have taken the liberty of combining the two letters to make a cohesive narrative.
Camp near James River, Virginia
July 8 and 20, 1862
Since I last wrote you, we have been having some of the practical work of armies. On the 19th of June, our brigade moved from Mechanicsville to Fair Oaks where we had a good opportunity of seeing what we might expect to realize if we should ever be called upon to enter the field of battle. It is a very pretty thing for those at a distance to read the very highly colored paper correspondence that as a general rule are made up of camp gossip and almost invariably reflect undue credit upon their own particular state or discredit upon some other, but if we are not mistaken, history will show that Jersey had not been the least in courage and endurance in putting down this rebellion.
We have had more or less fighting every day since the 19th of June up to the 6th day of the present month. As you are posted in the general news, I shall confine myself to Co. F as much as possible. It had not been our duty heretofore to write about casualties and the bravery of the Cumberland Grays, but we are sure that old Cumberland will not be ashamed of her representatives when it is known that they braved when called upon to face the foe. The whole regiment acquitted themselves like veterans. When we were drawn up in line to go and face the enemy, General Fitz-John Porter, who had command of the field, rode up to our rear and said, “Now my boys you go down to battle. You are Jerseymen, let us see that you are not degenerate sons of the old Jersey stock. Jersey is a little state, but a big one now. Three cheers for New Jersey!” Of course they were given with an emphasis.
|Major General Fitz-John Porter|
Of the battle Thursday [June 26th] we were but silent listeners except that we joined in the rejoicing that took place during the evening over the drubbing that Porter had given them. The next day very early in the morning [Gaines Mill- June 27th] we were formed in line and marched down to the Chickahominy near New Bridge but were soon ordered back to camp. Scarcely had we stacked our arms and gone for our breakfast when the Rebels began shelling our camp. We had to fall in and prepare for battle which they showed a disposition to give, but they were soon drove back from that point and we marched back to camp. A third time we were ordered to report at Ball’s Bridge on the double quick, and away we went, many making the remark that ‘The third time never failed.’ Neither did it this time, and I am in hopes the next time we start onward for Richmond will not fail.
When our brigade went on the field, I thought it was one of the grandest sights I ever saw, but the scene was soon to change. To see artillery, cavalry, and infantry drawn up in line on rolling land is a very nice thing to look at, but to go down in woods filled with men pouring out a perfect hailstorm of bullets is looking at the other side of the picture, but we went in with a shout and a cheer. Co. F being the color company, we suffered very much. Your correspondent’s place was the second file from the flag. Soon they began to fall on each side of me, but steadily onward we moved in face of the fore, nor did they give back until they were ordered to do so, and that was not done until we were completely outflanked by superior numbers.
Thus the 4th New Jersey was all taken prisoner except the few who were left in camp. The 3rd New Jersey lost more in killed and wounded than any of our brigade. The Cumberland Grays lost 27 in killed and wounded. [Names omitted] Most of them are doing well but our company is pretty well thinned out, quite a number having left on account of sickness.
It had been a hard day with us, and everything looked dark at the close of the fight, yet one could not see that any depression was exhibited. We returned to camp that night with but little thought of what we were to go through the week following, but things began to show themselves very early the next morning [June 28th] for at the dawn of day, the breaking up of camp and the destruction of property was begun. Our brigade was under arms very early- just then we learned that the boys of the 4th New Jersey had been captured on Friday. It was then that we began to realize that there was more in the wind than we had bargained for, but you may rest assured that the spirit expressed was ‘Little Mac knows more than we.’ On Saturday, General Longstreet, thinking that we had begun a precipitate retreat, took one of his brigades and advanced on our main front to take possession of the height occupied by General [Baldy] Smith’s division which they thought was vacated. They charged on the works at a right shoulder shift; our men reserved their fire until they were within a few paces of the works then let go on them with a terrible fire of grape and canister, mowing down the whole except 12 men who were taken prisoners. This terrible slaughter ended the fighting for that day. [The engagement Bacon is referring to was known as the Battle of Golding’s Farm in which General Robert Toombs and Colonel George T. Anderson launched their brigades into an assault against Baldy Smith’s division; as Bacon states, the assault was repulsed with hefty losses for the Confederates but not nearly as dire as he describes. The engagement convinced McClellan to continue his retreat to the James River.]
About 12 o’clock that night [June 29th], we took up our march in the direction of the James River. When in the neighborhood of Savage Station, we rested. As soon as day began to appear, a line of battle was formed; when those not in that line took up their line of march for the next range of hills where they formed a similar line, and the first line passed in turn, and then in alternate succession the day of Sunday was passed, and we camped at a place called Peach Orchard. Sunday was the great day of our retreat Our sick and wounded had not gotten ahead enough to be out of the way. We shall never forget the sights we witnessed. Skeletal forms, emaciated by disease, tottering and wounded men, all seeking places of safety. Many such fell into the hands of the Rebels, among them were some of Co. F.
Early Monday morning [June 30th], our division went to the rear to form part of the line to cover the retreat. In the meantime, the Rebels had not been idle for scarcely had we formed our line than they began to shell us, but Major Hexamer with his indefatigable battery soon opened upon them with terrible effect. The slaughter here was terrific. We had seen on Friday legs, arms, and heads flying in the air like a volcano, but we had seen but a small part of the human slaughter to what was here exhibited. The Rebels, with mad frenzy, pushed on in column only to be mown down in windrows. The terrible roar of artillery was only equaled by the destruction of Rebels by thousands.
|General George W. Taylor|
By the middle of the afternoon, the fight became general all along the line and it became evident that our position was a critical one. Officers met in council; they could be seen riding in every direction, making preparation to extricate us from the threatened danger, for the Rebels had gained possession of the only road by which we were to make our escape to join the main body of the army. It had been decided upon to cut our way out or leave our booty on the field. Just then, General [George W.] Taylor rode in to our regiment and said, ‘Boys, I guess we will have another chance to test our courage. I think we have them on the hip; let’s have three cheers!’ Then came an order from General Slocum that General Porter had met and repulsed the enemy on our right, upon which General Taylor made a speech to the men. The old man was full of zeal and energy; he remarked that we had been out and learned the woods and said it was no use for the brick-walled city generals to fight those bush fighters, one must know the woods to fight in them.
About 4 o’clock, our position was moved in the rear of the batteries, they had driven the Rebels from their batteries. We were drawn up for a charge upon them and ordered to unsling our knapsacks. Here came a request from General Phil Kearny that the Jersey boys should come to his relief on the left where the Rebels were making a desperate move, throwing their whole force on our left. The call had no sooner been made than responded to. Off we marched at the double quick, leaving knapsacks and all behind, this we lost all except what we had on our backs. Already darkness had begun to shut down upon us. We entered the scene of strife in a road but were soon ordered to fall in the woods. Here the balls came from every direction, but we soon laid down and thus escaped harm. The conflict was kept up until late in the night when the Rebels fell back. We laid down to rest awhile and then we were up and off again. This ended that day. [Bacon is referring to the Battle of White Oak Swamp]
Again on Tuesday [July 1st] they attacked our rear, and here as on the day previous some very hard fighting took place and the slaughter was terrific, but we had now reached the cover of the gunboats and good execution they did. We were not in the rear this day therefore we cannot give any particulars. This morning we got a good glance of the river and each heart bounded with joy at the sight of the same. We reached Harrison’s Landing on Wednesday [July 2nd] in a heavy drenching rain and encamped in a wheat field of 50 acres which was a perfect bed of mire before night and for 20 hours our rest was well moistened by mud and water. In the afternoon, General McClellan rode around the camps and was greeted with much enthusiasm as if we had been in Richmond. The confidence of his men is unbounded. General Slocum also visited his men in their camps and gave them words of comfort. Just as he passed through our camp, some of the men were dissecting a hog that had been captured for supper and he remarked that we should take anything that would add to our comfort. The General is a plain, unassuming man who carries his worth in his brain more than in his dress.
|General Henry W. Slocum|
Thursday morning [July 3rd] the Rebels began shelling our camps, but their shells fell short; some solid shots reached our camps however, but they soon found they had chosen rather a warm place for the gunboats sent them some compliments in the shape of 124 shells. In the afternoon, our tents were established, and our brigade moved out to our position where we have been recruiting our strength and health by doing picket duty every third day and working on the trenches eight out of 24 hours, but still all are cheerful and lively having got pretty much through with our hard work.
The all-prevailing topic in camp is what our friends are doing at home for us; are they responding to the call of the government for help for us, or are they sitting and looking coolly on while their brothers are beckoning them to come and help them? Shall it be said that New Jersey who so nobly responded to the first and second call did prove recreant at the critical moment? We that have already borne the burden and heat of the day appeal to you to come and help us gather the harvest that we may all return to our homes, and peace and prosperity once more reign throughout the land. Our motto with us is as with you- this government shall be preserved.
Letters from Private Charles Hamilton Bacon, Co. F, 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, West Jersey Pioneer (New Jersey), July 19, 1862, pg. 2 and August 2, 1862, pg. 2
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