Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bates letters - July 10, 1862

Editor's note: In which we discover Bates' feelings for a certain New York Times correspondent's coverage of the battles of Malvern Hill and White Oak Swamp. He also provides an account of the battle of Gaines Mill. I'll be checking over the weekend on his allegations of flight by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, as I don't recall reading of it before. All of the parentheticals save the occasional (sic) were included in the original text.

Harrisons Landing Va.
July 10th 1862
Dear Parents,

I have not written to you for a few days back because I thought you would get all the news in the papers, but if all the papers give the same description of our late fights here, don’t believe anything you read about us. I enclose a few pieces of the “New York Times” July 8th, as sample of the way they will make a mountain of a mole-hill. It seems the correspondent was only with one division, and trusted to guesswork for the details of the rest of the Army. He says, “The great mass of the Army were not apprised until (sic) midnight of Friday of the intention of Genl McClellan to change his base from the York to the James rivers.” Here is mistake No. 1. True the intrenchments (sic) were not evacuated but the “great mass of the Army” were ready for a move long before, but I don’t think the Genl took the trouble to inform the Army what his plans of movement were. He then goes on to say “It commenced to move at 4 Oclock just before the sun” when it was raining in the morning and the sun didn’t appear till late in the forenoon. He speaks of the awful destruction of the Government stores and thinks three millions will hardly cover the loss. I think I could pay for all the property destroyed with one million and have many left after.

He then, after describing the battles of Allans farm, and Savage Station, gets the hype about the wounded left at Savage’s. Now nearly all were removed from there and I doubt secesh got as many hundred as he says thousands. The next piece of absurdity is the description of the battle of Nelsons farm, he seems to think Genl Richardson was commander in chief and had the whole battle to himself nearly. But McClellan himself formed the line of battle and was on the field at “Nelson’s Farm,” or White Oak Swamp, more properly, until he had to go to Haxall’s Landing and look after affairs there leaving Genl Sumner in command at White Oak. The battle of Malvern Hills was fought on the same day, (Monday) and was not the tremendous affair described, on the whole, none of the descriptions are correct, and I think the special correspondent got his news from hearsay, perhaps from the Lieut. Charles Draper, who brought reinforcements to Heintzelman “through a murderous fire,” preferring to keep at a safe distance during the fight, a course followed by a great many of our gallant volunteers who were more interested in looking for the Gunboats or for a pontoon-bridge than in looking for their regiments from this time. I was not on the field where “fights were won” until the battle of “Malvern Hills,” but this was Monday instead of Tuesday, and didn’t commence untill half past four in the afternoon. Instead of the rebs marching up by divisions they stuck to the woods like some of our own volunteers and fighting was all done by artillery. Our Captain picked enough stragglers to form two full regiments and asked permission to take them to the front and give them some fighting to do. He acted as Brigadier General of them himself and supported a battery in good style but didn’t get a chance to do any fighting. The whole squadron were kept busy picking up stragglers or recruiting for McIntyre’s Brigade, as we called it.

I slept soundly on Tuesday on Malvern Hills and wasn’t troubled with the rain which the correspondent says came down in his description of camp on James river.

In conclusion his summary of killed, wounded and missing is one of the biggest lies ever published. I thought at first our loss would be from 12 to 15,000 but now I am positive it is not over 12,000 in all.

While I am in the humor I will write what I know about the affair commencing with Thursday afternoon when I wrote my last letter in Camp Lincoln. I believe I had hardly got the letter in the post-office when the firing commenced on the right. This was McCall’s Division in action, and they stood their ground so well that they were driven out of their camps, and would have been driven off the peninsula but for Porter’s Division which retook the lost ground and held it. That evening Genl McClellan sent word to Porter “to make a stubborn resistance and fall back to the Chickahominy next day.” The answer received was this ---

“I can keep the enemy in check and spare part of my force if you want.” Upon this McClellan rode over to Porter’s and I suppose explained to him what he wanted done. At any rate all the waggons (sic) and property with Porter’s and McCall’s Divisions were immediately sent to the west side of the Chickahominy leaving only troops the other side. Ambulances were also sent for the wounded but most of them stopped to cook breakfast for the drivers and feed the horses so they were late in getting up to the battlefield and about three hundred wounded were left in consequence. The firing commenced at daylight Friday, but I went to sleep after breakfast, being up all night, and when I woke up about 10 Oclock it was as quiet as you please. We packed up everything, and at two Oclock headquarters was moved to Savages Station. Our squadron however was employed in collecting stragglers and sending them back to their regiments for the action had commenced again, and hundreds of runaways were coming across the Chickahominy with stories of their regiments being “cut to pieces.” About one Oclock Porter sent for reinforcements saying he had only a “handful of regulars left.”

“Send the regulars into it and I will let you have reinforcements in two hours,” was the reply. Accordingly the regulars (Sykes brigade) were put to work, and they drove a force that had driven four brigades of our troops, in spite of all the secesh could do; the Fifth New York was also in this brigade. They are men. About five Oclock reinforcements came up and relieved the regulars, and then the secesh took their turn at driving. A battery of ours supported by the 5th Cavalry 7 companies 1st Cavalry 4 companies regulars, and the gallant Colonel Rush’s regiment of Pennsylvania lancers came in danger of being taken when Genl Cooke commanding the cavalry ordered a Charge. The 5th started followed by the 1st, but the Gallant Colonel Rush’s Lancers charged the wrong way and broke a brigade of Infantry in their flight in most ludicrous style. Some of them never stopped running until they got across the Chickahominy. The 5th however saved the battery but failed to do much execution among the secesh. Our troops now commenced to retreat in a hurry, and but for the timely arrival of Meagher’s brigade with some other troops the grand army would have been put to flight. They however checked the enemy until night and withdrew to the west side of the Chickahominy. An assault was also made on the right of our intrenchments (sic) at sundown but it was no use knocking.

In the evening Genl Porter had a talk with Little Mac again, at the beginning of which Mac grasped Porter by the hand and asked him “Well what do you think of your ‘handful of regulars’ now.” (truth)

Send me some postage stamping. I am well.
Charles E. Bates


Eric Wittenberg said...


Those same allegations were leveled in the newspaper accounts. Am unidentified member of the Lancers responded pretty vociferously in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I address that episode in my regimental; if you have the book, you will find it in the chapter on the Peninsula.

It bears noting that only a PORTION of the Lancers made the charge, and it also bears noting that Philip St. George Cooke praised their performance pretty strongly, so they can't have done too badly.

Bottom line: at that period of the war, the Lancers were pretty commonly referred to as Lancers Rushes or turkey drivers by the Regulars, who had not yet come to respect them. A year later, their tune had definitely changed....


Don said...


Yes, I noticed the same thing when I checked the book this weekend. What I found interesting was that Bates was never even on that side of the river, so everything he reports is hearsay. And he commented on the 6th Pennsylvania but not how badly the 5th US Cavalry (and at least 5 members of the 6th US) fared in their charge.

The other Regulars were probably already starting to respect the 6th PA, but I doubt this squadron of the 4th US would have seen much of them, since they'd only worked as McClellan's escort through the whole campaign. To this point in the correspondence, Bates has yet to see a live, armed Confederate soldier.

By the next year, these guys had finally rejoined their regiment in the western theater. I try not to read ahead in the letters too much, but they see a lot more action then and I think Bates has a little different perspective.

Thanks for stopping by, I'd hoped you would.