Tuesday, June 26, 2012

1st U.S. Cavalry at Gaines Mill, 27 June 1862

For the regular cavalry, the battle of Gaines Mill is best known for the charge ordered by Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke at the end of the battle by the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Although the 1st U.S. Cavalry had a minor part to play in the larger drama of the battle, I felt that someone should tell their story as well.

Report of Lieut. Col. William N. Grier, First U.S. Cavalry, of battle of Gaines’ Mill.
“Headquarters First U.S. Cavalry
Camp near Richmond, Va., June 28, 1862.

Sir: For the information of Col. G. A. H. Blake, First Cavalry, commanding Second Brigade of Cavalry Reserve, I have the honor to make the following report of the part borne in the action of 27th of June, 1862, at or near Gaines’ Hill, on the Chickahominy, by two squadrons of the First U.S. Cavalry. The whole strength of the regiment on that day consisted of two small squadrons, about 125 enlisted men, Captain Reno, First Cavalry, commanding one squadron, and Lieutenant Kellogg commanding the other. During the day the regiment was kept moving from one point to another until in the afternoon it was placed, together with the Fifth U.S. Cavalry and Rush’s Lancers, (volunteer cavalry), on the extreme left, in the support of our artillery.

Late in the afternoon our left wing was driven back by very heavy re-enforcements of the enemy, and after they debouched from the timber in our front were charged by the Fifth Regiment of U.S. Cavalry, my two squadrons directed to be held as a reserve to watch the effect of that charge and act accordingly. The charge of the Fifth having made no visible impression on the overwhelming masses of the enemy and none of them effecting a rally on the reserve, my squadrons retired in good order at a walk in rear of our artillery.

During the afternoon’s engagement the squadrons were subjected to a heavy fire from the enemy, which was met with coolness and steadiness by officers and men. Colonel Blake having been present, and acted with these two small squadrons of the regiment, is fully cognizant of its services during the day, and therefore probably requires no detail of its different movements from point to point during the day.

Wm. N. Grier
Lieutenant-Colonel, First Cavalry, Commanding Regiment.

Lieut. N. W. Kneass,
Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., Second Brigade, Reserve Cavalry.” (OR, Vol. 11, pt. 2, pgs. 45-46)

From Lt. Col. Grier’s report, it sounds as though the 1st U.S. Cavalry had a pretty easy day of it, shifting from point to point on the battlefield, watching the charge of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, and never really engaged in the fighting.

Perhaps an examination of the brigade commander’s report will shed more light on the fighting:

“Report of Col. George A. H. Blake, First U.S. cavalry, commanding Second Brigade, of the battle of Gaines Mill.

Headquarters Second Cavalry Brigade
Camp, Harrison’s Landing, James River, Va., July 3, 1862

Sir: In compliance with orders from the headquarters cavalry division I have the honor to report the movements of this brigade on the 26th instant and its engagement with the enemy on the following day.

The brigade consisted of two small squadrons of the First U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Grier, and the provost guard of the division, consisting of 39 men, under the command of Lieutenant Balk, Sixth U.S. Cavalry. On the 26th instant information was received of the approach of the enemy, who we were informed were seen upon the road to our rear. The brigade was immediately formed. About 12 o’clock m. we took up our line of march and reached Cold Harbor, where we remained for the night.

About 7 o’clock upon the following morning (June 27) the line of march was again resumed, and we proceeded to a point which was then occupied for the time by General F. J. Porter as his headquarters, on the road leading to No. 8 Bridge. The brigade was placed in position, and about 11 o’clock the engagement commenced. A short time after the brigade was moved to the left and rear of the house occupied by General F. J. Porter as his headquarters. Late in the evening, when our infantry retired before the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, the brigade was ordered upon the hill in rear of the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, with orders to act as a reserve to the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, who were ordered to charge the enemy, and, if successful, to take advantage of it and follow it up. The fire of the enemy was so destructive that a charge was not effected. The command fell back with the artillery in good order and occupied a position about 600 yards from our former position. We were again ordered to the front, and acted as a support to a body of infantry who had rallied at the bottom of the hill and were holding the enemy in check. When our artillery was posted on the hill in rear we were ordered to retire, so as to be out of his fire. We fell back a short distance and remained until 1 o’clock a.m. on the 28th instant, when the command retired across the Chickahominy, near Savage Station.

I am indebted to Lieutenant-Colonel Grier, Captain Reno, Captain Kellogg, Lieutenant Feilner, Lieutenant Allen (dangerously wounded), all of the First U.S. Cavalry; Lieutenant Balk, Sixth U.S. Cavalry, and Lieutenant Kneass, acting assistant adjutant-general Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, for the prompt and cheerful assistance given me on the field. Lieutenant Balk and myself were slightly struck during the engagement, but not of sufficient importance to notice further.
A list of casualties will be furnished when received.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

George A. H. Blake,
Colonel First Cavalry, Commanding Brigade.

Lieut. James P. Martin.” (OR, Vol. 11, pt. 2, pg. 44)

Colonel Blake’s report provides a bit more detail on the regiment’s actions, but not much indication of the severity of the fighting beyond mentioning the one officer wounded.

In actuality, the regiment’s casualties for the battle consisted of 4 enlisted men killed in action, 1 officer mortally wounded, 18 enlisted men wounded in action, and 2 enlisted men missing, for a total of 25. (OR, Vol. 11, pt. 2, pg. 40) 20% of the force engaged is normally considered heavy casualties, though it pales in comparison to the 5th Cavalry’s losses in the fight.

Lt. Col. Grier, an officer of great experience, probably has an understated writing style. This is refreshing given the hyperbole of many battle reports. His entry on the regimental muster rolls for June 1862 has only this to say of the battle:

“The Regiment consisting of 4 Companies (A, C, F & H) under the command of Lieut. Colonel Wm. N. Grier were engaged in the action of 27th of June at Gaines Mill Va., loss in killed wounded and missing – 1 officer and 23 enlisted men.”

The mortally wounded officer was 1st Lieutenant Robert Allen, Jr. The regiment’s July 1862 return lists him as “died of wounds received in action in the Battle of Gaines Mill, Va June 27, 1862.” The names of the enlisted men killed and wounded in action are not listed in the monthly returns, and I’m still looking for the 1862 annual return for the regiment.

For those curious about the rest of the regiment, Companies B, E, I and K were at Fortress Monroe during the battle. The other squadron, Cos. D and G, were fighting in New Mexico.

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