#Civil War – Battle at Seven Pines, 1862

Currier & Ives depiction of the Battle of Seven Pines

This excerpt from Civil War Journal of a Confederate Soldier – the memoir of my great grandfather – shows firsthand the horrors of war. There are no winners here at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Virginia.

May 31 – Orders came for us to report to General Kearney at Seven Pines Tavern. Without delay, we were on the move. Before we reached the stage road, one of those sudden storms peculiar to the south burst upon us without warning. The sky grew dark. Then quickly came sheets of livid flame, followed by deafening crashes of thunder. In another moment, sluices of water began to pour. Darkness became so intense that nothing could be seen except by the blinding, hissing, crackling flashes of lightning. The scene was one of terrific grandeur, but exposed to its fury as we were, it was not pleasant. Some gained the partial shelter of the trees. Others could not make head against the flood and were forced to stand and take it where they were. In half an hour, this cloudburst was a thing of the past. The only evidence that it had been was the distant detonation of thunder and the lake of muddy water in which we stood over our shoe tops.

As soon as the storm swept by, we marched away in pursuit of orders. Then there broke upon our ears rapid explosions of thunder that we knew too well were not from heaven, followed by an unsteady roll that we knew was not the reverberation of thunder along the clouds. To our experienced ears, it was the sound of deadly strife.

Then came fugitives from the front, saying that Casey’s division which was in the advance had been surprised at Fair Oaks station and “All cut to pieces.” As with increased pace and quickened pulse we pushed forward, the number of fugitives increased and all had the same cry. “We’re all cut to pieces.” To say that our little band felt no misgivings in the face of this wild rout would not be true. Thoughts of Bull Run forced themselves upon us, but when did the 2nd Michigan fail to report wherever they were ordered. Straining toward the front, we met the lion-hearted, firm and true General Heintzelman at a point where the swamp and creek came close together within forty rods. This hair-lipped old general demanded, “What are these and where are you going?” Being told that we were two companies of the 2nd Michigan going to report to General Kearney, he ordered, “Deploy across this muck and stop these stragglers or kill them.” Instantly, the movement was begun at double quick and in another moment, we were facing the mob of excited, terrified men, some hatless, from they knew not what, while the spent balls from the enemy was stimulating their speed.

To stay this tide was to us a harder task than to fight the enemy. They were our friends, and we did not want to hurt them. By the sounds from the front, we knew that our men who had not been stampeded were bravely holding the rebels in check. These men must be made to turn and help them. At first, it required rough treatment and some received wounds here that had escaped unscathed at the front, but when the tide was once stayed, a peremptory order to “Fall in,” enforced by the point of the bayonet, backed by a loaded musket was obeyed without resistance. Each had his story to tell, to which we would not listen. Officers and men alike insisted that “We’re all cut to pieces” and “I am the only man left of my regiment.”

Officers and men resorted to various subterfuges and tricks to get past our line. Two men carrying their brave and esteemed captain, with both legs tied up with handkerchiefs, were stopped to examine the captain’s wounds. When the bandages were removed, no wounds were to be found. Men with heads, bodies, legs, and arms tied up were detected in the cheat and put into the ranks. A colonel of a New York regiment with two men carrying him desired to push through. We sent the men to the ranks, but passed the colonel. He was dead-drunk. We dumped his carcass on the ground in the swamp as of no use. One by one, seven color bearers drifted back to us with their colors and the declaration that they alone had escaped with the colors, the others were “all cut to pieces.” The phrase “cut to pieces” became a joke and many an officer in splendid uniform was asked to take off his clothes and show where he was cut. Some officers were indignant that their rank was not respected, and that private soldiers dared to prevent their passing, but a look into the muzzle of a loaded musket with a resolute eye behind it inclined them to waive their rights for this once. By stationing the various regimental colors in different parts of the field, and directing the men to assemble around their own colors, we rallied seven good-sized regiments of live men that were not “cut to pieces.” We kept our line all night, part of the men sleeping at a time. Our duty had been a very unpleasant one, but we were assured that it was very important.

June 1 – Early in the morning we joined our regiment on the battlefield. Seven companies of the regiment were in the thickest of the fight and lost heavily in killed and wounded, and Colonel Poe had his horse shot under him. Richardson’s division was already pushing the enemy, and long before noon, the lost ground was regained. This two-day battle was called by both names – Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, the fighting being done between a railroad station of the former name and a country tavern of the latter. (The aggregate loss to Union and Confederate – killed 3,690, wounded 7,524, prisoners 2,322.)

[Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, May 31-June 1, 1862 with the total killed, wounded, or captured now recorded as 13,736.]

From Civil War Trust:

The Battle of Seven Pines
Fair Oaks
May 31, 1862 – June 1, 1862

On May 31, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that appeared isolated south of the Chickahominy River. The Confederate assaults, though not well coordinated, succeeded in driving back the IV Corps and inflicting heavy casualties. Reinforcements arrived, and both sides fed more and more troops into the action. Supported by the III Corps and Sedgwick’s division of Sumner’s II Corps (that crossed the rain-swollen river on Grapevine Bridge), the Federal position was finally stabilized. Gen. Johnston was seriously wounded during the action, and command of the Confederate army devolved temporarily to Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith. On June 1, the Confederates renewed their assaults against the Federals who had brought up more reinforcements but made little headway. Both sides claimed victory.  Confederate brigadier Robert H. Hatton was killed.

Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier is available on Kindle and in paperback. Click on the image to visit the Amazon page.

Click on cover for Amazon page

Click on cover for Amazon page

#Civil War Journal on Special #Sale

Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, the memoir of my great grandfather, is on a Kindle Countdown deal this week. March 22 and 23, the Kindle version is only .99 cents. On March 24, it goes up to $1.99 for four days, before reverting back to its original price. If you haven’t downloaded the journal yet, here’s your change to take advantage of this special offer. The book is also available in paperback for $6.93.

Here’s an excerpt from 152 years ago this week. Harmon Camburn brings the sights, sounds, and sensibilities of the regular infantry soldier to light with his riveting prose.

Click on cover for Amazon page

Click on cover for Amazon page


March 21, 1862 – The bugle sounded “Strike Tents.” Taking the road up Hampton Creek a mile or so, we crossed the bridge and passed through the ruins of Hampton. This was the oldest town and had the oldest church in Virginia. The rebel cavalry general, Wade Hampton, occupied this place through the winter with the Hampton Legion. Upon the approach of the “Yankees,” he fired the town and retreated. The town was entirely destroyed, but the greatest regret felt for the loss of the old church, said to have been built by John Smith of brick brought from England.

Leaving the blackened ruins of this little hamlet behind, we soon pitched our tents near Back River about five miles form Newport News Point. In this camp, we passed the next two weeks. The rain fell almost continually and the ground became a sea of soft mud through which it was difficult to move. Troops were arriving and going into camp around us every day. The enemy was in possession of the other side of the river and picket duty came around often. A night on picket in the rain was not much relieved by a day under our pup tents. We were not yet used to accommodating ourselves to such close quarters, but it was discovered that a third half tent, turned corner-wise would button on to the others and close up the end. This and other discoveries afterward enabled us to make ourselves comparatively comfortable.

I had often noticed in Virginia a small thicket in the midst of cultivated ground. In an intermission between showers one day, I explored one of these and found it to be, as I did others after, a family burying ground. The tombstones were common sandstone and lay flat upon the ground. Rudely chiseled upon their rough surface was the name, date of birth, date of death, and sometimes a brief epitaph. The date of death on one was 1711. I saw others ranging along to 1790. It seems disgraceful that these old burial places should be neglected to grow up on tangled thickets and plowed around like any difficult obstruction.

While our regiment was on picket along the river one day, men were discovered lurking in the woods on the opposite bank. A peremptory order enforced with loaded muskets brought them over the river. There were seven of them, and they proved to be Negro slaves escaped from Yorktown. They were in a starving condition, and one of them died the same night. Twenty-four of them had escaped from Yorktown, an easy day’s march from us, four weeks before. They had concealed themselves by day in ditches and wandered by night in search of the “Yankees.” Seventeen had died by the way from hunger and exposure, and one died just after reaching the goal of their desire. They gave important information concerning the enemy’s fortifications, position, and strength. The survivors were employed as servants by our officers. This incident shows that slaves will risk their lives for freedom.


#Oyster Stew for a #Union soldier from MIchigan

Today it’s 15 degrees outside the walls of my warm home. It made think of my great grandfather and his years as a Union soldier during the Civil War. This excerpt finds his unit settling down in Newport News, Virginia, on a small chunk of land surrounded by the James River and Chesapeake Bay. The soldiers enjoyed a short respite from war as recorded by my great grandfather, Harmon Camburn. I’m amazed that this Michigan born and raised young man so readily went for oysters from the bay. This excerpt makes me yearn for oyster stew!

From Civil War Journal of a Union SoldierFinalCover (available on Kindle and in paperback)

February 15, 1863 – Early in the morning, the anchor was up, and we crossed the Roads to Newport News Point at the mouth of the James River. Here we were told we should camp for a time to recruit health, restore discipline, and improve drill. The surroundings are admirable adapted for these purposes. The point is high and sandy, widening to a level plain of considerable extent inland, and the James rolls seven miles wide on the southern side.

The 9th Corps camped upon the level plain extending along the James. The position of the 2nd Infantry was about two miles from the point, facing the river. The plain at this point is about thirty feet above the river, and although the river is seven miles wide, the air is so clear that objects can be seen very plainly on pleasant days on the opposite shore.

Two gunboats of the Monitor pattern were anchored in the river to prevent the enemy from coming down with vessels.

From our camp the spars of the sunken Cumberland could be seen where she went down, colors flying and guns booming, carrying with her dead, wounded and able bodied, the living sending up a lusty hurrah as she plunged beneath the waves, sunken by the Merrimac.

Newport News was not a village, not even a hamlet. It was a mere landing, with a dwelling or two near.

Fish and oysters are taken in abundance from the brackish water near the mouth of the James. With the advent of the camp, of course, the oyster made a regular landing and numerous board shanties sprang up where cooked oysters and fish could be had for a small sum.

As soon as our camp was located, with the drum major I visited one of these shanties, presided over by an “Old Auntie,” to get an oyster stew. Ordering a stew each, we were each soon served with a full quart of solid meats. Remarking to the “Old Auntie” that there was not much soup, she raised her hands and said, “Laud, love yer soul, honey! Oysters is what yer want – can dip up soup anywhere.”

As we had come here for general improvement, the first care was to provide quarters that would be healthy.

New A tents were issued, and these were placed on frames four feet high, two tents together while our poncho tents were used to enclose the frames below the A tents. This made a roomy tent for eight. Material for these frames was gathered from all sources. Some of us went some miles up the river and tore down a barn, formed the lumber and timber into a raft and floated it to camp. Working in rain or sunshine, we soon had the most complete quarters that we had ever had since our enlistment. The encampment was laid out into streets and parades with exact precision, and as soon as the tents were arranged, strict orders were issued and enforced regarding cleanliness and order, and for a month, this became a camp of discipline and instruction.

Each day went through the following programs: six o’clock, Reveille; six-thirty, clean streets; seven, breakfast; eight, guard mounting; eight-thirty to nine-thirty, company drill; nine-thirty to eleven, battalion drill; twelve, dinner; two to four, brigade drill; six, dress parade; eight, Tattoo, eight-thirty, Taps.

Although we had a full share of rain, a healthy location, good shelter, plenty of good rations helped out with oysters and fish, plenty of hard drill and discipline, we grew vigorous and the old 9th Corps fast gained its former soldierly appearance, and in our busy life, we soon forgot the gloomy winter camp.

This camp leaves a pleasant memory, yet there were few incidents worthy of note.

A human skull was the football of our regimental parade ground during our stay at this camp. Whence it came, no one seemed to know. Where, when, or how its owner’s life went out, no one seemed to care. Its shape would indicate that it was formerly worn by a Negro and on top the bone was more than a quarter of an inch thick. Kicked, hustled, and thrown about, it served as football, baseball, shuttlecock for the regiment and was never at rest only when the men were asleep. “To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole.” [From Hamlet by William Shakespeare]