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General Keyes' Report - Fair Oaks [Seven Pines] (13 June 1862)


General Erasmus Keyes commanded the Federal 4th Corps of the Army of the Potomac in late May of 1862, when it was ordered by General McClellan to cross the Chickahominy river near Richmond and establish a defensive position near a cross roads called Seven Pines. Confederate General Joseph Johnston launched an attack upon Keyes' isolated and exposed position. Part of Casey's division of Keyes' Corps gave way in disorder, and a bitter fight developed.

General Sumner's 2nd Corps was dispatched by McClellan to Keyes' aid. Sumner managed to effect a crossing in spite of the fact that the river was high and the bridges across it unsound. Fighting continued into the next day, but neither side could gain a decided advantage. This is Keyes' report of the battle.

General Erasmus Keyes' Report
of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines)
June 13, 1862.

SIR: The following is my report of the operations of the Fourth Corps in the battle of the 31st of May and 1st of June:

The Fourth Corps, being in the advance, crossed the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge the 23d of May, and encamped 2 miles beyond Two days later I received orders to advance on the Williamsburg road and take up and fortify the nearest strong position to a fork of roads called the Seven Pines. The camp I selected, and which was the next day approved by Major-General McClellan, stretches across the Williamsburg road between Bottom's Bridge and the Seven Pines, and is distant about a mile from the latter. I caused that camp to be fortified with rifle pits and breastworks extending to the left about 1,000 yards and terminating in a crotchet to the rear. Similar works, about 300 yards farther in advance, were constructed on the right, extending toward the Richmond and West Point Railroad.

Having been ordered by General McClellan to hold the Seven Pines strongly, I designed to throw forward to that neighborhood two brigades of Casey's division, and to establish my picket line considerably in advance and far to the right. The lines described above are those where the main body of the troops engaged near the Seven Pines spent the night of the 31st, after the battle. Examinations having been made by several engineers, I was ordered on the 28th of May to advance Casey's division to a point indicated by a large wood-pile and two houses, about three-fourths of a mile beyond the Seven Pines (but which in fact is only half a mile), and to establish Couch's division at the Seven Pines. Accordingly Casey's division bivouacked on the right and left of Williamsburg road and wood-pile, and Couch established his division at the Seven Pines and along the Nine-mile road. Both divisions set to work with the few intrenching tools at hand to slash the forests and to dig a few rifle pits. Casey erected a small pentangular redoubt, and placed within it six pieces of artillery. The country is mostly wooded and greatly intersected with marshes. The Nine-mile road branching to the right from the Seven Pines slants forward, and at the distance of a mile crosses the railroad at Fair Oaks. A mile beyond it reaches an open field, where the enemy was seen in line of battle on the 29th and 30th days of May.
Casey's pickets were only about 1,000 yards in advance of his line of battle, and I decided, after a personal inspection with him, that they could go no farther, as they were stopped by the enemy in force on the opposite side of an opening at that point. I pushed forward the pickets on the railroad a trifle, and they had been extended by General Naglee to the open field, where the enemy was seen in line of battle, and from thence to the right bank of the Chickahominy. After a thorough examination of my whole position I discovered that on the 30th of May the enemy were in greater or less force, closed upon the whole circumference of a semicircle described from my headquarters near Seven Pines with a radius of 2 miles.

A considerable space about the fork of the road at Seven Pines was open, cultivated ground, and there was a clear space a short distance in front of Casey's redoubt at the wood-pile. Between the two openings we found a curtain of trees, which were cut down to form an abatis. That line of abatis was continued on a curve to the right and rear and across the Nine-mile road.

When the battle commenced Casey's division was in front of the abatis; Naglee's brigade on the right, having two regiments beyond the railroad; Palmer's brigade on the left, and Wessells' brigade in the center. Couch's division was on the right and left of the Williamsburg road, near the forks, and along the Nine-mile road. Peck's brigade was on the left, Devens' brigade in the center, and Abercrombie's on the right, having two regiments and Brady's battery across the railroad, near Fair Oaks, thus forming two lines of battle.

Through all the night of the 30th of May there was raging a storm the like of which I cannot remember. Torrents of rain drenched the earth, the thunderbolts rolled and fell without intermission, and the heavens flashed with a perpetual blaze of lightning. From their beds of mud and the peltings of this storm the Fourth Corps rose to fight the battle of the 31st of May, 1862.

At about 10 o'clock a.m. it was announced to me that an aide-de-camp of Maj. Gen. J. E. Johnston, C. S. Army, had been captured by our pickets on the edge of the field referred to above, beyond Fair Oaks Station. While speaking with the young gentleman, at the moment of sending him away, a couple of shots fired in front of Casey's headquarters produced in him a very evident emotion. I was perplexed, because having seen the enemy in force on the right when the aide was captured, I supposed his chief must be there. Furthermore, the country was more open in that direction and the road in front of Casey's position was bad for artillery. I concluded therefore, in spite of the shots, that if attacked that day the attack would come from the right. Having sent orders for the troops to be under arms precisely at 11 o'clock a.m., I mounted my horse and rode along the Nine-mile road to Fair Oaks Station. On my way I met Colonel Bailey, chief of artillery of Casey's division, and directed him to proceed and prepare his artillery for action.

Finding nothing unusual at Fair Oaks, I gave some orders to the troops there, and returned quickly to Seven Pines. The firing was becoming brisk, but there was yet no certainty of a great attack. As a precaution to support Casey's left flank, I ordered General Couch to advance Peck's brigade in that direction. This was promptly done, and the Ninety-third Pennsylvania, Colonel McCarter, was advanced considerably beyond the balance of that brigade.

At about 12.30 p.m. it became suddenly apparent that the attack was real and in great force. All my corps was under arms and in position. I sent immediately to General Heintzelman for re-enforcements, and requested him to order one brigade up the railroad. My messenger was unaccountably delayed, and my dispatch appears not to have reached its destination till much later than it should have done.

General Heintzel-man arrived on the field at about 3 p.m., and the two brigades of his corps, Berry's and Jameson's, of Kearny's division, which took part in the battle of the 31st, arrived, successively, but the exact times of their arrival in the presence of the enemy I am unable to fix with certainty; and in this report I am not always able to fix times with exactness, but they are nearly exact.

Casey's division, holding the front line, was first seriously attacked at about 12.30 p.m. The One hundred and third Pennsylvania Volunteers, sent forward to support the pickets, broke shortly and retreated, joined by a great many sick. The numbers as they passed down the road as stragglers conveyed an exaggerated idea of surprise and defeat. There was no surprise, however. All the effective men of that division were under arms, and all the batteries were in position, with their horses harnessed (except some belonging to the guns in the redoubt), and ready to fight as soon as the enemy's forces came into view. Their numbers were vastly disproportionate to the mighty host which assailed them in front and on both flanks.

As remarked above, the picket line being only about 1,000 yards in advance of the line of battle and the country covered with forests, the Confederates, arriving fresh and confident, formed their lines and masses under the shelter of woods, and burst upon us with great suddenness, and had not our regiments been under arms they would have swept through our lines and routed us completely. As it was, however, Casey's division held its line of battle for more than three hours, and the execution done upon the enemy was shown by the number of rebel dead left upon the field after the enemy had held possession of that part of it for upward of twenty-four hours. During that time it is understood all the means of transport available in Richmond were employed to carry away their dead and wounded. The enemy advancing, as they frequently did, in masses, received the shot and shell of our artillery like veterans, closing up the gaps and moving steadily on to the assault. From my position in the front of the second line I could see all the movements of the enemy, but was not always able to discover his numbers, which were more or less concealed by the trees, nor could I accurately define the movements of our regiments and batteries.

For the details of the conflict with Casey's line I must refer to his report, and to the reports of Brigadier-Generals Naglee, Palmer, and Wessells, whose activity I had many opportunities to witness. When applied to for them, I sent re-enforcements to sustain Casey's line until the numbers were so much reduced in the second line that no more could be spared. I then refused, though applied to for further aid.

I shall now proceed to describe the operations of the second line, which received my uninterrupted supervision, composed principally of Conch's division, second line. As the pressure on Casey's division became greater he applied to me for re-enforcements. I continued to send them as long as I had troops to spare. Colonel McCarter, with the Ninety-third Pennsylvania, Peck's brigade, engaged the enemy on the left, and maintained his ground above two hours, until overwhelming numbers forced him to retire, which he did in good order.

At about 2 o'clock p.m. I ordered the Fifty-fifth New York (Colonel De Trobriand, absent, sick), now in command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thourot, to "save the guns", meaning some of Casey's. The regiment moved up the Williamsburg road at double-quick, conducted by General Naglee, where it beat off the enemy, on the point of seizing some guns, and held its position more than an hour. At the end of that time, its ammunition being exhausted, it fell back through the abatis, and after receiving more cartridges the regiment again did good service. It lost in the battle nearly one-fourth of its numbers killed and wounded. At a little past 2 o'clock I ordered Neill's Twenty-third and Rippey's Sixty-first Pennsylvania Regiments to move to the support of Casey's right. Neill attacked the enemy twice with great gallantry. In the first attack the enemy were driven back. In the second attack, and under the immediate command of General Couch, these two regiments assailed a vastly superior force of the enemy and fought with extraordinary bravery, though compelled at last to retire. They brought in 35 prisoners. Both regiments were badly cut up. Colonel Rippey, of the Sixty-first, and his adjutant were killed. The lieutenant-colonel and major were wounded and are missing. The casualties in the Sixty-first amount to 263, and are heavier than in any other regiment in Couch's division. After this attack the Twenty-third took part in the hard fighting which closed the day near the Seven Pines. The Sixty-first withdrew in detachments, some of which came again into action near my headquarters.

Almost immediately after ordering the Twenty-third and Sixty-first to support the right, and as soon as they could be reached, I sent the Seventh Massachusetts, Colonel Russell, and the Sixty-second New York, Colonel Riker, to re-enforce them. The overpowering advance of the enemy obliged these regiments to proceed to Fair Oaks, where they fought under the immediate orders of Generals Couch and Abercrombie. There they joined the First U.S. Chasseurs, Colonel Cochrane, previously ordered to that point, and the Thirty-first Pennsylvania, Colonel Williams, on duty there when the action commenced. The losses in the Sixty-second were not so great as in some of the other regiments; its conduct was good, and its colonel, J. Lafayette Riker, whose signal bravery was remarked, met a glorious death while attacking the enemy at the head of his regiment. The First U.S. Chasseurs, Colonel Cochrane, fought bravely. By that regiment our enemy's standard-bearer was shot down and the battle-flags of the Twenty-second North Carolina Regiment captured.

For further particulars of the conduct of the Sixty-second New York and the First U.S. Chasseurs, as well as for the account of those two excellent regiments the Seventh Massachusetts and Thirty-first Pennsylvania, Colonels Russell and Williams, I refer to the reports of Generals Couch and Abercrombie. Those regiments, as well as Brady's battery, First Pennsylvania Artillery (which is highly praised), were hid from my personal observation during most of the action. They acted in concert with the Second Corps, by the opportune arrival of which at Fair Oaks in the afternoon, under the brave General E. V. Sumner, the Confederates were brought to a sudden stand in that quarter. They were also present in the action of the following day near Fair Oaks, where, under the same commander, the victory, which had been hardly contested the day before, was fully completed by our troops.

At the time when the enemy was concentrating troops from the right, left, and front upon the redoubt and other works in the front of Casey's headquarters and near the Williamsburg road the danger became imminent that he would overcome the resistance there and advance down the road and through the abatis. In anticipation of such an attempt I called Flood's and McCarthy's batteries, of Couch's division, to form in and on the right and left of the junction of the Williamsburg and Nine-mile roads, placed infantry in all the rifle pits on the right and left, pushing some up also to the abatis, and collecting a large number of stragglers posted them in the woods on the left. Scarcely had these dispositions been completed when the enemy directly in front, driven by the attack of a portion of Kearny's division on their right and by our fire upon their front, moved off to join the masses which were pressing upon my right.

To make head against the enemy approaching in that direction it was found necessary to effect an almost perpendicular change of front of the troops on the right of the Williamsburg road. By the energetic assistance of Generals Devens and Naglee, Colonel Adams, First Long Island, and Captains Walsh and Quackenbush of the Thirty-sixth New York, whose efforts I particularly noticed, I was enabled to form a line along the edge of the woods, which stretched nearly down to the swamp, about 800 yards from the fork, and along and near to the Nine-mile road. I threw back the right crotchet-wise, and on its left Captain Miller, First Pennsylvania Artillery, Couch's division, trained his gun so as to contest the advance of the enemy.

I directed General Naglee to ride along the line, to encourage the men and keep them at work. This line long resisted the progress of the enemy with the greatest firmness and gallantry, but by pressing it very closely with overwhelming numbers, probably ten to one, they were enabled finally to force it to fall back so far upon the left and center as to form a new line in rear. Shortly after this attack I saw General Devens leave the field wounded. There was then no general officer left in sight belonging to Couch's division. Seeing the torrent of enemies continually advancing, I hastened across to the left beyond the fork to bring forward re-enforcements. Brigadier-General Peck, at the head of the One hundred and second and Ninety-third Pennsylvania Regiments, Colonels Rowley and McCarter, was ordered, with the concurrence of General Heintzelman, to advance across the open space and attack the enemy, now coming forward in great numbers.

Those regiments passed through a shower of balls, and formed in a line having an oblique direction to the Nine-mile road. They held their ground for more than half an hour, doing great execution. Peck's and McCarter's horses were shot under them. After contending against enormous odds those two regiments were forced to give way, Peck and the One hundred and second crossing the Williamsburg road to the wood, and McCarter and the bulk of the Ninety-third passing to the right, where they took post in the last line of battle, formed mostly after 6 o'clock p.m. During the time last noticed Miller's battery, having taken up a new position, did first-rate service.

As soon as Peck had moved forward I hastened to the Tenth Massachusetts, Colonel Briggs, which regiment I had myself once before moved, now in the rifle pits on the left of the Williamsburg road, and ordered them to follow me across the field. Colonel Briggs led them on in gallant style, moving quickly over an open space of 700 or 800 yards under a scorching fire, and forming his men with perfect regularity toward the right of the line last above referred to. The position thus occupied was a most favorable one, being in a wood, without much undergrowth, where the ground sloped somewhat abruptly to the rear. This line was stronger on the right than on the left. Had the Tenth Massachusetts been two minutes later they would have been too late to occupy that fine position, and it would have been impossible to have formed the next and last line of the battle of the 31st, which stemmed the tide of defeat and turned it toward victory - a victory which was then begun by the Fourth Corps and two brigades of Kearny's division of the Third Corps, and consummated the next day by Sumner and others.

After seeing the Tenth Massachusetts and the adjoining line well at work under a murderous fire I observed that that portion of the line 150 yards to my left was crumbling away, some falling and others retiring. I perceived also that the artillery had withdrawn, and that large bodies of broken troops were leaving the center and moving down the Williamsburg road to the rear. Assisted by Captain Suydam, my assistant adjutant-general, Captain de Villarceau, and Lieutenants Jackson and Smith, of my staff, I tried in vain to check the retreating current.

Passing through to the opening of our intrenched camps of the 28th ultimo, I found General Heintzelman and other officers engaged in rallying the men, and in a very short time a large number were induced to face about. These were pushed forward and joined to others better organized in the woods, and a line was formed stretching across the road in a perpendicular direction. General Heintzelman requested me to advance the line on the left of the road, which I did, until it came within some 60 or 70 yards of the opening in which the battle had been confined for more than two hours against a vastly superior force. Some of the Tenth Massachusetts, now under the command of Captain Miller; the Ninety-third Pennsylvania, under Colonel McCarter, of Peck's brigade; the Twenty-third Pennsylvania, Colonel Neill, of Abercrombie's brigade; a portion of the Thirty-sixth New York, Colonel Innes; a portion of the Fifty-fifth New York, and the First Long Island, Colonel Adams, together with fragments of other regiments of Couch's division, still contended on the right of this line, while a number of troops that I did not recognize occupied the space between me and them.

As the ground was miry and encumbered with fallen trees I dismounted and mingled with the troops. The first I questioned belonged to Kearny's division, Berry's brigade, Heintzelman's corps; the next to the Fifty-sixth New York, now under command of its lieutenant-colonel, and the third belonged to the One hundred and fourth Pennsylvania, of Casey's division. I took out my glass to examine a steady, compact line of troops about 65 yards in advance, the extent of which toward our right I could not discover. The line in front was so quiet that I thought they might possibly be our own troops. The vapors from the swamp, the leaves, and the fading light (for it was then after 6 o'clock) rendered it uncertain who they were, so I directed the men to get their aim, but to reserve their fire until I could go up to the left and examine---at the same time that they must hold that line or the battle would be lost. They replied with a firm determination to stand their ground.

I had just time to put up my glass and move ten paces toward the left of the line where my horse stood, but while I was in the act of mounting as fierce a fire of musketry was opened as any I had heard during the day. The fire from our side was so deadly that the heavy masses of the enemy coming in on the right, which before had been held back for nearly two hours (that being about the time consumed in passing over less than a thousand yards) by about a third part of Couch's division, were now arrested. The last line, formed of portions of Couch's and Casey's divisions and a portion of Kearny's division, checked the advance of the enemy and finally repulsed him, and this was the beginning of the victory which on the following day was so gloriously completed.

During the action, and particularly during the two hours immediately preceding the final successful stand made by the infantry, the three Pennsylvania batteries under Maj. Robert M. West (Flood's, McCarthy's, and Miller's), in Couch's division, performed most efficient service. The conduct of Miller's battery was admirable. Having a central position in the forepart of the action it threw shells over the heads of our own troops, which fell and burst with unusual precision among the enemy's masses, as did also those of the other two batteries; and later in the day, when the enemy were rushing in upon our right, Miller threw his case and canister among them, doing frightful execution. The death of several officers of high rank and the disability and wounds of others have delayed this report.

It has been my design to state nothing as a fact which could not be substantiated. Many things escaped notice by reason of the forests, which concealed our own movements as well as the movements of the enemy. From this cause some of the reports of subordinate commanders are not sufficiently full. In some cases it is apparent that these subordinate commanders were not always in the best positions to observe, and this will account for the circumstance that I have mentioned some facts derived from personal observation not found in the reports of my subordinates. The reports of division and brigade commanders I trust will be published with this immediately. I ask their publication as an act of simple justice to the Fourth Corps, against which many groundless aspersions and incorrect statements have been circulated in the newspapers since the battle. These reports are made by men who observed the conflict while under fire, and if they are not in the main true, the truth will never be known.

In the battle of the 31st of May the casualties on our side (a list of which is inclosed) were heavy, amounting to something like 25 per cent. in killed and wounded of the number actually engaged, which did not amount to more than 12,000, the Fourth Corps at that date having been much weakened by detachments and other causes. Nearly all who were struck were hit while facing the enemy.

The Confederates outnumbered us, during a great part of the conflict, at least four to one, and they were fresh, drilled troops, led on and cheered by their best generals and the President of their Republic. They are right when they assert that the Yankees stubbornly contested every foot of ground. Of the nine generals of the Fourth Corps who were present on the field all, with one exception, were wounded or his horse was hit in the battle. A large proportion of all the field officers in the action were killed, wounded, or their horses were struck. These facts denote the fierceness of the contest and the gallantry of a large majority of the officers. Many officers have been named and commended in this report and in reports of division, brigade, and other commanders, and I will not here recapitulate further than that I received great assistance from the members of my staff, whose conduct was excellent, though they were necessarily often separated from me.

To the energy and skill of Surg. F. H. Hamilton, the chief of his department in the Fourth Corps, and the assistance he received from his subordinate surgeons, the wounded and sick are indebted for all the relief and comfort which it was possible to afford them.

I should be glad if the name of every individual who kept his place in the long struggle could be known. All those deserve praise and reward. On the other hand, the men who left the ranks and the field, and especially the officers who went away without orders, should be known and held up to scorn. In all the retreating groups I discovered officers, and sometimes the officers were farthest in the rear. What hope can we have of the safety of the country when even a few military officers turn their backs upon the enemy without orders? Such officers should be discharged and disgraced, and brave men advanced to their places. The task of reformation is not easy, because much true manliness has been suffocated in deluding theories, and the improvement will not be complete until valor is more esteemed, nor until we adopt as a maxim that to decorate a coward with shoulder-straps is to pave the road to a nation's ruin.

Respectfully submitted.

Brigadier-General, Commanding Fourth Corps.

Brig. Gen. S. WILLIAMS,
Adjutant-General, Army of the Potomac..