EDITOR’S NOTE: The Hopewell Rifles, a company of Reserves from Bedford County, had marched into the Civil War in the summer of 1861. They had been in one battle, a little one at Dranesville, but the first won by the Union. Part two.
By Ned Frear
The Rifles helped guard nervous Washington while Gen. George McClellan took his Army of the Potomac to the peninsula, to menace Richmond. The Reserves finally marched toward Manassas, and to Fredericksburg, where Lincoln and his secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, visited them May 24, 1862.
The Reserves were sent to join McClellan outside Richmond, and in fact became the extreme right of his line, a post of honor. McClellan had panicked. He heard the rebels had gathered an overwhelming force, and he was unwilling to attack.
Robert E. Lee himself led the Confederate charge at the Union right, at Mechanicsville. The Reserves held, despite being out- numbered 3 to 1, until ordered to fall back during the night. They did, in orderly fashion, says their historian. They had repulsed the efforts of Stonewall Jackson, and both the Hill brothers— three of the South’s greatest generals— and caused great loss of life.
They had fallen back to Gaines Mills, where the 8th Regiment was to perform notably. Stonewall was attacking on the right. The 8th Regiment was sent by General John Reynolds to support two regular batteries engaging the enemy. An hour later, Colonel Warren called for help. His Massachusetts regiment was divided. Colonel Hays took the 8th to his aid.
The enemy was in a woods, about a quarter mile in front. The 8th was formed in line, and moved forward until within 100 yards of the enemy, when it charged into the woods and, in a desperate encounter, drove the rebels from their positions at the end of a bayonet.
Warren’s men regained their front, and the 8th “having won the admiration of thousands of officers and men who witnessed the charge, returned to its position in the rear of the batteries and stacked arms.”
Late in the day, the 8th was retiring, its ammunition gone. Up front, the line broke. Thousands of disorganized troops were pouring back toward them.
General Porter, riding alone, came down in haste, and called to General [Colonel] Roberts, “Can’t you form a line with these two regiments, and stop those flying troops?”
Roberts said he could, but added, “send me ammunition!”
The two regiments, the historian says, “immediately faced about and formed in line; though the shells from the enemy’s batteries were falling thickly around them, the sergeants aligned the companies, and the officers executed the commands, coolly as if on dress parade. So marked was the conduct of the men, that it elicited exclamations of admiration from General Porter. The men stood firmly, but were appalled at the situation, being in the face of the advancing enemy without a single round of ammunition. Soon, however, the cheers of the Irish brigade, commanded by General Meagher, were heard rolling up from the Chickahominy, and almost as rapidly, the blue lines of men were seen rushing, at double quick march, to the front.
Their own generals, and one from the Confederate side (who mistook the Reserves for the Irish) gave them credit. They had been under heavy fire for over three hours, but the rebels had been unable to dent them.
In all, 35,000 Union men had battled 60,000 Confederates, and 1,400 Pennsylvania Reserves had been wounded, killed, or lost. General Reynolds had been captured in the woods.
General McCall and his men had been three days and nights fighting or on the alert, without food. They had covered themselves with glory. When McClellan met McCall, he called him “the hero of Mechanicsville.” Two days later, as McClellan tried to move his army back toward the James River, the Confederate army came riding under a cloud of dust, and the battle was on again, at New Market Cross Roads.
The 8th Regiment, and most of the Pennsylvanians, were thrown in at the left, when it collapsed under a heavy attack. The troops under McCall were weary and their ranks had been thinned. But they were on the main road, and ordered to hold it, under peril of losing the only avenue of retreat for the whole army.
The action is vividly described by the division’s historian: “With eyes fixed on the enemy, and rifles firmly grasped, forward rushed the men to meet in a death struggle the advancing foe. The full round cheer of the patriots, rising high over their ranks, drowned the screech and yell of the rebels; the thunder of artillery and roar of musketry rose to their most furious might; bayonet clashed with bayonet in fearful thrust and parry; the impetuosity of the charge brought both columns to a halt. Now was the terrible moment, hanging in the balance, equipoised, was the fate of the day, the life of the Reserve Corps, the existence of the army. FORWARD! rang out from the head of the column, and rolled along the line in tones that at once •truck terror to the hearts of the enemy…” “The rebel masses broken and confused were pushed back into the forests. The left wing was saved; the power of the enemy was broken; nearly 300 rebel prisoners were sent to the rear; the day was half won.” A Confederate officer said McClellan had put “his best troops” at the center, on the road. “We had, at all hazards, to drive the enemy from the neighborhood of our Capital, or succumb ourselves. No other choice remained for us. During the four days of massacre that had already passed, our troops had been transformed into wild beasts, and hardly had they caught sight of the enemy, drawn up in order, ere they rushed upon them with horrible yells. Yet calmly, as on the parade ground, the latter delivered their fire. The batteries in the centre discharged their murderous volleys on our men, and great disorder ensued among the storming masses. General Lee sent all his disposable troops to the rescue, but McClellan opened upon these newly formed storming columns so hellish a fire that even the coldest blooded veteran lost his self-possession. Whole ranks of our men were hurled to the ground. The thunder of the cannon, the crackling of the musketry from a hundred thousand combatants, mingled with the screams of the wounded and the dying, were terrific to the ear and the imagination. Thus raged the conflict within a comparatively narrow space seven long hours, and yet not a foot of ground was won. All our reserves had been led into the fight, and the brigade of Wilcox was annihilated.”
General McCall, in his report, said he saw “one of the fiercest bayonet fights that perhaps ever occurred on this continent. Bayonets were crossed and locked in the struggle; bayonet wounds were freely given and received. I saw skulls crushed by the heavy blow of the butt of the musket, and, in short, the desperate thrusts and parries of a life-and-death encounter, proving, indeed, that Greek had met Greek when the Alabama boys fell upon the sons of Pennsylvania.” McCall’s division, in four days, had lost 3180 of about 7,000 who marched to Mechanicsville. About 25 percent of the Pennsylvania troops were killed or wounded.
Longstreet, the Confederate General, told a captured Union surgeon that “McCall is safe (captured) in Richmond, but if his division had not offered the stubborn resistance it did, on this road, we would have captured your whole army.”
The union brass agreed, contradicting “unwarranted” statements by ‘little Mac’. McClellan, the division historian says, “misrepresented” in his report the action of the Reserves. Hooker and Heinzelman, he says, also “grossly misstated the conduct of the troops.”
Meade, who was wounded, would later go to great pains to defend the men in that field, after he had taken command of the whole army and won the battle of Gettysburg. He would assert very forcefully that he had been there until dark, and the men were still holding their ground.
The generals involved are quoted at length in the division history, and McClellan later amended his report, which was apparently based on some misconceptions among generals to the rear of McCall’s embattled division.
Tomorrow: In the cornfield at Antietam.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melvin Huston, Bedford RD 1, lent MS his copy of the History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, a division which fought with distinction in the Civil War. One of its companies was the Hopewell Rifles, which served from beginning to near the end of the five-year conflict. The division’s exploits are chronicled, but there is little specific mention of the company, or its regiment. If any readers have papers or history of this unit, or of other units from this area, we would be obliged to borrow them, to complete the record. We have, for instance, all the names of Company K, of the 55th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, which fought from 1861 through 1864, but know only that they fought in several battles in South Carolina and Virginia.