Fire Along Boatswain Creek: Reflections on the Battle of Gaines Mill

Traveling for an extended Columbus Day weekend vacation, I had the opportunity to make an early-morning stop at the Gaines Mill battlefield. Much to my delight, I found upon arrival that I had the entire battlefield to myself. After reading the signs near the Watt House, I grabbed my coffee and cigar and set out on the battlefield walking trail.

Although this was not my first visit to the battlefield, I am always struck by the terrain around the Watt House. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps held an extremely strong position. Porter, much to his credit, utilized the terrain to his advantage. Despite the fact he would become John Pope’s scapegoat for the disaster at Second Manassas, Porter handled himself very well during the Seven Days’ battles. His Corps was isolated on the north bank of the Chickahominy River and had to face down Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. But, Lee was not yet familiar with his Army’s leadership and thus would have trouble coordinating his offensive. Nevertheless, Porter would prove to be a stubborn fighter.

Walking down to Boatswain Creek, I traverse the area where John Bell Hood led the 4th Texas and the 18th Georgia in an assault that splintered the Union lines. Here on this ground, Hood emerged as one of Lee’s most aggressive Commanders. Today we tend to focus on Hood’s failures in the latter days of the war. We often forget that he was a vital asset to the Army of Northern Virginia during their campaigns of 1862 and 1863. As a brigade commander at Gaines Mill, Hood led the vaunted Texas Brigade. At various times during the war, this unit would be complemented with Regiments from other states. However, the cornerstone of the brigade was always the 1st, 4th and 5th Texas Infantry, thus the nickname. Beginning at Gaines Mill, the Brigade would distinguish itself at Second Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. They were truly “Lee’s Grenadier Guard”.

Continuing onward, I came to the section of the Union lines held by Daniel Butterfield. We remember Butterfield today as the composer of “Taps”. For his actions at Gaines Mill, Butterfield would receive the Medal of Honor. His citation reads: “Seized the colors of the 83d Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion”.

Near the interpretive marker discussing Butterfield’s defense of the Union line, is a monument with the likeness of Cadmus Wilcox. It commemorates the service of Wilcox’ Alabama Brigade during the battle. When discussing the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia, Cadmus Wilcox is not a name that jumps off the page at you. Yet, he was a solid and dependable commander. At Gaines Mill, his Alabamans entered the fight with about 1,850 men. They would leave about 600 of their comrades there on the field, a staggering casualty percentage.

After paying my respects to Wilcox, I continue to the battlefield overlook. The quiet of the woods is now gone, I can hear traffic on the interstate. Despite this, the scene and all of its horror of that day are not lost on me. I also find that my vehicle is still the only one in the parking lot. Moving to the end of the walking trail, I pass by the position of the 5th Massachusetts Battery. The Bay Staters stood their ground after the Union line was broken by Hood’s assault. As the Confederates advanced on the guns, they fired a volley that killed or wounded many of battery’s horses, forcing them to withdraw.
Returning to the parking lot, I check the time. I’ve spent a good two hours walking the battlefield. All in all, it was a great morning. My only regret—I forgot my camera.

5 Responses to Fire Along Boatswain Creek: Reflections on the Battle of Gaines Mill

  1. While Hood’s later campaigns are currently being put to greater academic scrutiny, interactions with visitors tell me his popular image is still highly regarded. Breaking down the casual opinion of John Bell Hood ‘Family Feud’-style, I would guess Texas Brigade, Gaines Mill, and “all they’ve got to do is roll rocks down on us” all garner more votes than Atlanta or Tennessee.

  2. Nice point about Porter. I think his work on the Peninsula was over shadowed by the Second Manasass mess. He may have said the wrong things to the wrong people off the field, but on the field he really seemed to have a good head on his shoulders.

    Great battlefield to visit!

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