(Part of a chapter from an upcoming book on the Peninsula Campaign)
In late May 1862, Union General George McClellan advanced his massive army to the outskirts of Richmond. On his far right, he ordered Fitz John Porter, commander of the V Corps, to advance towards Hanover Court House and drive the enemy from the area. Porter was to cut the railroad and burn bridges over the rivers in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s army. Porter would send three brigades under Brig. Gen. George Morell, a brigade under Col. Gouverneur Warren, several batteries and some cavalry to do the job.
By May 25th the Confederate brigade of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch was in Hanover County, having been recalled from Gordonsville by Johnston. Joseph Reid Anderson’s brigade was moving south from Fredericksburg, and was at Hanover Junction (modern day Doswell).
Branch’s men had a wide area to cover, and not enough troops to do it. They were safeguarding both the Virginia Central and the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads. The brigade also was charged with protecting the bridges across the rivers, and had to keep an eye out for Federal troops approaching from the north or the east. Joseph Reid Anderson’s Confederates were heading their way, but were not within immediate reach. Branch set up his headquarters at Slash Church, a few miles southwest of Hanover Court House. The church was an ancient structure, built in 1729, and according to legend, Patrick Henry, Henry Clay and Dolley Madison had worshipped there. Henry’s uncle had been the rector for some 40 years. The area around the church was wet and swampy and was known was known locally as The Slashes. The Virginia Central Railroad, which was Richmond’s critical link to the Shenandoah Valley, was a short distance to the east, and the Ashcake Road cut across the tracks at Peake’s Station and headed northeast to the court house.
On the 26th, Morell’s men were up early and began their march at 4:00 a.m. The rain poured down that night, causing deep mud and allowing for very slow progress. Warren’s men also headed out at 4:00 – it would be a rough trip to Hanover Court House. Colonel Elisha Marshall of the 13th New York called it a “tedious march.” According to one of he soldiers, it rained until 9:00 or 10:00 that morning, and they were carrying overcoats, rubber blankets, two days’ rations and 60 rounds of ammunition per man. “The roads were muddy… and we were soon wet to the knees with mud and water.” Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield recalled the march as “the most severe I have ever experienced.”
An advance guard of two regiments of cavalry and a battery led the way. Porter had heard that the Confederates were at the court house, and he planned a pincer movement, with Morell’s troops striking the enemy’s front and Warren’s brigade coming in on their rear.
Branch received reports that the enemy was approaching nearby Taliaferro’s Mill. He quickly dispatched Col. James Lane’s 28th North Carolina and a section (2 guns) of A.C. Latham’s battery down the Taliaferro Mill Road. Branch soon heard that Yankee troops were also heading up the New Bridge Road toward the court house and immediately wheeled some of his men to meet them.
North of the intersection of the Ashcake and New Bridge roads still stands the home of Dr. Thomas H. Kinney, a two-story structure with several outbuildings. At the time of the battle it was an out-of-the-way place. Open fields surrounded it, with woods on the edge. The house and some of those fields remain.
The rain had stopped and the day was growing hot and humid when the 25th New York and 28th North Carolina slammed into each other at Dr. Kinney’s. The Confederates leaped across a ditch and fence and rushed through the yard. A New York soldier recalled, “the 25th then closed ranks & commenced fireing… shot & shell flew all around.” The struggle lasted for about an hour, when Lane ordered his men to charge. They surged across the field, chasing the enemy “like so much game” as the New Yorkers pulled back. A rebel wrote that “the dead lay thick through the woods and in the wheat field,” but the action would soon prove to be far from over. Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield’s brigade was approaching up the New Bridge Road. Although exhausted from their march through fifteen miles of mud, his brigade soon arrived and was ready to join the fight.
Union Capt. Henry’s Benson’s battery was put in place and began firing. Benson had situated four of his three-inch ordnance rifles on the road to the court house. Lane’s men quickly felt the effects of Benson’s guns. Capt. William Speer wrote, “I seen a shell strike a young Mr. Roberts of Co. A injuring him badly fracturing both of his thighs from which he died.” He added, “I seen two more men of Co. A killed with shells, taking off the top of one of their heads and cutting the other (in two).” Confederate gunner Lt. J.R. Potts placed two of his pieces in the road, and Benson reacted by ordering up his reserve section. Lane sent a message to Branch, calling for reinforcements.
Butterfield ordered his men to advance and halt at the edge of the woods. He climbed a small tree and saw that the enemy in the field surrounding the Kinney home. Butterfield arranged the 17th New York on the right, with the 83rd Pennsylvania on the left. The 12th New York and the 16th Michigan formed, making up the second line. He ordered his command forward. Although his brigade was “much reduced by the march,” he determined to attack “vigorously,” and his regiments advanced “with all the precision of dress parade.” Butterfield’s men moved in quick time, cheering and firing as they advanced.
Lane’s position was not strong. Most of his men were in the open, in the field and under Federal artillery fire. His defense began to unravel as his men felt the weight of Butterfield’s advance. They hurriedly withdrew. Pursued by infantry, artillery and cavalry, Lane retreated beyond Hanover Court House to Taylorsville, while Potts guarded the rear with his lone remaining Parrott gun.
Porter began to pursue Lane towards Hanover Court House, little realizing that more Confederates were nearby. Suddenly he heard unexpected news: a signal officer reported that the enemy was approaching from behind!
At the intersection of the New Bridge and Ashcake Roads, Brig Gen. Martindale’s 2nd Maine had arrived, and it joined remnants of the 25th New York and the 44th New York already in position, with two guns. Martindale’s 22nd Massachusetts moved west towards the railroad. A soldier from the 22nd wrote that the sun was “scalding hot,” and they “advanced with caution,” as “the woods ahead looked rather suspicious.”
Colonel Charles C. Lee’s 37th North Carolina left its camp near Lebanon Church and marched up to the action. Branch ordered the 37th to attack Porter’s right, and the 18th North Carolina to advance on the Federal guns and Porter’s left. The 18th suffered horribly for this terrible task, facing a storm of shell and canister. The 37th was seriously outnumbered: there were seven companies with the 37th, and they faced several regiments of the enemy. The 2nd Maine and portions of the 44th New York desperately held on to the intersection.
Meanwhile, Butterfield’s men were chasing Lane and had reached Hanover Court House, but were hurriedly ordered to return by Porter. As his men neared the battlefield, Butterfield ordered them “forward at the double-quick and cheer.” This they did, “responding with a will, cheering lustily.” His men pushed into the woods and took prisoners.
The 5th New York Zouaves arrived, as did the 13th and 14th New York. Branch still had the 7th North Carolina in reserve, and he ordered it to cross the road and hold off the Federal pursuit. As darkness fell, the Confederates retreated towards the small railroad town of Ashland.
At nightfall the Federals controlled the field, and with it the dead and wounded. In his report, Porter said that his force faced 8,000 Confederates, with a loss to them of about 1,000 men and 8 officers. His corps accomplished the destruction of the bridges of both the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroads, cutting two sources of supply to Richmond. Bridges over the Pamunkey River ware also destroyed. Porter stated that he lost 355 men. Among them were 4 officers killed, 12 wounded and 2 missing. 58 enlisted men died, 211 were wounded and 68 were missing.
Of this day McClellan would write on the 28th to his wife, “I am on Fitz field of battle. His success yesterday was a glorious victory… the rebels are completely routed.” He went on to say that “it is a fair presage of the great victory which awaits us at Richmond.” To Stanton he wrote, “I do not think that you at all appreciate the value & magnitude of Porter’s victory… it was one of the handsomest things of the war.”
Little did McClellan know that he had already reached the high tide of his campaign.