“As glorious a death as a man can die”: Col. Guilford Bailey at the Battle of Seven Pines

Silas Casey’s Federals huddled behind their breastworks constituting the division’s main line of defense and listened to the growing cacophony of musketry and artillery to their front. For nearly two hours, they heard Confederate attacks slam against Casey’s front line west of the Seven Pines crossroads, a mere seven miles from downtown Richmond.

Now, the battle drew closer to them. No doubt unnerved by the growing crescendo and the view of the approaching Confederate forces, the infantrymen and artillerymen manning Casey’s line of earthworks took solace in the fact that they fought from behind defenses. Looking up and down the line, the soldiers counted six regiments of infantry and three artillery batteries. Rifle pits extended outward from a central earthen fort positioned south of the Williamsburg Road called Casey’s Redoubt. Surely, this would be enough to stem the enemy’s onslaught.

A Federal redoubt on the Seven Pines/Fair Oaks battlefield (Library of Congress)

Col. Guilford Bailey, Casey’s artillery chief, poorly placed the guns on Casey’s line. The 7th New York Battery stood on the north end of the westward facing line behind Casey’s infantry. The 8th New York Battery deployed directly behind Casey’s Redoubt, leaving it a clearer view of their comrades than of the enemy. Finally, Bailey personally superintended and placed the six Napoleons of Company A, 1st New York Artillery, in the redoubt itself. By the time the Confederate wave surged forward, there was no chance to make changes to the awkward deployment.

Guilford D. Bailey was an oddity among the troops of Brig. Gen. Silas Casey’s Fourth Corps division in the spring of 1862–he was one of the division’s few regular officers. Bailey graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1856. His classmates highly regarded him. No less an artillerist than E.P. Alexander, who graduated one year behind Bailey, remembered him as “a superb soldier & one of the most attractive men I ever met.” Alexander and Bailey became close friends. Indeed, Bailey’s personality brought him many friends. He had a “quiet, unobtrusive disposition” and a brilliant mind.

Col. Guilford Bailey (Library of Congress)

After graduation, he served in the 2nd United States Artillery, which carried him to posts across the nation. At the beginning of hostilities between North and South, Bailey was in Texas. There, he and many of his fellow officers led their guns and equipment out of the Lone Star State for use in the coming war. When the war officially commenced, Bailey raised the 1st New York Light Artillery Regiment, which consisted of 12 batteries for the Federal cause. By the spring of 1862, he jumped into the position of Chief of Artillery for Silas Casey’s Fourth Corps division.

There were signs on May 31, 1862, that a Confederate attack against Casey’s division might happen. One of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston’s aides stumbled into the Union picket line that morning. Soon, desultory shots erupted along the lines. Fourth Corps commander Erasmus Keyes rode around his lines to ready the troops for action. During his ride, Keyes found Col. Bailey and ordered the artillerist “to proceed and prepare his artillery for action.” Bailey did as he was told and rode towards Casey’s Redoubt to arrange his guns.

Despite the incomplete state of the redoubt upon which Bailey centered his gun line and the inefficient positioning of his guns, when three brigades of Confederate infantry led by D.H. Hill began their attack against Casey’s line, Bailey snapped to work.

Casey’s Redoubt can be seen in the middle of the Union line just above the “r” in Palmer’s name on this map (Warfare History Network)

Posted among his men, Bailey called for his artillerists, at the infantry’s request, to focus their fire on Hill’s charging soldiers. “At every discharge of grape and canister wide gaps were opened in his [Hill’s] ranks,” wrote one Federal officer. A member of Company A, 1st New York Light Artillery, echoed the effects of the fire. “Into their advancing columns our battery hurled deadly missiles of solid case and canister-shot with unerring aim,” he remembered. “You can imagine what havoc must have been produced when a shower of these dreadful missiles swept through their ranks.” Though their fire was deadly, it was not enough to stop the Confederate onslaught.

A battery of artillery advanced along with Hill’s infantry. Those guns concentrated their fire on their red-legged counterparts stationed within the redoubt and soon made the position untenable. The Southern infantry continued to inch closer to the earthworks, as well. All of the enemy’s fire served to kill many of the battery’s horses. Recognizing that the line could not hold much longer and that he would not be able to move his guns out of the redoubt, Bailey, still mounted, spurred his horse into Casey’s Redoubt to order his gunners to spike their guns before leaving them.

Once in the redoubt, Bailey began yelling to his gunners their new instructions. Whether or not he completed his sentence is unclear before a Confederate bullet struck him in the head and passed through both his temples, knocking him from his horse. Another bullet struck Bailey’s horse simultaneously. It soon scurried for the rear.

Some of Bailey’s gunners lept towards their fallen colonel and began to carry him off the field. “He was a true friend of the private soldier,” wrote one of the battery’s members. They believed he deserved a better fate than to be left in the hands of the enemy. But “after a short period of insensibility” (about 30 minutes), Bailey succumbed to his wounds. In their hasty retreat, his men carried his remains out of the redoubt and to the rear. Once the artillerymen left their pieces, the rest of Casey’s line crumbled and fled towards the Seven Pines crossroads, leaving their guns behind for the enemy.

That evening, a newspaper correspondent who had briefly known Bailey stood over the colonel’s dead body. “I shall not soon forget his bright, cheerful face, which greeted me on the morning of Saturday [May 31]; nor that other scene, when, on the evening of the same day, I beheld his dead body, covered with blood from the wound which had so suddenly cut short his life.” A funeral service in Elizabeth, New Jersey, ushered in the formal end of Bailey’s career. His remains lay in his home state of New York in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.

Charles Wainwright came to know Guilford Bailey intimately during the course of their service in the Civil War. In his diary entry of May 31, 1862, Wainwright eulogized his fallen colonel and friend:

This has been a sad, sad day for the First New York Artillery. Our glorious and much loved Colonel is dead: shot down at his post, close to his guns. It is as glorious a death as a man can die, but hard for one so young, with such abilities, and in his first fight. Hard too for us who are left behind, and who in eight short months of intercourse had come to esteem him so highly; to love him so much. It will be almost impossible to make good his place in the regiment; while his loss is one that really affects the whole army. There were few men of more promise among us; more likely to shed lustre on our arm of the service, and on the army… For myself, I feel as if I had lost one of my nearest and dearest friends, so strong a hold he had taken on my heart….

4 Responses to “As glorious a death as a man can die”: Col. Guilford Bailey at the Battle of Seven Pines

  1. Thanks for this well-done post. Nobody has ever offered a valid justification for McClellan’s arrangements, which left the weakest division of his weakest corps at the forefront south of the Chickahominy. Bailey and several others paid the price.

    1. Thanks, John! I agree. That decision is one of the great mysteries of the Peninsula Campaign.

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