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          23rd Pennsylvania




Battle of Fair Oaks
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Bayonet Charge of the 23rd
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"Battle of Fair Oaks" Map
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Campsite of 23rd at Fiar Oaks
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23rd PA at Fair Oaks

May 31st 1862
Battle of "Fair Oaks" ("Seven Pines")



The following was taken directly from the 1882 Fair Oaks Reunion Book.

Battle of Fair Oaks

Battle of Fair Oaks -- May 31st 1862 -- 23rd's Position Circled
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After leaving our encampment near the City of Washington, we had embarked at Alexandria and disembarked at Fortress Monroe. We had stopped for a little season at Warwick Creek, on the Yorktown line, and then had made a rapid march to Williamsburg, where we arrived at the close of the day’s contest, and next morning, at daybreak, were in line before Fort Magruder, ready to make an attack. Discovering that the forts had during the night been abandoned by the enemy, we passed by them through the town, and, after a delay there of three days, resumed our march in the direction of Richmond.

On Saturday, May 17, 1862, a well-written diary kept by a soldier of the 23d Penna. Vols., says: “The army is apparently marching in three or four different columns—ours, composed of the Seventh Mass., the 23d Penna. Vols., the Tenth Mass., the First Long Island, the U. S. Chasseurs, and the Thirty-first Penna. Vols., being the extreme left, and marching in the order named, preceded by the Eighth Penna. Cavalry and a section of artillery—Co. C, First Penna. This was in the neighborhood of Baltimore Cross Roads. On the day following, the 18th of May, after a march of ten miles, we reached the river Chickahominy at Bottom’s Bridge. Across this, in company with the Seventh Mass., Eighth Penna. Cavalry, Col. D. McM. Gregg, and a company of the First Penna. Artillery, our regiment, without knapsacks, marched for a distance of four miles. The enemy retreated before us.” Returning for their knapsacks, the 23d Penna. Vols. formally crossed the Chickahominy on the evening of this day, the 23d of May. A soldier reports that the bridge over the Chickahominy broke while Co. K, was crossing in the morning. Thursday, May 29, finds the regiment near the Richmond and York River Railroad, six and three-fourths miles from Richmond. Let us take a view of the situation. The army of the Potomac now consisted of five corps. Three of these, under their commanders—Generals Franklin, Fitz John Porter, and Sumner—composed the right. They were on the left bank of the Chickahominy, a river which takes its rise on the north of Richmond, flows in a southeasterly direction until it reaches a point some distance above Williamsburg, where it bends to the south and empties into the James River. The Chickahominy thus formed a barrier against an approach to Richmond on the north, on the east, and also, together with its tributary, the White Oak Swamp, on the southeast. The Chickahominy was a peculiar stream. At ordinary seasons it was very narrow, only a few yards across, and it flowed with a gentle, even a sluggish current. But with heavy rains it swelled greatly, and suddenly became a stream both wide and impetuous. Its banks were low and marshy, and, as a consequence, were uncertain and treacherous. It was, as has been well said, “the treacherous Chickahominy, of which it was hard, at the best of times, to say where its banks were, and of which no man could say to-day, where its banks would be to-morrow.” The White Oak Swamp, as you well know, was a succession of swamps running for a considerable distance parallel to the Chickahominy, until, below Bottom’s Bridge, its muddy waters flow into the Chickahominy. The crossings of the river Chickahominy were few and unreliable. The travel up from Fortress Monroe, through Williamsburg finds a crossing at Bottom’s Bridge. Above this, at Dispatch Station, was the crossing of the Richmond and York River Railroad. This bridge, at this time, was not in repair, and hence the troops across the Chickahominy received their supplies in wagons, by the way of Bottom’s Bridge. Above the railroad bridge, at the date of the battle of Fair Oaks, there was an imperfectly constructed bridge opposite Richardson’s Division, and another, The Grapevine Bridge, recently built, near Sedgwick’s Division of Sumner’s Corps. The other bridges, higher up the river, were unfinished. All of these, for military purposes, were insufficient, weak, and uncertain. For the daily use of the army, only one, Bottom’s Bridge, was then available. Over it, in wagons, passed the supplies to the left wing of the army. This was by the Williamsburg—miscalled a turnpike—which here led in a westerly direction through woods and clearings towards Richmond. From this Williamsburg road, at a point called Seven Pines, a road called the Nine Mile road, branched off in a northwesterly direction, and, after intersecting the Richmond and York River Railroad, at a point called Fair Oaks Station, continued on in the same northwesterly direction until it emerged into a clearing called Old Tavern, where it met the road leading from Richmond across the New Bridge on to Cold Harbor. Along this Williamsburg road, from Bottom’s Bridge up to Seven Pines, and along this Nine Mile road, branching off at Seven Pines and extending in a northwesterly direction through Fair Oaks Station, and, also, beyond Fair Oaks, in the clearings, still nearer to Richmond, between the railroad and the Williamsburg road—the left wing of the Union army was encamped “en echelon,” that is, in successive steps—each division in advance of the preceding. This left wing of the army consisted of two corps, the Fourth, in the advance, under Gen. E. D. Keyes, and the Third, nearer Bottom’s Bridge, under Gen. Heintzelman. Each of these two corps was composed of two divisions, and each of these divisions numbered about 12,000 effectives; or quite particularly, according to Brig. Gen. Geo. W. Mindil, in his review of the Rebel Gen. Johnston’s narrative of this battle, the Third Corps numbered, on the 25th of May, “total present” in camp 17,088, with an effective force of 13,000 muskets; and the Fourth Corps, total present in camp 15,678, with an effective force of 12,000 for line of battle. The remark of Gen. Alexander S. Webb, LL.D., in his work on the Peninsula campaign, is “The corps numbered on the muster-rolls about 12,000 men [each], but no more than two-thirds [of these] were present, fit for duty, on May 31, 1862.” The relative situation of the two wings, left and right, of the Union Army, at the time of the battle of Fair Oaks, is worthy of our most particular attention. The one, the left, was on the south side of the river Chickahominy, while the other, the right, was on the north side of that river. These two wings have been well likened, as to their relative position, to the two strokes which make up the letter V, Bottom’s Bridge being at the point of the letter. The right inclined stroke of the V represents the three corps of the right wing stretched along the Chickahominy on the side farther from Richmond, while the left inclined stroke of the V would represent the two corps of the left wing on the side of the Chickahominy nearer to Richmond. This comparison holds good in the main; in one particular, and that a very important particular, the likeness will not hold. In the letter V the heavy and strong inclined stroke is on the left, while the thin and light inclined stroke is on the right. Just the opposite of this was the relative situations of the left and right wings of the Union Army. The left, extending up towards Richmond, into the very face of the enemy, inviting an attack from that enemy at any moment, was the thinner and weaker line; not the heavier and stronger line.


3 P.M. Position (site of bayonet Charge)Fair Oaks Schoolyard
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4 P.M. Position Support of Battery Site)
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5 P.M. Position (site of Frederick Huber's Death
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6 P.M. fallback Position
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In as much as Seven Pines was deemed a very important point, Gen. Barnard, Chief of Engineers, sent Lieut. McAllester to fortify the ground. Lieut. McAllester selected his first line in the ground occupied by Casey’s Division. Here he proceeded to erect a redoubt, dig rifle-pits and fell timber. These imperfectly finished works were a part of Casey’s line of defense. Such was the situation in the most advanced part of the left wing. At the distance of about half a mile in the rear of Casey’s line were Couch’s three Brigades; Abercrombie’s—to which the 23d Regt. Penna. Vols. belonged—on the right, Deven’s in the centre, and Peck’s on the left. This division of Couch’s stretched along the Nine Mile road from Seven Pines to Fair Oaks Station and beyond. Beyond the railroad, to the right of Fair Oaks Station, were two regiments and a battery. Back from Seven Pines, towards the Chickahominy, where the Williamsburg road emerged from a large clearing to enter a woods, Kearney’s Division had constructed a line of breastworks and small redoubts. Here, at Savage Station, and along the railroad to Bottom’s Bridge, the troops of Kearney were posted. Hooker’s Division of the Third Corps was on the borders of White Oak Swamp, watching its approaches. While our regiment was nearing the treacherous Chickahominy, at a vacant church called Providence Church, your chaplain, as is recorded in the diary of one of our soldiers, on Sabbath morning, May 18, preached to his soldier hearers from a text from the inspired writings of the Apostle Paul, taken from the eighth chapter and twenty-eighth verse of his Epistle to the Romans, which says, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” Then God, who made all, rules over all. And this rule of God, who is most wise and most powerful, results in good to them that love Him. If this be so, which side, then, in this great contest shall at length succeed; the side of the best government ever devised by man—“the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” whose corner-stone is liberty—or the side who, confederate in rebellion, with troops equipped, well-armed and disciplined, are massing their forces to overturn this free government of the people, and in its stead are aiming to establish an aristocratical oligarchy—the lordly government of the few—whose corner-stone is not liberty, but perpetual slavery?

As the time of this most severely-contested battle of Fair Oaks hastened on, it seemed as if the very elements were fighting against the Union troops. Well do we remember the days of rain which we experienced upon our march, but upon the evening of Friday, the 30th of May, it seemed as though the windows of heaven had been widely opened and another overwhelming deluge had begun. This terrific storm, almost tropical in its violence, with its very sharp lightning and cracking thunder, seemed to pass and re-pass, only to re-pass and pass again over our camps, while the descending rain poured down in torrents. And then methinks the Rebels laughed exultingly. This condition of things was just what they wanted.

While the trains of the Richmond and York River Railroad on that eventful night were hurrying back and forth, carrying to their troops in front their needed supplies, they clearly foresaw that by these flooding rainfalls, the treacherous Chickahominy swollen into a wide and deep stream, with its waters maddened into an impetuous and headlong current, would sweep away all before it and cut off the communications between the two wings of the Union troops; all communication between the right and the left of the Union army would be broken; no aid could come to the left from the right. Then, struck by an overwhelming force upon its front, driven back and assailed by a strong force attacking both its right and left flank, with no means of escape to the rear, the whole of the two Union corps across the Chickahominy must either be wiped out or discomfited and demoralized—fall an easy prey to their captors. In order that all the hours of the daylight, if needed, might be used, eight o’clock in the morning was appointed for the opening of the battle. These were the well-arranged plans of the Rebels, and these were their jubilant expectations. But evidently the unseen Ruler over all had not been consulted. And when the plans of men are not in accord with the plans of God, they must fail. Mere human wisdom and human might go out before the infinite wisdom and infinite might of God. Observe carefully the course of this day’s battle and see this truth exemplified.The rains which descended in such floods upon the Union camps, descended also upon the Rebels. The fields in which, on the morning of Saturday, May 31, the Rebel troops were massed, and the roads by which the Rebel wagons and artillery attempted to pass, were covered with water and turned to mire. An English combatant on the Rebel side—a lieutenant of artillery on the Rebel field staff—thus describes the scene: “During the night of Friday, the 30th of May, a thunder-storm of unusual violence shook the heavens, and the rain fell so heavily that the whole face of the country was deluged with water. The men in camp were exposed to all the violence of the storm, and the roads were rendered impassible by mud three feet deep. The enemy (i. e., the Union forces) were even worse off. The bottom lands along the Chickahominy were flooded and the stream much swollen. Active operations on their right will be impossible. Early in the morning of Saturday, May 31, it was whispered that Gen. Johnston purposed attacking their left wing. In answer to the question, ‘In such weather?’ it was answered, ‘The bridges are washed away.’ “McClellan cannot send over any of his right to the assistance of the left.” “A large force will be thrown against his left, effectually crushing it before it can be reinforced.” “Huger’s Division will move down the Charles City road and outflank and turn the enemy’s left.” “The forces of Generals Longstreet and D. H. Hill will push down the Williamsburg road against his centre, while Gen. Whiting, under Gustavus Smith, will advance his division near and down the railroad on his left, and thus, at the same time, hotly engage the enemy in three points, in front and on either flank.” According to this well-formed plan of the Rebel Johnston, the opening fire was to come from the forces under General Huger, upon the Union left and rear. “As,” says the same English writer upon the Rebel side, “I spurred on through the mud, I came up with the infantry advance of Longstreet toiling through the mud on the Williamsburg road, regiments and brigades occupied the woods on either side of the road ready for orders to move.” “The heavens were surcharged with clouds and rain-drops fell thickly.” “Among the pickets at the front there was an unusual silence.” “Our whole front was occupied with thick woods on marshy ground, the water in many places being two feet deep.” From this writer we learn that the signal to begin the fight was to be given by Huger in attacking the Union left flank. But hour after hour passed, and yet no sound of gun from Huger told of his whereabouts. “Then,” says this English writer, “I saw that Longstreet and others were mortified at Huger’s slowness.” “President Davis and his Cabinet (who were on the ground) seemed perplexed. They rode from point to point, anxiously expecting to hear Huger’s guns open.” “This continued until near noon.” “Then Longstreet determined to open the fight.” “I cast my eye to the rear and saw brigades forming battle-line in the woods.” “Just then a courier dashed up the road.” “Soon after the chain of pickets began to fire.” “Then a large body of sharpshooters, dashing across the plain in skirmishing order, entered the timber on the right and left of the road, and ere many minutes were actively engaged.” “Now began,” he says, “the slow advance of the regiments through the woods in support.” “A few pieces of artillery were endeavoring to push up to the front through the frightful depth of mud.” “Horses were lashed and goaded, while artillerymen, up to their middle, were tugging at long ropes.” The Rebel Gen. Johnston, who had planned the battle, and who on this day was in command, after giving his directions to Longstreet and Hill, went from the centre to the extreme left of his line, to the troops posted at Old Tavern. By so doing he put the distance of a mile and a half, or two miles, between himself and his centre under Longstreet. The signal for attack, according to some authorities, was to be the firing of three cannon by Longstreet. When these three guns were fired, the whole Rebel force of the Union line was to make a simultaneous onset. Turning from this Rebel account to our own recollections of this eventful day, we very vividly bring back the scenes in camp. The morning of Saturday, May 31, dawned upon the 23d Regiment Penna. Vols., as it lay encamped on the side of the Nine Mile road, between Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. “The weather,” says a diary, written by a soldier of the Twenty-third, --“was cloudy.” Gen. Keyes, in his report of this battle, writes, “From their beds of mud and the peltings of the storm, the men arose to fight the battle of May 31.” One of our own officers reports, “The men, taking advantage of a ray of sunshine, were busy during the morning, cleaning their pieces and repairing the damages of the terrible storm.” Then—before twelve o’clock—the busy hour in camp—“The boys,” says a comrade, “were at their little fires making stews, cooking rice, frying pork, or roasting fresh beef.” These were the preparations for dinner, which, of course, followed, and, if not sumptuous, was eaten by the soldiers with the sauce of a good appetite and a keen relish. A pleasant feeling, at this hour, pervaded alike the ranks of the men and the messes of the officers. One of our officers says,”I had just finished dinner, and, thanks to some fresh provisions from the sutler, was feeling much better after the illness a week.” If my own memory serves me, some dinners were a little late in camp that day, and they were scarcely finished when, suddenly, there was heard the report of a single piece of artillery, followed by the whir-r-r of the ball as it sped on its way towards our camp and struck in the open ground to the left and front of our camp. Within a minute another report was heard, followed by another ball. Then, quickly, there was heard a third report. You will remember that the ball which struck near our camp was dug up by one of our sergeants. It was found to be a six-pound solid shot of peculiar make. The sergeant took it to the colonel for his inspection. Though all this was quickly done, very little time was afforded for its examination. After a brief interval of silence, there came from the front the reports of rifles, and then, almost simultaneously, a scattering fire as from a picket reserve. This was speedily followed by the regular fire of an extended line. Then every man knew that an engagement was at hand. At once our men of the Twenty-third, moved by a soldierly instinct, and actuated by a manly courage, before they had received any orders, were seen buckling on their cartridge belts and putting their muskets together, and then, as the firing increased, were seen to take their place in line. This they did without knapsacks, canteens, or haversacks. One reports that upon this occasion “All the men, even the sick in camp, and those off duty, were eager for the fight.” When Col. Neill quickly appeared and looked upon his men formed in line and ready to receive his orders and obey them with alacrity, it was, says one, “with evident satisfaction, looking proudly as he marked his men’s readiness.” The firing in our front was becoming heavier each minute, plainly saying that Gen. Casey’s men were hotly engaged. The balls, even in our camp, were making themselves distinctly manifest by their constant “zip,” “zip,” and yet up to this time the regiment had received no orders to move. At this moment, Gen. Keyes came riding along the Nine Mile road. Seeing the regiment in line, facing obliquely from the road, he called out, “What regiment is this?” “The 23d,” replied several voices. It was then, reports one, that our colonel first spoke, saying, “Good day, general,” giving at the same time the regular salute. Gen. Keyes then gave the order, “Follow me, 23d.” Immediately we filed out of our camp-ground into the road, and followed the general, Col. Neill having repeated the command to the regiment. Col. Neill then went to the front of the column, and rode by the side of Gen. Keyes. The route of the regiment was by the right flank across the road, through fallen timber and low, marshy ground, onward by the side of a mill towards the location of Casey’s troops. In a very short time, the regiment reached the camp-ground of the 104th Penna. Regiment of Casey’s Division. During this march, the bullets had been flying fast and thick; but here they came in numbers greatly increased. The 104th was found to be hotly engaged, and the men falling fast. This was the view as it was presented to us on the Rebel side, just within the Rebel lines? A knowledge of both will enable us the better to judge aright of the character of the battle then beginning to rage.

This picture of the battle then raging, as thus given us by this English lieutenant of artillery, on the Rebel field staff, is very vivid, but not near so vivid and exciting as the reality, as our 23d Regiment experienced it, when they advanced to the front and formed themselves in line of battle. The place where the regiment formed line was a piece of low, marshy ground in front of a low thicket of small pines which led on to a woods of large pine timber about fifty yards distant. Here, in this small open ground, in front of this low thicket of small pines leading on to woods of larger pine timber, the 23d Regiment was formed in line of battle on the right and rear of the 104th Penna. Regiment. As the line of the 23d was forming, at the instant that the color guard stepped to the front of the regiment, Color Sergeant Samuel Bolton, a good and brave soldier, fell struck by a rifle-ball directly in the forehead. Though sick that day and not fit for duty, yet, rather than give room for even the slightest suspicion of cowardice or unfaithfulness, he stood nobly at his post of duty, even though he knew that post of duty was a post of imminent peril. While the 23d was in the act of forming its line of battle, the stream of men falling back from the front quite interfered with the formation of the left of the line. At this time, while thus impeded and hindered, the regiment received its first direct fire from the enemy. This fire came from the enemy posted in the edge of the large timber in front. Instantly, as the regiment quickly recovered from the shock, Col. Neill called out, “Charge them, 23d; charge them!” With a yell, the boys started for the timber, and dislodging the Rebels from their position, drove them quite a distance. In this charge the regiment proceeded on beyond where the Rebels had been in line to a low, open marshy place. Here the men opened fire behind trees and while lying upon the ground. By this first direct fire received by the 23d, and in this charge made upon the Rebels, Major John Ely, Capt. Edwin Palmer, and First Lieut. George Wood, together with many of the men, were wounded. Many were killed here. Lieut. Wood, pressing forward on the double-quick, felt a severe blow upon his leg, and upon looking down, saw a constant stream of blood flowing. Soon becoming weak, he fell to the ground unconscious. Here, too, the horse of Col. Neill was shot and fell under him. When the Rebels again advanced in great force, the regiment fell back a short distance and formed line of battle on the side of a little road which ran through the woods. It was while thus falling back from this advanced position that the dead and wounded of the regiment were observed. “I well remember,” says one, “seeing distinctly the dead and wounded upon the ground.” In this second position, upon this small woods road, the regiment engaged the enemy for quite a time, until it was evidently in imminent danger of being outflanked, when it fell back to near its first position in front of the small pine timber. Here it was, says one, that Gen. Couch rode p and led the regiment to a point of the woods on the left of the Nine Mile road, where there was exposed to view, as in a panorama, the full force of the Rebels advancing towards Fair Oaks. There, by direction of Gen. Couch, it formed on the left of the 61st Penna., commanded by Col. Rippey. After a time, orders were given by the colonel to fall back. It was when thus falling back that the regiment came to the felled timber, and crossed it amid most imminent peril from the pressing Rebels. “At this time, “ says one, “the enemy seemed to occupy not only the position in front, but also to crowd upon our right and left flank, so that the only possible way for the regiment to escape capture was to pass to the rear through an abatis. This with considerable difficulty was accomplished, and the regiment reached its own camp.” It was while making this crossing that Adjutant Thomas K. Boggs was wounded, and Private John McVey received the blow which to him proved mortal. During a considerable part of this time of conflict, the regiment had been cut off from connection with both brigade and division commanders. When the 23d reached their own camp, they found there the 1st Long Island Regiment, Col. Julius Adams, drawn up in line, facing the Nine Mile road. Here, in their own camp ground, the 23d again became engaged, facing to meet the enemy, as that enemy came from the rear of the camp. There the 1st Long Island, being pressed and losing many men, gave way. For about fifteen or twenty minutes, the fighting was very severe. At length, forced back by overpowering numbers, the regiment passed over the brow of a hill, where a stand was again made. And still yet again, having been strengthened by the return of Company B, which upon that day had been doing special duty, and having also been greatly strengthened by the detached fragments of many broken regiments, rallied by Col. Neill and formed upon his own regiment until the number seemed to have been raised up to a thousand men, the 23d, thus greatly strengthened, again formed line of battle, and twice, as Capt. Hillebrand particularly reports, advanced into the woods, which it found swarming with the enemy, and thus twice became engaged. In this work the regiment was occupied until towards dark, when, having been relieved by regiments of Heintzelman’s Division, it was ordered to the rear. It may be, comrades, that I, as your chaplain, am inclined to be partial in my judgment; but I cannot, at this time and in this place, refrain from saying that I feel a great and just pride in thus recording the actions and experiences of the 23d Regiment in this, their first and very trying battle. Your readiness to fall into line, and march to the front; the fullness of your ranks; the steadiness with which you formed line under a galling fire; the promptness and energy of your charge upon the enemy; the courage with which, after you had fallen back somewhat under the pressure of overwhelming numbers, you again formed and maintained your line, and, though sorely pressed and threatened with capture by an enemy confident of victory, crowding upon you in vastly superior numbers capable of overwhelming you, yet with a persistency which was unconquerable, you again, and again, and yet again, reformed your line of battle, and, with a courage which did not shrink and with a determination which did not relax, you again and again held this vast host in check, and from every tenable position inflicted upon him severe loss—this, all this, redounds greatly to your credit, and shows you to have been upon that eventful day pre-eminently loyal, true, and faithful. While others did most nobly, none did their duty more nobly than the 23d Penna. Vols. I have already spoken of the return of Company B to the regiment, and of the aid rendered by that company towards the close of the day. Upon this memorable day Company B has a history of its own. Having been specially detailed to guard the camp, it found its position in camp anything but a place of safety. Zipping bullets, ploughing shots and bursting shells were there, doing their destructive work amid tents and mules and men. While thus doing guard duty, Gen. Keyes came galloping up, and, observing the position, said, “We must hold this ground.” Seeing Capt. Hillebrand and his company, he ordered them into the rifle-pits just outside of the woods, there to serve as supports to Miller’s Battery, the fire of which was directly over their heads. They were sent to hold this place, and hold this place they did. In these rifle-pits, acting as supports to the battery, they remained a full hour and a half, as long as the battery remained and for some time after it removed A member of Company B thus gives his experience:--“Soon after the regiment left camp, Company B was ordered to the rifle-pits in front of Miller’s Battery, which, upon that day, did such splendid execution. The duty of Company B was to support the battery and fill with stragglers coming from the front. The battle soon became general. The enemy in force came up in good order, notwithstanding the terribly destructive fire from this battery. Coming nearer and nearer, the Rebels are now so close that we can hear the whistling of their bullets over our heads. Our fire is increased. We have plenty of ammunition from the dead and wounded. We are obliged to form two lines in the rifle-pits, one to load and the other to keep up the firing. Now we see the enemy’s skirmishers form on the outside of the woods. At this the battery becomes alarmed and makes superhuman efforts with their grape and canister. By this destructive fire great gaps are made in the lines of the enemy. Still on they come. Now the enemy’s line of battle is seen distinctly on the outer edge of the woods. Our fire becomes incessant. But what now meets our gaze? As the enemy’s line emerges from the woods, lo! They appear carrying the American flag. This sight of our own colors raises amongst us a great commotion. The cry amongst us is ‘Don’t fire; they are our own men!’ But this confusion does not last long. They cannot deceive us. The fire is resumed. The battery, apprehending capture, now limber up and leave, one gun at a time, belching forth canister as it departs. The enemy now presses upon us with great fury. We cannot stay much longer. The rifle-pits at last become untenable and we are obliged to leave. This we do in squads; the men turn as they go and empty their rifle upon the Rebels.” In falling back Company B came upon the 23d Regiment, and, having formed upon the right of the colors, took part in the action in the woods at the close of the day, advancing twice into the woods filled with the enemy. The duties and experiences of Company C also upon that day were special. On the night of Friday, May 30, Company C was detailed for picket duty on the railroad. One of their numbers thus reports: “When on Saturday the firing became heavy and the picket posts were driven back, our captain, Adolph F. Cavada, kept us in line, and sent out men to reconnaissance and report. Though reports of disaster came to us from the front, our captain still kept us where we were, until the fire became very hot, when he moved us a short distance down the railroad, where we met Gen. Birney coming up the railroad with his brigade. Reporting to him, the general assigned our company to the left of the first regiment on the right of the line. Falling into our place, we marched back to the battle-field, and there under fire we held our position until dark.” To the soldierly bearing of the officers and men of Company C upon this occasion, your chaplain is permitted to bear willing testimony.

When the regiment, crowded upon by the Rebels coming in two directions, fell back from its last position on the Nine Mile road, near the camp of the 104th Penna. Vols., your chaplain, who, at a log-house, has been helping the wounded, hearing the command to fall back, in his efforts to follow the regiment while at the same time he assisted two or three wounded men off the field, turned with them too much to the left, and encountered a deep swamp which prevented his return to the camp. Turning with his companions still more to the left, he came to the railroad, and there while going along the railroad, met Gen. Birney’s Brigade, with band playing and colors flying, with the general at the head, marching to the front. In this line marched Company C, with its soldierly captain, Adolph F. Cavada. Filing into an open field with dense woods on two sides, they, with the regiments of Birney’s Brigade, took position in line of battle, and remained there until after sunset, when, having been relieved, they marched to Seven Pines, where the regiment passed the night. In speaking of the separate commands and their doings upon this day, it is proper to say that Capt. John F. Glenn and men of Co. A, after passing through all with the regiment in its various positions until it retuned to the camp, then by special request, in the latter part of the day, acted as support to one of the batteries. You are aware, comrades, that there are some men so fond of fighting, that as long as the battle is on, they cannot keep out of it; they seem never to have enough. And here permit me, comrades, while rendering deserved honor to all, and commending the soldierly conduct of all, to pay, upon the report of one who saw and heard, a deserved tribute to Lieut. Henry A. Marchant, that gallant soldier who, as we all so sadly remember with his face to the foe upon a later battle-field. While the regiment was in line of battle and the men were fast falling, Lieut. Marchant became especially solicitous for the safety of the colors. The color guard had been either killed or wounded, and the special care of the colors depended upon Co. F, of which Lieut. Marchant was in command. Seeing Col. Neill approaching that part of the line, he embraced the opportunity to ask for a special detail to be made to serve as color guard. Whereupon the colonel inquired, “Who are with the colors?” To this question the lieutenant returned answer, “Co. F, my company.” “Well,” replied the colonel, “they have taken good care of the colors so far; we will trust them to their care for the balance of the day.” And how well they were cared for, you can all bear witness. Upon this occasion, as indeed upon every occasion, Lieut. Marchant showed himself the true soldier. To all our officers, your chaplain would join with you, men of the 23d, in rendering that tribute of honor which all deserve. Our wounded. Officers, Major John Ely, Capt. Edwin Palmer, Lieut. George Wood, Adjt. Thomas K. Boggs, in their wounds, carried with them unquestioned evidence of their bravery and fidelity. And to those who passed through the day’s conflict without wounding, like honorable mention is fully due. Conspicuous among these, our gallant head, Col. Thomas H. Neill, whom, in familiar conversation with each other you were wont to style bucky Neill, was found upon that day, as upon every day, to be plucky Neill; the able, true and reliable soldier and chieftain, whose military knowledge was fully adequate, and whose courage and fidelity were never wanting in the times of the greatest danger and the occasions of the most imminent peril. He was ever brave, true, reliable and efficient. And now, does any one while thus recalling the particulars of the actions and experiences of our own 23d Regt. Penna. Vols., amid the terrible fighting and brave resistance offered to overwhelming numbers pressing upon the front and upon the right and left flanks of our force across the Chickahominy upon this eventful day, ask what was the general action and what was the general result? We briefly return answer, that admirable as was the Rebel plan of battle, desperate as were the efforts of their centre under Longstreet, Hill and Anderson, yet chiefly through the care of that divine Providence watching over us and controlling all things, the attack made upon our Union Army on the 31st of May, instead of proving a signal and advantageous victory to the Rebels, was made to prove a practical and dearly bought defeat. Looking to the causes of this failure upon the Rebel side, our attention was directed—First, to that Providence which sent the flooding rains to submerge the fields and make the roads such dreadful beds of mud as to prevent or greatly retard the movements of the enemy’s artillery and supplies. Secondly, to the inefficiency of the Rebel Gen. Huger, who, delayed, perhaps, by the mud and mire in the marching of his troops, did not penetrate the White Oak Swamp and begin the battle at eight o’clock by striking, as was planned, our left flank and rear. This failure on the part of Huger postponed the opening of the fight until after twelve o’clock. Thirdly, to the efficient and most courageous resistance made by wall after wall of living men full of courage, and burning with patriotic zeal, who, assailed in front by overwhelming numbers and outflanked both on the right and left, yet, as did our own 23d Regt., took position after position, made stand after stand, and thus at every step resisted the enemy’s advance. Saturday night, May 31, our regiment, with others, stopped for the night at the line of defense to the rear of Seven Pines. As our men went into the fight without knapsacks, canteens or haversacks, and as they were driven back from our own camp, they were entirely without provisions. Here, in this juncture you all remember the kindness of Gen. D. B. Birney, our former colonel, who so generously met our wants and supplied us with provisions. The next day, June 1, the battle was renewed, but its action and its results were quite different from those of Saturday. The action was uniformly successful and the result was a complete victory for the Union troops

Before proceeding to give a brief description of Sunday’s battle, let us take a glance at the troops in their several positions. In taking this view we will quote the language of Gen. Mindil in his description of the battle:-- “On the extreme right, facing west northwest, partly in open ground and partly in the woods facing Dr. Courtney’s farm, was Gen. Sedgwick’s Division of three brigades, the three regiments of Couch, already mentioned, and five batteries; while further to the left, at an acute angle, and parallel with the railroad and near Fair Oaks Station, the Division of General Richardson, which had arrived before midnight, was formed in three lines of a brigade front each, with one battery on the right of the first line and three batteries of the division in reserve; then, in Hyer’s clearing, behind the railroad and facing south, the 7th Mass. and 3d and 4th Maine regiments of Birney’s Brigade, the 38th and 40th New York Regiments of the same brigade in position to the south of the railroad, in the edge of the woods directly west of the Allen farm. Further to the left but somewhat in the rear, covering the large open field between the railroad and Williamsburg road, was Hooker’s Division ready and eager for battle; the line to the south of the Williamsburg road, ‘the third line of defense,’ being held by Kearney’s Dvision and the two divisions of the Fourth Corps, a numerous artillery, over sixty pieces, defending them. The pickets of the three corps thus disposed were in communications throughout. On the right, Sumner had been strengthened by the arrival of the three brigades of Richardson, and the remainder of his corps artillery, he having in line and ready for action over fifty guns, while Heintzelman, on the left, was posted in an impregnable position, protected by over sixty pieces of artillery—the interval between the flanks being held by the brigade of Birney and the divisions of Kearney and Hooker.

Harry Marchant William Linton Co. H Henry Tate Co. E George Clark Co. E Matthew Hazlett Co. G Solomon Forebaugh Co. A George Clark Co. E Frederick Huber Co. F John Dougherty Co. E

Some of the Boys of the 23rd PV Killed at Fair Oaks
"Birney's Zouaves Civil War"

“About five o’clock on Sunday morning, in the gray of dawn, the Confederate skirmishers in front of Richardson’s opened fire. French’s Brigade, with a regiment of Howard’s, at once crossed to the south of the railroad, in readiness for the expected attack; Hazard’s Battery of the Fourth Artillery (six ten-pound Parrot guns) being posted on its right to command the large open field in that direction. Howard’s Brigade was in a second line, while Meagher’s Irish Regiments, with eighteen pieces of artillery, occupied the third or reserve line. The brigades of Hood and Whiting confronted this line. A slight attempt to cross the open field with a heavy skirmish line and some regiments of cavalry was checked by Hazard’s guns. At half-past six o’clock a determined assault was made against Gen. French’s line, the enemy pushing along the two wood-roads that crossed the line, heavy columns of attack, supporting them on both flanks by battalions of infantry in deployed line. The firing commenced within half musket shot and was maintained at closer quarters for nearly an hour and a half before the enemy’s column wavered and broke. French’s men having exhausted their ammunition—sixty rounds per man—were relieved to enable them to refill their cartridge boxes, Howard’s fresh regiments taking their place. Hardly had this been done, when the enemy’s column, strongly reinforced, gave a general yell and again dashed forward to the attack. This renewed fight was of the most desperate and sanguinary character, lasting for more than an hour, when the enemy were again driven back without gaining a single point of the Union line, their retreat being more precipitate than before, a rapid artillery fire accelerating their flight. So fierce was the fighting in Richardson’s front that he sustained a loss of nearly 800 men in a division much smaller than Sedgwick’s. And as his men were partly protected by the railroad embankment and the enemy advanced in thick numbers over exposed found, how much heavier must have been their loss? “’At half-past seven on Sunday morning, when the firing became heavy on the right,’ says Gen. Heintzelman, ‘I sent forward one brigade and two regiments under Gen. Hooker, and on the right Gen. Birney’s Brigade under the command of Col. Ward. The 5th and 6th New jersey Regiments under Gen. Hooker, moving through the woods towards Allen’s farm and the railroad, soon joined the left of Birney’s command, when, with the 38th and 40th New York Regiments, the move was continued through the timber, the enemy falling back before this determined advance. As Hooker neared the clearing on Hyer’s farm, he ordered his four regiments to charge; this cleared the woods, and the enemy was entirely broken when they were met in the open ground by the destructive flank fire of the three regiments posted behind the railroad. Hooker was now on the right flank and rear of the forces threatening Richardson, and he was not slow to improve his opportunity.’ “While this was occurring across the railroad, Gen. Sickles, with the Excelsior Brigade of five regiments, moved out the main Williamsburg road about a mile, and having changed the head of his column to the left, he brought it on the right by file into line. As soon as his line was formed, his troops opened fire and advanced. In the woods the battle raged quite heavily for a few moments, but Sickles gradually gained ground to the front. Sickles soon joined Hooker, and in union with Richardson, a general advance was made. No serious opposition was encountered, and Casey’s camp was reoccupied before two o’clock P. M., ‘the ground being covered with the Rebel dead and wounded as well as our own.’ The commanders at Fair Oaks Station and on the Williamsburg road did not stand on the defensive; they advanced, there being sharp firing in front of both places, that at Fair Oaks Station equaling the most severe fighting of the previous day. The enemy’s precipitate flight from Heintzelman’s front prevented more fighting, and the troops of the latter were in possession of Casey’s camps shortly after noon on Sunday. When all firing had ceased, about two P. M. on Sunday, the entire field fought over had been regained by the union troops, Casey’s lines were reoccupied, the Confederates being in full retreat. On Monday morning, June 2, Hooker’s Division advanced two miles nearer Richmond, without being seriously resisted. In return for the artillery taken by the Rebels on the first day’s fight, the Union forces captured over one thousand prisoners, including officers of distinction, besides depriving the Confederate army, at an important juncture, of the services of Gen. Jos. E. Johnston. The colors, too, of the 23d North Carolina were captured on the field by Col. Cochrane’s regiment, the 1st U. S. Chasseurs. Why Gen. McClellan ‘made no step forward’ after the battle, it is difficult to explain.” The official report of this action is that the 23d Regt. Penna. Vols., suffered in killed and wounded, seven officers and one hundred and thirty-six men, making a total of one hundred and forty-three.

Credits

The information to put this write-up together was taken from the following sources:

  • “Life of the 23rd Pennsylvania “Birney’s Zouaves” ,William J. Wray 1904, 1999,2004
  • “Extraordinary Circumstances” The seven days Battles Brian K. Burton 2001
  • Research and Studies of Frank P. Marrone Jr.

    Losses

  • 37 Killed
  • 140 Wounded

    In 1982 Columbia Tri-star Pictures released a movie, written by Bruce Catton, about the Civil War which included scenes from The Peninsula Campaign entitled "The Blue and the Gray". It even had a mention of the 23rd PA in it. It is 381 minutes long and available on DVD and Video.


    "The Blue and the Gray" The Movie (Click for more info)


  • Birney's Zouaves