Thursday, January 24, 2019

Bones, rusty gun barrels: 1881 tour of Seven Days battlefields

Remains of soldiers on Gaines' Mill battlefield in 1865. Sixteen years later, soldier remains still were found
on the Seven Days battlefields. (Library of CongressCLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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In the summer of 1881, Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan toured the Seven Days battlefields near Richmond. Nineteen years after Robert E. Lee chased George McClellan's Army of the Potomac from the gates of the Confederate capital, evidence of war was not hard to find.

Rusty gun barrels, old canteens, traces of earthworks, unexploded artillery shells and the outlines of parapets were easily found. In his Page 1 account, Morgan also told of a farmer who discovered human remains while digging post holes for a fence.

"He felt his spade grate against something hard and a moment later he cast up a skull," Morgan wrote. "With more of a twitching of his fingers than Hamlet's first grave-digger felt, Swiffer stooped, scratched away the sand and disclosed a complete skeleton, which, from bits of blue and brass buttons about it, was pronounced to be that of a Federal soldier."

The farmer placed the bones and skull in a barrel for re-burial at Cold Harbor National Cemetery, "where the forgotten brave was given decent though not 'Christian burial' among his unknown fellows."

Here's the account of Morgan's trip through Virginia, published in the Philadelphia Times on July 25, 1881:

Special Correspondence of The Times 


Present-day view of Gaines' Mill (Va.) battlefield visited by reporter George Morgan in 1881.
Shortly after sunrise on Monday morning I was searching among some shell-shattered fragments of a wall at Gaines' Mill when a man with an empty sleeve crawled out of a cart that had just come in from the New Cold Harbor road. He was a hearty fellow of forty, or thereabouts, and as he limped towards the blacksmith shop I saw that with his one arm he was swinging a handful of gun-barrels as though they had been so many sticks of reed.

"Hello, there!" he said gruffly to the man at the forge, "want ye to make me some shoes for my hoss."

"What out'n?" asked the busy blacksmith, whose quick-falling strokes upon a red-hot rod gave out thud upon thud and shook the shop in which he was beginning his toilsome day.

"Yankee guns," said the newcomer.

" Hist!" whispered the blacksmith; "here's a Northern man lookin' at the battle-ground."

But Storekeeper Tucker, with a quickness of perception noticeable in both Federal and Confederate veterans, felt that no Northerner in his senses would care a snap whether he should be called "Yankee" or " Union man," and, shaking hands, he cheerily explained the incident of the guns. They had been picked up from various parts of the battle-field and brought to him at his New Cold Harbor store, a half mile to the east. He had long ago learned that the rusty barrels could be turned by heat and hammering into what he called "horse shoes of the best kind" and time and again had he shod his fat roadster with iron once used in the death grapple in the Chickahominy hollows.

In his business since the war he has dealt not only in old guns, but he has bought and sold lead, leather and brass, gathered from the woods by little darkeys in search of dimes. I found him to be full of war stories and though not exactly full to the chin with war relics he yet carried a minie bail in his pelvis and a piece of shell in his foot. He was one of [George] Pickett's men who beat against the stone wall at Gettysburg, and in the charge. almost at the same moment, his arm was torn off by a round shot, his body pierced by a ball and his heel ripped open by a third missile. He dropped for dead upon the carpet of clover, with most of his regiment around him, but to his own astonishment he was restored to robust health.

In search of the Chickahominy

Military bridge over Chickahominy River in June 1862. (Library of Congress)
At daybreak on that day I had come out from Richmond on the New Bridge road, with the idea of leaving behind the sands and swamps ot the Chickahominy before the sun should become troublesome. In the course of the ride I had just begun to wonder where in the world the Chickahominy could be when a bit of a log hut, brown from a coating of clay, presented itself by the roadside, not a dozen steps from the buggy. A number of pickaninnies in free-and- easy garb were playing in front of the door, and when I asked how much longer it would be before I should strike the Chickahominy a little wool-top stuck his fist in his mouth and grunted: "Do'an kno' sah."

"You don't know how far it is to the Chickahominy!"

"No, sah, do'an kno'; fibe mile, spec."

But a few turns of the wheels down a ravine brought me to a bridge under which ran a thin stream. The bed of the stream was wide and swampy. A score of steps beyond the first bridge was a second and so a little ways further was a third, all alike, narrow, sand-covered and each arching a rivulet. Damp air came from the grass below, but arrows of sunshine were darting among the treetops overhead. An old darkey was crossing the third bridge and to him I addressed the query: "How much further to the Chickahominy?"

"How much fudder ter de Chikkyhomny? Bess yo' soul, honey, dis am de Chikkyhomny? Bess yo' soul, honey, dis am de Chikkyhomny 'neef our berry feet. Axed de chillun up dar, did yo? Oh, dey's my chillun, but dey take arter dere mam en do'an kno' nuffin. Dey calls dis do 'Chick' fur sho't en all de homny day kno' bout am de homny dey git frum de pot, sho' now."

And the old fellow chuckled while I whipped up the sand hill, jogged along the edge of a field of peanuts and came to Duane's branch, on the eastern bank of which nestles the hamlet of Gaines' Mill.

A sandy battle-ground

The place is made up of a grist mill, a blacksmith and wheelwright shop and a few houses. It is at the foot of a bluff that holds an oak woods up towards the east and shelters the few people there, not only from the eastern storms, but from the summer's heat. The heavy wooden water-wheel turns all day long, casting white spray into the air, and above its roar comes the rasping sound of the carpenter's saw and the ring of the blacksmith's hammer. The one-armed rebel explained that the ruined wall once enclosed the mill and that it was knocked to pieces during the cannonading from Robertson's position. Just here there are no other marks of battle, but when we crossed several sandy, poor-looking fields and approached a ridge on the northern bank of the Chickahominy we saw rotting trees, in some of which there were unexploded shells, and here and there in the woods we kicked over old canteens.

The Federal soldier's remains the farmer found
in 1881 were re-buried at the national cemetery
at Cold Harbor, Va. Here is the grave
of an unknown Union soldier there.
Slight traces of [George] Morrell's fortifications, on the Federal left, may be seen a half mile south of the mill. It was against those fortifications, which are on a crest, that [Stonewall] Jackson hurled [William] Whiting's division. The space across which that division charged with yells that were caught by [Fitz John] Porter's ear is now grown up in pines, at the roots of which are many bones. In removing the bodies for interment in the Richmond cemeteries after the war the work was roughly done, cadavers being thrust into carts much as a baggage -- man would toss a trunk, and in this way the small finger-bones and bones of the feet were left scattered in the ruts.

One day last week Farmer Swiffer was digging post-holes in a tract of land near where [Henry] Slocum held the Union right. He felt his spade grate against something hard and a moment later he cast up a skull. With more of a twitching of his fingers than Hamlet's first grave-digger felt, Swiffer stooped, scratched away the sand and disclosed a complete skeleton, which, from bits of blue and brass buttons about it, was pronounced to be that of a Federal soldier. The farmer got a barrel from his house and jamming the mouldering thing in took it to the Cold Harbor Cemetery, where the forgotten brave was given decent though not "Christian burial" among his unknown fellows.

What a strong-armed Sumner left

Federal wounded at Savage's Station, Va., on June 30, 1862. (Library of Congress)
We passed an hour in search of marks of [Edwin] Sumner's upper bridge across the Chickahominy and at last were able to locate it by marks in the oaks nearby and by some debris that was floated during a flood into the forks of a huge oak. A by-road took me thence out of the Chickahominy lowland to Sumner's road, between the lower bridge and Savage's Station. This battlefield, where Sumner held the enemy in check until the rest of the army of 120,000 men had slipped through White Oak Swamp on the bloody march to Malvern, now shows more positively than any other Peninsular point yet visited the hand of the progressive land-owner.

What was then the hotly-contested Whitesides' farm is now in a high state of cultivation and the Allen brothers have grafted their enterprise upon the growing community. Considerable business is done at the station on the Richmond and York Railroad and things appear to be brisk enough roundabout. The outlines of a parapet, with embrasures clearly marked, may be seen among some cedars back of the Allen house and several rifle pits containing the bodies of Confederate soldiers are pointed out to the visitor. Stopping at a store on the Quaker road I began to ask the proprietor questions about the country roundabout, adding "You've lots of history down this way." The storekeeper said that very often every battle-field in the vicinity happened to be represented at the same time by purchasers in the store.

"Maybe it's so out on the porch now," he said, leading the way to a group of a dozen men who were eating apples in the shade.

"McCarthy," said the storekeeper to a lad whose boot-heels were armed with spurs, "where are you from ?"

"Seven Pines," replied the boy."

And you, Johnson?"

"Malvern Hill," said a tall man with freckled nose and long goatee.

"And you, Bill?"

" Frazier's Farm, and you know it."

"Yes, but I was seeing how many battle-fields we have represented here. Your place is at Savage's, isn't it, Mr. Farra"

"Savage's," assented Mr. Farra.

"And yours, Abram?"

"I'so from Colo Habo'h, boss," said the darkey modestly, from his seat in the corner.

Federal soldiers at the Seven Pines (Va.) battlefield in June 1862. (Library of Congress)

An incident like this, which could have happened only at noon or in the evening when the people around come to the store for various articles, puts it more forcibly to the visitor than anything else can that he is upon ground every inch of which was fought over in those desperate seven days from the 25th of June to the 1st of July, nineteen years ago. Holding myself especially fortunate that I should be able to clink glasses at once with men from Malvern, from Savage's, from Seven Pines, from Cold Harbor and from Frazier's Farm, I kept on down the road through White Oak Swamp to the last-named field. The narrow defile through the swamp is bordered by oaks, pines, gum trees and chinkapin bushes, frequently canopied with grapevines and the climbing creepers of wet woods. Being here, it is no longer hard to understand why, with all his dash and vim, Jackson couldn't get at McClellan's rear, and it is easy also to fancy how the man of the valley chafed inwardly until his heartstrings were sore.

 And, moreover, while Jackson's feet were tangled in the swamp there came from the high land beyond such sounds of strife that Lee, new in command himself, fretted at the delay. Over beyond the tops of the white oaks [George] McCall's Pennsylvanians were gun to gun with [James] Longstreet's Alabama troops and bayonets were locked fiercely in the struggle. "I saw skulls crushed by the heavy blow of the butt of the musket," said McCall, and there is no doubt that in this pine thicket through which I have just passed are bodies dear to mothers on the Susquehanna and the Delaware. This thicket and the surrounding fields of corn make up the battle-ground of Frazier's Farm, or Glendale, or New Market road, but there is little except memory to busy the mind with and I push on towards the James, now winding between its bluffs in sight to the south.

A climb up Malvern Hill

On July 1, 1862, Confederates never got close to expertly placed Union artillery at Malvern Hill.
The afternoon sun is scorching hot and therefore Malvern Hill, always inviting, now looks doubly so as it lifts its forest crown in the distance. What a welcome thing it was to the marching thousands, whose backs were towards a foe eager to smite, the veterans of that hard campaign no doubt recall. As I approached there came to mind that bit of verse made of the other Malvern in Worcestershire in the time when Charles, the first English King of the name, still kept his head between his shoulders:

Great Malvern!
When western winds do rock 
Both corn and country.
Thy hill doth break: the shock --
They cannot hurt thee;
When waters great abound, 
And many a country's drowned,
Thou standest safe and sound,
Oh, praise the Lord!

                      PANORAMA: Confederate's view of Malvern Hill battlefield. 
                                         (Click at upper right for full-screen view.)

The road leading up the plateau to Mrs. Alexander's house, which may be seen when one is ten miles away, is gravelly and hard to climb. The farming land on the plateau stretches tor a mile and a half along the James, commanding that river, but it is poorly cultivated. Many places that were cleared at the time of the battle are now in scrub pine, which is particularly thick on the slope up which D. H. Hill hurled his lines and down which leaden missiles flew so fast that he left five thousand men dead and dying in his path.

The ravines running from the plateau to the thick woods towards the north and east sometimes after heavy rains give up skeletons, and the woods below contain many evidences of the desperate assault. A year or so ago, some oak timber was cut from this Malvern slope and hauled to a sawmill on Turkey Island creek. One day the saw struck a shell and there wasn't any more need of the keen-toothed steel for that log. Saw, sawyer, log and mill roof went off in various directions much in the same way as the things about the Brandywine powder mills are in the habit of doing.

While Frederick Betz was hunting in the thick timber last fall he came upon three guns resting against a large oak tree. The stocks were rotten and the bark of the tree had grown around the barrels, but there they stood, silent sentries of Malvern -- [George] McClellan's refuge and the Grand Army's steadfast rock.

--  G.M.

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  1. It must have been very moving to visit that battlefield with the grisly remains and talk to those who witnessed the carnage less than a generation before.

  2. Anonymous3:34 PM

    Haunting - the idea that veterans of those famous battles were just living their lives as local citizens in the neighborhood sixteen years later is startling, but that's the way it was everywhere in the South for the next fifty + years...the lack of attention to remains is also surprising as there were many efforts to find and inter, or re-inter from temporary graves, the dead of either side. But this was only sixteen years, the effort went on for much much longer and even recently some remains were found at, I think, Manassas.

  3. Very haunting stuff indeed. I can't imagine visiting the sites over a decade after the fact and finding the remains of good men and boys just laying out for the critters to get.

  4. Awesome read!! Thanks so much!! I've been here in more than one occasion. I would have loved to have been there when the writer was!!

  5. My Great Grandfather was wounded at Malvern Hill (along with his brother) during the 7 day battle at Cold Harbor.

  6. Awesome read , my 3rd Grandfather was with the 1st NC infantry at Ellersons mill in Mechanicsville .

  7. Robert Weber4:32 PM

    That was incredible to read. Makes me feel closer to that struggle than when reading accounts of the actual battle. Something about these folks just carrying on with their lives in the midst of their own shattered past.

  8. Thomas Woodrow Wilson11:55 PM

    In the summer of 1959 I drug my new wife through these same sites which meant, and still mean, little to her but they long have to me.

  9. Jim Dodge6:18 PM

    thanks for sharing the article. Very interesting indeed. I toured the area some years ago in the 90's, a few years after Gaines Mill was saved from re-development. a fantastic area to roam around for a day or two.

  10. Joe Atkinson7:10 AM

    To think of wives, children, mothers and fathers who only knew that their loved ones went off to war and were never heard from again. To live out their lives never knowing what happened to them. Known but to GOD. ✝️