"To do, or die:" Actions of the 4th Texas Infantry at Gaines’ Mill
By Jason C. Spellman
“I feel no hesitation in predicting that you, at least, will discharge your duties, and when the struggle does come, that proud banner you bear . . . will ever be found in the thickest of the fray – Fellow-soldiers – Texans – let us stand or fall together."
– Col. John B. Hood, March 8, 1862
Even after serving over a year in the field, the men of the Fourth Texas were eager for a definitive fight. One soldier in Co. F gave up his furlough at the chance of being in a fight, exclaiming, “I was so anxious to witness grand events that I determined to risk being compelled to take an active and perilous part in any battle necessary for their accomplishment.”1 From what were then the westernmost counties of Texas, they had fervently responded to the Confederate government’s levies issued in 1861.2 By October, nearly all of the Texans had completed the journey east and were designated companies in Richmond, Va. Company officers were elected within the ranks but higher officials were authorized to appoint the regimental staff. Among the selections was a stranger to the regiment: John Bell Hood, a native Kentuckian who replaced the disliked former colonel. The regiment established a base (“Camp Texas”) outside of Richmond and drilled and re-supplied themselves in preparation for the on-coming months of action. But the winter concluded and spring arrived with little distinction other than routine patrolling, rear-guard assignments with the brigade along the Potomac River, devastating bouts of disease, and the monotony of camp life.
Then, an overwhelming sense of urgency and apprehension emerged in April 1862. The capital and the army of the Confederacy suddenly faced a large enemy offensive. The Union government had launched a spring campaign led by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who had landed the Army of the Potomac between the York and James Rivers and began marching west across the Virginia peninsula. By making a frontal attack on Richmond, they could bring the Confederacy to its knees. Gen. Joseph Johnston of the Confederate forces responded by transferring Brig. Gen. William Whiting’s division and the Texans down from the Rappahannock line to Yorktown, Va., described as a relentless march through bad weather and without equipment that was hastily left behind. Spirits in the regiment were still high. Capt. Townsend of Co. C remarked that the brigade was “in fine spirits . . . and anxious for a fight. We feel perfectly confident that we can and will beat the enemy.”3 But with the Federal army gaining further territorial control, a month of scouting and skirmishing only resulted in the Confederate withdrawal to Richmond. Falling back westward, Gen. Whiting selected the brigade as the rear guard and at the battles at Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing (West Point), and Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) they first distinguished themselves, in many instances, under the personal direction of John B. Hood, now a brigadier general.
Yet, for all their responsibilities in protecting the main body of the army, even more imperative orders were issued in June. On the 11th, the division was ordered into the city from the outer positions they had held around Seven Pines. Boarding trains on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, they would make a feint to the northwest and reinforce Gen. Thomas J. Jackson’s army in the Shenandoah Valley before moving on Washington D.C. and discourage nearby Federals from supporting McClellan.4 However, after arriving in Staunton, Va. and joining fellow Confederates, the newly appointed commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, issued a different order. Stalled outside of Richmond, Federal troops lay divided by the Chickahominy River. Lee envisioned a grand turning maneuver that would overwhelm the smaller contingent that was isolated north of the river. He also gambled that McClellan would not counter-attack with the greater part of his army on the few remaining Confederates protecting Richmond.5 His plan was bold, aggressive, and relied on exceptional timing. Jackson’s corps was selected to initiate the surprise attack on the Union army’s rear and resulted in the Fourth making an incomprehensible return march. Over ten days they covered almost 400 miles, arriving just north of Richmond to draw rations and ammunition before the campaign was renewed.
Dawn broke on June 27, 1862, and the Fourth Texas resumed their march south towards Gaines’ Mill, a gristmill along the main thoroughfare road.6 The entire approach was disconcerting to some. Apprehension had been growing as the Texans heard the thundering echoes of battle and observed increasing numbers of wounded men along the way. Cpl. Joseph Polley confessed, “When I first knew we were going in I trembled, and my heart seemed to be palpitating away down in the region of my boots.”7 Two previous Confederate assaults launched by Gen. A.P. Hill and Longstreet’s corps had already failed to dislodge the Federal position and Lee was desperate to break the enemy’s line. Riding forward on the Telegraph Road, he firmly asked if the brigade could do it. Gen. Hood reluctantly replied that he would try. Showing his thanks, Lee lifted his hat and cried, “May God be with you!” and then rode off. Gen. Whiting pointed to a hilltop battery as the brigade’s next objective. “I have a regiment that can take it,” Hood sharply said.8 Moving quickly to Longstreet’s aid, the brigade deployed its skirmishers and prepared to assault the enemy’s left flank. At 4:15 p.m., the Fourth regiment arrived onto the battlefield where a raging slaughter was being contested directly in front.
Between the Texans and their objective was a deadly divide. They would have to cross a series of rolling fields that was separated by a small confluence (Boatswain Creek) that emptied into the Chickahominy River. On the opposite bank was a steep rise known as Turkey Hill, partially concealed by a swath of dense trees. Also obscured from view were Union forces skillfully positioned by Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter, which heavily defended the area: sharpshooters were thrown out as forward skirmishers, three infantry brigades were entrenched behind two lines of breastworks and abatis, artillery lined the crest of the hill, and a battalion of cavalry waited in reserve.9 But formidable as Turkey Hill was, the most advantageous observation Hood made was that the 800-yard distance lay unobstructed. A forceful, unfaltering thrust could possibly break the Union lines.10 In his post-war memoir, the commander remembered:
In a moment I determined to advance from that point, to make a strenuous effort to pierce the enemy's fortifications, and, if possible, put him to flight . . . And gave positive instructions that no man should fire until I gave the order; for I knew full well that if the men were allowed to fire, they would halt to load, break the alignment, and, very likely, never reach the breastworks.11
Originally held in reserve, Gen. Hood noticed a gap between the division and Longstreet’s men and ordered the Fourth to march by the right flank into an unoccupied field. Lt. Tom Owens of Commissary (having voluntarily joined the fight) began waving his sword and repeating lines from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion. He, too, would prophetically fall in the assault.12 Hood dismounted his horse (a gift presented to him by affectionate members of the regiment) and positioned himself at the head of the brigade, hat and sword both in hand. Calling out to the Fourth Texas, they sprang up from the underbrush (having taken cover) ready to do or die. “I want you to follow me,” said the general.13 His commitment to personally lead the attack instilled absolute confidence in the men, feelings that were difficult to understand by non-members.14 Coming under long-range cannon fire, the line was dressed and the order was given to march forward at a rapid pace. Through patches of wood and swamp the Georgians, Texans, and South Carolinians advanced.15 “Our ranks were thinned at every step forward, and proportionately to the growing fury of the storm of projectiles,” Hood recalled, as the brigade surged forward.16 Shattered troops of A.P. Hill’s division rushed past them towards the rear, completely demoralized after two hours of fighting. Emerging onto an exposed ridge, a concentrated barrage of shell and canister plowed through the front and flank of the brigade. Col. John Marshall was struck by rifle fire and was instantly killed, having refused to dismount his horse. With their commander dead, authority officially passed to Lt. Col. Bradfute Warwick but Hood still remained in front. Picking up the pace, the Texans continued down the slope towards the swampy creek. Many remembered passing by entire regiments of fellow Rebels seeking cover near the ground, afraid to either advance or retreat. One wounded Texan later stated that the same troops shot him in the thigh, owing to the dense smoke covering the battlefield.17 The officers knew they had to move quickly as frontal and enfilading fire were decimating their lines. Snatching up another regiment’s fallen battle flag, Lt. Col. Warwick shouted, “Come on!” and urged their counterparts to press forward.18
Rising to the edge of a ravine, the Fourth came under heavy musket and artillery fire. Warwick hesitated and preemptively ordered an unauthorized volley, but Hood quickly interjected, yelling, “Don’t halt here, forward, forward.” And without waiting for them to reload, he gave the order to fix bayonets and charge at the double quick. Plunging down the ravine, the Texans dashed across the creek and forced the remaining skirmishers to fall back.19 “Comrades [were] falling like autumn leaves,” noticed a soldier of the 5th Texas as he climbed over the works, devoid of a shoe he lost in the muddy stream.20 Continuing on, they reached the first line of breastworks occupied by Union troops of Martindale’s brigade. Already fatigued and running low on ammunition, the Federals quickly abandoned their position and fled up the slope. The brilliance of Porter’s defenses soon turned counterproductive; with the Federals overrun, the second line was unable to return the enemy’s fire without hitting their own troops. Taking advantage of the moment, the Texans opened fire on the retreating Yankees so effectively, “it seemed as if every ball found a victim, so great was the slaughter.”21 Panic soon set-in and the Yankees “fled like rats from a burning ship” and became “mixed in glorious confusion.”22 No pause was made as the Fourth Texas charged the second line, planting their flag on the breastworks and giving a ringing yell that signaled victory. Routed troops only managed a few scattered volleys at the assaulting Texans, but two officers fell mortally wounded while cheering their men on.23 Also among them was Lt. Col. Warwick after a ball pierced his lung. He fell on the breastworks still grasping the flag he had carried forward.
At last cresting the hill, the Texans were stopped short when cannon positioned on their left erupted, hurling canister directly into the ranks and dropping even more men. Hundreds had already been lost while moving over uneven terrain, causing the line to become disorderly. Capt. William Townsend suddenly found himself in command of the entire regiment, after Maj. John C.G. Key (the last field officer) retired to the rear with a painful wound.24 Hood instructed the regiment to dress their front and once more, charge in the direction of the artillery. The Fourth Texas (supported by the Eighteenth Georgia) successfully took the position, capturing fourteen guns and taking many prisoners. Pvt. J.M. Stringfield of Co. A tried to capture a fleeing Yankee, who was vaulting over a fence and towards a farm stable. Lt. Hughes of Co. F (typically cool-mannered) cheered him on, yelling, “Kill him, god-damn him, kill him!” But the chase was abruptly halted when another Federal aimed at Stringfield. Pvt. Wolfe shot the man dead before he could fire at him.25 Suddenly, the ground beneath them began to tremble. Charging directly at the Texans was the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, once both Whiting and Hood’s command before the war.26 Amidst the chaos, Lt. Decimus Barziza vividly remembered:
To hear the trumpets sounding the charge, to see the squadrons coming towards us at full speed, and to see their sabers glistening in the sunlight of the dying day like a flame of fire from heaven was a spectacle grand beyond description, an imparted a feeling of awe in the bravest of hearts.27
However, the cavalry’s attempt to retake the captured artillery (and prevent more from being surrendered) was made in vain. “Its charge was not more gallant, than its retreat was magnificent,” wrote the regimental chaplain, as the Confederates wheeled around and leveled their rifles, emptying dozens of saddles. About to receive a saber blow, Pvt. Patrick Penn of Co. F jammed his bayonet into a horseman so quickly, the rider made off still impaled with the weapon.28 Barziza added, “Horses and riders fell in heaps upon the ground, and the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the dying could be heard above the roar of the battle as the setting sun shed a fading light over the battlefield.”29 Allegedly, many felt more sympathetic at the sight of dead horses than riders, for the corpses were left bleeding and mangled in the dust.30
Meanwhile, Gen. Hood paused in an apple orchard just past the Federal breastworks and dispatched his staff to the brigade’s officers, ordering them to “push forward with utmost haste” to exploit the breach. A South Carolina officer unexpectedly caught Hood’s attention when he reported-in with one arm completely severed from his body.31 Soon the First and Fifth Texas and Hampton’s Legion came to the Fourth’s aid, executing a grand left wheel into “the very heart of the enemy.” Likely viewing from afar, Rev. Nicholas Davis described the scene:
Rushing forward at a run, while the hill-tops blazed and thundered like a bursting mountain, and pouring a storm of grape and canister through their advancing ranks, they drove the enemy from their guns. The infantry, cavalry and cannoneers, with five guns, mixed and moving at their utmost speed, gave to the mind the idea of GRAND CONFUSION!
Thrown into the mayhem, the First Texas mistook the Fourth as being the enemy and began firing at them. Frantically ordering Co. E to lie down until their proper identity was made known, Lt. L.P. Lyons neglected his own order, and stood up for only a moment before receiving a fatal wound to the chest.32 Subsequent breakthroughs on the Union left and right flank also occurred, precipitating a general retreat from Porter’s defenses. Only darkness prevented Lee’s army from driving the Federals into the Chickahominy River, bringing the fight to a dramatic close.
Utterly exhausted, the men collapsed on the battlefield. The fighting was over, but the cries of the wounded resounded by the thousands. Trains of ambulances moved hundreds of mangled soldiers to field aid stations. Pvt. A.N. Erskine and fellow survivors scoured for others of Co. D until after midnight.33 The devastation incurred was revealed at formation the following morning when Gen. Hood rode over to his old regiment, stunned at their bare numbers. A survivor simply stated, “This is all that remains.”34 Turning his horse, the general cried. He attempted to conceal his tears with a handkerchief but the men still noticed. Grief was even felt by Candy, the small white terrier of Co. B. Separated from his masters during the battle, a burying detail found him cuddled up under the arm of Pvt. John Summers, who had been killed the evening prior.35 For two full days, the wounded were recovered from the battlefield near Gaines’ Mill and transported to hospitals. “It was the most heart-rendering scene that I have ever witnessed,” reflected Rev. Davis, having accompanied thirteen wagons packed with wounded men to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.36 Many others were sent to a variety of the city’s hospitals for recovery, in some cases, lingering on for weeks before finally perishing. Later inspecting the battlefield, Maj. Gen. Jackson would famously remark, “The men who carried this position were soldiers indeed.”37 The regiment, absolutely decimated from the battle, played no further significant role during the Seven Days and was permitted to convalesce for the remainder of the month.
At Gaines’ Mill, the Fourth Texas had sustained some of the highest Confederate casualties. Forty-four men had been killed, two hundred and eight wounded, and one was missing. Death had transcended all manner of rank, half of all the enlisted and officers were casualties. Col. Marshall was killed in action, Lt. Col. Warwick lay mortally wounded (dying a month later), Maj. Key was wounded, and three captains and seven lieutenants were killed or mortally wounded.38 Four companies had lost more than sixty-percent of their men. Gen. Hood had miraculously remained unscathed, but the total loss for his brigade was high – over five hundred were casualties from a six-hour engagement.39
In the aftermath of the battle, claims were circulated that the Fourth Texas did not make the breakthrough. Several members of the regiment were especially quick to furnish newspapers with statements after rather short and disingenuous reports by Richmond’s Enquirer and Whig were published. As overly descriptive as some accounts may be, the Fourth had spearheaded the final assault and allowed the rest of the brigade to press the advance.40 After-action reports later written by Gen. Whiting, Jackson, and Lee all credited the Texans with the success. And having participated in the charge himself Gen. John B. Hood could also substantiate their claims. For many of the men the intention wasn’t to declare a victor, but to remember the struggle of it all. “I never had a clear conception of the horrors of war until last night,” wrote a soldier of Co. D, “May I never see any more such in life . . . I assure you that I am heartily sick of soldiering.”41 They had experienced not only their first large-scale battle, but also one of the costliest of the entire war.42 Despite the immense losses, the action at Gaines’ Mill had earned the regiment its name “Hell-Roarin’ Fourth,” aggressive fortitude they would carry-on at some of the war’s bloodiest conflicts. Troops like the Fourth Texas had brought rise to the Army of Northern Virginia and secured the career of Robert E. Lee. He would always consider the Texans some of most dependable men. John B. Hood also remained in favorable standing with his men; the unit always referred to in whole as, “Hood’s Texas Brigade.” Survivors would always remember the battle of Gaines’ Mill, post-war reunions were specifically held on its anniversary, poems and songs written about it, and memoirs always mentioned it. The Fourth Texas had finally gotten their fight.
- Joseph B. Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie, ed. Richard B. McCaslin (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 32.
- Marcus J. Wright, Texas in the War: 1861-1865, ed. Harold B. Simpson (Waco: The Hill Junior College Press, 1965), 185. Of all thirteen counties that comprised of the Fourth Texas, only one (Travis) voted against secession.
- “An Illustrated History of the Fourth Texas Infantry,” John Hopkins University, http://www.pha.jhu.edu/~dag/4thtex/history/history.html (accessed March 9, 2012).
- 30,000 troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell.
- Michael Chin, “Robert E. Lee”, American Experience, DVD, (US & territories: PBS, 2011).
- Jackson gained notoriety for his lateness during the Seven Days. His brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign fought a month prior had caused him to become fatigued, sleep-deprived, and uncommunicative. In directing Ewell and Whiting’s divisions to Gaines’ Mill, misunderstandings arose after employing a local guide. His troops were diverted from the crossroads near the battlefield, there being two in the same area named Cold Harbor.
- Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie, 39.
- Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, “Graphic Description of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill,” Daily Whig (Richmond), August 4, 1862.
- John Hopkins University.
- Two months earlier at Eltham’s Landing, Hood had encountered a similar situation. The brigade had come across an enemy outpost situated on a hill. In an effort to prevent the ranks from pausing, the order was given to advance with unloaded weapons. When a large force of Federals suddenly appeared and opened fire on them, Col. Marshall of the Fourth Texas was caught off guard and gave the order to retreat. Gen. Hood quickly intervened and ordered them to load and continue forward. With additional support, the brigade was able to drive the enemy from their position.
- John B. Hood, Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies, intro. by Bruce J. Dinges (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 26. Nicholas A. Davis, Chaplain Davis and Hood’s Texas Brigade, ed. Donald E. Everett (San Antonio: Principia Press of Trinity University, 1999), 86. Rev. Nicholas Davis attributes Hood’s order as being cause for the Fourth’s success at Gaines’ Mill. He writes, “The secret to our success is found, in a great measure, in the discretion exercised by Hood at the moment we reached the top of the hill, upon which so many had fallen before us. Where, instead of halting and making the fight, as others had done and been driven back, he gave the word, and our brave men rushed headlong from the hill, and at short range, and with cold steel drove the enemy from their hiding places below.”
- Barziza, Daily Whig (Richmond), 1862.
- Davis, 86.
- Ibid., 87. As the original commander of the Fourth, Hood had developed a relationship with the unit since their formation. The regimental chaplain explained, “He had taught them the importance of discipline & drill, the manual at arms, in short the service of war… He had a sufficient test of their bravery & skill to inspire him with the highest confidence of their ability in an hour of the greatest peril.”
- Hood’s brigade consisted of the 18th Georgia, 1st Texas, 4th Texas, 5th Texas, and Hampton’s Legion.
- Hood, 27.
- “Gen. Hood and the Fourth Texas at Coal Harbor,” Enquirer (Richmond), July 4, 1862. Burton 134.
- Barziza, Daily Whig (Richmond), 1862.
- C.A. Stevens, Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac (Dayton: Morningside Bookshop, 1984), 112-14. Six companies of the 1st USSS participated in the battle, and were deployed in Morell’s front. The unit’s regimental history maintains that “by massing the troops of Jackson, Longstreet, and both Hills, and hurling them with terrible onslaught on our center, which coupled with the demoralization caused by the repulse of our cavalry on the left... amid the dust and smoke, noise and confusion, brought about the disastrous result.”
- Joe Joskins, A Sketch of Hood’s Texas Brigade of the Virginia Army (San Antonio: University of Texas, 2010), 33.
- Davis, 83.
- Bryan K. Burton, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 128. Davis, 89.
- Capt. E.D. Ryan of Co. E and 2nd Lt. R.J. Lambert of Co. B. National Archives, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Texas. Among the first to enlist, Lambert also helped recruit over forty new members in February 1862. Promoted to lieutenant after being wounded at Gaines’ Mill, he was sent to a hospital in Richmond where he died eight days later.
- Davis, 83.
- Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie, 37.
- Burton, 133. Known as the 2nd U.S. Cavalry before the war, Hood had served under its charging commander, Capt. Charles J. Whiting.
- Barziza, Daily Whig (Richmond), 1862.
- Patrick Penn letter, June 24, 1862 (Louisiana Genealogical Register, December 1971), in RNBP, Book 2.
- Barziza, Daily Whig (Richmond), 1862.
- Davis, 84.
- Hood, 28. Burton, 128-29. The officer was Maj. John C. Haskell, son-in-law of Gen. Wade Hampton. Serving on the staff of Brig. Gen. David R. Jones division, he would wrestle a Union color-bearer, have his horse shot from underneath in mid-air, and run his sword through a Federal officer demanding his surrender before being wounded in the fray.
- Burton 135. National Archives, Compiled Service Records.
- Andrew Nelson Erskine letters, June 28, 1862, in RNBP, Book 2.
- Davis, 91.
- F. B. Chilton, Unveiling and Dedication of Monument to Hood’s Texas Brigade on the Capital Grounds at Austin, Texas (Houston: F.B. Chilton, 1911), 292-93. Val C. Giles, Rags and Hope: The Recollections of Val C. Giles, Four Years with Hood’s Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865, ed. Mary Lasswell (New York: Van Rees Press, 1961), 26. Given to Isaac Stein by a local confectioner in Austin, Candy accompanied the regiment in many of their battles. “There was not a man in the regiment who would not have divided the last piece of ‘hardtack’ he had with ‘Candy,’ remembered Val Giles, “There was always some soldier ready to pick him up and carry him.” Lost again in a cornfield at Sharpsburg, Pvt. George L. Robertson last saw him taken away by Federal troops, as he lay wounded in a field hospital.
- Davis, 91.
- Hood, 28.
- Burton, 137.
- John B. Hood, “General Hood’s Report of Battle of Gaines’ Mill,” in Reports of the Operations of the Army of Northern Virginia (Richmond: R.M. Smith, Public Printer, 1864), 1: 317-318. The official reported total casualties for the brigade were eighty-nine killed, four hundred and seventy-seven wounded, and four missing.
- “Ten Facts about the Battle of Gaines' Mill,” Civil War Trust, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/gainesmill/gaines-mill-history/ten-facts-about-the-battle-of.html (accessed June 10, 2012). Among the largest Confederate assaults ever waged, troops on both sides experienced mass confusion at Gaines’ Mill. Breakthroughs achieved by three Confederate corps almost simultaneously caused more than one witness to suggest that their unit single-handedly deserved recognition.
- Erskine letters.
- Burton, 137.