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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Custer Wades in the Chickahominy

Brigadier-General John G. Barnard

Reports of Brig. Gen. John G. Barnard, U. S. Army, Chief Engineer of operations from May 23, 1861, to August 15, 1862. WASHINGTON, January 26, 1863.

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In the movements of the army in its advance from Yorktown the officers of engineers were employed in various reconnaissances of the routes of the York and Pamunkey Rivers, & c., while detachments from General Woodbury's Engineer Brigade repaired roads and bridges. After reaching a point near Roper's Church, on the Williamsburg and Richmond road, the right wing, consisting of the corps of Porter and Franklin, took the road via Cumberland and the White House, striking the Chickahominy at New Bridge, while the left (corps of Heintzelman and Keyes) kept the Richmond road to Bottoms Bridge. The advance guards reached these points about the 16th or 17th of May.
On the 20th I proceeded, by orders of the commanding general, to make a forced reconnaissance of the position of Bottoms Bridge, accompanied by Lieutenants Comstock and McAlester. On arriving, I found the ground already occupied by a portion of the division of General Casey, and I dismissed the force I had ordered. The result of the reconnaissance was the acquiring of a perfect knowledge of the character of the Chickahominy as an obstacle, and the presumption that at this point (Bottoms Bridge) no serious resistance was contemplated; in fact, the next day our troops crossed and occupied the other bank.
General Woodbury, with his brigade, was ordered to this point to repair the old bridge and the railroad bridge and to establish others, while Lieutenants Comstock and McAlester made a reconnaissance in force on the right bank, with the view of establishing a tete-de-pont to cover both Bottoms Bridge and the railroad bridge. This work was begun, but never entirely finished.
On the 22d the general headquarters reached Cold Harbor, and I proceeded immediately to the New Bridge to reconnoiter that position. A word is proper here concerning the Chickahominy, which at the season we struck it was one of the most formidable obstacles that could be opposed to the advance of the army an obstacle to which an ordinary river, though it be of considerable magnitude, is comparatively slight.
The Chickahominy, considered as a military obstacle, consists of a stream of no great volume, a swamp, and bottom land. The stream flows through a belt of heavily-timbered swamp, which averages 300 to 400 yards wide. A few hundred yards below New Bridge is a short length of the stream not margined by swamp timber, but everywhere else between New and Bottoms Bridges the belt of swamp timber is continuous and wide. The tops of the trees rise just about to the level of the crests of the high lands bordering the bottom, thus perfectly screening from view the bottom lands and slopes of the high lands on the enemy's side. The disappearance in the place indicated of swamp timber near New Bridge, and the dwindling away of the same at some points above the bridge to isolated trees, gave us some glimpse of the enemy's side near this point. Through this belt of swamp the stream flows, sometimes in a single channel, more frequently divided into several, and when bat a foot or two above its summer level overspreads the whole swamp. The bottom lands between the swamp and the high lands are little elevated at their margins above the swamp, so that a few feet rise of the stream overflows large areas of them. They rise very gently toward the foot of the high-land slopes.
These bottom lands are generally cultivated, intersected by deep ditches, and their lower portions are in wet weather, even when not overflowed, spongy, and impracticable for cavalry and artillery. The total width of bottom land varies from three-quarters to one and a quarter miles. The crests of the opposite high-land spurs are about one and a half or one and three-quarter miles apart. The road via Cold Harbor to Richmond crosses the stream by a wooden bridge on piles, which had been destroyed. After passing the bridge the road or causeway takes a direction oblique to the course of the stream, having reaches nearly parallel with it, and ascends the opposite heights by a ravine at a point nearly a mile from the bridge. Above New Bridge the character of the stream and margins is not much different from what has been described, though the swamp was somewhat less regular in its width and density. The Mechanicsville and Meadow Bridges each consisted of several bridges, crossing different arms of the stream, the swamp being wide at both places. These were the only bridges and roads crossing the stream in the vicinity of the positions of the army.
The distance from New Bridge to Bottoms Bridge is 8 miles. In this space there were two or three indifferent summer fords or places where a pedestrian could make his way through the swamp and stream, but it was currently reported at the time of our arrival that the stream was nowhere fordable.
The knowledge of the Chickahominy gained at Bottoms Bridge showed me that the stream might be reached at almost any point with little risk and thoroughly examined, provided the enemy's pickets did not actually hold our side. Taking with me Lieutenant Custer, of Fifth U. S. Cavalry, I reached it at a point three-fourths of a mile below New Bridge, and caused him to enter it. He waded across without any difficulty (the depth being about 4 feet), and a few days afterward, emboldened by this experiment, he caused the length of the stream to be waded from the bridge for a half a mile down. The attack and capture of the enemy's pickets by him and Lieutenant Bowen was founded upon these reconnaissances, to which the successful results are due. Although it was thus shown that the stream was no obstacle for infantry, the swamp and the bottom lands were impracticable to cavalry and artillery.

- Official Records of The Union and Confederate Armies Series I, Volume XII. Part 1.Reports.

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