Report of Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade, Casey's division, of operations May 20-23.
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., CAMP ON RICHMOND ROAD,
Three Miles from Bottoms Bridge, May 21, 1862.
CAPTAIN: I would respectfully report that in accordance with the order of General Casey, at 9 a.m. yesterday I proceeded with the One hundred and fourth Pennsylvania, Colonel Davis; Fifty-sixth New York Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Jourdan; one company, under Captain Harvey, of 50 selected men, from the Eleventh Maine; two companies, commanded by Captains Davis and Silver, of 100 men, selected from the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, and two batteries of the Eighth [?] New York*, Colonel Baileys, to make a reconnaissance of the railroad bridge and the left bank of the Chickahominy from that point to Bottoms Bridge.
We arrived upon the ground at 10 a.m. Twenty men of the Eleventh Maine were ordered to proceed cautiously along the northern side of the embankment of the railroad until they should get under cover of the woods and thence to the bridge, with instructions to drive away the pickets of the enemy which were within the cut at the railroad guard-house on the left bank as well as those on the other side. The other 30 were deployed obliquely to the right and rear of the 20, and ordered to clear the woods and hold the bank of the river above the railroad bridge. Captain Orem, of Company B, of the One hundred and fourth, was placed in their rear to support them and protect our right flank. At the same time 20 selected men were started along the left side of the railroad embankment with 80 others, ordered to deploy diagonally to their left and rear and gradually, after clearing the woods, to hold the bank of the river. Behind these Captains Marple and Pickering, Rogers and Harvey, Companies A, E, F and K, of the One hundred and fourth, were placed at proper intervals to support them, and the remaining five companies of Colonel Davis One hundred and fourth followed as a reserve. The Fifty-sixth were placed on rising ground parallel with the river and about three-quarters of a mile in rear.
A few shots at the pickets at the railroad bridge made them disappear. We had but scarcely entered the wood south of the railroad before we found ourselves in a thick jungle, the ground covered with water from 2 to 5 feet in depth, intersected in many directions with small currents. We soon found the main channel, which was from 30 to 50 feet in width, with from 4 to feet water. After we had waded slowly along for some 400 yards several shots from our front and right indicated the presence of the enemy. Our men, accustomed to hunting, picked off four of the enemy from the right bank and soon after several others from the border of the creek.
We then proceeded along the creek until about 300 yards of Bottoms Bridge, where we found the enemy in more force, and firing became more frequent. We gradually advanced, however, until we came up to the point of woods at the turn immediately in front of Bottoms Bridge, which we found was the center of a converging fire from the entire circumference of the circle made by the creek below the bridge. Here we maintained ourselves, but at a great disadvantage, the least exposure by any one drawing a dozen shots from the enemy. Our arms were superior, and we kept them at long range. They had before opened upon us with three pieces of artillery from a battery on rising ground at some distance from the creek, but their shot passed over the skirmishers in the swamp and over the One hundred and fourth, which had been gradually moved along parallel with the wood as they proceeded, and struck upon the ground occupied by the Fifty-sixth. Three other pieces had been brought down by the enemy to the railroad and opened upon our sharpshooters at the bridge. General Casey, who had come upon the ground in that vicinity, ordered down four pieces of Colonel Baileys battery, which soon silenced and drove them off.
Some time prior to this four pieces were ordered to open from the ground to the left and slightly in rear of the Fifty-sixth, and two others from a point on the Bottom's Bridge road within 500 yards of the bridge, the skirmishers there for the time being withdrawn. With these dispositions of our forces the work was accomplished, the enemy were silenced, and the reconnaissance completed.
We had but one man badly wounded. We found the railroad bridge to be 600 yards long, extending over a swamp through which the Chickahominy runs, the latter crossing the railroad bridge 30 yards from the east end of it, the river being at the crossing over which the bridge has been burned 75 feet wide, with a depth of 5 feet. The width of the swamp decreases very rapidly, so munch so, that at a short distance below the bridge a point was found where the width of the river was but 35 feet and where the causeways on both sides to connect with the bridge would not exceed in length 30 yards, and the whole, of a width of 40 or 50 feet, could be made in one day. The bottom of the river, of the swamp, and of the currents that intersect each other in every direction is hard, and the depth of water averages from 2 to 5 feet. We found the average width of the river to be but 35 feet, and that with the exception of the swamp at the railroad bridge it is seldom more than 100 yards wide, and that at many points between the bridges crossings can be made with but little difficulty. The right bank of the river we found to be firm above the water and gradually rising, until at a half a mile from the river the ground becomes quite elevated. The ground between the railroad and the road to Bottom's Bridge is swampy, and from the river to the rising ground behind Watson's house is too boggy and cut by ditches to allow the passage of horses, but infantry may get over it. The railroad bridge should be saved from further destruction, for which purpose General Casey, confirming my order to the sharp-shooters that 100 of them should hold the abutment on the west side, also ordered a sufficient number of experienced axmen from the Eleventh Maine to repair the bridge during the night. When we arrived in the morning we found the bridge still burning, but finding their canteens too slow a process, the men passed the water in their caps and extinguished the flames. By observation we found the stream had overflown its banks, that it was rapidly falling, and actually fell 6 inches during the day.
I cannot conclude this very satisfactory report without referring, in terms of unqualified commendation, to the gallant conduct of all present at the reconnaissance of the railroad and Bottom's Bridges. Our troops, driving the enemy back from the railroad bridge, repulsed the cavalry and artillery sent to retake it, and examined the ground 600 yards beyond the western end. Up to their middle in water, they drove the enemy from the railroad to Bottom's Bridge, where, becoming concentrated, our artillery opened upon and scattered them. A complete and thorough description of the river and the surrounding country was obtained. The location of two of their batteries was discovered, and the enemy was so much disheartened that the bridge and river were abandoned during the night. Ten or twelve of the enemy were reported killed by our infantry. The number killed by our artillery it is impossible to ascertain.
I regret exceedingly to close so very satisfactory a report with a notice of the conduct of those detailed from the Second Division to guard the bridge at night, and who in the most unceremonious manner ordered away the troops above referred to, who after taking the bridge from the enemy volunteered to remain and hold it and to rebuild during the night the portion that had been destroyed.
All of which is respectfully submitted by your obedient servant,
Capt. Henry W. Smith,
Assistant Adjutant General
- The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 11 (Part I)
* Col Guilford D. Bailey commanded the artillery of Gen. Casey's Third Division, one of which was the 8th New York Independent Battery.