What Was the Role of Hood's Texas Brigade at the Battle of Gaines's Mill?


Lieutenant General John Bell Hood.

It is estimated that 56,000 Texans served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Yet, the approximately 4,000 men, organized into thirty-two companies that formed the Texas Brigade, were the only Texans who fought in both theaters of operation.[1] They have been compared to the famous Stonewall Brigade in terms of bravery, skill, and fortitude. As was the case with numerous troops throughout the war, the actions of the Texas Brigade directly contributed to the outcome of certain battles and the general course of history.

Although the Texas Brigade participated in renowned battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam, the achievement for which they are most acclaimed occurred during the Peninsula Campaign at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill.

Hood's Texas Brigade

The imposing John Bell Hood was born in Owingsville, Kentucky, in 1831, yet was a self-declared Texan. He had traveled extensively through Texas and was impressed with the possibilities the state held. Additionally, he was dismayed that his home state of Kentucky remained neutral rather than joining the Confederate States of America. (C.S.A.) Hood was a West Point graduate, class of 1853, yet maintained a frontier attitude, which immediately endeared him to his men.

At the time of the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, the Texas Brigade consisted of the 1st, 4th, 5th, Texas Infantry regiments, the 18th Georgia Infantry, and Wade Hampton’s South Carolina Legion. Brigadier General Louis T. Wigfall, a lawyer, born in South Carolina, was initially given command of the brigade. After he resigned to accept a Confederate senate's seat, command of the brigade was given to Hood on March 12, 1862, and the unit was forever known as Hood’s Texas Brigade.

The Peninsula

Battles near Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign.

The Peninsula Campaign was waged from April through July 1862. During this time, at the Battle of Seven Pines, General Joseph Johnston, the supreme commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was seriously wounded. The following day, June 1, 1862, command of the army was given to Robert E. Lee.[2]General Lee took command a mere three weeks before the most ferocious battles on the peninsula occurred.

From June 25 through July 1, the Seven Days Battles occurred. Nine battles took place during this short span. Under the leadership of General George B. McClellan, the goal of the Federal Army was to push north from the tip of the peninsula and attack Richmond. Hood’s Brigade led General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Army down the peninsula to prevent the Federal troops from advancing on Richmond. The Union Army was approximately ten miles from the Confederate capital. General McClellan, imagining the Confederates had a far greater number of troops than they actually did, ordered General Fitz John Porter to fall back and establish a defensive position for a strong rearguard. Porter entrenched his men just to the southeast of a mill owned by Dr. William F. Gaines. His position was ideal for maintaining a strong defense as his troops were positioned on a plateau behind Boatswain’s Creek. Additionally, on their retreat to this position, the Federal troops felled trees and created as many obstacles as possible to detain the Rebels on their attack.

Lee's Strategy

General Lee had planned this attack to be the largest of the war. He amassed 57,000 troops; however, Jackson was late to arrive with his army, which included the Texas Brigade. As a result, Lee could not carry out his strategy of a full attack of the center and both flanks of the entrenched Yankees. By being late with his men, Jackson afforded General Porter the time needed to establish his supreme defensive position, thus denying Lee the opportunity to execute his plan.

Generals Hill and Longstreet were charging the Union line throughout June 27, 1862, but were unable to penetrate as the terrain was deadly for the offensive troops. To break Porter’s line, the Confederate soldiers were tasked with crossing an open plain of 700-800 yards below the hill on which Porter was entrenched. Following the open plain, the South soldiers were forced to wade through Boatswain’s Creek, which was a shallow stream approximately ten feet wide that was bordered by steep and unfriendly banks. All of this was to be attempted while Porter’s group of 25,000 troops, a cavalry battalion, and an artillery battery that consisted of eighteen guns, looked down on the advancing Confederates.[3]Generals Longstreet and A.P. Hill attempted the advance throughout the day but were unable to attain ground any closer to the Union line than that of the banks of Boatswain’s Creek. On the morning of June 27, Hood’s Texas Brigade reached the Gaines’s Mill battlefield and was organized in a battle line.

Map of the Battle of Gaines's Mill.

Hood ordered the 4th infantry to be held in reserve. Simultaneously, the 1st and 5th Texas regiments attacked the center with the 18th Georgia directed toward the enemy’s right flank, and the South Carolina troops attacked the left. At this time, Hood’s Brigade, along with the brigade of General Evander Law, composed the small division commanded by General Whiting. Although he was the brigade leader, General Hood took command of his old regiment, the 4th Texas. In a letter to his wife, the brigade historian described the actions of Hood that led the regiment to their most acclaimed achievement:

“The Confederates began their assaults on this position about noon but were constantly beaten back. Brigade after the brigade had been ordered to charge. They had charged and met repulse before Whiting's division — which consists, you know, of Law's brigade and ours — reached the scene of action at 4 p.m. Said General Whiting to General Hood, pointing to a battery that was doing tremendous execution in the Confederate rank, ‘That battery ought to be taken, General’ ‘Then why has it not been done?’ asked Hood. ‘Because the position is too strong,’ answered Whiting. ‘My brigade is composed of veterans, but they can do nothing with it.’ ‘I have a regiment that will capture it,’ said Hood; and, galloping to Fourth Texas, dismounted and called it to attention. Then marching it by the flank to an open field, he gave the orders to bring it into the line of battle, and shouted, ‘Forward !’” [4]

The Texas Brigade in Action

Dismounted, Hood effectively replaced Colonel John Marshal as the leader of the 4th Texas on June 27. Hood led the 500 men of the regiment on a march toward the Union left flank. Initially, Law’s Brigade was on Hood’s right in the battle line, but Hood ordered his men past Law’s on the Confederate right flank. The regiment was under constant fire from the well-positioned Union artillery. As they continued across the open field, the Federal enfilade grew to include sharp-shooters and infantry fire. Colonel Marshal was shot in the neck and fell from his horse. The wound was mortal.[5]The troops continued forward and obeyed Hood’s order to hold fire until he gave the command. The Federal position allowed for constant shell and shot to be pelted on the Confederate Texans, and “half way across the field, men began to drop, wounded or dead, from the ranks.”[6]

When Hood’s men reached the top of a rise in the terrain, approximately 150 yards from Boatswain’s Creek, they came upon numerous troops clinging to the ground who would go no further. It was at this point that Longstreet’s and A.P. Hill’s men were halted. The lieutenants of the companies the 4th encountered, thought to be Virginia troops, urged the Texans not to proceed further. Hood and his men ignored the warning and started down the other side of the rise toward the creek. Once the continued march began, there was an immediate eruption of Union firepower. Hood maintained the order to hold fire and urged his men forward.[7]

Depiction of the Battle of Gaines's Mill.

When the 4th Texas got to within one hundred yards of Porter’s line, Hood ordered to fix bayonets while on the move. Once that task was complete, Hood ordered the 4th Texas to charge at the double-quick.[8]With the gleaming steel of the bayonets and a Rebel Yell that rivaled the sound of the artillery, the 4th Texas reached the first Union entrenchment on the hill. It unnerved Porter’s men to the point that they “fled panic-stricken.”[9]According to Chaplain Davis, “it seemed as if every ball found a victim, so great was the slaughter.”[10]

When Porter’s troops in the first line of battle fled to the rear, the men in the second row of entrenchments followed suit. At this point, the 4th Texas regiment was joined by the right-wing of the 18th Georgia group. Together these men pursued the Federals further up the hill toward the rear of the Union defensive position.[11]As the 4th Texas and 18th Georgia chased the Yankee troops, the 1st and 5th Texas regiments, along with the South Carolina Legion at last reached the rise of the hill. These three regiments marched through heavily forested and swampy terrain, thus delaying joining the first two regiments on the attack. The united five regiments continued to pursue their enemy and finally collapsed the Federal left flank. The battle line crumbled, and the 4th Texas regiment reached the hill's summit and captured fourteen of the eighteen Federal artillery guns.[12]

As Hood’s troops continued their pursuit of the enemy, they were confronted by the 5th U.S. Cavalry. The brigade stood its ground. When the cavalry approached to within forty yards, the Rebels fired simultaneously, which effectively negated any threat of defeat at the hands of the cavalry battalion. Six of the seven Federal cavalry officers were killed or wounded in the attack, and of the 250 cavalry troops involved, only 100 survived.[13]By the end of the day, the Confederate troops pushed their enemy to the Chickahominy River's southern bank. This was due in large part to Hood’s Brigade, especially the 4th Texas regiment. The 1st and 5th also contributed greatly as both regiments took a significant number of prisoners. According to Private Polley, “The Fifth Texas captured two whole regiments of Yankees — the Fourth New Jersey, raised in Newark, and the Eleventh Pennsylvania, raised in Philadelphia.”[14]

Aftermath

The Confederate victory, primarily due to John Bell Hood and his troops' effort, saved Richmond from capture, although the victory came at a high cost in terms of human life. The casualties for Hood’s Texas Brigade were significant:

  • Hampton’s South Carolina Legion: 2 Killed; 65 Wounded
  • 5th Texas: 13 Killed; 62 Wounded
  • 1st Texas: 13 Killed; 62 Wounded
  • 18th Georgia: 14 Killed; 128 Wounded; 3 Missing
  • 4th Texas: 44 Killed; 208 Wounded; 1 Missing

In total, Hood’s casualties were 86 killed, 481 wounded, and 4 missing. Significantly, Colonel Marshall was mortally wounded, and the commander of the 1st Texas, Colonel Rainey, was killed in action.[15]The day after the battle, a young private who had been slightly wounded was sent on an errand that required him to cross over the battlefield at Gaines’s Mill. Years later, the private remembered, “‘there were still men on the field that had not been buried…some partly buried, with a hand or a foot sticking out.’” When he approached a building where doctors had been working, he saw “a pile of limbs four or five feet high and in other places, seven or eight large horses [lay] dead in a pile.’”[16]

Conclusion

The brigade men, especially those of the 4th Texas regiment, we're exceptionally proud of their accomplishment that day. They were lauded by generals such as Longstreet and Jackson for their skill and valor and played an enormous role in saving the Confederate capital. The battle lasted from early morning until “the night came on and human slaughter ceased.”[17]According to Historian and Hood scholar, Harold B. Simpson, June 27, 1862, was the “greatest day of valor for the Fourth Texas Infantry.”[18]

After Gaines’s Mill, Hood’s Texas Brigade participated sparingly in the Battle of Malvern Hill. They were then ordered to camp in Richmond. They were at last done fighting on the peninsula. They rested and recovered in the city until the end of July 1862.

Historians and military experts consider hood’s Texas Brigade to be second only to the Stonewall Brigade in terms of tenacity and valor of all of the brigades that fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Like Jackson, Hood was a leader who displayed no fear and projected a fierce sense of pride and determination among his men. Of the many leaders who commanded the brigade, Hood instilled an ethic and confidence in the men who comprised the brigade that still bears his name.

References

  1. Harold B. Simpson, Hood’s Texas Brigade: Lee’s Grenadier Guard (Dallas: Alcor Publishing, 1983), 9.
  2. Simpson, 107.
  3. Simpson, 114-15.
  4. J.B. Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1908),54.
  5. Nicholas A. Davis, Chaplain Davis and Hood’s Texas Brigade, ed. Donald E. Everett (San Antonio: Principa Press of Trinity University, 1962), 88.
  6. Polley, Letters, 54.
  7. Simpson, 118-19.
  8. Davis, 88.
  9. United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888),series I, vol. 11, part II, 291. Hereinafter cited as OR.
  10. Davis, 83
  11. J.B. Polley, Hood’s Texas Brigade: Its Marches, Its Battles, Its Achievements (1910, repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2012), 48.
  12. Polley, Brigade, 48.
  13. OR, series I, vol. 11, part II, 43.
  14. Polley, Letters,57-58.
  15. OR, series I, vol. 11, part II, 973.
  16. Letter from Basil Brashear to Frank B. Chiton, March 5, 1911. Quoted in Simpson, 132.
  17. Polley, Letters,56.
  18. Simpson, 125.

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