Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Drop your co*ks and grab your socks! Move it! Move it! Move it! Though it’s unknown as to the exact words used by officers and sergeants, there would have been a definite sense of urgency to shake everyone out of their tents at 3 in the morning and get them ready to march in two hours time. The orders were that once on the march the Regiment was to move quickly in light marching order, therefore no one was to carry more than their woolen and rubber blankets, haversacks, canteens, muskets, and forty rounds in their cartridge boxes. Exempt from all the scurrying around were those in the hospital and a very small number, mostly those unable to withstand the rigors of a march, who were detailed to guard the camp.
At 5 a.m. the 18th Mass. and 17th New York left Gaines Mills in their dust without so much as a backward glance at their host William Fleming Gaines. Nine hours later, when they rendezvoused with Gen. George Stoneham’s cavalry squadron and light artillery battery near Old Church, some fifteen miles from camp, it became crystal clear this was not a picket assignment. Stoneman’s combined force of 2,000 men was charged with monitoring the movements of Stonewall Jackson’s estimated “10,000” troops and where possible to “engage and hinder, by every possible device the union of the dreaded Jackson’s’ command with that of Lee at Richmond.”
Stoneman immediately deployed his infantry by companies in line of battle and as a support to the artillery, posting both on “open high ground,” in order to disguise the small number of troops under his command. The cavalry in the meanwhile was sent out to patrol and “give notice of the enemy’s advance.”
Quiet prevailed in the immediate vicinity, but toward late afternoon musket and cannon fire could be heard in the direction of Mechanicsville, which at best guess was an estimated five to seven miles distance. When the scouting parties returned close to dark they reported “the enemy [had] advanced so far as to cut off” the small force “from the main army.” Stoneman decided to pull back another half mile and still later, under cover of darkness, “stole away” another two and a half miles. Few slept. Most peered into the darkness, muskets at the ready, waiting for stars to provide some semblance of light whenever a break appeared in the clouds. No one’s voice dared rise above a whisper.
If men from the Regiment had been able to peer through the darkness for the eight to ten miles distance to Mechanicsville they would have understood the firing they first heard well up in late afternoon. They would have seen the dead and wounded, would have heard the pitiful cries of the latter calling for water, or wives, or mothers. Those were the fallen from the 10,000 Confederates of A.P. and D.H. Hill’s divisions and the 5,000 Union defenders, including the 18th’s own First Brigade.