Monday, June 3, 2019

An Encounter in the Dark: The Battle of West Point, Part 1.

My next three posts will profile a little-known engagement, the Battle of West Point, or as the Confederates called it, Eltham’s Landing. It was fought on May 7, 1862, and resulted in 239 casualties. Although the butcher’s bill was fairly light—especially when compared to the blood-letting soon to occur near Richmond—it was long-remembered by its participants because it resulted in the first combat experience of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Division (soon to become the 1st Division, 6th Corps). It’s a fascinating little battle that involved an amphibious landing, Medal of Honor-level heroism, and a war crime.

But all that will be covered in future posts.

In this first installment, I’d like to tell the story of the first 6th Corps soldier to fall in the battle, Lieutenant John L. Bailey. It happened this way: In the middle of the night, two Confederate scouts bumbled into two Union skirmishers and they exchanged fire. One member of each army fell dead, and this mortal exchange triggered heavier fighting on the following morning. In other words, Lieutenant Bailey fell during a nighttime encounter that served as the prelude to the larger battle.

What I find most interesting is that Union and Confederate accounts describing Bailey’s death tend to match up. That is to say, they explained the encounter in the exact same way. In fact, in the aftermath, the Confederates, too, mourned the death of their first to fall. In a way, the simultaneous deaths of Bailey and the Confederate soldier who fell next to him—Sergeant William Hartley—were mirror images of each other, two admirable men going down in a confused exchange of gunfire.

But before we launch into that story, let’s first explain why the Battle of West Point took place.

The Battle of West Point happened because, during the siege of Yorktown (April 4—May 4, 1862), Maj. Gen. George McClellan came up with an ingenious plan. Having lined up his artillery in preparation for the bombardment of Yorktown, McClellan ordered Franklin’s Division—11,000 strong—to depart on a flotilla of transports, sail up the York River, and land on a beach called Brick House Point. Nearby, there was a plantation called Eltham.  Thus, Confederate forces called the ensuing engagement the “Battle of Eltham’s Landing.”

If Franklin’s troops moved fast enough, they could move southward through Barhamsville and Burnt Ordinary and hit Joe Johnston’s army as it retreated through Williamsburg. If the plan worked as McClellan intended, the Army of the Northern Virginia might get caught between two Union forces and be smashed for good.

Of course, the plan didn’t work as Little Mac intended. Unexpectedly, the Confederate army didn’t hold its position. Before McClellan could unleash his bombardment against Yorktown, General Johnston pulled his army back through Williamsburg, leaving the Yankees as masters of the field. Fearing the graycoats might slip his grasp, McClellan promptly sent Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman’s 3rd Corps in pursuit. On May 5, the 3rd Corps collided with the Confederates. At Williamsburg, they fought a hard battle, producing some 3,900 casualties and driving the Confederates from the city.

Meanwhile, on that same afternoon, Franklin’s division got to work. Those troops made haste for the newly-opened wharf at Yorktown. General Franklin reasoned that if his men reached Brick House Point by sundown, May 6, they might salvage McClellan’s plan and get in the Confederate rear. From the wharf at Yorktown, Franklin’s three brigades loaded onto transports and sailed upriver. 

Apparently, it was a beautiful voyage. From the deck of S. R. Spaulding, a New Yorker in Brig. Gen. Henry Slocum’s brigade recalled, “The journey was one that will never be forgotten by the soldiers of that command. The banks and sloping hills were green with the heavy foliage of May, and the beauty of the scene far exceeded anything before witnessed by the men on the soil of old Virginia.”

At first, it appeared as if Franklin’s troops arrived in time. At 3 P.M., May 6, the first of Franklin’s soldiers came ashore on pontoon boats, landing at Brick House Point, just opposite West Point. West Point was a small river town that occupied the spit of land between the Mattapony and Pamunkey Rivers. Its proximity to the landing zone caused the Union troops to call the ensuing engagement the Battle of West Point. The first regiment to come ashore—the 27th New York—deployed as skirmishers. Meanwhile, the rest of the division hastened to build an artificial dock out of the pontoon boats.

Everything looked prosperous for Franklin’s Division. The bluecoats were exactly where they needed to be to strike the Confederate rear. A twelve-mile march might have put them at “Burnt Ordinary” (modern-day Toano) by midnight. If they made the nighttime trek, they would be astride the Confederate line of retreat.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s men discovered they weren’t alone at Brick House Point. To their surprise, they discovered that Joe Johnston had dispatched Brig. Gen. Chase Whiting’s division—11,000 strong—to Barhamsville, just six miles south of the beachhead. Johnston had not intended to counterattack, but merely wanted to use Barhamsville as a line of retreat from Williamsburg. However, once Johnston learned of the presence of Franklin’s Division ahead of him, he felt it wise to brush it aside. Although he told General Whiting to “feel out” the Union beachhead, the Confederates under Whiting’s command made an aggressive attack. They attempted to drive the Union troops back into the York River.

The 27th New York—a regiment recruited in Broome, Monroe, and Livingston Counties—detected the Confederate presence. As the New York skirmishers trudged into the dense woods southeast of Eltham, they captured two soldiers belonging to the 5th Texas. (Apparently, one of the prisoners was very tall and the other was very short, which made their capture especially comical.) Upon hearing this, General Franklin decided (perhaps wisely) to hold his position until the size of the enemy threat could be determined. With little daylight remaining, he ordered a strong picket line advanced into the woods, while the rest of his troops bedded for the night.

The soldiers of 27th New York received no opportunity to sleep. They remained on alert all evening. In the darkness, it didn’t take long for Union and Confederate skirmishers to make contact with each other. At midnight, Second Lieutenant John L. Bailey of Company D was trooping his line of pickets. He had just stopped to speak to one of them, Corporal Henry Crocker, when he heard footsteps approaching. Both he and Crocker grabbed rifles. (Bailey, who was an officer, normally did not carry a rifle, but he grabbed one from Crocker’s file-mate, who was lying down).

Bailey shouted, “Halt! Who comes there?”

Two shadowy figures emerged from the brush. Both of them were Confederates. They raised their muskets. Two shots rang out. Only Crocker and one of the Confederates had fired, but both of them hit their targets. Crocker killed a Confederate sergeant by shooting him through the neck, and the other shadowy figure (who happened to be Private John Cussons of the 4th Alabama) killed Lieutenant Bailey. Struck in the heart, Bailey died instantly. He was twenty-six-years-old.

The noise alerted the skirmish lines on both sides. Throughout the woods, jumpy pickets began firing at nothing, alarmed by the sound of the two shots coming from the deadly encounter along the 27th New York’s picket line. Crocker and his companion raced back into the woods, reloading as they went. They spent the remainder of the night in silence, awaiting an attack that never came. The surviving Alabama soldier, Private Cussons, likewise beat a hasty retreat. He reported the news of his deadly encounter to his superiors.

The next morning, just prior to daylight, Corporal Crocker and a few others returned to the scene of the confrontation. They found Lieutenant Bailey’s body untouched. The ball that had killed him had gone through the company’s roll book, which he carried in his breast pocket. Bailey’s blood now saturated the pages. Crocker noticed how his own name had been smeared out. Somberly, the New Yorkers hauled Bailey’s body back to the landing, boxed it up, and buried it along the riverbank beneath two Weeping Willow trees.

The New Yorkers also buried the dead Confederate who fell within speaking distance of Bailey. Searching his clothes, they discovered him to be Sergeant William Hartley of Company B, 4th Alabama. The New Yorkers recovered Hartley’s revolver, an old English watch, and letters written by Hartley’s girlfriend who happened to live in New Haven, Connecticut. The New Yorkers buried Hartley where he fell, and one of them, Sergeant Charles N. Elliott, later mailed the watch to Hartley’s parents in Huntsville.

Sergeant Hartley was the 4th Alabama’s only casualty at the Battle of West Point, but his regiment felt his loss deeply. After the war, Adjutant Robert T. Coles recollected that he was “among the best in the regiment, a disciplinarian, and through his efforts, the morals of his company, which were not the best, were very much improved. Not only his company, but the entire regiment, deplored his death.”

Coles remembered an incident from May 1861, when Hartley reprimanded a young soldier, Private Anthony B. Shelby, for breach of discipline. After receiving an upbraiding, Shelby grew angry, saying that he would not be talked to by a “Damned Connecticut Yankee” (a reference to the fact that Hartley had attended Yale and courted a Connecticut sweetheart). Unable to restrain himself, Shelby punched Hartley in the chest as hard as he could. Hartley made no reaction. He crossed his arms and gave Shelby a withering look. In response, Shelby bowed his head sheepishly and slinked away. After the war, Shelby recalled that Hartley’s serene response was the “severest chastisement ever inflicted on anyone,” and he never forgot the valuable lesson Hartley had taught him about controlling his temper. Hartley’s loss, all agreed, had robbed the 4th Alabama of one of its brightest stars.

Likewise, the men of the 27th New York mourned their loss in similar fashion. Lieutenant Bailey had been a popular officer. The regimental historian later recalled, “Lieut. Bailey was from Binghamton, N. Y., and a young officer of great promise, and a favorite with the whole regiment. He had received his commission only a few days before, and this was his first tour of duty as an officer.”

Soldiers, it seems, no matter in what century they fight, rarely forget the names and personalities of the first to fall. Certainly, the loss of combat virginity is a truly haunting moment, something never to be overlooked. And quite possibly, the first casualties are so well remembered because they tend to be the best men in the unit. It’s a simple fact that war tends to cull the best and brightest in its first threshing. Clearly, Lieutenant Bailey and Sergeant Hartley fit that definition.

But Bailey’s and Hartley’s unlucky encounter in the dark woods near Brick House Point did more than just make memories to haunt the dreams of the survivors. It touched off a bloody battle that ended the lives of fifty-six other men.

Some of those stories will follow soon.

This is the roll book that was in Lt. Bailey's pocket. The image comes from the 27th New York's regimental history.

This is Hartley's revolver, also taken from the 27th NYV's history.

This modern-day map depicts the location of the Union landing zone on the York River--Brick House Point. I've highlighted the beachhead in blue. The 27th New York's skirmishers held the wooded area south of the beachhead. Somewhere in those woods, Lt. Bailey fell dead.

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