White Oak Swamp May 1862
On the banks of the Chickahominy
FLASH! Union troops skedaddle in White Oak Swamp
Exclusive Report by I. M. Allwett
Via Telegraph from Fortress Monroe
Your intrepid reporter from the World was with Major General Edwin V. Sumner when his corps attempted to turn the flank of the rebel army. Sumner crossed to the south bank of the Chickahominy River into as dismal a swamp as one can imagine – thick with vines and moss, smelling of rot and infested with snakes, mosquitoes, and buzzards.
Through this muck the general intended to catch a raiding party under the rebel Longstreet and catch the rascal thespian Magruder further along. Things did not go according to plan.
With heavy going and the thick growth it was impossible to see more than a couple hundred yards in any direction and often difficult to extract one’s boots to take a step let alone maneuver. This being true, the divisions of Major General Erasmus Keyes and Major General Samuel Heintzelman became separated, with Heintzelman ahead and to the south.
It was in this position that the enemy, forcefully advancing instead of skulkily retreating from their raid, engaged General Keyes. The fright of suddenly coming upon a foe in the murk and being dealt a volley of buck and ball at under a hundred paces before one can gather their wits can only be imagined by the reader at home. This reporter assures you it takes a stout heart to stand and return fire!
But this is exactly what the veteran boys of the north did, standing and giving volley for volley in the heat and swelter and deep shadow of the dismal morass.
Keyes now came up and felt for the tender flank of the rebel masses for it must be there, at the north end of the line, the pressure on Heintzelman being so great. As he splashed through waters, knee-deep at times, A rebel ball found Colonel Henry A Weeks of the 12th New York, Heintzelman’s left flank regiment. The unit had suffered horribly from the fire of the 25th Alabama and 1st Louisiana. The loss of its captain was too much and the regiment disintegrated, leaving a gap between the two divisions.
Brigadier General John Davidson rushed the 12th Indiana to plug the gap, but “rushing” had a different meaning in the bottomless muck of the White Oak!
One after the other General Heintzelman’s regiment were pressed back by rebel charges, each time leaving wounded boys to drown in the black waters.
Finally, Brigadier General Winfield Hancock brought his Pennsylvanians into action against the 22nd Alabama who had occupied a small dry knob rising from the inky waters, only to see the southerners, whose coats resembled the gnarled trunks of the drowned trees, use the thick sheets of moss to withdraw, their sister 21st Alabama forming at right angles and thwarting the best laid plan of Hancock.
With all Heintzelman’s regiments wavering and Keyes thwarted more by nature than the enemy, General Sumner had no other recourse than to order a general withdrawal on the pontoons. That the enemy had been given a good shaking is evidenced by their unwillingness to pursue, selecting rather to lick their wounds and hope for a drier day.
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Diatribes are simply often humorous recountings of the games played by the Long Island Irregulars. We play with toy soldiers and are unabashedly happy to have never lost this part of our childhoods..