The Battle of Gaines’ Mill, fought on June 27, was a signal victory for the Confederate forces. The Federal position was completely broken through in at least one spot, with an entire regiment of Union infantry being taken prisoner along with a battery.
What made the fight at Gaines’ Mill noteworthy was the personal command presence of John Bell Hood before his brigade and his old command, the Fourth Regiment of Texas Volunteer Infantry. The Hampton Legion of South Carolina, the Eighteenth Georgia, along with the First and Fifth Texas regiments, formed up on the left of the Fourth Texas regiment. The Fourth Texas faced, at a distance of about a half-mile, a formidable natural position that had been improved by its Federal defenders. The position was a hill that had been slightly modified. At the base of the hill was a small stream where sharp abates and log breastworks were found; at the top of the hill was another line of breastworks occupied by infantry with artillery support.
The Texas Brigade formed a line for the attack at about 6 o’clock p.m. under a heavy fire from the enemy to its front as well as from enfilading fire from right and left by artillery. General Hood assumed personal command of his old regiment and, giving the order to dress to the center upon the colors and not to fire until ordered to do so, started off with the men at “right shoulder shift” in quick-time march. Almost from the start of the attack, casualties mounted in the Fourth Texas as well as among the other units of the Texas Brigade. In his book, “Hood’s Texas Brigade,” J.B. Polley relates reminiscence from W.R. Hamby of Co. B, Fourth Texas: “At every step forward our comrades were falling around us. When we were within about one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy we passed over a line of our troops lying upon the ground. …General Hood was in our front until we were within about one hundred yards of the creek, when he wheeled his horse to the right and ordered us to fix bayonets and charge at double-quick…. More than half of our regiment had fallen upon the field, although we had not fired a gun. Raising the Rebel Yell, we dashed across the creek (which we found to have steep banks, in some places twenty feet high, with sides cut to form a ditch,) and climbed over the breastworks, when the enemy gave way in confusion.”
The Fourth Texans fired into the ranks of their retreating foes as the Federal troops ran up the hill to their second position. Reloading as quickly as possible and trying to maintain battle line, the Texans followed their foes over the second line of breastworks. This done, the entire Federal line gave way “in great disorder” but the surviving Fourth Texans continued their fire. Bill Hamby’s report has a captured Federal officer state: “The enemy made a final and desperate effort to break our lines, and were successful, but not until our weary men were trampled upon. The attack was desperate, and so was the defense. The noise of the musketry was not rattling as ordinarily, but was one intense metallic din.”
Upon crossing the second Federal defensive line, the Fourth Texas saw eighteen pieces of artillery massed on an elevation in the rear of their line. This line of artillery opened fire on the left flank of the Fourth Texas and on other components of the Texas Brigade. Without halting to reform lines, the entire regiment charged the artillery position, capturing fourteen cannon. A battery of four cannons was able to limber up and escape, only to be captured in the fighting at Second Manassas barely two months later. The regiment then returned its attention on the Federal infantry and drove it through an old orchard.
Just as the regiment thought its day’s work done, a United States cavalry regiment charged them. This particular regiment was the same regiment in which John Bell Hood had served, as well as the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, before secession and the outbreak of hostilities. The cavalry charge was doomed from the start; saddles and horses were emptied of their human contents. After losing all but one of their officers, the surviving Union cavalry troopers retreated in as good an order possible.
In his official report about the Battle at Gaines’ Mill and the fight of the Texas Brigade, Stonewall Jackson wrote (OR, XI/2, No. 227): “On my extreme right General Whiting advanced his division through the same dense forest and swamp, emerging from the wood into the field near the public road and at the head of the deep ravine which covered the enemy’s left. Advancing thence through a number of retreating and disordered regiments he came within range of the enemy’s fire, who, concealed in an open wood and protected by breastworks, poured a destructive fire for a quarter of a mile into his advancing line, under which many brave officers and men fell. Dashing on with unfaltering step in the face of those murderous discharges of canister and musketry General Hood and Colonel Law, at the heads of their respective brigades, rushed to the charge with a yell. Moving down a precipitous ravine, leaping ditch and stream, clambering up a difficult ascent, and exposed to an incessant and deadly fire from the intrenchments, these brave and determined men pressed forward, driving the enemy from his well-selected and fortified position.
“In this charge, in which upward of 1,000 men fell killed and wounded before the fire of the enemy and in which fourteen pieces of artillery and nearly a regiment were captured, the Fourth Texas, under the lead of General Hood, was the first to pierce these strongholds and seize the guns. Although swept from their defenses by this rapid and almost matchless display of daring and valor, the well-disciplined Federals continued in retreat to fight with stubborn resistance.”
The next day, June 28, while riding over the ground where the Fourth Texas had charged and succeeding in capturing the Federal position, Stonewall is reported to have said, “The men who carried this position were soldiers indeed.” From Jackson this is high praise indeed. The men of the Fourth Texas and the Texas Brigade went on to win glory and fame on other fields, including Young’s Branch at Second Manassas, The Cornfield at Sharpsburg, the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg and the Widow Tapp Farm at The Wilderness. However, the Texans never fought under such a destructive fire again as at Gaines’ Mill.