A Bloody Exchange, 16th Michigan vs. Palmetto Sharpshooters at Gaines Mill
by Gordon Thorsby
Map of the Battle of Gaines Mill (LOC)
In four years of the American Civil War, there were hundreds of instances where opposing regiments dueled for survival. One happened at Gaines Mill, 160 years ago on June 27, 1862. Beaver Dam Creek (aka Mechanicsville) had occurred the day before and Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter had pulled back across Boatswains Swamp to be closer to the rest of the Army. Army Gen. George McClellan seemed not overly concerned that Porter’s Corps was isolated. Gen. Lee who rarely missed an opportunity, pounced on Porter again. The fighting began in earnest at 3PM.
Brig. Gen. Dan Butterfield’s Brigade consisted of the 12 NY, 44th NY, 83 PA, and the 16th MI regiments. The 16th was the reserve regiment, 150 yards back from the front line. Around 5PM, the Union lines were holding but around six PM, things changed. Everything to the right of the Brigade was unraveling and someone forgot to tell the 83rd and the 16th to pull back. The two regiments continued to fire until they realized they were receiving rebel fire from their rear. The 83rd and 16th began a fighting withdrawal as dusk descended on the armies.
There are several versions of exactly what happened next as is described but in the end they are similar. This is an attempt at an amalgamation of the stories.
"Battle of Friday on the Chickahominy" by Alfred Waud (LOC)
The field was empty of blue lines in the gloaming. Units of both sides were mixed. Individual soldiers ran to and from. Riderless horses galloped about. Anderson’s South Carolina
Brigade of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and Palmetto Sharpshooters, “saw columns of marching troops before them but in the twilight and smoky haze could not tell friend from foe.” The Palmetto Sharpshooters and 5th SC Infantry were faced towards the Chickahominy on the right, and then halted." Their initial assumptions were that all organized lines and columns were Confederate. Yankee lines had routed. “It was not long until troops appeared from the piece of woods we had just passed through, on a high bluff which rose abruptly from a deep ravine leading down to the Chickahominy.” Nothing was certain to Col. Micah Jenkins (Palmetto Sharpshooters) except that of the smell of gunpowder, the wounded, and the dying. “It was thought, at first, they could be none other than friends, as they emerged from the woods within a hundred yards to the right of our line and marched boldly right in front of the 5th Regiment, and thence down the hill in front of the Palmetto Sharpshooters.”
Charles Rice of 16th Mich. Brady's Sharpshooters
Jenkins shouted out, “Identify yourselves.” G.G. Buchanan said Jenkins got a response from an unknown individual and probably a Union officer, “16th Michigan.” A second Confederate version has it that there was no response. A third version has it that “one of Jenkins men had sprained his ankle in their charge up from the swamp. He limped his way over to Jenkins and cautioned him that the unit in front was a Yankee unit.” Jenkins was uncertain.
Jenkins then yelled to “surrender or be destroyed,” when Jenkins realized that the line was Union as reported by a Union soldier. Sixteenth Michigan Lt. Col. Norval Welch yelled back, “Damned if we do." Jenkins gave the command, "Ready," which was repeated all along the line, and when the head of the column reached a point opposite the left center of our regiment, its leader called a halt and calmly ordered "Front," facing his command not more than seventy-five yards from us; and at the same moment Jenkins' voice rang out, "Fire,"” and the Palmetto line let loose. The men of the 16th not wounded or killed then fired as well. “Capt. Thomas Carr (of Flint) was the first to fall.”
The Gaines Mill
The 5th South Carolina nearby acted likewise with the troops in its front (possibly 83d PA Infantry), and for a time there was a rapid back and forth of musketry. Jenkins unmoved, ordered the South Carolinians forward and the blue line dissolved. A Union battery somewhere fortunately opened up and separated the lines, saving the 16th from certain destruction. Two lieutenants managed to form a disorganized line near the creek. Other regiments of the brigade formed and Welch may have been one of the officers. The Irish Brigade came on and the 16th straggled its way across the bridge while under heavy Confederate artillery fire. Those escaping to get to the South side of the Chickahominy were not picky as to how. Some used the bridge and others swam the river.
The 16th had gone into Gaines Mill with 623 men under Col. Thomas Stockton. In just over 15 minutes of firing, the losses were appalling. Casualties for the 16th Michigan were 230 men lost for the day with 78 killed or mortally wounded, its Colonel captured, and the colors lost. Of 53 men from Saginaw County in Co. D, only 26 came out., Of 49 men from Co. C from Saginaw and Genessee Counties, 23 came out. Carr was one of Co. C.
The Palmetto Sharpshooters had their own problems. At Seven Pines, it suffered 20 Killed and 202 wounded. At Gaines Mill, the regiment lost 9 killed and 74 wounded, and 68% of the 375 engaged at Frayser's Farm a couple of days later. In the Sevens Day’s battles, the Sharpshooters’ losses exceeded 500 men and the unit ceased to resemble a regiment. The Sharpshooters would refill their numbers and fight in other battles. Their most costly fight would be on July 2,1863 at Gettysburg.
Col. Micah Jenkins was killed in 1864 in the friendly fire incident that severely wounded Lt. James Longstreet.
The names of those from some of the small towns around Flushing: Chesaning- Lew Soule (k), Wm Griswold (WP), Alfred Miller (K), Ira Patterson (WP), Josiah Wadsworth (K), from St. Charles- Geo. Arten (W), from Flushing- Al Ingham (WP), James Applebee, (WP), Arza Niles (WP), James Richards (WP), from Maple Grove Jno Northwood (WP), from Brant- Olley Stevens (W).
Ira Patterson died in Libby Prison in December, 1862. The three killed were buried by Confederate soldiers in shallow graves on the field. Their remains were never identified.
To the Gates of Richmond, by Sears, Stephen W., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p243.
The 16th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War, by Crawford, Kim, Michigan Stae University Press, 2019, 66-70.
Extraordinary Circumstances, the Sven Days Battles, by Burton, Brian K., Indiana University Press, 2001, p139.
A Bloody Day at Gaines Mill, Woodard III, Elmer, McFarland & Co., 2019.