Below are a number of documents related to the 96th Pennsylvania’s service in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862. During the fight, the regiment suffered 87 casualties: 13 killed, 61 wounded, and 13 missing.

“The bearing of officers and men throughout the entire engagement was most excellent.”

Colonel Henry L. Cake, 96th Pennsylvania

Gaines Mill Waud
A sketch of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, June 27, 1862 (Library of Congress)

The following is the official report submitted by Colonel Henry Lutz Cake, 96th Pennsylvania describing the regiment’s action in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862.

Hdqrs. Ninety-Sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers,

Camp in the Field, June 28, 1862.

Lieutenant: I have the honor to herewith transmit the report of the engagement of yesterday as far as participated in by this regiment:

The Ninety-sixth field through the field of battle with and on the left of the brigade at 3:20 in the afternoon, under a fire of shot, shell, and musketry. Before reaching the ground upon which the brigade formed 4 of my men were wounded. In accordance with an order to that effect I formed in double column, closed in mass, in rear of the Sixteenth New York, occupying the head of a ravine that was enfiladed by several of the enemy’s guns. Observing that the guns were trained upon the road leading down the center of the ravine, I moved the column forward as close as possible to the crest of the hill occupied by the line of the Sixteenth, where the men laid down to rest, 350 of them having been upon their feet marching and working for more than thirty-six consecutive hours. At 5 o’clock the Sixteenth moved forward, and I was ordered to occupy their vacated position which was done. Being ordered to change front forward, the movement was executed under a galling fire. Several of the men were wounded and carried to the rear at this time. First Lieut. E.T. Ellrich, of Company B, was here shot through the brain while gallantly encouraging his company to press forward. He fell close to by my side.

The colonel commanding the brigade in person now ordered me to advance at double-quick and form on the left of the Sixteenth, which had gone into position and was about to commence firing. The charge across the field was made in fine style, the men coming up square, cheering as they advanced. The firing was heavy in front, a shower of lead and iron falling around us. During a momentary lull the smoke lifted, disclosing the enemy’s line, rising a hundred yards beyond the garden. A rattling volley followed, passing harmlessly over the heads of my men, who had been ordered to lie down.  A scathing fire was then kept up against us for several minutes, when riding rapidly to the right of my line and finding all right, I ordered a volley to be delivered. The men rose promptly and delivered their fire, which silenced that of the enemy for a brief time. My left rested upon a group of buildings, under the cover of which I found about 50 officers and men, who assured me that their several regiments were posted directly in front of us. Fearing from these representation that the left of the Sixteenth might have advanced on the road upon our right and by some means got before us, I again rode to the right of my line and found the opening there unoccupied and an interval of 50 feet between my right and the left of the Sixteenth. Obtaining from this point a better view of the front, I discovered the enemy fearfully close, and momentarily expected to be charged. Having dispatched a messenger for orders, I now returned to the center of my line to receive them, having cautioned the officers to keep the pieces of at least one rank charged.

At this moment Major Seaver, of the Sixteenth, rode up, seeking the brigade commander. He informed me that his regiment was doing good work, but needed support. I doubted the propriety of moving my line, but, as he strenuously urged it, begging me for the “love of God” to close in on their left, I took the responsibility, and moved the regiment to the right until my men mingled with his. For more than one hour after this my men poured in their fire. Any disposition on the part of the enemy to charge us when we first came upon the field seems to have been reconsidered, as their fire slackened and was much easier to bear as the day declined.

At 7:15 o’clock Colonel Howland, of the Sixteenth, rode up to my center and informed me that his ammunition was giving out. We advised together, concluding not to retire until dark, he agreeing to fire until his men reached the last cartridge and then to rest with pieces charged. While the enemy’s fire was growing feebler in our front we were still subjected to an ugly cross-fire of round shot and musketry, that cut us obliquely from the right.

At dusk I ordered the regiment to retire to our first position, which was done in good order. During this march of 150 yards my men came to an about-face twice, firing two volleys. At the crest of the hill we formed and delivered several volleys, which were only answered by the battery of the enemy before described, which had opened on our flank when we first came upon the field. At 8 o’clock I received orders to march my regiment back to camp, which order was obeyed with much reluctance by officers and men.

The bearing of officers and men throughout the entire engagement was most excellent. Where all were brave, cool, and efficient it is impossible to say to whom belongs the highest meed of praise. My first division, comprising Companies A and F, occupying the most exposed position, stood manfully up to their work, many of the men, after firing their 60 rounds, replenishing their cartridge boxes from the supply of their dead and wounded companions.

While it may be impossible to particularize where the conduct of all is entirely satisfactory, the heroism of the dead may be recorded. First Sergeant Boland, of Company F, mortally wounded, refused to be carried off the field until after the fight, and First Sergt. Jonas M. Rich, Company A, also mortally wounded, after being carried a few paces to the rear, ordered his companions to place him at the foot of a tree to die, and return to the conflict.

I append a tabular statement of killed, wounded, and missing. The aggregate of killed is 13; wounded, 61; missing, 13.

I most respectfully claim for my regiment that it fired the last volley and was the last to leave the field on the right.

Very respectfully, lieutenant,

H.L. Cake,

Colonel Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers.

The report comes from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Volume XI, Part 2

Gaines Mill 1
Union soldiers in the fight at Gaines’ Mill (LOC)

“I never felt better in my life then when standing up there and firing at the rebels, I hope that every one of the 41 cartridges I fired took effect…”

In the pages of the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville, PA, the following letter was the first word those on the home front had heard from the regiment. It was written by a member of Company A, 96th Pennsylvania. Written on July 5, 1862, the letter details the unit’s baptism by fire a week earlier. It was published in the Miners Journal’ on July 12, 1862:

Gaines Mill 1
Miners’ Journal, July 12, 1862. (Penn State University)

On last Thursday evening [June 26, 1862] we were digging intrenchments [sic] for our pickets to lay in in case of an attack. On Friday morning [June 27] we were sent along with our division to protect the bridge we crossed over.

We lay there all day in the hot sun until three o’clock in the afternoon, when we were ordered to cross the bridge and help McCall and Porter keep about 75,000 men back. Well, we got over, and into the fight inside of an hour, when our division was ordered to relieve McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserves, which we did.

Our regiment was ordered to charge up a hill for some cause or other, and when we got to the top of the hill, to lay down and fire. The Col. at last told us to get on our feet and pitch in. Well, we did.

Our company was under a cross fire for the whole time we were in. We lost 24 killed, wounded, and missing. I never felt better in my life then when standing up there and firing at the rebels, I hope that every one of the 41 cartridges I fired took effect. We could only see the rebels once in a while, for the smoke, but they were only 150 yards off.

We stood up there two hours under a terrible fire, and were the last regiment that left the field. Our field officers did nobly, riding up and down the line the whole time. We crossed the bridge about 9 o’clock in the evening and went to camp.

The enemy’s loss was about 4,000 men in that fight, our howitzers doing the work. Our loss was heavy too, but not near so great as theirs. Our company is 50 strong now. We numbered 100 men when we left home. We have been in another fight since that, but only had two men wounded in the regiment, and we have been under fire ever since.

It is not clear exactly who authored this letter from the camp of the 96th Pennsylvania. But he apparently relished his first contact with enemy.

The following letter was published in the Pottsville Miners’ Journal on July 19, 1862. The author of the piece is not known.

Letter Headline

From the 96th Regt. P.V., Col. H.L. Cake, Commanding

Graphic Description of the Part of the Regiment took in the Battle of Friday, June 27, 1862, before Richmond.

We are indebted to a friend for the following copy of a letter written by an officer of the 96th Regiment, P.V. It is before the most interesting and graphic account of the part the Regiment took in the battle of the 27th ultimo. And in subsequent actions, which we have yet seen:

Camp Haeseler, July 5th, 1862.

We have just passed through two weeks of incessant toll and danger. It has been one constant battle of the most terrible character, too, since last Thursday, June 26th. After 36 hours of marching and labor, we went into the battle at Gaines’ Mill about 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon. We passed to the extreme right under a galling fire, in which four of our men were wounded. We rested in a ravine, while a perfect shower of shot, shell, and balls passed over our heads. It was intensely hot and dusty, and the fatigue of the men rendered this stop necessary. When we passed to the right, we crossed a hill, at which the enemy were throwing their grape and canister at one of our batteries. Here I gave out. We had been double-quicking through the heat and dust. I settled down to a brisk walk, and held that gait until again under cover of the hill, a distance of a hundred yards. The balls flew all around, tearing up the ground at my feet.

Indeed I was so tired that I felt not the least danger. From the ravine, where we were formed in divisions, we formed line of battle and changed front forward. Here we received a terrible fire, which fortunately, mostly passed over our heads. Here Lieut. Ellrich fell shot through the head. Several others were here killed and wounded. The line we formed was as straight as at any dress parade we ever had. We then advanced at double quick to within forty yards of the enemy’s line, the men cheering as we came up. Here we were ordered to lay down and load, and fire, lying behind a fence. The firing continued for one whole hour, many of the men completely emptying their cartridge boxes of the whole 60 rounds. It was not until dark, and we were the only regiment left on the field, and we were in danger of being outflanked, that we fell back. The men seemed to go reluctantly.  

When we fell back the enemy advanced beyond the fence we had occupied, evidently with the intention of driving us across the river in confusion, creating panic if possible. We reformed speedily and gave them three rounds, when the batteries opened and drove them back. So ended one of the most obstinate battles ever fought on this continent, in which our Regiment had the last fire, and was the last to retreat from the field. The enemy had an overwhelming force, and had it not been for Franklin’s Division, must have cut McCall and Porter to pieces. As it was, we assisted them in crossing the river, and thus carrying out Gen. McClellan’s plan of drawing in the right wing of his army. We returned to camp by 11 o’clock. At half past three Saturday morning we were ordered under arms, and advanced to support some guns on the extreme right on the Richmond side of the river. We lay all day under the shell of the enemy, they in many cases passing close to our heads, and bursting all around us.

Saturday night we spent in cutting timber to obstruct the roads and marched at one o’clock Sunday morning. We marched about 15 miles during the day. The men suffered terribly. Many were compelled to drink the muddy water along the road. At Savage’s Station the enemy attacked our rear guard, but were repulsed with great slaughter. We encamped Sunday night. On Monday our Division was posted about two miles up the Charles City road towards Richmond. This is between two swamps. About noon the enemy advanced with an immense force, from the direction of Richmond, with the intention of cutting us off. You will see by the press the details of Monday’s fight, so I will not attempt.

The fight on our part of the field (which extended over three miles of woods and ravines) was all artillery. We had 21 large Parrot guns, which kept up an incessant fire. They attempted to breakthrough and capture our batteries, but the grape and shells mowed them down by whole regiments. So effectively was our artillery served, that our infantry scarcely got into the engagement. They were determined on our left to cut off our retreat and were only held in check at dark by Gen. Kearney. Our Division was the last to pass over the White Oak Swamp towards the James River, passing stealthily within 500 yards of the enemy at dead of night. On Tuesday night we were on picket, and marched at one o’clock, reaching the river at six. You may be able to conceive some of the labor, exposure and danger we have undergone. On Thursday night previous to our first battle we were digging trenches all night. Wednesday night under arms nearly all night. Tuesday night on picket. I think I can safely say, that for ten days I did not get 24 hours of sleep altogether. We were on the go all the time, often at a double quick in the burning sun of mid-day.

Our loss in Friday’s battle was 61 wounded, 13 killed, and 13 missing. Doubtless most of the missing were left wounded or killed on the battlefield. I was sorry to hear of the death of Sergeant Bolland. I think he died on the field. The dead bodies will never be found. If the rebels bury them at all it will be under about six inches of ground. Those that they buried at Fair Oaks were left on the surface of the ground and rotted. I saw many with their bones protruding. We always bury the rebel dead in trenches. One trench at Fair Oaks contains 400 hundred, covered with about four feet of ground. My company was very fortunate, only two wounded, one in the head, another in the hand and leg, and one missing. I am proud of the company, they fought nobly, obeyed commands, and kept the best order and I am sure made many a rebel bite the dust. Col. Cake acted with great bravery; in fact the whole Regiment, officers, and men behaved nobly.

It was painful to see the suffering connected with this celebrated retreat. Half of the wounded were compelled to walk all the way. It was a common sight to see men with broken arms (unset) walking. I can’t go into details, but you may be able to form some idea of this movement. The vast amount of baggage wagons, ambulances, artillery, infantry, cavalry, and all the appliances of war, moving over the same road, fighting daily. You can imagine the dust and heart, and then think of at least 5,000 wounded men and sick trudging along with the mass.

We found one man of Co. A away beyond the Chickahominy Swamp. He had his arm shot off, and had trudged along about fifteen miles, and sunk down in the road unable to go further. Notwithstanding the magnitude of the undertaking, McClellan got nearly everything through safely, destroying comparatively but little. The wounded, nearly all I think, had their wounds dressed before being put on the boats.

 Now, I will give you my views of the retreat and our present position. In the first place, let me promise I have not the least doubt, this is the position we would at first have occupied, if we could have gotten here. The Merrimack prevented us taking this. We have a swamp to our right, the gunboats to our left and rear. Our line extends only four miles inland, and an enemy cannot advance without being subject to the flank fire of the gunboats. As soon as we are prepared and receive reinforcements (which is necessary to meet the increased Rebel army in front of Richmond) we will be able to advance as far as Fort Darling; be as near Richmond as ever; in a much stronger, a hundred times stronger position, and with the assistance of our greatest power, the gunboats. Is there not quite a difference between this position and one where our lines extended over twenty miles with an enemy double our number in front? I have little doubt but that Gen. McClellan designed some time ago to abandon his position and make the James River the new base of operations. The overwhelming force of the enemy may have accelerated the movements. How did he succeed? The enemy’s loss cannot be less than 50,000 men, our loss will reach 20,000.

In the battle on Monday, enemy charged on our batteries three or four regiments deep. They were swept away by the grapeshot as they advanced without losing many men. Throughout the whole fight, the rebels were all made drunk. Those taken were all drunk, and with canteens full of whiskey. None but drunken men would have charged in the face of grape and canister, which was sweeping away the very trees in its course. They were beaten with terrible slaughter at every point. The army did retreat successfully, everything with few exceptions was cleared away and gotten safely to the river. Rincon, to be sure, was not taken; but what of that. We have fought the villains, and have gained a most signal victory.

But the idea of retreat, I do not consider it a retreat. We are just as near Richmond as ever, and when we take that city the victory will be so much more complete and bring the rebellion near an end.

I said I did not consider it a retreat; merely a change of position. We have only moved around and gotten on the right of the enemy, and they are skedaddling back to Richmond with their decimated ranks as fast as they can. Reinforcements are landing daily, and McClellan will soon have as large a force as the enemy…

Dr. Haeseler’s kind face was gratifying. He will give you a detailed account; which he can do verbally, with more facility than I can write.

The following account was published in the Miners’ Journal on July 26, 1862. It comes from the regimental chaplain of the 96th Pennsylvania, Reverend Samuel F. Colt of Pottsville.

96th headline

The Ninety-Sixth Regiment, P.V., in the Battle before Richmond, 27th of June – Interesting statement of the Chaplain, Rev. S.F. Colt…

To Rev. S.F. Colt, Chaplain of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment, P.V., who was with the Regiment during the recent battles in which it was engaged, we are indebted for the following interesting statement of the part the Regiment took in the conflicts and also for a list of the casualties which is full and complete:

Complying with a very general desire, the first moment of convalescing from an attack of the Chickahominy fever is used to furnish a summary amount of the active part taken by the 96th P.V. in the toils and engagements connected with the recent “CHANGE OF BASE” of the Army of the Potomac. Because I am yet only convalescing very many incident evincing personal bravery or other admirable traits in individuals, and some philosophizing from my full memoranda, must be omitted in this communication.

When the 96th landed at West Point, on the Pamunkey, it was foremost in the work of defence; having been the first to land, and on the morning of the skirmish there, it was the only full regiment advanced in line – its position on the extreme left, a point not attacked by the passing enemy, and this circumstance kept it out of the skirmish, and consequently out of notice. From that day (May 7th) until it reached Harrison’s Landing (July 2nd) its campaign has been extremely active and arduous. Since the 27th of June, the Regiment has been under arms continually, taking part in all the actions incident to a “change of base.”

During the eight days, commencing with the night of the 26th, there was not an hour in which the courage and soldiership of officers and men, were not put to the test. On Wednesday, night (25th) a large portion of the 96th were on picket so close to the enemy as plainly to discern negroes doing duty in the rebel lines, and to distinguish many of the names called off during their evening roll cal.. On Thursday, (26th) Col. Cake was Division field officer and was fatiguingly occupied all day on the lines. The cannonading of the fight, in which McCall and Porter were engaged, near Mechanicsville, kept us on the [unintelligible] here all the afternoon and evening.

Various rumors were flying. It was at length accepted that Fremont and Banks had pressed closely after Stonewall Jackson’s forces en route for Richmond, until they were crowded up to the forces of our right wing, just mentioned, where they had been subjected to our fire on three sides. Would to God had it been so! The regimental bands along our lines, for more than an hour were discoursing national and favorite airs, and the midnight hours were winged with gladness pervading the whole army.

During the night, Lieut. Col. Frick, with large details from the 96th and the 7th Maine, secretly built a three sided redoubt of 400 yards in length, a strategical work of immense importance, accomplished within easy musket range of the enemy. This has been fully described by an eyewitness in The Press of July 7th.

Whatever advantage it would have given us in advancing upon Richmond, had our forces been sufficient, it, in connection with operations at and behind Gen. Smith’s position on our right, did deceive and detain a heavy force of the enemy until Sunday towards noon, and this facilitated the change of base, in the presence of a foe greatly outnumbering us.

On this Thursday evening, Surgeon D.W. Bland had ridden unaccompanied, over to the scene of McCall’s engagement to attend to the removal of Capt. Lessig and Lieut. Hannum, two sick officers of the 96th who were in private quarters near the Richardson Hospital. They came in early Friday morning safe, but not a little excited. This was the second time the sick Captain had been forced from hospitals by the rebel shells.

At 7 A.M. Friday 27th, the regiment was taken with the Division just to the rear of Gen. Smith’s redoubt, to occupy the enemy in front, and to defend the Grapevine Bridge, crossing the Chickahominy at that point. The enemy were in full force on the highlands up to Dr. Gaines’ house. We were “at every hazard,” to prevent the rebels from effecting a junction at this bridge. (Grapevine Bridge image)

About noon, some splendid artillery practice commenced, our guns from both sides of the creek throwing shell into the rebel battalions, at and near the Gaines’ House. But I don’t propose to give a description of the battle. – To understand its details, one must have a map of the extended field, on which the conflict raged all that afternoon. At 3 o’clock P.M. the 96th with a Vermont regiment destroyed the Grapevine bridge, while others destroyed the bridge just above it, and by slashing the timber, effectually barricaded both crossings. The 96th, then passing near its camp, moved down to and over the Woodbury bridge, and so into the line of battle. McCall’s, Porter’s, Slocum’s, and Meagher’s forces constituted that line. (Battle Map)

At 20 minutes past three, the 96th filed through the field of battle with and on the left of the brigade under a fire of shot, shell, and musketry. Before reaching the ground upon which the brigade formed four men were wounded. According to orders the regiment was formed in double columns; closed in mass, in the rear of the 16th New York, occupying the head of a ravine enfiladed by several of the enemy’s guns. Col. Cake observing that the guns were trained upon the road leading down the centre of the ravine, moved the column forward as close as possible to the crest of the hill occupied by the line of the 16th N.Y. Here the men laid down to rest, 350 of them having been on their feet for 30 consecutive hours. At 5 o’clock the 1th N.Y. moved forward and the 96th occupied their position, promptly changing front forward under a galling fire. Several were here wounded and carried to the rear. Lt. E.T. Ellrich of Company B, was here shot through the brain while gallantly encouraging his company to press forward.

The Regiment now advanced at double quick, charging across the field in fine style, the men coming up square, and cheering as they advanced. A mounted officer of the regulars witnessing this, spoke of it as one of the best things of the action. The firing was heavy in front, dropping a shower of lead and iron around us. The momentary lifting of the smoke disclosed the enemy’s line rising a hundred yards beyond the garden. Our men were ordered to lie down; for several minutes a scathing fire was directed against us.

At this point Col. Cake evinced his personal courage, by several times riding along his whole line. He now ordered a volley to be given. The men rose promptly, and delivered it so efficiently as to silence the rebels for a short time. Just now the enemy were discovered to be fearfully near us and apparently determined to charge us, when, at the urgent solicitation of Major Seaver of the N.Y. 16th, our men, were moved 50 paces to the right, until they mingled with his. For more than an hour after this the 96th poured in their fire. The enemy’s charge was not made, and the fire was easier to bear as the day declined. But we were still subjected to an ugly crossure of round shot and musketry, cutting us obliquely from the right.

At dusk the regiment was taken by Col. Cake in good order, 150 yards back to its first position, stopping on the way twice, with an about face, to give heavy volleys. At the crest of the hill the regiment formed and delivered several volleys receiving no reply except from the flanking battery that had annoyed us when we first came upon the field.

Just after 8 o’clock, with much reluctance and only in obedience to positive orders, the regiment marched back to their camp. A large house on the brow of the hill overlooking the Woodbury bridge was used as the general field hospital. Here, with two servants, I was personally occupied with the wounded until 7:45. The surgeons were kept busy to a late hour. At camp that night, I dressed 14 wounded men, who had been brought directly from the field…

[List of casualties]

The rest of this interesting communication, describing the important actions participated in by our 96th, during the Seven Days, after the Gaines’ Mill battle, we are compelled to defer till next week.  

Featured Image: Colonel Henry L. Cake, 96th Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)

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