Civil War Battle of Hanover Court House

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Civil War Virginia, Battle of Hanover Court House,
by D. H. Hill, Jr.*

"The next battle in Virginia was at Slash Church, near Hanover Court House, on the 27th of May 1862. This, with the exception of one regiment, was purely a North Carolina fight."

Virginia Civil War Map of Battles 1862
Virginia Civil War Map of Battles 1862.gif
(Virginia Civil War Battlefields)

The Confederate force, one brigade and two attached companies, was commanded by General L. O'B. Branch, of North Carolina, and of seven regiments present were all from the same State except the Forty-fifth Georgia, Col. T. M. Hardeman. This brigade, after its engagement around New Bern [North Carolina], had been ordered to join [General 'Stonewall"] Jackson in the valley, but on its way stopped at Hanover Court House, and kept on lookout duty there. [Union] General McClellan, expecting General McDowell to join him in a movement on Richmond, threw forward his right wing under Gen. Fitz John Porter to crush Branch's force out of his path.
 
Porter had in his command Morell's division and Warren's brigade. Branch's force consisted of his own brigade--the Seventh North Carolina, Col. R. P. Campbell; the Eighteenth, Col. R. H. Cowan; the Twenty-eighth, Col. J. H. Lane; the Thirty-seventh, Col. C. C. Lee; and the Thirty-third, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoke; and also two temporarily attached regiments, the Twelfth North Carolina, Col. B. O. Wade, and Forty-fourth Georgia--in all seven regiments--and Latham's North Carolina Battery, that joined him the night before the battle. In view of the hard fight that Branch gave him, it is not surprising that General Porter, writing the day after the battle, should say that Branch's force, "comprised about 8,000 Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia troops." But for General Webb, writing in 1881, and claiming to have "sifted" and collated for careful investigation the new material gathered by the war department, and now for the first time made a basis of the history of that time," to say--for him to say in the face of such a claim as that--"that Branch's command must have been about 10,000 strong" is, as the Federal General Palfrey sweetly says in commanding on some of McClellan's figures, "one of those extraordinary, inconceivable, aggravating things that stirs up everything that is acrid in the nature of those who follow his career.
 
What was the Confederate strength? Branch, in his congratulatory order to his brigade (July 24th), states that his total force was "about "4,000." This would make his seven regiments average 600 men to the regiment, a high average for Confederate regiments, and especially for those that had been over as much territory as Branch's. Even McClellan, with his fondness for big numbers on the Confederate side, admits "the regiments (Confederate) will not average over 700 men." Some of the regiments that opposed Branch that day reported fewer than 600. Porter does not state his numbers. General Webb says that Porter had about "12,000 men." Probably, as Porter had one whole division (Morell's) and one brigade (Warren's), this is not far wrong. General Warren gives in each of his regiments, and the aggregate is 2,705; his regiments averaging 653 men each. In Morell's division there were fourteen regiments (eleven infantry, two cavalry, one sharpshooters), three batteries, and two companies of sharpshooters. Putting these regiments and batteries and batteries the same as Branch's (600 to the regiment), they aggregate 8,700, and with Warren's make a total force of 11,405 at the very least--nearly three times the Confederate force.
 
At the approach of the two forces, General Branch advanced Colonel Lane with the Twenty-eighth North Carolina, and a section of Latham's Battery, under Lieutenant Potts, to support his pickets. The regiment soon became heavily engaged with Porter's van, the Twenty-fifth New York Regiment, and drove it back, inflicting heavy loss. Pressing the Twenty-fifth they encountered Butterfield's entire brigade. Helped by a friendly wood, Lane maintained his position for some time. However, in spite of the efforts of his two guns, Butterfield's force was soon overlapping both his wings, and so Lane gave orders to retire along a fence. All the horses of Pott's guns had been disabled, and he was forced to leave his piece. Lane says of the fight of this section: "Never were two guns served more handsomely." On their retreat toward Hanover Court House, this regiment found the enemy between it and the rest of his brigade and lost many prisoners. However, Webb's assertion that "it was almost entirely captured," is far wide of the mark, as Lane reports that it reached his brigade on the Chickahominy with 480 men. Colonel Lane says of his retreat: "Already exhausted from exposure to inclement weather, from hunger, from fighting, it was three days before the regiment, by a circuitous route, rejoined the brigade...where it was wildly and joyfully received. It was highly complimented by Generals Lee and Branch for its behavior on this masterly retreat."
 
While Lane was engaged with Butterfield, Branch advanced his other regiments toward Peake's crossing and found the enemy stationed across the road. Branch thus describes his movements: "My plan was quickly formed, and orders were given for its execution. Lee with the Thirty-seventh was to push through the woods and get close to the right flank of the battery. Hoke, as soon as he should return from a sweep through the woods on which I had sent him, and Colonel Wade, of the Twelfth, were to make a similar movement to the left flank of the battery, and Cowan (Eighteenth) was to charge across the open ground in front, Latham meanwhile bringing up his guns to bear on their front. Hoke, supported by Colonel Wade, had a sharp skirmish, taking 6 prisoners and 11 horses, but came out too late to make the movement assigned to him; and Lee having sent for reinforcements, I so far changed my plan as to abandon the attack on the enemy's left, and sent Lieutenant-Colonel Hoke to reinforce Colonel Lee, relying on the front and right attack. Colonel Cowan, with the Eighteenth, made the charge most gallantly; but the enemy's force was march larger than supposed, and strongly posted, and the gallant Eighteenth was compelled to seek cover. It continued to pour heavy volleys from the edge of the woods, and must have done great execution. The steadiness with which the desperate charge was made reflected the highest credit on officers and men...The combined attack of the Eighteenth and Thirty-seventh compelled the enemy to leave his battery for a time and take shelter behind a ditch bank. This attack fell on Martindale's Second Maine Regiment, Forty-fourth New York, some detachments of the Ninth and Twenty-second Massachusetts and of the Fourth Michigan, and what Lane had left of the Twenty-fifth New York, all supporting a section of Martin's Battery. The Federal line was broken and the gunners driven from their pieces. General Martindale says: "The battle had now lasted for quite an hour, and although the center of my line was broken, under a cross fire that was entirely destructive and unsupportable, still the Second Maine on the right and the largest body of the Forty-fourth New York on the left, maintained their ground without flinching. (It is now disclosed that they were assailed by four time their number.) Federal reinforcements soon arrived. Generals Porter and Morell hastened personally to the firing, and at this crisis sent in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth New York and Griffin's Battery to reform Martindale's broken line. The Ninth Massachusetts and Sixty-second Pennsylvania were hurried back from toward Hanover. Their line or march threw them on Branch's left flank and rear, and already far outnumbered before the arrival of this new force, Branch was left no option except to retreat. The Seventh North Carolina and Forty-fifth Georgia, which had been held in reserve and not at all engaged, covered the Confederate retreat. Branch's loss, including Lane's, was 73 killed, 192 wounded, and about 700 captured. If Porter's report, "of the enemy dead we buried here 200'" be true, he must have buried some twice. The Federal loss was 62 killed, 223 wounded, and 70 missing.
 
General Lee sent his congratulations to General Branch, in which he used these words: "I take pleasure in expressing my approval of the manner in which you have discharged the duties of the position in which you were placed, and of the gallant manner your troops opposed a very superior force of the enemy."

*D. H. Hill, Jr., son of Confederate Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr., was the author of Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865 -- which is a welcome addition to the North Carolina Civil War buff. North Carolina native Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr. -- commonly referred to as D. H. Hill -- was one of only two lieutenant generals from the Tar Heel State. (Lieutenant general was the second highest rank in the Confederate Army.) Hill was also brother-in-law to the renowned "Stonewall" Jackson.
 

Recommended Reading: Battle of Hanover Court House: Turning Point of the Peninsula Campaign, May 27, 1862 (Hardcover). Description: Researched from official reports as well as contemporary accounts, this is the first detailed look at the battle most widely known as Hanover Court House and Slash Church. The opening chapters set the stage for this crucial battle and outline the events that led up to May 27, 1862, and the high tide of the Peninsula Campaign. Continued below...

The book’s main focus is the series of battles that took place between the forces of Union V Corps commander Fitz John Porter and Confederate general Lawrence O’Bryan Branch. Photographs of the battle's central participants are included, along with appendices featuring the official reports of commanders and lists of casualties from both sides.

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Recommended Reading: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was the sister to General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...

During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

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