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Rifles come under the command of Robert E. Lee

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

After occupying Yorktown, which was empty of Rebels, General McClellan claimed victory and sheepishly ordered his army towards Williamsburg in pursuit of the retreating Confederates.  The Rifles had no casualties at Yorktown, but Mike Carney, August Styles and George Swegart, all Irish laborers from Clinton, deserted to the Union army during the Confederate withdrawal.  Carney had been demoted during winter quarters and led the other deserters.

Confederate General Magruder fought a holding action at Williamsburg before withdrawing towards Richmond, where he took up defensive positions just five miles from the Confederate capital.  McClellan took Williamsburg and set up his headquarters at White House Landing, the home of Mary Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee, an advisor to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, less than ten miles away.  McClellan posted guards on the home to prevent looting and allowed Mrs. Lee to go through Union lines under a flag of truce and join her husband in Richmond.

Robert E. Lee, a graduate of West Point and veteran of the Mexican War, commanded the 3rd U. S. Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” before the war in 1860.  Lee was a national figure after leading a company of Marines to capture John Brown, the abolitionist, at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.  Lee resigned his army commission in 1861 after turning down President Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union army.  Jefferson Davis offered Lee a command in the Confederate Regular Army as a general.  Lee accepted and joined Jefferson’s military staff.

While General McClellan was stalled at White House Landing, General Joseph Johnston, commander of the Army of Virginia, sent troops to support Macgruder’s defensive line. McClellan would not attack because he feared he was outnumbered two to one.  This delay allowed Stonewall Jackson to join Johnston and Macgruder in defense of Richmond.  Jackson had driven a Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley earlier in May.

President Lincoln was angry at McClellan and ordered him to attack the Confederate line.  But Johnston attacked first on May 30 at a crossroads just east of Richmond.  The Union army called it the battle of Fair Oaks, while the Confederates named it the battle of Seven Pines. Both armies suffered heavy casualties – more than one thousand killed on both sides.  The Mississippi College Rifles reported no casualties at Seven Pines; but one Clinton man, Lawrence McRaven, fighting with another Mississippi regiment, was killed in action.  The battle of Seven Pines was a draw.

Joseph Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines, and Jefferson Davis replaced him with Robert E. Lee.  Confederate newspapers criticized Davis for his choice.  The press referred to Lee as “evacuating Lee” and the “king of spades” for his insistence that his troops entrench before battle.  Lee began a reorganization of his forces, some seventy thousand strong, into the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Mississippi College Rifles were one infantry company among hundreds in the Army of Northern Virginia.   General Lee was their commander for the remainder of the war.  From the beginning, the Rifles were a company of the 18th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.  The 18th shifted into different command structures as the circumstances of war demanded.  During the fighting at Edwards Ferry in 1861, the 18th Infantry was part of a brigade of three regiments under General Barksdale.  In other battles in 1862, the Rifles and their brigade were part of an infantry division under General McLaws.

The battle of Seven Pines was a prelude to a series of battles called “The Seven Days,” which started when Lee ordered an artillery barrage on the Union army at Mechanicsville on June 26, 1862.

Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the seventh in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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