Charles Chase: Letter of Preston C.H. West

Calumet, Houghton Co., Mich.
August 16th 1886

Howard A. Chase

My dear sir:

My remembrance of the march of Genl. Smith’s command from Bermuda Hundreds to cold Harbor, is as follows:

The 18th Army corps was ordered from its position on the left of the 10th corps into the interior of the Bermuda Hundreds “battle”, to an assigned. Towards sunset I was sent from General Smith to Genl. Butler to say to him, “that if he were going to Saratoga Springs he would make different arrangements from what he would if he were going to Europe”. Up to that time no one from the general commanding corps down to the drummer boys knew our destination, and the rations and ammunition carried on the person might not be sufficient for and extended march and probable battle. General Butler’s chief-of-staff visited Genl. Smith and soon afterward we marched to the landings and embarked on transports and steamed down the James River to Fortress Monroe, where a temporary halt of the Headquarter boat enabled us to get further information, and then we rounded Old Point Comfort and steamed up the York River to its head, at the junction of the Pamunky and the Mattapan Rivers. Nothing of incident occurred to this point except that some of the boats grounded and the transportation furnished by Genl. Butler was insufficient, occasioning the splitting up and mixing of many commands.

At the head of the York River was a naval gun boat, and as the only information that Genl. Smith had was that Genl. Grant and the Army of the Potomac were at or near Hanovertown, he determined to go the White House on the Pamunky River, the former base of supplies for Genl. McClellan’s army, during the Penninsula campaign. The naval officer reported that the Pamunky was reported lined with torpedoes! As the naval boat was to take the advance of the fleet of transports up the Pamunky, Genl. Smith repaired on board of her with his staff, I suppose to take the same chance as the navy, in case of a blow up. We reached the White House without any disaster; Genl. Ames with a brigaded having been landed at West Point, to march to the White House on the north side of the Pamunky. The troops were landed as fast as they came up, and I was sent to find Genl. Grant and tell him of the condition of affairs, that is, reserve amunition around in the James River and other incidents and accidents of the trip, the number of troops that had arrived and the amunition and rations available, and to ask him whether he wished Genl. Smith to join him as his command was, or to wait till he got in shape. I took the south bank of the Pamunky to find Genl. Grant having but a very small escort; but when I was about five miles out from the White House I discovered a cloud of calvary skirmishers coming over the hills and I concealed my men until I made out they were our own people, and riding among them I learned they were Greggia Cavalry, going to join Genl. Smith with orders from Genl. Grant; this was on the 31st of May. I reached Genl. Grant’s headquarters, delivered my message and remained there all night, orders having been sent to Genl. Smith, as I understood, but Genl. Smith tells me he never received a reply to the message sent by me. I do not remember to have received one. There seems to have been a hitch here and I attribute it to the fact that as yet Smith had not officially been placed under Genl. Meade, from whose headquarters all orders were promulgated. I returned the first of June and met Genl. Smith at the head of his command, at Newcastle Ferry, a Point on the Pamunky River to which his written orders directed him. He felt that a mistake had occurred and called his General and staff officers around him and let each one read the orders and see if any other interpretation cold be put upon them, but a mistake had been made at Genl. Grant’s or Genl. Meade’s and they had discovered it and they had sent Genl. Babcock to correct it. Cold Harbor was meant instead of Newcastle Ferry. We then started for Cold Harbor a dusty hot day, with the sixth corps ahead of us and went to battle on the right of the sixth corps.

The marching done was from the White House to Bassett’s on the 31st of May and from Bassett’s to Newcastle Ferry early on the 1st of June and from Newcastle Ferry to Cold Harbor on the same day in time to get into as disagreeable a fight, on that and the 3d of June, as I know of during my experience in the war; for there was no head to them; no generalship displayed beyond that by the corps commanders and it seemed to be an independent corps commanders’ fight of what happened to be in his front, and wherever we bucked up against the enemy’s lines we gained little or nothing anywhere. The individual bravery that was displayed, if properly handled by the generals in command, ought to have achieved victory over stronger positions than we assailed on those days.

A glance at the map will show you what a different state of affairs might have happened if the clerical error had not occurred; we could have reached Cold Harbor before the enemy.

Very Respectfully,
(Maj.) Preston C.H. West,
Military Secty. to Gen:. “Baldy” Smith

[Source: War Letters of Charles Chase, 1862-1864, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia]