by Kathy Warnes
The 83rd regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. William B. Gray of Union City, Pennsylvania was one of them.
Clerk of the Session David Wilson entered a terse sentence in the session records of the Union City, Pennsylvania Presbyterian Church in June 1862. He wrote:”Was killed in battle near Richmond on the 27th day of June 1862- William B. Gray, a member of this church, in the 26th year of his age.”
William B. Gray Enlisted in the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers
Some of William B. Gray’s personal history can be gleaned from examining previous session records. The record says that in May 1837, Reverend Chamberlain baptized one child for William Gray, a boy christened William Bracken Gray. In October 1854, William made a public profession of his faith, partook of the Lord’s Supper and became a member of the Presbyterian Church.
William probably worked with his father on the family farm until he enlisted in Company E of the 83rd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers at Waterford on September 9, 1861. The farm and factory boys of Northwestern Pennsylvania resolved that the Union had to be preserved at all costs, even at the price of leaving home to fight their countrymen in the tangled woods and swamps of Virginia and the alien countryside of the remainder of the South. Many of them were convinced that the war wouldn’t last long. After all, hadn’t Mr. Lincoln called for three month volunteers?
By October 1861, the 83rd Regiment had reached its full complement of 1,000 men. Of these, nearly 300 had been members of Colonel John McLane’s Three Month’s Regiment. The 83rd was mustered into the United States service on September 8, 1861, and departed for Washington on September 16, seven days after William B. Gray enlisted. The 83rd soon earned an excellent reputation for drill and soldierly appearance.
Friday June 27, 1862 – The Day William B. Gray Died at Gaines’ Mill
Less than a year after William B. Gray and his 83rd Regiment left Erie, they found themselves in the thick of what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The day that William B. Gray and Colonel John McLane died- June 27, 1862- seemed like a day suited more to frittering away than fighting. A Union veteran recalled it: “The morning of Friday, the 27th day of June 1862 broke hot and sultry.”
The Seven Days Campaign Ends a Three Month Union Drive to Capture Richmond
Despite the hot weather, the Union and Confederate armies had determined to fight and fight they did. The battle they fought came to be called the Battle of Gaines’ Mill and was part of the Seven Days Campaign which began on June 25, 1862. The Seven Days Campaign ended a three month Union drive to capture Richmond. From June 25 to July 2, 1862, General Robert E. Lee and his army and Major General George B. McClellan and his army fired at each other and marched and maneuvered in the Chickahominy swamps that stretched to the James River. More men were involved in these battles and more casualties resulted from them than in any other campaign in American military history to this point. The biggest and bloodiest battle of the Seven Days Campaign was Gaines’ Mill.
General Robert E. Lee had a combat strength of 56,000 men to Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter’s 35,000. The casualty figures were 8,750 Confederate and 6,937 Yankee dead and wounded. Captain Judson states in his regimental history that the position of the Union Army resembled a letter V, occupying both banks of the Chickahominy. The Army’s left flank rested a little beyond Fair Oaks, some four or five miles from Richmond. Then the lines extended in a northeasterly direction down to the river at Gaines’ Mill, whose position may be called the head of the letter. Then the line ran northwest on the left bank of the river to the vicinity of Mechanicsville. General Fitz-John Porter’s entire corps occupied the left bank and constituted the right wing of the army.
General Robert E. Lee Vows to Defend Richmond
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had spent weeks concentrating his forces and building new levees to help defend Richmond. He brought Stonewall Jackson down from the Shenandoah Valley to Hanover Courthouse. He planned to transfer the main body of his army to the left bank of the Chickahominy and attack the Union forces in front, while Stonewall Jackson with 30,000 men was to hurl them on the Union flank and rear. The Confederates wanted to crush the right wing of the Union Army, to break up the base of the Union supplies at Watt House, and force it to fall back and seek another base on the James or at a greater distance from Richmond.
The Union infantry prepared as best it could to beat off the Confederate attack. Brigadier General Porter had established his headquarters at the Watt House and a little beyond that the Union front line formed along the bottom of the brush-choked swamp. The soldiers formed a second line at the crest of the ravine, and threw up breastworks of knapsacks, logs, and dirt. Open fields stretched beyond the ravine, and Union artillery commanders positioned their guns to stop any Rebel advances across them. The ground on which the battle was fought consisted of rolling hills, broken up into ravines and hollows. Some of it was open country and some was heavily timbered.
The woods extended from the slope of the high ground terminating in the flats from one half to 3/4 of a mile from the river to Gaines’ Mill and were about a mile in length. The stream on which the mill stood emptied into the Chickahominy, flowing a little over half way between these woods and Gaines’ house. At a point below the mill, a small rivulet branched off and running along the skirts of those woods again emptied into the stream. It was on the banks of the rivulet, in a hollow on the edge of the woods, that the 83rd and 44th New York formed a line of battle.
The Battle of Gaines’ Mill Ends for William B. Gray
With a roar of guns and the Rebel Yell, Robert E. Lee’s, Band his men opened the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. The 83rd, according to Captain Judson, had “the hottest corner.” He wrote: “It now became evident that the principal attack was going to be made along the lines of our brigade, for, if they could succeed in crushing us, our left flank would be turned, and the whole corps turned back toward the Pamunky and cut off from the rest of the army.”
The men of the 83rd hastily built a breastwork of logs in their corner and held the position which was on the extreme left of the Union Army. Captain Judson saw Colonel McLane standing near the center of the regiment, beneath the shade of a wide-spreading beech. The Colonel told his men that they must hold their position to the last. Inspired by his courage, the men vowed never to be driven from their position. Aided by artillery, the 83rd repelled the Rebels in three ferocious charges, but then the Rebels partially broke through. The men of the 83rd knew that the Rebels wanted to break through the Union lines, sweep down the river bank, secure the bridges, and cut off retreat.
It seemed that the Rebels were successful. The 83rd Regiment was cut off from the rest of the Army and flanked upon the right as well as in front. All the 83rd could do was come out from cover and fight in the open. They came out and stood to it, while men fell thick and fast on all sides. There is no record in the regimental history of when, where and what time William B. Gray fell. It is just noted in the church record that he died on June 27, 1862.
Bates, Samuel P., History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Harrisburg: B. Singerly, state printer, 1869
Burton, Brian KI., The Peninsula and Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide. Bison Books, 2007
Gallegher, Gary W., The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula and the Seven Days (Military Campaigns of the Civil War). The University of North Carolina Press, 2000
Judson, Amos M., Captain, Company E., History of the Eighty-Third Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Books, 1986