The battle of Fair Oaks, which opened on the afternoon of the 31st of May, at the beginning seemed likely to prove disastrous to our arms from the weakness of the Union column engaged. Heintzelman's Corps moved promptly to the support of Keyes' who was in the advance and first attacked; but still the result was doubtful. An hour before sunset, General Sedgwick, to whose division the Seventy-first was now attached, reached the scene of conflict, and immediately hurled his troops upon the foe, exulting in his successes. The battle raged with great fury until darkness put an end to the struggle. Captain Kirby's section of Ricketts' Battery did most effective service. Four desperate charges were made to capture it, the rebel General Magruder recognizing it as the one he had commanded before he turned traitor. But the double rounds of grape and canister, which it hurled into the face of the charging column, swept everything before it, and kept the enemy at bay.
The troops rested upon their arms on the field. At midnight the enemy made a demonstration on the right. By order of General Burns the Seventy-first was withdrawn from its position at the front, and taken to the menaced ground. A skirmish line was immediately deployed and the regiment advanced in battle order; but the enemy finding that dispositions had been made to receive him, desisted. Early on the following morning it was again in column, and marching in quick time, was deployed in a large grain field, to the right and rear of Fair Oaks, where the enemy was manoevring for position.
Sharp skirmishing ensued, when the enemy fell back, leaving the regiment to watch his movements, repel his attacks, and answer his occasional volleys. The tall grain afforded partial cover, and the casualties on this day were few. The loss on the previous evening was severe. Captain Markoe was wounded.
On the following day the line of the army was advanced, the position of the regiment falling in an exposed place within short musket range of the enemy, and about five hundred yards from the Fair Oaks field. As soon as the picket line had been established the men set to work throwing up rude breastworks that should afford some protection from the bullets which were flying between the picket lines. For four wearisome weeks, in almost constant expectation and dread of battle, it remained in this position, the firing being kept up night and day, and the casualties on both sides numerous. Here fell Lieutenant Maurine C. Moore. During this period, and for the remainder of the Pen insula campaign, the regiment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William G. Jones of the regular army.
For the first three of the Seven Days' Battle, while the struggles at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines' Mill, and the bridges of the Chickahominy were in progress, the regiment held its ground, the enemy manifesting more than usual activity on its front.
On the morning of the 29th, after the army had started on the march to the James, the brigade moved from its encampment, bringing up the rear of Sumner's Corps, to a position on Allen's Farm, between Peach Orchard and Savage Station, where the corps was drawn up in line of battle. The enemy not making his appearance, Sumner ordered Sedgwick to send the California Regiment to re-occupy the picket line at Fair Oaks, which had been abandoned in the morning. The duty was a delicate one, but its commander, accustomed to unquestioning obedience, about faced and moved his little column back through the dreary woods, and over the dismal battle-ground until he reached the identical spot where the enemy had so often charged on Kirby's Battery. The pickets and videttes were posted by Colonel Jones in person, Major Parrish being left in charge of the reserve. Scarcely was the regiment in position, before the enemy's'skirmishers, the Louisiana Tigers, who had been held in concealment in the woods and had reserved their fire until the line was within a few yards of them, opened. The regiment immediately charged and captured several of their number. The position was now perilous. The enemy readily yielded in front with the evident purpose of drawing the regiment on. Infantry and cavalry could be plainly seen in a wood to the left, but whether friend or foe was uncertain., Adjutant Smith volunteered to ride out at the risk of the enemy's fire on th way and the chance of capture when there, and ascertain their true character. The waving of a white handkerchief soon indicated that they were friends, the Fifth New Hampshire with a squadron of cavalry; but they were already hard pressed, and evidently unable to hold out many minutes longer. The enemy, in heavy force, was already marching on the right to Savage Station. The withdrawal of this force on the left, would leave the regiment exposed on three sides. It was accordingly decided to retreat rapidly, and the order was silently passed along the line. By rapid marching by the left to the rear, it succeeded in safely crossing the stream.
Scarcely had the reserve been posted when the enemy opened with infantry and artillery. The position of the regiment was in a garden between the stream and a log house, and in front of Richardson's Division. It was supported by the Fifty-third Pennsylvania, Colonel Brooke, whose right stretched out beyond the crest of the hill, and one company on his left was in rear about fifty yards. Hazzard's and Pettit's Batteries were posted near, and did excellent execution. Repeatedly the enemy charged in heavy force and with determined valor, but was as often hurled back with fearful slaughter, and finally retired. The regiment was vastly outnumbered,.but had the advantage of a stream and a fence, with rugged ground in front. The loss in killed and wounded was ninety-six, ineluding four officers. At the close of the action General Sumner rode up to Colonel Brooke and commended him for the conduct of his regiment; but Brooke, with the quick sensibility of the true soldier, said,
"I am entitled to no particular credit for this victory. It is the California Regiment in my front which deserves your compliments. They have fought hard for their laurels, and shall not be robbed of them by me."
The action closed at one P. M., and the regiment soon after moved on to Savage Station, where, with the brigade, it went into position two hours later, on the Williamsburg Road, co-operating with Hancock's, Brooke's, and Meagher's Brigades. At four the enemy commenced a bold attack. It was gallantly met, and a counter charge delivered with the characteristic impetuosity of Burns, who led it, allayed for a time the thirst of the rebels for battle and blood. The batteries of Hazzard, here, as in the first encounter, delivered their schrapnel with terrible effect. With obstinacy on either side the battle was maintained until nine o'clock, when quietly withdrawing, the corps moved on to White Oak Swamp.
The loss was sixty-eight killed and wounded. The severely hurt were left upon the field. General Burns received a painful wound. A bullet carried away the fleshy part of the cheek, and though greatly weakened by the loss of blood, refused to leave his command until he reached Harrison's Landing. Upon the march the men, who were exhausted by the hard service of the day, suffered intensely for want of water, and upon reaching the swamp were glad to drink from the muddy and stagnant pools which the trains that preceded them had driven through.
On the morning of the 30th the brigade moved to Charles City Cross Roads, taking position upon the left of the Pennsylvania Reserves. In the progress of the battle, which raged with great fury from its opening, the enemy charged with deafening yells upon Hazzard's Battery, that was inflicting terrible slaughter. It was met by a counter charge from the Seventy-first. The guns were saved, but many of the gunners having fallen, it was almost silenced. In this charge Lieutenant George W. Kinney was killed. Stung to madness by their loss, they sprang to their guns and gave the retreating rebels round upon round of death-laden missiles. At four o'clock the entire brigade charged to re-take the guns of a New York battery, which had been abandoned. The guns were recovered, the enemy driven to the woods, and the ground, which had been a source of contention, was held.
At night the regiment moved on to Malvern Hill, where it went into position in support of artillery. After the battle the army retired to Harrison's Landing, where it went into camp.
On the 4th of August the divisions of Sedgwick and Hooker, in light marching order, proceeded to Malvern Hill, where a small force of the enemy was in position. After a short skirmish he was driven, leaving his artillery and one hundred prisoners in the hands of the victors. Upon the return of the regiment to Harrison's Landing the work of re-organizing and filling up its shattered ranks was vigorously prosecuted. It had to this time had fifteen companies. Five of them, L, M, N, P, and R, were now disbanded and the men transferred to the first ten companies.
From the Peninsula, the regiment moved to Alexandria, where Colonel Wistar, now partially recovered, resumed command. A forceed march of Sumner's Corps was made to the sound of the guns of the Second Bull Run Battle, and reached the field towards the close of the action of the 31st of August, where it went into position to cover the retreat of Pope's army, and, after it had passed, acted as rear guard. Burns' Brigade was the extreme rear guard on the left of the three roads of retreat to Washington, and maintained vigorous skirmishing as far as Chain Bridge, where it crossed and went into camp at Tenallytown. After a brief pause, it marched to meet the enemy who had now crossed the Potomac above Harper's Ferry.
At Hyattstown the corps was halted, and the Seventy-first sent forward to occupy the place, hold the road and the pass through the hills beyond. The village was instantly cleared, the enemy's pickets, in considerable force, retiring and taking position successively on the side and summit of the opposite hill, from both of which they were rapidly driven. Here it was reinforced by the First Minnesota Infantry and a battery, and directed to maintain itself for the night, which it did with constant skirmishing. At daylight the corps came up, and pursuit of the enemy was resumed.
Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, Harrisburg, 1868-1871.