Having done a thread on Micah Jenkins at the battle of Glendale, I thought I should also do one on his actions in the battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks, which I think ranks among the best small unit actions of the war.
For a rather large and bloody battle, Seven Pines is very overlooked in comparison to others in the East. So is Jenkins' performance there. Although some of the things he did later in the war can be called into question, this was without a doubt the shining moment of his career, earning him high accolades in the Army of Northern Virginia.
Part of the Peninsula Campaign, the battle was fought on May 31 - June 1, 1862. Having withdrawn up the Virginia Peninsula, pursued by McClellan's army until on the outskirts of Richmond, Gen. Joe Johnston decided to strike back in an attack on two isolated Federal corps south of the Chickahominy River.
After the battle got underway on May 31, Brig. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's brigade (containing Col. Jenkins and his regiment, the Palmetto Sharpshooters) was sent in to support D. H. Hill's division. Anderson divided his brigade, placing Jenkins in command of both his own regiment and the 6th South Carolina. He was also joined by the 27th Georgia from another brigade. With these three regiments, Hill then sent him on a flanking movement on the Federal right.
In a letter to his sister written not long after the battle, Longstreet's aide, Major Thomas J. Goree, sums up Jenkins' performance rather accurately:
Genl. Anderson's S.C. Brigade under Col. Jenkins (Genl. Anderson being temporarily in command of a division) immortalized itself.
Col. Jenkins carried the brigade into action about 3 O'clock P.M., a little further to the left of where Genl. D.H. Hill was engaged. From this time until night he fought unsupported and alone, and advancing all the time. He fought 5 separate & distinct lines of the enemy, whipping each one. He whipped the whole of Genl. Couch's Division, consisting of 12 or 15 regiments, with a little brigade of 1900 men. He passed over several abattis of felled timber, two lines of breastworks, captured three pieces of artillery, 250 prisoners, & several stands of colors.
He whipped the fifth lines of the enemy about 8 O'clock P.M. At that time he was near two miles in advance of anyone else. His brigade rested that night in a Massachusetts camp, and had every luxury nearly that you can imagine: a plenty of brandy, lemons, & preserved fruits of all sorts, oil clothes, boots and shoes, opera glasses, etc. etc. etc.
The Yankee prisoners were perfectly surprised when they found he had accomplished so much with only one little brigade. They told him that every line he met was composed of fresh troops, and that they thought he was receiving reinforcements all the time.
Genl. Longstreet was very much surprised, too, when Col. Jenkins came in at night, and reported where his brigade was.
This brigade went into action with 1900 men. It lost 700 killed & wounded, & among this number were more than half of its field officers, and near one third of the line officers. But, it never faltered, nor even stopped. It advanced slowly but steadily for more than two miles, all the time in the face of a galling fire, and nearly all the way over felled timber & the enemy's breastworks. . . .
A few days previous to the battle, Genl. Longstreet presented to Col. Jenkins' Regt. ("Palmetto Sharpshooters") a battle flag. A noble, manly fellow was the color bearer. In the fight he was shot down; as Col. Jenkins rode by where he was lying he raised himself on his elbow & exclaimed: "For God's sake, Colonel, take care of my flag."
This flag has 9 bullet holes in it. It had a guard of 12 men, 10 of them were killed & wounded. This flag, at one time, changed hands 4 times in 3 minutes without falling to the ground. It now has inscribed on it "Williamsburg" & "Seven Pines."
(The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas J. Goree edited by Thomas W. Cutrer, p. 87)
As mentioned, Jenkins was not actually commanding Anderson's entire brigade, but only three regiments. A fourth regiment, the 5th South Carolina, was later sent to his aide, before he defeated the final, fifth line.
As Jenkins details in his report, which I'll post below, his key was speed. He kept his men moving, never fighting for more than five minutes in one place. After defeating one line he would immediately advance to the next, chasing the retreating Union troops back to the next line, before they had time to prepare or open fire at long range. His men also made some complex maneuvers while under fire. That was rather impressive for a commander and troops who had only seen one or two major battles previously, and nothing nearly as intense.
Graduating at the top of his class at the Citadel and later founding the King's Mountain Military Academy, Jenkins was an exceptional drill master. As Capt. W. B. Smith, Co. G, Palmetto Sharpshooters later wrote, "General Jenkins was magic. He could come nearer making his men work like machinery than any other man I ever saw."