Doc. 25.-operations in York River, Va.
Report of Lieut. Commanding Phelps.
U. S. Coast Survey steamer Corwin, West-point, Va., May 8, 1862.dear sir: It gives me pleasure to inform you that during the recent important movements in York River, the Corwin has performed her full share. On Saturday morning, the fourth instant, we discovered that Yorktown and Gloucester Point were abandoned, which was instantly telegraphed to the flag — ship. The squadron immediately weighed and stood up the river. When near Gloucester Point, I received orders to take the Currituck in company, and proceed up the river, about four miles, to reconnoitre the shores, and intercept the enemy's transports and other vessels. We started ahead at full speed, and when near Queen's Creek discovered a company of the rebel cavalry, which our shells soon dispersed; immediately afterwards observed Bigler's wharf to be on fire in several places, and three schooners and a launch escaping to the windward. Our shot soon hove to a schooner and the launch, (loaded with stores and the effects of Gen. Rains and Lieut. Whitney, C. S. A.,) and the other vessels were fired and abandoned, their crews escaping to the shore. Having reached a point thirteen miles above Yorktown, in consequence of my orders I was compelled to return, and, after having secured the prizes and captured a sloop in addition, I steamed down the river, and, when within about five miles of Yorktown, I met one of the gun-boats, and her captain (T. H. Patterson) directed me to cover his vessel in a reconnoissance towards the head of the river. I immediately cast off the prizes and led up to West-Point, where we discovered the place to be abandoned, several partially-built gunboats and the York River light-boat on fire, and two regiments, that morning arrived from Richmond on their way to Yorktown, just leaving in the cars, and white flags waving on shore. Having executed the duty assigned, we commenced our return, and soon passed the Currituck, bound up, with orders to burn the railroad bridge. On my arrival opposite Bigler's wharf, (having captured another schooner on the way down,) I received directions to return and prevent the destruction of the bridge, which duty was successfully accomplished. Upon my second arrival at West-Point, at half-past 9 P. M., Capt. Shankland, of the Currituck, reported that he had landed and hoisted the Union flag, and had found about fifty prisoners of the rebels, (mostly women and children,) “living in a horrible condition, in sheds, and without the common necessaries of life.” These people were residents of Elizabeth City county, and sent here by Gen. Magruder on account of their Union proclivities. I at once decided to remain and hold possession of the place, protect the people, and prevent a further destruction of property by the rebels, until the arrival of the commanding officer of the naval division. On the fifth instant we seized a schooner in the Pamunkey River, and also the C. S. sloop Water Witch, recently abandoned by Capt. Thomas Jefferson Page. During the day, I secured much information regarding the movements of the rebel army, which was transmitted to the proper authority. On the sixth, the naval vessels arrived, conveying the division of Gen. Franklin. During the evening I received information that the enemy would attempt to destroy the town during the night, which I at once reported to the commanding officer, and received orders to anchor near the ship-yard, where I could command the approaches to the town.  About eleven A. M., on the seventh, I heard that about four thousand of the troops recently stationed at Gloucester Point (who had retreated up the north side of the York River, with the view of crossing at this place, and were prevented by our presence) were crossing the Mattapony River at Frazier's Ferry, thirty miles above here. I immediately asked and obtained permission to go after them, and by three P. M. had carried the old flag thirty-six miles above West-Point, till our progress was checked by our draught of water. I learned that four thousand of the rebels had passed the previous night, on their way to Dunkirk Bridge. I found white flags hoisted on both shores of the river, and the people generally apparently pleased to see the Union flag once more among them. About three miles above this place the Mattapony has been obstructed by the sinking of six vessels in the channel, but we passed round the south side of them in five fathoms water. In the evening we returned to our anchorage, and during the night shelled out a party who were endeavoring to set fire to the timber in the ship-yard, which had escaped the general destruction by the rebels on their evacuation of the place during the fourth instant. I will mention that we had the pleasure of firing the last naval shot at Yorktown on the evening previous to the evacuation, and that one of our twelve-pound Hotchkiss shell, projected a fraction over four miles, exploded and killed five of the enemy, and one of the solid shot passed about one half a mile beyond the town, or four and a half miles. All the prisoners who have been captured, or have given themselves up to me, agree in saying that the rebel army from Yorktown ( “one hundred and twenty-five thousand well men” ) will fall back to the Chickahominy, and that Gen. Johnston declares that he will not attempt to make a stand where our gunboats can cut up his men; they also say that the people “feel that it is all over with them,” and soldiers desert whenever they can. I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,