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The battle of May 5th.

Editors Chronicle: In commenting in a recent issue of your paper on some inaccuracies in Barnes' History of the United States, Professor Derry instances his statement that Williamsburg was a Union victory. The Professor says this is erroneous, it being, in reality, a drawn battle. [411]

Permit me to say that the exact truth of the matter is that the battle of Williamsburg was a Confederate success.

The occasion of the battle was this: The Confederate army was on its march from Yorktown to its chosen field of battle near Richmond. McClellan, at the head of a powerful army, was in hot pursuit. He had one hundred and fifteen regiments of infantry, a strong force of cavalry, and some two hundred and fifty guns. Between the two at Williamsburg, the ancient colonial capital of Virginia, lay Longstreet's division, stretched across the road, with orders to keep back the Federal advance until the Confederate army had made good a day's march. This duty the division fully performed. Hooker's division, Kearney's division, and parts of Smith's, Couch's, and Casey's divisions were in turn hurled against that line of fire, but all alike in vain. Not one single Federal soldier in arms ever crossed that line until after daylight next morning, when Longstreet's division, having performed the duty assigned it, was well on its way to rejoin the main body.

Glorious results.

We took eight stands of colors, and every gun except one that the Federal artillery succeeded in bringing into action. So far from being able to advance, the Union troops were steadily driven back, until at the close of the day we were about one mile in the rear of their original line of formation. The next morning after the action Hooker's division was reported as unfit for service, and Kearney's as in need of reinforcements before it could move. From the staggering blows dealt his best troops, McClellan was under the impression that Joseph E. Johnston's whole army was in his immediate front, and did not move from Williamsburg until the 8th. Nor did he make any further attempt to harrass or impede our march. From these facts the reader can determine for himself which side achieved the object for which the battle was fought.

On our left there was no fighting until late in the afternoon, when a brief but bloody struggle occurred between Hancock's brigade and a part of Early's brigade. Early failed to drive Hancock from his position, but, on the other hand, the Federal commander did not venture to advance. From this encounter, which lasted less than half an hour, though in that time some five hundred men fell, the impression may have originated that Williamsburg was a drawn battle; but it was upon our right that the main and real action was [412] fought. Here division grappled with division, and the fight raged furiously from about 10 A. M. till dusk. When it ended we had the flags, and the cannon, and the field.

In saying that Longstreet's division not only repelled the Federal advance, but drove them back a mile from their original position, I know whereof I affirm, having been in this action from the beginning to the end thereof as a soldier in Ambrose P. Hill's brigade (First, Seventh, Eleventh, and Seventeenth Virginia infantry), which took seven out of eight flags captured, and was mentioned by the general commanding as long and hotly engaged in the thickest of the fight.

Just before going in.

The battle opened, to me at least, most unexpectedly. I had slipped out of camp and was breakfasting with a young lady, when suddenly the ring of a field-piece clanged close by upon the air. Seizing musket and equipments I bolted out of doors sans ceremonie and made for the main street, visions of a court-martial floating before me. The sidewalks were full of infantry at double-quick, and artillery, staff officers, and couriers were coming down the roadway at a gallop. Some one told me Hill was on ahead, and, throwing away my blanket, I ran to the head of the column. The commanding officer could not tell me where my brigade was, and I kept on till I cleared the town. Here a group of staff officers were directing the troops, and in response to my query one of them pointed out a regiment just disappearing behind some pines on the further side of the main road. This road the Federals were shelling, and I began to realize that my little escapade had gotten me into a pretty serious predicament. If I crossed the road I ran the risk of being hit, and if I went back into town so as to work my way around, it was not likely I would find the regiment again, and it would be hard work to satisfactorily explain my absence. A little observation, however, showed that the enemy were firing slowly and would not move more than one or two guns in position, and I determined to try the short cut. Throwing off haversack and jacket, I slipped down the bank into the road and waited for the next discharge. As soon as the shell screamed by I started. There was a shout or cry of warning behind me, but I flew across like a deer, dashed full tilt against the opposite bank, climbed up and soon rejoined the regiment. The men gave me a cheer as I came up, and I felt as fine as a fiddle. We were young then, Horatio, and life was a frolic.

[413]

The opening of the fight.

The brigade was soon formed in column of regiments, the Seventh, my own, in front. Behind were the ambulance, litter-carriers, and surgeons—a grisly crew. In front the skirmishers were working their way towards a dense woods. In this they disappeared, and for awhile all was silent. Then a shot rang out, then another, then a sharp rattle, and we were ordered forward by the flank. On reaching the woods we were again put in line of battle and ordered in. Scarcely had we entered before some of our troops came running out. It was a new regiment, which being suddenly fired on had given way. They soon rallied, came up behind us, moved off to the right, and, as I heard, did well the rest of the day. As soon as the fugitives had passed we opened fire. I saw nothing, but banged away, might and main, in the direction in which the balls seemed to come. After about half an hour of pretty sharp firing we were ordered to advance, and plunged into a dense tangle of brush, undergrowth, vines, etc. As we tore through this the enemy seemed to get our range and poured in a heavy fire. The thud! thud! with which the balls bored their way into the trees was venomous. As soon as we reached better ground, we advanced firing. This was most exciting. Everybody was yelling, firing, and advancing. In this advance, I don't know that I did the enemy any harm, but, then, on the other hand, I nearly deprived the Confederacy of a soldier. While in the very act of firing, a big fellow, running up rapidly from behind, got almost in front of the muzzle of my musket, which went off within a few inches of his ear. He bent a most reproachful look upon me, but it was no time for explanation, and on he went and I after him, biting another cartridge and ramming it as I went along. The enemy must have made off before we got within sight of them, for the firing ceased and we were halted along a fence.

At it in dead earnest.

By this time we were all pretty well warmed up and ready for business. In coming through the brush I had received a very severe gash from a jagged limb, not to speak of being knocked down and trod on, and was by no means in an angelic humor. I looked around, with all my eyes, for something to shoot at, but to the right and in front beheld nothing. To the left oblique I thought I saw men moving about among the trees, and on closer inspection could discern [414] some dark blue uniforms. Presently the presence of the enemy became unmistakable. I could distinctly see company after company march briskly down a sort of woods road, halt, and face towards us. Half a dozen fellows by me saw the same and raised their guns. I took a rest on a tree, and a long aim, and we fired together. Without stopping to reload I peered forward through the smoke to discern the effect of the shot. There seemed some slight commotion, but it may only have Leen the officers moving about, as in a moment, as if at the word of command, the whole line brought up their muskets. The long stretch of glittering steel, with a head bent down at the end of each gun-barrel, was a thrilling sight. A huge cloud of smoke hid them from our view, and a tremendous report rang through the forest. Our whole line instantly replied, and the ball opened in dead earnest. As I half-faced to the left to reload I saw our junior second-lieutenant flat upon his back, his jaw convulsively working in the agonies of death. He had never been with us in action before, and his presentiment was realized that he would fall in his first battle. I had known him before we joined the army, and the sight of his death filled me with rage. Half mad with pain and anger I rammed the loads home with all my strength, but aimed carefully each time on the range of my first shot. Other troops were apparently brought up, right and left, on both sides, for the uproar swelled until it became deafening. The ground being impracticable for either cavalry or artillery, it was a fair and square stand — up infantry fight at close range, and most stubbornly contested. The enemy hung staunchly to their work, and our own men fought like demons.

For fully an hour the din kept up without cessation. Then the enemy's fire slackened, and we held up a little in turn. Then they reopened with fresh fury, and at it again we went, hammer and tongs. Those were the days, it will be remembered, of muzzleloaders and the old-fashioned ball cartridge, the end of which you were obliged to tear off with your teeth. After heavy firing the guns would clog, and presently every piece began to foul. I had to stop, tear up my handkerchief and wipe her out. After awhile it clogged again, and finally the ramrod stuck fast. It would neither come up nor go down, and, in despair, I jammed it, full force, into a tree. That drove that charge home, but, on coming to reload, the rammer was so bent as to be almost useless. A few more loads were worried down, and then the gun became wholly unmangeable, and I threw it down and looked around for another. Behind me was one with a prostrate soldier by it. As I stooped to pick it up, the supposed [415] dead man came to life, stretched out his hand, and shook his head as if to say, don't take it. I gestured back it was no use to him, but he still demurred, and to cut short the pantomine, I snatched the gun away and set her to talking.

A typical battle scene.

For a second time the fire slackened and then reopened fiercely, and a third prolonged and stubborn combat ensued. It was evident they were putting in fresh men; our ammunition was running low, and General Hill ordered a charge. We started with a yell and the firing ceased. It did not take us long to reach the enemy's position. The line of their formation did not need the double row of knapsacks neatly piled behind it to mark where it had been. It was bloodily signified by prostrate forms, many dead, others gasping. They lay in every direction, like a rail fence thrown down. In several instances body lay upon body. It was a wretched sight. We tried to give the wounded some water, the only aid in our power. The first man I bent over was past all human help; the next was unable to swallow, and as I sought to raise him the bones of his head cracked in the palm of my hand.

During our brief rest at this spot the men busied themselves in various ways. Most of them replenished their cartridge-boxes from those who had fallen; others tore open the knapsacks and kicked the contents about the ground; others explored the haversacks plentifully strewn around. I refilled my box, wiped out my gun, threw away my old canteen and got me a new one, and then fell — to on some biscuit. While there engaged we were ordered forward, and, dropping everything, reformed and went on. After marching a while the woods grew clearer, and presently we emerged at the end.

To use the favorite simile of Sancho Panza, all that had gone before was but tarts and cheese-cakes to what now ensued. At the edge of the woods was a belt of felled timber, beyond that a clearing, and woods beyond that again. At the far side of the timber a bran-new regiment of Federal infantry, the fifth, as I make it, we had encountered that day, was drawn up to bar the way. Later in the day we learned it was the Seventieth New York. And I desire here to do justice to the soldierly steadiness of this command. For two hours or more it held us at bay, at one time forcing us back a short distance by the sheer weight of its fire, and never gave way till two-thirds of its officers and nearly one-half of its men had been shot down; till its brave and skilful colonel had been twice wounded [416] and knocked senseless, and clambering over the timber we had got fairly in among them.

But, not to anticipate; on emerging from the woods the scene was one of stern and imposing grandeur. The smoke of the previous combats was slowly drifting out of the forest and rising like a thin veil between us and the enemy. Through the haze could be seen the long line of infantry, splendidly equipped and motionless as so many statues, the sombre blue of their uniforms relieved by a shining crest of steel, the gold blazonry of the regimental colors, and the gay hues of the national flag.

Pandemonium broke loose.

No time, however, was lost in admiration. Our men at once settled down behind the logs, rested their muskets on the tree-trunks, and fired. I was fain to content myself with a small pine (all the time wishing it was as big as the red woods) and blazed away over their heads. The enemy at once opened vigorously. Other regiments formed upon their flanks. The Eleventh came up on our right and the Seventeenth on our left. A Federal battery opened down the line; then one began to bellow upon the right. Stuart's horse artillery came up and unlimbered, and the guns at Fort Magruder began to play. Hooker put in his last man and so did Longstreet. Kearney's division came up and Hooker put that in. Longstreet received two regiments from D. H. Hill's division, and put them in. It was pandemonium broke loose. It seemed to me as if the brass pieces fairly howled, while the roll of the small arms was something indescribable. Ordinarily heavy musketry rises and falls like the sound of the sea, but here it was one deep, incessant, prolonged, deafening roar.

Our men began to fall. Ensconced as they were behind logs, when hit they would ordinarily be struck in the head or throat and killed. They dropped in all sorts of positions, some falling suddenly forward; others sliding gently backwards or sideways; one fell all in a heap, as if he had collapsed. One death was most tragic and yet with a touch of the absurd. Among the recruits joining us at Yorktown were a backwoods father and son, whose rustic demeanor was the jest of the regiment. The old man clung to the old-fashioned, tall silk hat; the son followed at ‘pappy's’ heels wherever he went.

Both fell in this battle, fighting like lions. The old man was close by me and I could not but notice him and his high hat as I fired over him. A man fell by him—possibly his son—but the old hero never stopped. Presently he fell over gently to the ground, shuddered, [417] and was still, his venerable head-gear surmounting his gray locks to the last.

So far from losing, the Federal fire appeared to gain intensity. The balls seemed to whiz closer and more viciously than at first, and we subsequently learned the Union Colonel was successfully operating a stratagem upon us. He had made some of his best shots crawl under the timber, and they were picking us off. Our color-bearer had special attention. Time and again as I turned to reload I could see the colors almost jerked out of his hands as a ball tore through the cloth. He hung on manfully, and though the flag had twenty-seven bullet-holes through it, and was twice shot out of his hands, brought her out safe at last. The Virginia Legislature gave him a sword of honor, and he wore it until he fell.

A temporary panic.

We had now been about seven hours in action, some two at this particular point, and the strain was intense. Off on the right one fellow sprang up, dropped his gun to a trail, and made off back into the woods like a quarter-horse. The panic instantly spread, and up and down the line men took to their heels. To tell the honest truth, I gave leg-bail myself, but at the second or third bound a revered and gentle voice, now long silent, whispered reproach, and I wheeled about and caught at the nearest fugitive. He tore loose and half knocked me over. A young officer ran up to the rescue, and as he nailed one man I seized another. They, too, broke away. The officer presented his sword to the next man's breast, and throwing my musket arms-a-port I halted two. For one instant there was a rally; the next they surged over us, and made off as if the devil was behind them. What became of the young officer I know not. I thought I might as well be shot front as rear, and walked back to my tree. Two or three of our men were blazing away. The smoke was lifting a little, and the enemy were preparing to advance. Half a dozen heads had already popped up out of the timber. Back of them their main line was reforming. It was not more than half its original size—had no colors, and otherwise showed marks of the pounding it had received. It seemed very reluctant to advance, and in a few minutes this hesitancy was explained. There was a rousing shout behind; our men had reformed as suddenly as they had run away, and here they came back at a double-quick, yelling vociferously. Down they went again behind the logs, and reopened most vigorously, as if rather refreshed than otherwise by the scare. It [418] makes me laugh now to think of the whoop I gave as they came up. It would have done honor to a Comanche. Hope was almost gone, and the sight once more of these brave men's faces and the cheery ring of their guns was like the breath of life.

A picture of A. P. Hill.

In the midst of the renewed uproar General Hill came down the line. He stood bolt upright between the contending fires, looked around awhile, then went off to the left, returned, looked once more intently into the timber as if to say this nest must be cleaned out, and finally went off up the line. Years afterwards I stood by the grave of this valiant soldier in the cemetery at Richmond. Naught marked the spot but a slab with ‘A. P. Hill,’ and nothing but the twitter of little birds broke the solemn stillness; but as I stood there I saw him as he stood that day—erect, magnificent, the god of war himself, amid the smoke and the thunder.

The order came to charge. Of how we got up and went into and through that felled timber no man can tell. It was confusion worse confounded; now leaping from one tree trunk to another; now running along this, and then crawling under the other. But if it was hard for us to get in it was equally hard for the enemy to get out. Some rough work was done in there. The edge of the timber looked as if a cyclone had struck it. In every angle bodies were huddled. In the smoke and confusion I lost the regiment, and kept on ahead instead of right-obliquing. A terrific roar and jar and a hot breath as of a furnace warned me of the uncomfortable proximity of a cannon. It was an enfilading battery which our colonel had avoided by a right oblique.

Close of the day.

One artilleryman was springing to the mouth of his piece, and another tightening on the lanyard of his. Down I went as flat as possible, and I wished I was a mole. The dirt, leaves and sticks flew all about, but I was so close the position was more terrifying than really dangerous. I could see the fire leap out of the muzzle, and a very unsatisfactory sight it was. A gray wave swept up over guns and cannoneers, and the battery was taken. I got up extremely shaky, and set out to find the regiment. After wandering about a while I met the Adjutant, who directed me and exultantly showed me a magnificent dapple-gray he had got at the battery. I told him [419] I believed I would go up there and get a horse myself, but on the way met the regiment.

After cleaning out the timber we had no more fighting. The Federals brought up some fresh troops, and Colston's brigade was put in to meet them. We lay down behind Colston, ready to rise and reopen if needed, but no further close quarters ensued. The enemy contended himself with peppering away till dusk. The battle was over, and about dark we marched back into Williamsburg and slept there that night, resuming our march shortly before day.

That Williamsburg was a very stubbornly-contested action is unquestionable, and it is also true that the loss on both sides was heavy, the proportion of fatal casualties being unusually great; but there can be no question but that the Confederate troops fully accomplished the object for which the battle was fought. That object was to hold back McClellan's advance, and, despite the most strenuous and persevering efforts of his division commanders, this was done. The Federal forces were not only prevented from advancing, but were steadily driven back throughout the day.


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