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Chapter 22:

  • Things at Yorktown lines continued
  • -- we evacuate Yorktown lines -- battle of Williamsburgh, may fifth -- it is claimed, as usual, by the Federals as a “brilliant victory” -- facts of the matter -- we offer the enemy battle twice before entering our lines around Richmond, etc.

Every day saw our troops gradually leaving the lines, and the labor imposed upon us who remained was excessive and. exhausting. We had in truth been doing “double duty” in the front ever since our arrival; but the brigade having “unfortunately” won good repute in the army, we endured the natural consequences, and were worked almost to death. It seems strange that generals should thus treat all troops of any celebrity; but such I noticed was almost invariably the case, while prim and spruce brigades, which had done nothing but eat rations and parade were always found snugly encamped to the rear, luxuriating in idleness. Our position might be considered very “honorable,” and officers might pompously speak of “posts of honor,” and such like, but many like myself would have been infinitely more contented with less of the “honor” and a greater allowance of rations, in a position somewhat more distant than the one occupied ever since our arrival. Sleeping without blankets on wet clay, or upon a bed of fence-rails, often indeed sleeping upon the fence itself, balancing and roosting on rails like game-cocks, was not very poetical or easy, although the general might strut about and talk largely of “reputation,” “imperishable glory,” and the like; and being awakened twice or thrice each night by stray bullets whistling around breastworks, was not quite so desirable as some ambitious youths “at home” might imagine! I had seen much service, it is true; but the climax seemed attained among the muddy, watery, slippery roads and breastworks of Yorktown lines. I know not what style of picture artists may draw of us [198] in forthcoming times, but suppose men of genius will paint in glorious colors, in which all the pomp and circumstance of war will be duly portrayed, with bands and banners, fine cloth and gold lace; but should any disciple of the beautiful and true require “a living model,” he can dress his subject at the nearest rag-shop, and I promise it will be pronounced “truthful and lifelike” by any who fought in 1861 and 1862. Except our arms and accoutrements, all things else were worthless. Garments were perforated in all manner of places; some had shoes; but few rejoiced in more than one suit of under clothes, which had never seen soap for months — for soap we had none. A little longer stay at Yorktown lines, and I might have exclaimed with Falstaff: “There is but half a shirt in my whole company.”

When nearly all the troops had left, we of the honorable rear-guard received notice to pack up and prepare for departure. Having nothing to pack, it was with great facility that we formed in line and marched out of the breastworks about nine P. M., Saturday, May third. A strong picket-guard was left in front “to keep up appearances ;” but the enemy were as well aware as ourselves of our every movement, having made frequent ascents with their large balloon to satisfy themselves on this point. The works were left intact, but, save a few unwieldy columbiads, all ordnance had been carried off many days previously. Our men made “dunories,” and put them in the embrasures, besides stuffing old clothes to represent sentinels. These latter had placards on their backs highly complimentary of course to the “incoming” Yankees: but without noise, and in perfect order, we sallied forth towards Williamsburgh. The artillerists at Yorktown had applied slow matches to their large pieces, so that during the whole night the heavens were illuminated by discharges, the immense shells bursting in all directions among the Yankee advance posts.1 [199]

When we had travelled some fifteen miles, a “halt” was sounded, for a few moments' rest; but I was so fatigued that I fell sound asleep, and did not wake till long after sunrise, by which time our troops had all passed, except a few stragglers, who hurried on in great haste, bringing the agreeable news that the Yankee cavalry in great force were close at our heels! I immediately took to the woods for safety, and reached Williamsburgh about noon. Expecting the enemy to pursue, our brigade was in battle array; but up to two P. M. none had appeared; so the line of march was resumed, and we halted in the streets of Williamsburgh, before Johnston's headquarters. The Warwick and Yorktown roads converge a short distance east of this little town, the whole eastern part of it being cleared like a lawn, and exactly suitable for a fight. Several earthworks fully commanded all this open space and the east portion of the town, having been erected by Magruder to protect his late winter-quarters. A few pieces of artillery were pointed eastward along the roads, when suddenly the enemy appeared, and, under cover of the woods, commenced shelling our redoubts.

It was evident a fight must cone off at this place, so several brigades were countermarched through Williamsburgh, and took up positions in a strip, of wood on the edge of the town. The artillery were exchanging shots very briskly, and the greatest confusion was manifested by the inhabitants. The “pattering” of musketry now became audible, but it was generally supposed that the fight would be postponed until the morrow, (Monday.) The enemy's cavalry, however, were particularly active in charging upon a few stragglers who endeavored to break across the open ground, when several squadrons of ours attacked them sword in hand, upon which they broke, re-formed on a rising ground, and as our men galloped towards them a second time, they discharged their revolvers and disappeared. We captured many, and the advance of infantry in line across the open ground drove them through the woods for two miles. At sunset all was over: our outposts were fully [200] two miles east of the town in the woods, and maintained their ground. General Longstreet was intrusted with defending the rear of the army, and made every disposition to entice the foe into open ground, so that he might soundly thrash them on the morrow. The retreat of the main army continued as if nothing had happened; and as our flank was threatened by a force which had been hurried with great despatch up the York River, Hood's Texan brigade was “double quicked” to West-Point to oppose the movement.

While our brigade bivouacked west of the town waiting for orders, I could not help laughing at the wo-begone features of some of our men, who, supposed to be sick, were sent to King's Mill Landing on the James, for shipment to Richmond; but the Yankee cavalry unexpectedly appearing, dispersed them like chaff. Several days before our departure from Yorktown, the doctors had informed us that all incapable of marching to Richmond (seventy-five miles) should give their arms to the ordnance sergeants, and proceed to King's Mill Landing, (seven miles,) where steamboats would be ready for their conveyance. As no fight was deemed possible, many “played possum,” or “old soldier,” and pretended to be terribly affected by rheumatism. But the steamboats had all gone, and to the astonishment of our “sick,” the Federal cavalry appeared on a neighboring hill, when all these limping, rheumatically-affected gentlemen threw away their walking-sticks and clubs, and made a rush towards Williamsburgh. While laughing and chatting round the camp-fire, near the roadside, a cavalry friend of mine rode up spattered with mud, “Tom, letter for you-can't stop-warm work to-morrow!” and galloped off through the mud at a fearful rate.

Our conversation had been prolonged far into the night, and as great activity was being displayed by Longstreet, prudence suggested the necessity of obtaining some little rest. It was not thought that a general engagement would ensue on the morrow, but it was imagined that the enemy would move heaven and earth to snatch some sort of victory from our rear-guard, in order to magnify it abroad. When the stars paled, our men were awakened and fell into line without drums or bugles. Outposts in the woods below Williamsburgh were strengthened, [201] and ordered to fall back in good order should the enemy attack in force. The foe, under Generals Heintzelman, Hooker, and Kearny, were not long in approaching: long lines of blue coats were reported coming up the roads, with strong bodies of skirmishers on the flanks. The “popping” of pickets and outposts soon changed into the distant “pattering” volleys of men in line; artillery began to roar, and the battle of Williamsburgh was fairly opened.

Our advance. now began to fall back as directed, and were endeavoring to entice the enemy into open ground. It seemed to be the wish of Longstreet to have “a fair fight and no favor.” For this purpose our troops were drawn up in the long open “green” previously described, several breastworks were in the rear, and heavy supports behind them. Finding our men rapidly giving ground, the enemy left the woods, where they had been fighting under cover, and boldly came forth on the green, in beautiful order, to attack several earthworks in which were no cannon. They advanced with cheers, and waving banners; but when they had half surrounded those places, and were within seventy paces, up rose our men in the works, and poured volleys into their faces. They broke in utter confusion, sought the woods, and were mown down by grape-shot from guns to the right and left. Similar experiments were tried by the enemy during the morning, but always with disastrous consequences. One redoubt was assailed not less than three times by different brigades, and successfully repulsed by a single regiment of South-Carolinians, under Jenkins. They actually entered one mud work which had been held by North-Carolinians, but while in momentary possession a regiment of Louisianians swarmed over the parapets and killed all within it. Cannonading was incessant along the line, which, as could be observed by the smoke, was beautifully kept.

Every trick that could be imagined was resorted to by Longstreet to entice Heintzelman into open ground; but that officer remembered Manassas and knew perfectly well the mettle of our regiments. In vain brigade after brigade dashed across the “open,” jumped the fences, and attacked the foe in the woods, and then fell back to invite them on; but it could not be accomplished. About noon it seemed as if Longstreet was desirous of retreating — the enemy perceived it and ventured into the [202] open ground. As quick as thought they were attacked with great fury, and our defence was changed into an attack! Artillery seemed to have acquired new life; galloping into the open, they unlimbered and commenced a fearful duel at short range! Gun after gun was abandoned by the enemy, while artillerymen unemployed would dash with spare horses under fire, and secure the trophies. Infantry in all directions were shouting and entering the woods in front, and every one seemed to wear a pleased and laughing countenance. “If they won't advance to Richmond, we'll make them advance to Yorktown,” was the common expression.

From the line of fire it would seem that Heintzelman was inclined to return, for our musketry and artillery were advanced a mile in the woods. But rain had fallen the previous night and rendered our progress irksome and slow, for the roads were of light sand, or deep tenacious mud. Wherever we moved the woods were strewn with dead bodies, and arms plentiful. Those of our men who possessed only old muskets or inferior weapons exchanged them for better while advancing, so that the enemy had not thrown them away many minutes ere they were being handled by superior artists, and with deadly effect: The wounded, if at all able, would invariably pick up a good rifle on their way to the rear; so that spare ordnance wagons were continually moving off with valuable spoil.

After driving the enemy about a mile through the timber, and with considerable slaughter, Longstreet halted hit veteran division, and re-formed. He then endeavored to entice Heintzelman into an advance, but, failing in this, he “let loose” his men once again, and the Federals were driven still farther back at all points. The enemy were approaching their supports, while we were leaving ours behind us. This would not answer; so that having conquered fully two miles of ground, and driven the enemy from our front, we began to retire, carrying off whatever was likely to prove useful. I myself counted six field-pieces, and several thousand stand of arms, and (though not said it vanity, but for sake of example) among several hundred prisoners were five troopers of the “Fifth United States dragoons,” whom I had captured without trouble. At nightfall the field was scoured in search of arms, and many prisoners were taken, who, lying on their [203] faces during close action, pretended to be dead, but willingly came forward and seemed anxious to be paroled, but not exchanged. Having done as much as possible for our dead and wounded, and thrown strong picket-guards along our front, our men were allowed several hours for rest; and about two A. M. next morning the line of retreat was continued, and all the forces marched away as undisturbed as if the enemy were a thousand miles distant. As we never had any “spare” transportation in the most prosperous times, (and of course very little in presence of an enemy who could well supply us,) many of our wounded were left behind in Williamsburgh, and scores of dead left unburied. This, of course, was a “military necessity.” Longstreet was far in the rear with his corps, and had to hurry on to the main army. No enemy pursued, however, and it was not until Tuesday evening, (May sixth,) sixteen hours after we had left, that the enemy entered Williamsburgh in force.

This affair was heralded by McClellan as a “complete victory;” and the newspapers quoted McClellan's despatch, in large capitals: “The enemy are running! I will drive them to the wall!” Large editions, expressly for European circulation, spoke of the rebellion as “nigh broken up,” and described our troops as “ragged, hungry, footsore, and dispirited-all they want now is one more twist of the Anaconda's coil,” etc. I will not deny that two or three hundred Dutch, Jews, and unnaturalized foreigners were captured by the enemy's cavalry, and that some few of them, tired of war, took the oath of allegiance, and went North; but this was blazoned abroad with great exaggeration, and the silly multitude of Abolitionists piously believed what newspaper penny-a-liners wrote, and thought the backbone of rebellion was broken. Facts are stubborn things, and truth stranger than fiction; but if driving our enemy fully two miles over the battle-field by an inferior force, capturing their cannon, together with thousands of arms, and hundreds of prisoners, killing and wounding an aggregate of four thousand or more, sleeping on the battlefield, and retiring at leisure with great booty — if all these things, by any conceivable logic, can be twisted into a “Complete Federal victory,” “Grand smash — up of the rebels,” etc., as claimed by the official despatches and newspapers of the [204] North, I should very much like to see what a Federal defeat is like. They have lied, however, so often and so unblushingly, that we can but laugh at their overweening vanity and unscrupulous falsehoods; words — are thrown away on the subject.

From prisoners we ascertained that Heintzelman, Sumner, Hooker, Kearny, and other divisional commanders, had directed the Federals, from which it was easy to infer that their force numbered forty thousand strong. Longstreet commanded on our side, and I know did not handle more than twenty-five thousand men. The character of the fighting at the onset was brilliant and dashing on both sides, and the enemy displayed more spirit for a few hours than I had ever seen before on battle-fields; but when they had fairly met our men once or twice, they evinced little desire of marching into open ground. The several charges made by them on our rifle-pits were well conceived and gallantly attempted, but our fire was so steady and unerring, the rush of our men so determined, that, despite all their teaching and splendid appearance, they invariably broke before our “ragged rebels.”

Several incidents which came under my notice are illustrative of events that were happening along our whole line. We captured several of “Sickles's brigade” --an organization of --New-York “bullies” and “roughs ;” and the position of which corps was ascertained to be on the edge of timber to our front, where they had erected a barrier by piling branches against the fence-rails, behind and through which they maintained a galling fire, but would not advance into the open. The Nineteenth Mississippi were in front of this place, and learning that the immortal Dan Sickles and his “pets” were opposite, formed ranks, (seven hundred strong,) rushed across the “green,” and with deafening yells assaulted the place, clambered over the fence, delivered their fire at ten paces, and drove this brigade several hundred yards before them into the woods, capturing many prisoners. Superior officers were displeased at the affair — the regiment was recalled, and assumed its old position without a word. The gallant colonel of this regiment (Colonel Lomax) was shot during the day; his negro servant recovered the body in the Yankee lines, and carried it on his back several miles, conveyed it to Richmond to the bereaved wife, and [205] kept the promise he had made her — namely, never to let his master's body fall into the hands of the enemy.

Though I disapprove of eulogizing particular regiments, except for special reasons, there are several corps which have been mentioned in terms of praise by the enemy, and if I add a few words regarding them, it is but to show the general spirit of the army, and what other regiments would have done if similarly circumstanced. Some of the South-Carolinians, under Colonel Jenkins, were ordered to hold a redoubt, in which, I believe, no cannon were mounted; it was a little in advance of the general line and an especial mark for the enemy's shells. The men did not expose themselves, but lay close under the walls, and except that the colonel appeared on horseback, standing on one of the platforms, no one would have supposed that it was held by more than a corporal's guard. Guns from a neighboring battery replied to the enemy, and for half an hour the Carolinians seemed to be lost in a little island, around which an angry ocean raged in vain.

The enemy ceased their fire, and troops approaching to attack the redoubt, rushed across the intervening space, and then surrounding the work in horse-shoe form, approached still nearer. Those who knew the character of Jenkins were well aware that he was but quietly awaiting the proper moment. It came when the foe were not more than seventy paces distant, when, in a moment, up rose the Carolinians in the redoubt, a simultaneous report was heard, and hundreds of the enemy fell in all directions. They re-formed rapidly, and advanced a few steps nearer, when another volley, heavier than the first, circled the parapet with smoke, and the enemy fled in great disorder. A cheer rose from the redoubt, artillery opened with deafening sounds, and the Carolinians, as before, crouched under the walls. Three several attempts were made to take the work, but each signally failed, the last being most disastrous, for Jenkins, seeing a fine opportunity to charge, withdrew part of his regiment behind the work, and when the volley was given, a “charge” was ordered, and the Yankees retired confusedly to the cover of the woods, and made no more efforts to take the position. Had they possessed themselves of the place it could not have served them, for our guns in regular line would have massacred them in it. [206] Another small redoubt was held by North-Carolinians; the enemy stealthily approached and took it by escalade, our men suffering considerably in retiring. A Louisiana regiment was in the rear, and saw the whole affair. Without waiting for orders, they rushed across the open ground, dashed headlong into the redoubt, and all who escaped over the parapet were shot down or bayoneted by two companies who remained outside for that purpose. In this, as in all other instances I have witnessed of the Louisianians, their recklessness and daring have always astonished me, yet, considering their material, half Creole, half Irish, none need be astonished to find them nonpareils, when fighting for their homes and liberty against a negro-worshipping mixture of Dutch and Yankee. In this, as in all other fights witnessed by me, the cavalry had very little to do — the Yankee horse were always in the rear collecting stragglers, and forcing men to keep their lines. The day before had witnessed slight cavalry skirmishes, resulting in our favor, but nothing of the kind had transpired on Monday--it was entirely an affair of infantry and artillery.

The artillery, it cannot be denied, behaved nobly, and, it must be confessed, effectually “snuffed out” the enemy more than once during the day. I cannot account for the fact, yet in all truth it is fact. When no one opposes them, the drill and accuracy of the enemy are very fine, but I have ever remarked that when ours meet them at close quarters, they work their guns very rapidly, but fire extremely wild. When Mowry's and Couts's field batteries were sustaining a duello against great odds, and had disabled several of the enemy's pieces, fresh ones were ever at hand to replace them, and keep up the fire. Once during the day Coats had silenced four guns, and some of the Richmond Howitzers, unemployed, seeing him overworked, volunteered to dash in under fire, and bring the guns off. Unhitching the horses from their howitzers, they galloped into the smoke, and within a few yards of the foe brought off four magnificent rifled pieces, which they very gallantly presented to the chivalrous Couts upon the field, and in view of both armies. Obtaining permission to open fire on the enemy, the howitzers, under McCarthy, drove their guns up to within a hundred yards of the enemy, and worked them with such effect, that they were driven from their position in the [207] woods within half an hour. The whole face of the timber in McCarthy's front was literally blown to pieces, and when we subsequently advanced in that direction, our path was impeded by dismounted cannons, caissons, numbers of dead horses, and scores of infantry.

The morning after Williamsburgh, I, with others, was detailed to escort a batch of prisoners to Richmond, and in hurrying on I overtook troops marching to West-Point, the head of the York River; rumors being rife that Franklin and other Federal generals were disembarking a large force there to assail us on the flank. The main army, however, had travelled with such celerity, that they were beyond the line of West-Point, so that the Texans in that vicinity actually constituted part of our rear-guard; Longstreet, as usual, farther to the rear with his victorious and veteran force, being not far distant in case of emergency. The idea of this flank movement did credit to the genius of McClellan, but its performance was a miserable failure. Franklin's forces at that point far outnumbered ours, for Hood's Texan brigade was the chief corps to oppose him. After disembarking, Franklin lingered and loitered near his transports and gunboats, until Hood beat about to find his whereabouts. Without proper knowledge of the topography of the country, Franklin put his troops in motion, and had not progressed many miles ere he discovered Hood advantageously posted in line of battle, and without giving time to deploy, the Texans were upon him, decimating his ranks with unerring aim. The fight was wild and confused-Franklin hurriedly fell back before an inferior force, and did not halt until under the guns of his flotilla. Hood bad punished him severely in a two hours fight, and sensibly fell back to the main army at his leisure. This affair was claimed as “a decided success” by the Federals, but facts speak for themselves.

1 A good story is told about Congressmen, a number of whom proceeded to Yorktown to see the sights after the evacuation. A Michigan colonel was in command of the guard. Citizens were prohibited admittance. Several came up and asked the corporal for permission to pass, on the plea that they were Congressmen. The corporal stated the case to the colonel.

“They are Congressmen, are they?” asked the colonel.

“So they say.”

“Well, let them pass, and go where they please,” said the colonel. “Let them) tramp on the torpedoes, go into the magazines, and where there is any prospect of their being blown to the devil, for that is the quickest way to end the war.” --Northern Paper.

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