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Chapter 5: Round about Richmond.

  • The defences of the Confederate capital
  • -- Army of Northern Virginia at Centreville -- aggressive action -- Council with the President and Secretary of War -- Mr. Davis's high opinion of McClellan -- operations on the Peninsula -- engagements about Yorktown and Williamsburg -- severe toil added to the soldiers' usual labors by a saturated soil.

Apropos of the attack upon Richmond, apprehended in the winter of 1861-62, it should be borne in mind that there were four routes supposed to be practicable for the advance of the enemy:

General McClellan's long delay to march against General Johnston, when he was so near and accessible at Centreville, indicated that he had no serious thought of advancing by that route. To prepare to meet him on either of the other routes, a line behind the Rapidan was the chosen position.

General Beauregard had been relieved of duty in Virginia and ordered West with General A. S. Johnston.

The withdrawal from Centreville was delayed some weeks, waiting for roads that could be travelled, but was started on the 9th of March, 1862, and on the 11th the troops were south of the Rappahannock. [65]

General Whiting's command from Occoquan joined General Holmes at Fredericksburg. Generals Ewell and Early crossed by the railroad bridge and took positions near it. General G. W. Smith's division and mine marched by the turnpike to near Culpeper Court-House. General Stuart, with the cavalry, remained on Bull Run until the 10th, then withdrew to Warrenton Junction.

During the last week of March our scouts on the Potomac reported a large number of steamers, loaded with troops, carrying, it was estimated, about one hundred and forty thousand men, passing down and out of the Potomac, destined, it was supposed, for Fortress Monroe, or possibly for the coast of North Carolina. We were not left long in doubt. By the 4th of April, McClellan had concentrated three corps d'armee between Fortress Monroe and Newport News, on the James River. The Confederate left crossed the Rapidan, and from Orange Court-House made connection with the troops on the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. About the 1st of April, Generals Johnston and G. W. Smith were called to Richmond for conference with the War Department, leaving me in command. On the 3d I wrote General Jackson, in the Shenandoah Valley, proposing to join him with sufficient reinforcements to strike the Federal force in front of him a sudden, severe blow, and thus compel a change in the movements of McClellan's army. I explained that the responsibility of the move could not be taken unless I was with the detachment to give it vigor and action to meet my views, or give time to get back behind the Rapidan in case the authorities discovered the move and ordered its recall.

I had been left in command on the Rapidan, but was not authorized to assume command of the Valley district. As the commander of the district did not care to have an officer there of higher rank, the subject was discontinued.

General Johnston, assigned to the Department of the [66] Peninsula and Norfolk, made an inspection of his new lines, and on his return recommended that they should be abandoned. Meanwhile, his army had been ordered to Richmond. He was invited to meet the President to discuss military affairs, and asked General G. W. Smith and myself to go with him. The Secretary of War and General R. E. Lee were with the President when we met.

It was the first time that I had been called to such august presence, to deliberate on momentous matters, so I had nothing to say till called on. The views intended to be offered were prefaced by saying that I knew General McClellan; that he was a military engineer, and would move his army by careful measurement and preparation; that he would not be ready to advance before the 1st of May. The President interrupted, and spoke of McClellan's high attainments and capacity in a style indicating that he did not care to hear any one talk who did not have the same appreciation of our great adversary. McClellan had been a special favorite with Mr. Davis when he was Secretary of War in the Pierce administration, and he seemed to take such reflections upon his favorites as somewhat personal. From the hasty interruption I concluded that my opinion had only been asked through polite recognition of my presence, not that it was wanted, and said no more. My intention was to suggest that we leave Magruder to look after McClellan, and march, as proposed to Jackson a few days before, through the Valley of Virginia, cross the Potomac, threaten Washington, and call McClellan to his own capital.

At the time of McClellan's landing on the peninsula, the Confederate army on that line was commanded by Major-General J. Bankhead Magruder, and consisted of eleven thousand men of all arms. The defensive line was pitched behind the Warwick River, a sluggish stream that rises about a mile south of Yorktown, and flows south to its confluence with James River. The Warwick [67] was dammed at different points, thus flooding the intervening low lands as far as Lee's Mills, where the river spreads into marsh lands. The dams were defended by batteries and rifle-trenches. The left rested at Yorktown, which was fortified by continuous earthworks, strong water and land batteries, and rifle-trenches reaching to the right, connecting with those behind the Warwick. Yorktown is on the right bank of York River, which narrows at that point, with Gloucester Point on the opposite bank. This point was also fortified, and held by a strong garrison. On the south side of the James, General Huger held Norfolk, near its mouth, fortified and garrisoned by about ten thousand men, while the James River floated the Confederate vessels “Virginia” ( “Merrimac” ), “Yorktown,” “Jamestown,” and “Teaser.”

McClellan's army, embarked from Alexandria and moved by transports to the vicinity of Fortress Monroe, as first collected, numbered one hundred and eight thousand of all arms, including the garrison at Fortress Monroe.

Magruder was speedily reinforced by a detachment from Huger's army, and afterwards by Early's brigade of Johnston's army, and after a few days by the balance of Johnston's army, the divisions of G. W. Smith, D. H. Hill, and Longstreet, with Stuart's cavalry, General Johnston in command.

General McClellan advanced towards the Confederate line and made some efforts at the dams, but it was generally understood that his plan was to break the position by regular approaches. After allowing due time for the completion of his battering arrangements, Johnston abandoned his line the night of May 3 and marched back towards Richmond, ordering a corresponding move by the troops at Norfolk; but the Confederate authorities interfered in favor of Norfolk, giving that garrison time to [68] withdraw its army supplies. The divisions of G. W. Smith and D. H. Hill were ordered by the Yorktown and Williamsburg road, Magruder's and Longstreet's by the Hampton and Lee's Mill road, Stuart's cavalry to cover both routes.

Anticipating this move as the possible result of operations against his lower line, General Magruder had constructed a series of earthworks about two miles in front of Williamsburg. The main work, Fort Magruder, was a bastion. On either side redoubts were thrown up reaching out towards the James and York Rivers. The peninsula is about eight miles wide at that point. College Creek on the right flows into James River, and Queen's Creek on the left into the York, both giving some defensive strength, except at mill-dams, which were passable by vehicles. The redoubts on the left of Fort Magruder commanded the dam in Queen's Creek at Sanders's Pond, but the dam in College Creek was beyond protection from the redoubts.

The four redoubts on the right of Fort Magruder had commanding positions of the fort.

Finding the entire line of intrenchments at Yorktown empty on the morning of May 4, McClellan ordered pursuit by his cavalry under its chief, General Stoneman, with four batteries of horse artillery, supported by Hooker's division on the Yorktown road and W. F. Smith's on the Hampton road.

They were followed on the Hampton road by General Heintzelman (Kearny's division), Third Corps, and Couch's and Casey's divisions of Keyes's (Fourth) Corps, Sumner's (Second) Corps on the Yorktown road. Nearing Williamsburg, the roads converge and come together in range of field batteries at Fort Magruder. About eight miles out from Yorktown, on the Hampton road, Stuart, hearing of severe cavalry fight by the part of his command on the Yorktown road, thought to ride across [69] to the enemy's rear and confuse his operations, but presently found a part of the enemy's cavalry and a battery under General Emory marching in his rear by a crossroad from the Yorktown road. He formed and charged in column of fours, gaining temporary success, but fell upon the enemy's battery, and found Benson prompt in getting into action, and in turn, with dismounted troopers, drove him back, cutting his line of retreat and forcing him off to the beach road along the James River. The march of Emory's cavalry across to the Hampton road misled Hooker's division to the same march, and that division, crowding the highway, caused Smith's division to diverge by a cross-road, which led it over into the Yorktown road. These misleadings delayed the advance on both roads. Emory followed Stuart until the latter in turn came upon strong grounds, where pursuit became isolated and hazardous.

The removal of the Confederate cavalry from the Hampton road left Hooker's march free of molestation. But not advised of the opportunity, he took the precautions usual on such occasions. His early approach, however, hurried the movements of the Confederate cavalry on the Yorktown road, and let the enemy in upon us on that road before we were advised of his approach.

General Johnston rode near the rear of his army to receive despatches from his cavalry commander. General Stuart wrote and sent them, but his couriers found the enemy's cavalry in the way and returned to him. The cavalry fight on the Yorktown road was also damaging to the Confederates, and not reported to the commanding general.

About four P. M., General Cook's cavalry and the horse artillery under Gibson debouched from the woodlands on the Yorktown road and began to examine the open ground in front of the Confederate field-works. General Johnston, who was at the rear, hurried Semmes's brigade of [70] McLaws's division into the nearest redoubts, and ordered McLaws to call back another brigade. Kershaw was ordered, and Manly's battery. The battery had to go at a run to be sure of their cover in the redoubts. Another battery was ordered by McLaws, who rode and took command. When Kershaw got to the fort, part of his men were deployed in the wood beyond, to his left.

Meanwhile, the Federal cavalry was advancing, Gibson's horse artillery and Manly's Confederate battery were in severe combat, the latter having the benefit of gun-proof parapets. Observing the approach of cavalry near his left, McLaws ordered two of Manly's guns into Fort Magruder, which, with the assistance of Kershaw's infantry, drove off that column. Some cavalry, riding near the left redoubt with little concern, were first taken for Confederates, but the next moment were identified as Federals, when the artillery was turned upon them, and, with the Confederate cavalry, pushed them quite away. When the left redoubt, commanding the dam at Sanders's Pond, was occupied by a part of Kershaw's men, McCarthy's battery came into action, and, with the assistance of others, gave Gibson's battery, in the open, serious trouble. McLaws ordered an advance of part of Semmes's brigade, led by Colonel Cummings. This, with the severe artillery fire from the redoubts and guns afield, cleared the open, leaving one of Gibson's guns in the mud, which was secured by McCarthy's men as a trophy of the day's work. Ten horses had been sent back to haul the piece off, but the mud was too heavy for them. Stuart, with the troopers of his immediate following and his section of horse artillery, crossed College Creek near James River, and came in after the action at the redoubts. Emory abandoned the pursuit as not feasible, and bivouacked on the route. Cavalry rencounters of the day were reported, in which both sides claimed success. Stuart reported Lieutenant-Colonel Wickham and four men wounded. Of the other [71] side, Cooke reported thirty-five killed, wounded, and missing. Gibson reported one officer and four men wounded, and one gun abandoned. Emory reported two killed and four wounded, and Sanders one officer wounded. But most of the Federal losses were in the encounters at the redoubts with the artillery and infantry.

The enemy's cavalry reported the redoubt on the Confederate left unoccupied, and Hancock's brigade (Smith's division) was ordered forward to take it, but the woods through which he marched were tangled and swampy, and delayed him until night brought him to bivouac. Meanwhile, the Confederates who drove the cavalry from its reconnoissance had occupied the redoubt.

The corps commanders Sumner, Heintzelman, and Keyes and the cavalry leader Stoneman were together that night in conference. The highways, over flats but little above tide-water, were saturated by the spring rains, cut into deep ruts by the haul of heavy trains, and puddled by the tramp of infantry and cavalry. The wood and fallow lands were bogs, with occasional quicksands, adding severest labor to the usual toils of battle. So no plans were formed, further than to feel the way forward when there was light to see.

The enemy got some of our men who were worn out by the fatigue of the siege and the heavy march of the night and day.

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