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Chapter 6: the battle of Williamsburg.

  • The attack on Fort Magruder
  • -- Hancock occupies two redoubts -- the slaughter in Early's brigade -- the Fifth North Carolina regiment and Twenty -- Fourth Virginia mercilessly exposed -- a hard-fought engagement -- a Confederate victory -- McClellan not on the field the greater part of the day -- Hancock called “the superb” by McClellan -- Johnston pays high tribute to Longstreet.

Before quitting his trenches at Yorktown, Johnston anticipated a move of part of McClellan's army by transports to the head of York River, to cut his line of march towards Richmond, and conceived it important to have a strong force at that point in time to meet and check the move. To that end he ordered Magruder to march at two A. M. on the 5th of May with D. R. Jones's and McLaws's divisions, to be followed by the divisions of G. W. Smith and D. H. Hill; Longstreet's division to cover the movement of his trains and defend Stuart's cavalry in case of severe pressure. Late in the afternoon of the 4th I was ordered to send a brigade to the redoubts to relieve McLaws's division. The brigades being small, I sent two, R. H. Anderson's and Pryor's, with Macon's battery, under Lieutenant Clopton, two guns under Captain Garrett, and two under Captain McCarthy, to report to General Anderson, the senior brigadier. At the time it was thought that the army would be on the march by daylight in the morning, and that the rear-guard would closely follow; but after nightfall a down-pour of rain came, flooding thoroughfares and by-ways, woodlands and fields, so that parts of our trains were stalled on the ground, where they stood during the night. It was dark when Anderson joined McLaws, who had drawn his men together in readiness to join the advance march. [73] Anticipating an early march himself, Anderson occupied Fort Magruder and advanced his pickets so as to cover with their fire the junction of the Yorktown and Hampton roads. Heavy clouds and darkness settling down upon him, he made no effort at a critical survey of the surroundings; while the steady rain through the night gave signs of serious delay in the movements of the army, but he little thought that by the delay he could be called into battle. In the morning when time grew heavier he was advised to call in the brigades near him, in case he should need them, and instructions were sent them to answer his call.

At daylight he occupied the redoubts on the right of Fort Magruder, and two of those on the left. Two others farther on the left were not seen through the rain, and no one had been left to tell him of them or of the grounds. The field in his front and far off on his right was open. That in the immediate front had been opened by felling trees. On his left were woodland and the swampy creek. General Hooker's division of the Third Corps came to the open on the Hampton road at seven A. M. of the 5th, and engaged by regiments,--the First Massachusetts on his left, preceded by a battalion of skirmishers; the Second New Hampshire on the right, in the same order; Hancock's brigade of W. F. Smith's division of the Fourth Corps threatening on the Yorktown road; supported by part of Davidson's brigade and artillery. After the advance of his infantry in the slashes, General Hooker, with the Eleventh Massachusetts and Thirty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiments of Grover's brigade, cleared the way for communication with the troops on the Yorktown road, and ordered Webber's six-gun battery into action towards the front of the fallen timber. As it burst from the wood our infantry and every gun in reach opened upon it a fire so destructive that it was unmanned before it came into practice. Volunteers to man the battery were called, and [74] with the assistance of men of Osborn's battery the guns were opened. Bramhall's battery was advanced and put into action on the right of Webber's, when the two poured an unceasing fire against our troops about the fort and redoubts. It was not very destructive, however, and they thought to reserve their ammunition.

The Fifth New Jersey Regiment, of Patterson's brigade, was added to the guard of the batteries, and the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth were deployed on the left in the woodland. Anderson called up Wilcox's brigade, and ordered it to his right, reinforced it by the men of Pryor's brigade not needed at the forts, and presently called for the brigades of A. P. Hill and Pickett, to further support his right.

From the swelling noise of battle I concluded that it would be well to ride to the front, and ordered the remaining brigade (Colston's) and the batteries of Dearing and Stribling to follow. Stuart sent his horse artillery under Pelham into the action on the open field.

Viewing the ground on the left, I thought it not so well protected as Anderson conceived, and sent to D; H. Hill, who was but little advanced on his march, for one of his brigades. Early's was sent, to whose brigade were temporarily attached the Florida regiment and a Mississippi battalion. Anderson had left the fort, and was busy handling the brigades engaged in the woods on the right. Colston's was put in with the other brigades under Anderson, who afterwards called for another regiment. The Florida regiment and the Mississippi battalion were sent. Early, with his brigade, was posted on the field in rear of our left.

When it became evident that the fight was for the day, D. H. Hill was asked to return with the balance of his division. Meanwhile, Hooker was bracing the fight on his left. Emory reported to him with his cavalry and light battery, but as his fight was in the wood, Emory was [75] asked to reconnoitre on his extreme left. The fight growing in the wood, Grover drew off part of his brigade to reinforce against it. The Seventy-second and Seventeenth New York Regiments of Taylor's brigade were also sent; then the Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth New York Regiments of the same brigade; but the Confederates gained ground gradually. They were, however, getting short of ammunition. While holding their line, some of the regiments were permitted to retire a little to fill their cartridge-boxes from those of the fallen of the enemy and of their comrades. This move was misconstrued into an order to withdraw, and the line fell back a little. But the mistake was rectified, and the ground that had been abandoned was recovered.

Hooker ordered the Eleventh Massachusetts and Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiments to the support of the batteries, and the Second New Hampshire Regiment to his left. Anderson, drawing his troops together near the batteries, made a concentrated move upon them, and cleared them of the gunners, securing four of Webber's guns and forty horses. Just then he was reinforced by Colston's brigade, the Florida regiment, and the Mississippi battalion. General Stuart taking it that the enemy was badly broken and in retreat, rode up with his cavalry, insisting upon a charge and pursuit. As he did not recognize authority except of the commander-in-chief, he was only cautioned that the break was only of the enemy's front, that he would find reinforcements coming up, and this he began to realize by the clearer ring of their muskets. He speedily encountered them, but in time to get away before meeting serious trouble. About three o'clock Kearny's division arrived, and only a few minutes later D. H. Hill's, of the Confederates. On the approach of Kearny's leading brigades, one regiment was detached from Berry's to reinforce Emory's Cavalry detachment on their left. The other regiments were deployed, the Fifth [76] Michigan on the left of the road, the Thirty-seventh New York on its left, along the road, one company of the New York regiment from left to rear. Six companies of the Michigan regiment were broken off to the rear of its right as reserve, leaving its forward battalion partly across the road, while that in rear had two companies on the right and two on the left of the road. Two regiments of Birney's brigade were deployed, the Thirty-eighth on the right of, and the Fortieth across, the road, to relieve some of Hooker's regiments. Then Peck's brigade of Couch's division came, and was put in on the right, the One Hundred and Second Pennsylvania and the Fifty-fifth New York on the left, the Sixty-second New York in the wood, the Ninety-third Pennsylvania on the left, and after a little the Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania.

Before the reinforcements arrived for Hooker's relief, Anderson had established his advance line of skirmishers, so as to cover with their fire Webber's guns that were abandoned. The Federal reinforcing columns drove back his advance line, when, in turn, he reinforced, recovered the ground, and met General Peck, who led the last reinforcing brigade. This advance was so firm that General Peck found it necessary to put in his last regiment, the Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, but neither our force nor our condition of march could warrant further aggressive work of our right. General Couch, left in command on the Federal left, posted his troops for the night,--General Devens with the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment and Second Rhode Island, General Palmer with two, and General Keim with three other regiments, supporting General Peck. General Peck's ammunition being exhausted, his brigade was relieved by six of the new regiments, and reported that “Every preparation was made to resist a night attack.” 1 On the Confederate side, General [77] Anderson reported his position safe to hold until the time to withdraw for the march. About noon, General Hancock, in command of his own and Davidson's brigades in front of our left, started with three of his own regiments and two of Davidson's and the six-gun battery under Lieutenant Carson in search of the unoccupied redoubts in that quarter. He approached by the dam at Sanders's Pond, passed the dam, and occupied one of the redoubts, leaving three companies to guard a road crossing on the right of his line of march. He put three companies of infantry in the redoubt and advanced his regiments and battery to the field in front. He then found another redoubt not occupied, and posted three other companies in it. He was reinforced by a four-gun battery under Captain Wheeler, which he posted in rear of his line of battle and awaited developments. When the last engagement on our right had calmed down to exchange of desultory shots, D. H. Hill's division was waiting to know if Anderson would need further support. Meanwhile, some of his officers had made a reconnoissance in front of his ground, and reported a route by which favorable attack could be made upon the Federals at the redoubt under Hancock.

General Johnston had arrived at my Headquarters, near Fort Magruder, when General Hill sent to report the reconnoissance, and to ask that he be allowed to make a move against Hancock, by Early's brigade. General Johnston received the message, and referred the officer to me. I ordered that the move should not be made, explaining that we were only fighting for time to draw off our trains, that aggressive battle was necessary on our right in order to keep the enemy back in the woodland from the open, where, by his superior artillery and numbers, he might deploy beyond our limits, and turn us out of position; that on our left there was no cause for apprehension of such action, and we could not risk being drawn into serious delay by starting new work so late in the [78] day. Very soon General Hill rode over to report of the opportunity: that he thought he could get through before night, and would not be likely to involve delay of our night march. General Johnston referred him to me. I said,--

The brigade you propose to use is not in safe hands. If you will go with it, and see that the troops are properly handled, you can make the attack, but don't involve us so as to delay the march after night.

In a letter from General Hill, after the war, he wrote of the fight by this brigade,--

I cannot think of it, till this day, without horror. The slaughter of the Fifth North Carolina Regiment was one of the most awful things I ever saw, and it was caused by a blunder. At your request, I think, I followed Early's brigade, following the right wing.

General Hill was in advance of the brigade with the Fifth and Twenty-third North Carolina Regiments, General Early in rear with the Twenty-fourth and Thirty-eighth Virginia Regiments. General Hill ordered the advance regiments to halt after crossing a streamlet and get under cover of the wood till the brigade could form; but General Early, not waiting for orders or the brigade, rode to the front of the Twenty-fourth Virginia, and with it made the attack. The gallant McRae, of the Fifth North Carolina, seeing the Twenty-fourth Virginia hotly engaged, dashed forward, nolens volens, to its relief. The other regiments, seeing the confusion of movements and of orders, failed to go forward. Part of my troops, on Early's right, seeing that a fight was open on that part of the field, started without orders to go to his relief, but found the fight lost before they were engaged. After the brigade was collected on its first position, General Johnston rode to his Headquarters. At dark the Confederates [79] were withdrawn and took up the line of march, the division of D. H. Hill taking the rear of the column, Rains's brigade the rear of the division. On his march, General Rains found, in a broken-down ammunition-wagon, several loaded shells, four of them with sensitive fuse primers, which he placed near some fallen trees, cut down as obstructions. He afterwards heard that some of them were tramped upon by the Federal cavalry and exploded.

The pursuit was not active, hardly annoying. The roads were cut into deep mud by the trains, and the sideways by troops far out on either side, making puddles ankle-deep in all directions, so that the march was slow and trying, but giving almost absolute safe-conduct against pursuit, and our men were allowed to spread their ranks in search of ground strong enough to bear them.

My estimate, made on the field, of the troops engaged was, Confederate, 9000; Union, 12,000. The casualties of the engagement were, Confederate, 1565 aggregate;2 Federal, 2288 aggregate.3

General McClellan was at Yorktown during the greater part of the day to see Franklin's, Sedgwick's, and Richardson's divisions aboard the transports for his proposed flanking and rear move up York River, but upon receiving reports that the engagement at Williamsburg was growing serious and not satisfactory, he rode to the battle, and called the divisions of Sedgwick and Richardson to follow him.

The object of the battle was to gain time to haul our trains to places of safety. The effect, besides, was to call two of the divisions from their flanking move to support the battle, and this so crippled that expedition that it gave us no serious trouble. The trophies of the battle were with the Confederates, and they claim the honor to inscribe Williamsburg upon their battle-flags. [80]

The success of General Hancock in holding his position in and about the forts with five regiments and two batteries against the assault of the Fifth North Carolina and Twenty-fourth Virginia Regiments was given heroic proportions by his chief, who christened him “The superb,” to relieve, it is supposed, by the picturesque figure on his right, the discomfiture of his left. But, reading between the lines, the highest compliment was for the two Confederate regiments.

In his official account, General Johnston said,--

The action gradually increased in magnitude until about three o'clock, when General Longstreet, commanding the rear, requested that a part of Major-General Hill's troops might be sent to his aid. Upon this I rode upon the field, but found myself compelled to be a spectator, for General Longstreet's clear head and brave heart left no apology for interference.

Franklin's division was taken by transports to the mouth of Pamunkey River, and was supported by the navy. On the 7th a brigade of Sedgwick's division joined Franklin. On the same day, Johnston's army was collected near Barhamville. General Whiting, with Hood's brigade and part of Hampton's, engaged the advance of Franklin's command and forced it back. This cleared our route of march towards Richmond, Smith's and Magruder's divisions by the road to New Kent Court-House, Hill's and Longstreet's nearer the Chickahominy.

General McClellan's plans were laid according to strict rules of strategy, but he was not quick or forcible in handling his troops.

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XI. part i. p. 521.

2 Rebellion Record, vol. XI. part i. p. 568.

3 Ibid. p. 450.

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