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Chapter 19:

  • Confederate retreat
  • -- pursuit towards Williamsburg -- battle of Williamsburg -- the horse Dan Webster.

It appears that Gen. Johnston, the Confederate commander, regarded the position of Yorktown and the Warwick as easily held against a simple assault, but as untenable against siege operations, or when we could pass up the York or James rivers; therefore he withdrew as soon as satisfied that we were on the point of using our heavy guns.

He directed the movement to commence at dusk on the 4th of May, Magruder's command to move by the Lee's Mill road, to halt at the junction of roads on the Yorktown side of Williamsburg, and occupy the line of fortifications; Longstreet's division to follow Magruder's; D. H. Hill's and G. W. Smith's divisions to march by the Yorktown road. Longstreet, Hill, and Smith were to pass through Williamsburg, Smith halting on the Barhamsville road far enough out to leave room for the other troops between himself and the town. It was expected that Magruder and Hill would clear the way to enable Longstreet and Smith to start at nine P. M., so that the whole army could reach Williamsburg soon after midnight; but it was sunrise of the 5th before Smith's road was clear, and his rear reached the fortifications near Williamsburg about noon. He found that the fortifications were unoccupied; and as skirmishing was taking place about two miles back, he halted a small body whom he found between the works and Williamsburg, and reported the state of affairs to Gen. Johnston, who ordered back McLaws's brigade and Stuart's cavalry.

Early in the morning of the 4th of May, the moment I learned that our troops were in possession of Yorktown and the line of the Warwick, I ordered Gen. Stoneman in pursuit with all the available force of cavalry and horse-artillery, supported by infantry, on both the Lee's Mill and Yorktown roads to Williamsburg. [320]

The next, and by far the most important, step was to throw Franklin's division, supported promptly and strongly, as rapidly as possible up the York river by water, to land on its right bank opposite West Point, in order to take in reverse whatever works might exist between that point and Yorktown, and to cut off, if possible, the enemy's trains and troops still south of the mouth of the Pamunkey.

While keeping steadily in view Stoneman's operations and his proper support, I at once turned my attention to expediting the movement up the York river by water. The weather was so bad and the wharf facilities at Yorktown so deficient that it was very difficult to bring order out of chaos, and Franklin's division did not reach its destination until the 6th of May.

On the morning of the 4th, then, Stoneman moved out of Yorktown with four batteries of horse-artillery, the 1st and 6th U. S. Cavalry, the 8th Ill. Cavalry, and Barker's squadron of Ill. cavalry. Hooker's division was ordered to move as rapidly as possible by the same road in support, and Heintzelman was ordered to hold himself in readiness to follow with Kearny's division if necessary.

Smith having reported the enemy's infantry and cavalry in force about one and a half miles in rear of Lee's Mill, Stoneman was ordered to cut off their retreat in the vicinity of the Halfway House. At the same time Sumner, in command of the left, was ordered to restore the bridges over the Warwick and place Smith's and Couch's divisions of the 4th corps, and Casey's if necessary, in front of the reported hostile force, endeavoring to hold them where they were until Stoneman could gain their line of retreat; but attacking if they fell back. His pursuit was to be by the Lee's Mill road, with Smith leading. The remaining divisions — those of Porter, Sedgwick, Richardson, and Sykeswere held in readiness to support either Keyes, Heintzelman, or Franklin, as might prove most advantageous. Stoneman was thus ordered not only to pursue and harass the enemy's rear-guard, but also to endeavor to cut off those on the Lee's Mill road in front of Sumner.

About six miles from Yorktown Stoneman came upon the enemy's pickets; two miles further on he came up with their rear-guard, a regiment of cavalry, posted on the further bank of a difficult ravine. Gibson's battery soon drove them out of [321] this position. At this point he sent Gen. Emory, with Benson's battery, the 3d Penn., and Barker's squadron, across to the Lee's Mill road to cut off the force in front of Sumner, who was supposed to be advancing by that road. With the remainder of his force Stoneman pushed on as rapidly as safety permitted to occupy the junction of the Yorktown and Lee's Mill roads, about two miles south of Williamsburg. Before detaching Emory, Stoneman had communicated with Sumner's advanced guard, and had also learned that Hooker was close behind on the Yorktown road. Gen. P. St. G. Cooke, commanding the advanced guard, consisting of a section of Gibson's battery and a part of the 1st U. S. Cavalry, upon debauching from the wood found himself at the junction of the two roads immediately in front of a strong earthwork (Fort Magruder) flanked by redoubts, and in presence of a strong rear-guard, consisting of a regiment of cavalry, one battery, and three regiments of infantry. With his small force Cooke made immediate dispositions to attack, and Stoneman hastened up the remainder of the 1st Cavalry and of Gibson's battery.

The cleared ground available for the operations of cavalry and artillery was here so limited that only about three hundred cavalry and one battery could be brought into action. Foreseeing that he must soon retreat unless promptly supported by the infantry — some two miles in rear at last accounts-Stoneman formed the remainder of his force in a clearing half a mile in rear, in order to cover the withdrawal of his advanced guard when that became necessary, and sent to hurry up the infantry. With great difficulty, so deep was the mud and so thick the abattis, Gibson got his battery in position, and Col. W. A. Grier formed his regiment (1st U. S.) to support it. Meanwhile the enemy, strongly reinforced from his main body, had thrown himself into the abandoned works, and several regiments of infantry were seen moving in a direction threatening to turn Stoneman's right, on which he directed Maj. L. Williams, commanding the 6th U. S. Cavalry, to make a demonstration through the woods on the right in order to check the enemy until the infantry could arrive.

The fire of Fort Magruder upon Cooke's command was producing serious effects, and the 6th Cavalry had come upon a strong force of infantry and cavalry, and was saved from destruction [322] by a gallant charge made by Capt. Saunders, commanding the rear squadron, during the withdrawal of the regiment.

Col. Grier had made two brilliant charges; men and horses were falling rapidly, and the enemy was receiving reinforcements every moment. After having held the position for about three-quarters of an hour Stoneman learned that Hooker could not get up for two hours. Under these circumstances, having done all in his power to hold his position, he fell back upon the clearing already occupied by his reserves, prepared to hold it to the utmost. He at least held the enemy to their works, and gave us the opportunity of fighting the battle of the next day.

As already stated, Gen. Emory was detached at the Halfway House, and on reaching the Lee's Mill road encountered an equal force of the enemy, whom he drove back on the Lee's Mill road, whence they escaped by a circuitous route along the banks of the James. Their escape was accounted for by the fact that Emory could not follow them without abandoning the road he was ordered to hold, and leaving his battery there unprotected, as he had no infantry. Smith's advance reached Skiffs creek at about 11.30, to find the bridge in flames and the road impassable. He therefore, by direction of Gen. Sumner, moved across to the Yorktown road, and, following it, reached Stoneman's position at about 5.30 o'clock, Gen. Sumner arriving with him and assuming command of all the troops at the front.

Hooker's division had encountered Smith's filing into the Yorktown road, and was obliged to halt for some three or four hours until it had passed. Subsequently, on its arrival at Chesapeake Church, Gen. Heintzelman turned it off by a cross-road into the Lee's Mill road, thus changing places with Smith. Marching part of the night, he came in sight of Fort Magruder early on the 5th. As soon as Smith reached the front his division was deployed and directed by Gen. Sumner to attack the works in front of him; but confusion arising in the dense forest, and darkness coming on, the attempt was deferred to the next day.

The troops bivouacked in the woods, and a heavy rain began, which lasted till the morning of the 6th, and made the roads, already terribly cut up by the enemy's troops and trains, almost impassable. Early in the evening of the 4th I learned that Smith had reached the front, and that at six P. M. two more divisions [323] would soon be ready, and were only waiting to rest the men and let them take a little food before attacking; and that the works would soon be carried, as they were then reported to be held only by a rear-guard of a regiment of cavalry, two guns, and four or five regiments of infantry.

I therefore pushed with redoubled energy the arrangements to throw a force by water to the mouth of the Pamunkey, and had not the slightest reason to suppose that my presence was at all necessary at the front.

The position is about four miles in extent, the right resting on College creek, and the left on Queen's creek; nearly three-fourths of its front being covered by tributaries of these two creeks, upon which there are ponds.

The ground between the heads of the boundary streams is a cultivated plain, across which a line of detached works had been constructed, consisting of Fort Magruder, a large work in the centre with a bastion front, and twelve other redoubts and epaulments for field-guns.

The parapet of Fort Magruder is about six feet high and nine feet thick; the ditch nine feet wide and nine feet deep, filled with water. The length of the interior crest is about six hundred yards. The redoubts have strong profiles, but are of small dimensions, having faces of about forty yards. The woods in front of the position were felled, and the open ground in front of the works was dotted with numerous rifle-pits.

The roads leading from the lower part of the Peninsula towards Williamsburg, one along the York river (the Yorktown road) and the other along the James (the Lee's Mill road), unite between the heads of the tributary streams a short distance in front of Fort Magruder, by which they are commanded, and debouch from the woods just before uniting. A branch from the James river road leaves it about one and three-fourths of a mile below Fort Magruder and unites with the road from Allen's landing to Williamsburg, which crosses the tributary of College creek over a dam at the outlet of the pond, and passes just in rear of the line of works, being commanded by the three redoubts on the right of the line. At about the same distance from Fort Magruder a branch leaves the York river road and crosses the tributary of Queen's creek on a dam, and, passing over the position and through the woods in its rear, finally enters [324] Williamsburg. This road was commanded by redoubts on the left of the line of works.

On the morning of the 5th the position of our troops was as follows: On the extreme left, Emory, holding the road to Allen's farm; next, on his right, Hooker's division; next, in the centre, Stoneman, holding the main road; on his right Smith's division. Kearny, Couch, and Casey were still in rear, having bivouacked where the night overtook them. Couch and Casey were ordered to march at daylight to support Smith; at about nine o'clock Kearny was ordered up in support of Hooker.

The battle of Williamsburg was an accident, brought about by the rapid pursuit of our troops. The enemy were very anxious to get beyond West Point before we could reach it by water. Late in the afternoon of the 4th Gen. G. W. Smith was ordered to march at 2.30 A. M. of the 5th, and place his position north of Barhamsville to check any attempt on the Confederate line of retreat from the upper York river. Longstreet and Hill were to follow Smith on the Barhamsville road for about six miles, and then turn off at the Burned Tavern and take the Charles City road to Richmond via Long bridge. Magruder was to move by New Kent Court-House and Bottom bridge. From Barhamsville Smith was to follow Magruder. Smith commanded the troops on the New Kent Court-House road, Longstreet those on the Charles City road. The rain made the roads so bad that when we caught up with their rear-guard they were forced to reinforce it from their main body, and hold the works as long as possible, in order to enable their trains to escape.

On the afternoon of the 4th Longstreet's division, six brigades, had halted near Williamsburg, four brigades at or in rear of the line of works, two brigades, Wilcox and Colston, on the Richmond side. About seven next morning Wilcox was ordered to return to the line of works and report to Gen. Anderson. Wilcox was placed on the right and about one thousand yards in front of Fort Magruder, and at the time held the right of the Confederate line, posted in the pine-woods with occasional clearings. He supposed that there was nothing but cavalry in his front, but, sending two companies into the woods, they captured three of our infantry soldiers; whereupon he sent in a Mississippi regiment, deployed as skirmishers, with orders to advance [325] until forced to halt, and to find out what was in front. Up to this time there had been merely a dropping fire of skirmishers, giving the impression that the woods were held by dismounted cavalry; but now heavy firing followed, and the report came back to Wilcox that three United States brigades were there in position. These brigades composed Hooker's division. And all this must have taken place between nine and ten A. M.

Wilcox immediately sent for reinforcements, and the rest of Longstreet's division gradually came up to his support, mostly being placed on his right, Gen. Richard Anderson finally taking command. Early in the afternoon, being apprehensive for his right, Anderson again attacked, took five guns of Webber's battery, and brought Hooker to a standstill, inflicting heavy losses.

Between three and four o'clock Kearny reached the front. He had received the order to advance at nine o'clock, but, from the condition of the roads and their being blocked with troops, with all his energy and exertions he was unable to reach Hooker until the time mentioned. He at once relieved Hooker's exhausted troops, and, promptly attacking, drove back the enemy at every point. Hooker's losses were severe, and when I next saw him, a day or two afterwards, he was much depressed and thought that he had accomplished nothing, so much so that I felt it necessary to encourage him. It was not until some time afterwards that he came to the conclusion that he had accomplished a brilliant feat of arms.

Emory had been left to guard the road leading to Allen's farm, near the James. Being informed on the morning of the 5th that the enemy's right could be turned, he called upon Gen. Heintzelman for infantry to enable him to make the attempt. Late in the afternoon one of Kearny's brigades and two batteries were sent to him for that purpose, “but that was found impracticable from the nature of the locality, the lateness of the evening, and the want of a guide.”

While all this was going on on our left Sumner reconnoitred the position in the centre and on our right. Finding that one of the redoubts on the Confederate left was unoccupied, he, at about eleven o'clock, ordered Hancock's brigade, of Smith's division, to cross by a dam at the foot of one of the large ponds and take possession of it. This he did with five regiments of [326] the division, and, finding the next redoubt also unoccupied, he promptly seized it, and sent for reinforcements to enable him to advance further and take the next redoubt, which commanded the plain between his position and Fort Magruder, and would have enabled him to take in reverse and cut the communication of the troops engaged with Gens. Hooker and Kearny.

The enemy soon began to show himself in strength before him, and, as his rear and right flank were somewhat exposed, he repeated his request for reinforcements. Gen. Smith was twice ordered to join him with the rest of his division, but each time the order was countermanded at the moment of execution, Gen. Sumner not being willing to weaken the centre. At length, in reply to Gen. Hancock's repeated messages for more troops, Gen. Sumner sent him an order to fall back to his first position, the execution of which Gen. Hancock deferred as long as possible, being unwilling to give up the advantage already gained, and fearing to expose his command by such a movement.

As the head of Couch's division did not arrive until one o'clock, it was entirely proper for Gen. Sumner to hesitate about weakening his centre until that hour. The remaining brigades of Couch followed the first immediately, Casey arriving early in the afternoon. Couch's 1st brigade, Peck's, was deployed on Hooker's right, and promptly repulsed the attack made upon it, thus affording Hooker sensible relief. Soon after it was relieved by the other two brigades, who remained undisturbed.

As already stated, as soon as our troops were in possession of the enemy's works, on the morning of the 4th, I gave the necessary orders for the pursuit, and, when all that was accomplished, drove into Yorktown in an ambulance. The enemy had made a free distribution of torpedoes in the roads, within the works, and in places where our men would be apt to go — for instance, near wells and springs, telegraph-offices, and store-houses, so that some of our men were killed. To place mines or torpedoes in the path of assaulting columns is admissible under the customs of war, but such use of them as was made here is barbarous in the extreme. When I entered Yorktown our progress was much delayed by the caution made necessary by the presence of these torpedoes. I at once ordered that they should be discovered and removed by the Confederate prisoners. They [327] objected very strenuously, but were forced to do the work. After Williamsburg one of the Confederate surgeons, sent in to offer to take care of their wounded in our hands, told me that these torpedoes were planted at the close of the evacuation, and mentioned the name of an officer whom he saw engaged in this work.

As soon as we had possession of Yorktown the gunboats started up the York river to ascertain whether the transports with Franklin's division could safely ascend, and to capture any of the enemy's transports they could find.

If the condition of affairs near Williamsburg justified it, I intended going to West Point by water myself. Early on the 5th I sent Col. Sweitzer and Maj. Hammerstein, of my staff, to the front, to keep me informed of the condition of affairs and the progress of events. I went to Yorktown to expedite the movement by water, and to provide for the transportation of supplies to the troops in advance.

Until about one P. M. I learned nothing indicating that the affair at Williamsburg was more than a simple attack upon a rear-guard, but at that hour I received intelligence that the state of the contest was unfavorable and that my presence was urgently required. Sedgwick's division was then held ready to embark in support of Franklin. But I ordered him to move beyond Yorktown a short distance, ready to move to the front if ordered. Porter and Richardson mere also instructed to be ready to obey whatever orders they might receive.

I returned at once to my camp to give these and other necessary orders, and, remaining there only a few minutes, started with half a dozen aides and a few orderlies for the front. The distance was more than fourteen miles, over terrible roads, much obstructed by trains; but as I had my most trustworthy horse, Dan Webster, I made better progress than was agreeable to the escort, most of whom had been left behind when I reached the field of battle.

Dan was one of those horses that could trot all day long at a very rapid gait which kept all other horses at a gallop. I think it was on this ride that he earned from the aides the title of “that Devil Dan” --a name which he justified on many another long and desperate ride before I gave up the command of the Army of the Potomac. [328]

Dan was the best horse I ever had; he never was ill for an hour, never fatigued, never disturbed under fire, and never lost his equanimity or his dignity, except on one occasion. That was when we abandoned the position at Harrison's Bar under the orders to return to Washington. From a very natural feeling I remained there until all the trains and troops had left, and, sending forward all the escort and staff, remained alone in the works for a little time, my mind full of the fatal consequences of the order I was forced to carry into execution. At length I mounted and rode out to join the escort; as I passed through the abandoned works Dan, for the first time in his life, gave vent to his feelings by a series of most vicious plunges and kicks. It was possible that the flies, who had enjoyed a whole army to feed upon, concentrated all their energies upon Dan; but I have always more than suspected that, in his quiet way, Dan understood the condition of affairs much better than the authorities at Washington, and merely wished to inform me in his own impressive manner that he fully agreed with my views as to the folly of abandoning the position, and that he, at least, had full confidence in his master.

Dan and I never quarrelled, and the dear old fellow survived the war for many years, dying at a ripe old age in 1879. No matter how long we might be parted — once for nearly four years--he always recognized me the moment we met again, and in his own way showed his pleasure at seeing me. Even on the day of his death, which was a painless one from old age, whenever I entered his stall he tried to rise and greet me, but, unable to do that, would lean his head against me and lick my hand. No soldier ever had a more faithful or better horse than I had in Dan Webster.

Riding through mud and water, often obliged to turn into the woods, but never slackening the pace when the road permitted, I reached the front between four and five o'clock. I found everything in a state of chaos and depression. Even the private soldiers saw clearly that, with force enough in hand to gain a victory, we, the pursuers, were on the defensive and content with repulsing attacks, and that there was no plan of action, no directing head. The front line was formed along the nearer edge of the woods, and the rest massed inactive in the clearings. The troops were weary and discouraged; but my presence [329]

Dan Webster, Gen. McClellan's War-horse.

[330] at once restored their confidence, and, as they recognized me passing rapidly through their ranks, their wild and joyful cheers told the enemy, as well as our own people, that something unusual had occurred, and that the period of uncertainty and inaction was at an end.

I at once gathered the general officers around me, called upon them for a brief statement of affairs, and promptly made up my mind as to what should be done. This occurred in the clearing, close to the Whittaker House. I found that, owing, to some marshy ground, there was no direct communication with the two divisions under Heintzelman on our left; the troops forming the front of our centre were on the hither edge of the woods intervening between us and the enemy, and no one knew whether the enemy were in the woods, and, if so, in what force. Hancock, with his unsupported brigade, was. still in possession of the abandoned works on the enemy's left; one of Smith's remaining brigades was in line on our right centre, the other and Casey's division massed in rear; two of Couch's brigades formed the centre, with one in reserve.

I ordered a party to move in to the left to reopen communication with Heintzelman. Just then heavy firing began at Hancock's position, which was two miles from the nearest support, and, grasping at once the fact that he held the key of the field of battle, I ordered Smith, who was chafing like a caged lion, to move as rapidly as possible to Hancock's support with his two remaining brigades and Naglee's. Within five minutes of the time I reached the field Smith was off as rapidly as his men could move; Naglee, with his brigade of Casey's division, following the leading regiment of Smith's division. As soon as the head of Smith's column started I ordered the centre to advance into the woods and gain the more distant edge, driving out any of the enemy who might be there. This was promptly done, and I rode in with them, and into the cleared ground in front, in close view of the enemy's works. There were none of the enemy in the woods, but they held the works in considerable force.

Their position was so strong that when my reconnoissance was completed I did not think proper to attack without making arrangements to use our artillery and carefully arrange our columns of attack. [331]

I therefore returned to the Whittaker House, quickly gave orders for the proper posting of the troops in the centre, and started rapidly for Hancock's position. A little before reaching the dam by which he had crossed I met the column of prisoners whom he had just taken.

Before Gens. Smith and Naglee could reach the field of Gen. Hancock's operations, although they moved with great rapidity, he had been confronted by a superior force. Feigning to retreat slowly, he awaited their onset, and then turned upon them, and, after some terrific volleys of musketry, he charged them with the bayonet, routing and dispersing their whole force, killing, mounding, and capturing from 500 to 600 men, he himself losing only 31 men.

This was one of the most brilliant engagements of the war, and Gen. Hancock merited the highest praise for the soldierly qualities displayed and his perfect appreciation of the vital importance of his position.

Hancock's command consisted of the 5th Wis., 6th Me., and 49th Penn. regiments of volunteers of his own brigade, and the 7th Me. and 30th N. Y. of Davidson's brigade. Keeping on to Hancock's brigade, I remained there long enough to thank them for their gallant conduct, to appreciate the importance of the position and the value of the success gained. I sent some of the approaching reinforcements to occupy a dangerous mass of woods on the right, and, there being no indication of any new attack by the enemy, I left as soon as Smith arrived with sufficient troops to render the position perfectly secure. By the time Smith's troops all arrived and were properly posted it was too dark to attempt any new operations until the next morning.

It was raining heavily and nearly dark when I returned to the Whittaker House, so that nothing more could be done than to arrange for security during the night and a prompt resumption of operations in the morning. All the troops slept on the muddy field, in the rain, with what protection their shelter-tents gave them, and many without food. I was not much better off, for, with the exception of a piece of biscuit for breakfast on the morning of the 6th, I had nothing to eat from the early morning of the 5th until late in the day on the 6th. The night was a horrible one. The little Whittaker House was crowded [332] with several general officers and their staffs, so that sleep or rest was impossible. It rained hard, and I passed much of the evening among the men, by way of encouraging them, who think little of hardship when their general shares it with them.

It was unfortunate that the absolute necessity of expediting the movement of troops and supplies up the York river detained me so long at Yorktown, and that I did not receive earlier information of the necessity for my presence at the front. All the reports, up to those that took me so rapidly to the field, represented the affair as simply one against an ordinary rear-guard, and with good reason I expected every moment to learn that the enemy was defeated and his works occupied, as the troops on the field of battle were more than enough for the purpose. Could I have arrived at one o'clock it is very certain that Smith, supported by Couch and afterwards by Casey, would have at once debauched from Hancock's ground, and have cut off the retreat of the greater part of the troops engaged against Hooker. Up to the time of Couch's arrival it would probably have been imprudent to move the whole of Smith's division in support of Hancock, but the moment the head of Couch's column appeared near the front it was proper to push Smith forward as rapidly as possible. In fact, Hooker's repulse was of no consequence, except for the loss of life it involved, and his falling back somewhat would only facilitate the decisive advance by our right. When I reached the field the commanding generals gave me the impression that, far from our having a simple rear-guard to deal with, the enemy was present in very heavy force. Therefore, to guard against all eventualities, I sent back orders to Porter to occupy Yorktown, and to Sedgwick and Richardson to advance by land in the morning.

During the night Heintzelman reported to me that Hooker's division had suffered so much that it could not be relied on for the next day, and that Kearny could do no more than hold his own unless reinforced. But, after fully considering the state of affairs during the evening, I was so confident of the advantage to be derived from Smith's possession of the decisive point that I determined to carry on our operations with the force then in hand, even were the enemy superior in numbers. If the enemy held their ground and were not superior in numbers, it was certain that an advance by Smith and Casey, with the cavalry, direct [333] on Williamsburg, supported by Couch as the centre was cleared, would cut off all the troops in front of Heintzelman. Even if the enemy proved to be superior in numbers this advance would no doubt cause them to withdraw their right and thus enable Hooker and Kearny to come into line on Smith's left, and I could perfectly well hold my own and keep the enemy in position while the movement to West Point was being carried out. Therefore, during the night, I countermanded the orders to Sedgwick and Richardson, and directed them to return to Yorktown and, together with Porter, embark as rapidly as possible in support of Franklin.

Early on the morning of the 6th it was found that the enemy had abandoned his positions during the night; we at once occupied them and the town of Williamsburg, which was filled with the enemy's wounded, for whose assistance eighteen of the Confederate surgeons were sent by Gen. J. E. Johnston, the Confederate commander.

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