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Chapter 9: the evacuation of Yorktown. McClellan's pursuit.

Lieut. Jeff Hazard, of the Rhode Island battery, assigned to the Third Brigade, was a skilled workman with his pieces. The enemy's batteries, about a mile away, were distinctly visible from his position. As an officer was watching him sight the pieces one afternoon, Lieutenant Hazard turned to him and said: ‘Want to see me put a shot into that roof over there?’ selecting one for his purpose. ‘You watch,’ he added, and, sighting the piece, ordered the men to fire. In a second or two his shell had struck the roof of the rebel barracks and the shingles and lumber were seen to spatter in all directions. In another instant the men manning the little battery were hastily getting out of the way of the enemy's leaden answer.

The manner in which the rebels erected a sand bag battery was watched with interest. They would run out of their entrenchments with an empty bag. One would hold the bag and two others would dump sand into it with a shovel, working as fast as they could until they saw the flash of Hazard's guns. Then they would scoot back under cover again. Shot after shot would strike the ground near where they had been at work. As soon as the shell struck, they would dash out again, grab a bag, if filled, and drag it under cover, keeping up their labors in this way between the flashes of the Union guns.

It was always interesting to notice the men of the army whenever a Rebel shell came their way. It was impossible to resist the inclination to ‘dodge’ it, and the men could do this with better precision than drill,—all dodging together. They did not think at such times that the sound followed the missile, and if they were to be hit at all, it would be before they could have the opportunity of hearing it. [64]

During the stay of the regiment in front of Yorktown, Adjt. John C. Chadwick returned to it, having been relieved of his duties as Acting Assistant Adjutant General of Dana's Brigade, and First Lieut. Moncena Dunn, of Company D, returned from recruiting duty in Massachusetts, together with First Lieut. James H. Rice, of Company F.

In Company C, Capt. J. Scott Todd resigned, and First Lieut. George W. Bachelder was made Captain, Second Lieut. J. G. C. Dodge, of Company F being made First Lieutenant and transferred to fill the vacancy. Capt. James D. Russell, of Company D, was detailed for special duty on the fortifications and First Lieut. Edward P. Bishop, of Company K, was detailed as Aide-de-Camp on the staff of Brig. Gen. Dana. Sergt. William H. Hill, of Company F, was promoted to be Second Lieutenant, vice Dodge, promoted and transferred.

Taken from a soldier's letter to his family at home.

April 23rd, 1862.
Tomorrow we go out again on our regular “siege,” —that is, to lay in the woods, behind our artillery and listen to their noise all day and at intervals during the night. It is a one-sided affair, this siege, so far, for our guns keep up such a steady fire that the poor rebels don't have time to get a shot in anyway. Of course, this is all very good for our artillery, and I hope the rebels like it as well as we do.

Tonight, word comes that the rebels are evacuating their works. If this is so, they have only done it to draw us into a trap, or to get where they can have better chance at us.

After three weeks laborious preparation, General McClellan having advanced his parallels, got one of his large siege batteries in position and opened fire at a distance of two miles upon the enemy's works (Apr. 30.) The first shot was fired from Battery No. 1 at the mouth of Wormsley's Creek and was aimed at the enemy's shipping in the York River beyond Yorktown and Gloucester. They replied with their large pivot gun, a rifled 68 pounder, mounted on the height of Yorktown. The cannonade was kept up on both sides for about two hours, in the course of which about sixty shots were fired from the one and two hundred pounder Parrott guns of the heavy siege battery. [65]

During the night, the enemy kept up a brisk fire of shells upon the parallels where the men were at work. On the next morning the enemy opened fire with their Columbiade, mounted on the heights of Yorktown, but at its 23d discharge, it burst into a thousand pieces. This seemed to be the only gun capable of competing with McClellan's heavy siege guns, and, after it burst, the enemy ceased to fire, although the Union cannonade was continued with increased vigor.

It was now Saturday, May 3, and before night, the heavy siege batteries being all in position and everything in readiness, McClellan resolved, after dedicating the coming Sunday to sacred rest, to begin on Monday the bombardment of the enemy's works.

At the dawn of the 4th of May (Sunday), the Nineteenth Regiment marched into the redoubt it had built, for picket duty, expecting that all of the guns of the Union army would soon open on the enemy, but there were no signs of life in the enemy's works which extended for several miles. A Sabbathlike stillness prevailed inside their lines. At one or two points something could be seen which looked like cannon; a few shells sent over provoked no reply and as the sun arose and still there was no evidence of life, it was thought that the enemy were either gone or were trying to entice the men over. The regiment advanced, with skirmishers out, into the open ground and halted. A ditch, which had been widened, ran in front of and near the rebel fort, crossed by a bridge to the right and another to the left, which were the only means by which the fort could be approached.

Lieutenant Hume, of Company K, exclaimed, ‘I'll bet the works have been evacuated,’ and asked and received permission to cross and enter them to ascertain whether anyone was ‘at home.’ When he had almost reached them, an officer of the Brigade staff started off by the shorter road to the left, entering the works there at the same time that Lieutenant Hume did on the right. The latter, finding that no one was in the works, stood on the parapets that for a month had awed McClellan's Army and motioned for the Brigade to ‘Come on.’ The Nineteenth Massachusetts moved forward at double-quick [66] over the route taken by Lieutenant Hume, while the other regiments entered the fort by the left, each raising its flag. The fort and the works around it were supposed to be very strong, with bomb-proof traverses and subterranean passages in which the men could be moved from one position to another without being seen from the Union side, and with but little danger from their fire. The ordnance which were believed to be cannon were ‘Quaker Guns’ made of logs, with the ends painted black. Men of straw were found behind many of them, stationed as gunners. Everything bore evidence of hasty departure. Passing to the rear of the works, the regiment halted until the rest of the Brigade came up, when it moved forward in line of battle, each regiment marching by division front, ready to deploy at the first intimation of danger. Skirmishers were well advanced with a strong reserve. About a mile from the fort the skirmishers found and exchanged shots with those of the enemy in the edge of the wood. The line had been advancing mostly over open ground and as they neared the woods, the enemy's rear guard fired upon them and hurriedly fled. The brigade immediately deployed into line and on reaching the woods, halted. The rebel rear guard, judging from appearances, had halted here to cook their dinner, seemingly unaware that they were so soon to be disturbed, for they had been forced to leave their dinner just as it was. The men found Dutch ovens in which meat was roasting or biscuit baking, most of it being ready to eat. Frying pans, with bacon frying in them, were on the fire. This was a different bill of fare from what the regiment had been living on and it was soon made good use of. The men finished ‘Johnnies'’ dinner and enjoyed it very much. There seemed to be an abundance of food, and the enemy certainly had not been on short rations.

In the advance to the woods the regiment passed the former residence of the rebel general Hill. The Union signal corps used it for a station during the day and were establishing themselves there as the regiment passed. On one of the tents in the deserted camp in the woods was written the legend, ‘He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. May 3rd.’ [67]

After about an hour's halt in the woods, the regiment marched back to its camp, where the men bivouacked for the night. General McClellan at once dispatched all his cavalry and horse artillery in pursuit of the enemy, supporting them by a considerable body of infantry, and he ordered the fleet of gun boats up the York River.

‘I shall push the enemy to the wall,’ he declared in his official despatch, and acting in accordance with these energetic words, he rapidly embarked Franklin's Division of the Corps and other troops on transport and sent them up the York River to West Point, with a view of flanking the enemy on their retreat toward Richmond, and thus co-operating with the immediately pursuing force, already sent by land.

The defences the enemy had evacuated were reported by the engineers as ‘being very strong’ and the confusion that prevailed appeared to indicate a hasty retreat on the part of some of the troops, although the main body had begun to retire several days before the rear guard. The fugitives left behind them fifty-two pieces of artillery, after spiking them, and a considerable amount of ammunition, camp equipage and stores of all kinds.

They also left behind torpedoes which had been, with a savage perversion of the rules of warfare, ingeniously constructed and so hidden on the roads, in the fortifications, in the houses, tents and streets, among the tempting baggage abandoned, as to explode on the touch of the unwary. A telegraph operator stepped on one and was instantly killed; a man took a pitcher from a table in a house and a torpedo wrecked it and injured him; several others met death through that means. Within a compass of ten square rods, 30 of these torpedoes were found. They were 11-inch round shells, filled with powder of different grades, mixed. Each had a quill fuse and above it a plunger, with a knob so constructed that a person walking along and stepping upon it brought the plunger down with sufficient force upon a cap beneath to cause it to explode. The Confederate prisoners were set to work unearthing these diabolical machines and further injury was prevented.

On Monday at 9.00 A. M. the regiment began the march to [68] Yorktown. Rain fell throughout the day. The mud was ankle deep and the soil was so full of clay and so sticky that it was extremely hard for the men to move along, their feet sticking in the mud at every step. Shoes were pulled off by it, and the men were greatly exhausted. Despite their misery, some one in the regiment struck up an army song. It was taken up along the line and in a few minutes it seemed as if the whole army was singing.

At noon the regiment arrived before Norfolk, and the shelter tents were pitched. In the distance stretched the long fortifications of Yorktown. Immediately in front was the breastwork which Washington built to protect his troops; and fifty yards further away was the spot where he had received Cornwallis' sword, 81 years previously, the monument being broken in places where the rebels had knocked off pieces for souvenirs.

Near the spot where the regiment halted at noon was seen the monster balloon ‘McClellan’ which had been used to reconnoitre the enemy's works. This balloon had frequently been noticed and watched by the men as they were encamped before Yorktown. It had been plainly seen whenever it was up and one day it was noticed to suddenly move away toward Yorktown. Soon the enemy began to fire upon it. Then it seemed to go higher, floated back over the Union lines, and then suddenly collapsed and descended very rapidly, with the top partly inflated, thus keeping it right side up, and swaying, twisting and turning like a big corn sack with a stone tied to one end. General Porter, who had been up in it to take a bird's eye view of the enemy's position, got a much nearer one than he had anticipated, for the rope which held it to the ground had parted. He fortunately alighted within the Union lines without injury.

Every road leading to Yorktown was crowded with cavalry, artillery and baggage wagons. The firing of the gunboats, as they poured shot and shell into the flank of the retreating foe, and the sounds of distant musketry, made the whole scenery and suggestion martial in the extreme.

At 6 P. M., in the midst of a smart shower, the regiment [69] took up its tents and began to march again. The roads were quagmires and constantly grew worse. The march was frequently interrupted to allow columns to pass toward Williamsburg, in direct pursuit of the enemy. No sooner was the command ‘Forward’ given than ‘Halt’ would follow and the men would drop their pieces to the ground in disgust. It was impossible to sit down because of the mud and water, it was irksome to stand, and as the men scuffed along in the brief periods of marching, they slid first to one side, then to the other in the mud. Wagons broke down, horses stuck in the mud, and, taken altogether the delay was such that in eight hours during the night, the regiment marched only one and three-quarter miles. So weary were the men from the exposure and the terrible march that some lay down in the mud at every halt, many of which were occasioned by the search for hidden torpedoes. At 2 A. M. the line finally halted on the sandy beach at Yorktown and the men were almost immediately asleep. A number of barrels were found on the beach, and these were made use of as much as possible. When the men awoke in the morning, however, it was discovered that some of these barrels contained gunpowder and they were immediately rolled into the water, that being considered the best place for them.

The fortifications of Yorktown were found to be on a grand scale. The parapets were 20 and 30 feet high, and ditches, 20 feet across, extended for miles. The water battery mounted a long row of pieces and commanded the York River at this point, co-operating with the batteries at Gloucester Point opposite.

While the regiment was encamped on the beach at Yorktown, many of the men took occasion to go into the town. All that was left there was a church and a half dozen tumbled down wooden houses, leaning in all directions and looking as if a first class hurricane had passed that way.

At 3 P. M. the regiment embarked on the transport C. Vanderbilt and started up the York River, preceded by the gunboat Marblehead. They arrived at West Point at 6 P. M., but did not debark until the following morning, when [70] they were poled ashore in pontoon boats and formed in column by division closed in mass, Colonel Hinks commanding the Brigade. A line of battle had already been formed and was just entering the woods a mile away. The popping muskets as the rebel pickets were driven in, was heard and then the sound of the volley firing, telling that the lines had met. The regiment was placed in support of Captain Porter's Massachusetts Battery for a time.

General Franklin was in command of the troops here and the signal corps had established a ‘verbal telegraph line’ from the front to his quarters. Men were placed within speaking distance of each other and messages were constantly transmitted by them, one to the other, such as ‘The enemy is showing in force on the right,’ ‘Heavy firing on the left,’ ‘Enemy advancing in force on the centre, reinforcements needed,’ ‘Centre hard pressed,’ etc.

One peculiar message thus transmitted was ‘Send a man to take Daniel Webster's place.’ This was another Daniel Webster, however, not the ‘Expounder of the Constitution.’

Toward night the regiment formed in line of battle and advanced a short distance into the woods at the left of the line, Company C being thrown forward about a quarter of a mile as skirmishers, and posted along a ridge in the woods as pickets. On the following morning the line was withdrawn and the regiment returned to the brigade.

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