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Chapter 15: the battle of Williamsburg

From April 17 to May 4, 1862, my brigade did not change its camp and was employed by detachments in constructions for siege operations, such as fascines-long bundles of rods or twigs-or gabionstall baskets without bottoms — for use in lining the openings or embrasures of earthworks through which cannon were to be fired. The men of the division not otherwise employed did picket and guard duty, and were exercised daily in company, regimental, and brigade drills.

In order to be as familiar as possible with the places where I might have to take my command into action, I visited in turn the various portions of our front. On April 26th, after I had set large detachments from my brigade at work and had seen them diligently constructing fascines and gabions, I rode over to the York River in order to examine the water batteries. From that locality the Confederate fort on Gloucester Point across the river was in plain sight, and we could also see the enemy's water battery on the Yorktown side. From our position to the opposite shore the distance was two miles. Five of the guns in our Battery No. 1 were one hundred pounders, Parrott muzzle-loading rifles, and two two hundred pounders, Parrott. They were mounted on wrought-iron [214] carriages which appeared so slender as to be in danger of being broken by a single recoil. Other batteries *had ten-, twenty-, and thirty-pounder Parrott and four and one-half-inch guns in place ready for work. Others had eight-and ten-inch mortars. The next morning I continued my visits and found near the center of our position-directly in front of Sumner's corpswith a field battery having epaulements for six guns, my friend Lieutenant Edmund Kirby in charge; he had just recovered from a serious attack of typhoid fever.

My next ride for information was made May 1st. It was along the front and to examine our first parallel, which was a trench twelve feet wide and three feet deep, the dirt being thrown toward the enemy. All along the parallel were openings in the embankment for batteries of siege guns. This trench was parallel to the enemy's works and 1,500 yards from them. Accompanied by my brother and aid, Lieutenant Howard, I continued back of the parallel eastward as far as the York River, and we took a good look at the waiting gunboats, some of which had come up the river to cooperate in the siege. We looked at each other and inquired: “How soon shall we do something”

From day to day we read and wrote letters and had plenty of time to visit each other, as well as to study the slowly growing constructions. Occasionally the enemy would toss a shell over to our side, and now and then roll a ball of iron along our road with motion too swift to touch. A skirmish somewhere on the front line occasionally came off, and sometimes we were startled into abnormal activity by a false alarm; but on the whole we had a long and peaceful sojourn near Yorktown. [215]

Near the end of “the siege of Yorktown,” Franklin's division was permitted to come to us from McDowell, and, remaining on transports, was waiting for the great bombardment before commencing to perform its appointed role. But the great bombardment never came.

Sunday morning, May 4th, all at my headquarters had attended to ordinary military duties, Before breakfast I invited to my tent Captain Sewall, my adjutant general, Lieutenant H-oward, Lieutenant Balloch, Orderly McDonald, an English manservant, and Charley Weis, a messenger whose sobriquet was “Bony.” We read that chapter of Daniel which tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passing through the fiery furnace unscathed. Then followed, from one of the officers present, an earnest petition to the Lord of Hosts for protection, guidance, and blessing. As soon as breakfast was over I commenced a letter to Mrs. Howard, and, writing rapidly, had finished about two pages, when suddenly, without completing the sentence, I jotted down: “Yorktown is abandoned and our troops are marching in.” I added a little later: “I am now, quarter before eight A. M., under marching orders. Thank Him who doeth all things well.”

It was Sumner's entire corps which had received orders of march. Besides the two divisions, Richardson's and Sedgwick's, Sumner's corps still included the Eighth Illinois Cavalry. Our division artillery had four batteries-twenty-four guns. Thus far no change had been made in the entire division, except the transfer of the cavalry to corps headquarters.

From our location south of Yorktown in the rear of all, we were naturally long delayed in taking up the [216] march toward Williamsburg, for the only through routes, already almost impassable after the Confederate columns had waded through them, were thronged with cavalry and the corps of Heintzelman and Keyes. We held ourselves in readiness, impatiently waiting all day the 4th. McClellan's first plan, made known later in the day, designated our division with Sedgwick's and Fitz-John Porter's as the reserve, either to go to Williamsburg, if imperatively needed, or to follow Franklin's division on transports up the York River and support him in his work, or take and hold a landing on the same side of the river twenty-five miles above. To carry out this plan, early on Monday, the 5th, Sedgwick's and our division broke camp and marched to the immediate neighborhood of Yorktown. Here we bivouacked and completed all our preparations for close work-rations in the haversacks and ammunition on the person of each soldier.

Owing to McClellan's siege operations, General Johnston determined to withdraw his Confederate forces just before the destructive bombardment should begin. His retreat toward Richmond was ordered and carried steadily forward. Stuart's cavalry curtained the moving forces on the Yorktown-Williamsburg road, and also on the Lee's Mill and Williamsburg road, the two roads leading up the peninsula.

Critics accuse us in the Army of the Potomac of not being early risers, and not being keen to catch the first evidences of evacuation. It is, indeed, a just charge against McClellan's information bureau; the want of information did enable Johnston to gain a coveted advantage during the first day of his difficult retreat. It was good generalship on his part to so blind McClellan as to his purpose. The withdrawal of the enemy, however, [217] was discovered at dawn almost simultaneously at several points of the front. Heintzelman, in front of Yorktown, seeing fires reflected in the sky and hearing explosions which sounded like a skirmish, had himself taken up in a balloon to make sure of the cause before ordering a general advance, and saw the destruction of magazines, and our pickets unopposed sweeping over the works which had been so formidable. Hancock, then a brigade commander, was notified also at dawn by two negroes that the enemy had gone.

McClellan, taken thus by surprise, needed time to think and time to interpret Johnston's design. It might be a ruse. So he put Fitz-John Porter's division in the Confederate works to hold them against a possible return. He got Franklin with his fine body of fresh men ready to send in transports up the York, with reserves to follow, and naval gunboats to aid.

The orders to Heintzelman and Keyes were: “Draw in your guards, pickets, and outposts and replenish everything for a march.”

Between the Warwick and Williamsburg was a belt of country in breadth from nine to thirteen miles. It was a country of swamps, tangled forests, and small farms here and there, like glades in the woods, connected by wretched lanes. There were only two roads from our front, and one of them the Lee's Mill road, which was connected occasionally with the other, the Yorktown road; and it took watching and tacking to keep off the main thoroughfare from Yorktown to Williamsburg and yet travel toward the latter town. The men marching in the night and rain, on account of the effort required to lift their feet, heavy with adhesive mud, never exceeded one mile an hour. Our [218] people during that march, short as it appears, were like flocks of children playing at blindman's buff. They wandered right and left; they ran into each other; they reached out tentatively for obstacles and gained ground slowly with extreme fatigue.

There were other troubles. When our infantry began its march a warning came along our military telegraph line that everybody should look out for “buried bombs.” Torpedoes had been buried in the ground along the paths and roads which led to the Confederate works. Some were also found near wells and springs of water, a few in some flour barrels and sacks in the telegraph office, and one or more near a magazine.

There was with us at Yorktown a young man by the name of D. B. Lathrop, from Springfield, Ohio. He was the son of a widow, and had been, before the war, studying for the ministry. When the war broke out, wishing to do something helpful to the Union cause, he joined that hard-worked and useful body, the telegraph corps. Mr. Lathrop was attached to General Heintzelman's headquarters. As soon as Yorktown was opened, following the wires he hurried to the telegraph office. He sat down at the operator's table and touched the instrument. Instantly an explosion of a percussion shell took place and young Lathrop was mortally wounded.

A little later in the day when Davidson's brigade was about to cross the Warwick at Lee's Mill, Colonel E. C. Mason, of the Seventh Maine, receiving word concerning Lathrop, whom he knew, and fearing torpedoes, went himself in advance of his column on the road beyond the dam. As he was walking slowly he crushed a percussion cap. Brushing away the dirt, he discovered the red wax at the top of the buried shell. [219] Providentially for Mason, only the cap exploded. The colonel then called for volunteers. Upon their hands and knees they crept along and succeeded in uncovering more than a dozen shells. In the approaches to the Yorktown works the torpedoes were usually arranged with a narrow board, upon which a soldier's or horse's tread would effect an explosion. Several horses and men among the first passing troops were killed or wounded by them. McClellan soon set several Confederate prisoners of war to ferret them out.

During Sunday General Stoneman with our cavalry and horse artillery worked his way forward, having small combats with Confederate cavalry under Stuart. Nothing very discouraging checked him, or any of our cavalry detachments, from a steady advance till he came upon the Williamsburg outworks. About a mile and a half from Williamsburg a considerable work called Fort Magruder was located so as to obstruct both the roads of which I have spoken. Fort Magruder had on its right and left several small redoubts, and the whole front was an open field for several hundred yards, except for the slashing of trees and other artificial obstructions.

Stuart had been pressed so hard that the Confederate commander of the rear guard called back into the woods a division of infantry and considerable artillery. As soon as Stoneman's men with a battery of artillery swept into the spaces before these formidable works, they encountered all along their front a terrific fire of both infantry and artillery. Stoneman, thus suddenly repelled, fell back a short distance and called for help, having suffered the loss of some forty men, one piece of artillery, and three caissons, which had sunk deeply in the mud, and the horses of which were [220] nearly all killed or wounded by the prompt Confederate fire.

This partial success determined our enemy to remain a while longer and take advantage of this wellselected checking position. He might possibly overwhelm a part of McClellan's forces before the remainder could wade through the ever-deepening mud to its relief, for the rain had poured down all the day; and, indeed, Johnston needed more time to secure a reasonably safe retreat.

Sumner, being sent forward Sunday morning by McClellan to take care of everything at the front, heard the firing at Williamsburg. He hastened infantry from the heads of columns of both the other corps to Stoneman's support, and at evening, himself being cut off by a sudden Confederate sally, passed the night with one of the brigade commanders. No aids or orderlies from Heintzelman or Keyes could find him. In fact, Heintzelman, judging from his own instructions, thought himself to be in command. General Keyes, leading Casey's and Couch's divisions, had for himself a similar impression. Heintzelman's head of column under Hooker, now nearest to the James River, had been the first to respond to Stoneman's call for help. Early in the morning of Monday the three not very harmonious corps commanders succeeded in getting together.

After ambitious contention, Sumner's rank was yielded to and his plan to turn the Confederates by our right agreed upon. Heintzelman set out for the left of our line, but was much delayed by ignorant guides. At last he reached Hooker. Hooker had worked up close to the redoubts the night before with deployed lines. The instructions which had come to him were to [221] support Stoneman and harass the enemy, and, if possible, cut off his retreat. Baldy Smith's division he knew was on his right, and other troops in plenty somewhere near. These circumstances were to “Fighting Joe Hooker” just those for winning laurels by a successful assault.

Exactly contrary to Sumner's plan Hooker, already on the ground by daylight, commenced a regular attack on the Confederate right at about 7.30. A fierce and noisy struggle went on there all day. Longstreet came back and brought more troops. Hooker's men, reserves and all, pushed in, and were nearly exhausted, when, about 4 P. M., Phil Kearny managed to get up his division. Hooker's division was at last relieved by Kearny's and fell back to be a reserve. Hooker's soldiers deserved this rest, for they had faced Fort Magruder and those strong redoubts well manned and actively firing for nine hours. Kearny's men charged and cleared the outside point of woods, carried some rifle pits, and silenced troublesome light batteries, so that Kearny declared: “The victory is ours” His men bivouacked where they had fought.

Thus the battle went on contrary to all planning, working along from left to right. While the operations just recounted were progressing under Heintzelman's eyes, Sumner and Keyes were trying to bring order out of confusion on the right of our line and back to the rear on the Yorktown road.

A passageway across a stream and through the woods around the Confederate left flank having been discovered, Hancock's brigade, somewhat reinforced, was selected to make a turning movement, and its commander fought with it a brilliant and successful engagement against Early, who was badly wounded in [222] this action. Hancock's victorious troops bivouacked on the field in a heavy rain. When this was going on beyond our extreme right, the enemy made strong counter attacks along the Yorktown road from the flanks of Fort Magruder. In resisting these attacks our men from New York and Pennsylvania received a heavy fire, and left many a poor fellow dead or dying upon a plowed field and among the felled timber which protected the fort. The whole conduct of this battle created among our generals so much dissatisfaction, bickering, and complaint that McClellan was induced about three o'clock in the afternoon to come to the front. The fighting was all over when he reached Sumner's headquarters. He gathered what news he could from different points and sent to Washington a dispatch which put Hancock far in advance of all other participants in the engagement.

Ile thought that General Johnston intended to fight a general battle at that point and that his own troops were outnumbered; so he at once ordered Sedgwick's and Richardson's divisions to march from Yorktown to Williamsburg.

Just before sunset that Monday evening, May 5th, my brigade received its marching orders. The rain still continued to pour down. We set out as quickly as possible, my brigade following that of General French. I was obliged to march my men through a narrow roadway across the Yorktown works; the clay mud, which stuck to the men's feet in lumps or masses, was from eight to ten inches in depth. Horses, wagons, mules, and footmen were coming and going both ways and often meeting in the narrow passage. As my brigade passed I remained for some time at the Yorktown sally port. The bits of board attached to torpedoes [223] had not all been removed, but little flags were placed as a warning of the presence of explosives. Some of us became hoarse calling to the soldiers not to move to the right or left, and not to step on the boards where the small flags were seen. It was dark before I got my brigade past Yorktown.

Almost the entire night was spent in struggling forward. I tried to walk now and then to rest my horse, and for quite a time to allow an officer who was taken suddenly ill to ride, but I found it necessary to hold on by the halter to keep on my feet. Our men straggled dreadfully that night, but as soon as the day dawned they worked their way on to the command. We had finally bivouacked for the night in a rough-plowed field till dawn. My adjutant general, a thin man, gloomily placed his hips between two rails; for myself, with crotchets I constructed a wooden horse, fastened one end of a piece of canvas over it, and pulled the other end along the ground near to my cheerful fire, and lay down against the canvas for a short, sweet rest.

At last we were halted not far from the battlefield. With a few officers I went to the bloody ground. The Confederates had departed in the night. The open muddy soil and the thickets were still strewn with the swollen dead, whose faces .were generally toward the sky. I saw, as I moved along, a little headboard to mark the place of a Union soldier. His form and his face were carefully covered by a blanket. Near him was another in gray clothing left without care. In my heart I wished that he also had been covered. They seemed to be resting together in peace. I thought: “May God hasten us to the close of such a war!” This yearning was deepened by my visits to the hospitals filled with poor sufferers from both armies. United in [224] pain and forced imprisonment, Confederate and Union soldiers there were at peace. But, receiving orders from General Richardson, I myself quickly returned from that gloomy region to my brigade and hurried it back to Yorktown, to wait there for transports which would enable us to follow Franklin up the York River to West Point.

I have seen that, of the two armies, the Confederate brought into action at Williamsburg about ten thousand, and our army from twelve to thirteen thousand. Our aggregate loss, 2,239, was very large, as the troops in general fought against prepared works. The Confederate loss was from 1,300 to 1,500 men.

Before and after the first battle of Bull Run it will be remembered that I was associated with General Franklin; he and I each commanded a brigade in Heintzelman's division. His associates always respected his ability and had confidence in his judgment. Franklin's division, composed of infantry and artillery, after its arrival had been disembarked on May 3d, at Cheeseman's Landing near Ship Point, with a view to take part in the proposed assault of Yorktown. The morning of the 4th, as soon as McClellan knew of the Confederate withdrawal, he instructed Franklin to reembark and take his division to Yorktown. Franklin commenced the work at once, finishing the reembarking, as quickly as it could be done, about one o'clock of the 5th. The difficulties of reembarking, owing to the weather, to the loading of supplies, and the putting on board of the artillery carriages and other impedimenta, much of which had to be hoisted from rafts, were greater than anybody had estimated. At any rate, there was no unnecessary delay. Proceeding to Yorktown, Franklin received further orders and was [225] ready the same evening to continue on to West Point accompanied by a naval convoy. The naval commander declined to start, owing to the increasing darkness and the danger of navigation during a furious storm. Therefore, the flotilla only left at daybreak on the 6th. Arriving at West Point, the disembarking was begun and the vicinity reconnoitered at three o'clock, but the landing of the artillery was not completed till the morning of the 7th. Canal boats, which were aground by the bank, were used as wharves.

General Johnston suspected, on account of the fewness of our troops marshaled against him at Williamsburg, that McClellan was sending a flotilla up the York River, to seize a landing place in the vicinity of West Point, and attack from it the flank of his retreating army. The evening of Tuesday, the 6th, General G. W. Smith, commanding the Confederate reserve, had Whiting's division not far from Barhamsville, opposite West Point, and three miles away. He reported to his chief, General Johnston, that a large body of United States troops had debarked from transports at Eltham's Landing, a little above him, and were occupying not only the open spaces, but a thick wood stretching from the landing to the New Kent wagon road. As this menaced Johnston's line of march he instructed Smith to dislodge our troops. This work Smith directed General Whiting to do. Franklin had put his troops into position as they landed. His flanks were protected by the gunboats, which were at hand, to shell the woods beyond. Each flank rested on swampy creeks running into the river. Besides, he possessed himself, as far as his small force could do so, of the encircling woods. General H. W. Slocum commanded Franklin's left wing, while General John [226] Newton, a loyal Virginian, commanded the right. Whiting, to cover Johnston's army in retreat, bivouacked in a line of battle facing Franklin, but did not attack that evening, as Franklin's troops appeared to be in a position hard to reach. He hoped to attack him as he moved out, but as Franklin did not advance Whiting attacked him furiously in position the next morning, the 7th, at ten o'clock. Franklin, however, in a three hours conflict secured his landing, which was his object, and not, as Johnston feared, to attack him in flank during his retreat. West Point, the place where the Pamunkey and Mattapony unite to form the York River, and which is the terminus of the Richmond Railway, was now set apart for our new base of operations.

Slowly and steadily through the abounding mud, or by water from Yorktown, the army worked its way to Franklin's neighborhood,while General Johnston,with scarcely any further molestation, was suffered to draw in his forces to the vicinity of the Confederate capital.

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