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Chapter 7: battle of Williamsburg.

On reporting to General Longstreet at Williamsburg, I ascertained that there was fighting, by a portion of our troops, with the enemy's advance, at a line of redoubts previously constructed a short distance east of Williamsburg, the principal one of which redoubts, covering the main road, was known as Fort Magruder. I was directed to move my command into the college grounds and await orders. There was now a cold, drizzling rain and the wind and the mud in the roads, and everywhere else, was very deep. After remaining for some time near the college, I received an order from General Longstreet to move to Fort Magruder and support Brigadier General Anderson, who had command of the troops engaged with the enemy.

My command was immediately put into motion, and I sent my aide, Lieutenant S. H. Early, forward, to inform General Anderson of my approach, and ascertain where my troops were needed. Lieutenant Early soon returned with the information that General Anderson was, not at Fort Magruder, having gone to the right, where his troops were engaged, but that General Stuart, who was in charge at the fort, requested that four of my regiments be moved into position on the right of it and two on the left. As I was moving on to comply with his request and had neared Fort Magruder, General Longstreet himself rode up and ordered me to move the whole of my command to a position which he pointed out, on a ridge in a field to the left and rear of the Fort, so as to prevent the enemy from turning the position in that direction, and to await further orders. General Longstreet then rode towards the right, and I was proceeding to the position assigned me, when one of the General's staff officers came to me with an order [69] to send him two regiments, which I complied with by sending the 2nd Florida Regiment and the 2nd Mississippi Battalion, under Colonel Ward.

With my brigade proper I moved to the point designated before this last order, and took position on the crest of a ridge in a wheat field and facing towards a piece of woods from behind which some of the enemy's guns were firing on Fort Magruder. Shortly after I had placed my command in position, General Hill came up and I suggested to him the propriety of moving through the woods to attack one of the enemy's batteries which seemed to have a flank fire on our main position. He was willing for the attack to be made, but replied that he must see General Longstreet before authorizing it. He then rode to see General Longstreet and I commenced making preparations for the projected attack. While I was so engaged, Brigadier General Rains, also of Hill's command, came up with his brigade and formed immediately in my rear so as to take my place when I moved. General Hill soon returned with the information that the attack was to be made, and he proceeded to post some field-pieces which had come up, in position to cover my retreat if I should be repulsed.

As soon as this was done, my brigade moved forward through the wheat field into the woods, and then through that in the direction of the firing, by the sound of which we were guided, as the battery itself and the troops supporting it were entirely concealed from our view. General Hill accompanied the brigade, going with the right of it. It moved with the 5th North Carolina on the right, then with the 23rd North Carolina, then the 38th Virginia, and then the 24th Virginia on the left. I moved forward with the 24th Virginia, as I expected, from the sound of the enemy's guns and the direction in which we were moving, it would come upon the battery. After moving through the woods a quarter of a mile or more, the 24th came to a rail fence with an open field beyond, [70] in which were posted several guns, under the support of infantry, near some farm houses. In this field were two redoubts, one of which, being the extreme left redoubt of the line of which Fort Magruder was the main work, was occupied by the enemy, and this redoubt was, from the quarter from which we approached, beyond the farm house where the guns mentioned were posted. The 24th, without hesitation, sprang over the fence and made a dash at the guns which were but a short distance from us, but they retired very precipitately, as did the infantry support, to the cover of the redoubt in their rear and the fence and piece of woods nearby.

My line as it moved forward was at right angle to that of the enemy, so that my left regiment alone came upon him and as it moved into the field was exposed to a flank fire. This regiment, inclining to the left, moved gallantly to the attack, and continued to press forward towards the main position at the redoubt under a heavy fire of both infantry and artillery; but the other regiments had not emerged from the woods, and I sent orders for them to move up to the support of the 24th. In the meantime I had received a very severe wound in the shoulder from a minie ball and my horse had been very badly shot, having one of his eyes knocked out. I then rode towards the right for the purpose of looking after the other regiments and ordering them into action, and met the 5th North Carolina, under Colonel McRae, advancing in gallant style towards the enemy. Upon emerging from the woods and finding no enemy in his immediate front, Colonel McRae had promptly formed line to the left and moved to the support of the regiment which was engaged, traversing the whole front which should have been occupied by the two other regiments. He advanced through an open field under a heavy fire from the enemy's artillery and infantry, and soon became hotly engaged by the side of the 24th. [71]

Having by this time become very weak from loss of blood, and suffering greatly from pain, I rode to the second redoubt nearby, in full view of the fight going on and but a few hundred yards from it, for the purpose of dismounting and directing the operations from that point. When I attempted to dismount I found myself so weak, and my pain was so excruciating, that I would not have been able to remount my horse, nor, from these causes, was I then able to direct the movements of my troops. I therefore rode from the field, to the hospital at Williamsburg, passing by Fort Magruder, and informing General Longstreet, whom I found on the right of it, of what was going on with my command.

The 24th Virginia and 5th North Carolina Regiments continued to confront the enemy at close quarters for some time without any support, until Colonel McRae, who had succeeded to the command of the brigade, in reply to a request sent for reinforcements, received an order from General Hill to retire. The 23rd North Carolina Regiment, as reported by Colonel Hoke, had received an order from General Hill to change its front in the woods, doubtless for the purpose of advancing to the support of the regiment first engaged, but it did not emerge from the woods at all, as it moved too far to the left and rear of the 24th Virginia, where it encountered a detachment of the enemy on his right flank. The 38th Virginia Regiment, after some difficulty, succeeded in getting into the field, and was moving under fire to the support of the two regiments engaged, when the order was received to retire.

At the time this order was received, the 24th Virginia and 5th North Carolina were comparatively safe from the enemy's fire, which had slackened, as they had advanced to a point where they were in a great measure sheltered, but the moment they commenced to retire the enemy opened a heavy fire upon them, and, as they had to retire over a bare field, they suffered severely. In [72] going back through the woods, some of the men lost their way and were captured by running into a regiment of the enemy, which was on his right in the woods.

From these causes the loss in those two regiments was quite severe. Colonel Wm. R. Terry and Lieutenant Colonel P. Hairston, of the 24th Virginia, were severely wounded, and Lieutenant Colonel J. C. Badham of the 5th North Carolina was killed, while a number of company officers of both regiments were among the killed and wounded. The loss in the 23rd North Carolina and 38th Virginia was slight, but Lieutenant Colonel Whittle of the latter regiment received a wound in the arm. The brigade fell back to the position from which it advanced, without having been pursued by the enemy, and was there re-formed. The troops of the enemy encountered by my brigade in this action consisted of Hancock's brigade and some eight or ten pieces of artillery.

The charge made by the 24th Virginia and the 5th North Carolina Regiments on this force was one of the most brilliant of the war, and its character was such as to elicit applause even from the newspaper correspondents from the enemy's camps. Had one of the brigades which had come up to the position from which mine advanced been ordered up to the support of Colonel McRae, the probability is that a very different result would have taken place, and perhaps Hancock's whole force would have been captured, as its route for retreat was over a narrow mill-dam.

McClellan, in a telegraphic dispatch at the time, reported that my command had been repulsed by “a real bayonet charge,” and he reiterates the statement in his report, that Hancock repulsed the troops opposed to him by a bayonet charge, saying: “Feigning to retreat slowly, he awaited their onset, and then turned upon them: after some terrific volleys of musketry he charged them with the bayonet, routing and dispersing their whole force.” This statement is entirely devoid of truth. My regiments were not repulsed, but retired [73] under order as I have stated, and there was no charge by the enemy with or without bayonets. This charging with bayonets was one of the myths of this as well as all other wars. Military commanders sometimes saw the charges, after the fighting was over, but the surgeons never saw the wounds made by the bayonets, except in a few instances of mere individual conflict, or where some wounded men had been bayoneted in the field.

Colonel Ward of Florida had led his command into action on the right of Fort Magruder, and he was killed soon after getting under fire. He was a most accomplished, gallant, and deserving officer, and would have risen to distinction in the army had he lived.

This battle at Williamsburg was participated in by only a small part of our army, and its object was to give time to our trains to move off on the almost impassable roads. It accomplished that purpose. The enemy's superior force was repulsed at all points save that at which I had been engaged, or at least his advance was checked. A number of guns were captured from him and his loss was severe, though we had to abandon some of the captured guns for the want of horses to move them.

During the night, the rear of our army resumed its retreat, and the whole of it succeeded in reaching the vicinity of Richmond and interposing for the defence of that city, after some minor affairs with portions of the enemy's troops. A portion of our wounded had to be left at Williamsburg for want of transportation, and surgeons were left in charge of them. I succeeded in getting transportation to the rear, and, starting from Williamsburg after 12 o'clock on the night of the 5th, and deviating next day from the route pursued by our army, I reached James River, near Charles City CourtHouse, and there obtained transportation on a steamer to Richmond, where I arrived at night on the 8th. From Richmond I went to Lynchburg, and, as soon as I was able to travel on horseback, I went to my own county, where I remained until I was able to resume duty in the field.

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James Longstreet (7)
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