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Chapter 17:

  • Despatches and letters relating to subjects treated in the foregoing and following chapters.

April 6, Sunday, 4 P. M.
My dear general: I have received your favor of this date by Col. Key, and hasten to say that I have already written you--via Shipping Point — in reply, giving my reason for not having joined you. The time you proposed to proceed with me had elapsed, and particularly the difficulties of my leaving my vessel owing to the want of officers of experience to take care of her.

I have explained in my note of to-day, and have repeated to Col. Key, the greatly increased strength of the fortifications as seen from this position. The forts at Gloucester are very formidable indeed, and the water-batteries of Yorktown have evidently been increased in dimensions within a few days, as indicated by the new earth.

As I pointed out to you in our interview, the works to be most apprehended (though they all are too formidable for our vessels, or three or four times their numbers and class) are the guns in mask about one-quarter to one-half of a mile this side of Yorktown, which position I point out to Col. Key.

The enemy are still on Gloucester Point — how strong I cannot say. So long as he holds that formidable work (or, indeed, upper and lower work) we surely cannot command the York river. All the gunboats of the navy would fail to take it, but would be destroyed in the attempt. Yet I will not hesitate to try the experiment, if required to do so, with this force, however inadequate.

I have explained to Col. Key that if you turn the masked work, which I fired on to-day and received its fire in return, the guns would command the next water-battery, which is about one-fifth of a mile from it towards Yorktown, as it appears from this ship.

With those two batteries carried, this force might approach near enough to shell Yorktown at long range, but nothing more. These vessels of this class are not calculated for closer or heavier work.

As I could not go in time to reach you to-day, as requested, I sent, after despatching my letter to you, the second in rank, Lieut.-Com. Clitz, to confer with you. And now, with Col. Key, [292] I proceed to Wormsley's creek to meet you or Gen. Heintzelman.

Very truly yours,

Wachusett, April 10, 1862.
My dear general: Enclosed is the report upon the landing from this part of the river at “Sand-Box,” where it was intended to land troops. Capt. Nicholson says he found a good picket-guard house for cavalry, stables, etc., within the Box, and some cattle near Too's Point. A steamer also penetrated a mile up Back creek to-day — which is within the Sand-Box, and whose entrance is to the eastward of Too's Point, as shown by the chart, and over which is good eight feet--to within one and a half miles of Wormsley's creek.

It has been observed to-day that large numbers of infantry have been transported from Yorktown to Gloucester Point. And this afternoon a number of what seemed to be laborers with entrenching tools went to the same point; we conclude either to strengthen the works there or to throw up works opposite to and within long rifle-range of this anchorage. I have been expecting some such movement, and wondering why they did not try it from some point back from the beach so far that our guns (shell) could not reach them. It cannot be prevented by us.

Very truly yours,

April 11, 6 A. M.
The enemy very busy last night between Yorktown and Gloucester Point. Schooners observed to be going continually. Enemy may have notice of intention to land troops at Severn and are fortifying its entrance. Ten schooners now in sight.

headquarters, Army of Potomac, near Yorktown, April 8, 1862.
My dear flag-officer: Your kind letter received. From the information received thus far I am inclined to think that the “masked battery” on the river-bank below Yorktown is not in existence, but that the gun fired upon Missroom was upon the advanced bastion of the place itself. Porter thinks that he has found a place from which we can enfilade their water-batteries. [293] I go there in a few minutes to look at it. Should it prove to be so, we can enable the gunboats to take an effective part in the contest. The weather is infamous (has been raining hard for the last eighteen hours, and still continues), the roads are horrid, and we have the devil's own time about supplies.

I have made strong representations as to the withdrawal of the 1st corps, which has forced me to abandon the turning morement, and hope that the President may be induced to change his order. . . . The position of the enemy is immensely strong, but we are learning more of it every hour. Our men behave splendidly — brave and patient as men can be. . . .

Good for the first lick! Hurrah for Smith and the one-gun battery! Let us have Yorktown, with Magruder and his gang, before the 1st of May, and the job will be over.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

U. S. Steamer Wachusett, York river, April 17, 1862.
My dear general: In accordance with your request to have shell thrown into Yorktown yesterday, the Sebago (side-wheel) was ordered on that service, she being the only vessel here provided with a long-range rifle.

Her fire was returned by two guns of equal range from the enemy with surprising accuracy. One shell passed directly between the “smoke-stack” and mainmast, a few feet above her deck, and another within a few feet of the wheel-house, throwing the water over the vessel, and both within a short distance of her boilers and machinery, which are altogether exposed. Had she been crippled the attempt to withdraw her might, and probably would, have caused the sacrifice of other vessels also.

The Sebago is the vessel capable of rendering the most important service in covering the landing of troops, and I submit whether it would not be advisable to defer any attempt to throw shell in Yorktown till night, while she can operate on Gloucester with impunity at any time. She draws six feet of water. A single shot in the midship section of that vessel especially, or indeed of either of these gunboats, disables if it do not destroy her.

Would it not be possible for your cannon to dismount those two rifles with which the enemy fired at the Sebago yesterday? [294] They will inflict much damage on our people when Gloucester is held by them, as well as on our vessels.

The Sebago threw shells into Gloucester last night three several times. I am advised that another light-draught steamer, similar to the Sebago is to come here. We cannot have the accuracy of fire from a vessel that the enemy exhibited yesterday.

Many thanks for the loan of fuses.

I am, very truly, your obedient servant,

Your despatch of this morning received and communicated to the President. He directs me to ask you whether the indications do not show that they are inclined to take the offensive. Banks has moved to Mount Jackson yesterday, and to New Market to-day; has taken some locomotives and prisoners.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, April 18, 10 P. M.
Hon. E. M Stanton, Secretary of War:
Despatch received. I cannot hope such good-fortune as that the enemy will take the offensive. I am perfectly prepared for any attack the enemy may make. He will do nothing more than sorties. I beg that the President will be satisfied that the enemy cannot gain anything by attacking me; the more he does attack the better I shall be contented. All is well. I am glad to hear of Banks's good-fortune.

G. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Confidential.

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, April 18, 11.30 P. M.
His Excellency the President:
If compatible with your impressions as to the security of the capital, and not interfering with operations of which I am ignorant, I would be glad to have McCall's division, so as to be enabled to make a strong attack upon West Point to turn the position of the enemy. After all that I have heard of things which have occurred since I left Washington and before, I would [295] prefer that Gen. McDowell should not again be assigned to duty with me.

G. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

I am rejoiced to learn that your operations are progressing so rapidly and with so much spirit and success, and congratulate you, and the officers and soldiers engaged, upon the brilliant affair mentioned in your telegram, repeating the assurance that everything in the power of the department is at your service. I hope soon to congratulate you upon a splendid victory that shall be the finishing stroke of the war in every quarter. The work goes bravely on.

Yours truly,

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

Your call for Parrott guns from Washington alarms me. chiefly because it aims indefinite procrastination. Is anything to be done?

A. Lincoln, President.

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 1, 9.30 P. M.
His Excellency the President:
I asked for the Parrott guns from Washington for the reason that some expected had been two weeks, nearly, on the way and could not be heard from. They arrived last night. My arrangements had been made for them, and I thought time might be saved by getting others from Washington. My object was to hasten, not procrastinate. All is being done that human labor can accomplish.

G. B. McClellan, Maj.--Gen.

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 3, 1862.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
I regret to learn that Col. Campbell, 5th Penn. Cavalry, has been placed in arrest by Maj.-Gen. McDowell for endeavoring to comply with my positive order to him to report with his regiment for duty at this place. This regiment was never assigned to Gen. [296] McDowell's army corps, but was detailed by me to Gen. Keyes's corps. I, of course, expected it to follow me as soon as transportation could be provided, and am not a little surprised to learn that my instructions have been interfered with and my force diminished by the action of the commanding officer of the Department of the Rappahannock, in violation of G. O. No. 29, War Department, adjutant-general's office, March 22, 1862. Under these circumstances I beg the immediate interposition of the War Department to relieve from arrest a meritorious officer, against whom there appears to be no complaint save that of obedience to the orders of his rightful superior. I also ask that the regiment, as well as the 1st N. J., Col. Wyndham, may be permitted to join the army under my command without further delay.

G. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

Wachusett, York river, April 22, 1862.
My dear general: The carriage on board the Sebago is weak. Two carriage-makers are coming to us from Washington; I fear not in time. I am promised, if she comes in time, a steamer with 100-pounder rifle.

The Corwin has no battery but a 10-pounder and two sixes, being only a surveying-craft.

When you commence attack the 100-pounder rifle can assist from the beginning. But I fear our stock of ammunition, especially shell and “thirty” fuses, will fail us soon.

I have failed to get what I have asked for from Hampton Roads. Can you loan us some 100-pounder shell and some more “thirty” fuses for the Sebago? She has only about thirty-six fuses of that kind now. Our stock at Hampton Roads was sent to North Carolina.

Please see the despatch I have just sent to Com. Poor. I sent a steamer to land your mortars at two A. M, with tackle.

I ought to see you once more before you open fire on Yorktown, to have a clear understanding. Say when I shall go to you, and I will do so any time, at any day, after four P. M.

The enemy's troops showing themselves now near spot last driven from, abreast anchorage.

Yours very truly,

We got eleven-inch shell into Yorktown and Gloucester last night.


With my whole heart I do most cordially congratulate you on your brilliant and important achievement. The gunboats shall accompany you up York river.

L. M. Goldsborough, Flag-Officer.

Accept my cordial congratulations upon the success at York-town, and I am rejoiced to hear that your forces are in active pursuit. Please favor me with the details as far as they are acquired, and I hope soon to hear your arrival at Richmond.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

The Secretary of War telegraphs me to inform him how many transports of all descriptions I can command. Please place at my disposal all you can release, except such as are required for the transportation of stores. . . .

John Tucker, Assistant Secretary of War.

camp near Yorktown, May 5.
J. Tucker, Assistant Secretary of War, Fortress Monroe:
In reply to a part of your despatch which the time for the departure of the boat did not admit of answering, and in the absence of Gen. McClellan to the front, I have to inform you that the general has ordered all the available transports to carry troops to West Point, and a part of them have started for Cheeseman's creek. Your despatch will be laid before the general this evening.

R. B. Marcy, Chief of Staff

near Williamsburg, May 5, 11.45 P. M.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
Mr. Tucker's telegram relating to the vessels was received after Franklin's division had embarked and on the way to West Point. Another division goes in the morning, and the last is absolutely necessary to support the first. This movement is of the greatest importance. I will release the vessels just as soon [298] as the troops are landed. Nothing new except what I told you in my last despatch.

Geo. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.
P. S. Some of the main works of the enemy are in our possession, and I am pushing troops forward, but the roads are horrible.

G. B. Mcclellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

Williamsburg, May 6, 3 P. M.
A portion of the army has left for the upper York, and it would be destruction to deprive me of the water-transportation now. It is absolutely necessary that I should complete the movement now commenced, or the consequences will be fatal.

G. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding. Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, camp Winfield Scott, May 4, 1862.
Brig-.Gen. Heintzelman, Commanding 3d Corps:
I have received information from Gen. Smith that the enemy are still in front of him in some force of infantry and cavalry. Gen. Stoneman has been ordered to move as rapidly as possible to the Halfway House, and to take possession of the cross-road near that place, to cut off this command, and also to send a strong reconnoissance towards Blen's wharf.

I wish Hooker to follow this movement with the utmost rapidity. When he reaches the point where the road branches off near the Halfway House, to leave a portion of his force there, and with the rest to gain the Lee's Mill and Williamsburg road, so as to support Stoneman and aid him in cutting off the retreat of the enemy. The division should move simply with its ambulances and some reserve ammunition, with not more than two days rations. Should further information from Smith render it necessary to move Kearny's division also, I would be glad to have you take control of the entire movement. Smith is in possession of their works, and the enemy referred to are some distance in rear of them-how far I do not yet know.

Geo. B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

May 4, 1862.
Col. A. V. Colburn:
Sir: Smith has reported that the enemy is in some force in [299] his front. Keyes has advanced two brigades and a regiment of horse, with three batteries. They have seen no enemy, but have had a few men injured by the bursting of shells left by the enemy.

I leave immediately to take command on the left. Telegraph me at Smith's, with duplicates for me at Keyes's headquarters.

Very respectfully,

E. O. Sumner, Brig.-Gen. Commanding the Left Wing.

two miles beyond Yorktown.
Gen. Marcy, Chief of Staff:
Gen. Stoneman has met the enemy about three miles beyond the Halfway House, and has sent back for the infantry to support him. Two brigades are ahead of me.

Yours, etc.,

S. V. Heintzelman, Brig.-Gen. Commanding 3d Corps.

headquarters, 3D corps, in sight of Williamsburg, 6 P. M., Sunday, May 4, 1862.
Gen. R. E. Marcy:
I have just arrived here, and find Gens. Sumner and Smith here. We will soon have three divisions, and are preparing to attack the rebels, who are entrenched in our front with two pieces of artillery, a regiment or so of cavalry, four or five regiments of infantry. Our cavalry have been repulsed with a loss of near 40 men and horses killed and wounded. We will soon carry the works. The infantry are only halting a moment to take a bite and rest.

Yours, etc.,

S. V. Heintzelman, Brig.-Gen.

The following is a fragment of a letter of instructions sent to Gen. Sumner on the morning of the 4th, when he went to assume command on the left; and the condition of affairs then was that the enemy's infantry and cavalry were reported by Smith to be about one and one-half miles in his front in force. I had ordered Stoneman, supported by Hooker, to gain the Halfway House by a rapid march, and thus cut off the retreat of this force in front of Smith. Sumner was ordered to repair the bridges over the Warwick, etc., as quickly as possible, and then to: [300]

Cross the stream with the 5th Cavalry, Smith's and Couch's divisions, and Casey's if necessary. It is possible that Sedgwick's and Richardson's divisions may be needed to reinforce the right. Please hold them subject to the general's orders for that purpose. Should you be informed that they are not needed here you will be at liberty to substitute one of them for Couch's or Casey's division. It is hoped to get Stoneman's command in rear of the enemy before you attack. Watch the enemy closely with your cavalry, and should he retreat attack him without further instructions. The gunboats have gone up the York river, and Franklin's, and perhaps one other division, will follow up to-day. As soon as the bridges are finished you can cross your command and bring them into position, but do not attack unless the enemy retreat or you receive orders from me.

A. V. Colburn, A. A. G.

It is unnecessary to say that the object of forbidding an attack unless the enemy retreated was to enable Stoneman to get in their rear and thus cut off the entire command.

After the orders to Stoneman, Sumner, and Heintzelman had been issued and were being carried out I received the following:

headquarters, Smith's division, May 4.
Gen. McClellan:
Gen. Hancock is in front, and, from what I have learned, presume it is nothing but the rear-guard. I will obey his orders as far as engaging them is concerned. The enemy is one and a half miles in front, and it is probably nothing but cavalry covering the retreat.

W. F. Smith, Brig.-Gen.

headquarters, Smith's division, May 5, 10.30 P. M.
Gen. McClellan:
There is a direct road from here to Williamsburg behind the big fort. If you send a good man to command, and these men don't leave to-night, we can capture them all in the morning and be at Williamsburg by eight o'clock. If they don't leave to-night they will give us a big fight in the morning, and we shall whip them.

Don't risk yourself any more, or your commanders, and don't send Richardson to command this column. As far as I can see it is open country for cavalry, but the rain has made the ground soft. I have more troops — or shall have with Brooks-than [301] I need to defend myself, but it is my earnest opinion that your advance up the James should be this way.

On the back of a pencil-sketch of the ground is the following:

Two companies garrison each fort. Fort Magruder is the far one from here-one and a quarter miles; second fort occupied; third fort, near York, is yet unfinished. They seem to be quiet now. Please order Brooks and Ayres to me in the morning at daylight. I have plenty of troops, but wish our own.

W. F. S.

Mount Zion Church, May 5, 3 P. M.
Gen. McClellan:
Owing to delays in the troops coming forward, I have come down here to hasten their march, by direction of Gen. Sumner. Within the last thirty minutes he has sent me two messengers to say that the enemy was gaining ground on him. I fear nothing except a panic amongst our troops, for I am certain we are vastly superior in strength to the enemy. I went myself with a brigade of my corps, which took possession of two works on the left of the enemy. I convinced myself that the enemy commenced his audacious attack upon us to cover a retreat, but, finding that he forces us back, he may convert his feint into something more serious than was at first intended. It may be advisable, if you have troops to spare, to set some of them in motion for this point; but, above all, come yourself.

The rear of Gen. Kearny has just passed this point on his way to reinforce Gen. Hooker, and the head of his column has probably reached the scene of action; and the firing has ceased for the last ten minutes.

I write this note because the badness of the road, preventing the rapid concentration of troops, makes me anxious to take precaution against the possibility of reverses. As the roads must soon become absolutely impassable for supplies, our troops must starve unless you can send provisions by boats to skirt the shore, and to be put ashore in small boats. Our position is accessible to York river. The men can live on bread and bacon.

In haste, your obedient servant,

E. D. Keyes, Brig.-Gen 4th Corps.
P. S. An officer from Gen. Hooker's division reports this moment that three of his batteries have been taken by the pieces miring and the horses being killed. This officer reports that the men are exhausted for want of proper food.


in front of Williamsburg, May 5, 1862, 11.20 A. M.
Capt. Chauncey McKeever, A. A. G.:
I have had a hard contest all the morning, but do not despair of success. My men are hard at work, but a good deal exhausted. It is reported to me that my communication with you by the Yorktown road is clear of the enemy. Batteries, cavalry, and infantry can take front by the side of mine to whip the enemy.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Hooker, Brig.-Gen.

May 5, late at night.
My dear general: I did the best I could after getting your order, which was after dark some time. I sent a brigade (Martindale's) to occupy the front of York. The roads were horrible and blocked up by wagons, so that they were impassable. The brigade reached York. I sent some of Hunt's batteries; they got there and halted. The remainder I kept ready to march at two o'clock, or as soon as light enough. All are rested and fresh. Sykes's and my other brigades are in camp, also Blake. Franklin, I think, got off. I hope you have got order out of chaos. Capt. Norton says Ingalls told him he had received an order from the secretary to fit out a sea expedition, which would derange his plans considerably. A telegram can always reach me from York. We are ready to more quickly. I have directed Martindale to camp at York.

Yours ever,

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, Williamsburg, May 7, 1862, 12.30 P. M.
Gen. R. B. Marcy, Chief of Staff, Camp Winfield Scott:
general: Headquarters will be moved at once to this place; wagons light. Porter will complete his embarkation as rapidly as possible and join Franklin. The artillery of the divisions Franklin, Sedgwick, and Porter will proceed by water with the least possible delay to join their divisions, also Franklin's cavalry and as many wagons as possible. Hunt's heavy batteries will move to Brick House landing by mater. I will give orders in regard to the rest of Hunt's batteries, the regular infantry, Roach's and Gregg's cavalry shortly.

Please send me last news from Franklin, and, if necessary, send a fast special boat to learn state of affairs, and communicate on return with signal party at Queen's creek, as well as via Yorktown by telegraph. The orders for Sumner and Richardson [303] will be given to-day; in the meantime let neither embark without special orders from me: this is imperative.

How soon can the artillery of Franklin, Sedgwick, and Porter be embarked? How soon Franklin's cavalry? How soon will transports be ready for the regular infantry and Richardson? How soon can water-transportation be furnished for Duane and his train? For Woodbury and his trains? How soon for Gregg and Rush? How many wagons has Van Vliet in reserve for general purposes? If you send steamer to Franklin, inform him that Stoneman was some fourteen miles from here a couple of hours ago, and will try to communicate with him via Hockaday's Spring this evening. I start Smith's division this evening, and hope to get most of the column in motion by the morning. Will move in person to-morrow morning. Would like to have a gunboat examine Moody's wharf, to see whether burned.

G. B. Mcclellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

Brick House Point, May 6, 1862.
Gen. G. B. McClellan:
I am landing at Brick House Point. It is, however, a bad landing; the water shoal for a long distance out--a quarter of a mile from shore. One brigade is landed. The enemy is said to be in force on the road, watching this point; I do not believe it, however. I hope to get the artillery and two other brigades off before morning.

W. B. Franklin, Brig.-Gen.

All of my division has landed except the cavalry. The night passed with nothing unusual except the killing of one picket. We have two prisoners, taken when we first arrived; they belong to a Texan regiment, are very intelligent, but lie, I think. I send them to Yorktown by the Spaulding. Dana's brigade is here and will be landed this morning. The indications are that the enemy is in the vicinity.

W. B. Franklin, Brig.-Gen.

The road from Brick House Point to the main road is not as laid down on the photographic or C. S. maps. The right [304] flank and rear are surrounded by a creek, and the left flank has another creek, leaving a small opening through which the road winds. I have ordered an examination to determine more accurately these points, but it is a slow business on account of want of cavalry. I still think it may be an open question between this point and West Point.

W. B. Franklin, Brig.-Gen.

headquarters, Franklin's division, Brick House, May 7, 1862.
Gen. R. B. Marcy, Chief of Staff:
general: I have the honor to report that this morning, about seven o'clock, our pickets were driven in on our left flank, and that after skirmishing for about two hours the action became quite sharp at the right extremity of that flank. Our reserves were driven in several times, but returned to their position each time with ardor. Finally we held the position which we had taken in the morning, and at several points of the line advanced our position.

Wherever we advanced the enemy was found in rifle-pits. The day has been a success, and but for the extreme want of forage and provisions, owing to the deficiency of transportation and the difficulty of landing, we might have followed it up. As it is, I congratulate myself that we have maintained our position. Gen. Newton's command was most severely engaged, and his conduct and that of Gen. Slocum, who had charge respectively of the left and right wings, was admirable. All of the officers and men behaved admirably, and with transportation and forage we could move on to-morrow.

I respectfully request that instructions may be given to send up forage and transportation immediately, as me are entirely tied down for want of them. Gen. Sedgwick's infantry has arrived. The killed and wounded amount to nearly a hundred. A more detailed report will be given as soon as possible.

Very respectfully,

W. B. Franklin, Brig.-Gen.

camp 19 miles from Williamsburg, May 11, 1862.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, Fortress Monroe:
Without waiting for further official reports which have not yet reached me, I wish to bear testimony to the splendid conduct of Hooker's and Kearny's divisions, under command of Gen. Heintzelman, in the battle of Williamsburg. Their bearing was worthy of veterans. Hooker's division for hours gallantly withstood [305] the attack of greatly superior numbers, with very heavy loss. Kearny's arrived in time to restore the fortunes of the day, and came most gallantly into action. I shall probably have occasion to call attention to other commands, and do not wish to do injustice to them by mentioning them now. If I had had the full information I now have in regard to the troops above-named when I first telegraphed, they would have been specially mentioned and commended. I spoke only of what I knew at the time, and shall rejoice to do full justice to all engaged.

G B. McClellan, Maj.-Gen. Commanding.

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