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Chapter 4: Yorktown and Williamsburg

In the latter part of March, the Confederate signal lines began to report the movement of a great army down the Potomac, and it was soon discovered that it was being concentrated at Fortress Monroe. On April 5, some five divisions of Federal infantry, with cavalry and artillery, from that point, approached the Confederate lines across the Peninsula at Yorktown. These were held by Gen. Magruder, whose force at the time was only about 13,000 men. They occupied a line about 12 miles in length — partly behind the Warwick River, and partly protected by slight earthworks. Another opportunity as good as that offered McDowell at Bull Run was here offered to McClellan, who could have rushed the position anywhere. He contented himself, however, with some cannonading and sharp-shooting. Of course, he was still under the Pinkerton delusion as to the enemy's strength. Magruder, who was expecting reenforcements, made the bravest possible display, exhibiting the same troops repeatedly at different points. It was just at this juncture, when a great success was in McClellan's grasp, had he had the audacity to risk something, that the news reached him that Lincoln had taken from him McDowell's 37,000 men. This, doubtless, had its effect in discouraging him and leading him to resort to siege operations against Yorktown instead of attempting to pass the position by main force.

Meanwhile, Johnston had been summoned to Richmond, and had advised Davis that a defence of Yorktown involved great risk, and at best could gain no important result. He advocated its abandonment, and the concentration at Richmond of all [64] forces from Virginia to Georgia. With these McClellan's force should be attacked when it came near Richmond.

A conference was called, which included Lee, Longstreet, G. W. Smith, and the Sec. of War, Randolph. It was advocated by Lee, and finally determined, that Johnston should risk making all the delay possible at Yorktown. This was a safe conclusion to reach, only in view of the cautiousness of McClellan.

Johnston had already begun sending some reenforcements to Magruder, and had brought a large part of his army near Richmond. About Apr. 15 he went to Yorktown, taking Smith's and Longstreet's divisions, which gave him a total force of 55,633.

In the whole course of the war there was little service as trying as that in the Yorktown lines. There was much rain and the country was low and flat, so that the trenches were badly drained and would frequently be flooded with water. The general flatness left no cover in rear of the lines. The enemy's rifle-pits were within range and view at many points, and the fire of sharp-shooters with telescopic rifles was incessant, and that of artillery was often severe. At many important points, the crowded ranks in the trenches had to either sit or crouch behind the parapet, in water up to their knees, from daylight until darkness permitted one to rise upright or to step outside of the trench. The only rest at night was to sleep in the universal mud and water. Although the men in the worst locations were relieved as often as possible, an unusual amount of sickness resulted. Gen. D. H. Hill wrote in his official report:—

‘Our Revolutionary sires did not suffer more at Valley Forge than did our army at Yorktown, and in the retreat from it. Notwithstanding the rain, mud, cold, hunger, watching, and fatigue I never heard a murmur or witnessed an act of insubordination. The want of discipline manifested itself only in straggling which was and still is the curse of our army. This monstrous evil can only be corrected by a more rigid government and a sterner system of punishment than have yet been introduced into our service.’

During our stay here a reorganization of the army took place. The majority of our troops had enlisted for a year in the spring of 1861. It was now necessary to reenlist them for the war. Congress had enacted that reenlistment furloughs should be given [65] to a few men at a time, and that a reelection of officers should take place in each regiment. This feature was very detrimental to the standard of good discipline.

During the whole of the siege there was but one affair of any consequence, and it is of interest principally as indicating the great improvement wrought in the Federal troops by the discipline which had been given them during the fall and winter.

On Apr. 16, a Federal reconnoissance was made by W. F. Smith's division, of a position on our lines called Dam No. 1. Here our intrenchment, at the upper part of Warwick Creek, was protected by inundations. Just below Dam No. 1 the inundation from No. 2 was only about waist deep and perhaps 100 yards wide, thickly grown up with trees and undergrowth. These facts were discovered by a bold reconnoissance under cover of a heavy fire. Four companies of the 3d Vt. were ordered to cross the inundation and develop what we had on the other side.

They made their advance very handsomely, fording the overflow, and actually got possession of our line of infantry parapet some 20 yards on the farther side. This was occupied at the time by only a picket line of the 15th N. C., Col. McKinney, the rest of the regiment being at work upon a second line 200 yards in the rear. McKinney promptly formed his regiment and moved forward to drive the enemy out, but was killed, and his men repulsed in confusion, the enemy fighting from the far side of our parapet. Presently, however, the brigade commander, Howell Cobb, arrived, and as the enemy were not reenforced, after holding their ground for perhaps a half hour, they retreated, losing 83 men out of 192 who crossed the stream. The entire casualties of the Federals were 165. The casualties of the 15th N. C. were 12 killed and 31 wounded.

It was plain from this affair that the fighting we would soon have to face was to be something better than that of 1861.

Meanwhile McClellan was preparing for Yorktown a terrific bombardment by which he hoped to wreck our water batteries so that his fleet could pass us. Siege batteries mounting 71 guns, including two 200-Pr. rifles and five 100-Prs. and several 13-inch mortars were being rapidly mounted. On May 1 his [66] 100-Pr. rifles opened fire, and by May 6 he expected all the other batteries to be able to join in. But Johnston had never intended to risk siege operations at this point, and at sundown on May 3 put his army in motion toward Richmond. His heavy guns were fired actively all the day before, and until midnight, when the artillerists spiked them and withdrew.

I recall that night's march as particularly disagreeable. The whole soil of that section seemed to have no bottom and no supporting power. The roads were but long strings of guns, wagons, and ambulances, mixed in with infantry, artillery, and cavalry, splashing and bogging through the darkness in a river of mud, with frequent long halts when some stalled vehicle blocked the road. Then men from the nearest ranks would swarm in to help the jaded horses pull the vehicle out. Meanwhile, everything in the rear must halt and wait, and so it went on all night —a march of one or two minutes, and halt for no one could guess how long. The average time made by the column was under a mile an hour.

Our movement was not discovered by the enemy until after daylight on the 4th. His cavalry was at once started in pursuit, and these were followed during the day by five divisions of infantry under Smith, Hooker, Kearney, Couch, and Casey, the whole under command of Sumner. Besides these, Franklin's division was loaded upon transports during the day, and early on the 6th sailed up the York to intercept us near West Point. Two other divisions, Sedgwick's and Richardson's, were also to have been sent by water, and McClellan remained in Yorktown to see them loaded and despatched. But the fighting next day at Williamsburg proved so severe that he rode to the front and had both divisions to follow him.

Near Williamsburg, Magruder had, some months before, selected a line of battle across the Peninsula four or five miles long, on which he had at a few places some slight intrenchments with slashings of timber in front, and, about the centre, an enclosed fort of some size, called Fort Magruder.

As the rear of our column came into Williamsburg during the afternoon of the 4th, the enemy's cavalry suddenly appeared so near to this fort, that Sommes's tired infantry brigade had [67] to be taken back at the double quick to occupy it, and a sharp skirmish was fought before sundown. McLaws reenforced Semmes with Kershaw and two batteries, and we captured one of the enemy's guns, stuck in the mud, ten horses being unable to get it off. After dark Kershaw and Semmes were relieved by Anderson's and Pryor's brigades of Longstreet's division.

That night we stayed at Williamsburg, and it poured rain all night. About 2 A. M. the leading divisions were pushed forward. Johnston was anxious to get his troops ahead to meet the forces he expected McClellan to send by water to West Point.

To hold the enemy in check at Williamsburg, Longstreet retained his whole division of six brigades as a rear-guard. Soon after daylight on the 5th, the enemy developed their presence before Pryor and Anderson. Hooker's and Smith's Federal divisions had reached the field about dark on the 4th.

The fighting began with fire upon our lines from artillery and skirmishers, and gradually increased in volume. The whole of Longstreet's division was brought up, and advanced upon the enemy in the edge of the wood, where it captured one of his batteries. Toward noon, when it became evident from the slow progress of the marching columns that the enemy would have to be held off until night, Johnston returned to the field, and the division of D. H. Hill, which had only advanced a short distance from Williamsburg, was brought back as a reserve. One of its brigades, Early's, was divided, two regiments sent into the fight on our right, and the other four sent out in observation beyond our left flank.

D. H. Hill and Early both went with this left column, and got into trouble from a little superfluous aggressiveness.

On the extreme right of the Federals, Gen. Hancock had discovered some vacant intrenchments — part of Magruder's old line, before mentioned. With five regiments, parts of two brigades, and 10 guns, he occupied a commanding ridge, and opened artillery toward the Confederate lines. Early, on lower ground and in the woods, could not see Hancock's position, but suggested an attack to Hill. Hill approved, but referred the question to Johnston. Johnston, who had left the battle entirely to Longstreet's direction, referred it to the latter. Longstreet very [68] properly refused to give permission, as we fought only to cover our retreat up the Peninsula, and it was assured. But this message taken to Hill did not satisfy him. He was a brother-in-law of Stonewall Jackson and was a soldier of the same type. He visited Longstreet in person, and Longstreet now weakly yielded to his appeal. Rains's brigade had meanwhile been brought up behind Early's, and it would have been possible to organize an attack which might have routed Hancock. But Hill, to lose no time, began the formation of the four regiments for the charge. The distance to be traversed was over half a mile, much of it wood and swamp. Hill placed the four regiments in a line of battle extending through a wood, with Early leading the two left regiments, while he led the two right. But Early mistook one of Hill's commands to his own wing, for the order to charge, and he led off at once with his left regiment, the 24th Va., which had open ground before it. Hill's extreme right regiment, the 5th Nc., also had open ground in front, and, soon becoming aware that a charge had been begun, it also advanced without orders. Hill, tangled in wood and swamp with the two centre regiments, could do nothing. After passing the wood between them, the two outside regiments could see each other and the Federal guns, now scarcely 500 yards distant in front. These guns immediately opened a severe fire of shell and canister. The 5th N. C. obliqued to its left to close the wide gap between them and both advanced to the charge, reserving their fire generally until within 150 yards of the enemy. A large portion of Hancock's infantry lay concealed behind the crest of the ridge until the two regiments, now with ranks disorganized by their advance, were within 30 yards, when the Federals raised and fired, advancing over the crest and continuing the fire for 15 or 20 rounds.

Hancock says in his official report: —

The plunging fire from the redoubt, the direct fire from the right and the oblique fire from the left, were so destructive that, after it had been ordered to cease and the smoke arose, it seemed that no man had left the ground unhurt who had advanced within 500 yards of our line.

‘The enemy's assault was of the most determined character. No troops could have made a more resolute charge. The 5th North Carolina [69] was annihilated. Nearly all of its superior officers were left dead or wounded on the field. The 24th Virginia suffered greatly in superior officers and men.’

Gen. Early, Col. Terry, and Lt.-Col. Hairston of the 24th Va. all fell severely wounded, and the regiment lost: killed 30, wounded 93, missing 66, total 190. In the 5th N. C. Lt.-Col. Badham was killed, and the regiment lost ‘about fifty per cent’ of its members, but no official report was made.

Hancock reported his losses in the affair as: killed 10, wounded 88, missing 31, total 129. This affair about terminated the fighting. It had rained nearly all day, and on our right Longstreet simply kept back the enemy's advance by fire, and by threatening their flanks.

The total Federal casualties as reported were: killed 456, wounded 1410, missing 373, total 2239. The Confederate casualties [reported by Longstreet only] were: officers 102, men 1458, total 1560. We captured 12 guns of which five were brought off, five were chopped down with axes, and two had to be left, as neither horses or axes were available. We also brought off about 400 prisoners.

As far as possible the wounded were brought into Williamsburg, and soon after dark our march was resumed over roads now even worse than any we had had before. I rode with Johnston's staff, and late in the forenoon of May 6 we were at Barhamsville, and the greater part of the army was halted and resting in the vicinity.

It had been a special feature of McClellan's strategy that on our retreat from Yorktown we should be intercepted at Eltham's landing by a large force. But our battle at Williamsburg had proved a double victory, for it had prevented Franklin's division from being reenforced so as to be either formidable or aggressive. It arrived at the mouth of the Pamunkey at 5 P. M. on the 6th. During the night it disembarked and next morning reconnoitred its vicinity and took a defensive position, sending Newton's and Slocum's brigades through a large wood to examine the country beyond.

On the far edge of that wood about 9 A. M. their skirmishers ran into those of Hood's and Hampton's brigades of Whiting's [70] division, which were there to see that our trains passed without interruption.

The Federals fell back and were followed until they were under the protection of Franklin's intrenched camp, and all our trains passed unmolested.

The Federals reported: killed 48, wounded 110, missing 28, total 186.

The Confederate loss was but 8 killed, and 40 wounded, and they captured 46 prisoners. There was no further effort to interfere with our retreat. This was continued at leisure until the 9th, when we halted on the north bank of the Chickahominy.

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