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Chapter 15:

The advance of McClellan's army, moved from Washington by transports, reached Fort Monroe the latter part of March, and on the 2d of April, McClellan in person ordered an advance up the Peninsula of 58,000 men and 100 guns. General Magruder, of the Confederate army, with 11,000 men, opposed his progress nearly at its beginning, from Fortress Monroe to between the mouths of the Warwick and Poquosin rivers, where the divide between these opposite flowing estuaries is narrow; then on a line extending from the James to the York, 13 miles in length, behind Warwick river on the southwest and covering Yorktown on the northeast, which had been admirably fortified throughout its length. Gloucester point, opposite Yorktown, was embraced in these defenses, thus guarding the entrance to the York. Marching his army by two nearly parallel roads, McClellan appeared before this line of defense on the 5th of April, and his left at once made a vigorous attack on the right of Magruder's center, which was promptly repulsed. On the 6th and 7th, after a personal reconnoissance, the Federal commander prepared for a regular siege of the Confederate works; distributing his near 100,000 men along their front, with his numerous batteries in favorable positions. Magruder, with his little army of 11,000, bravely maintained his ground for ten days, keeping back his engineering antagonist and vigilantly watching his regular approaches. By maintaining this bold front he gave Johnston time to bring his forces from the Rappahannock and concentrate them on the Peninsula, and thus effectually bar the way of McClellan's host to Richmond.

The famous Confederate ram Virginia still threateningly stood guard at the mouth of the Elizabeth, and held back the Federal naval forces from moving up the James when McClellan began his movement from Fort Monroe; [270] at the same time the Confederate fortifications at Yorktown and Gloucester point barred the entrance to the York.

On the 16th of April, McClellan again made a vigorous attack near the center of Magruder's line, which he broke, but this was repulsed with severe loss by the Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana troops of Cobb's and Anderson's brigades. A second attempt satisfied Mc-Clellan that he could not carry the Confederate line by assault, so he proceeded to besiege it by regular approaches, especially the lines in front of Yorktown. General Johnston took command on the Peninsula the 17th of April, having concentrated there about 50,000 men to oppose McClellan's 100,000 or more with heavy siege trains. Looking over the situation, Johnston thought it advisable to retreat, but the authorities at Richmond directed him to hold his position as long as he could. On the 3d of May, when satisfied that McClellan was about ready to make his grand assault, and recalling what had happened to Cornwallis on the same historic field, Johnston secretly evacuated Yorktown, leaving his heavy guns behind, and fell back to a line in front of Williamsburg, Virginia's ancient capital, which had also been partially fortified, having gained a month of precious time, which had been of great value in making preparations for the defense of Richmond.

McClellan, on the morning of the 4th of May, finding his enemy gone, moved a large force in pursuit by the two roads leading, the one from his right and the other from his left, toward Williamsburg. Two brigades of cavalry and two divisions of infantry with artillery moved on the road leading from Yorktown, and three divisions of infantry by the direct road, up the Peninsula. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, with his cavalry, covered Johnston's retreat, aided by the muddy roads, which had been dreadfully cut up by the moving of the Confederate army and its trains. The Confederates reached the Williamsburg earthworks by noon. The evacuation of Yorktown not only opened the York to the Federal navy for cooperat-ing with McClellan, but it also necessitated the evacuation of Norfolk, which Johnston ordered General Huger to make, on the 9th of May.

Knowing the advantages that the opening of the rivers to his naval power had given his foe, and that he could [271] quickly transport portions of his army to the vicinity of Richmond and to his rear, either by the York or by the James, Johnston continued his retreat, holding back Mc-Clellan's pursuit by a cavalry engagement in the afternoon on the Yorktown road, backed up by three brigades of infantry, which forced back the Federal column. Sumner, McClellan's second in command of the Federal army, late in the day attempted to move forward by renewing the combat, but the dense forests, characteristic of that region, and the approach of night prevented his making progress. Magruder's division, followed by that of McLaws, continued the retreat during the night, as Johnston knew he had a race to make with the gunboats and transports that he divined McClellan was already sending up the York to head off his way to Richmond. Longstreet, who was left in command of the rear, placed the brigades of Pryor and R. H. Anderson, with light artillery, in the works in front of Williamsburg, which McLaws had evacuated.

Heavy rain and deep and deepening mud in all the roads characterized the 5th of May. Sumner, who had spent the night in the forest in front of Longstreet's center, in which was a rather formidable earthwork called Fort Magruder, delayed an attack that he might ration his men and reconnoiter on his right; but the impetuous Hooker ordered an attack as soon as he reached the front of the Confederate right, about 8 o'clock in the morning, pushing boldly forward a battery of eleven guns. He twice drove in the Confederate skirmishers by reinforcing his attack. Longstreet, watching the increasing force in his front, reinforced Anderson with the brigades of Wilcox, A. P. Hill and Pickett, and assuming the aggressive, moved against Hooker's flank, which with a stubborn fight was driven back, so that by 11 o'clock he was anxiously calling for help and looking for a diversion in his favor on the Federal right. Sumner ordered Kearny to Hooker's assistance, but he was still miles in the rear, floundering through the rain and mud. Longstreet's attack was successful and resulted in driving away the Federals and the capturing of nine pieces of artillery, but Kearny's arrival on the field with other batteries about 3 p. m., saved Hooker from utter defeat and enabled him to press back the Confederate line which Longstreet had reinforced with two brigades [272] that he had called back from the retreat. This enabled him to hold his position near Fort Magruder until nightfall, keeping Hooker at bay.

While Hooker was thus engaged, Sumner had been reconnoitering the Confederate left, and between 10 and 11 of the morning he ordered Hancock to make an attack in that direction, thinking he could thus relieve Hooker and flank Longstreet out of his position. Hancock's advance occupied some abandoned Confederate redoubts on the Confederate left about midday, and then awaited the arrival of reinforcements, in the meantime cautiously advancing and occupying the second redoubt, which brought him within range of the Confederate left. At about this time Longstreet, seeing that his trains could not make good their retreat before night, recalled D. H. Hill's division, which was in the rear of Johnston's retreat, and about the middle of the afternoon he put that in position on his left, facing Hancock, except two regiments, with which he reinforced the columns of assault on his right, under Anderson. In front of the cleared space which Hancock occupied was a dense forest, which screened his line from view. His artillery, firing from the redoubt he occupied, was damaging Anderson's left. This and other things induced D. H. Hill to seek and obtain from Longstreet permission to attack Hancock, and attempt to drive him from the field. About 5 o'clock he advanced with his two North Carolina regiments and two Virginia regiments of Early's brigade, himself taking charge of the right and Early of the left. The movement was badly made, the line having been broken into fragments in advancing through the dense forest. Hancock repulsed this bold attack with much slaughter, but did not follow in pursuit, and Hill reformed on Anderson's left. Late in the day McClellan himself came up and ordered reinforcements for Hancock and a renewal of his attack, but it was too late for that to be done. A cold and rainy night followed the stormy day, and both armies were only too willing to cease from strife and find what rest they could in their wet and muddy bivouacs. Longstreet's loss was 1,560 from a probable force of 12,000 engaged, and McClellan's 2,283 from an attacking force of 15,000.

The profitable results of this Williamsburg battle were on Longstreet's side. He had held all his positions for [273] an entire day, during which the divisions of Magruder and G. W. Smith and all of Johnston's army train had continued, unmolested, the retreat toward Richmond. That was what Johnston contended for, and the battle of Williamsburg enabled him to gain. By his order D. H. Hill and Longstreet abandoned Williamsburg in the early morning of the 6th and encamped at the Burnt Ordinary, 1 2 miles from Williamsburg, early in the morning of the 7th, and on that day the Confederate army was concentrated in the vicinity of Barhamsville, some 8 miles southwest of the head of the York. The Federal army rested at Williamsburg, satisfied that it was not prudent to follow a foe whose rear guard had handled them so roughly the day before.

As soon as Yorktown was evacuated, McClellan ordered Franklin's division to be promptly moved, by water, to the head of the York and disembarked at Eltham's landing, on the south side of that river, in the immediate vicinity of Johnston's line of retreat, which he hoped to intercept. Franklin arrived by 3 p. m. of the 6th, and before day of the 7th had disembarked his division, which was followed in rapid succession by those of Porter, Sedgwick and Richardson. The accompanying gunboats covered Franklin's landing, and the broad arms of the York protected his flanks. He promptly occupied a belt of forest in his front, not far from the road leading from Barhamsville to New Kent Court House, along which a portion of Johnston's army was retreating. Anticipating what happened, Johnston, on the morning of the 7th, ordered G. W. Smith to protect this road by advancing troops to drive back Franklin's movement. Placing the brigades of Whiting and Hampton in line of battle, Whiting advanced through the forest, drove in Franklin's skirmishers, and followed them through the woods, forcing them back, though reinforced with two regiments, to the edge of the forest nearest the river. S. R. Anderson's Tennessee brigade was added to the attacking column, and by midday Franklin was driven under cover of his gunboats. These and the accompanying transports Whiting attempted to shell from the edge of the bluff in his front, but the range of his guns was not sufficient to do much damage, nor was his artillery any match for the heavy fire of the gunboats; therefore, as he could accomplish nothing more, he withdrew to his [274] original position near Barhamsville, after a loss of 48 men as against 194 for Franklin.

No further attempt was made to delay Johnston's retreat, which his right continued to the vicinity of the Long bridges of the Chickahominy, and his left to the crossing of that stream by the York River railroad, near Dispatch Station, where he took position, on May 9th, on the north side of the Chickahominy, facing to the northeast, covering all the roads to Richmond by which McClellan could approach, and where he remained undisturbed until the 15th, resting and recruiting his army in a position to be supplied by railway trains and difficult to be turned by water. Longstreet held the right, located near the Long bridges, and Magruder the left, near Dispatch Station.

Huger evacuated Norfolk May 9th, after destroying the navy yard, and fell back toward Petersburg. The now famous ram Virginia was blown up by her gallant crew on the 11th and her men hurried to Drewry's bluff on the James, to take charge of the guns at the fortifications which General Lee, in the meantime, had prudently constructed at that point. The Virginia out of the way, the Federal gunboats ascended the James and attacked Drewry's bluff, eight miles below Richmond, on the 15th. The channel of the James had been filled with sunken ships and other obstructions, and the gunboats met with a most spirited resistance from the guns in the works on the bluff, which repulsed their attack and compelled them to fall back down the river. This naval attack in his rear induced Johnston to retreat across the Chickahominy on the 15th, and place his army in front of the defensive works, three miles to the east of Richmond, which had been thrown up in 1861 for the defense of that city.

On the 8th of May, McClellan ordered Stoneman's cavalry forward from Williamsburg to open the way for the advance of Franklin. On the 10th his army was well concentrated near Barhamsville; thence, feeling his way cautiously, four of his corps reached the vicinity of Cumberland, on the Pamunkey, and New Kent Court House on the 15th. On the 16th his advance took possession of the White House, near which the York River railroad crosses the Pamunkey; thence, advancing along the York River railroad, he reached the north [275] bank of the Chickahominy at Dispatch Station, unopposed in his progress, on the 19th.

Johnston, ever wary and on the alert, watching the slow but certain advance of his powerful antagonist, prepared to meet his coming assault on Richmond by gathering to that city the troops that had been left at Fredericksburg, Gordonsville and elsewhere. He instructed Jackson to do what he could to retain in the Valley the Federal forces he was already contending with, but to be prepared to come to Richmond with Ewell on short notice. Apprised of the formidable movement of Mc-Dowell from Fredericksburg with 40,000 men, he decided to attack McClellan before this large addition could be made to his forces. Johnston's new line of defense extended from Drewry's bluff on the James to opposite Mechanicsville on the Chickahominy, in a nearly north and south direction, but trending to the northwest from where it crossed the York River railroad, thus presenting a convex front from that point to opposite Mechanicsville, a few miles north of Richmond.

McClellan reached the Chickahominy on the 19th, and on the 20th moved two corps, about two-fifths of his army, across that swamp-bordered river at Bottom's bridge, the crossing of the Williamsburg and Richmond turnpike, which he followed to Seven Pines, within 8 miles of Richmond, a point a short distance south from Fair Oaks station of the York River railroad. A general deployment followed, with his left resting on White Oak swamp and his right on the Chickahominy, presenting a convex front to Johnston on the south side of the Chickahominy, and covering all the approaches to McClellan's rear from the west and southwest. This line was at once protected by earth and timber works, abatis and fallen timber. By a skillful movement McClellan, at the same time, extended his right wing along the bluffy north side of the Chickahominy, and on the 24th of May took possession of Mechanicsville, placing there the strong and ably commanded corps of Fitz John Porter, thus covering the great highway leading from Richmond northeastward to the Pamunkey by way of Old Church. On the same day the Confederates had a lively engagement with McClellan's advance at Seven Pines.

Having firmly established himself to the east and northeast of Richmond in a well-selected position for [276] advancing on that city, McClellan anxiously awaited the arrival of McDowell, that his right might be extended with the 40,000 men that were already on the march from Fredericksburg to Richmond. To open the way for this approach, he ordered Fitz John Porter, on the 26th, to move a strong force northward, along the direct road from Mechanicsville to Hanover Court House, running nearly parallel with the Virginia Central railroad, to destroy that road and also the railroad leading to Fredericksburg, and drive away any Confederate forces in that direction. Porter dispatched three infantry brigades, two cavalry regiments and four batteries on this expedition; at the same time he dispatched Warren, with a strong force of all arms, eastward by the Old Church road, to destroy the bridges across the Pamunkey, and then follow up toward Hanover Court House and support the right of the column sent in that direction.

Branch's Confederate brigade, consisting of one cavalry and six infantry regiments and a battery, had been moved from Gordonsville to Ashland, on the Richmond & Fredericksburg railroad, to protect the two railways leading northward from Richmond. He was encamped between these roads, near Slash church, not far from Peake Station of the Virginia Central railroad. The Federal cavalry, moving by roads more to the eastward, sent its scouts to the vicinity of Hanover Court House on the 26th, thus informing Porter as to the condition of affairs in that vicinity. On the 27th, Branch, ignorant of the movements of Porter, had sent a portion of his force to repair the Virginia Central railroad near Peake. Porter's column, which had left Mechanicsville at 4 in the morning with fourteen regiments of infantry, fell upon Branch's force near Peake and quickly routed it, and when Branch reinforced that with the rest of his command, they also, after a spirited resistance, had to give way before overwhelming numbers, and he fell back to Ashland, after the loss of one gun and some 700 prisoners. His loss in action was 265, and the Federal loss 285, numbers showing that this Hanover Court House engagement, as it is called, but Peake Station or Slash Church as it should be called, was hotly contested by Branch with his comparatively small force. Warren also appeared upon the field near the close of the action with his four [277] regiments and six guns, and by participating gave the odds very largely to Porter.

On this same 27th of May, Johnston, having information of McDowell's advance from Fredericksburg, determined to strike a blow at McClellan before that large reinforcement should reach him. He at once began the concentration of his army toward his left, with the intention of throwing the larger portion of it upon McClellan's right by a flank movement across the Chickahominy above Mechanicsville. At nightfall of that day his troops were on the march for their assigned positions, but just before dark, Johnston, who had called his division commanders together for final instructions, informed these officers of Jackson's great victory at Winchester, and that McDowell was already marching north and away from Richmond. A discussion followed, in which these various commanders expressed differing and diverging views, the upshot of which was that the movement was abandoned and the troops were ordered back, most of them to their old positions, and no attack was made.

On the 29th and 30th, D. H. Hill made a reconnoissance, in front of his division on the Williamsburg road, along the Federal front. The information thus gained led Johnston to plan, on the evening of the 30th, for another aggressive movement; D. H. Hill's division, on the Williamsburg road, was to advance, supported by Longstreet's. Huger's division, which had just arrived from Norfolk, was to move on Hill's right, extending the line south to the White Oak swamp; G. W. Smith's division, under Whiting, was to move by the New Bridge road and take position on Hill's left. Provision was also made for protecting the left of this movement against attack from the north of the Chickahominy. A deluge of rain fell on the night of the 30th, which swelled the Chickahominy so that it swept away most of the bridges that McClellan was constructing across that stream; that also helped to further convert the already rain-soaked country between the Chickahominy and White Oak swamp, the larger portion of which was covered with flat, tangled forest, into one great swamp. For a direct attack, Johnston's plan was a good one, but it failed in the execution, because his subordinates did not strictly follow his orders in moving to the field of action and each [278] take the road assigned to him. The result was that they did not arrive simultaneously, and instead of one concerted attack, which would have undoubtedly resulted in a decided victory, on the 1st of June, there was a succession of heroic combats, which were at first successful in the center, carrying even the formidable works which the Federals had constructed at Seven Pines; but, being unsupported by movements on the right and the left, this attack was repulsed by the concentration of a superior force by the enemy, after which followed attacks and repulses on the wings and again in the center. The Federals were driven from the south side of the York River railroad, but they took position along the north side, and the Confederate line was extended in a nearly east and west direction to meet this. They still held their right at Fair Oaks station, extended toward the Chickahominy, and so the 31st ended without decided results, except that the enemy had been driven back from his original position at Seven Pines, and had taken up a new line north of the York River railroad, and the Confederates had taken position in front of this and were again ready for a forward movement. McClellan sent reinforcements from his right to his left. Both armies rested, as best they could, in their water and mud soaked bivouacs that night, Johnston having ordered his men, at 7 p. m., to sleep on their lines and be ready to renew operations in the morning. A half hour later he was hit by a rifle ball, and just after that badly wounded and unhorsed by the fragment of a shell, when, disabled for command, he was carried to the rear, and Maj.-Gen. G. W. Smith became for the time the commander in the field.

It took the Confederates some time to sort themselves in the pine forest with its dense underbrush tangled with vines, and to get rationed and arranged for the morning. They built blazing fires from the pine knots scattered all about, to dry their clothing and blankets, but this lighted the enemy in reinforcing their lines north of the railroad. It was nearly midnight when the army was put in order and the killed and wounded were cared for. Longstreet summarizes the forces engaged on the 31st of May, as 18,500 Federals, consisting of Casey's, Couch's and Kearny's divisions under Heintzelman, with Hooker's division at hand but not engaged; and the Confederates [279] as consisting of D. H. Hill's division and two brigades and two regiments of Longstreet's, a total of 14,600. The Federal losses were 5,031 and the Confederate 4,798; figures showing that this contest was a stubborn one on both sides. Longstreet sums up the day's business thus: ‘Two lines of intrenchments were attacked and carried; six pieces of artillery and several thousand small-arms were captured and the enemy was forced back, by night, to his third line of intrenchments, a mile and a half from the point of its opening.’

The second day of the Fair Oaks battle found Confederate troops under a new commander, by no means in accord with his subordinates. Gen. G. W. Smith wished to leave the left wing in position to meet any movement of Federals from north of the Chickahominy, while Longstreet was to push forward as the left of the main attack and D. H. Hill as the right. Hill soon discovered that the enemy along the railroad had been strongly reinforced and instead of attacking he withdrew his advanced brigades to the position from which he had driven Casey the day before. While thus engaged the Federal troops advanced. To check these, Pickett was ordered to attack, and a severe struggle ensued, which lasted for an hour and a half. The Federal line was again reinforced, and in the subsequent struggle Armistead's brigade, on Pickett's left, gave way and retreated in disorder, leaving Pickett to bear the brunt of the battle, which he did stubbornly and successfully, the Federals in his front not making a countercharge. At the same time Wilcox and Pryor, on Pickett's right, but concealed from him by a wood, were actively engaged with Hooker's troops, which boldly pushed into the woods held by the Confederates, and engaged them in a lively fight just at the time when Hill's order came directing Wilcox to retire to the line in his rear. This he did, but Hooker did not follow him; Pickett, thus left alone, asked for supports. Colston was sent to his left and Mahone to his right, and once more there was an hour of fierce contention without special advantage to either side, when the fighting ceased and Pickett removed his wounded, and at about 1 p. m. retired in good order, unmolested, from the field of carnage. During this haphazard fighting Smith did nothing on the left, fearing to provoke McClellan to move across the Chickahominy in force to the assistance of his three [280] crops that had been engaged in the pending contest; so the fighting came to an end, the Federals remaining in the lines to which they had been forced back the day before, and the Confederates collecting arms and caring for their wounded.

About two of the afternoon of June 1st, after the strife of the day was over, Gen. R. E. Lee, accompanied by President Davis, rode upon the field and relieved Maj.-Gen. G. W. Smith, thus taking command of the army of Northern Virginia, to which the President had assigned him, and which he from that time held for nearly three years, until the surrender of April 9, 1865. Lee at once directed the withdrawal of the Confederate forces, the divisions of Longstreet and Hill to their camps near the city, leaving those of Huger and Smith to hold the advance. This was accomplished during the night of the 1st and the morning of the 2d. The Federal forces did not follow them. [281]

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