Battle of Williamsburg
In the first pitched battle of the Peninsula Campaign, nearly 41,000 Federals and 32,000 Confederates were engaged. Following up the Confederate retreat from Yorktown, Hooker’s division encountered the Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg. Hooker assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road, but was repulsed. Confederate counterattacks, directed by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, threatened to overwhelm the Union left flank, until Kearny’s division arrived to stabilize the Federal position. Hancock’s brigade then moved to threaten the Confederate left flank, occupying two abandoned redoubts. The Confederates counterattacked unsuccessfully. Hancock’s localized success was not exploited. The Confederate army continued its withdrawal during the night.
Cavalry Open the Battle of Williamsburg
After a fruitless effort to crush J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry the Union cavalry regrouped and continued on towards Williamsburg. The close pursuit of the Union troopers left Johnston no choice but to turn and face them. He ordered BG Lafayette McLaws to man the works about two miles east of Williamsburg with his division. BG Paul Semmes' brigade led the way out and occupied works to the right of Fort Magruder. They were followed out by BG Joseph Kershaw's South Carolina brigade.
The works near Williamsburg were designed as a secondary position if the Warwick River line was given up. The namesake anchor of the line, Fort Magruder, overwatched the junction of the Yorktown and Lee's Mill Road and was supplemented by thirteen minor fortifications. These had been upgraded by the creation of expanded fields of fire and an abatis. The first Confederate troops on the scene opted to man the secondary fortifications to the right of Fort Magruder. The main fort remained vacant.
When the Union cavalry arrived, well in advance of their supporting infantry columns (Hooker and Smith), a reconnaissance revealed the empty fort and suggested only a rear guard action in the other works. Supposing weakness there BG Philip St George Cooke ordered the 6th US Cavalry, under Major Lawrence Williams to make a flanking march against the Confederate left. The movement of Williams cavalry caught the attention of McLaws. He began shifting some of his strength to the left to meet the challenge. The 5th Louisiana and two guns occupied the fort while one regiment and five companies manned positions to the left.
Reacting to the Confederate moves Cooke shifted the emphasis of his main body to the thus weakened enemy line in his direct front. Advancing from the woodline to establish his artillery subjected these Union forces to a severe crossfire from the fort and the Confederates manning the line in his front. Still the Union guns from the 3rd US artillery managed to send out about 250 rounds. It was not enough, after 45 minutes of pounding while they awaited the effects of Williams attack on the left Cooke was ordered to move his men back out of harms way. The bulk of his command moved back leaving compnies I and K of the 1st US Cavalry to cover the retreat of the guns. Ten horses were hitched in an effort to recover a mired piece but to no avail. The men turned their attention to aiding the wounded from the field. This effort was challenged by an attack by Confederate cavalry. It was repulsed when CPT Grier and about 60 Federal troppers wheeled about and counter attacked. The mired gun was abandoned along with four caissons. CPT Gibson of the artillery reported the loss of 17 horses in the fight. BG Cooke reported that 35 of his troopers and gunners were killed or wounded in the torrent of fire on his exposed position.
On the left Williams made it all the way to the fort before he realized the growing strength of the Confederates in the area. He opted to withdraw when his lead elements were discovered by the enemy. A galloping retreat was ordered when Confederate cavalry (Wise Legion) appeared and attempted to cut off their retreat. As they neared a deep ravine they had to narrow the column to two files. The last two companies (A & M) were caught as they struggled through the deep mud. The enemy troopers poured fire on them from the crest. Finally the survivors reached the far side and the commander (CPT William Sanders) had them wheel about and caught the enemy in the same position as they tried to continue the pursuit. The action was broken off after both sides suffered badly at the ravine. McLaws arrived on the scene and Fort Magruder was secured. The Battle for Williamsburg would be turned over to the infantry.
The Battle of Williamsburg Begins
As the Union cavalry retired the infantry columns of BG H ooker and BG Smith closed on Fort Magruder from two directions. Smith's column approached on the Yorktown Road and arrived to support the Union troopers at 1730. Operations in the area were placed under the command of BG Edwin Sumner, who was immediately determined to attack the Confederate line. By the time he had his three brigades aligned for the assault it was 1830 and darkness was beginning to fall. Nevertheless, the assault was ordered. The advance became scrambled by the dense woods and growing darkness and was finally halted after the 49th New York fired into another friendly regiment in the confusion. Sumner was forced to delay the attack. The wait allowed him to reconsider his hastily planned attack. Instead of a direct assault he sent Hancock's brigade on a wide sweep around the Confederate left in an effort to gain possession of the unoccupied fortifications there.
On the Union left H ooker's men on the Lee's Mill Road fell on their arms at 2300 on the 4th after an exhausting march in the steady rain. By the next morning H ooker had decided on an independent action, authorized by his orders. Without consulting Sumner he moved his troops into position for an early morning attack on Fort Magruder on the 5th. The Fort was being manned at this time by Anderson's Brigade of Longstreet's division (they had replaced McLaws' men during the night). Pryor's brigade was placed in the redoubts on his left. H ooker planned on battering the Confederate artillery into submission and then establish a link up with Smith. To accomplish this he first had to clear the way for his artillery to be placed. The 1st Massachusetts and elements of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry (Co B and Co E) were sent out as skirmishers and to clear the way for the establishment of his artillery. The advancing skirmishers ran into a company of the 4th Virginia Cavalry who were conducting a reconnaissance of the rapidly growing Union force in the area. The troopers made a dash through the thin line of Union soldiers and returned safely with their report. The momentarily startled Union infantry moved on and engaged pickets from the 4th South Carolina Battalion. The Confederate line was pushed back until it was reinforced by two companies of the Palmetto Sharpshooters. The line was stabilized briefly before being called back into the fort in preparation for the main attack.
The guns of Battery H 1st US Artillery wre brought up but the available positions proved entirely unsuitable. The guns were immediately taken under fire by the Confederate batteries. The regular army gunners broke under the fierce bombardment and fled to cover much to the embarassment of their commanding officer, CPT Weber, and the chief of H ooker's artillery, Major Charles Wainwright. The gunners were forced back to their pieces at the point of the sword but could not be held there. Wainwright, in a face saving manuever, went and asked the 1st New York Artillery to supply gunners so he would not have to ask H ooker for infantry volunteers. The New Yorkers rushed to his aid and were soon putting fire on the fort. They were joined shortly thereafter by six guns of the 6th New York. Steady fire from these guns eventually quieted the fire coming from the enemy works and the reinforced skirmishers cleared the desired line of communication with Smith. The Union commanders felt as if they had accomplished their goals and had every reason to expect further success. The Confederate commanders had a different idea.
Confederate Counter-attack - "A very handsome affair."
The failure of the Federals to follow up the morning operations, for want of additional troops, with a wider attack convinced the Confederate leadership that an opportunity existed. BG Richard H. Anderson, serving as division commander, believed that H ooker's timid stance after the early morning fight indidcated weakness. The right wing commander, MG James Longstreet, agreed, but he was working under a trying set of conflicting circumstances. The weather had slowed the retreat of the main body and he was required to prolong the fight, but felt that they "could not afford to rest longer under the enemy's long range guns and superior artillery." Consequently, he opted to abandon the traditional defensive delaying tactic and adopt a more aggressive posture. BG Anderson was ordered to "seize the first opportunity to attack." To support the proposed assault he started bringing up the other brigades of his division. BG Cadmus Wilcox was given the duty to spearhead the attack with the support of as much of BG Pryor's Brigade as could be spared. Additional forces would be rushed to the front to support success and fortify the line against the growing Federal strength.
BG Wilcox wasted no time finding an opportunity to attack. He moved his brigade (19th Mississippi, 9th Alabama, and 10th Alabama) through a ravine in an attempt to avoid detection as they gained their final assault positons. The movements were detected by the Federals and the first of many troops to be called into the area were rushed into line. Two regiments of New Jersey infantry (6th and 7th) were put into position as they arrived to challenge the attack. The 72nd New York fell in on their left. As final preparations were made Wilcox was reinforced by the 14th Louisiana and three compnies of the 8th Alabama from Pryor's Brigade. The 19th Mississippi led the way out as skirmishers but traveled only a short distance before encountering skirmishers from the 72nd New York (who were advancing for an attack on a Confederate battery). After a short fight the Federal skirmishers were driven back and prisoners taken. From these men Wilcox learned the strength and disposition of the Union forces. At 1130 Wilcox ordered the general advance to begin.
The lines erupted into a furious exchange of musketry. Suddenly COL Woodward, commander of the 10th Alabama, was approached by a man who insisted that he was from the 2nd Louisiana and that Woodward's men were firing into friendly forces. A cease fire was ordered down the Confederate line. The resulting lull in the fire gave the Federals a chance to reorganize and mount an attack of their own. With the arrival of more troops (8th New Jersey) the Federal line now flanked the Confederates and began to drive them back. At that critical moment BG A.P. Hill's brigade of Virginians arrived. It was now the Union troops that were flanked. The 7th Virginia, in the lead, pushed back the Union advance and took up a line just 45 yards from the Federals as the other regiments deployed around them.
Realizing that he now held the advantage, Hill seized the initiative and attacked with the support of Wilcox, who had rallied his men and rejoined the line. The Federals were driven slowly back in the heavy trees and underbrush. The lengthy fight drained the ammunition supplies of both sides. Longstreet had no access to his supply trains so the only way to get more rounds to the fight was to send in fresh troops. BG George Pickett's brigade was called up to support Hill and Wilcox.
The entry of Pickett's men into the battle renewed the Confederate assault. The 18th Virginia and the 19th Virginia replaced the 10th Alabama and 19th Mississippi. These two regiments retired to reorganize and resupply. The 28th Virginia formed a reserve as the assault continued with fresh troops. The Confederate attack ran directly into a counter-attack that was being mounted by four New York regiments (70th,72nd,73rd and 74th). With "the enemy evidently re-enforced" a desperate struggled at close range raged with litlle progress being mad by either side. A turning point occured when the remaining New Jersey troops on the Federal left ran low on ammunition and fell back.
The left flank of the Union advance (70th New York) was now uncovered and received fire from two directions. As Pickett strengthened the attack there the New Yorkers were the only thing standing between the Sumner's forces and complete disaster. Should they falter then the entire forward line of Union soldiers were threatened with destruction. Despite repeated calls from COL William Dwight badly needed reinforcements had not yet arrived so there was nothing to do but try and hold the line. CPT Willard of the 72nd New York arrived to announce what must have been perfectly clear to Dwight; that they were being flanked and taking fire from two directions. As he delivered the message he was shot and killed with a bullet through the brain. With every volley the ranks of COL Dwight's regiment were horribly thinned. Dwight's men held on; for three hours they withstood a horrible pounding as "the dead and wouded fell thick and fast" before being driven from the field. A very bitter COL Dwight would write in his report that he felt abandoned on the field. He felt that the 73rd and 74th New york regiments had reserves available in his rear he received "no practical aid from any regiment." Their role in the Battle of Williamsburg would cost them more than half their strength, 22 of 33 officers were killed or wounded.
The Confederate leadership pressed their attack on the beleaguered New Yorkers. The battery of guns from the 1st US artillery were badly pressed without infantry support.The gunners fought to the end but the guns fell to the advancing Confederates. CPT Pelham of Stuart's Horse artillery attempted to retrieve the captured pieces but all their horses were killed before they could accomplish the task. Eventually four pieces would be recovered. Both sides poured more forces into the fight. BG John Peck's regiments (55th NY, 62nd NY, 102nd PA, 93rd PA. and 98th PA) restored order at this point of attack but elsewhere the Confederate advance continued. A line composed of the 9th Alabama and 28th Virginia entered the woods but were met with a withering fire. A steady stream of reinforcements was put into the fight and the Union line broke. The timely arrival of the 4th New York battery, entering the fray on a side road cut to bypass a mired forage train, finally stalled the Confederate advance. The exhausted 9th Alabama was relieved by the 2nd Florida but in the confusion of battle when the 9th retired the 2nd Florida followed. At the same time Kearny's division of Federals arrived on the scene. Out of reserves and running short on ammunition the Confederates were beaten back. The fight in front of Fort Magruder reached a bloody standstill.
Hancock's Flanking Column
While the fight raged at Fort Magruder BG Winfield S. Hancock and five regiments (5th WI, 49th PA, 6th ME, 7th, ME, and 33rd NY) and six guns of the 1st New York completed their march in search of the left flank of the Confederate line. They were surprised to find that a crossing of Cub Creek at an earthen dam was unguarded. The crossed the last major obstacle and were even more surprised to find the last two redoubts of the enemy works unoccupied. Hancock wasted no time in seizing the works and establishing a skirmish line with the 5th Wisconsin. The strong defensive line across a low ridge commanded the enemy position held by three companies of the 6th South Carolina, under LTC Steedman. Hancock dispatched a messengerto his division commander BG W. F. Smith to send the promised reinforcements because the situation promised success.
While Hancock waited the Confederate commander, COL Micah Jenkins, took stock of his resources. He had the Palmetto Sharpshooters, six companies of the 5th South Carolina, six companies of the 6th South Carolina, the 4th South Carolina Battalion and 5 guns from the Richmond Howitzers and Richmond Fayette Artillery. He did not have enough to resist a vigorous assault should the Federals attempt to make one. BG Stuart realizing the danger began to police up troops wherever he could find them. He forwarded a couple of sections of artillery, part of the 14th Alabama, and a portion of his cavalry brigade to strengthen the line. Fortunately for the Confederates here the Union reinforcements meant for Hancock had been recalled when the situation in the center looked dire. When informed of the decision not to reinforce the opportunity on the left, Hancock refused the order to withdraw. Instead he sent his engineer, LT Farquhar, to plead his case. To gain more time he also opened his guns on the nearest redoubt forcing it to be abandoned. Then Steedman's position was forced to retire to Fort Magruder. When Farquhar did not return Hancock assumed that he would not be reinforced but maintained his position.
The Confederates had no trouble reinforcing the danger area. Longstreet released four brigades of MG D. H. Hill's Division to go to the aid of the beleaguered left. The arrival of Hill reversed the tactical situation. Unsupported, Hancock was now in danger of being attacked by a superior force. The Confederates did not waste the chance to take advantage of their apparent numerical superiority. BG Jubal Early, the first to arrive with his brigade (24th VA, 38th VA, 23rd NC, and 5th NC) requested permission to assault a Union battery. Longstreet deferred to the overall army commander, GEN Joseph E. Johnston, who had arrived at the scene. Johnston authorized the attack as a means to gain more time for the removal of the trains. The attack began almost immediately after permission was granted.
Eagerness to join the fight spelled disaster for the attackers. No time had been spent investigating the ground to be covered. Shortly after stepping off the line became badly broken in the thick undergrowth and rutted terrain. The 38th Virginia failed to even get the order to advance. All sense of order was lost as the regiments stumbled through the forest in varying directions. The first to emerge was the 24th Virginia, led by Early. Seeing none of the other regiments Early decided to go it alone and moved forward against the guns. After the Virginians set off the 5th North Carolina also came out of the forest and were ordered to join the attack. Unfortunately their location left them about 900 yards of open ground to cover before they could fall in next to the 24th Virginia. It would be a trip that none of the survivors would ever forget.
Early's Attack Crushed
COL D. K. McRae, commanding the 5th North Carolina, almost instantly understood the difficulties that were incumbent in the order to attack. The forward movement became entangled "in a dense undergrowth" and had to traverse a "marshy ravine". After losing contact with the elements on both sides he moved his men as best he could to finally emerge "on the verge of the field". McRae was not exactly sure where he emerged from the forest was in relation to the point of the intended attack so he halted and dressed his lines. He decided that "not seeing any indication of the battery to be assaulted advanced into the open field." The regiment had not progressed very far when a Union battery opened on them. Uncertain if this was the battery that was to be the focus of the attack McRae sent a message to Hill asking instructions about where to attack. The answer was to "charge the battery which just opened on us and do it quickly."
The situation did not look promising for the North Carolinians but they were determined to do their duty. McRae evaluated the field and found that the 24th Virginia, led by BG Jubal Early, had preceded them out of the woods and pressed on without support. The Virginians were about 300 yards to his front left and he decided to advance in an oblique to join their flank for the assault. The move met immediate resistance from the Federal gunners. To calm the situation McRae ordered the men to lay down in order "to compose them." Early encouraged their advance by waving them forward and the men were brought to their feet to continue on. The march was renewed against even stroger resistance. Despite the fact that "men and officers falling were falling on every side" they continued forward. At approximately 150 yards they delievered their first volley and were answered by a thunderous return fire. At 100 yards McRae could no longer resist the need to give his men a reprieve so he ordered them to take cover under the "slight shelter" of a fence line. The battery that was supposed to be unsupported was in fact covered by over 3000 Union infantry. Nevertheless, the advancing Confederates convinced Hancock to move back to secondary positions. After a struggle to move the mired artillery the Union line fell back to a position at the second redoubt. McRae noted the disruption in the Union line but also was aware that advancing against the new position " with so small a force" was fraught with danger. With Early down with a wound he became the front line leader. He called for reinforcements.
D. H. Hill tried to reinforce the effort but the scattered units could not be organized in a reasonable amount of time. The two forward units, 5th NC and 24th VA, were left unsupported. The inevitable retreat order was greeted with both relief and terpidation. McRae saw the order as "a signal for slaughter." While the 24th availed themselves of a quick exit back into the woods the 5th had an enlongated march to safety. Understanding the dire circumstances of the Confederate retreat Hancock ordered a counter-attack. The Federal move forward did little but collect prisoners and tend to the many wounded on the field. Hancock would report that he could not "pursue with prudence" without reinforcement. In a gross understatement COL McRae would report "the charge upon the battery was not attended by success."
The Battle Of Williamsburg Ends
The decimation of Early's attack and Hancock's report that the enemy "were completely routed and and dispersed" signaled the end of the day's fighting. As darkness fell the Battle of Williamsburg was over. The Confederates had accomplished their goal of delaying the Union advance and were satisfied to withdraw to the next defensive line. The Union commanders, with McClellan now at the front, were pleased to announce the Confederate retreat as a grand victory. Hancock's repulse of Early's attack was given great notice and the general declared "superb" for his efforts.
The real story of the Battle of Williamsburg was told in another failure of the Federal troops to gain back the initiative lost at Yorktown. The battle would pale in comparison to those that were in the near future but for two units; the 70th New York and 5th North Carolina, it represented some of the most bitter fighting of the war. The savagery of this short fight can be seen in the casualty figures for these two regiments. The 70th New York lost 330 men (k,w,and m) while the 5th North Carolina lost 68% of its strength (302 men) in the bitter delaying action. COL McRae reported after the fight that "my regiment is now so reduced as to be insufficient." It was an awful introduction to the bloodletting that would accompany the next three years.
McClellan again claimed victory although it was clearly a well fought delaying action by the Confederate leadership. Only the trouble with Early's assault belied a Confederate success. Longstreet passed this off by reporting "in the hurry of bringing the troops into actionsome of the officers failed to take due advantage of the ground and exposed them to a fire which was no absolutely necessary." The Confederates moved back to the Richmond defenses that McClellan had hoped to beat them to. The Federal forces spent time burying the dead and caring for the wounded (including over 400 Confederates) that littered the field before they marched on.
- Official Records of the War of Rebellion, Volume 11
- To the Gates of Richmond, Stephen W. Sears
- The Sword of Lincoln - The Army of the Potomac, Jeffry Wert
- Combined Operations in the Civil War, Rowena Reed
- The Union Cavalry in the Civil War - Volume 1, Stephen Z. Starr
- Campaigning with the Sixth Maine, Charles Clark
- Vermont in the Great Rebellion, Otis F. R. Waite
- The Official Virginia Battlefield Guide, John S, Salmon
- History of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment Illinois Volunteers during the Great Rebellion, Abner Ward
- The Battle of Williamsburg, Harry H. Ricker III