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Battle of Williamsburg, VA
in the American Civil War

Union Battle Summary

Williamsburg, VA., May 4-5 1862. 3rd and 4th Army Corps and Cavalry, Army of the Potomac. Upon the evacuation of Yorktown by the Confederates, Gen. McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, ordered his cavalry, with four batteries of horse artillery, under the command of Brig.-Gen. George Stoneman, in pursuit, the infantry following as rapidly as possible. The 3rd corps, commanded by Brig.-Gen. S.P. Heintzelman, moved on the direct road from Yorktown to Williamsburg, with Hooker's division in advance closely followed by Kearny's. The 4th corps, under command of Brig.-Gen. E.D. Keyes, took the Lee's Mill road farther to the left, Smith's division having the advance with the divisions of Couch and Casey in supporting distance. Near the Half-way house - so called because it was about half way between Yorktown and Williamsburg - Stoneman's advance encountered some of the enemy's cavalry and the skirmishing commenced. Knowing that the Confederates were moving on both roads, Stoneman sent Emory's brigade to cut off the enemy on the Lee's Mill road, while he engaged the force in his front, gradually pressing it back to Fort Magruder, about a mile from Williamsburg. Fort Magruder was the largest of a line of redoubts which had been constructed sometime before by Gen. Magruder, commanding the Confederate forces on the lower peninsula. When Stoneman came in sight this was the only one of the redoubts occupied, but Gen. J.E. Johnston, who was conducting the retreat, hurried troops to the rear to man the trenches before Stoneman's supports could come up. Emory encountered a regiment of Confederate cavalry on the Lee's Mill road, under the command of Gen. Stuart himself, but without infantry could not corner the enemy. Some confusion arose in the movements of the Federal infantry. McClellan had remained at Yorktown to direct the movements of Franklin's division of McDowell's corps, which had been ordered to the peninsula, and Sumner was assigned to the command of the forces in pursuit. Heintzelman was in the advance before Sumner, and in his report states that his instructions directed him to "take control of the entire movement." When Smith's division reached Skiff creek, on the left-hand road, the bridge was found to have been destroyed and Sumner ordered him to take a cross-road to the one on which the other column was moving. This brought Smith into the other road near the Half-way house just as Hooker's troops came up, forcing Hooker to halt for about 3 hours until Smith's command could get out of the way. Hooker then followed Smith for some 3 miles, when he crossed over to the road that the latter had left, and where Emory's cavalry was operating. Smith's division came up with Stoneman about 5:30 p.m. and by Sumner's direction was formed in three lines of battle to charge the enemy's works. About 6:30 the order was given to advance, but the dense undergrowth in the woods soon made it apparent that a charge over such ground was impracticable, and as darkness was coming on the troops were halted under instructions to attack at daylight the next morning.

The attack on the 5th was commenced by Hooker's division, which had marched until 11 o'clock the night before, and at 5:30 a.m. was within sight of the enemy's works before Williamsburg. Two hours later Gen. Grover was ordered to begin the attack by sending the 1st Mass. to the left and the 2nd N.H. to the right of the road as skirmishers, under instructions to advance to the edge of the timber, where they were to turn their attention to the occupants of the rifle-pits in their front, as well as to the sharp-shooters and gunners in Fort Magruder. The 11th Mass. and 26th Pa. were then sent to the right of the 2nd N.H. and ordered to advance as skirmishers until they reached the Yorktown road. Webber's battery was next pushed forward into an open field on the right of the road, but before the guns could be brought into action it was subjected to such a heavy fire from Fort Magruder and a battery on the left that the cannoneers were forced to retire. Volunteers were called for to man the battery and the men of Osborn's battery dashed to the deserted guns, placed them in position and opened fire on the fort and the battery mentioned. Bramhall's battery was then brought up on the right of Webber's, and by 9 o'clock the guns of the forts were silenced, the Confederates in the rifle-pits having in the meantime been driven back by the well-directed fire of Hooker's sharpshooters. Leaving the 5th N.J. to support the batteries, Gen. Patterson moved with the rest of his brigade to the left of the road in anticipation of an attack from that direction, and the heavy firing there soon demonstrated that the anticipation was being realized. Patterson found himself confronted by Pryor's and Pickett's brigades, outnumbering his own command five to one, and twice sent back for reinforcements, but receiving none gave the order to retire. The 73rd and 74th N.Y., the only remaining regiments of Hooker's reserve, were ordered to the left, and with their assistance Patterson rallied his men and repulsed the enemy three times after he had advanced to within 80 yards of the road, which was the center of operations. Hooker now ordered all his available troops to the left, and they arrived just in time to meet a fourth assault by Longstreet's whole division, which had just reached the field. At the same time the guns from Fort Magruder opened again and another body of Confederate troops advanced against Webber's and Bramhall's batteries, capturing 4 guns. Just then Berry's brigade of Kearny's division arrived on the field and repulsed the attack on the batteries, saving the remainder of the guns, the 5th Mich. charging with the bayonet and driving the enemy back to the rifle-pits with a loss of 143 killed and a large number wounded. Kearney's other two brigades - Birney's and Jameson's - now came up and relieved Hooker's men, who retired to the rear, where they replenished their ammunition and remained in reserve. The Confederates, seeing that the Union line had been strengthened by the arrival of these fresh troops, gave up the attempt to turn Hooker's left and retired to their intrenchments.

Smith's attack, which was to begin at daylight, did not commence until about noon. Late on the evening of the 4th Sumner learned from a countryman that the redoubts on the Confederate left were unoccupied. A reconnaissance the next morning verified the information, and Hancock was ordered to move with his own brigade, part of Davidson's, and Cowan's N.Y. battery and occupy the redoubts. Hancock crossed Cub Dam creek on a narrow bridge, threw forward the 5th Wis. and 6th Me. as an assaulting party in case the redoubt should be occupied by the enemy. Finding it unoccupied he left three companies to hold it, formed a skirmish line in an open field to the rear, with the main body of his infantry behind in line of battle, the artillery in the center, and moved against another redoubt farther down the stream. This was also found to be unoccupied and was taken possession of by Hancock, who now sent back to Smith for reinforcements to enable him to hold the advantage he had gained. He then moved forward to drive the enemy from the two nearest works in his front and create a diversion in favor of Hooker, who was then seriously engaged in front of Fort Magruder. Deploying his line on a crest, with the artillery on the right and left of the redoubt, he threw forward a strong skirmish line and drove the enemy from his position, but did not take possession of it as the reinforcements had not arrived. Sumner had twice ordered reinforcements to Hancock, but each time had countermanded the order. Upon a third request for reinforcements he ordered Hancock to fall back to his first position. Doubtful as to whether this meant the firt fort occupied or to retire across the creek, Hancock determined to hold on until he could communicate with Sumner, and again sent back for reinforcements, directing the officer to state the importance of holding the position. In his report Hancock says: "While I was awaiting a reply to this message the crisis of the battle in front of Fort Magruder appeared to have arrived, and in order to furnish all the assistance possible our Battery threw percussion shell into that fort." This action drew attention to Hancock. Artillery was turned on him and D.H. Hill advanced with a heavy force of infantry to drive him from his position. Hill soon occupied the redoubts and Hancock's skirmishers became engaged with this force, while a cavalry column came out from behind a point of woods on the right. This was held in check by the skirmishers, however, and Hancock gave the order to fall back to the crest and form in line of battle. This was taken for a retreat by the enemy, who now advanced. Hancock's men behind the crest waited until the Confederates were within easy range, when they suddenly appeared over the top of the hill and poured a murderous volley of musketry into the line rushing up the opposite slope. "Now, gentlemen, the bayonet!" cried Hancock, and the whole brigade charged with a vigor that threw the enemy into utter rout and drove him from the field with a loss of about 400 men in killed, wounded and captured. McClellan, in his report, refers to this action of Hancock's as being "one of the most brilliant engagements of the war." It was the relieving feature of the battle of Williamsburg, an engagement fought without a plan, without unity of action on the part of the different commands, and practically without a commander. The repulse of Hill came about 5:30 p.m. Before he could reform his shattered lines to renew the attack darkness came on and the Confederates in front of Hancock bivouacked in line of battle, expecting to be attacked during the night. Late in the afternoon Peck's brigade of Couch's division came up and took position on the right of Hooker, where he held his position until the action was over. Had he arrived sooner Sumner might have been able to reinforce Hancock, thus enabling him to press the advantage he had gained on the Confederate left, which would no doubt have resulted in a sweeping victory for the Union arms. About the time that Hill was driven back loud and prolonged cheering was heard at Sumner's front, announcing the arrival of McClellan on the field. The enemy, however, regarded it as a signal that heavy reinforcements had come up, and during the night Johnston evacuated his position, continuing his retreat toward Richmond.

The Union losses in the battle of Williamsburg were 456 killed, 1,410 wounded and 373 captured or missing. The Confederate reports show a loss of 288 killed, 975 wounded and 297 missing, but Heintzelman, in his report, says: "In the town the enemy abandoned all their severely wounded without attendance or the least provision for their sustenance. Counting them, the prisoners captured during the battle and the first day of the retreat, we got about 1,000 men; among them one colonel and several other officers. Up to Saturday 800 rebels were buried by our troops."

Source: The Union Army, Volume 5, Cyclopedia of Battles A - Helena , 1908


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