The Fall of Yorktown

May 4, 1862 – The Federal Army of the Potomac entered the abandoned enemy works at Yorktown. Some celebrated this as a great victory, while others noted that the Confederate army had escaped intact.

Major General George B. McClellan, poised to begin one of the largest artillery bombardments in history, wrote to his wife on the morning of the 4th about “the perfect quietness which reigns now.” He was unaware that General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates had abandoned their defenses through the night.

After dawn, Federal Lieutenant George A. Custer and others ascended in an observation balloon and saw that the enemy works along the Yorktown-Warwick River line were empty. They notified McClellan, who deployed a Federal division under General William F. “Baldy” Smith to confirm the news. Meanwhile, rumors of the Confederate retreat quickly spread through the Federal army. These rumors were confirmed when the troops entered the works without resistance.

Siege guns at Yorktown | Image Credit:
Siege guns at Yorktown | Image Credit:

McClellan telegraphed Washington, “Yorktown is in our possession… Our success is brilliant, and you may rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up with the rebels.” President Abraham Lincoln and others within his administration were not completely satisfied, mainly because it had taken McClellan nearly a month to capture the town, and Johnston’s army had escaped unscathed.

The Confederates left behind 56 naval guns because they were too heavy to take. To the Federals, these smoothbore cannon were of no use compared to their new rifled guns. The Confederates also left primitive land mines (i.e., buried artillery shells attached to fuse wires that exploded on contact). McClellan condemned these devices as “murderous and barbarous,” and Federal troops entering the works forced Confederate prisoners of war ahead of them to dig them up or set them off.

Meanwhile, Federal gunboats advanced up the York River, with the crew of the U.S.S. Wachusett seizing Gloucester Point opposite Yorktown. Federals also captured two Confederate schooners. In April, Federal Commander John S. Missroon had deemed the Confederate batteries on the York too strong to neutralize. Now that they were in Federal hands, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox disagreed:

“If Missroon had pushed by (at night) with a couple of gunboats, the Navy would have had the credit of driving the army of the rebels out, besides immortality to himself… The water batteries on both sides were insignificant, and, according to all our naval conflicts thus far, could have been passed with impunity.”

Confederate officials at Richmond learned of Johnston’s evacuation from Yorktown when news arrived that Federal gunboats had moved up the York River as far as West Point. General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, asked Johnston if he could use field artillery to stop the gunboats’ advance. Johnston did not respond. Davis expressed alarm that Johnston had given up such an important position as Yorktown, and by default Norfolk, so quickly.

As Federals continued entering the abandoned Confederate works, McClellan assigned cavalry under General George Stoneman and about 50,000 infantrymen in five divisions under General Edwin V. Sumner to pursue Johnston’s Confederates. McClellan knew that Johnston was falling back toward Williamsburg on the only two roads leading there, and that those roads converged a couple miles outside the town. McClellan hoped to wipe out Johnston’s rear guard as it merged onto that one road.

Advance units of Federal cavalry and horse artillery caught up to Johnston’s rear guard in heavy rain and mud around 2 p.m., sending the Confederates into Williamsburg. As they ran down the streets, a woman demanded to know why they were not defending Williamsburg like their ancestors did in the War for Independence. Then she yelled, “If your captain won’t lead you, I will be your captain!”

Before she could take charge, orders came for the Confederates to about-face and take up positions in earthworks about two miles east of Williamsburg. Major General John B. Magruder had built these defenses in case Yorktown had to be abandoned. The works stretched four miles across the Peninsula neck and included 13 redoubts to repel any flank attack. The largest redoubt, in the center, was called Fort Magruder. Johnston ordered Major General James Longstreet to hold Fort Magruder long enough for the retreating Confederates to regroup.

The Confederates assembled behind the works and repelled an advance of about 9,000 Federals. As the Federals withdrew for the day, Longstreet spent that night strengthening Fort Magruder and other redoubts.



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