The Battle of Williamsburg

May 5, 1862 – Portions of the main armies on the Virginia Peninsula clashed in a savage engagement that did little to change the dispositions of either the Federals or Confederates.

General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers, hoped to keep the Federals at bay while he continued his retreat toward Richmond. A portion of his force held a defensive line stretching across the Peninsula neck, two miles east of Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital. Their mission was to stop the Federal advance long enough for Johnston to get the rest of his army out of harm’s way.

Both sides brought up reinforcements during the night of May 4-5. Major General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate defenses, strengthened his positions along the line, particularly at Fort Magruder, which commanded the junction of the two roads leading to Williamsburg. The line stretched three miles, with the defenders using felled trees as redoubts.

Two divisions of the Federal Army of the Potomac were on the scene, with one belonging to Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps and one belonging to Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps. However, Major General George B. McClellan, the army commander, had placed Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding II Corps, in charge of these divisions. This caused considerable confusion, with McClellan opting to stay behind at Yorktown rather than help sort it out.

Major General Joseph Hooker’s division of III Corps was on the Federal left, and Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s division of IV Corps was on the right. Having taken the two roads from Yorktown to the field, they were separated by nearly a mile with a large swamp between them. Hooker attacked around 7 a.m. with almost no communication or coordination with Smith.

The Battle of Williamsburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Battle of Williamsburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hooker’s Federals fought most of the day in pouring rain around Fort Magruder. After capturing the advance enemy positions, Hooker ordered a halt to await word on Smith’s progress. Sumner, unaware of Hooker’s activity, halted Smith a mile before reaching the field, fearful that the Confederates might come out of their defenses and attack him.

This delay gave Johnston time to come up and assess the situation for himself. Around noon, he called on Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates to reinforce the line. Even though a Confederate counterattack threatened both of Hooker’s flanks, Sumner declined Hooker’s request for reinforcements from IV Corps. So Hooker called on Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division of III Corps, which was hurrying over muddy roads to join the fight.

Meanwhile, Smith told Sumner that he had learned from a fugitive slave that Longstreet had neglected to station troops on the two redoubts at the extreme Confederate left (or Federal right). Sumner responded by deploying a brigade under Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock on a circuitous two-mile march to take the redoubts and turn the enemy flank.

Around 4 p.m., Confederates penetrated Hooker’s lines and sent his Federals running to the rear, firing on them with captured Federal artillery. Regimental bands played “Yankee Doodle” to slow the retreat, and Hooker regrouped his men while gunners held the Confederates off with canister. Then Kearny’s men arrived, with Kearny yelling to the troops, “Men, I want you to drive those blackguards to hell at once! Give them hell! God damn them, give the steel and don’t wait to shoot!” The Federals charged and drove the Confederates back into their defenses, putting the lines back to where they were before the fight began.

On the Federal right, Hancock took the empty redoubts, posted artillery, and poured enfilade fire into the Confederate lines. One of D.H. Hill’s Confederate brigades led by Brigadier General Jubal Early hurried to meet Hancock’s advance. Hancock held off the attacks while Sumner repeatedly ordered him to pull back; he feared that Hancock was too isolated from the rest of the line.

Hancock resisted Sumner’s orders because he, unlike Sumner, could see that the Federals were inflicting serious damage on the enemy. But eventually Hancock complied and ordered a withdrawal. As the Federals fell back, two Confederate regiments charged at separate times and were both repulsed with heavy losses. Hancock reported, “No man… left the ground unhurt who had advanced within 500 yards of our line.” The regiments lost about 500 men before withdrawing, with Early wounded in the shoulder. This ended the first pitched battle on the Peninsula.

McClellan, who was not present during the engagement, called this a “brilliant victory” because the Confederates ended up withdrawing. But the Confederates were in the process of withdrawing anyway, and by holding the Federals off long enough for the rest of the army to get away, this became a tactical victory for Johnston. Had Sumner been more decisive, the Federals might have broken through the Confederate defenses and severely crippled Johnston’s army.

The Federals sustained 2,239 casualties (456 killed, 1,410 wounded, and 373 missing) out of about 40,000 engaged. The Confederates lost 1,703 (1,570 killed or wounded, and 133 missing) out of 31,000. These were heavy losses for a delaying and probing action between the Confederate rear guard and Federal advance elements. This battle was marked by confusion and lack of cohesion on both sides, but it also demonstrated how much the soldiers had improved their discipline and fighting skill from a year ago.

The battle also inadvertently gave birth to a new nickname for Joseph Hooker. When a correspondent submitted his report with the line, “At the fighting. Gen. Joe Hooker…”, the printer left out the period after “fighting.” Due to this error, people began referring to him as “Fighting Joe Hooker.”

The next day, the Confederates withdrew as planned to join the main army at Barhamsville, 17 miles closer to Richmond. The Federals occupied Williamsburg and were now within 50 miles of the Confederate capital.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109-13; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 142; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (5 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 411; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 147-48; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 369-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 207-08; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 427; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571, 829; Wert, Jeffry D, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 241-42; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262

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