The Peninsula Campaign: Eltham’s Landing

May 6, 1862 – The Confederates continued falling back, with a detachment trying to bide time by challenging a Federal troop landing at the mouth of the York River.

As the fighting took place at Williamsburg, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, continued withdrawing the bulk of his forces toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. In so doing, he tried guarding against flanking maneuvers by Major General George B. McClellan, who hoped to catch Johnston before he could set up defenses across the Chickahominy River.

McClellan disregarded messages urging his presence at Williamsburg and instead supervised the loading of Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division onto transports at Yorktown. Franklin’s mission was to go up the York River to the Pamunkey River and land before Johnston could reach the Chickahominy, thus putting Federal troops between the Confederates and Richmond.

On May 6, the Confederates at Williamsburg disengaged and continued falling back with the main force. Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s Confederates remained at Barhamsville to cover the withdrawal, guard the wagon train, and block the road from Yorktown to Richmond.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s division steamed up the York and began debarking at Eltham’s Landing on the south bank of the York around 5 p.m. Part of Smith’s force was already there to challenge the landing. Like at Williamsburg, the Confederates only needed to keep the Federals occupied while the rest of Johnston’s army fell back.

The gunboats U.S.S. Wachusett, Chocura, and Sebago escorted the transports, with Acting Master William F. Shankland of the U.S.S. Currituck reporting that the Confederates had destroyed 20 schooners and two gunboats above the landing. As the Federal troops disembarked, Smith pulled his Confederates back to lure them away from the protection of their gunboats.

At Richmond, Confederate officials learned of the fight at Williamsburg but still heard nothing from Johnston. General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, issued orders to hurry building defenses on the James River, removing supplies and equipment from Norfolk, and sending reinforcements to Major General Richard Ewell’s division defending against a potential Federal thrust from northern Virginia.

Johnston finally contacted Richmond the next day, informing his superiors that Federal ironclads and transports had reached West Point, where the head of the York River met the Pamunkey. Johnston assured them that he could defend against any Federal attack on his York River flank, but he did not indicate whether he intended to make a stand in front of the capital.

By the morning of the 7th, the bulk of Johnston’s army had assembled around Barhamsville, with G.W. Smith still threatening the Federals at Eltham’s Landing. Smith directed Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting to shell the Federal transports and gunboats there. Whiting passed the order to Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade, tasking Hood with advancing close enough for his artillery to reach the vessels.

Hood’s Texans knocked Federal skirmishers back a mile and a half, with Hood and Franklin calling for reinforcements. A Federal soldier aiming to kill Hood was shot to death by a Confederate who disobeyed orders to advance with an unloaded rifle.

As the Federals fell back under protection of their gunboats, Hood’s artillery could not effectively reach them. Likewise, Federal artillery did little damage to the Texas brigade. With nothing to be gained, Whiting ordered Hood to withdraw while Franklin occupied West Point.

In the two-hour engagement at Eltham’s Landing, the Federals sustained 186 casualties, including 46 taken prisoner. The Federal attempt to flank the Confederates from the York failed, as the Confederates withdrew with their wagons intact and did not allow the Federals to get between them and Richmond.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7408; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 147-49; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3394; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 207-08; 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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