The Fall of Yorktown

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, was poised to begin one of the largest artillery bombardments in history. He sought to destroy the Confederate defenses on the Peninsula that began from the York River to the north and then went through Yorktown and along the Warwick River to the south. But by the morning of May 4, all was still and McClellan wrote his wife about “the perfect quietness which reigns now.” He was unaware that General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army had abandoned its defenses before dawn.

One of McClellan’s division commanders, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, joined a party going up in the observation balloon Intrepid to survey the enemy works along the Yorktown-Warwick River line. Heintzelman later wrote, “We could not see a gun on the rebel works or a man. Their tents were standing & all quiet as the grave.” He shouted down that the works were empty, and troops of the 20th Massachusetts became the first Federals to enter Yorktown. A Confederate left a message for them on a tent wall: “He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. May 3.”

McClellan was soon notified, and he in turn telegraphed Washington, “Yorktown is in our possession… I am now fully satisfied of the correctness of the course I have pursued. 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.” He wrote his wife Ellen, “Results glorious… The enemy’s works of very great strength. He must have been badly scared to have abandoned them in such a hurry.” While McClellan hailed this as a great victory, 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.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

News of the fall of Yorktown sparked mass celebrations throughout the North. In Albany, New York, a 100-gun salute was performed in celebration of the victory. A headline in an extra edition of the New York Tribune read, “REBELS RAN AWAY LAST NIGHT – THE ‘LAST DITCH’ FILLED.” An editorial in the Journal of Commerce stated, “The beginning of the end is visible.”

Federals began entering the enemy lines, where they found that the Confederates had left behind 56 naval guns because they were too heavy to take. To the Federals, these smoothbore guns were obsolete compared to their new rifled cannon. The Confederates also left buried artillery shells attached to fuse wires that would explode on contact. These “infernal machines” were primitive land mines, which McClellan condemned as “murderous and barbarous.” Some men were killed or wounded, and Federal troops entering the works started forcing 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.”

Federal gunboats could now steam 25 miles up the York to West Point, the terminus of the key Richmond & York River Railroad. This was well beyond the Confederate left flank on the Peninsula, and McClellan was making arrangements to send a Federal division under Major General William B. Franklin up the York to execute this flanking maneuver.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

Confederate officials at Richmond learned of Johnston’s evacuation from Yorktown when news arrived that Federal gunboats had reached West Point. General Robert E. Lee, 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 and the vital navy yard there) so quickly.

As Federals continued to enter the abandoned Confederate works, McClellan assigned cavalry under Brigadier General George Stoneman and about 50,000 infantrymen in five divisions under Major 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 the town 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, and Major General James Longstreet’s division was assigned to hold this fort long enough for the retreating Confederates to regroup. Once this was done, Johnston planned to continue falling back toward Richmond to avoid being flanked by the Federal gunboats and troops on the York to the north.

The Confederates assembled behind the works and awaited the enemy advance. The Federal pursuit was disorganized and hampered by a lack of coherent command structure, and a force of about 9,000 was repelled by Longstreet’s men. Rain started falling later in the day, which further slowed the pursuit and gave the Confederates more time to regroup. As the Federals withdrew for the day, Longstreet spent that night strengthening Fort Magruder and other redoubts.


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