Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, had sent cavalry to pursue the retreating Confederate army after it had abandoned Yorktown. McClellan followed this up on the night of April 4 by sending infantry as well.
The Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, hoped to keep the Federal pursuers at bay while he continued his withdrawal toward Richmond. He left a portion of his force near Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital. The mission was to stop the Federal advance long enough for Johnston to get the rest of his army out of harm’s way.
The Confederate detachment formed a defensive line stretching across the Peninsula neck, some two miles east of Williamsburg. 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.
On the Federal side, McClellan opted not to join the pursuit; he instead stayed behind at Yorktown to oversee the transport of a division up the York River. Two Federal divisions were poised to attack at Williamsburg: Brigadier General Joseph Hooker’s division from Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps, and Brigadier General William “Baldy” Smith’s division from Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps. But McClellan had placed Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Second Corps, in overall command. This caused considerable confusion, especially with McClellan opting to stay behind rather than come up and help sort it out.
Around 7 a.m., Hooker’s Federals assaulted Fort Magruder with no communication or coordination with Smith. The Federals were repulsed, and 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.
Sumner’s inactivity caused frustration among the officers; one noted, “Everyone hears this battle and yet the troops are not given the order to move.” McClellan reported “heavy firing” from the Williamsburg area around 9 a.m. But he chose not to investigate further, despite “Baldy” Smith’s claim that pleas were made “all day long… to General McClellan begging him to come to the front.”
Meanwhile, Longstreet’s Confederates counterattacked and soon threatened both of Hooker’s flanks. Even so, Sumner declined Hooker’s request for reinforcements from the Fourth Corps. According to an officer at Sumner’s headquarters, “The sounds around us proved we were in the midst of a battle but we could not see what was going on.” Heintzelman finally persuaded Sumner to deploy Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division from the Third Corps. Kearny got the order at 10:45 and immediately hurried his men through “the masses of troops and trains that encumbered the deep, muddy single defile.”
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 (i.e., the Federal right). Smith later wrote bitterly, “Not taking in the situation at all, he (Sumner) after much urging, finally told me that I could send one brigade to the first fort (unmanned on the enemy left) but no further. I left General Sumner with a feeling of admiration for the old plantation Negro who had shown more knowledge of strategy than the second officer in rank in the Army of the Potomac.” Smith dispatched the brigade led by Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock.
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’s men went on a circuitous two-mile march to take the empty redoubts, post artillery, and pour enfilade fire into the Confederate lines. The Federals advanced to within a mile of Fort Magruder, and Hancock called for reinforcements. Another brigade was dispatched on two separate occasions, but Sumner recalled it both times, and Hancock was left to fight alone. But Hancock would not withdraw; in fact, he ignored two orders from Sumner to pull back. Sumner feared that Hancock was too isolated from the rest of the line, but unlike the commanding general, Hancock could see that his men were inflicting serious damage on the enemy. But Hancock received a third withdrawal order around 5 p.m. and finally obeyed.
As Hancock began falling back, a Confederate brigade led by Brigadier General Jubal Early counterattacked. 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 arrived at Sumner’s headquarters around 5:30, just as the fight was ending. An officer noted, “We recognize the General. His arrival instantly creates a sensation.” McClellan called this a “brilliant victory” because the Confederates had been driven off. He wrote his wife Ellen, “As soon as I came upon the field the men cheered like fiends & I saw at once that I could save the day.” But there was no day to save because the fight was already over, and the Confederates were in the process of withdrawing anyway. Johnston later wrote:
“We fought for no other purpose than to hold the ground long enough to enable our baggage-trains to get out of the way of the troops. This object was accomplished without difficulty. There was no time during the day when the slightest uncertainty appeared… The army had no ambulances, and the wagons had moved on in the morning. We were compelled, therefore, to leave all the wounded unable to march.”
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. Many in the Federal high command were disgusted; “Baldy” Smith condemned Sumner’s “beastly exhibition of stupidity and ignorance.” Brigadier General Darius Couch called it “a miserably fought affair.”
Heintzelman wrote, “I am more satisfied than ever about the bad management of Sumner & his inexcusable neglect to not support me.” Soon the northern press joined in blaming Sumner for the botched affair. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard noted, “Genl. Sumner seems troubled by the newspaper attacks; some of them are virulent… he often profanes the name of God.”
McClellan wrote, “Sumner had proved that he was even a greater fool than I had supposed & had come within an ace of having us defeated.” But it was McClellan who had placed Sumner in command of the pursuit, if only because Keyes would have led it otherwise, and Keyes was “laden with disfavor at headquarters.” The fact that Keyes played such a minimal role in this battle only added to that disfavor.
On the other hand, McClellan was quick to highlight Hancock’s performance as the key to Federal victory and called him “Hancock the superb.” This enraged both Hooker and Kearny so much that McClellan later revised his reports to include their efforts as well. The battle also inadvertently gave birth to a new nickname for 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 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 very 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. Many men who had fought at Bull Run contended that this battle was much more ferocious.
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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