Following the Battle of Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, rode among the troops to congratulate them on their “brilliant victory.” He delivered short speeches to various regiments, which a reporter transcribed: “I have come to thank you for your bravery and good conduct in the action of yesterday… You acted like veterans! Veterans of many battles could not have done better!”
But to his superiors, McClellan’s outlook turned gloomy once more. Again overestimating the strength of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army, McClellan reported, “I find Joe Johnston in front of me in strong force, probably greater a good deal than my own & strongly entrenched,” and would be “disputing every step to Richmond.” Despite McClellan’s decisive numerical superiority over the enemy, he wrote, “My entire force is undoubtedly considerably inferior to that of the Rebels… but I will do all I can with the force at my disposal.”
Meanwhile, Johnston continued withdrawing the bulk of his forces toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. In so doing, he tried to guard against flanking maneuvers by McClellan, who hoped that his Federals could catch Johnston before he could set up defenses across the Chickahominy River. On the morning of May 6, Federals at Williamsburg cautiously advanced and, just as at Yorktown, they found the Confederate works abandoned.
Had McClellan been on the scene during the fight at Williamsburg, the Federals might have inflicted more damage on the Confederates. But he instead stayed back at Yorktown to supervise 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. This would put 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 on the south bank at Eltham’s Landing 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 the Federals away from the protection of their gunboats.
At Richmond, Confederate officials learned of the fight at Williamsburg but had 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 orders were to “feel the enemy gently and fall back.”
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 had disobeyed orders to advance with an unloaded rifle.
The Federals fell back under protection of their gunboats, and Hood’s guns could not 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. Johnston reported that the Federal gunboats and ironclads prevented the Confederates from stopping the landing. He added, “The sight of the iron-clad boats makes me apprehensive for Richmond, too.” He continued his planned withdrawal.
In the two-hour engagement at Eltham’s Landing, the Federals sustained 186 casualties, including 46 taken prisoner. Franklin did not pursue, instead reporting, “I congratulate myself that we have maintained our position.” Franklin had gone up the York River too late; had he landed two days earlier, he could have flanked and possibly trapped the Confederates at Williamsburg. But the Confederates were now falling back to more defensible positions, and the Federals no longer had a chance to get between them and Richmond.
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1992.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.