Saturday, May 5, 2012

Battle of Williamsburg

When McClellan learned that Johnston's men had retreated from the Yorktown entrenchments, he ordered his men to pursue, led by Stoneman's cavalry. There was nothing more than skirmishing on May 4th as the armies moved north, but Johnston decided that he needed to put up a rear guard action to prevent his slow moving wagon train from having to be abandoned. Brigadier General James Longstreet was ordered to delay the Federals at Williamsburg on May 5th. Because of the narrowness of the Yorktown Peninsula at that point and the position of creeks in the area, Longstreet only had to defend two miles of ground. To do this he had his men, along with the men of Jones, Smith and D. H. Hill. The Confederates had an advantage of prepared entrenchments, which had been constructed as a fall back position by Magruder, centering around a fort named after him.
"Fighting Joe" Hooker

The Federals had two divisions, those of Joseph Hooker and Baldy Smith, on two parallel roads a mile apart. Complicating the situation was the fact that the two divisions were from different corps, and Sumner, a wing commander, was on the field, totaling five commanders over two units. On the rainy morning of May 5th, 150 years ago today, Hooker entered the battle with infantry and artillery. He would not make a full scale attack on Fort Magruder, however, without support from Smith's division to his right. Longstreet was not content to let the battle continue in a stalemate. He ordered Wilcox to move against Hooker's men. More troops were committed and fierce fighting took place along the left of the Federal line. Troops exchanged volleys at 30 paces in the wet woods. On the right Sumner refused to send in Smith's troops to help Hooker. However, Philip Kearny's division arrived on the left half of the field to reinforce Hooker. Although Sumner refused to send troops to help Hooker, he was finally convinced to send Hancock's brigade on the right to investigate a report that there was an unguarded road leading to the Confederate flank. While these troops marched off on this mission, the battle continued on Hooker's front. The Federals began to run out of ammunition, and soon the Southerners, charging with a rebel yell, broke through the Union line. They captured 10 Northern cannon, and were able to bring off four of them. Hooker rode to the front and led his men forward yelling to his men, "Don't fall back – the rebels are whipped! Reinforcements will be here in the few minutes." General Samuel Heintzelman, Smith's corps commander who had come over to this section of the line in disgust over Sumner's refusal to fight, did what he could to rally the fugitives. Finding remnants of a regimental band, which were common at this stage of the war, he rallied them and set them to playing Yankee Doodle and other marching tunes, encouraging the men to rally under this martial music. What really saved the battle here for the Federals was the arrival of Phillip Kearny's division. He was the most experienced commander in the battle, having lost an arm while fighting in Europe. He led his division forward, hitting the Rebels and stopping any further advance. Hard fighting continued to occur on this section of the line.

At 3:00 pm while this fight was occurring, Hancock's brigade was positioned on the Confederate left flank. Halting his men and guns, he sent word back to Smith of a good opportunity for a flank attack and waited for reinforcements. However, he received several repeated orders to fall back. Longstreet had sent Jubal Early from D H. Hill's division to guard the Confederate left. Hearing Hancock's men and guns, he proposed a flanking movement. Hill agreed, and they set off at around 5:00 pm. However, when they found the Federal cannon, they turned out to be half a mile away from where they had thought, putting Early and his men in their front, instead of on their flank. However, the aggressive Early wheeled his first regiment around and charged at their head. Charging forward with cries of "Bull Run!" they hit heavy Federal resistance. Men fell on every side, including Early himself, shot through the shoulder. D. H. Hill called off the attack, realizing the Federal position was too strong to be attacked haphazardly. Hancock was not content to remain where he was. Although he had received several orders to fall back, he took the Confederate attack as liberty to pursue the course he wished, and ordered a charge. They moved forward "with a terrible yell ... and pursed in a volley following it up with a steady fire.... The enemy, who doubtless thought we sprung form the earth, halted with terror and amazement, their dead were dropping like tenpins, one after another...." Terrible casualties were inflicted on the fleeing Confederates. Early's brigade lost over 500 of its men. The 5th North Carolina who suffered the majority of the casualties lost 68% of those who went into the battle. Hancock lost exactly 100.
McClellan arriving on the battlefield late in the day

As the sun set the battle all along the line wound to a close. The Confederates had lost 1,682 men, the Union 2,283. Both sides claiming a victory. McClellan claimed another glorious defeat of Johnston, however the Confederates actually gained greater success, having hampered the Army of the Potomac's pursuit allowing the retreat to be continued safely.
James Longstreet

There were many famous generals involved in this battle, which has become somewhat of a footnote in history. Longstreet, Early, D. H. Hill, Hancock, Hooker, Sumner and many more would all see much more fighting later in the war. There were various standards of performance. In general, the Federals did not very well. "Fighting Joe" Hooker's division had been left unsupported. McClellan did not hasten to the field and with Sumner's refusal to fight, Hooker had lost many men while 25,000 troops stood idly by. The Confederates in general had done better, excepting Early's bloody attack on Hancock. Although publicly he claimed the battle as a victory, McClellan was not satisfied. He complained to his wife of "the utter stupidity & worthlessness of the Corps Comdrs... Heaven alone can help a General with such commanders under him." Sumner had "proved that he was ever a greater fool that I had supposed & had come within an ace of having us defeated."


Anonymous said...

My Great Grandfather Stephen Vannatta fought in this battle he was with NJ 8th infantry. He was shot and later died from his wounds. He is buried in the US Soldiers and Airmen national cemetery In Washington DC.

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