Fought on May 5, 1862, the Battle of Williamsburg was the first major engagement of the Peninsula Campaign during the American Civil War.
Prelude to the Battle
Within twenty-four hours of the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), the Lincoln administration called upon George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort in the East. McClellan spent the first few months of his new command fortifying Washington, DC, and reorganizing federal forces. The Northern public and politicians, however, wanted action. Accordingly, McClellan devised plans for an offensive to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, to bring a quick conclusion to the war.
Although President Abraham Lincoln favored an overland assault on Richmond from the Washington area, McClellan developed a more complex strategy. Correctly believing that Confederate leaders expected a direct onslaught against the Confederate capital, McClellan proposed to outmaneuver the Rebel army guarding Richmond and to launch an offensive from the southeast, up the Virginia Peninsula.
The Virginia Peninsula is a strip of land in southeastern Virginia that runs from the northwest to the southeast. The York River borders it on the north and east, and the James River borders it on the south and west. Although nearly the entire area was behind Confederate lines early in the war, the Union maintained possession of Fort Monroe at the very tip of the peninsula.
McClellan planned to use the Union’s superior naval resources to transport the Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay, to disembark at Fort Monroe, and then to move up the peninsula, attacking Richmond from the rear. In early March, the Confederate Navy launched the ironclad CSS Virginia, posing a menace to federal control of the waters around Fort Monroe. Virginia’s launch threatened the success of McClellan’s plan. The appearance of the USS Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads forced Virginia’s withdrawal on March 9 and erased the Confederate threat.
McClellan’s offensive began on March 17, when he began transporting his army of approximately 120,000 men to Fort Monroe. McClellan arrived on site on April 2, and two days later, the Army of the Potomac began its advance up the peninsula toward Yorktown.
Confederate officials had prepared for McClellan’s offensive. In 1861, Major General John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Army of the Peninsula, began constructing defensive lines across the Virginia Peninsula. The mainline, known as the Warwick Line, connected Yorktown on the York River to the headwaters of the Warwick River and then extended southwest to the confluence of the Warwick and James Rivers.
Siege of Yorktown
The offensive began on March 17, when McClellan began transporting his army of approximately 120,000 men to Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in southeastern Virginia. On April 4, the Army of the Potomac began its advance up the peninsula toward Yorktown. The next day, the advance came to a halt when the Federals encountered Confederate forces of about 10,000, dug in along the Warwick River. Once again, erroneously believing that the Rebels outnumbered his army, McClellan settled in for a siege rather than attack. The resulting one-month delay enabled Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to redeploy troops from northern Virginia to the peninsula.
Johnston Abandons the Warwick Line
On the night of May 3-4, 1862, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (commanding the Army of Northern Virginia) ordered the evacuation of the Warwick Line across the Virginia Peninsula. Johnston and Major General John Bankhead Magruder had held the line since April 5, while under siege during the initial stages of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign aimed at capturing Richmond.
Longstreet Occupies the Williamsburg Line
Johnston’s goal was to move his army up the peninsula to occupy new defenses closer to the Confederate capital. As the bulk of the Rebel army moved north, Johnston ordered a rearguard, commanded by Major General James Longstreet, to delay pursuing Union forces. Longstreet’s rearguard occupied the Williamsburg Line, a series of fourteen redoubts approximately two miles south of Williamsburg, Virginia. Longstreet concentrated his forces near the center of the line at Redoubt Number 6, an earthen structure also known as Fort Magruder.
Federals Pursue Johnston
After learning that Johnston had abandoned the Warwick Line, McClellan immediately dispatched Brigadier General George Stoneman’s cavalry to harass the retreating Rebels. In addition, he sent nearly 40,000 infantrymen under his second-in-command, Brigadier General Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner, to pursue Johnston’s army. McClellan stayed behind to oversee the boarding and embarkation of Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division on transit ships to steam up the York River and outflank Johnston, cutting off his retreat.
Stoneman Awaits the Infantry
Heavy rainfall and muddy roads hampered both sides, but on May 4, Stoneman caught up with Confederate cavalry troops, commanded by Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart. After a brief skirmish that halted the progress of the federal horsemen, Stoneman stopped to wait on infantry support. Sumner arrived that afternoon and ordered two divisions, commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Hooker and Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, to assault Longstreet’s defenders on the Williamsburg Line the next morning.
May 5, 1862 — Clash at Williamsburg
Kearny Rallies Faltering Federals
Hooker’s division led the Union advance on the morning of May 5, but the Rebel defenders quickly repulsed the Yankees. Longstreet then ordered a counterattack that threatened to overrun Hooker, who had been expecting support on his right from Smith’s division. Unbeknownst to Hooker, however, Sumner had ordered Smith to halt his advance against the Confederate line, thus leaving Hooker to fight it out on his own. Hooker’s position became highly tenuous until Brigadier General Philip Kearny arrived with his brigade and rallied the faltering Yankees. Kearny personally led a counterattack that stabilized the Union lines and stymied the Confederate advance.
Hancock Occupies Abandoned Redoubts
Meanwhile, on the extreme Union right flank, Smith received information from an escaped slave identifying two unmanned Confederate redoubts. Sumner reluctantly assented to Smith’s request to dispatch Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade to take the redoubts. By 3 p.m., Hancock occupied the abandoned works with 3,400 infantrymen and eight artillery pieces, and he began enfilading Longstreet’s left flank.
Federals Repulse Rebel Attacks
Not realizing the importance of Hancock’s advance, Sumner responded to Hancock’s request for reinforcements to secure his position by ordering him to fall back. Just as Hancock grudgingly began to comply with Sumner’s orders, the Rebels counterattacked, giving Hancock justification to hold his ground. Mistakenly believing that he had outflanked Hancock, Jubal Early led a reserve regiment into the center of Hancock’s brigade. The Union artillerists and infantrymen mowed down the Rebels as they streamed out of the woods into an open field. When D. H. Hill led another regiment to Early’s aid, the result was the same. By the time Hill ordered a retreat, over 500 members of the two regiments were dead or wounded.
Aftermath of the Battle
After darkness brought an end to the fighting, McClellan arrived on the field and proclaimed a tactical victory. In reality, the results of the battle were inconclusive. Casualty results, although high, were fairly even. The Union lost approximately 2,300 soldiers (456 killed, 1410 wounded and 373 missing), compared to 1,700 casualties (1,570 killed and wounded, with 133 missing) for the Confederacy. Strategically, however, Johnston had achieved his objective. During the night Longstreet’s forces withdrew, but his holding action bought precious time that enabled Johnston to reposition the Army of Northern Virginia in stronger defensive lines closer to Richmond.