Williamsburg was the first large battlefield encounter between Union and Confederate forces during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 (American Civil War). The Union commander, General George B. McClellan, had allowed his army to be delayed for a month in front of the defences of Yorktown. Finally, at the start of May, the Union bombardment was about to begin. Realising this, on the night of 4-5 May 1862 the Confederate defenders of Yorktown abandoned their lines and began to fall back towards stronger positions around Richmond.
Between Yorktown and Richmond there was another line of defences, in the area of Williamsburg. While the Confederates had no intention of attempting to hold this line, parts of it were occupied in order to delay the Union advance.
On 3 May, J. E. B. Stuart was appointed to command the rearguard, made up mostly of his own cavalrymen. The Confederate infantry slipped away from Yorktown nightfall on 3 May. Most of the heavy guns at Yorktown were to be abandoned, so the artillerymen kept up a heavy fire until midnight, and then withdrew. On the morning of 4 May, McClellan ordered a light cavalry column forward, with two infantry divisions to follow. At about noon the Union vanguard and the Confederate rearguard clashed near Williamsburg. Unsupported, the Union cavalry had to withdraw.
Meanwhile, the two infantry divisions had blundered around the Peninsula, finally getting into position in front of Fort Magruder (the key position in the Confederate lines) early in the morning of 5 May. They were now facing Confederate infantry. The poor roads on the Peninsula slowed the Confederate retreat almost as much as the Union advance, and so James Longstreet (with D.H. Hill), was left to hold the line at Williamsburg while the rest of the Confederate army moved north towards Eltham’s landing, to prevent their being outflanked by Union forces landing behind them. Early on 5 May, even Hill’s division began to move away.
McClellan was not with the advancing Union troops. He remained at Yorktown, helping General Franklin embark his division ready to attempt that very flanking manoeuvre by sailing up the York River to West Point (or Eltham’s Landing). Instead, General Sumner, his second-in-command, was sent to the front. He reached the front late on 4 May, and ordered Brig.-Gen. William F. Smith’s division to launch a frontal assault on the enemy lines. However, between the Union lines and the Confederate defences was a band of thick woodland, and as darkness fell this first attack had to be abandoned, well before reaching the Confederate lines.
On the next morning the fighting began with a clash between the two lines of skirmishers. For most of the morning the fighting was concentrated in the centre of the line, facing Fort Magruder, and to the south (Union left, Confederate right). Here General Hooker had started with a careful advance, which soon developed into a fierce battle, which was to continue on for most of the day. Both sides soon began to call in reinforcements. On the Confederate side, A.P. Hill was called in before 9.00 a.m., the same time that Kearny was ordered forward on the Union side.
Fighting in the centre and Union left continued across most of the day. On the Confederate side General Anderson was reinforced by Wilcox, then A.P. Hill and finally Pickett. Meanwhile, Union reinforcements were being called up from the bulk of the Army of Potomac, itself not too far away. Peck’s brigade arrived in time to help hold the Union centre, while Kearny’s arrived just in time to prevent a potentially disastrous collapse on the Union left.
The crisis came in mid-afternoon. At about noon, Longstreet had become aware that the movement of the rest of the army was so slow that he could fight all afternoon without risking any delay to the move back to Richmond. Accordingly, he launched what he called ‘first grand assault’, which forced the Union lines back from their advanced positions. Despite this success, the Confederate attack eventually faded. The longer the day went on, the more Union troops could be brought onto the field, and Longstreet’s orders were after all only to win a day’s delay for the rest of the army, already moving away to the west. Couch’s and Kearny’s troops arrived in time to prevent any disaster in the centre.
A second fight developed to the north of Fort Magruder. At about 11.00 a.m., Sumner became aware that it might be possible to turn the Confederate left, and dispatched General Winfield S. Hancock to see if it could be done. Hancock faced a potentially difficult task crossing Cub Creek in the face of a Confederate fortification, but for some reason that particular redoubt had been abandoned. At 12 noon Hancock’s men crossed a dam across the stream and occupied the empty redoubt. A second Confederate fort also fell easily into his hands, and Hancock now sent urgent demands for reinforcements to allow him to capture that third fort and secure his advance.
Instead, he received orders to pull back to the first fort. The fighting in the centre was at its heaviest, and Sumner felt that he had no reinforcements to spare. Hancock debated that order, and held his ground as long as he could. Finally, the Confederates began to mass against him, and he pulled back slightly to a stronger position. The Confederate attack, under D. H. Hill and Jubal Early, was launched across an open field, and was forced back with heavy losses by Hancock’s men, who followed some devastating musket fire with a well timed counterattack.
Hancock’s actions were described as brilliant by McClellan. There was a general feeling on the Union side that without Hancock’s successes on the right, the Confederates would not have withdrawn from the Williamsburg line. This was probably not the case, but Hancock’s successful seizure of the Confederate left flank prevented any possibility of a change of plan.
Two controversies surround this battle. This first is over the nature of the battle itself. Union reports at the time represents it as a victory over a large part of the Confederate army, intent on holding the Williamsburg line just as it had held the Yorktown line. This was not the Confederate’s intention when the fighting started. Longstreet simply needed to delay the Union advance for a day or so to allow the Confederate supply trains to get back into Richmond.
A second controversy developed over the use of primitive landmines – effectively artillery shells rigged to explode as Union soldiers passed. Once again, reports of their use appeared in Union sources soon after the battle. Jefferson Davis even referred to it in his autobiography. However, Joseph Johnston, then the Confederate commander in the field, denied that any such thing had been done. Sadly for his case, the Confederate commander responsible, General G. J. Rains, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, and was happy to admit that he had planted four such shells in front of his lines at Williamsburg. Longstreet clearly did not approve, and ordered him to stop.
The fighting at Williamsburg was as intense as any on the Peninsula. Several regiments on the Union side suffered very heavy losses. The Union dead numbered 468, compared to 790 in the two days at Seven Pines or 1,734 during the Seven Days (or 289 for each of the six days of significant battle). This in a battle where only a part of the Union army ever got into action! Reported Confederate losses were not as heavy, although at least one heavily damaged regiment (The 5th North Carolina) did not return a list of casualties.
Both sides could come away from Williamsburg with some satisfaction. Longstreet had held the Union attack off for a day, and allowed the Confederate supply trains to withdraw. In one day’s fighting the Federal’s had pushed the rebels away from a defensive line that appeared to have a similar potential to the lines at Yorktown that had delayed them for a month. McClellan even managed to convince himself that he had been outnumbered at Williamsburg!. The scene was set for the climax of the Peninsula campaign at Richmond.