The Incredibly Ill-Conceived Battle of Williamsburg

May 5, 1862 (Monday)

The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

The town of Williamsburg rested on a narrow stretch of the Virginia Peninsula, five miles wide. As the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under General Joe Johnston was retreating from the defenses of Yorktown, they had to squeeze themselves through this bottleneck as Union cavalry from the Army of the Potomac nipped at their heels.

Through the night, both sides hurried reinforcements to the field. Essentially, General Johnston had never wished to make a stand at Yorktown. Neither did he wish to do so at Williamsburg. But in order to buy time for his men to move closer to Richmond and off the Peninsula, he needed to put up a hearty rear guard action.

The Confederates held onto Fort Magruder, two miles east of Williamsburg. General James Longstreet commanded a three mile long line, consisting of thirteen different redoubts protected by felled trees to their fronts. Union commander, General George McClellan, chose to stay behind in Yorktown, allowing his subordinates to figure out the confusion for themselves.

Hooker's Division engages the Rebels.

Union General Edwin Sumner, usually commanding the Second Corps, was put in charge of the Third and Fourth Corps, commanded by Generals Heintzelman and Keyes, respectively. Only two divisions, one from each of the corps, were, thus far, on the field. General “Baldy” Smith’s Division, as well as that of General Joe Hooker’s were somehow supposed to work in concert to bring about a victorious bagging of the entire Rebel army. Here, three corps commanders led two divisions from two different corps. This was not a recipe for military success.

To make matters worse for the Federals, the Third and Fourth Corps were approaching the battlefield by two different roads. And while those roads converged, the Rebels at Fort Magruder covered the junction. This left Hooker’s and Smith’s Divisions about a mile apart, separated by a thick swamp, and forced them to fight nearly two separate battles.

Hooker, in Heintzelman’s Corps, held the left, while Smith, in Keyes’ (nominally commanded by Sumner), was on the right. Though there doesn’t seem to have been any real plan of action, Hooker and Smith were probably supposed to attack together. But at 7am, Hooker stepped off having no idea what was going on towards his right. A sharp fight, which lasted much of the morning, opened the day, and soon Hooker’s men commanded the field, but their leader elected not to advance, as he waited to see if Smiths’ troops appear to his right.

This delay allowed Confederate General Longstreet to bring up three more brigades. In true danger of having his flanks turned, Hooked called for Sumner to throw in reinforcements from Keyes’ Corps. Having been denied, he tried to hurry along his fellow Third Corp division under General Philip Kearny, who was doing the best he could, slogging through the saturated roads.

While Hooker tried to hold his line, which was bent back upon itself by the weight of Longstreet’s reinforcements, General Sumner was being urged by Smith to allow him to exploit two redoubts on the Confederate left that mistakenly went unnoticed and unmanned by Longstreet. This news was brought to them by an escaped slave. If they could be taken, the Rebel left would crumble. Finally, Sumner relented and sent a brigade commanded by General Winfield Hancock to take the redoubts.

As Hancock made his two mile march towards his target, the Rebels in Hooker’s front broke through his lines, sending many of his division scrambling for the rear. Longstreet’s men captured four guns, turning the pieces upon the retreating Yankees. With his remaining guns, Hooker formed a line to blast the advancing Rebels with canister. This slowed the assault, but what really turned the battle was the arrival of Kearny’s Division around 3pm.

General Kearny whipped his and Hooker’s men into a frenzy. This was exactly what they needed. “Men, I want you to drive those blackguards to hell at once!” he yelled above the cheers of his men. “Give them hell! God damn them, give the steel and don’t wait to shoot!”

With blood in their throats, the Federals charged, throwing the Rebels back into their works. This was, however, no victory. It was merely a return to the positions of the forces when the battle started.

Meanwhile, General Hancock’s Brigade arrived at the forsaken redoubts, taking them with nobody being any wiser. He placed his artillery and began to enfilade the Confederate line. This came as a great surprise to the Rebels, who not only didn’t know that there were redoubts left unmanned, but that the Union troops were essentially flanking them.

Fortunately for the Confederates, General Jubal Early’s brigade had been held in reserve. Early had initially wanted to flank the Union line, crossing over the ground now held by Hancock. With the booming of cannons their destination, Early and his men, along with his commander, General D.H. Hill, set out through the separating woods as the last light of the dreary day faded to gray.

All the while, General Sumner had been ordering Hancock to pull back, thinking him too far advanced. Hancock was livid. He, unlike Sumner, was on the battlefield and could see with his own eyes the effect of his artillery. Nevertheless, following orders, he began to leave his position.

Fort Magruder was not the Alamo.

Early’s Rebels picked their way through the tangled woods. As the regiments became separated, Early attempted to bring his men out on the flank of the Union artillery. But as Hancock heeded his orders to pull back, the position of the flank changed. Early, leaping without looking, and with only one regiment, dashed from the woods to see Hancock’s infantry seemingly retreating from the field. Emboldened, they charged, but soon learned that Hancock was not retreating, he was merely taking up a better position.

The fire opened upon the Rebels was deadly, as bodies, killed and wounded, fell to the ground. Early himself was shot through the shoulder and was fading in and out of clarity. Meanwhile, another regiment led by Hill emerged from the woods. But an entrenched Union brigade against two Rebel regiments in the open field was no match. Hill broke off the assault, but not before it became a bloody quagmire. As they crawled back to the relative safety of the woods, the two regiments lost over 500 men.

Hancock's Brigade charging the Rebels.

The battle, at a stalemate, was over. Hill and Early’s assault was needless. Darkness would soon have brought an end to the fighting and the Rebels could have continued with their retreat. Longstreet did not need a tactical victory to be victorious. He needed only to hold off the Federals long enough for the Army of Northern Virginia to make good their escape.

Despite the losses and needless attacks, the Rebels achieved their objective. The next day, the Confederate veterans of the Battle of Williamsburg would pull out, joining the rest of the army at Barhamsville, seventeen miles closer to Richmond.

The casualties were heavy for a glorified delaying action. The Union lost 456 killed, 1410 wounded and 373 missing, while the Rebels lost 1570 killed and wounded, with 133 missing.1

  1. Several sources were used for this post. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears; The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 by Kevin Dougherty; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. []
Creative Commons License
The Incredibly Ill-Conceived Battle of Williamsburg by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by