Yorktown Falls! McClellan Dallies, Rebels Nearly Escape

May 4, 1862 (Sunday)

Typical view from a balloon above Yorktown.

From high in a balloon above the Yorktown defenses, Lt. George Armstrong Custer peered through the gray pre-dawn towards strange fires, as if buildings were ablaze and homes set to burning. He had not a clue what to make of it. He saw flashes, like blasts of heavy artillery. The dark slipped away to reveille and bugles blown to rouse the Union Army of the Potomac.

As men rubbed sleep from their eyes, they started fires for morning coffee and breakfast. Lt. Custer watched the familiar sight of hundreds of small, fiery dots punctuating the haze of morning. He hardly gave it a thought until he noticed that it wasn’t mirrored along the Confederate trenches.

There, he remained until the full light of day, until he saw with his own eyes that the Rebels had completely abandoned their lines. He descended and sent work up to General George McClellan, who eventually dispatched a division under General William Smith.1

All throughout the Union line, similar word was filtering in from the front. At places, deserters spoke of the retreat, at others, slaves running away from the Rebel army told the tale. In still other places, the lines were so close that it was obvious. Soon, the rumors had spread throughout the army.

McClellan's headquarters near Yorktown.

Some Federals took it as great news. The enemy had run away and the lines could be taken with little to no effort. Others, however, wished that all the weeks of preparation, the trenches dug, the artillery mounted, would mean something more than this.

As the Union troops cautiously entered the Rebel fortifications, they soon realized that though no enemy were near, the business of carrying the works could turn deadly. Before leaving, some units planted torpedoes in the ground, with mechanisms that would set them to explode when triggered.2

Confederate landmines (in Kentucky).

These horrific and dishonorable devises, later known a land mines, were created by Confederate General Gabriel Rains, who first began playing with such things twenty years earlier, during the Seminole Wars in Florida. He would bury an artillery shell in a road, rig it with a tripwire or some other percussion device, and, when activated, it would explode, killing anything within several yards of the torpedo. Some of his men placed them in houses, near drinking wells and other, seemingly neutral positions. Soon, Federals were making Rebel prisoners march in front of their columns to disarm the brutal mechanisms.

Aside from the torpedoes, the Federal troops found that the Rebel works were formidable. Seventy-seven pieces of artillery, too heavy to move, had to be left behind. These were mostly useless to the Federals, as they were old, smoothbore naval guns. 3

As Confederate General Joe Johnston retreated the Army of Northern Virginia along two parallel roads leading to Williamsburg, McClellan ordered portions of his Army of the Potomac to give chase. Just by a quick study of a map, McClellan knew that the two roads met near the town and there the Rebels would have fortifications. He supposed that they would put up a small rear guard, but did not expect a battle.

Abandoned Rebel works in Yorktown.

And so, against what he believed would be a small force, he sent around 50,000 men, nearly half of his army, towards Williamsburg. Meanwhile, McClellan himself stayed behind, ordering units about as if playing chess. When reports came back that the Rebels were well-fortified near the town, McClellan ordered his men not to engage the enemy. He believed that he had the Confederates where he wanted them; that soon, he would be able to throw most of his army at them, some even by transport boats along the York River.

As they marched, the Confederates burned bridges, but still, by 2pm, the first elements of Union cavalry came into contact with the Rebels’ rear guard, mostly pickets and cavalry. Most of the enemy scattered as the cavalry charged their temporary breastworks.4

Union troops struggle after retreating Rebels.

Two miles before reaching Williamsburg, the Rebels had erected Fort Magruder, simple, but effective earthworks, that made the Federal perusers think twice about committing to an assault. At first, they believed the Rebels to be a couple of companies acting as a rear guard, that could be easy brushed aside, like those met through much of the day. But as they prepared to attack, more Rebels could be seen fleshing out the works.5

Meanwhile, as the Confederates passed through the town of Williamsburg, and as the sound of the fighting outside of town could be heard through the streets, a woman dashed out among the soldiers retreating away from the coming Yankees. She demanded that they turn around and defend the town just as the Colonial Army did in the days of the Revolution. “If your captain won’t lead you,” cried the patriotic woman, “I will be your captain!” As she said this, the order came to turn the column around to head nearer the fighting.

Abandoned Rebel works near Yorktown.

Soon, the Federal troops were caught in a cross-fire, as more and more Rebels filed into the works outside of town. As the fire became destructive and it was clear that they were up against more than an easily-tossed aside rear guard, a retreat was called.

As the cavalry fell back, the pursuing Union infantry caught up with them near dark. Having the entire night to prepare for a morning attack, Confederate General James Longstreet fortified Fort Magruder with over 10,000 troops in and close by the works. Though the Federals pursued the Confederates with 50,000, only about 9,000 were close enough to count that night. On both sides, more troops were being hurried forward to give battle the next day.6



  1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 5, “In the Air Above Yorktown,” by George Armstrong Custer, p160-161. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel Beatie, Savas Beatie, 2007. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel Beatie, Savas Beatie, 2007. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, vol. 11, Part 1, p428. []
  6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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Yorktown Falls! McClellan Dallies, Rebels Nearly Escape by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Yorktown Falls! McClellan Dallies, Rebels Nearly Escape

  1. One of those minor things that spell-checkers don’t catch: I think you meant “later known as land mines” rather than “later known a land minds”.
    So Custer was in an observation balloon?

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