150 Years Ago This Week: The Battle of Williamsburg

May 1862

Faced by overwhelming numbers, giant siege guns and a threat of more Federal reinforcements to the north on the Rappahannock River, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston abandoned Yorktown on Saturday, May 3. The Confederates pulled back through Virginia’s colonial capital at Williamsburg and marched west towards Richmond. They had defied Gen. McClellan’s Federal army for more than a month. Numbering now some 55,000 troops, Gen. Johnston’s army appeared to be a serious threat in the mind of the Union commander, who had more than 110,000 troops. Gen. McClellan still believed that Washington deprived him of manpower and that the Confederates seriously outnumbered the Federals.

McClellan’s army entered Yorktown on May 4, and some of the advance elements clashed with the Confederate rearguard. In Tennessee, as Gen. Halleck’s Federal army was closing in on the Confederates under Gen. Beauregard at Corinth, Miss., there was considerable fighting in southern Tennessee. Out in the far west, Southerners at Tucson, in the Confederate Territory of Arizona, abandoned the settlement in the face of the approaching “California column” of Union Col. James Carleton, advancing to intercept the Confederate Army of New Mexico.

In a severe thunderstorm with sheets of driving rain and incessant lightning and thunder, a battle broke out May 5 just east of the old capital at Williamsburg, when elements of the Union army under Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny clashed with the rearguard divisions of Gen. James Longstreet and Gen. Daniel H. Hill. Unsuccessful at first, Federals commanded by Gen. Winfield S. Hancock outflanked the Confederates in hastily constructed earthen fortifications (some of which are still seen today) but failed to stop the Southern retreat towards Richmond. Casualties were heavy: more than 2,200 Union troops were killed, wounded, captured or missing and more than 1,700 Confederate killed, wounded and missing. That evening, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Chase left Washington by ship for Fort Monroe for a firsthand look at Gen. McClellan’s advance on Richmond.

In the Shenandoah Valley May 6, Confederates in Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Army arrived in Staunton after their stay at Conrad’s Store (now Elkton). At Harrisonburg, Jackson’s men had confused Union commander Gen. Nathaniel Banks at Harrisonburg, and he withdrew his forces north to New Market and later Strasburg. From Staunton, Gen. Jackson planned to go west, towards McDowell, hoping to attack and defeat Federal forces there under Gen. Robert Shenck. This was Jackson at his best: rapid movements on foot.

Fighting on the Peninsula below Richmond continued May 7 between leading elements of Gen. McClellan’s army and the rearguard of Gen. Johnston’s troops. At Fort Monroe, President Lincoln visited the USS Monitor and conferred with naval and army officers; he was taking an active role in attempting to push the Federal drive on to Richmond. In the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Jackson’s 10,000 men reached McDowell on Thursday, May 8, and were attacked by some 6,000 men under Gen. Schenk. The Federals were repulsed and forced to withdraw into the mountains towards Franklin in western Virginia. Federal casualties at McDowell numbered a little more than 250; Jackson’s troops suffered almost 500 casualties. McDowell was the first major victory in Jackson’s famed Valley Campaign.

In the face of Federal occupation on the Peninsula and the threat of Union invasion, Confederates on May 9 evacuated Norfolk and its valuable naval and army supply depot. The loss of this major base was a severe blow to Confederate control of southside Virginia and northern North Carolina. Left without a port from which to operate, the Confederates had to destroy the ironclad CSS  Virginia. The same day, at Hilton Head, S.C., Maj. Gen. David Hunter ordered the emancipation of slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and authorized the “arming of all able-bodied Negroes in those states.” This order, without approval of the Congress or President Lincoln, caused a lively debate in the North until the president declared it null and void.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.