A look at The Civil War Battle of Williamsburg

submitted by C.J. Johnson

Union General George B. McClellan replaced the aging Union General-in- Chief Winfield Scott in late 1861, after reorganizing, retraining, and equipping the Union army at unprecedented levels. President Lincoln expected significant results from the new Commander. However, by early 1862, McClellan had not shown any real progress in moving toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. McClellan’s plan of attack resulted in the Peninsula Campaign, on the Virginia peninsula. His army was said to be larger than any city in the State of Virginia. Although there were earlier engagements, the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, was the first battle of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. The National Park Service details the battle in the following description, “In the first pitched battle of the Peninsula Campaign, nearly 41,000 Federals and 32,000 Confederates were engaged. Following up the Confederate retreat from Yorktown, Hooker’s division encountered the Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg. Hooker assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road, but was repulsed. Confederate counterattacks, directed by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, threatened to overwhelm the Union left flank, until Kearny’s division arrived to stabilize the Federal position. Hancock’s brigade then moved to threaten the Confederate left flank, occupying two abandoned redoubts. The Confederates counterattacked unsuccessfully. Hancock’s localized success was not exploited. The Confederate army continued its withdrawal during the night.” Casualties were estimated at 3,800, with approximately 2,300 on the Union side and 1,500 Confederates. With Rebel forces pulling out during the night, the Yanks continued their move toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. The Associate Press reported on May 11, 1862, “advancing Union cavalry have pushed on to White House, Va., and the Custis estate owned by a relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee…Virginia’s alarmed “citizens are flocking in from the surrounding country” to the protection of Richmond and Confederates have “burnt the railroad bridge and tore up the road for some distance” toward that city.”