150 Years Ago in the Civil War
After several Union victories in the west in April 1862, much of the fighting in May shifted to Virginia. After a string of defeats in the first four months of the year, the Confederacy finally began to see its first significant successes of 1862.
The fighting in Virginia was on two fronts. In the east, Major General George McClellan had been building a formidable siege line in front of Yorktown for nearly a month as April turned into May. Meanwhile, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had been operating in the in the Shenandoah Valley since March, but had been relatively quiet since being defeated at Kernstown on March 23rd. Early in May, the action picked up at both locations.
On May 3rd, Confederate forces pulled out of Yorktown, and began to withdraw up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond. There was significant fighting on May 5th at Williamsburg, as Federal troops engaged the Confederate rear guard. This withdrawal also left Norfolk vulnerable to attack, and southern forces evacuated that valuable port city on May 9th. The abandonment of Norfolk also sealed the fate of the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. The vessel was not seaworthy for the open ocean, and had too deep a draft to go up the James River. With no other viable options available, C.S.S. Virginia was destroyed on May 11th.
With the Virginia out of the picture, the U.S. Navy sent a flotilla of five vessels including the U.S.S. Monitor up the James River in an attempt to attack Richmond. Standing in the way was 90 foot high Drewry’s Bluff. This high ground, located on a river bend seven miles from Richmond, was heavily fortified with artillery. The flotilla attacked Drewry’s Bluff on May 15th, but was forced to withdraw after a four hour exchange of cannon fire.
Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley
While Confederates were withdrawing up the peninsula, Jackson’s forces in the Shenandoah were attacked at McDowell, Virginia, on May 8th. Jackson’s men fought off the attack, forcing the Union troops to withdraw to Franklin in western Virginia.
Jackson next targeted the 9000 man Federal army of Major General Nathaniel Banks that was in and around Strasburg, Virginia. Jackson’s force attacked the 1000 man Federal garrison at Front Royal on May23rd. While the attack was underway, 18 year old spy Belle Boyd ran through the lines under fire and delivered information to Jackson on the strength and disposition of Union troops in the area. This wasn’t the first time Boyd had passed information to the Confederate army, but it was the most famous moment her espionage career. Jackson took Front Royal and captured most of the Union troops in the garrison.
Following the loss at Front Royal, Banks retreated north. Jackson attacked Banks at Winchester on May 25th, driving his army from the town and nearly cutting it off its escape. Jackson advanced north to the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry while two Federal armies under Major General John C. Fremont and Major General Irvin McDowell attempted to get in behind him and cut off his avenue of retreat. But Jackson managed to withdraw south before Fremont and McDowell could converge, and escaped.
Federal Forces Capture Corinth, Mississippi
The most significant action in the west in May of 1862 occurred at the important railroad center at Corinth in northern Mississippi. After the costly Union Victory at the Battle of Shiloh in April, western department commander Major General Henry Halleck arrived on the scene and personally took command of the Union forces in the field, essentially demoting Major General Ulysses S. Grant to second in command. Halleck began a very slow movement toward Corinth, taking weeks at a time to advance a few miles. Late in the month, Halleck was finally in position outside of Corinth. General Pierre Beauregard, the commander of Confederate forces at Corinth, quietly pulled his army out of the town on the night of May 29th and morning of the 30th. Halleck had captured the town, but he had allowed the Confederates to escape without opposition.
Back in Virginia, McClellan was closing in on Richmond. On May 31st, three of McClellan’s five corps were north of the Chickahominy River, with two others to the south of the river General Joseph E. Johnston attacked the two corps south of the river in the Battle of Seven Pines, also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks. Initially, Johnston was successful in driving back the Federals, but McClellan ordered in reinforcements and stopped the Rebel advance as the last day of the month drew to a close. Johnston himself was wounded during the action.
The Battle of Seven Pines would conclude on the 1st of June. With the wounded Johnston out of action, the Confederate army defending Richmond would get a new commander that day as well. The new commanding general’s name was Robert E. Lee.