On the night of May 3rd, 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his forces from his defensive lines at Yorktown, and began retreating towards Richmond. Union army pursuit soon followed. with cavalry skirmishes and harassment of the Confederate rear guar. Progress of the withdrawal was slow on roads made muddy from spring rains, and with Union cavalry harassing the Confederate rear guard, Johnston decided to detach a portion of his army under General James Longstreet to fight a delaying action. Longstreet deployed along a line of defenses for the city of Williamsburg that had been constructed earlier by General John Magruder , with the strongest point being Fort Magruder, an earthen fort on the Williamsburg to Yorktown road.
A division of Union infantry under Brigadier General Joseph Hooker launched and unsuccessful attack on Fort Magruder, and after that attack was repulsed, Longstreet counterattacked. The timely arrival of a Union division under Brigadier General Phil Kearny drove Longstreet back.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade of Brigadier General William F. Smith’s division of the Union 4th Corps had marched far out on the Confederate left flank, crossing a stream called Cub Creek across a 75 yard wide mud dam and approached a Confederate redoubt near the dam. It was unoccupied, and the Federals advanced to a second redoubt. This one was also not defended. Hancock moved into position approximately a mile from Fort Magruder.
One of Hancock’s regiments was the 5th Wisconsin Infantry. Hancock ordered some of his infantry forward, including the 5th Wisconsin, and set up a defensive line which included the second redoubt. Hancock had a battery of artillery along with his infantry, and began shelling the Rebel positions around Fort Magruder. Confident he could take the position if he was reinforced, Hancock sent back word to Major General Edwin Sumner (who was in command on the field with Major General George McClellan still on the way from Yorktown) for additional troops.
But an overly cautious Sumner ordered Hancock to pull back to the redoubt by Cub Creek and guard the Union flank. Hancock was reluctantly preparing to pull back when his line came under attack.
The 5th Wisconsin and the other forward infantry skirmished with some cavalry and then came under fire from advancing Confederate infantry. Hancock ordered his forward deployments to retire to his line along the redoubt.
Major General D. H. Hill had ordered Brigadier General Jubal Early’s brigade of North Carolinians and Virginians to attack Hancock. Early’s four regiments had marched through a densely wooded area to reach the Federals, and had gotten a little off course. Instead of emerging from the woods near the Union flank, they were directly in front of Hancock’s infantry and artillery. Early ordered an attack with his first two regiments anyway, and the outnumbered Confederates (about 1200 versus 3400 Federals) charged into the teeth of the strong Union position, taking large numbers of casualties. Early himself was wounded and had to leave the field. Early’s other two regiments then emerged from the woods and attacked, meeting the same fate. Hill arrived on the field and saw that continuing the assault would result in disaster, called off the attack.
But as the Confederates began their withdrawal, Hancock ordered a counterattack. The Rebels broke for the relative safety of the woods, but many were caught in the open and killed or captured. Early’s Brigade suffered 508 total casualties, 302 of which were inflicted on the 5th North Carolina Infantry.
Colonel Amasa Cobb, commanding the 5th Wisconsin filed this report on his regiment’s fighting at the Battle of Williamsburg:
HDQRS. FIFTH REGIMENT WISCONSIN VOLUNTEERS,
Camp No. 11, in the Field, May 6, 1862.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that yesterday, the 5th instant, at about 10 o’clock a.m., pursuant to your orders, and following you, I marched my regiment, the Fifth Wisconsin Volunteers, from Whittaker’s farm (where I had lain on my arms the previous night) by the road to the right, striking the line of the enemy’s works near Queen’s Creek. Upon arriving where the road debouches & in a large open field, I turned to the left and deployed my regiment, facing the right earthwork of the enemy on the opposite side of Queen’s Creek, throwing out skirmishers on my front and left, under the immediate command of Maj. C. H. Larabee. I crossed the stream at double-quick and occupied the work, which I found deserted by the enemy. I then marched my regiment out of the work and formed in line of battle facing the second work, which was distant about 800 yards. Here I was joined by other regiments of the brigade and a battery of artillery, which formed on my left.
Receiving your order to advance, I threw out Companies A, E, and G as skirmishers on my front and right and marched upon the enemy’s work. This, like the other, was found entirely deserted. From this work three similar but larger works were in plain view at a distance of 1,000 and 2,000 yards, respectively, to the front and left. These works were thickly studded with the enemy’s infantry and sharpshooters: who opened a galling fire on my skirmishers, who, being thrown well forward, came within their range.
Pursuant to your orders, I again advanced about 400 yards, and sent forward Companies D and K, under the immediate command of Lieut. Col. H. W. Emery, to support my line of skirmishers. The battery having taken
aposition near some lone farm houses, and being engaged in shelling the enemy’s works, I held my remaining five companies to support it, keeping my men well under cover of the crest of a slight elevation, my right resting on a thick wood, well covered by my line of skirmishers, and frequently lying down to avoid the return shots from the enemy’s artillery. I maintained this position until about 4.30 o’clock p.m., when a sharp fire of musketry on my line of skirmishers announced the approach of the enemy, who appeared in a long line of infantry and cavalry at a distance of about 400 yards in my front and penetrating the wood on my right. From my position I could then see only the cavalry. Holding my position until the battery had passed to the rear and reached a place of safety and apprehending a charge, I formed my men in square to resist cavalry, but the cavalry, being effectively checked by the fire of my skirmishers, fell in rear of the infantry. I then reduced my square, formed in line of battle, and opened fire on the infantry, who had already commenced a sharp fire on my right, my left being to some extent covered by the farm buildings above mentioned, which buildings at the same time greatly prevented the effectiveness of my fire. After maintaining this position for some time I received your order to fall back fighting, which I proceeded to execute to the best of my ability.
In falling back to the point indicated I was immediately unmasked by the buildings and found myself in front of the enemy’s center, a heavy regiment, afterward ascertained to be the Fifth North Carolina, which was supported on either flank by other troops, all of whom advanced rapidly, concentrating upon me a rapid and heavy fire. My men fell back in good order, every man loading as he retreated, wheeling and returning the fire of the enemy with a rapidity and coolness worthy of veterans.
In this manner I fell back slowly to the line of battle which had already formed, and with your assistance formed my regiment in the center, a space having been left for that purpose. You then ordered a charge, and the whole line moved forward with a short and well-directed fire, driving the enemy before them like chaff, they fleeing in wild confusion, leaving the field over which they had just pursued my retiring line literally strewn with their dead and wounded, and leaving their battle-flag behind them, which was brought in by one of my men, who handed it to a staff officer to be conveyed to you.
During the entire day my officers and men behaved with great coolness and energy, manifesting a carelessness of danger bordering on recklessness. It is not too much to say that all did their duty, did it well, and at the right time. Saying thus much of all, I cannot refrain, in justice to my own feelings on the field of battle when the result was uncertain, from making special mention of the coolness and gallantry of Adjt. T. S. West and Lieu’s. Epoch Totted and J. B. Oliver, whose positions were near me during the engagement, and whose assistance to me in encouraging the men, both by word and example, deserves my gratitude and admiration. Color-Serge. George B. Madison also deserves special mention. Although severely and painfully wounded in the knee in the early part of the engagement, he carried the colors steadily and gallantly to the last.
Capt. William A. Bough, of Company G, was dangerously wounded in the first attack on the line of skirmishers and was disarmed by the advancing foe. He was, however, brought in after the rout of the enemy, and great hopes are entertained of his recovery. It is reported to me that the captain behaved with great coolness and bravery.
The casualties of the day in my regiment are 8 killed on the field, 50 wounded, 2 of whom have since died; none missing. A detailed report of killed and wounded is herewith respectfully forwarded.
I have the honor to be, general, your most obedient servant,
Colonel Fifth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers.
General W. S. HANCOCK,
Commanding First Brigade, Smith’s Division.
The casualty numbers were revised to 15 killed or mortally wounded and 60 wounded.
With no reinforcements having arrived, Hancock elected not to pursue the enemy further. In his report, the general was generous in his praise of the 5th Wisconsin.
McClellan considered the Battle of Williamsburg to be a big Union victory due to Hancock’s success. Longstreet dismissed that claim, saying the Confederate objective was to fight a delaying action to cover their withdrawal, and they were successful in doing so. From the Union standpoint, the battle was poorly managed by Sumner. Hooker and Kearny took large numbers of casualties in heavy fighting, while there were plenty of reserves nearby who were not sent into action. Hancock’s success came about because he had been attacked before carrying out his order to retreat. If he had been reinforced, the Federal flanking movement may have trapped a large number of Rebel troops around Fort Magruder.
The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union by E.B. Quiner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XI, Part 1
To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears
With the Fifth Wisconsin at Williamsburg by Arthur Holbrook. In War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Volume III.