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Battle of Williamsburg

May 5, 1862

Fought on May 5, 1862, the Battle of Williamsburg was the first major engagement of the Peninsula Campaign during the American Civil War.

On the night of May 3-4, 1862, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (commanding, the Army of Northern Virginia) ordered the evacuation of the Warwick Line across the Virginia Peninsula. Johnston and Major General John Bankhead Magruder had held the line since April 5, while under siege during the initial stages of Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign aimed at capturing Richmond.

Johnston's goal was to move his army up the peninsula to occupy new defenses closer to the Confederate capital. As the bulk of the Rebel army moved north, Johnston ordered a rearguard, commanded by Major General James Longstreet, to delay pursuing Union forces. Longstreet's rearguard occupied the Williamsburg Line, a series of fourteen redoubts approximately two miles south of Williamsburg, Virginia. Longstreet concentrated his forces near the center of the line at Redoubt Number 6, an earthen structure also known as Fort Magruder.

After learning that Johnston had abandoned the Warwick Line, McClellan immediately dispatched Brigadier-General George Stoneman's cavalry to harass the retreating Rebels. In addition, he sent nearly forty thousand infantrymen under his second-in-command, Brigadier-General Edwin V. "Bull" Sumner, to pursue Johnston's army. McClellan stayed behind to oversee the boarding and embarkation of Brigadier-General William B. Franklin's division on transit ships in an effort to steam up the York River to outflank Johnston, cutting off his retreat.

Both sides were hampered by rainfall and muddy roads, but on May 4, Stoneman caught up with Confederate cavalry troops, commanded by Brigadier-General J.E.B. Stuart. After a brief skirmish that halted the progress of the Federal horsemen, Stoneman decided to wait on infantry support. Sumner arrived on the scene that afternoon and ordered two divisions, commanded by Brigadier-General Joseph Hooker and Brigadier-General William F. "Baldy" Smith, to assault Longstreet's defenders on the Williamsburg Line on the next morning.

Hooker's division led the Union advance on the morning of May 5, but the Rebel defenders quickly repulsed their efforts. Longstreet then ordered a counterattack that threatened to overrun Hooker, who had been expecting support on his right from Smith's division. Unbeknownst to Hooker, however, Sumner had ordered Smith to halt his advance against the Confederate line, thus leaving Hooker to fight it out on his own. Hooker's position became highly tenuous until Brigadier-General Philip Kearny arrived with his brigade and rallied the faltering Yankees. Kearny personally led a counterattack stabilized the Union lines and stymied the Confederate advance.

Meanwhile, on the extreme Union right flank, Smith received information from an escaped slave that two of the Confederate redoubts were unmanned. Sumner reluctantly assented to Smith's request to dispatch Brigadier-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade to take the redoubts. By 3 p.m., Hancock occupied the abandoned works with 3,400 infantrymen and eight artillery pieces and began enfilading Longstreet's left flank. Not realizing the importance of Hancock's advance, Sumner responded to Hancock's request for reinforcements to secure his position by ordering him to fall back. Just as Hancock grudgingly began to comply with Sumner's orders, the Rebels counterattacked, giving Hancock justification to hold his ground. Mistakenly believing that he had outflanked Hancock, Jubal Early led a reserve regiment into the center of Hancock's brigade. The Union artillerists and infantrymen mowed down the Rebels as they streamed out of the woods into an open field. When D.H. Hill led another regiment to Early's aid, the result was the same. By the time Hill ordered a retreat, over five hundred members of the two regiments were dead or wounded.

After darkness brought an end to the fighting, McClellan arrived on the field and proclaimed a tactical victory. In reality, the results of the battle were inconclusive. Casualty results, although high, were fairly even. The Union lost approximately 2,300 soldiers (456 killed, 1410 wounded and 373 missing), compared to 1,700 casualties (1570 killed and wounded, with 133 missing) for the Confederacy. Strategically, however, Johnston had achieved his objective. During the night Longstreet's forces withdrew, but his holding action bought precious time that enabled Johnston to reposition the Army of Northern Virginia in stronger defensive lines closer to Richmond.

No Ohio units participated in the Battle of Williamsburg.

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