“I’ve Been Ordered Up to Fight!”: Phil Kearny to the Rescue at Williamsburg

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts by Greg Quinion.  In addition to being an avid history reader and world traveler, Greg works as a freelance travel and history writer and Information Analyst in Washington DC.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.  Many of his free hours are spent wandering Revolutionary, Civil War, and WW2 battlefields.  I hope you enjoy reading Greg’s articles as much as I did.

Kearny to the Rescue at Williamsburg

It seemed Joe Hooker had bitten off more than he could chew on that rainy spring morning near Williamsburg Virginia.  As his Division of the Federal 3rd Corps struggled towards Williamsburg, they ran smack into rifle pits, earthen fortifications, and nearly 32,000 rebels under the command of a firm and defensive minded Maj. General James Longstreet.  May 5th, 1862 was a bleak day for General Joseph E. Johnston’s retreating Confederates, who were eager to put miles of road between themselves and Maj. General George B. McClellan’s pursuing Army of the Potomac. The road from the abandoned rebel fortifications at Yorktown to the Confederate Capital at Richmond had turned into a morass of mud in the spring rains, and Johnston needed time.  He dispatched a sizable force to stay behind near Williamsburg and buy it for him.

Morning pursuit had turned into a pitched battle, and by afternoon Longstreet’s rebels threatened to send Hooker’s aggressive Division ignominiously back down the road they had come.  Desperate for support, Hooker turned to the senior officer on the field, Major General Edwin V. Sumner, who McClellan had chosen to lead the pursuit.  He was known as “Bull”, or “Bull Head” Sumner either because of his roaring voice or the musket ball that had allegedly bounced off his head at the Battle of Cerro Gordo.  Whatever the origin, he failed to live up to his nickname this day.  Though fresh IV Corps troops from Brig. General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Division were coming up the parallel Yorktown road to his right, the indecisive Sumner, afraid of imminent rebel attacks on this front, declined to lend Hooker significant aid.

With only one of his three 3rd Corps Divisions on the field, the extraneous Maj. General Samuel P. Heintzelman, Hooker’s superior, rode off to spur the others up the muddy road.  By 2:30 pm things were looking bleak.   Hooker’s men were still holding, but a steady trickle of fleeing soldiers from the Union left threatened to turn into a rout. Confederates advancing through the woods shouted “Bull Run!” to inspire their retreat.  Catapulted off his skittish horse, a mud spattered General Hooker tried desperately to rally his men as the rebels closed within a mere hundred yards of his line.  When the enemy captured a battery of artillery and attempted to haul off a number of guns, morale dropped precipitously.  Luckily, most of the guns held fast in the mud. Fearing a stampede, the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry deployed on the road to corral the skittish.

With no support in sight, and ammunition and morale running low, Maj. Gen. Heintzelman sat amidst rain and bullets gathering together a frantic mob of soaked musicians and shouting: “Play! It’s all you’re good for…Play some marching tune.  Play Yankee Doodle, or any doodle you can think of!”   Into this confused scene marched a column of men “drenched with rain…and cased with mud to the waist at least.” As Lt. Charles B. Haydon of the 2nd Michigan remembered: “They looked as little like human beings as any men I ever saw.”  At their head rode an officer on an impressive bay colt, with a sword in his right arm and his reins between his teeth. He had no left arm.  At this crucial hour, Brig. General Philip Kearny had arrived.

Kearny’s 3rd Corps Division had started his day far back along the Federal column, but once summoned to Hooker’s aid, he moved with astonishing speed up the muddy track.  For the most part only idle soldiers blocked the roads, but at one point he found a number of wagons stuck fast in the muck.  “Tip those wagons out of my way!” he bellowed.  “I’ve been ordered up to fight! I’ll permit no wagons to hamper me!”  Impatient with the efforts of the teamsters, he thundered out: “Move them, I say! Or I’ll put the torch to them!”  Men stood transfixed as the one armed general tore into the officers, threatening to arrest any who stood in his way.  “I will show you what fire feels like unless you set the torch to your goddamned cowardly wagons!”  Through sheer will, a way was made and the infantry passed onwards towards the sound of the guns.

New to Division command, Kearny was no stranger to leadership.  He had rode with the famed French Chasseurs d’ Afrique in North Africa, campaigned on the western frontier against Native American Tribesmen, lost an arm in a cavalry charge at Churubusco during the Mexican War, and charged with Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard at Magenta and Solferino during the Second Italian War of Independence.  Until recently he had led a brigade of New Jerseymen, and Heintzelmen, unsure of his ability to lead a whole Division of new men at such a crucial moment suggested that he let General Hooker place the men.  As if to dispel any doubts, Kearny impatiently replied: “General, I can make men follow me to hell.”  That was good enough for Heintzelman, who believed that if Kearny’s Division had appeared ten minutes later than they did, “we should have been defeated, for my troops were exhausted and out of ammunition.”

Kearny estimated that only around 1900 men of his Division had reached the field after the strenuous march, yet he wasted little time placing his men as they came up, personally scouting ahead to try and locate the front line, which had deteriorated into scattered bands of men and artillery batteries. Riding sufficiently forward of Federal lines to be fired upon by rebels concealed in the woods, he turned and spurred his horse back to Union lines, much to the chagrin of Confederates who shouted to each other to shoot down “that one-armed devil.”

The “One-armed Devil” had always tempted fate, always scoffed at the face of death.  Serving with the French at Solferino he had once rode at twilight into the enemy lines, escaping a hail of Austrian bullets when he realized his mistake.  He would repeat his mistake at the Battle of Glendale in June of 1862, riding so far into Confederate lines at dusk that a nervous rebel Captain implored him for advice.  “What shall I do next Sir?” He asked.  “Do, damn you, why do what you have always been told to do!” Kearny replied as he did his best to calmly return to Union lines.  At Chantilly on September 1, 1862 his luck ran out.  Amidst a fantastic thunder-storm he rode too far beyond his lines, looking for more troops to throw into the battle.  Stopping in a clearing, he challenged a line of men standing in the fog.  “What troops are these?” He called.  “49th Georgia” was the response.  Riding hard for Federal lines, he would be knocked dead from his horse by a single bullet.

Yet that day at Williamsburg the General lived a charmed life.  When the rebels fired on him from the woods, they revealed their positions, and Kearny moved to throw his Division right at them.  He rallied what men he could, fitting them into a line with his own brigades as they came up the road with a cheer.  Seeing some men near the road with no officers in sight, he inquired as to what unit they belonged.  Finding them to be men of New Jersey, he hollered:  “Well!  I am a one-armed Jersey son-of-a-gun, follow me!  Three cheers!”   Without hesitation they followed him across the road and into the woods to re-engage the rebels.  As he placed General Hiram Berry’s breathless brigade into line, he calmly admonished skittish men who ducked and dodged at the whine of every bullet.  “Don’t flinch boys!” he remarked.  “You never can dodge them!  You will never hear the one that hits you!”  The mood on the field had changed in a heartbeat.  As worn out troops watched the fresh men file into line and the band tore into another martial tune, Lt. Haydon recalled how III Corps Commander Heintzelman had gone from sullen despair to bombastic emotion.  “He was more enthusiastic than I ever supposed he could be.”  As reinforcements arrived, “He swung his hat, hurrahed for Michigan most lustily & swore as hard as ever saying, ‘Give them hell God damn them, give the steel, don’t wait to shoot!”

Every regiment seemed to remember Kearny’s guidance that rainy day at Williamsburg.   It was a confused fight in the wet woods and underbrush, and the men needed guidance and direction as they moved to counter Longstreet’s assault and stabilize Hooker’s line.  Knowing that his men were new to battle and prone to all the drawbacks common to green soldiers, Kearny led from the front, and displayed a fearlessness and contempt for danger that gave courage to all who saw him. Multiple sources tell how he repeatedly rode ahead of Federal lines amidst a “fusillade of shot, and shell…” shaking the stump of his arm at the rebels and inspiring his untested men.  “Don’t worry men, they’ll all be firing at me!”  he laughed as he rode the length of his lines.  One of his soldiers was not so sure, yelling back “Sure General, you know it and we know it, but do the Rebs know it?”  Laughter tore down the firing line.  “That’s it, boys!  That’s it!  Go in gaily!” the General hollered.  An officer of one of Hooker’s New York regiments remembered how he “had heard what a fierce fighter he was…but in all my days I never witnessed anything to equal what I saw him do…”

Placing each regiment personally, Kearny rode up to the 2nd Michigan, pointed to the rebels in the woods and calmly remarked: “Men I want you to drive those blackguards to hell at once…Will you do it?”  The regiment went into battle with a hearty cheer as the General himself led them in driving the rebels back through the wood whence they came.  Two of his following staff aides toppled dead from their saddles, yet he remained unscathed, though a little wet after inadvertently tossing away his India rubber cape.  After leading the 40th New York down the road in the capture of a rebel position, the General yelled: “Good boys!  That was elegant!”  General Heintzelman thought otherwise, and still trying to size up his new Division commander, raged: “Doesn’t Kearny realize he’s a general?  A general, not a reckless shavetail to lead a bayonet charge!”

Severely checked by the Yankees’ renewed boldness, Longstreet’s rear guard returned to their lines, and Hooker and Kearny’s Divisions were able to maintain their tenuous hold on the damp and smoking battlefield.  Over on the far right of the Federal lines, a IV Corps Brigade under Brig. General Winfield Scott Hancock succeeded in flanking Longstreet and stirring up a hornets’ nest of Confederates.  Sumner demanded he pull back, yet Hancock found himself facing a brave but ill advised attack by two Confederate regiments personally led by Brig. Gen. Jubal Early.  Early took a bullet through his shoulder for his boldness and his men were swept from the field by canister fire and a dramatic bayonet charge, yet in the end, Hancock was unsupported and General Sumner, the ranking officer on the field chose not to develop the battle further.  As it was he was not at all happy that his pursuit of the rebels had turned into a sharp fight and resulted in over 2000 Federal casualties.  The fighting sputtered out.

McClellan later wrote how upon his arrival towards the end of the fighting “I saw at once that I could save the day.”  But aside from cheering the troops and standing firm with Sumner’s decision to do nothing, his presence had no effect on the management or outcome of the battle.  The only thing that saved the Union from defeat and embarrassment that May afternoon was Phil Kearny’s Division.  Yet it was the newspapers who made heroes, hailing Williamsburg as the great Union victory to counter the defeat at Bull Run the summer before.  In typical flowery praise it was “Hancock the Superb” and McClellan the “Young Napoleon” who won the attention of the Northern Press.  Hooker would come away from the fight with the martial moniker “Fighting Joe”, yet he and Kearny, immodest as generals are wont to be, felt slighted by the press and by McClellan.  Even worse they felt their men were cheated of their victory’s laurels.

Popular sentiment aside, the Army of the Potomac was lucky to emerge from the battle with a draw.  Had it not been for Philip Kearny’s forced march and battlefield leadership, the army could have been handed an embarrassing defeat.  As things stood, Longstreet’s men had bought Johnston’s retreating army a day or more of time, and nearly whipped the Yankees in the process.  The Peninsula Campaign and the war, would wind on into bloodier and more important actions, and time would quickly heal all wounds, redress the snubs of the day, and gave proper tribute those who deserved it.  Remembering it all later with a cooler head, Phil Kearny ruminated upon his role at Williamsburg and boiled it down to a simple truth that the press or his commanding general could not overlook.  It was those inexperienced, green, and brave men of his Division who had struggled through the rain, muck, and blood to save the day at Williamsburg.  In the light of such heroes, his role as a professional soldier was simple.  Setting aside his ego, he modestly reflected:  “It was incumbent upon me to inspire those men.”

Greg Quinion
July 11, 2012


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