Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 4

Battle at Lee’s Mill (Dam No. 1)
The tedious pace of the siege preparations was broken on April 16th when McClellan ordered BG William F. Smith to seize a foothold at Dam No. 1 to prevent further strengthening of the Confederate works there. Confederate BG Howell Cobb was improving his position there with three regiments and McClellan feared that this development might somehow interfer with the progression of work on the siege batteries. This was precisely the spot that Hancock had pinpointed as a soft spot ten days earlier. The Vermont Brigade was selected to “hamper the enemy” but without bringing on a general engagement. It was a tall task with plenty to suggest failure. The early weakness of the Confederate position here was beingcorrected by Magruder and the defenders were well prepared to receive the attack.

The gathered Division artillery opened fire at 0800 and continued until the opposing Confederate guns appeared to be silenced. LT E. M. Noyes braved the fire and went across the river to conduct a reconnaissance. His report indicated that the Confederates were removing stores and falling back. The apparent withdrawal encouraged the brigade commander BG William Brooks to throw three companies of the 3rd Vermont Infantry across the river just below the dam. The advance was supported by the other regiments of the brigade. The troops waded across the waist deep water and found only a thinly manned picket line. The pickets were driven back and the Vermonters occupied the vacant trenches to gain a foothold on the western bank of the river. The Confederate commander, BG Cobb, called the attack of Brooks’ men “a bold advance” and made immediate calls for reinforcement suspecting that they would be followed by a much larger force. Unfortunately for the soggy attackers the trip across the river left many of their cartridges unuseable and they were not reinforced despite their early success. BG Smith had reacted to the growing strength of the enemy by suspending any further advance across river. The men on the western shore were on their own.

Cobb formed the 2nd Louisiana, the 15th North Carolina, 16th Georgia, 11th Georgia, and Cobb’s Legion into a new line and prepared to challenge the Union foray. The members of the 3rd Vermont held on for about an hour until they became critically short of ammunition. At that very moment the 15th North Carolina spearheaded an attack on the isolated Federals. Overwhelmed by numbers and without sufficient means to fight there was little for the Vermonters to do but retreat. The retreat turned into a disaster as they were caught in the water and decimated by the Confederate fire. CPT Fernando Harrington of Company D, 3rd Vermont, reported that of the 192 men that began the operation across the river, 82 were either killed, wounded or missing.

The survivors of the ordeal did not forget their wounded comrades that were left on the other side of the river or in the water. A youth of under 16, Julian Scott, made repeated trips into the river under severe fire to rescue wounded soldiers. Seventeen year old John Harrington went back to the abandoned rifle pits on the far side to retrieve another wounded man. Valor was the order of the day and three Medals of Honor were awarded for the ill-concieved operation. The death of one soldier should be noted here. PVT William Scott, Co. K. had been convicted to death by firing squad for falling asleep on guard duty. His sentence was overturned by President Lincoln and a grateful Scott vowed that he would show the President that he was not afraid to die for his country. The wound he received here killed him and fulfilled that promise.

Retreat and Pursuit
The Confederate retreat from the Yorktown/Warwick River line was perfectly timed and very well executed. More than 50,000 soldiers were removed from under the Union guns in one night. The withdrawal started at Lee’s Mill at dusk and progressed toward Yorktown throughout the night. Magruder followed by Longstreet on the Warwick Road then D. H. Hill followed by the reserve division commanded by MG Gustavus Smith using the Yorktown Road. The Cavalry Brigade, under BG J. E. B. Stuart, would cover the movement from the trenches until dawn and then burn bridges during their move back. The heavy artillery would send out covering fire until midnight and then spike their guns and join the main movement. The destination for the retreating forces was Williamsburg.

The night march gave the Confederates a taste of the conditions that hounded the Union advance. They struggled with the mud as the passing columns turned the roads into muddy slop. Wagons and artillery pieces had to be manhandled through the worst spots. The thirteen mile march took all night. As the first to leave Magruder entered Williamsburg just before dawn and were sent west to clear the way for the rest of the Confederate columns. D.H. Hill was next to arrive at sunrise. The last units did not arrive until around noon and the exhausted condition of the men forced Johnston to alter his plan. Originally he intended to move back as far as Richmond but the men and animals needed rest.

The departure of the Confederate army allowed McClellan to claim possession of Yorktown but probably frustated him by denying him a great victory he had expected. He reported the capture of the city and promised to push the retreating “enemy to the wall.” By 0700 CPT William Chambliss and his squadron of the 5th US Cavalry was over the Warwick River and scouting for the enemy columns. He encountered the enemy rear guard (Stuart’s cavalry) and manuevered against them until they reached the intersection of Williamsburg Road. Here his advance was stopped while infantry support was called up.

Using the information he received from Chambliss, McClellan developed a plan to trap the enemy rear guard. BG Stoneman would form the advance with all the available cavalry followed by a division of infantry from III Corps (Hooker) and IV Corps (Smith). The cavalry would attempt to cut off the enemy while the infantry would move in to overpower them. Again the weather interevened to alter the plan. The infantry got off to a late start and struggled to make progress in the mud and crowded roads. The troopers of Stoneman’s cavalry were left on their own.

About eight miles out from Yorktown they ran into the first major delaying action by Stuart’s men. LTC Wickham’s with two companies of the 4th Virginia Cavalry had constructed a roadblock on a mill dam across King’s Creek. A few rounds from a section of artillery, directed by LT Fuller, at 300 yards range pushed the Confederates away from the obstacle before a charge could be made upon them. Stoneman then seperated his command sending BG William Emory off on a side road to get behind the main Confederate force. This decision offered the Federal troopers their first big chance at success.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *