Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 5

Stuart Escapes a Trap
The Confederate cavalry protecting the rear of Johnston’s retreat consisted of the 4th Virginia, 3rd Virginia, and the Jeff Davis Legion. They had the massive responsibility to guard the three major approaches to Williamsburg. The separated command of BG Emory (3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry and a horse battery), managed to avoid the main enemy forces and appeared behind an unknowing Stuart on the Lee’s Mill Road. Luckily, Stuart had dispatched a messenger to inform Johnston of the Federal movements. The courier narrowly escaped capture by Emory’s men and galloped back to warn Stuart of the danger.

Stuart realized that he was caught between two Union forces. In his immediate front was Chambliss with a squadron of the 5th US Cavalry with infantry support moving up. Behind him was Emory’s force. He decided to confront Emory. He sent COL Goode (3rd Virginia Cavalry) with 100 men to occupy Emory while he slowly gave way to Chambliss’ troopers in the front, burning the important bridges behind him.

In the rear Emory was reinforced by chance when he happened upon a squadron of McClellan Dragoons (Illinois), under Major Barker. Barker had taken several prisoners and learned the strength and general disposition of the Confederate forces. Based on this knowledge BG Emory decided to challenge the apparently trapped Southern troopers. Emory formed his units to advance on the enemy, with Barker’s command in the lead. They had not traveled very far when Goode’s Confederate troopers attacked. Barker’s command “was thrown in disorder” by the weight of the spirited attack and fled back raising the alarm.The 3rd Pennsylvania troopers dismounted and deployed to the side of the road clearing the fields of fire for a section of Benson’s artillery. They met enemy assault with a blast of cannister “within 30 yards.” The fire from these guns killed four of the attacking Confederates. It was enough to force the Confederates to back away.

Dismounted skirmishers from the 3rd Pennsylvania advanced down the sides of the road looking for the departed enemy. Stuart, on seeing the dismounted men, thought he was facing infantry and that his way to Williamsburg along the Lee’s Mill Road was blocked. In his report of the affair he explains his decision making process based on this estimation of the enemy in his front;

“Finding that the enemy had pushed forward their infantry to the road to my immediate front and had a piece of artillery bearing upon my right flank from a concealed position in the woods…”

Rather than be caught up in what he thought would be an uneven battle over passage on the road he instanly developed a different plan. He brought up his two guns and fired three rounds to stop the advancing pickets. He then took his command and “turned across the field with my column so as to return by the James River beach, the only route open.” In a scenario that would prove all to familiar to the Union cavalry Stuart’s quick thinking and cross country march in a moment of crisis saved his command.

Cavalry Open the Battle of Williamsburg
The Union cavalry regrouped after the fruitless effort to crush Stuart and continued on towards Williamsburg. The close pursuit of the Union troopers left Johnston no choice but to turn and face them. He ordered BG Lafayette McLaws to man the works about two miles east of Williamsburg with his division. BG Paul Semmes’ brigade led the way out and occupied works to the right of Fort Magruder. They were followed out by BG Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade.

The works near Williamsburg were designed as a secondary position if the Warwick River line was given up. The namesake anchor of the line, Fort Magruder, overwatched the junction of the Yorktown and Lee’s Mill Road and was supplemented by thirteen minor fortifications. These had been upgraded by the creation of expanded fields of fire and an abatis. The first Confederate troops on the scene opted to man the secondary fortifications to the right of Fort Magruder. The main fort remained vacant.

When the Union cavalry arrived, well in advance of their supporting infantry columns (Hooker and Smith), a reconnaissance revealed the empty fort and suggested only a rear guard action in the other works. Supposing weakness there BG Philip St George Cooke ordered the 6th US Cavalry, under Major Lawrence Williams to make a flanking march against the Confederate left. The movement of Williams cavalry caught the attention of McLaws. He began shifting some of his strength to the left to meet the challenge. The 5th Louisiana and two guns occupied the fort while one regiment and five companies manned positions to the left.

Reacting to the Confederate moves Cooke shifted the emphasis of his main body to the thus weakened enemy line in his direct front. Advancing from the woodline to establish his artillery subjected these Union forces to a severe crossfire from the fort and the Confederates manning the line in his front. Still the Union guns from the 3rd US artillery managed to send out about 250 rounds. It was not enough, after 45 minutes of pounding while they awaited the effects of Williams attack on the left Cooke was ordered to move his men back out of harms way. The bulk of his command moved back leaving compnies I and K of the 1st US Cavalry to cover the retreat of the guns. Ten horses were hitched in an effort to recover a mired piece but to no avail. The men turned their attention to aiding the wounded from the field. This effort was challenged by an attack by Confederate cavalry. It was repulsed when CPT Grier and about 60 Federal troppers wheeled about and counter attacked. The mired gun was abandoned along with four caissons. CPT Gibson of the artillery reported the loss of 17 horses in the fight. BG Cooke reported that 35 of his troopers and gunners were killed or wounded in the torrent of fire on his exposed position.

On the left Williams made it all the way to the fort before he realized the growing strength of the Confederates in the area. He opted to withdraw when his lead elements were discovered by the enemy. A galloping retreat was ordered when Confederate cavalry (Wise Legion) appeared and attempted to cut off their retreat. As they neared a deep ravine they had to narrow the column to two files. The last two companies (A & M) were caught as they struggled through the deep mud. The enemy troopers poured fire on them from the crest. Finally the survivors reached the far side and the commander (CPT William Sanders) had them wheel about and caught the enemy in the same position as they tried to continue the pursuit. The action was broken off after both sides suffered badly at the ravine. McLaws arrived on the scene and Fort Magruder was secured. The Battle for Williamsburg would be turned over to the infantry.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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