Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 6

The Battle of Williamsburg Begins
As the Union cavalry retired the infantry columns of BG H ooker and BG Smith closed on Fort Magruder from two directions. Smith’s column approached on the Yorktown Road and arrived to support the Union troopers at 1730. Operations in the area were placed under the command of BG Edwin Sumner, who was immediately determined to attack the Confederate line. By the time he had his three brigades aligned for the assault it was 1830 and darkness was beginning to fall. Nevertheless, the assault was ordered. The advance became scrambled by the dense woods and growing darkness and was finally halted after the 49th New York fired into another friendly regiment in the confusion. Sumner was forced to delay the attack. The wait allowed him to reconsider his hastily planned attack. Instead of a direct assault he sent Hancock’s brigade on a wide sweep around the Confederate left in an effort to gain possession of the unoccupied fortifications there.

On the Union left H ooker’s men on the Lee’s Mill Road fell on their arms at 2300 on the 4th after an exhausting march in the steady rain. By the next morning H ooker had decided on an independent action, authorized by his orders. Without consulting Sumner he moved his troops into position for an early morning attack on Fort Magruder on the 5th. The Fort was being manned at this time by Anderson’s Brigade of Longstreet’s division (they had replaced McLaws’ men during the night). Pryor’s brigade was placed in the redoubts on his left. H ooker planned on battering the Confederate artillery into submission and then establish a link up with Smith. To accomplish this he first had to clear the way for his artillery to be placed. The 1st Massachusetts and elements of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry (Co B and Co E) were sent out as skirmishers and to clear the way for the establishment of his artillery. The advancing skirmishers ran into a company of the 4th Virginia Cavalry who were conducting a reconnaissance of the rapidly growing Union force in the area. The troopers made a dash through the thin line of Union soldiers and returned safely with their report. The momentarily startled Union infantry moved on and engaged pickets from the 4th South Carolina Battalion. The Confederate line was pushed back until it was reinforced by two companies of the Palmetto Sharpshooters. The line was stabilized briefly before being called back into the fort in preparation for the main attack.

The guns of Battery H 1st US Artillery wre brought up but the available positions proved entirely unsuitable. The guns were immediately taken under fire by the Confederate batteries. The regular army gunners broke under the fierce bombardment and fled to cover much to the embarassment of their commanding officer, CPT Weber, and the chief of H ooker’s artillery, Major Charles Wainwright. The gunners were forced back to their pieces at the point of the sword but could not be held there. Wainwright, in a face saving manuever, went and asked the 1st New York Artillery to supply gunners so he would not have to ask Hooker for infantry volunteers. The New Yorkers rushed to his aid and were soon putting fire on the fort. They were joined shortly thereafter by six guns of the 6th New York. Steady fire from these guns eventually quieted the fire coming from the enemy works and the reinforced skirmishers cleared the desired line of communication with Smith. The Union commanders felt as if they had accomplished their goals and had every reason to expect further success. The Confederate commanders had a different idea.

Confederate Counter-attack – “A very handsome affair.”
The failure of the Federals to follow up the morning operations, for want of additional troops, with a wider attack convinced the Confederate leadership that an opportunity existed. BG Richard H. Anderson, serving as division commander, believed that H ooker’s timid stance after the early morning fight indidcated weakness. The right wing commander, MG James Longstreet, agreed, but he was working under a trying set of conflicting circumstances. The weather had slowed the retreat of the main body and he was required to prolong the fight, but felt that they “could not afford to rest longer under the enemy’s long range guns and superior artillery.” Consequently, he opted to abandon the traditional defensive delaying tactic and adopt a more aggressive posture. BG Anderson was ordered to “seize the first opportunity to attack.” To support the proposed assault he started bringing up the other brigades of his division. BG Cadmus Wilcox was given the duty to spearhead the attack with the support of as much of BG Pryor’s Brigade as could be spared. Additional forces would be rushed to the front to support success and fortify the line against the growing Federal strength.

BG Wilcox wasted no time finding an opportunity to attack. He moved his brigade (19th Mississippi, 9th Alabama, and 10th Alabama) through a ravine in an attempt to avoid detection as they gained their final assault positons. The movements were detected by the Federals and the first of many troops to be called into the area were rushed into line. Two regiments of New Jersey infantry (6th and 7th) were put into position as they arrived to challenge the attack. The 72nd New York fell in on their left. As final preparations were made Wilcox was reinforced by the 14th Louisiana and three compnies of the 8th Alabama from Pryor’s Brigade. The 19th Mississippi led the way out as skirmishers but traveled only a short distance before encountering skirmishers from the 72nd New York (who were advancing for an attack on a Confederate battery). After a short fight the Federal skirmishers were driven back and prisoners taken. From these men Wilcox learned the strength and disposition of the Union forces. At 1130 Wilcox ordered the general advance to begin.

The lines erupted into a furious exchange of musketry. Suddenly COL Woodward, commander of the 10th Alabama, was approached by a man who insisted that he was from the 2nd Louisiana and that Woodward’s men were firing into friendly forces. A cease fire was ordered down the Confederate line. The resulting lull in the fire gave the Federals a chance to reorganize and mount an attack of their own. With the arrival of more troops (8th New Jersey) the Federal line now flanked the Confederates and began to drive them back. At that critical moment BG A.P. Hill’s brigade of Virginians arrived. It was now the Union troops that were flanked. The 7th Virginia, in the lead, pushed back the Union advance and took up a line just 45 yards from the Federals as the other regiments deployed around them.

Realizing that he now held the advantage, Hill seized the initiative and attacked with the support of Wilcox, who had rallied his men and rejoined the line. The Federals were driven slowly back in the heavy trees and underbrush. The lengthy fight drained the ammunition supplies of both sides. Longstreet had no access to his supply trains so the only way to get more rounds to the fight was to send in fresh troops. BG George Pickett’s brigade was called up to support Hill and Wilcox.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


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