Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 8

Early’s Attack Crushed
COL D. K. McRae, commanding the 5th North Carolina, almost instantly understood the difficulties that were incumbent in the order to attack. The forward movement became entangled “in a dense undergrowth” and had to traverse a “marshy ravine”. After losing contact with the elements on both sides he moved his men as best he could to finally emerge “on the verge of the field”. McRae was not exactly sure where he emerged from the forest was in relation to the point of the intended attack so he halted and dressed his lines. He decided that “not seeing any indication of the battery to be assaulted advanced into the open field.” The regiment had not progressed very far when a Union battery opened on them. Uncertain if this was the battery that was to be the focus of the attack McRae sent a message to Hill asking instructions about where to attack. The answer was to “charge the battery which just opened on us and do it quickly.”

The situation did not look promising for the North Carolinians but they were determined to do their duty. McRae evaluated the field and found that the 24th Virginia, led by BG Jubal Early, had preceded them out of the woods and pressed on without support. The Virginians were about 300 yards to his front left and he decided to advance in an oblique to join their flank for the assault. The move met immediate resistance from the Federal gunners. To calm the situation McRae ordered the men to lay down in order “to compose them.” Early encouraged their advance by waving them forward and the men were brought to their feet to continue on. The march was renewed against even stroger resistance. Despite the fact that “men and officers falling were falling on every side” they continued forward. At approximately 150 yards they delievered their first volley and were answered by a thunderous return fire. At 100 yards McRae could no longer resist the need to give his men a reprieve so he ordered them to take cover under the “slight shelter” of a fence line. The battery that was supposed to be unsupported was in fact covered by over 3000 Union infantry. Nevertheless, the advancing Confederates convinced Hancock to move back to secondary positions. After a struggle to move the mired artillery the Union line fell back to a position at the second redoubt. McRae noted the disruption in the Union line but also was aware that advancing against the new position ” with so small a force” was fraught with danger. With Early down with a wound he became the front line leader. He called for reinforcements.

D. H. Hill tried to reinforce the effort but the scattered units could not be organized in a reasonable amount of time. The two forward units, 5th NC and 24th VA, were left unsupported. The inevitable retreat order was greeted with both relief and terpidation. McRae saw the order as “a signal for slaughter.” While the 24th availed themselves of a quick exit back into the woods the 5th had an enlongated march to safety. Understanding the dire circumstances of the Confederate retreat Hancock ordered a counter-attack. The Federal move forward did little but collect prisoners and tend to the many wounded on the field. Hancock would report that he could not “pursue with prudence” without reinforcement. In a gross understatement COL McRae would report “the charge upon the battery was not attended by success.”

The Battle Of Williamsburg Ends
The decimation of Early’s attack and Hancock’s report that the enemy “were completely routed and and dispersed” signaled the end of the day’s fighting. As darkness fell the Battle of Williamsburg was over. The Confederates had accomplished their goal of delaying the Union advance and were satisfied to withdraw to the next defensive line. The Union commanders, with McClellan now at the front, were pleased to announce the Confederate retreat as a grand victory. Hancock’s repulse of Early’s attack was given great notice and the general declared “superb” for his efforts.

The real story of the Battle of Williamsburg was told in another failure of the Federal troops to gain back the initiative lost at Yorktown. The battle would pale in comparison to those that were in the near future but for two units; the 70th New York and 5th North Carolina, it represented some of the most bitter fighting of the war. The savagery of this short fight can be seen in the casualty figures for these two regiments. The 70th New York lost 330 men (k,w,and m) while the 5th North Carolina lost 68% of its strength (302 men) in the bitter delaying action. COL McRae reported after the fight that “my regiment is now so reduced as to be insufficient.” It was an awful introduction to the bloodletting that would accompany the next three years.

McClellan again claimed victory although it was clearly a well fought delaying action by the Confederate leadership. Only the trouble with Early’s assault belied a Confederate success. Longstreet passed this off by reporting “in the hurry of bringing the troops into actionsome of the officers failed to take due advantage of the ground and exposed them to a fire which was no absolutely necessary.” The Confederates moved back to the Richmond defenses that McClellan had hoped to beat them to. The Federal forces spent time burying the dead and caring for the wounded (including over 400 Confederates) that littered the field before they marched on.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)


Leave a Reply

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