This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 6: Battle of Williamsburg and aftermath.
The Battle of Williamsburg, Va., is the first major combat of Union Gen. George B. McClellan's Virginia "Peninsula Campaign" Waged May 4-5, 1862, the battle pitted nearly 41,000 Union soldiers against more than 30,000 Confederate forces. Union forces advancing after a Confederate retreat from Yorktown clashed with a Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg, but were nearly pushed back in attacking Confederates hunkered down behind strong earthworks. At one point, the Union force appeared close to being repelled before arriving reinforcements shore up their position. The fighting raged on before Confederate forces pulled back at the battle's end in a nighttime move. The battle comes as a cautious McClellan, despite tens of thousands of troops, tentatively begins pressing toward Richmond up the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. More than 3,800 casualties are estimated at Williamsburg, heavily to the Union side. By May 6, Union forces continue probing toward Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, and a day later there's a smaller fight of a Union division with two Confederate brigades. But several major battles will lay weeks ahead in McClellan's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take Richmond. The Associated Press reports in a May 11, 1862, dispatch that advancing Union cavalry have pushed on to White House, Va., and the Custis estate owned by a relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. AP reports Virginia's alarmed "citizens are flocking in from the surrounding country" to the protection of Richmond and Confederates have "burnt the railroad bridge and tore up the road for some distance" toward that city. At the time, AP reports, the closest Union forces are just 23 miles from the gates of Richmond.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 13: Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Va.
A Union warship fleet steaming up Virginia's James River opens fire early on May 15, 1862, against Confederate fortifications on a 90-foot-high bluff several miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. A union ironclad, the Galena, is the first to fire. Confederates entrenched behind strong earthworks and gun emplacements respond with searing artillery fire from Drewry's Bluff. Confederate snipers on the riverbank also rain down shot and shell on the Union squadron. After about four hours of blistering fire both ways, the Union force calls a halt to the offensive. Reports indicate federal forces tallied some 14 dead and a similar number of wounded, while the Confederates had 7 dead and several wounded. The Confederate fortification holds firm. In the ensuing months, secessionist leaders alarmed by the attack on Drewry's Bluff would go on to further strengthen the crucial defensive site, making it a veritable fort. Also this week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the North is rife with speculation about the movements of the massive Union force arming off southeast Virginia _ tens of thousands of troops in all. The Associated Press reported in a May 15, 1862, dispatch from Baltimore that passengers arriving in eastern Maryland by ship had seen several steamers loaded with newly freed Union prisoners from Richmond traveling to Washington, D.C., up the Chesapeake Bay. The AP also discuss the speculation. "This city is this morning filled with a variety of rumors, stating that the city of Richmond has been taken by the Union forces," The AP said without comment. In fact, Union forces _ after their early battles and skirmishes _ are still just ramping up a Virginia Peninsula Campaign that eventually approach Richmond, but never overrun that city.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 20: Battle of Front Royal, Va.
The grind of war continues this week 150 years ago in the Civil War as a contingent of some 3,000 Confederate fighters overrun a 1,000-man Union force at Front Royal in northern Virginia in a battle fought May 23, 1862. The Union fighters are pushed back by the surprise attack through the town of Front Royal, retreating under fire. They temporarily hold their ground on one hill and then another but are outnumbered and retreat. In the end, the Union forces are routed and hundreds of federal forces throw down their arms and surrender. All told, there are only about 50 casualties on the Confederate side while estimates indicate the Union suffered hundreds of dead or wounded. Confederate Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was waging his bold hit-and-run campaign through the Shenandoah Valley this springtime and the battle again demonstrated the prowess of his and allied forces who were striking close enough to Washington to alarm the Lincoln government nearby. Only days earlier in May 1862, Jackson's forces had attacked Union fighters in McDowell, Va., pushing them back across the Potomac River. That attack set off alarms among Lincoln and Cabinet leaders in the federal capital and prompted calls to keep more defensive forces arrayed around Washington. The victories by Jackson and his allies also spread alarm in the North and prompt renewed calls for more young men to fight for the Union. One proclamation this week 150 years ago called on Massachusetts men to join the fight. The call went out in local papers and declared: "The wiley and barbarous horde of traitors to the people, to the Government, to our country, and to our liberty, menace again the national capitol ... The President calls on Massachusetts to rise once more for its rescue and defense."
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 27: Battle of Seven Pines, Va., rise of Robert E. Lee.
The major Union offensive to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., triggers fierce fighting May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines just eight miles east of that city. Confederates defending Richmond under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston attack two Federal units south of Virginia's Chickahominy River. The assaults push Union troops back and mark the start of heavy casualties. Fighting rages as more troops on each side join the fray. Johnston is seriously wounded before the battle ends June 1, 1862. This fight ends inconclusively for both sides with more than 13,700 casualties. But significantly, it marks the rise of Gen. Robert E. Lee to the top of the Confederate command shortly after Johnston is wounded. All Richmond had anxiously watched and waited, amid worries whether the defenses would hold. The Associated Press reports May 27, 1862, that a lead article in the Richmond Enquirer recently issued a "clarion call" for Johnston's army to defend the city at any cost: "The time has come when retreat will no longer be strategy but disaster. It must therefore give place to battle" the Enquirer stated. The battle will mark a turning point as Confederate fighters dash the hopes of Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan of seizing Richmond. And it won't be Johnston but the pugnacious Robert E. Lee who will save Richmond and force McClellan to retreat in the fighting just ahead. Elsewhere 150 years ago in the war, Confederate forces defending the northeast Mississippi railroad junction at Corinth, Miss., withdraw rather than surrender to Union soldiers closing in on that city. The Confederates leave behind miles of earthworks defending the approaches to Corinth and a key rail crossing for train lines serving nearly the entire South.