Battle of Williamsburg
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862). Part of the Peninsula Campaign, the battle occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Yorktown (a month-long siege that ended on May 4th). The Battle of Williamsburg was also the first pitched battle of the Campaign as nearly 41,000 Federals engaged 32,000 Confederates in combat.
Following the Confederate retreat from Yorktown, Brigadier General Joseph Hooker’s division encountered the Rebel rearguard near Williamsburg. The Union force assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road, but the Southerners repulsed them. Confederate Major General James Longstreet launched a counterattack, threatening the Union's weak left flank. Fortunately, Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division arrived in time to stabilize the Federal position. The reinforced Union army pushed the Confederates off the Lee's Mill Road and into the woods where sharp firefights continued into the late afternoon. Meanwhile, Union Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock’s brigade moved in, occupying two abandoned redoubts and threatening the enemy’s left flank. The Federal troops successfully stopped a Confederate counterattack launched by the 24th Virginia and 4th North Carolina.
The day ended with an inconclusive victory and the Rebel army withdrawing towards Richmond. The Southerners saw the battle as a successful delaying tactic that allowed the bulk of their force to safely withdraw towards the capital. In the Northern press however, the battle was portrayed as a “brilliant victory.” Hancock’s counterattack received special attention as reporters cast the effort as a major, gallant bayonet charge. General George B. McClellan's subsequent description of Hancock's "superb" performance earned him the moniker, "Hancock the Superb."
Image Credit: Kurz & Allison, 1893. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.