The Battle of Yorktown
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown. Part of the Peninsula Campaign, the Siege of Yorktown lasted from April 5th to May 4th, 1862 and took place near the famed Revolutionary War siege site.
Marching from Fort Monroe towards Richmond, Union Major General George B. McClellan and his army met up with Confederate Major General John B. Magruder’s small band of Confederates at Yorktown, near the Warwick River. Magruder's ostentatious and noisy movement of troops back and forth fooled McClellan into thinking the Rebel force was much larger than it actually was. This faulty intelligence, in conjunction with difficult terrain, persuaded the Federals that the Confederates held strong position. An artillery duel ensued.
On April 6th, Union Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock led the 6th Maine Infantry and 5th Wisconsin Infantry in a reconnaissance mission around Dam No. 1—a point on the Warwick River near Lee’s Mill. As Magruder had widened the Warwick Line to create a water obstacle, Hancock’s troops convinced Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes of the IV Corps, and later McClellan, that any assault against the Rebel works would fail. In response, McClellan chose not to attack—much to President Abraham Lincoln’s chagrin. Instead, McClellan ordered the construction of siege fortifications and moved over 70 heavy guns to the front. As the army dug in, Union Army Balloon Corps aeronaut Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe led an aerial observation via two balloons, the Constitution and the Intrepid, to provide some much needed intelligence. During this two week interim, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston reinforced Magruder’s troops, enlarging the Southern strength to 35,000—barely enough to defend the Rebel line.
On April 16th, the Federal force successfully probed a weakness in the Confederate line at Dam No. 1, causing 60-75 enemy casualties and over 150 of their own. However, the Union troops failed to take advantage of the victory, allowing Magruder to strengthen his position and forcing the siege to endure. McClellan tried to convince the Union Navy to aid in the attack but to do so the Federal vessels would have to circumvent the Confederates' big guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, ascend the York River to West Point, and outflank the Warwick Line. McClellan planned to launch a massive bombardment on the morning of May 5th but the Confederates quietly retreated during the night of the 3rd. On the 4th, McClellan was stunned to receive reports from the observation balloons that the Rebel earthworks were empty. The siege ended with a discreet Union victory and set the stage for the subsequent Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862).
Image Credit: Harper's Weekly, April 26, 1862.