Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Army Before Yorktown


(Correspondence of the N. Y. Evening Post.)

April 22, 1862.

A visit to the extreme left of our lines on the shores of the James river yesterday put me in possession of some facts concerning the fortifications of the enemy. Commencing upon the shore of the York river, opposite Gloucester Point, the rebel earthworks extend down the river for a distance of nearly half a mile; then, turning at right angles, extend another half mile and connect with a new line of works in the rear. – Another line, nearly straight, extends in a southwesternly direction across the peninsula to James river. After leaving the principal work at Yorktown, which is mounted with nearly one hundred heavy guns, the rebel line is principally composed of simple breastworks, which have been thrown up to a height of four of five feet, and armed with pieces of small caliber.

For the first half mile, there are several heavy pieces, and for the next half mile not at all, the works being protected by rifle pits and bodies of infantry, with low, swampy land outside, which will prevent approach. Afterwards the works, guns, and rifle pits occur at intervals. – When within three miles of James River, the works are dug along the bank of a creek, across which the rebels have constructed dams, raising ponds of various depths and widths, with earthworks at the dams and rifle pits between. At the mouth of the creek the works are somewhat stronger, and extend up the river a short distance.


Of course our force occupies the entire line, and meets the enemy face to face in frequent skirmishes. The rebels are in force at all points near their guns, or at least have the power to concentrate a considerable number of troops at any time on short notice. They also have a supply of moveable artillery, which they transfer rapidly from one point to another, as occasion requires. Their principal force of men and guns occupies a point just outside of their heaviest works, and, from the increase in the number of tents and the camp fires, it is judged that heavy reinforcements must have been received during the past week. I do not, however, share in the belief that there is anything like a hundred thousand men in the vicinity. I doubt even whether they have half that number.

In artillery the enemy must be deficient, for their guns are scarcely half as many as ours. At the batteries we have thus far engaged, or where a skirmish has occurred, this supposed deficiency in artillery and the superiority of our numbers, as well as the courage of our men, give us a decided advantage. Our sharpshooters follow the retreating foe up to the very edge of the works and maintain the position, picking off their gunners at every attempt to load or fire their pieces. In this way the slaughter of the rebels has been terrible, for there is no disputing the fact when men are plainly seen to tumble over at their posts. The aim of our riflemen has been unerring. The rebels are probably deficient in sharpshooters, as our gunners continue their work unmolested; not one of them having been killed by a rifle ball as yet, although their daring conduct has exposed them to the severest fire.


Flags of truce from the enemy have been received within our lines, and during the intercourse of our men with the rebels various matters were talked of. One of the rebels, and Irishman, inquired if there were any Irishmen in our ranks, and said he wanted to get over to us, but could get no chance to do so. Several expressed their hatred of the war, and said they wished it was over. While such remarks were made in a cautions manner, others expressed a malignant hatred of the Union cause and of the Union troops. The greater part – three hundred at least – seen near their works were negroes. The rebels had some fifty dead bodies to take care of, many of whom were also negroes.

The flag of truce over, our guns and sharpshooters again opened, and not a rebel head was afterwards visible. At this time a novel kind of weapon was brought into service. It consists of a large sized rifle with a hopper and machinery at the breach, which loads and fires by turning a crank, one hundred and seventy times in a few seconds. In fact, it is one continuous discharge. The balls flew thick and fast, and the Yankee invention must have astonished the other side. There are some half dozen of these guns in the division on trial, and, if we may believe our eyes while watching the effect they are entitled to consideration.


During the night, and under cover of a heavy rain which had set in, the rebels began a slight skirmish, which resulted in nothing but a waste of ammunition on their side. The first indication was a signal resembling the hoot of an owl from a whistle in the hands of their pickets, followed by a rocket and a simultaneous discharge as if from a force of several regiments, and continuing some minutes.

In returning from the visit to our left we took the road which leads from Yorktown to Warwick and follows in a close proximity to the rebel works, in many instances quite near, and in full view across the open field. But for the greater part of the way the road crosses through a dense forest. In fact, two-thirds of the country in the center of the Peninsula is a forest, broken here and there by a small plantation, now deserted. At intervals along the road our batteries were in active play upon the rebels, receiving, however but a feeble response, as if they were waiting for our nearer approach or were shot of ammunition. They evidently hold us in supreme contempt, although they may have a different impression by and by.


It is a matter of considerable speculation why they should suffer works to have been thrown up right under their eyes, and why they maintain such a prolonged silence. At a few points they replied sharply for a few minutes, and then abandoned it. At no point have we allowed them to construct a new fortification, and have even grown saucy and overbearing in our treatment of the rascals. We have crowded them up until they cannot work their guns, and taunted them in every possible manner.

While we can give no indications of what our preparations are, it is sufficient to say that those of us here on the grounds, and in close daily observation of the works, are surprised both at the developments of Gen. McClellan’s and Gen. F. J. Porter’s ingenuity and skill in taking advantage of natural positions, and the rapidity with which the work advances. Have patience; the men in command and their means are equal to the occasion, and whether the rebels make a stubborn resistance and fight a bloody fight, or evacuate after a few rounds, the army of the Potomac is ready.


There is no change to report in the progress of the siege. Two contrabands passed the enemy’s guard in a boat during the darkness and rain of last evening and came to our lines. – One of them is a boy of sixteen, and unusually keen. The other is about thirty five years old, and shrewd. These negroes state that General Magruder is at Lee’s Mill, about four miles in front of the James river, and twelve miles from Williamsburgh. The rebels have a good road along the line of their fortifications from Yorktown to Lee’s Mill. There are no fortifications in the rear of the first rebel line, but guns are moved from point to point is circumstances require.

The contrabands also stat the Gen. Joseph Johnston commands at Yorktown; that Jeff Davis is at Richmond, and in the language of the contrabands, “a heap o’ sacred,” as are all the rebels at Yorktown; and that many negroes are at work on earthworks and working the guns in the forts.

The contrabands were quite positive that the rebels had about sixty thousand men, but little confidence can be placed in their ideas of numbers. Thet came through a portion of our camp where they could see the tents, artillery, &c., of ten thousand men, and in reply to the question if they had as many men as we had, replied: “Oh, jist ‘bout half of what we see hereabouts.” So you will see that there is no idea of numbers.

Yorktown is something over a mile back from the fortifications, and separated by “the Pines,” a piece of pine woods. A large number of houses have been torn down to keep us from getting into them. All the information I can gather leads to the conclusion that the rebels will fight hard while they can do so with artillery, but they have no [confidence] in themselves.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, May 3, 1862, p. 1

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