Report of Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker, U. S. Army, commanding Second Division.
HEADQUARTERS HOOKER'S DIVISION,
Third Army Corps, Williamsburg, Va., May 10, 1862.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that under the instructions received through the headquarters Third Army Corps, dated May 4, to support Stoneman and aid him in cutting off the retreat of the enemy, my division marched from its camp before Yorktown about noon that day. We marched toward Williamsburg. After advancing 5 or 6 miles on this road I learned that Brigadier-General Stoneman had fallen upon the rear of the enemy's retreating column, and was then awaiting the arrival of an infantry force to attack him. This was 5 or 6 miles in advance of me, and immediately I left my command and galloped to the front in order to see what disposition it would be necessary to make of my force on its arrival. While here I was informed that Brigadier-General Smith's division had filed into the road in advance of my command, and that in consequence my division would be compelled to halt until after Smith's had passed. I immediately returned to the head of my column, where I found my division halted, and as Smith's was extended, it was between three and four hours in passing. As soon as this was ascertained, and feeling that Stoneman would require no additional support, I applied to Brigadier-General Heintzelman, the senior officer charged with the advance on the Yorktown road, for authority to throw my command on to the Hampton road, which intersected that on which Brigadier-General Stoneman had halted at the identical point his enemy occupied. The angle formed by the two roads is a little less than a right angle. Obtaining this permission the head of my division left the Brick Church about dark, and it pressed forward, in order, if practicable, to come up with the enemy before morning. This, however, I soon found would be impossible, for the roads were frightful, the night intensely dark and rainy, and many of my men exhausted from loss of sleep and from labor the night before in the trenches. The troops were halted in the middle of the road between 10 and 11 o'clock p.m., resolved to stop until daylight, when we started again, and came in sight of the enemy's works before Williamsburg about 5.30 o'clock in the morning.
Before emerging from the forest the column was halted, while I rode to the front to find what could be learned of the position of the enemy. The first work that presented itself was Fort Magruder, and this was standing at the junction of the Yorktown and Hampton roads, and on each side of it was a cordon of redoubts, extending as far as could be seen. Subsequently I found their number to be thirteen, and extending entirely across the Peninsula, the right and left of them resting on the waters of the York and James Rivers. Approaching them from the south they are concealed by heavy forest until the observer is within less than a mile of their locality. Where the forest trees had been standing nearer than this distance the trees had been felled, in order that the occupants of the redoubts might have timely notice of the approach of an enemy and early strike him with artillery. The trees had been felled in this manner on both sides of the road on which we had advanced for a breadth of almost half a mile, and the same was the case on the Yorktown road. Between the edge of the felled timber and the fort was a belt of clear arable land 600 or 700 yards in width. This was dotted all over with rifle pits. In connection with the redoubts themselves I may be permitted to state that I found them standing near the eastern and southern verge of a slightly-elevated plain, the slopes of which were furrowed with winding ravines, with an almost boundless, gently-undulating plain reaching across the Peninsula, and extending to the north and west as far as the eye could reach. The landscape is picturesque, and not a little heightened by the large trees and venerable spires of Williamsburg, 2 miles distant. Fort Magruder appears to be the largest of the redoubts, its crest measuring nearly half a mile, with substantial parapets, ditches, magazines, &c. This was located to command the Yorktown and Hampton roads, and the redoubts in its vicinity to command the ravines which the guns of Fort Magruder could not sweep.
Being in pursuit of a retreating army, I deemed it my duty to lose no time in making the disposition of my forces to attack, regardless of their number and position, except to accomplish the result with the least possible sacrifice of life. By so doing my division, if it did not capture the army before me, would at least hold them, in order that some others might. Besides, I knew of the presence of more than 30,000 troops not 2 miles distant from me, and that within 12 miles – four hours' march – was the bulk of the Army of the Potomac. My own position was tenable for double that length of time against three times my number.
At 7.30 o'clock Brigadier-General Grover was directed to commence the attack by sending the First Massachusetts Regiment as skirmishers into the felled timber to the left of the road on which they were standing, the Second New Hampshire to the right, both with directions to skirmish up to the edge of the felled timber, and there, under cover, to turn their attention to the occupants of the rifle pits and the enemy's sharpshooters and gunners in Fort Magruder. The Eleventh Massachusetts and the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiments were then directed to form on the right of the Second New Hampshire, and to advance as skirmishers until they had reached the Yorktown road, and when that was gained to have word sent me.
Under my chief of artillery, Web’s battery was thrown forward in advance of the felled timber and brought into action in a cleared field on the right of the road and distant from Fort Magruder about 700 yards. No sooner had it emerged from the forest on its way to its position than four guns from Fort, Magruder opened on it, and after it was still farther up the road they received the fire from two additional guns from a redoubt on the left. However, it was pushed on, and before it was brought into action two officers and two privates had been shot down, and before a single piece of the battery had been discharged its cannoneers had been driven from it despite the skill and activity of my sharpshooters in picking off the rebel gunners. Volunteers were now called for by my gallant chief of artillery, Major Wainwright, to man the battery now in position, when the officers and men of Osborn's battery sprang forward, and in the time I am writing had those pieces well at work. Captain Bramhall's battery was now brought into action under that excellent officer on the right of Webber's, and before 9 o'clock every gun in Fort Magruder was silenced and all the troops in sight on the plain dispersed.
Between my sharpshooters and the two batteries the enemy's guns in this fort were not heard from again until late in the afternoon. One of the regiments of Brigadier-General Patterson's brigade, the Fifth New Jersey, was charged with the especial care of these batteries, and was posted a little to the rear of them. The remaining regiments of Patterson's brigade, under their intrepid commander, were sent to the left of the road from where they were standing, in anticipation of an attack from that quarter. Heavy forest trees cover this ground and conceal from view the enemy's earthworks about a mile distant. The forest itself has a depth of about three-fourths of that distance. It was through this that Patterson led the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth New Jersey Regiments. Bodies of the enemy's infantry were seen drifting in that direction, and the increased musketry fire proved that many others were flocking thither whom we could not see. Prior to this moment Brigadier-General Emory had reached my position with a light battery and a body of cavalry, which were promptly placed at my disposal by that experienced and gifted soldier; but as I had no duty on which I could employ those arms of service, and as I was confined for room in the exercise of my own command, I requested that he would dispatch a party to reconnoiter and observe the movements of the rebels to the rear of my left. This was executed to my satisfaction.
It was now reported to me that the skirmishers to the right had reached the Yorktown road, when word was sent to Colonel Blaisdell to proceed with the Eleventh Massachusetts and Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiments cautiously down that road to destroy any rebel force he might find, and break down any barrier the enemy might have thrown up to check the advance of our forces in that direction, and when this was executed to report the fact to the senior officer with the troops there, and on his return to send me word of the result of his mission. This was done, and word sent me through Adjutant Currier, of the Eleventh Regiment.
Up to this moment there had been a brisk musketry fire kept up on every part of the field, but its swelling volumes in the direction of Patterson satisfied me from the beginning of the engagement that the enemy had accumulated a heavy force in his front. Grover had already anticipated it, and had moved the main portion of the First Massachusetts Regiment to receive it, while, first, the Seventy-second New York Regiment of Taylor's brigade, and soon after the Seventieth New York Regiment of the same brigade, were ordered to strengthen Paterson.
Colonel Averred, of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, had with great kindness and gallantry tendered me his services and executed for me with great promptness several important services; while Lieutenant McAlester, of the Engineers, volunteered to make a reconnaissance of such of the enemy's works as were hidden from view, preparatory to carrying them by assault should a suitable opportunity present itself for that object. For this service I am under many obligations to that accomplished officer.
From the earliest moment of the attack it was an object of deep solicitude to establish a connection with the troops in my immediate neighborhood on the Yorktown road, and as that had been accomplished, and as I saw no signs of their advance, at 11.20 a.m. I addressed the subjoined note to the assistant adjutant-general Third Corps, under the impression that his chief was still there. It is as follows:
I have had a hard contest all the morning, but do not despair of success. My men are hard at work, but a good deal exhausted. It is reported to me that my communication with you by the Yorktown road is clear of the enemy. Batteries, cavalry, and infantry can take post by the side of mine to whip the enemy.
This found General Heintzelman absent; but it was returned opened, and on the envelope indorsed, "Opened and read," by the senior officer on that field. A cavalryman took over the note, and returned with it by the Yorktown road after an absence of twenty minutes.
To return. It was now after 1 o'clock, and the battle had swollen into one of gigantic proportions. The left had been re-enforced with the Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth New York Regiments – the only remaining ones of my reserve – under Colonel Taylor, and all were engaged; yet its fortunes would ebb and flow, despite the most determined courage and valor of my devoted officers and men. Three times the enemy approached within 80 yards of the road, which was the center of my operations, and as often were they thrown back with violence and slaughter. Every time his advance was made with fresh troops, and each succeeding one seemed to be in greater force and determination.
The Eleventh Massachusetts Regiment and the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania were ordered to the left. The support of the batteries and the Second New Hampshire Regiment were withdrawn from their advanced position in front to take post where they could look after the front and left at the same time. The orders to the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment did not reach it, and it remained on the right.
At this juncture word was received from Colonel Taylor that the regiments of his command longest engaged were falling short of ammunition, and when he was informed that the supply train was not yet up a portion of his command presented an obstinate front to the advance of the enemy with no other cartridges than were gathered from the boxes of the fallen.
Again the enemy were re-enforced by the arrival of Longstreet's division. His troops had passed through Williamsburg on their retreat from Yorktown and were recalled to strengthen the rebel forces before Williamsburg. No sooner had they joined than it was known that they were again moving to drive in our left. After a violent and protracted struggle they were again repulsed with great loss. Simultaneous with this movement an attempt was made to drive in our front and seize the batteries by the troops from Fort Magruder, aided by re-enforcements from the redoubts on the left. The withdrawal of the supports invited this attack, and it was at this time that four of our guns were captured. They could have been saved, but only at the risk of losing the day. Whatever of dishonor, if any, is attached to their loss belongs to the brigadier-general commanding the division, and not to his chief of artillery or to the officers or men serving with the batteries, for truer men never stepped upon the field of battle.
While this was going on in front Captain Smith, by a skillful disposition of his battery, held complete command of the road, which subsequently, by a few well-directed shots, was turned to good account.
The foregoing furnishes a faithful narrative of the disposition of my command throughout this eventful day. Between 4 and 5 o'clock Brigadier-general Kearny, with all his characteristic gallantry, arrived on the ground at the head of his division, and after having secured their positions my division was withdrawn from the contest and held as a reserve until dark, when the battle ended, after a prolonged and severe conflict against three times my number, directed by the most accomplished general of the rebel army, Maj. Gen. J. E. Johnston, assisted by Generals Longstreet, Pryor, Gholson, and Pickett, with commands selected from the best troops in their army.
The lists of the killed and wounded attest the character of the contest. The killed of the enemy must have been double my own. Of the wounded we cannot estimate. Eight hundred were left in hospitals at Williamsburg, and others were distributed among the private houses of this city, while all the available tenements in the vicinity of the field of battle are filled with them. Three hundred prisoners were taken.
I have omitted to mention the arrival early in the afternoon of Brigadier-General Heintzelman, commanding the Third Army Corps, with his staff, and to express my very grateful acknowledgments for the encouragement inspired by his presence and for the aid and support he gave me by his counsel and conduct.
As soon as darkness concealed their movements the rebels retreated in a state of utter demoralization, leaving behind artillery, wagons, &c.
History will not be believed when it is told that the noble officers and men of my division were permitted to carry on this unequal struggle from morning until night unaided in the presence of more than 30,000 of their comrades with arms in their hands; nevertheless it is true. If we failed to capture the rebel army on the plains of Williamsburg it surely will not be ascribed to the want of conduct and courage in my command.
The field was marked by an unusual number of instances of conspicuous courage and daring, which I shall seek an early opportunity to bring to the notice of the commander of the Third Corps.
At this time I can speak but in general terms of the regiments and batteries engaged in the battle of Williamsburg. Their list of the killed and wounded from among their number will forever determine the extent of their participation in this hard-fought and dearly-contested field.* Their constancy and courage are deserving all praise. My profound and grateful acknowledgments are rendered to them.
I am under great obligations to the officers of my staff for eminent serves, and especially to Capt. Joseph Dickinson, my assistant adjutant-general, and my aides-de-camp, Lieuts. William H. Lawrence and Joseph Abbott, who were with me throughout the day.
Brigadier-General, Commanding Division.
* Casualties embodied in return on p. 450.
SOURCES: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 11, Part 1 (Serial No. 12), p. 464-9