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Siege of Yorktown
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Siege
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Siege of Yorktown
With 130,000 men General George McClellan was a force to be reckoned with, although McClellan did not (and never would) realize it. The massive landing over the last two weeks at Union-held Fort Monroe went well, but now had come the time to advance. Two columns set out up the dirt roads of Virginia's Lower Peninsula formed by the York River and the James, less than 80 miles southeast of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
McClellan quickly found his advanced intelligence on the roads on the peninsula was wrong. Pinkerton's men had described them as "good, natural roads," but they turned into quagmires of mud in the Spring rains. When Keyes' column head came out of some woods south of Yorktown they saw Confederate works with a column of two to three thousand soldiers behind them. Magruder either had more men than the deserters thought or he had been reinforced. Neither prospect thrilled McClellan.
In fact, Magruder had a force of about 13,000 men, mostly regulars, to span the Peninsula . Using the Warwick River as his line, Magruder had only built works on the north end, from the point where the Warwick curves south to the York River. Meanwhile, he was using his men to their best advantage by marching large columns on standard military tasks. For example, when a hundred-man garrison was to be relieved he sent out four or five hundred men who would change out one-hundred, then march back to the city. Magruder added bugle calls and drum rolls from out-of-sight units to heighten the effect. It may have been this kind of theatrics that gave him the nickname "Prince John" (more likely it was his aristocratic bearing).
While many of Magruder's antics were tough on the raw Union soldiers, they had a more dramatic effect on the some of the Union generals. Estimates to McClellan from his commanders had Magruder's troop strength at 3 to 4 times its actual number, but it is important to point out that they were deeply divided on Confederate troop strength behind the Yorktown line. Notable exceptions on Magruder's strength were Brigadier General "Baldy" Smith, Chief Engineer John G. Barnard and Chief Topographical Engineer Colonel Andrew A. Humphries.
Samuel Heinztelman wanted to probe the Confederate line in force, concentrating on the portion of the line between the northern approach and the Warwick River, but Fitz-John Porter and John Barnard (McClellan's chief engineer) denied the request. "Baldy" Smith didn't ask permission. He told young Winfield Scott Hancock to push forward with a promise of reinforcements if Hancock found a gap.
Hancock was preparing to advance when Smith rode off to tell General Keyes. As they were talking a messenger arrived from McClellan with orders not to initiate action against the Rebel line. Smith quickly rode back to camp to find Hancock had already scouted the far side of the Warwick River and was preparing to take a weak spot he had discovered, known as Dam Number 1. Smith told Hancock to stay put.
Hancock's expedition captured four guards who were very willing to talk. Unlike the earlier deserters, they placed Magruder's strength at 30- 40,000 men and claimed forward units of Joe Johnston's army were expected that day. McClellan telegraphed Washington of the development. Lincoln urged him to attack immediately ("...but you must act"). Lincoln was right, but McClellan did not act. On April 7th Magruder's force increased by more than 2,000 men as Johnston's men neared Richmond and 7 days later his force had swollen to 34,000. As Johnston's men took the field, Magruder shifted to the Confederate right (south end of the line), James Longstreet took the center and Daniel Harvey Hill the left (north end of the line). G. W. Smith was being held in reserve.
When Joe Johnston arrived to inspect Magruder's lines on April 13 he saw nothing but problems and recommended the entire army be withdrawn. Davis called a council including Johnston, Lee, Longstreet, G. W. Smith, and his recently appointed Secretary of War George Randolph. For 14 hours they worked on a plan for turning back George McClellan. Meanwhile, the siege was becoming routine for the men on the lines. Union sharpshooters had the edge, picking off Confederate soldiers until John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade arrived. They used their two-ring Enfields to drop the Union sharpshooters from "nests." Siege guns routinely fired hundreds of rounds a day, normally without much affect. There was never a change in lines. Some soldiers mingled across lines, informally agreeing not to fire on each other while on picket duty.
On April 16, eleven days after begining the siege of Yorktown, McClellan decided to take some action. He ordered "Baldy" Smith to cross the Warwick River and attack at Dam Number 1, the same place Winfield Scott Hancock was set to attack before the siege began. Smith "softened" the location with artillery for most of the day and when a bold lieutenant crossed the Warwick River and came back unmolested, Smith decided to send a regiment across.
Crossing the Warwick River with guns and cartridge boxes held high, the regiment took the far side of the river with little fighting. Smith had fallen from his horse and was in no condition to supervise the battle. McClellan, who had advanced to watch the operation, left and the regimental commander did not cross the river to support his troops until the Rebels counterattacked. As the position was about to be overrun, Smith's Vermont men tried to pull back across the river. Almost half of the nearly 200 men were killed and many more were wounded.
Artillery exchanges along the lines were from field pieces, not the massive siege guns that McClellan was emplacing. On April 27, Joe Johnston warned President Davis that McClellan must be nearly ready with his larger guns. Additional reports had been reaching Johnston of increased activity in the York River. Johnston asked General Daniel Harvey Hill "How long can you hold out when the siege guns opened fire?" Hill replied, "Two days," without hesitation.
During the siege, McClellan's sappers had been pushing closer and closer to the Rebel lines. By the time the siege guns opened fire at the Yorktown wharfs on April 30th, the sappers were almost on top of the Rebel line.
The evening of May 2, 1862 brought unusual Rebel activity. Guns up and down the line began firing at random locations. They were covering a general, orderly withdraw up the Peninsula towards Richmond. Johnston had begun a move designed to extend the Union supply lines while concentrating his forces for battle.
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Siege of Yorktown was last changed on - November 17, 2006
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