York County and Williamsburg, VA | May 5, 1862
On May 5, 1862, elements of Union General George B. McClellan’s army attacked the rear guard of General Joseph E. Johnston’s retreating army near Williamsburg, Virginia, resulting in an inconclusive fight. After the battle, the Federal army continued their campaign and moved toward Richmond.
How It Ended
Inconclusive. After fighting most of the day, the Confederate army withdrew during the evening ending the battle. Though the Southerners left the field, the battle was considered inconclusive since it was a delaying action meant to buy time for the retreating Confederate army.
In the early spring of 1862, McClellan and the Army of the Potomac launched a campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. McClellan landed his force at Fort Monroe and moved up the Virginia Peninsula. Initially, McClellan’s army was stopped by Confederate forces at Yorktown, which resulted in a month-long siege. On May 4th, the Confederates abandoned Yorktown and withdrew toward Williamsburg.
As the Confederates withdrew from their lines at Yorktown, McClellan sent forward the III Corps under the command of General Samuel P. Heintzelman. Heintzelman’s orders were to follow the Confederate army, while Johnston planned to delay the Union pursuit.
Early on the morning of May 5th, Union forces under the command of General Joseph Hooker moved towards the Confederate lines near Fort Magruder outside Williamsburg. Hooker's men immediately attacked the Confederates and were repulsed. Confederates under General James Longstreet counterattacked but Phil Kearny's division moved up to stabilize the Federal left. General Darius N. Couch's IV Corps brigade arrived to support Hooker's right. General Winfield S. Hancock's brigade moved to threaten the Confederate left flank, occupying an abandoned redoubt. Confederates under General Jubal Early counterattacked against Hancock and were repulsed.
At nightfall, the Confederate forces abandoned the field although the engagement bought time for the main army to continue their withdrawal beyond Williamsburg.
During the Battle of Williamsburg, Hancock was tasked with moving around the Federal right flank and probing Longstreet's extreme left. During this move, Hancock captured Redbout 11. Once the Confederates realized that Hancock's men were threatening their left, Jubal Early was sent to attack the Federals. Hancock's men summarily repulsed the Confederate attack. After the battle, McClellan wrote back to Washington D.C., citing, "Hancock was superb today."
With a Confederate counterattack bearing hard upon the Federal lines, Union III Corps commander Samuel P. Heintzelman ordered several regimental bands to play Yankee Doodle to rally some of the broken regiments. The music lifted the men's morale and came just in time for Kearny's reinforcements to arrive on the field. One of Heintzelman's staff offers later stated that the music "was worth a thousand men and saved the battle."