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Battle of Williamsburg, 5 May 1862

Battle of Williamsburg, 5 May 1862

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Map - Battle of Williamsburg, 5 May 1862

Map showing the Condererate (left) and Union (right) forces involved in the Battle of Williamsburg, and the location of Fort Magruder.

Taken from Battles and Commanders of the Civil War, vol II, p.188


Kingsmill is a geographic area in James City County, Virginia, that includes a large planned residential community, a resort complex, a theme park, a brewery, and a commercial park.

The Kingsmill area is between the north bank of the James River just east (downstream) of the site where the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown was established in 1607 and Interstate Highway 64. Highway access to most of the area's businesses and attractions is from U.S. Route 60 between the eastern city limits of Williamsburg and the adjacent community of Grove, or from Virginia State Route 199, which forms a semi-circular beltway of sorts around Williamsburg's southern side.

Battle of Williamsburg Background

When Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston unexpectedly withdrew his forces from the Warwick Line at the Battle of Yorktown the night of May 3, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was taken by surprise and was unprepared to mount an immediate pursuit. On May 4, he ordered cavalry commander Brig. Gen. George Stoneman to pursue Johnson's rearguard and sent approximately half of his Army of the Potomac along behind Stoneman, under the command of Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner . He also ordered Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin's division to board transport ships on the York River in an attempt to move upstream and land so as to cut off Johnston's retreat. However, it took two days just to board the men and equipment onto the ships, so the maneuver had no effect on the battle of May 5 Franklin's division landed and fought in the Battle of Eltham's Landing on May 7.

By May 5, Johnston's army was making slow progress on muddy roads and Stoneman's cavalry was skirmishing with Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, Johnston's rearguard. To give time for the bulk of his army to get free, Johnston detached part of his force to make a stand at a large earthen fortification, Fort Magruder, straddling the Williamsburg Road (from Yorktown), constructed earlier by Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder.

1862 May 14: Battle of Williamsburg

From The Prescott Journal and The Hudson North Star, of May 14, 1862, come these reports on the Battle of Williamsburg, sometimes known as the Battle of Fort Magruder. It was fought on May 5, 1862, in Virginia as part of George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign Joseph E. Johnston led the Confederate troops.

Following up the Confederate retreat from Yorktown, Union General Joseph Hooker’s 1 division encountered the Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg, Virginia. Hooker assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road, but was repulsed. Confederate counterattacks threatened to overwhelm the Union troops, until General Philip Kearny’s division arrived. General Winfield S. Hancock’s 2 brigade then moved to threaten the Confederate left flank. The Confederates counterattacked unsuccessfully. Hancock’s success was not exploited and the Confederate army continued its withdrawal during the night.

From The Prescott Journal:

W A R N E W S !



Nearly 700 Rebel left Dead on the Field.


Desperate Fighting at Williamsburg.

The following is an American’s account of the battle at Williamsburg:

The battle before Williamsburg on Monday was a most bravely contested engagement. Owing to the roughness of the country and bad condition of the roads, but a small portion of our troops could be brought into action.

Gen. Sickels’ [sic] 3 Excelsior Brigade and Gen. Hooker’s 1 Division bore the brunt of the battle, and fought most valiantly throughout, though greatly overpowered by numbers, and the superior position and earthworks of the enemy. The approaches to their earthworks were a series of ravines and swamp, while rain poured in torrents throughout the day. The men had also beən [sic] lying on their arms all the previous night in a wood, and were soaked with the rain and chilled with cold.

The battle raged from early in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when Gen. McClellan arrived with fresh troops, and relieved the division of Gen. Hooker, who were nearly prostrate with fatigue and exposure, whilst the 3d Excelsior Regiment, of Sickles’ brigade, had its ranks terribly thinned by the batteries of the enemy.

They are represented has [sic] having fought with such bravery that no less than 200 of them killed and wounded.

After the arrival of Gen. McClellan, the enemy was fiercely charged by Hancock’s 2 brigade, and were driven within their works before nightfall, with a loss of nearly 700 of their dead. Their dead were left on the field, with many wounded, though most of the latter were carried into Williamsburg.

Our loss was less than 300 killed, and about 400 wounded.

Night having come on we occupied the battle field the enemy having been driven his works our forces laid on their arms prepared to storm the works in the morning. On Tuesday morning Gen. McClellan sent out scouts while preparing to move on the enemy’s works, who soon reported that he had again taken to flight during the night. The works of the enemy and the city of Williamsburg were then taken. Fort Magruder was a most extensive work and capable of prolonged defense, but the enemy had abandoned it early in the night, retiring in the greatest alarm and confusion, as described by a few negro women who were found in the town.

A largə [sic] number of wagons, munitions, and a considerable store of provisions were found in the town, and the road was strewn for many miles with arms and accoutrements.

A number of deserters also made their escape and came within our lines, who stated that they had received intelligence that large numbers of federal troops were landing on York River, above Williamsburg, to flank them.

Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, from “The Soldier in Our Civil War (see footnote 4)

From The Hudson North Star:

The Williamsburg Fight.

A brilliant victory was achieved about five o’clock in the afternoon, by General Hancock’s 2 brigade, assisted by Kennedy’s and Wheeler’s batteries. They had been ordered to the right to feel the enemy, and if possible to turn their left wing. Here they were met by Early’s Brigade, consisting of the 5th North Carolina and the Twenty-fourth and Thirty-eighth Virginia Regiments, with a squadron of cavalry who advanced in line of battle. Our troops, who were quickly prepared to receive them, opened a heavy fire on them, and the enemy advanced steadily to within two hundred yards, when Gen. Hancock ordered a charge with the bayonet, which was executed with the greatest courage. The enemy’s line broke–they became panic stricken, and fled leaving their dead and wounded behind. The rebels left upwards of 80 dead and 40 wounded. We also took nearly 200 prisoners. Among their killed and wounded were the Colonel and Lieutenant Col. of the North Carolina regiment. Our loss was 17 killed and about 40 wounded. Among the enemy’s dead were the bodies of the Lieutenant Colonel and Major of the 24th Virginia regiment, together with several other officers. Their dead were buried by our troops, and their wounded cared for.

The conduct of General Hancock and his brigade on this occasion has excited universal admiration. A standard of colors belonging to the cavalry engaged was captured, and is now on its way to Washington.

The Herald’s correspondent gives the following graphic account of the magnifficent [sic] charge of Hancock’s brigade on the rebels.

Scarcely a hundred yards were between the rebels and guns. When our skirmish fire became silent, the lines of the 5th Wisconsin, and the 43d New York, formed up in close order to the right of the battery, the long range of musket barrels came to one level and one terrible volley tore through the rebel line. In a moment more the same long range of muskets came to another level, the order to charge with bayonets was given, and away went the two regiment with one glad cheer, gallant as our foes undoubtedly were, they could not meet the charge.

But few brigades mentioned in history have done better than this did. For a space which was generally estimated at three-fourths of a mile, they advanced under a fire of a splendidly served battery, and with a cloud of skirmishers stretched across their front, where the fire was very destructive. If, after that, the rebels had not the nerve to meet a line of bayonets that came towards them like a spirit of destruction, it need not be wondered that they broke and fled in a complete panic.

One hundred and forty five were taken prisoners, and nearly 500 killed and wounded.

Williamsburg Civil War Roundtable

The organization meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month September through May. Meetings are held in the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre located at 515 Scotland St in Williamsburg, VA, unless otherwise posted. The meetings begin at 7 PM. Membership is open to the general public.

This Month's Speaker

MONTHLY MEETING NOTICE Tuesday, May 25, 2021 at 7 PM

Matt Atkinson
"The Battle of Gettysburg - A Simple Overview"

The meeting will be via Zoom. Zoom links will be sent to all email recipients no later than May 23rd.

Join us for the next meeting of the Williamsburg Civil War Roundtable at 7 PM on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

On Tuesday, May 25, 2021, Matt Atkinson will present "The Battle of Gettysburg – A Simple Overview”. The name Gettysburg is synonymous with American History. Three days of battle that brought the country from the brink of destruction to a “new birth of freedom” at a cost of 51,000 casualties.

Today, despite Gettysburg being one of the most studied battles in the world, many Americans do not even have a simple understanding of the battle. If you are one of those people, this program is for you.

Join Matt Atkinson for a 50 minute overview packed with information and stories about Gettysburg.

Matt Atkinson hails from Houston, Mississippi. (Grierson’s Raid came through his town.) He attended Ole Miss and graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in History. In 2016, Matt earned a Master of Arts in History at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. His thesis is on the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou or, as he would like to call it - “Dead Yankees in a Swamp.”

Chris Mackowski visited a few sites at Petersburg National Battlefield for a series of details

Doug Crenshaw and Bert Dunkerly's new book "Embattled Capital", A guide to Richmond During the Civil War. link to publisher

Previous Zoom Meeting Presentations

September 21, 2020 - Kevin Pawlak presented "Robert E. Lee Defends the Confederate High Water Mark at Sharpsburg" (view presentation - 73 minutes) Kevin can be reached at

November 24, 2020 - Scott Mingus presented "Flames Beyond Gettysburg - The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River - June 1863
(View presentation - 85 minutes)

December 8, 2020 - Ken Rutherford presented "America's Buried History - Landmines in The Civil War". View presentation - 66 minutes

January 26, 2021 - Steve Phan presented "The Capital Can't Be Taken! The Civil War Defense of Washington" View presentation

February 16, 2021 - Dr. Thomas G. Clemens presented “Special Orders 191 - Myths, Misconceptions and Facts Related to Lee's Lost Orders”.
A map of the Antietam campaign and special orders 191 are on our website at and Please download both. Video link is -For best viewing of entire presentation, fast forward video to 5:24 minutes

March 16, 2021 - Michael Block presented the battle of Cedar Mountan, August 9, 1862. Video link of presentation is - 93 minutes

April 27,2021 - Chris Kolakowski presented "Perspectives of The 1862 Virginia Campaigns". view presentation - 63 minutes

Visit the American Battlefield Trust site to view animated Peninsula Campaign map

Debts to France Lead to the Battle of Puebla

The lead-up to the battle began in 1860 when the Mexican government, bankrupt after decades of internal conflict, announced it was suspending debt payments to its European creditors for two years. Spain, the United Kingdom and France didn’t like the delay and sent over joint forces in 1861 to collect on Mexico’s debt. Spain and the UK ended up cutting deals, but French Emperor Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, had other plans.

French Emperor Napoleon III (1808 - 1873).

Illustrated London News/Getty Images

Napoleon figured if he could get his hands on Mexico, it could become the first colony in a new French stronghold in North America. Abraham Lincoln was busy fighting the Civil War, so the Americans wouldn’t stand in Napoleon’s way. Even better, with a French puppet government installed in Mexico City, Napoleon could provide guns to the Confederacy in exchange for Southern cotton, a scarce commodity in Europe thanks to Union shipping blockades.

So in early 1862, well-trained French forces under the confident command of General Charles de Lorencez, marched from the port city of Veracruz with the aim of capturing Mexico City. But on May 5, the French took a surprise beating at Puebla at the hands of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza and a ragtag group of enlisted and volunteer troops. The French army retreated to Veracruz to lick its wounds and wouldn’t return to take Puebla until a full year later in May of 1863.

Some contend that the year-long delay of the French invasion gave Abraham Lincoln’s generals just enough time to win decisive Union victories before Napoleon could provide upgraded artillery and munitions to the Confederacy.

𠇋y the time the French occupy Mexico City in June of 1863, the battle of Vicksburg was already underway," says Eric Rojo, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and commander-in-chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, an organization composed of descendants of Union officers in the Civil War. Rojo points out that the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin and that Union victories were "signaling the beginning of the end" for the Confederacy. 𠇎ven if French were able to set their supply lines by mid-1863, it would have made very little difference in the outcome of the Civil War.”

War of the Rebellion: Serial 012 Page 0469 Chapter XXIII. BATTLE OF WILLIAMSBURG,VA.

and my aides-de-camp, Lieuts. William H. Lawrence and Joseph Abbott, who were with me throughout the day.


Brigadier-General, Commanding Division.


Assistant Adjutant-General, Third Army Corps.


Letter to Captain McKeever, inclosing dispatch dated "Front of Williamsburg, May 5, 1862, 11.20 a.m.," in regard to the contest during the morning.

MAY 7, 1862.

I send you herewith a dispatch which was addressed and sent you by me, as dated, under the impression that you were in the vicinity of General Sumner. The orderly went and returned by the Williamsburg and Yorktown road, and was not absent more than twenty minutes. You had left. General Sumner opened the note, read it, and returned on the envelope that he had done so. The envelope was destroyed by the rain. I request that you will have much to do in history hereafter.




Captain McKEEWER,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Third Corps.


IN FRONT OF WILLIAMSBURG, May 5, 1862-11.20 a.m.

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.

Very respectfully, you obedient servant,


Brigadier-General, Commanding.


Assistant Adjutant-General.

HDQRS. HOOKER'S DIVISION, THIRD ARMY CORPS, Camp near White Oak Swamp, Va., May 27, 1862.

CAPTAIN: My attention has been called to that part of Brigadier-General Kearny's official report of the battle of Williamsburg which states "and enabled Major Wainwright, of Hooker's division, to collect his artillerists and reopen fire from several pieces," and I give it my positive and emphatic denial. This statement admits of no application to any battery of mine except Smith's, and I deny that any men of his were driven from their pieces, or that the fire from his battery was suspended from the proximity or fire of the enemy's skirmishers at any

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Civil War battlefield in Williamsburg moves toward preservation

The American Battlefield Trust is one step closer to purchasing the property where the Battle of Williamsburg occurred in 1862. (WYDaily/Courtesy Mary Koik)

A Civil War battlefield in Williamsburg is one step closer to being preserved.

The American Battlefield Trust announced efforts in May to begin fundraising to buy 29 acres of land off Route 60, said Mary Koik, spokeswoman for the organization. The organization set out to raise $12,500 of private funds and recently met that goal, which mean it now can focus on grant money from state and federal funds.

The total cost of the property is more than $2.7 million, and the remaining funds will be raised through the equivalent of a $200-to-$1 match from grant funds. Koik said an agreement had been made with the property owner to raise these funds through a mix of private donations and public grant money.

Koik declined to identify the owner of the property, saying privacy is part of the organization’s policies.

Raising the private funds is just the middle step in the overall ownership process and Koik said the goal is to close on the property by the end of the year.

“Now it’s a longer process of waiting for different grants and easements,” she said.

Koik said there isn’t a clear plan for what the organization will do with the property. One step will be to put conservation easements on the land so that it will be protected in the long term.

Part of the property is currently zoned for commercial development, according to documents from the organization. That means there is the possibility the area might be developed, so if the American Battlefield Trust is able to buy the property then they can preserve it for future generations.

But in general the goal is to preserve the land and keep it as a resource for the area.

“We’re very excited to protect this land at Williamsburg,” she said. “Everyone knows it’s such a historic town, but they don’t realize that history extends past the Revolutionary period.”

T he Battle of Williamsburg was fought in May 1862 between Confederate and Union soldiers following Confederate withdrawal from Yorktown. More famously known as “the Bloody Ravine,” soldiers from both sides pushed back and forth, resulting in an estimated 3,843 casualties.

“Heritage tourism and preservation go hand-in-hand,” Kiok said. “The more there is to see and different things to do, the more people want to say. It’s just an idea of adding to that critical mass of wonderful resources.”


  • Colonial history has dominated the Historic Triangle, but a new era is gaining traction
  • Williamsburg’s little-known Civil War battlefield has connections to local history
  • This new craft beer made in Williamsburg will benefit the Virginia Restaurant & Hospitality Relief Fund
  • It’s going to be Phase 3, but still hazy for Busch Gardens Williamsburg

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC08878.0154 Author/Creator: Chappel, Alonzo, (1828-1887) Place Written: New York, New York Type: Engraving Date: 1862 Pagination: 1 print : b&w 27.5 x 19.5 cm.

One engraving entitled "Battle of Williamsburg" dated 1862. Depicts a distant view of the Battle of Williamsburg, May 5, 1862. In the foreground a stray cannonball narrowly misses a solider and a officer on horseback. On the left a group of Union soliders carry two wounded men to saftey. Engraved from an original painting by Alonzo Chappel in possession of publishers at time of engraving. Engraver unknown.

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Williamsburg, historic city, seat (1654) of James City county (though administratively independent of it), southeastern Virginia, U.S., on a tidewater peninsula, between the James and York rivers, 27 miles (43 km) northwest of Newport News. First settled by the English in 1633 as Middle Plantation, it originally stood within a 6-mile (10-km) stockade and served as a refuge from attacks by Powhatan Indians. The College of William and Mary, second oldest school of higher education (after Harvard University) in the United States, was founded there in 1693. In 1699, after the burning of nearby Jamestown, the city became the capital of Virginia and was renamed to honour King William III.

Williamsburg subsequently became the political, social, and cultural centre of the colony. It was home to Virginia’s first theatre (1716), first successful printing press (1730), first newspaper (1736), and first paper mill (1744). In the Capitol, Patrick Henry presented his historic speech against the Stamp Act (1765), and on May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention passed resolutions urging the Continental Congress to declare American independence from Britain. Williamsburg declined in importance after the state government was moved to Richmond in 1780. During the American Civil War, Confederate forces were defeated at the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862), and the city remained in Union hands until the end of the war.

Colonial Williamsburg, a restoration of a large section of the early colonial area, was begun in 1926, when the Reverend William A.R. Goodwin, rector of the city’s Bruton Parish Church (1710–15 restored 1905–07), originated the idea and convinced industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to sponsor the project. Since then, the historic area has been expanded and is now about a mile (2 km) long and a half mile (1 km) wide more than 500 buildings have been restored or reconstructed. The exhibition buildings—which include the Capitol, Governor’s Palace and Gardens, Public Gaol, and Raleigh Tavern—are furnished as they were in the 18th century, and the entire area is landscaped as it was in colonial times. Hostesses, craftsmen, militiamen, and attendants costumed in the style of the period give a flavour of living history. Part of the city is included in Colonial National Historical Park. Nearby are Carter’s Grove settlement (c. 1619) and the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeology Museum.

Williamsburg’s economy depends mainly on services to Eastern State Hospital (founded there in 1773), the College of William and Mary, and tourism. Inc. city, 1722. Pop. (2000) 11,998 (2010) 14,068.


The scene from this point is very striking. On the top of the bluffs well-built turfed batteries command the water side. Following the beach we come to the principal water-battery, while on the distant shore is Farinholt's house, close to which is the Federal Battery No. 1. of 100 and 200 pounder Parrotts. This battery, worked by the Connecticut boys, raised a dreadful alarm in the minds of the rebels, and did much to cause their Skedaddle.