Battle of Yorktown: Confederate Trickery Fools Yanks
By early April 1862 Union General George B. McClellan had completed an ambitious amphibious operation, transporting the massive Army of the Potomac to the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. His mission: begin the long-awaited march on the Confederate capital of Richmond. President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern public had been impatiently waiting for McClellan to attack ever since he was placed in charge following the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) back on July 21, 1861. Now, at last, McClellan had his 121,500 men on the move, and they clashed with the Confederate defenders on April 5, 1862. The Battle of Yorktown had begun.
This was the same Yorktown that was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, in 1781, and Confederate General John B. Magruder used some of the same trenches dug by British General Cornwallis. Magruder had frantically built as strong a defensive line as he could to halt the Union march up the peninsula, but he only had around 12,000 troops when the battle began April 5. Even with eventual reinforcements from overall commander General Joseph E. Johnston, Magruder had at most 35,000 troops standing between the Army of the Potomac and Richmond.
Surely this small Southern force would be overwhelmed by the juggernaut bearing down on them. The Northern newspapers, like the article below, expected a victory within two or three days, as did the Northern public. One thing they did not take into account, however, was Southern creativity and imagination.
Magruder, an actor before the war who loved theatrical presentations, put on a show to confuse the Army of the Potomac. He orchestrated a clever charade, having small groups of men and artillery noisily march through openings in the trees within sight of the enemy, then quickly circle around and do it again and again. The Northern commanders were fooled into thinking a mighty force awaited them. McClellan was brilliant at training and organizing an army, but he was overly cautious under battle conditions. Convinced that the Southern army was as large as his own, McClellan ordered a halt to the attack and settled in for a long, arduous siege.
It took him a solid month to get ready, as he laboriously moved into position more than 70 heavy guns and 41 gigantic mortars capable of hurling 220-pound cannonballs. The Yorktown defenders nervously watched this build-up. With all his guns finally in place, McClellan planned to begin his devastating barrage at dawn on May 5.
The Confederates knew McClellan was ready, and Confederate General Johnston realized his troops could not win an artillery duel against such formidable power. On the evening of May 3 they pounded the Union army with an artillery barrage of their own, which served to mask the fact that they were quietly retreating. When a Federal observation balloon went aloft the morning of May 4, the Confederate trenches were empty.
It took him a month, but McClellan won the Battle of Yorktown with barely any fighting, suffering less than 200 Union casualties. However, the Confederates had stalled him for a precious month while they continued to fortify Richmond’s defenses, and they only suffered about 300 casualties of their own. The Confederate army escaped intact, ready to fight another day. The only serious losses were the 56 heavy guns with all their ammunition the defenders had to leave behind, a grievous blow to the ordnance-starved Confederacy.
This account of the opening of the Battle of Yorktown was published by the New York Tribune (New York, New York) on April 8, 1862:
The Advance of the Potomac Army
Advance upon Yorktown
The Outer Defenses Taken
A Strong Rebel Force There
A Three Days’ Siege Required
Special Dispatch to the N.Y. Tribune.
Washington, Monday, April 7, 1862.
The following is a summary of the intelligence received by the War Department up to 10 o’clock Monday night.
Yesterday the enemy’s works were carefully examined by Gen. McClellan and were found to be very strong and the approaches difficult. The enemy was in force, and the water batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester said to be much increased. There was sharp fighting on the right but no harm done. Our forces were receiving supplies from Ship Point, repairing roads, and getting up large trains.
It seemed plain that mortars and siege trains must be used before assaulting.
Another dispatch, received at 10:30 a.m., states that Yorktown will fall, but not without a siege of two or three days. Some of the outer works were taken.
A dispatch from Gen. Wool states that Gen. Magruder has 30,000 men at Yorktown.
…A full account is contained in the following dispatch:
Before Yorktown, Saturday evening.
Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
That part of the Army of the Potomac, recently concentrated at Old Point, yesterday morning [moved] in the direction of Yorktown, twenty-four miles distant. The right was assigned to Gen. Morrill’s brigade, of Gen. Porter’s division, two companies of the 3d Pennsylvania cavalry, and a portion of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, acting as skirmishers.
Nothing of interest took place until their arrival at Big Bethel, twelve miles distant, where they met the outer pickets of the Rebels. The troops were delayed here two hours in reconstructing a bridge, which had been destroyed.
The Rebels retreated before the advance of our skirmishers to Howard’s Creek, where they had some abandoned earthworks. Four shots were fired here by the Rebels from two field pieces, which were soon silenced by the Rhode Island battery, when the Rebels beat a hasty retreat, taking their pieces with them.
The main body of the army here rested for the night, while Gen. Morrill’s brigade advanced three miles to Cuckleville and six miles from Yorktown, and there encamped.
By 7 o’clock this (Saturday) morning [April 5] the column was again in motion, and at 10 o’clock was in front of the enemy’s works at Yorktown.
The first shot fired was by the Rebels, the shells passing over the heads of Gen. Porter and staff, without exploding. The batteries of Griffin, 3d and 4th Rhode Island, and 5th Massachusetts were now placed in position, replying to every shot sent by the Rebels. The cannonading continued, with but little intermission, until dark.
About 400 shots were fired by both parties during the day. The loss on our side was three killed…The position of the Rebels is a strong one. From present indications, their fortifications extend some two miles in length, and mount heavy guns. The ground in front of their heavier guns is low and swampy, making it utterly impassable.
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