Sunday, April 7, 2013

Siege of Yorktown, Virginia April 5 - May 4, 1862

"TO THE ARMY OF THE PENINSULA: The long war of the Revolution culminated at length in victorious triumph on these very plains of Yorktown. These frowning battlements on the heights of York are turned in this second war of liberty against the enemies of our country. You breathe the air and tread the soil consecrated by the presence and heroism of our patriotic sires. Shall we, their sons, imitate their example, or basely bow the neck to the yoke of the oppressor? I know your answer."~ John Bankhead Magruder, Major General, Commanding
The Siege of Yorktown was fought from April 5 to May 4, 1862, as part of the  Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War.  

While Yorktown is most significant for the Revolutionary War siege of 1781, which effectively ended the conflict, during the American Civil War it was again the site of major siege operations during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. 

As the Civil War entered its second year, President Lincoln favored an attack on Richmond from the vicinity of Washington, D.C.  But the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, persuaded Lincoln that a move on Richmond up what it known as "The Peninsula" was a better approach. Virginia's York and James Rivers, which formed the Peninsula, would enable the Union navy to support the land campaign.
George B. McClellan
General McClellan's Army of the Potomac encountered General John B. Magruder's Confederate force at Yorktown, Virginia, behind the Warwick Line. McClellan suspended his march up the Peninsula toward Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy, and settled in for siege operations.

John B. Magruder
Magruder's ostentatious movement of troops back and forth convinced the Federals that his works were strongly held. McClellan ordered the construction of siege fortifications and brought his heavy siege guns to the front. In the meantime, General Joseph Johnston brought reinforcements for Magruder.
Joseph Johnston
On April 16, Union forces probed a point in the Confederate line at Dam No. 1. The Federals failed to exploit the initial success of this attack, however. This lost opportunity held up McClellan for two additional weeks while he tried to convince the U.S. Navy to bypass the Confederates' big guns at Yorktown and Gloucester Point and ascend the York River to West Point and outflank the Warwick Line. 

McClellan's Army of the Potomac numbered 121,500 men, transported starting on March 17 by 389 vessels. McClellan planned to use U.S. Navy forces to envelop Yorktown, but the emergence of the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8–9, 1862) disrupted this plan. The threat of the Virginia on the James River and the heavy Confederate batteries at the mouth of the York River prevented the Navy from assuring McClellan that they could control either the York or the James, so he settled on a purely land approach toward Yorktown.

The Confederate defenders of Yorktown, led by General Magruder, initially numbered only 11–13,000 men; the rest of the Confederate forces, under the overall command of General Johnston, remained spread out across eastern Virginia.  Magruder constructed a defensive line from Yorktown on the York River, behind the Warwick River, to Mulberry Point on the James River (even taking advantage of some trenches originally dug by Cornwallis in 1781) to effectively block the full width of the Peninsula, although he could adequately man none of the defensive works at that time. This became known as the Warwick Line.

The nature of the terrain made it difficult to determine the exact disposition of the Confederate forces. A victim of faulty intelligence, McClellan estimated that the Confederates had 40,000 troops in the defensive line and that Johnston was expected to arrive quickly with an additional 60,000. Magruder, an amateur actor before the war, exacerbated McClellan's confusion by moving infantry and artillery in a noisy, ostentatious manner to make the defenders seem a much larger forces than their actual numbers.

On April 5, 1862,  at Lee's Mill, an artillery duel raged for several hours, but there was no infantry fighting. On April 6, men from the 6th Maine Infantry and and 5th Wisconsin Infantry, under the command of General Winfield Hancock, performed reconnaissance around Dam Number One, where Magruder had widened the Warwick to create a water obstacle nearby. They drove off the Confederate pickets and took some prisoners. Hancock considered this area a weak spot in the line, but orders from McClellan prevented any exploitation. 
"In Front of Yorktown", by Winslow Homer
To the amazement of the Confederates, and the dismay of President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan chose not to attack, and ordered his army to entrench in works parallel to Magruder's and besiege Yorktown. For the next 10 days, McClellan's men dug while Magruder steadily received reinforcements. By mid-April, Magruder commanded 35,000 men, barely enough to defend his line.

Although McClellan doubted his numeric superiority over the enemy, he had no doubts about the superiority of his artillery. The siege preparations at Yorktown consisted of 15 batteries with more than 70 heavy guns, including two 200-pounder Parrotts and 12 100-pound Parrots, with the rest of the rifled pieces divided between 20-pounder and 30-pounder Parrotts and 4.5-inch (110 mm) Rodman siege rifles. These were augmented by 41 mortars, ranging in size from 8 inches (200 mm) to 13-inch (330 mm) seacoast mortars, which weighed over 10 tons and fired shells weighing 220 pounds. When fired in unison, these batteries would deliver over 7,000 pounds of ordnance onto the enemy positions with each volley.
Union Artillery at Yorktown
As the armies dug in, Union Army Balloon Corps aeronaut Professor Thaddeus Lowe used two balloons, the Constitution and the Intrepid, to perform aerial observation.  On April 11, Intrepid carried General Fitz John Porter, a division commander of the III Corps, aloft, but unexpected winds sent the balloon over enemy lines, causing great consternation in the Union command before other winds returned him to safety.  Confederate Captain John Bryan suffered a similar wind mishap in a hot air balloon over the Yorktown lines.
Balloon Reconnaissance
For the remainder of April, the Confederates, now at 57,000 and under the direct command of Johnston, improved their defenses while McClellan undertook the laborious process of transporting and placing massive siege artillery batteries, which he planned to deploy on May 5. 
Scene during Yorktown Siege
Johnston knew that the impending bombardment would be difficult to withstand, so began sending his supply wagons in the direction of Richmond on May 3. Escaped slaves reported that fact to McClellan, who refused to believe them. He was convinced that an army whose strength he estimated as high as 120,000 would stay and fight. On the evening of May 3, the Confederates launched a brief bombardment of their own and then fell silent. Early the next morning, Heintzelman ascended in an observation balloon and found that the Confederate earthworks were empty.  (However, the Confederates had left behind a new weapon of war -- land mines, which claimed the lives of several Union soldiers.)

McClellan was stunned by the news. He sent cavalry under General George Stoneman in pursuit, and ordered General William Franklin's division to reboard Navy transports, sail up the York River, and cut off Johnson's retreat. 

Though technically a Union victory, the Siege of Yorktown first showed McClellan's weaknesses as a leader. Overly cautious and paranoid regarding enemy strength, he would be repeatedly beaten on the Peninsula by General Robert E. Lee that summer.

By delaying the Union army for almost a month, the Confederates had obtained valuable time to assemble and organize the forces that eventually beat McClellan back from the gates of Richmond and thwarted the Union's Peninsula Campaign.  On August 26, 1862, General George B. McClellan and most of the Army of the Potomac left the Peninsula. Some regiments were left behind at Yorktown.

Yorktown remained in Union control for the rest of the war and was maintained as a military garrison until the summer of 1864.  Later in 1864, during the start of the Petersburg siege, Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Yorktown abandoned.

Today, Union and Confederate fortifications are reminders of Yorktown's Civil War history. A National Cemetery, established in 1866, contains over 2,200 interments, mostly Union dead. Nearby is a small Confederate burial ground of undetermined size.

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