Monday, May 7, 2012

May 5, 1862: Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia

In April 1862, the Second New Jersey Brigade, consisting of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th NJ Volunteer infantry Regiments, was transferred to the Virginia Peninsula under the command of Brigadier General F. E. Patterson.  The brigade was assigned to  General Joseph Hooker's division. 

On the night of May 3, 1862, Confederate troops evacuated Yorktown and retreated to fortifications at Williamsburg, and Hooker's division was ordered to pursue them.  The center of the line of fortifications was Fort Magruder, located at the junction of the Yorktown and Hampton Roads.  On each side of the fort were a series of redoubts.  Within a half mile of the fortifications trees were felled to form abatis.  Between the abatis and the fortifications, a cleared fire zone of 600-700 yards was created and dotted with rifle pits.  Within the fire zone, in front of the fortifications, ditches were dug and artillery was zeroed in on them.  On May 4, when Hooker's troops arrived, the rain had been very heavy, and the ground turned into calf-deep mud and water.

General Hooker ordered two artillery batteries and the 5th NJ Regiment to move in on the right side of the road to set up an artillery barrage on Fort Magruder.  The 6th, 7th and 8th NJ Regiments were ordered to move on the left side of the road.  The troops slowly moved through the abatis until they engaged the rebel troops.  The artillery and 5th Regiment fought for ten hours.  The infantry of the 6th, 7th and 8th Regiments exchanged rifle and musket volleys with the fortified enemy for at least three to four hours before the Confederates mounted a charge against the entire Federal line.  The Federal line held against several attacks until its troops ran out of ammunition.

Among the Union dead were Major Peter Ryerson, of the 8th NJ, who was hit by three musket balls before falling dead.  Ryerson had assumed command of the regiment after Colonel Adolphus Johnson had been wounded.  Lt. Colonel Ezra Carman, of the 7th NJ, was also wounded.  Lt. Colonel John VanLear and Adjutant Aaron Wilks, of the 6th NJ, were killed. 

Dr. John James Henry Love, of Harmony, was one of the leading surgeons to treat the wounded at Williamsburg.  Dr. Love had volunteered his services to NJ Governor Charles Olden and had requested permission to accompany the Second NJ Brigade to the Virginia Peninsula.  In July 1862, he was assigned to the 13th NJ Regiment as regimental surgeon, and in March 1863, he was appointed Surgeon-in-Chief of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the 12th Corps.  During the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Dr. Love was in charge of all Federal medical facilities.  In August 1863, Dr. Love was appointed Surgeon-in-Chief of the 1st Division of the 12th Corps.  He resigned his commission on January 28, 1864 and returned to his private practice in Harmony Township.

John Kinney, of Belvidere, in Company E   of the 7th NJ, and Alfred Deemer, of Carpentersville, in Company I of the 8th NJ, were among the soldiers killed in action.  On May 21, Jacob Smith and Israel Harris, of Belvidere, brought Kinney's body to Belvidere.  On May 22, most of the people of Belvidere joined in Kinney's funeral procession from his home to the Presbyterian Church.  the procession to the Church - and later to the Belvidere Cemetery - was led by the Belvidere Brass Band and the Belvidere Infantry Company.   

General Patterson, who had led the advance of the 2nd NJ Brigade - except for the 5th NJ - in the battle, wrote in his report, "The Sixth Regiment and the Seventh Regiment were deployed on the left of the road; the Eighth Regiment had not yet come up, a wood extended from the road, northwesterly to a line of field-works that extended perpendicularly across the road front.  The Sixth and Seventh Regiments occupied this wood by a flank march and moved to the front by the right of companies, about two thirds the distance to the line of field-works in front, when our skirmishers came upon the enemy's forces, as we could not see them, the woods having a growth of under-brush.  The skirmishers being re-called, the two regiments advanced until met by a warm fire, when the companies were formed into line and marched rapidly to the front, some hundred paces, halted and a file fire opened and kept up until the opposing fire was silenced, when we again advanced, and were again met by a heavy fire, and the command was ordered to lie down.  It was not patent that we were outnumbered, as, in addition to a heavy fire in front, it was spreading around our left flank.

"Colonel Johnson, with the Eighth, having come up, was deployed on the left of the regiments already in line, and for a time silenced their fire.  The heaviest fire that had yet occurred was now opened on our right; it was met by a direct fire from our right and an oblique fire from our center and silenced.  During this time, the commands of officers in a large column moving in our front         and to our left were heard, and the efforts to outflank us was continued.  There being no more men available, and having sent twice for reinforcements, Colonel Johnson was ordered to change front obliquely to the rear of his right company; this, for a time, preserved the flank.  Reinforcements had been twice applied for - none came - outnumbered five to one, outflanked, and out of ammunition, the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Regiments, numbering when they entered the field 1,767 men for duty, to avoid being surrounded, fell slowly back by my orders, before a division consisting of Pryor's Virginia and North Carolina, Gholson's Mississippi and Alabama, and Pickett's Virginia Brigades, forming a division of 6,000 men."

Patterson reported his brigade had "a loss of 117 killed, 184 wounded, and 235 missing, from the ground they had taken and held, within one hundred yards of the end of the woods, from 8:00 until half-past one o'clock to their original position on the left of the road... The Fifth Regiment was separated from the brigade and place, by order of the General of the division on the right of the road and removed from my observation.  Its loss was 8 killed, 70 wounded, including the colonel, and 37 missing... Recapitulation: Killed, wounded and missing, two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, one major, twelve captains, twenty-five subalterns [lieutenants], 456 non-commissioned officers and privates.  Aggregate, 488."

Four days later, after burying the dead, Patterson's Brigade was on the march again toward Richmond - to a place known as Fair Oaks, VA, the site of the Battle of Seven Pines.

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards

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