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Battle or Siege of Yorktown, VA
in the American Civil War

Union Battle Summary

Yorktown, Va., April 5 - May 4, 1862. 2nd, 3rd and 4th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. Yorktown is situated on the right bank of the York river, about 20 miles from Fortress Monroe. Opposite the town is Gloucester point, projecting into the river and reducing its width about one-half. A short distance from Yorktown the Warwick river rises and flows a southerly direction into the James river. In the early spring of 1862 the Confederate fortifications at Yorktown, Gloucester point and along the Warwick were manned by some 12,000 to 15,000 troops, all under the command of Gen. J.B. Magruder. The Army of the Potomac, numbering about 145,000 men, was divided into four corps and was under the command of Maj.-Gen. George B. McClellan. The 1st corps, commanded by Gen. Irwin McDowell, was composed of the divisions of Franklin, McCall and King; the 2nd corps, Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, embraced the divisions of Richardson, Blenker and Sedgwick; the 3rd corps, Gen. S.P. Heintzelman, consisted of the divisions of Porter, Hooker and Hamilton, and the 4th corps, under command of Gen. E.D. Keyes, included the divisions of Couch, Smith and Casey. The reduction of Yorktown was the initial movement of the Peninsular campaign. McClellan's plan was to land the main body of his army at Fortress Monroe, establish a base there, and then move up the peninsula between the York and James rivers, while McDowell's corps was to land about 4 miles below Yorktown and move directly against that place. Or, if conditions were favorable, McDowell was to land on the left bank of the York river and carry the enemy's works at Gloucester point, after which he was to move to West Point, thereby gaining the rear of the works at Yorktown, which would compel the enemy to evacuate them or be cut off. In the execution of this plan McClellan expected the cooperation of the gunboats under command of Flag-officer Goldsborough, then lying in the vicinity of Fortress Monroe. Two divisions of Heintzelman's corps reached Fortress Monroe on March 23, but owing to limited transportation facilities nearly two weeks elapsed before enough troops had been assembled there to begin the advance. The enemy, well aware of McClellan's movements, took advantage of this delat to strengthen his works all along the line. McClellan arrived at Fortress Monroe on April 2 and reported 58,000 men, with 100 pieces of artillery, as his total force with which to begin the campaign, instead of the 145,000 he had expected. On the 5th he received notice from Washington that McDowell's corps had been withdrawn from his command, and at the same time Goldsborough announced that he did not "feel able to detach to the assistance of the army a suitable force to attack the water batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester." This necessitated a change in the entire plan of campaign. In his report McClellan says: "It was now, of course, out of my power to turn Yorktown by West Point. I had therefore no choice left but to attack it directly in front, as I best could with the force at my command." Reconnaissances had already commenced along the line of the Warwick river, and on the very day that McClellan received the notice of McDowell's withdrawal skirmished occurred at Lee's mill and the junction of the Warwick and Yorktown roads. In these reconnaissances Gen. W.F. Smith, commanding the 2nd division of Keyes' corps, reported the weakest part of the line to near Lee's mill, and by McClellan's order a second assult was made at that point on April 16, but the line held fast. (See Lee's Mill and Warwick Road). McClellan then determined to besiege the place. Gen. Fit John Porter was placed in charge of the construction of batteries, in which he was assisted by Gen. W.F. Barry, chief of artillery, and Gen. J.G. Barnard, chief of engineers. About 100 heavy Parrott guns, mortars and howitzers were placed in position to bear upon the town at a range of from 1,500 to 2,000 yards, and on May 1 fire was opened from the first battery with good effect. Magruder's object in holding his line of defenses at Yorktown and on the Warwick river was "to keep the enemy in check by an intervening line until the authorities might take such steps as should be deemed necessary to meet a serious advance of the enemy on the Peninsula." By the time McClellan's siege guns were in position this object had been attained. May 6 was fixed as the date when all the Union batteries were to be opened on the intrenchments at Yorktown, but on the night of the 3rd the entire Confederate line was evacuated. Fifty-six pieces of artillery, all in good condition except three, were abandoned by the Confederates in their retreat, as well as large quantities of ammunition, all their camp equipage, etc.

Source: The Union Army, Volume 6, Cyclopedia of Battles, 1908


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