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Report of General Joseph E. S. Army, commanding Department of Northern Virginia, of operations from April 15 to May 19.
HDQRS. DEPARTMENT OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
May 19, 1862.
SIR: Before taking command on the Peninsula I had the honor to express to the President my opinion of the defects of the position then occupied by our troops there. After taking command I reported that the opinion previously expressed was fully confirmed. Some of my objections to the position were that its length was too great for our force; that it prevented offensive movements except at great disadvantage, and that it was untenable after the guns of Yorktown were silenced— a result admitted by all our officers to be inevitable from the enemy’s great superiority in artillery. York River being thus opened, a large fleet of transports and 500 or 600 bateaux would enable him to turn us in a few hours. It seemed to me that there were but two objects in remaining on the Peninsula: The possibility of an advance upon us by the enemy, and gaining time in which arms might be received and troops organized. I determined, therefore, to hold the position as long as it could be done without exposing our troops to the fire of the powerful artillery, which I doubted not would be brought to bear upon them. I believed that after silencing our batteries on York River the enemy would attempt to turn us by moving up to West Point by water. The great fatigue and exposure incident to their service told very severely upon the health of our troops. In three days, ending May 3, about [gap] sick were sent to Richmond.
Circumstances indicating that the enemy’s batteries were nearly ready, I directed the troops to move toward Williamsburg on the night of the 3d by the roads front Yorktown and Warwick CourtHouse.
They were assembled about Williamsburg by noon of the 4th, and were ordered to march, by the road, to Richmond, Major-General Magruder leading. Early in the afternoon the cavalry rear guard on the Yorktown road was driven in and rapidly followed by the enemy. Brigadier-General McLaws was sent with the brigades of Kershaw and Semmes to support the cavalry. He met the enemy near the line of little works constructed by Major- General Magruder’s forethought; made his dispositions with prompt courage and skill, and quickly drove the Federal troops from the field, in spite of disparity of numbers. I regret that no report of this handsome affair has been made by General McLaws.
Major-General Magruder’s march was too late to permit that of Major-General Smith the same afternoon. His division moved at daybreak on the 5th, in heavy rain and deep mud. About sunrise the rear guard was again attacked. The action gradually increased in magnitude until about 3 o’clock, when General Longstreet, commanding the rear, requested that a part of Major-General Hill’s troops might be sent to his aid. Upon this I rode upon the field, but found myself compelled to be a mere spectator, for General Longstreet’s clear head and brave heart left me no apology for interference. For details of the action see accompanying reports.
Our wounded and many of those of the enemy were placed in hospitals and residences in Williamsburg.
Major-General Smith’s division reached Barhamsville (18 miles), and Major-General Magruder’s, commanded by Brig. Gen. B. R. Jones, the Diascund Bridge, on the Chickahominy road, on that day. Those of Major-Generals Longstreet and Hill marched from Williamsburg (12 miles) on the 6th. On that evening Major-General Smith reported that the enemy’s troops were landing in force on the south side of York River, near West Point.
On the following morning the army was concentrated near Barhamsville. In the meantime it had been ascertained that the enemy occupied a thick and extensive woods between Barharnsville and their landing place. Brigadier-General Whiting was directed by General G. W. Smith to dislodge him, which was handsomely done. The brigade of General Hood and part of that of Colonel Hampton performed the service. You are respectfully referred for details to the accompanying reports.
Want of means of subsistence compelled the army to move toward Richmond, the divisions of Smith and Magruder taking the road by New Kent Court-House and those of Longstreet and Hill that along the Chickahominy.
On the evening of the 9th the army halted its left near the cross roads on the New Kent Court-house road and its right near the long bridges. In this position the York River Railroad supplied us from Richmond.
On the 15th the attack upon the battery at Drewry’s Bluff by the enemy’s gunboats suggested to me the necessity of so placing the army as to be prepared for the enemy’s advance up the river or on the south side, as well as from the direction of West Point. We therefore crossed the Chickahominy to take a position 6 or 7 miles from Richmond.
That ground being unfavorable, the present position was taken upon the 17th.
Had the enemy beaten us on the 5th, as he claims to have done, the army would have lost most of its baggage and artillery. We should have been pursued from Williamsburg and intercepted from West Point. Our troops engaged, leaving Williamsburg on the following morning, marched but 12 miles that day, and the army in its march to the cross-roads averaged less than 10 miles a day. Had not the action of the 5th been at the least discouraging to the enemy, we would have been pursued on the road and turned by way of West Point.
About 400 of our wounded were left in Williamsburg because they were not in condition to be moved. Nothing else was left which we had horses to draw away. Five field pieces, found by the chief quartermaster at the Williamsburg wharf, were abandoned for want of horses and harness.
In the three actions above mentioned our troops displayed high courage, and on the march endured privation and hardship with admirable cheerfulness.
Most respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. E. JOHNSTON,
General. General COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector General.
Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.275-276
web page Rickard, J (19 November 2006)