By Jubal Early
I LANDED and reported to General Magruder on the morning of the 9th of April.
After the abandonment of the line of Bull Run by our troops, McClellan had moved the greater part of his army to the Peninsula, and by the 4th of April had landed about 100,000 men at or near Fortress Monroe. Magruder at that time occupied the lower Peninsula with a force which did not exceed in effective men 7,000 or 8,000. Upon this force McClellan advanced with his immense army, when Magruder fell back to the line of Warwick River, extending from Yorktown on York River across James River, and checked the enemy's advance. McClellan then sat down before the fortifications at Yorktown and along Warwick River and began a siege by regular approaches.
When I arrived at Magruder's headquarters, I was informed by him that his force, before the arrival of mine, amounted to 12,000, he having been reinforced since the enemy's advance, by troops from the south side of James River and Wilcox's brigade of G. W. Smith's (now D. R. Jones') division, the said brigade having been detached from the army under Johnston. The division carried by me now numbered about 5,000 men and officers for duty, it having been increased to that amount by the return of those on furlough and some recruits; so flat Magruder's force now amounted to 20,000 men and officers for duty. McClellan, in a telegram to President Lincoln, dated the 7th of April, says: 'Your telegram of yesterday received. In reply I have to state that my entire force for duty amounts to only about eighty-five thousand men." At that time, except Wilcox's brigade, not a soldier from General Johnston's army had arrived, and my division constituted the next reinforcement received from that army by Magruder.
Yorktown had been previously strongly fortified, and some preparations had been made to strengthen the other part of the line, which, however, had not been completed. Warwick River runs diagonally across the Peninsula from the vicinity of Yorktown, and its course for the greater part of the way is through low, marshy country. Though at its head it is quite a small stream, it had been dammed up to within about a mile of the works at Yorktown by dams thrown across at several points, so as to be impassable without bridging at any other points than where the dams were, which later we defended with earthworks.
Between Warwick River and Yorktown were two redoubts, called respectively Redoubt No. 4 and Redoubt No. 5, which were connected by a curtain, with wings or lateral breastworks extending to Warwick River on the one side, and the head of a deep ravine between Redoubt No. 4 and Yorktown on the other. Redoubt No. 4, which was the one nearest York-town, was sometimes called Fort Magruder. Gloucester Point, across York River from Yorktown, was occupied by a small infantry force with some heavy batteries. The whole line was nearly fifteen miles in length. The assuming and maintaining the line by Magruder, with his small force in the face of such overwhelming odds, was one of the boldest exploits ever performed by a military commander, and he had so manoeuvered his troops, by displaying them rapidly at different points, as to produce the impression on his opponent that he had a large army. His men and a considerable body of negro laborers had been and were still engaged in strengthening the works by working night and day, so that their energies were taxed to the utmost limit.
Before my arrival, Kershaw's brigade had been ordered to the right of the line and assigned to that part of it under the command of Brigadier GeneralMcLaws, and Rodes' brigade had been posted at the works between the defences of Yorktown and the head of the obstructions on Warwick River. On my arrival I was ordered to move my own brigade near the point occupied by Rodes, and I was assigned to the command of that part of the line extending from the ravine south of Yorktown to the right of Wynn's Mill as far as the mouth of the branch leading into the pond made by Dam No. 1, which was the first dam below that at Wynn 's Mill. There were two dams on the line thus assigned me, the dam at Wynn's Mill, etc. The troops defending the part of the line thus assigned me consisted of Rodes' brigade; my own, now under the command of Colonel D. K. McRae, of the 5th North Carolina Regiment; the 2nd Florida Regiment, Colonel Ward; the 2nd Mississippi Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Taylor; Brigadier General Wilcox's brigade; and two regiments temporarily attached to his command under Colonel Winston of Alabama; and the 19th Mississippi Regiment, Colonel Mott. The latter regiment was, however, transferred to another part of the line in a few days.
The only portions of my line exposed to the view of the enemy were Redoubts Nos. 4 and 5 and the works attached to them, the works at Wynn 's Mill and part of a small work at the upper dam of Wynn's Mill-the works at Wynn's Mill and the upper dam with the intervening space being occupied by Wilcox's command. Between the works designated, including Dam No. 1, the swamps on both sides of Warwick River were thickly wooded, and it would have been impossible to cross without cutting away the dams, which could not have been done without first driving away our troops. This was also the case below Dam No. 1 to a greater or less extent. Redoubts Nos. 4 and 5 with the curtain and lateral works had been from necessity constructed on ground sloping towards the enemy, and the interior and rear of them were therefore much exposed to his fire. This was also the case at Wynn's Mill, and at both points it had been necessary to cut zig-zag trenches, or bayous, to enable the men to pass into and from the works with as little exposure as possible.
Our side of the Warwick River, between the exposed points, was occupied by thin picket lines. Besides the infantry mentioned, there were several batteries of field artillery in the works, and in Redoubt No. 4 there were two heavy guns and a large Howitzer. Brigadier General Raines had charge of the immediate defences of Yorktown and Gloucester Point.
When I took command I found the enemy busily engaged in constructing trenches and earthworks in front of Redoubts 4 and 5 and of Wynn's Mill. In front of Redoubt No. 5 was a dwelling house, with several out-houses and a large peach orchard extending to within a few hundred yards of our works, under cover of which the enemy pushed forward some sharpshooters, with long-range rifles, and established a line of rifle pits within range of our works, which annoyed us very much for several days, as nearly our whole armament for the infantry consisted of smooth-bore muskets, and our artillery ammunition was too scarce to permit its use in a contest with sharp-shooters. On the 11th of April General Magruder ordered sorties to be made by small parties from all the main parts of the line for the purpose of fooling the enemy. Wilcox sent out a party from Wynn 's Mill which encountered the skirmishers the enemy had thrown up towards his front, and drove them back to the main line.
Later in the day Colonel Ward, with his own regiment and the 2nd Mississippi Battalion, was thrown to the front on the right and left of Redoubt No. 5, driving the enemy's sharp-shooters from their rifle pits, advancing through the peach orchard to the main road beyond, from Warwick Court-House and Fortress Monroe, so as to compel a battery, which the enemy had posted at an earthwork on our left of said road, to retire precipitately. Colonel Ward, however, returned to our works on the approach of a large force of the enemy infantry, after having set fire to the house above mentioned and performed the duty assigned him in a very gallant and dashing manner without loss to his command. These affairs developed the fact that the enemy was in strong force both in front of Wynn's Mill and Redoubts 4 and 5.
On the night following Ward's sortie, the 24th Virginia Regiment, under Colonel Terry, moved to the front, and cut down the peach orchard and burned the rest of the houses which had afforded the enemy shelter; and on the next night Colonel McRae, with the 5th North Carolina Regiment, moved further to the front and cut down some cedars along the main road above mentioned, which partially screened the enemy's movements from our observation, both of which feats were accomplished without difficulty or loss; and after this we were not annoyed again by the enemy's sharp-shooters. About this time Major General D. H. Hill arrived at Yorktown with two brigades from General Johnston's army, and was assigned to the command of the left wing, embracing Raines' command and mine. No change, however, was made in the extent of my command, but I was merely made subordinate to General Hill.
The enemy continued to work very busily on his approaches, and each day some new work was developed. He occasionally fired with artillery on our works, and the working parties engaged in strengthening them and making traverses and epaulments in the rear, but we very rarely replied to him, as our supply of ammunition was very limited.
During the month of April there was much cold, rainy weather, and our troops suffered greatly, as they were without tents or other shelter. Their duties were very severe and exhausting, as when they were not on the front line in the trenches they were employed in constructing heavy traverses and epaulments in the rear of the main line, so as to conceal and protect the approaches to it. In addition to all this, their rations were very limited and consisted of the plainest and roughest food. Coffee was out of the question, as were vegetables and fresh meat. All this told terribly on the health of the men, and there were little or no hospital accommodations in the rear.
In a day or two after General Hill's arrival, Colston's brigade reported to me and occupied a position between the upper dam of Wynn's Mill and Redoubt No. 5. On the 16th the enemy made a dash at Dam No. 1 on my right and succeeded in crossing the dam and entering the work covering it, but was soon repulsed and driven across the river with some loss. This was not within the limits of my command, but a portion of my troops were moved in the direction of the point at-tacked without, however, being needed. By the 18th, the residue of General Johnston's troops east of the Blue Ridge, except Ewell's division and a portion of the cavalry which had been left on the Rappahannock and a small force left at Fredericksburg, had reached the vicinity of Yorktown, and on that day General Johnston, having assumed the command, issued an order assigning Magruder to the command of the right wing, beginning at Dam No. 1 and extending to James River; D. H. Hill to the command of the left wing, including Yorktown, and Redoubts 4 and 5, and their appertinent defences; Longstreet to the command of the centre, which extended from Dam No. 1 to the right of the lateral defences of Redoubt No. 5; and G. W. Smith to the command of the reserve.
This order, as a necessary consequence, curtailed my command, which was now confined to Redoubts Nos. 4 and 5 and the works adjacent thereto, and they were defended by Rodes' and my brigades, and the 2nd Florida Regiment, 2nd Mississippi Battalion, and 49th Virginia Regiment, the latter regiment having been lately assigned to me for the defence of the head of the ravine south of Yorktown. Shortly afterwards General Hill made a new arrangement of the command, by which Rodes' brigade was separated from mine and General Rodes was assigned to the charge of Redoubt No. 5 and the defences on its right, while I was assigned to the charge of Redoubt No. 4 and the defences on the right and left of it, including the curtain connecting the two redoubts.
The enemy continued to advance his works, and it was while we were thus confronting him and in constant expectation of an assault, that the reorganization of the greater part of the regiments of our army, under the Conscript Act recently passed by Congress, took place. Congress had been tampering for some time with the question of reorganizing the army and supplying the place of the twelve months' volunteers, which composed much the greater part of our army; and several schemes had been started and adopted with little or no success and much damage to the army itself, until finally it was found necessary to adopt a general conscription. If this scheme had been adopted in the beginning, it would have readily been acquiesced in, but when it was adopted much dissatisfaction was created by the fact that it necessarily violated promises and engagements made with those who had re-enlisted under some of the former schemes. The reorganization which took place resulted in a very great change in the officers, especially among the field-officers, all of whom were appointed by election, and as may well be supposed this state of things added nothing to the efficiency of the army or its morals.
In the meantime the enemy's army had been greatly augmented by reinforcements, and by the last of April his approaches in our front had assumed very formidable appearances. McClellan, in his report, states the strength of his army as follows: present for duty, April 30, 1862, 4,725 officers, and 104,610 men, making 109,335 aggregate present for duty, and 115,350 aggregate present. This was exclusive of Wool's troops at Fortress Monroe. General Johnston's whole force, including Magruder's force in it, could not have exceeded 50,000 men and officers for duty, if it reached that number, and my own impression, from data within my knowledge, is that it was considerably below that figure.
After dark on the night of Thursday the 1st of May, General Hill informed his subordinate commanders that the line of Warwick River and Yorktown was to be abandoned, according to a determination that day made, upon a consultation of the principal officers at General Johnston's headquarters; and we were ordered to get ready to evacuate immediately after dark on the following night, after having previously sent off all the trains. This measure was one of absolute necessity, and the only wonder to me was that it had not been previously resorted to.
The line occupied by us was so long and our troops had to be so much scattered to occupy the whole of it, that no point could be sufficiently defended against a regular siege or a vigorous assault. The obstacles that had been interposed to obstruct the enemy, likewise rendered it impossible for us to move out and attack him after he had established his works in front of ours; and we would have to await the result of a regular siege, with the danger, imminent at any time, of the enemy's gunboats and monitors running by our works on York and James Rivers, and thus destroying our communication by water. About twelve miles in rear of Yorktown, near Williamsburg, the Peninsula is only about three or four miles wide, and there are creeks and marshes intersecting it on both sides at this point, in such way that the routes for the escape of our army would have been confined to a very narrow slip, if our line had been broken. The most assailable point on our whole line w&s that occupied by Rodes and myself, and when the enemy could have got his heavy batteries ready, our works on this part of the line would have soon been rendered wholly untenable.
Owing to the fact that the ground on which these works were located sloped towards the enemy's position, so as to expose to a direct fire their interior and rear, it would have been easy for him to have shelled us out of them; and when this part of the line had been carried, the enemy could have pushed to our rear on the direct road to Williamsburg and secured all the routes over which it would have been possible for us to retreat, thus rendering the capture or dispersion of our entire army certain. Nothing but the extreme boldness of Magruder and the excessive caution of McClellan had arrested the march of the latter across this part of the line in the first place, as it was then greatly weaker than we subsequently made it.
During the night of the 1st of May, after orders had been given for the evacuation, we commenced a cannonade upon the enemy, with all of our heavy guns, in the works at Yorktown and in Redoubt No. 4. The object of this was to dispose of as much of the fixed ammunition as possible and produce the impression that we were preparing for an attack on the enemy's trenches. This cannonading was continued during the next day, and, on one part of the line, we were ready to have commenced the evacuation at the time designated, but a little before night on that day (Friday the 2nd) the order was countermanded until the next night, because some of Longstreet 's troops were not ready to move. We therefore continued to cannonade on Friday night and during Saturday. Fortunately, after dark on the latter day the evacuation began and was conducted successfully-Stuart's cavalry having been dismounted to occupy our picket line in front, and then men attached to the heavy artillery remaining behind to continue the cannonade until near daylight next morning, so as to keep the enemy in ignorance of our movements. There was a loss of some stores and considerable public property which had been recently brought down, for which there was no transportation, as the steamboats expected for that purpose did not arrive, and the whole of our heavy artillery including some guns that had not been mounted had to be abandoned.
Hill's command, to which I was attached, moved on the direct road from Yorktown to Williamsburg, but our progress was very slow, as the roads were in a terrible condition by reason of heavy rains which had recently fallen. My command passed through Williamsburg after sunrise on the morning of Sunday, the 4th, and bivouacked about two miles west of that place. The day before the evacuation took place the 20th Georgia Regiment had been transferred from my brigade, and its place had been supplied by the 38th Virginia Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Whittle. The 2nd Florida Regiment and the 2nd Mississippi Battalion continued to be attached to my command. No supplies of provisions had been accumulated at Williamsburg, and the rations brought from Yorktown were now nearly exhausted, owing to the delay of a day in the evacuation and the fact that our transportation was very limited.
We rested on Sunday, but received orders to be ready to resume the march at 3 o'clock A. M. on next day, the 5th. My command was under arms promptly at the time designated, but it had been raining during the night, and it was very difficult for our trains and artillery to make any headway. My command, therefore, had to remain under arms until about noon, before the time arrived for it to take its place in the column to follow the troops and trains which were to precede it, and was just about to move off when I received an order from General Hill to halt for a time. I soon received another order to move back to Williamsburg and report to General Longstreet, who had been entrusted with the duty of protecting our rear.