Civil War History in the Williamsburg Area

A re-enactment at Colonial Williamsburg
A re-enactment at Colonial Williamsburg

The Historic Triangle is well known for its stories. But not all of them are from the American Revolution. This area was an important part of the American Civil War, too. From 1861 to 1862, it was the site of the most intense fighting seen in the war at that point.

Battles & Events

The Battle of Williamsburg was the first major conflict of the Peninsula Campaign, and on May 5, 1862, more than 70,000 Union and Confederate forces attacked and counter-attacked just southeast of town. The next day, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac marched down Duke of Gloucester Street and occupied Williamsburg.

Having failed the previous year in its early attempt at Manassas (Bull Run) for a decisive end to the rebellion, in April 1862 massive Union forces under the leadership of Gen. McClellan vowed to take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, by marching up the Virginia Peninsula, thus assuring an early end to the rebellion. Land forces flanked by supply ships traversing the James and York Rivers would roll over weak defensive positions and small numbers, marching triumphantly into the capital by summer’s end.

However, a few untimely delays were encountered along the way.

The Confederate’s second and third defensive lines built across the Virginia Peninsula at Yorktown and nearby Williamsburg, while not halting the Union onslaught, held fast long enough for Rebel defensives on the outskirts of Richmond to be completed and manned.

The story of these two armies, and of the townspeople who for four long years witnessed this savage period, unfolds as you visit Williamsburg and the surrounding area.

From 1861 through "the fall of Richmond,” major battles and events unfolded around Williamsburg. These sites can all be easily reached from the central location in Williamsburg.

A Timeline

Below is a basic timeline of events for the Peninsula Campaign.

March 8 & 9, 1862: Battle of Hampton Roads; CSS VIRGINIA (Merrimack) revealed on 8th; USS MONITOR revealed on 9th

March 11: McClellan removed as general-in-chief of armies

Spring 1862: Union forces land at Fort Monroe

April 5 - May 4, 1862: Battle of Yorktown – Gen. McClellan overestimated the Confederate army, leading him to the decision that he should send in a reconnaissance team. This allowed time for Gen. Magruder to receive more soldiers. In the end, McClellan took too much time and the Confederate soldiers retreated to Williamsburg.

May 5: Battle of Williamsburg – The Battle of Williamsburg was a stopping point where the armies fought, but Longstreet’s rear guard kept the Union soldiers at bay, allowing the Confederate soldiers to retreat to Richmond.

May 7: Battle of Eltham’s Landing (West Point) – This is little more than a heavy skirmish, with forces fighting in thick woods. A brief fight and the Union soldiers backed into the woods again.

May 15: Battle of Norfolk (Drewry’s Bluff) – Another loss for the Federals. An amphibious battle, with The Monitor and two other ironclads attacking Norfolk. However, the ships couldn’t fully help, and therefore had to retreat. The U.S. reported 14 casualties. The CSA had 7.

May 27: Battle of Hanover Court House (Slash Church) – Not a lot happened here, with confederate forces breaking under the weight of thousands of new troops from the north, therefore retreating.

May 31 & June 1: Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) – Nothing big happened here, with both sides claiming victory, both sides having almost equal numbers of casualties, and Gen. Longstreet being wounded twice. The Confederate army retreated to Richmond, where the final battle of the campaign took place.

June 25 - July 1, 1862: Seven Days Battle – A series of battles that lasted a week. Robert E. Lee launched fierce counterstrikes that weren’t significant victories. “Stonewall” Jackson joined the fight here, which gave the Union army a run for its money. This all culminated in a victory for the CSA.

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