A Pitiless Rain: The Battle of Williamsburg, 1862

by Earl C. Hastings, Jr. and David Hastings, Shippensburg, White Mane, 1997


There is a great number of very basic books about the Civil War still waiting to be written. Earl and David Hastings have taken one off the list with their account of the Battle of Williamsburg, this being its first book-length study.

Williamsburg is normally treated as an episode in the Richmond Campaign. It merited less than 20 pages in Stephen Sears' To the Gates of Richmond and just 23 pages in a recent Steven Woodworth Article "Dark Portents" (which examined Rebel leadership during the battle). This is how Woodworth introduced his article:

Of all the forgotten events of the much neglected Peninsula Campaign, none is more obscure than the Confederate retreat from Yorktown to the Chickahominy.

Some authors have denigrated Williamsburg as a "skirmish." The Hastings here try to raise public understanding of Williamsburg as a "savage, two days of engagement which at its height involved more than 20,000 troops in combat." They are residents of the Williamsburg area and have made a close study of the ground (distilling their insights in an appendix for anyone who would follow their footsteps), and although amateur historians, they have displayed fine judgement and a command of the facts. They provide a rich (but not overblown) background leading up to Williamsburg. Their arguments that the Warwick River line and Williamsburg defenses were well-constructed and formidable are credible and backed with sketches, personal observations, and a lively and fascinating look at the record. This alone provides unique value missing from all current Peninsula Campaign histories.

Their battle narrative is comprised from the "usual sources" (OR, McClellan's Own Story, etc.) supplemented with Custer's unfinished memoirs and large helpings of unit histories. All in all there are 160 pages, an index, decent maps, and two appendices, one being a roster of units that fought. I have abstracted the Hastings' viewpoint on several key incidents in the battle and tabled them with comparative data (below).

 ISSUE

The HASTINGS

 WOODWORTH

SEARS

McCLELLAN

Gen.KEARNY

 Hancock's holding Redoubt 11

Little effect on outcome

 "Unmitigated disaster" for the CSA

No comment

"Magnificent" Highest praise

 Little effect

 Kearny's attack

 "Electric" but slow

 Neutralized by CSA counterattack

 "Saved the battle"

 Relieved the exhausted Hooker

Made the victory

 Hancock's charge

Not a bayonet charge, per se

(Not mentioned)

 Not a bayonet charge

 "Charged with the bayonet"

 Not a bayonet charge

 Hooker's leadership

 "Calm" and "deliberate"

No comment

No comment

 "Brilliant" but Hooker despondent

 Panic-stricken, nearly paralyzed

 Sumner's leadership

 Reasonable and cautious: he expected a major attack

 "Bull headed" and "obtuse"

Frequently "alarmed"

Foolish*

Bad
 SOURCE:

 A Pitiless Rain

 "Dark Portents" in the Penninsula Campaign
 To the Gates of Richmond

 McClellan's Own Story -- & *Private Letter

 Private letters

(One might add to this that all those cited in the table consider Williamsburg a Confederate defeat except Sears, who regards it as a Rebel victory.)

McClellan called the Battle of Williamsburg an "accident." By that he meant, neither he nor his opponent, General Joe Johnston, expected a battle to develop as a result of the pursuit of the Rebel army out of Yorktown. McClellan had aimed to cut off their retreat with a water landing and on the day the battle developed he was meeting with naval officers at Yorktown while his soldiers loaded transports. The battle was nominally fought by the senior officers on the field, Longstreet and Sumner, though in actuality it was fought by lower-level leaders until late afternoon, when McClellan arrived and took charge on the Union side (Johnston never arrived). Characteristically, McClellan conducted a detailed personal reconnaissance of enemy positions, quickly identified the critical issue (reinforcement of Hancock's lodgement in enemy lines), and sent overwhelming force to strengthen the commanding Hancock advantage in Redoubt 11. Although the Hastings characterize McClellan's activities as mainly preparing for the next day of battle, he in fact ended the battle by providing the Rebels irrefutable reasons to withdraw during the night.

This is perhaps the single weak spot of Pitiless Rain. The Hastings do not regard the Hancock lodgement in Redoubt 11 as crucial and they do not explain why they discount it other than to quote Longstreet's dismissal of the effect Hancock was having on Rebel lines. Early's misguided attack on Hancock, ending in a vigorous counterattck by Union troops, suggests at least some Rebel interest in the position. As two who personally surveyed the defenses and who drew the maps that show Redoubt 11 as a linchpin of the line, the authors owe us a fuller explanation of their judgement in this.

Let's end the review on a strong note, however:

It is ironic that some historians insist on writing that the Warwick River and Williamsburg defenses were weak, when so many of the officers and men on both sides, who were there, felt exactly the opposite. This may be due in part to a lack of detailed knowledge of these lines, or a blanket acceptance of General Johnston's assessment. On this point it is well to remember that Johnston argued against fighting on the Peninsula at all, and his case would hardly have been helped by admitting that there were strong defense lines there. No less a military personage than General Lee believed these lines to be defensible against McClellan, as did both Magruder and Ewell.

Johnston, thus embroiled in a dispute with President Davis, Robert E. Lee, and John Magruder over the value of the defenses, issued his celebrated rebuttal to them that "only McClellan" would have stopped in front of Yorktown. Historians have used this quote out of context ever since.

The Johnston/Magruder fortifications conflict is here, and I have not seen it elsewhere. So are the history of the fortifications and Lee's role in their construction. This content alone would make Pitiless Rain worthwhile. But there is so much more of worth in addition that this book is due twin honors: being the first book on Williamsburg and likely the best, for as long as one is needed or wanted.

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