The Warwick-Yorktown Defense Line

The 13th’s camp near Lee’s Mill was near the site of an April 4 collision between less than 2,000 Confederates under Gen. Lafayette McLaws and Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s much larger division in the vanguard of the Union’s IV Corps.

The fight at this second and largest of Gen. Magruder’s two lines of defense across the Peninsula cost the Rebels ten casualties but it convinced IV Corps’ commander Maj. Gen. Erasmus Keys that:

“Magruder is in a strongly fortified position behind the Warwick River, the fords to which have been destroyed by dams, and the approaches to which are through dense forests, swamps and marshes. No part of this line as discovered can be taken without an enormous waste of life.”

This helped convince the ever-cautious Union commanding Gen. George McClellan to bring up his heavy artillery pieces and lay siege to Magruder’s defenses.

From the 13th’s viewpoint—as part of Magruder’s 14,000-man army— seven days later, according to QM clerk Hill:

“We have a very large force here but the enemy has a larger one. Their force is estimated at 95,000…our lines extend across the Peninsular [sic] from Yorktown, 4 miles on our left, to Mulberry Point on the James River, 5 miles to our right.”

On April 14, a Monday, Hill recorded,

“….heavy cannonading took place between the enemies [sic] ships of war and our Naval Batteries at Yorktown. The ships [on the York River] are two miles from the batteries. The Regiment moved into the trenches along the Warwick River this evening.”

The trenches were north of the Warwick, which Magruder had turned into an obstacle by erecting two fortified dams on the river to create a lake. His fallback line was a series of unmanned earthen forts just east of the old colonial capital of Williamsburg, which awaited the army if it had to withdraw from Yorktown.

Gen. Johnston, ever on the defensive, thought Magruder’s position weak. He wanted to give up this part of the Peninsula and withdraw the troops back to the vicinity of Richmond. President Davis told him to hold out on the Warwick as long as possible.

Despite Magruder’s inspired defensive scheme (creating a lake from the river, etc.) Gen. D.H. Hill, who’d been commanded by Magruder at Big Bethel in 1861, had a low opinion of “Prince John,” the amateur actor whose pronounced lisp turned his Rs into Ws.

Hill wrote his wife Isabella, “…Magruder in command is always drunk and giving foolish and absurd orders.”

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About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Battles: Peninsula Campaign, Gen. Daniel H. Hill, William H. Hill Diary and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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