Monday, May 5, 2008

Cavalry Skirmish at Williamsburg - May 4, 1862

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the 6th Cavalry first combat engagement, and as such I present the following account of the skirmish.

Following the Confederate abandonment of the works at Yorktown, Brigadier General George Stoneman was given a composite force of combined arms and the assignment to pursue and harass the rear of the retreating enemy as the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac. His force consisted of four batteries of flying or horse artillery, four cavalry regiments (1st and 6th U.S., 3rd Pennsylvania and 8th Illinois), and Barker’s squadron of cavalry.

The advance of this advance guard on the Yorktown road was commanded by Brigadier General Phillip St.George Cooke, and consisted of the 1st and 6th U.S. Cavalry regiments and Gibson’s Battery (Company G, 3rd U.S. Artillery). Cooke’s organization was somewhat unusual, in that each of the regiments assigned to him was from a different brigade of the army’s Cavalry Division. Cooke’s advance, consisting of Captain Magruder’s squadron of the 1st U.S., with Captain Savage’s squadron of the 6th U.S. acting as flankers, rode about half a mile in advance of the column.

Cooke’s command departed the works at Yorktown on May 4th, and led Stoneman’s advance down the Yorktown road toward Williamsburg. Six miles from Richmond, according to Stoneman’s report, the force encountered and quickly drove off Confederate pickets. Two miles farther down the road, the column made contact with the Confederate rear guard, “about two companies, at a defile of a mill and dam and a breastwork across the road” (page 427). The battery deployed and fired, and the Confederate cavalry retreated before a charge could be made. After crossing the defile, Brigadier General William Emory was sent across to the Lee’s Mill road with the 3rd Pennsylvania, Benson’s battery and Barker’s squadron to cut off any force on that road retreating before the advance of Smith’s division of infantry. Cooke’s command continued down the Yorktown road. Over the course of the advance, a captain (Captain Connell of the Jeff Davis Legion (page 444)) was captured by Lieutenant Joseph Kerin, of the 6th Cavalry’s flankers, and five rebel privates were captured.

Two miles from Williamsburg, at the junction of the Yorktown and Lee’s Mill roads, the advance of Cooke’s force discovered a strong earthwork flanked by redoubts and manned by several regiments of Confederates about three o’clock in the afternoon. The area was ill-suited to deploy from the march, with thick forest and marshy ground, but General Cooke ordered the deployment of Gibson’s battery and the 1st U.S. Cavalry to attack the position. Captain Savage’s right flank platoon had located a track through the woods which led to the Confederate left flank. The 6th U.S. Cavalry, under Major Lawrence Williams, was ordered to make a demonstration down this road to prevent the enemy flanking Union forces on their right side. The remainder of his force Stoneman deployed in a clearing a half mile to the rear.

Captain Gibson manhandled his battery into position through deep mud and engaged the enemy, and Lieutenant Colonel William Grier placed his 1st Cavalry in position to support it. The earthwork, Fort Magruder, was manned by three regiments of infantry, a regiment of cavalry and a battery of artillery. Firing from Gibson’s battery caused return fire from two batteries within the earthworks and a Confederate sortie to drive them off. After a duel of some 45 minutes, Stoneman ordered his forces to withdraw. Increasing activity from the Confederate regiments to his front and a lack of infantry support caused by delays on the road behind him led him to believe that he could not hold his position. The battery retired by piece, and the 1st U.S. was ordered to cover its withdrawal in the face of the advancing Confederates. Four caissons and one cannon were abandoned due to the marshy ground and a lack of horses due to enemy fire. As the last squadron of the 1st U.S. retired at a walk, the emboldened Confederates charged. The U.S. squadron, Companies I and K, commanded by Captain Benjamin F. Davis and Captain Baker, wheeled by fours and countercharged to repulse them. Although composed of only 60 men, the squadron charged again to drive them off, taking a captain prisoner and capturing a “regimental standard with the coat of arms of Virginia” (page 430). Lieutenant Colonel Grier, accompanying the charge, lost his horse and was slightly wounded. This was most likely the 4th Virginia Cavalry, whose commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wickham was wounded in the side by a saber during the fighting and whose colors were apparently lost (page 444).

The 6th U.S. Cavalry proceeded nearly half a mile at a trot down the forest road, across a ravine, and up to the left flank of the Confederate earthworks. The ravine could only be crossed by file, and as the regiment reformed on its far side, Lieutenant Daniel Madden was dispatched with is platoon to reconnoiter the earthworks. He discovered a redoubt with a ditch and rampart, as well as the advance of more than one enemy regiment. Outnumbered, Major Williams ordered his force to withdraw by platoons across the narrow ravine, harassed the entire way by enemy fire. As the last company, Captains Sanders’ Company A, crossed the ravine, two squadrons of Confederate cavalry charged. Once they reached the far side, Sanders’ men, accompanied by Captain Hays’ Company M and Captain J. Irvin Gregg’s squadron of Companies F and G countercharged. The Confederates, now slowed in the ravine themselves, were driven off with reported heavy losses.

The Confederates occupying the works belonged to Brigadier General Paul A. Semmes’ brigade of McLaws’ division initially, reinforced after Gibson’s battery opened fire by Kershaw’s brigade and another artillery battery. Major General McLaws was present on the field to observe the 6th Cavalry’s exit from the woods on his left flank, and it was he who ordered the charge of Colonel J. Lucius Davis’ Wise Legion into the 6th U.S. Cavalry at the ravine (page 441).

General Stoneman withdrew his forces half a mile to the clearing and awaited the arrival of infantry support. Union losses totaled some 35 killed, wounded and missing, according to his report. The army’s medical director, Charles A. Tripler, reported that Stoneman’s command suffered 3 killed and 28 wounded in the day’s fighting (page 184). How these were divided among the units engaged is unknown. Captain Gibson reported losses in his battery of one officer and 4 men wounded, 17 horses killed, and 5 horses wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Grier’s and Major Williams’ reports don’t address casualties, other than that Lieutenant Curwen McLellan, Company A, 6th Cavalry, was severely wounded in the leg by a shell while crossing the ravine (page 437).

General Stoneman singled out the conduct of several in his official report on the engagement, including Captain Gibson of the 3rd Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Grier, Captain Davis and his company of the 1st Cavalry, and Major Williams, Captain Sanders and his squadron of the 6th Cavalry, as well as generals Cooke and Emory (pg 425).

Sergeant John F. Durboran of Company M, 6th Cavalry, reportedly killed two rebels in the engagement, and was praised in General Cooke’s report (page 428). First Sergeants Joseph Bould of Company A and Michael Cooney of Company M were also singled out for praise by Captain Sanders (page 439). Captain Gregg mentioned Sergeant Andrew F. Swan of Company G, Sergeant Emil Swartz of Company F as “especially deserving of praise for their gallant bearing.” Sergeant Swan and Private Parker Flansburg of Company G were wounded, and three horses lost in Gregg’s squadron (page 440).

Casualties from the 6th Cavalry’s first combat action are difficult to determine. Private Suel Merkle of Company E was the regiment’s first and only trooper killed in this action on May 4th. Lieutenant McLellan’s, Sergeant Swan’s and Private Flansburg’s wounds were mentioned in reports, but the regimental muster rolls make no mention of the wounded for the month, only those killed and desertions. I don’t yet have access to the 1st Cavalry’s muster rolls to know what they say about the engagement.

Other than the regimental muster rolls, the primary source for this entry is the Official records, Volume 11, part I, pages noted in parentheses as appropriate. As well as I have been able to determine, other accounts such as Carter’s in From Yorktown to Santiago simply rely on these reports for their information. Captain August Kautz’ diary contains no information, as he was still sick in the rear, and Captain Savage commanded his squadron in his absence.


Eric Wittenberg said...


I have a primary source account of this action you've never seen.....


Don said...


Somewhere within your files, I think you probably have a primary account of every cavalry action in the eastern theater that I haven't seen! 8^) Seriously, though, that's good news. I'll be in touch shortly.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed very much reading your article. Have you read "Federal Cavalry Operations in the Peninsula Campaign" by Robert O'Neill, in "The Peninsula Campaign of 1862: Yorktown to the Seven Days," vol.3, ISBN 1882810147?

It is over 60 pages with 155 endnotes some of which look to be primary sources.

Larry Freiheit

Don said...


I have indeed read Mr. O'Neill's excellent work. I've been eagerly awaiting a sequel, as the article in the magazine that you mentioned ends in mid-campaign. Thanks for the tip, I haven't looked through those endnotes in a while.


Anonymous said...

If I may, perhaps a cross blog comment and query. Over on Behind AotW, an entry and photograph of Gibson's battery (, cited as taken in the summer of 1862, raised some questions. In the photograph, one of the guns has a profile more fitting a 12-pdr Napoleon. Several sources state Gibson's battery carried into the Peninsula campaign (and at least as far as Antietam) six 3in Ord Rifles. Brian's comment brought me here, with the obvious question, did perhaps Gibson's battery receive a "float" 12-pdr after losing a gun at Williamsburg?

Anonymous said...

Hi Don - was actually searching for something else when I saw you post from Monday. The Capt. you mention Cooke's troops captured on the way to Williasmburg was Capt. William G. Conner of the Jeff Davis Legion. William Farley - one of Stuarts more adventurous Scouts was with him, but managed to get away and walked into the Confederate lines at Williamsburg that evening.

The flag captured by the 1st US Cav was indeed the 4th VA Cav's flag. It was actually captured by one of Gibson's artillerymen who was then sabered by one of the 1st (accidentally) who then claimed the flag. The Flag is in the Museum of the Confederacy Collection with a small cut-out piece from in up at the Library of Congress.

The 6th US actually got up to Fort Magruder - the central redout in the Williamsburg line, but pulled back as Semmes and Laws infantry were approaching. They were pursued by the Hampton Legion Cavalry and Wise Legion Cavalry (10th VA). The fight in the ravine was nasty - one of the dead was the son of Francis Lieber, Oscar Lieber was killed in this fight. This action is was fought on one of the few remaining intact sections of the battlefield.

Mark - Gibson's gun (if I recall correctly) was hauled off the battlefield by the Richmond Howitzers (1st Co) and it created a bit of a stir as Manly's Battery (Co A 10th NC Art Reg) had done most of the dueling with Gibson that evening and they rightly felt the gun should be theirs.

Eric - would love to know what the primary source you mentioned is to see if I have uncovered it yet!

Tom McMahon

Don said...


It's certainly possible, though I haven't come across a reference to such a thing. He definitely didn't get the one back from the skirmish, and despite his report to the contrary, it doesn't seem to have been effectively spiked if the Richmond Howitzers were using it a couple of days later.

Don said...

Hi Tom,

Wish I'd run into you during my years at William & Mary -- I've been over that ground several times, but was never sure exactly what it was that I was looking at (Although the BBQ place near the site was pretty good).

Nice catch on Captain Conner, I'd found that in Stuart's report and forgot to add it in. What account did you find for the ravine fight? I'd love a few more details on that one.

Do you have a source for the 6th getting to Ft Magruder itself? I couldn't tell from the reports, and I'd thought it was one of the flanking redoubts from the descriptions of the terrain, back near where Quarterpath Road is now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Don:

I am a W&M grad myself '94. Was a Bio major and got interested in the Battle AFTER I graduated - big bummer.

I will have to send you a map and show you where the skirmish occurred. The old "path" the 6th took from the Williamsburg-Yortown Road is still there in the woods, and as the fight was in a ravince (wetlands) it has not been developed (seems only wetlands or Navy base land prevent development in Williamsburg). One of the smaller Redans (#8) of the battlefield is still intact and overlooks the spot of the fight.

With regard to the 6th Cav getting up to Fort Magruder I have several accounts that piece it together. Please not the Bob O'Neil's fine account of the Cavalry fight at W'burg is marred by the fact his map is reversed. The 6th did not come up the Quarterpath (south) side of the battlefield - but rather the northern side. They came up a small path off the Yorktown-Williamsburg road near the Whitaker House which was Sumner's HQ during the battle (the whole area has been destroyed by a major new mall that commenced building 2 years ago...and the developer just went bacnkrupt and sold the project at auction - lovely). The 6th followed the path west, down the ravine, which has the headwaters of Jones Pond, just to the South of Redoubt #8, past Redoubt #7 and formed up. The advanced scouts made it to the north wall of Fort Magruder (ravine and ramparts). Seeing Cavalry (Hampton and Wise Legion) and Infantry (Semmes and Laws Brigades) pouring out of Williamsburg towards them (to occupy Magruder at the center of the line) the 6th pulled back. I have always thought the action of the Maj. Lawrence Williams (A McClellan appointee) was spineless. Where was he when the rear of his column was assaulted as it pulled back across the ravine? No mention of his commanding the Capt. Sanders to wheel about...and no precautions to prevent Capt. Sanders company from being cut off.

I think a few of the Hampton and Wise Legion casualties were buried in Williamsburg (I have records of the undertaker).

William Farley has a letter that gives a great account of Conner's capture and his escape.

I will have to look up my citation list, but I know I have a couple sources from the 6th, Wise and Hampton Legion on the fight. I also have a running list of the K, W, and MIAs from the battle. Drop me an email at