A Sharpshooter at Williamsburg

     The Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia was the first major engagement of McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Fought May 5, 1862, the battle was brought about when General Joseph E. Johnston detached a force to hold Fort Magruder to gain time for the remainder of his army to get on the road to Richmond. Pursuing Federals slammed into them, and the resulting fight racked up more than 2,200 Federal casualties and nearly 1,700 Confederate casualties.

          Second Lieutenant Ira Smith Brown of Co. A of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters took part in some of the toughest fighting on the Federal right while attached to Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock’s brigade. “The enemy charged in splendid style. I never saw a finer sight. Three times advanced yelling like demons crying out ‘Bull Run’ ‘Ball’s Bluff.’ Eight rods in front of us was a rail fence. Only one man, a captain, crossed it. He fell dead. All that were left of the 5th North Carolina, 23rd North Carolina, and 24th Virginia were taken prisoner, many by the 33rd New York in reserve. General Hancock was ordered to retreat, but held his ground and to that alone we owe the day. Our Sharpshooters were rather between both forces on the left and did good service,” he noted. "The next morning, I visited the battlefield. I never before had seen death in such a shape. In one place I counted 75 dead; in another 46; the eyes open, staring horribly; hands clenched, body convulsed by the last strong agony, tongues protruding, yet some lay quietly as if sleeping. It was an awful sight. In one pile lay 300 dead Rebels; one Rebel and one Union soldier lay together each impaled on the others’ bayonet."

          It was at the Battle of Williamsburg that General Hancock gained his nickname of “Hancock the Superb” for a bayonet charge reportedly ordered here; oddly enough, Adjutant Brown makes no mention of a bayonet charge but gives Hancock all credit for gaining the victory.

          Lieutenant Brown had recently joined Berdan's regiment and was assigned to Co. A, "The Swiss Riflemen," because he was the only officer who could speak German, and most of men were European immigrants who could speak but little English. Brown would later serve as colonel of the 126th New York Infantry, seeing much action at places such as Harper’s Ferry, Bristoe Station, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, but most importantly at Gettysburg where the regiment was credited with helping to halt Pickett’s Charge and capturing five battle flags.

Co. A of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters was armed with .56 caliber Model 1859 Colt's Revolving Rifles at the Battle of Williamsburg. Lieutenant Brown related that they were fine guns, but a week after the battle, the company turned in their Colts and received .52 caliber Sharps rifles, "the finest gun ever made in the world," Brown related. "The officers carry no guns save a few who have private rifles. An officer carries his sword, a revolver, a blanket, a haversack, and canteen which makes a pretty good load. Revolvers are very plenty and very useless; not one in a thousand are ever used."
(Image from Heritage Auctions)


Sunday, May 11, 1862

Near New Kent Courthouse, Virginia

Hancock’s Brigade, Smith’s Division, V Corps

Passing by all our adventures, scouting, and picketing, I come up to Sunday morning May 4th. I went on picket before daylight; everything was unusually still; I saw no signs and could not understand it. At 5 o’clock, the captain of the picket (from the 5th Wisconsin) started to reconnoiter, keeping on till he arrived in the Rebel works. They were silent as the grave. In an hour, our brigade (Hancock’s) was in full pursuit and here begins the advance on Richmond.

          Upon crossing the dam, the first thing we saw were bodies of our soldiers drowned in the fight of April 16th now become visible as the water was let out. The next thing I saw was a bowie knife, the handle of which was made of a man’s wrist bone. Torpedoes were placed in the road; we dug up seven; one exploded and killed one man and wounded nine. General George McClellan made our prisoners dig up the rest. Steadily we pressed on after the enemy taking no rest. We had no food; no time could be lost to cook rations. It was very warm and we were marched almost double quick. But no one cared; we were really on the road to Richmond and the enemy only seven miles ahead. In the afternoon our cavalry charged the Rebel rear guard, but were drawn within range of a masked battery and we lost in killed and wounded more than 50. I know these figures are correct, the New York papers to the contrary notwithstanding. The papers never tell our real losses.

Captain Benjamin Giroux
Co. C, 1st U.S.S.S.

          We halted in time of battle and lay down to sleep in a large wheat field tired and hungry to sleep as best we might await the morrow and the coming battle. At 2 a.m. it began to rain hard. At daylight we were formed and slowly advanced to the Battle of Williamsburg. Of this battle I shall only say a little, as I saw the reporters have 100 pages of manuscript. I will say a word about Hancock’s brigade though as the 33rd New York were with it that day and our detachment. We had 155 of our riflemen out- Captain Benjamin Giroux commanded the Michigan boys (Co. C) and Captain John B. Isler the Swiss riflemen (Co. A). A heavy rain was falling and a mist covered the battlefield like a cloud. The men were hungry and tired but now forgot all their troubles. The battleground was a beautiful wheat field about two miles long and 200 rods wide. Numerous forts were scattered along, the one on our left being the target- it was Fort Magruder. They had not mounted their heavy guns else we would have had a terrible struggle. Behind Fort Magruder a series of works reached to Williamsburg, one protecting the other.

          We lay on our arms in the cold rain till 4:30 p.m. before the raging tide of battle surged toward us. The Sharpshooters were in the edge of the woods on the left of Hancock’s brigade, and the 5th Wisconsin on the extreme right, forming a wall across the narrow valley. The wheat high and we were cold and wet, shaking as if we had the ague. I saw William Long riding about the battlefield but no order came for us. We began to fear we would take no part when suddenly from the woods on our right came out the Rebels advancing in lines parallel with ours. Their colonel headed them waving his sword right gallantly, but in a minute he fell dead. A word now as to our situation. General Joseph Hooker was on our left and there the battle began in the morning. We were 900 yards from the enemy’s left, with the two deserted forts behind us. The artillery played over us, so we lay down in the grass and mud, thereby being benumbed with the inaction.

          The enemy advanced at double quick at 4:30 from the woods on our right, the 5th North Carolina of General Jubal Early’s brigade leading about 100 yards distance and parallel to Co. G’s (5th Wisconsin) skirmishers, by whom they were received in the most gallant manner. Captain William A. Bugh managed admirably. He had passed by a few rods when he fell severely wounded. He is from Berlin, Wisconsin. He remained on the field till night as the enemy pressed too hard for us to recover him. The Rebel soldiers attempted to bayonet him, but he fought with his sword. Luckily a Rebel major approached and drove away his men. That major was killed a few minutes afterwards.

          The enemy charged in splendid style. I never saw a finer sight. Three times advanced yelling like demons crying out ‘Bull Run’ ‘Ball’s Bluff.’ Eight rods in front of us was a rail fence. Only one man, a captain, crossed it. He fell dead. All that were left of the 5th North Carolina, 23rd North Carolina, and 24th Virginia were taken prisoner, many by the 33rd New York in reserve. General Winfield S. Hancock was ordered to retreat, but held his ground and to that alone we owe the day. Our Sharpshooters were rather between both forces on the left and did good service. Of the three regiments named above, only 140 were left and these prisoners. The next morning, I visited the battlefield. I never before had seen death in such a shape. In one place I counted 75 dead; in another 46; the eyes open, staring horribly; hands clenched, body convulsed by the last strong agony, tongues protruding, yet some lay quietly as if sleeping. It was an awful sight. In one pile lay 300 dead Rebels; one Rebel and one Union soldier lay together each impaled on the others’ bayonet.

General Winfield Scott Hancock

          Tuesday was clear and beautiful. In a barn we found 106 wounded Rebels. Two Rebel surgeons remained with them. It was a horrible place. Fourteen legs lay in one pile. All day Tuesday we were burying the dead. Our loss in killed, wounded, and missing was 2,000; the Rebels lost about 2,500. It was obstinately contested and dearly won. All day Tuesday we got nothing to eat and lay down on the hard ground tired and hungry. Since Sunday morning I had not tasted a mouthful. It was bright moonlight and the bands were playing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ That beautiful tune awakened memories of the Auld Lang Syne when Virginians were loyal as well as brave- when this beautiful state furnished men who stood shoulder to shoulder with the patriots of 1776. The repeal of the law of primogeniture was just, but American never again will see such scenes of social grandeur. It is hard to believe that these dirty prisoners are the descendants of the Virginia chivalry.

          All around were graves of friend and foe. The game for them was played out. The balance struck. The squirrel may gambol in the boughs above and the partridge whistle in the long grass beneath. They are where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. Wednesday morning, I was nearly starved. I had eaten nothing since Sunday morning save six crackers my servant George went seven miles and bought for 50 cents from a sutler. Bread was 50 cents per load and a wagon load was sold at that price in five minutes. While wandering wearily along I met William Long who gave me breakfast. I never enjoyed a meal so before in the world. Towards night I got some provisions enough to last till Thursday noon. Thursday we received marching orders and Friday morning at 3 a.m. without any breakfast we again started for Richmond. We are bound to go to Richmond anyway.

Lieutenant Ira Smith Brown
Co. A, 1st U.S.S.S.

          An army on a march is a grand spectacle; enough to excite enthusiasm in the dullest, and rouse the passions of any beholder. Miles and miles of gleaming bayonets and dark masses of men, far away as the eye could reach. Friday morning, I stopped to visit the old Custis place. It was a ruin. The marble tombs of Daniel Parke Custis and family were defaced and broken. It was here, if I mistake not, George Washington did his courting. Major Charles H. Larrabee of the 5th Wisconsin copied the inscriptions and gave it to the reporters. The place, the scene before me, an army against an army, all descendants of George Washington’s own men. It was suggestive.

          As soon as the teams started for provisions I sat down to write to you. As to the future we only know that we are going to Richmond and no earthly power can prevent us. A week ago last Sunday I was promoted to be staff officer on General Charles S. Hamilton’s staff. He commands Heintzelman’s old division.[1] But McClellan refused to let me leave my regiment because I belonged to Porter’s division; consequently, my confidence in the general is impaired. That is as good a reason as many of his enemies have for traducing him. Just wait. Before this letter sees the light of your columns, Richmond will be ours.

Source:

Letter from Adjutant Ira Smith Brown, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, Yates County Chronicle (New York), May 22, 1862, pg. 2



[1] Hamilton’s command was the 3rd Division of the III Corps.

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