At the New York Times’ Disunion blog, Glenn David Brasher, author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, writes about the Battle of Williamsburg, which proved to be a key turning point in the career of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. The information he acted on, however, came from local African Americans.
By early May 1862, Union general George B. McClellan finally had his heaviest siege guns aimed at the Confederate lines at Yorktown. For a month, his attempt to take Richmond, Va., the rebel capital, by way of the Virginia Peninsula had been stalled — both by his overestimation of Confederate troop strength and by the South’s extensive fortifications. At long last, however, McClellan seemed ready to blast away at the rebels.
At the same time, however, many runaway slaves along the peninsula were telling Union soldiers that Yorktown’s Southern defenders wouldn’t be there for the bombardment. This was no secret: The New York Times reported that two runaways claimed “the rebels [were] moving their stores, baggage and personal property back to Williamsburg.” On the left of the Union lines, a black scout assured Col. Regis de Trobriand that the Confederates were leaving. The colonel passed along the information, but although McClellan and his staff were receiving similar reports, they chose to ignore it.
But the reports were correct: despite the strength of his defenses on the Peninsula, Confederate commander Joe Johnston wanted to rely on Richmond’s stronger fortifications, stretch Union supply lines, and mire the Union Army in the Chickahominy swamps between the peninsula and the capital. On May 4, Federal reconnaissance probes and balloon observations confirmed the obvious: that the rebels had pulled out and were headed toward Richmond.
The withdrawal ruined McClellan’s plans and crushed Northern hopes for a decisive battle at Yorktown—just like in the American Revolution. Trobriand was furious that “we had been held motionless two days before abandoned positions.” If headquarters had heeded the news brought in by local blacks, the Army of the Potomac might have pounced on the retreating rebels. Union officers would not ignore black informants again.
But it wasn’t a completely clean getaway.
Read the full article at the NY Times Disunion blog.