"A Battle without a Plan": The Battle of Williamsburg

March 21, 2012 to December 10, 2012


The Battle of Williamsburg was a rear-guard action fought in rain and mud on May 5, 1862. The Union forces, led by George B. McClellan's second-in-command, Edwin Vose Sumner, attacked the Confederates as the Southern forces withdrew from their Yorktown defenses en route to Richmond. The armies met near Williamsburg, which was defended by 13 small redoubts and anchored at its center by a large one, Fort Magruder. The Federal forces outnumbered the Confederates 2 to 1 (112,000 soldiers to 54,000 soldiers).

Assisting Sumner were his corps commanders Samuel P. Heintzelman and Erasmus K. Keyes. The field commanders on the Southern side were James Longstreet and D. H. Hill, both division commanders. Other well-known names involved in the action were A. P. Hill, George Pickett, J. E. B. Stuart, who fought with the Confederate States Army; and Joseph Hooker, Philip Kearny, and George Custer, who fought with the Union Army.

Brig. Gen. Jubal Early's Southern brigade made a heroic charge against Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's men, but the Confederates were repulsed.  While the fight was a tactical draw, each side was impressed with the other's tenacity. The Southern forces continued their retreat toward Richmond. Federal troops occupied Williamsburg for the remainder of the war.

Images of the exhibit are available from Special Collections on Flickr.

Curator: Susan Riggs, Manuscripts & Rare Books Librarian; Exhibit design and installation: Jennie Davy, Burger Archives Specialist, with fabrication assistance from Zachary Stocks, Undergraduate Student Volunteer, and installation assistance from Zara Fina Stasi, Undergraduate Student Volunteer.