By Rich MacAlpine
As Gleaned from the Yates County Chronicle, May 22, 1862
The first major battle of the Peninsular Campaign, the Battle of Williamsburg, was fought on May 5 and resulted in nearly 4,000 casualties on both sides. General McClellan played it up to be a major victory for the Union army, as the Confederates withdrew closer to Richmond. Several Yates County units were involved in the heat of the battle and a few individuals wrote to the Chronicle to describe their experiences.
J. Smith Brown of Penn Yan, a soldier in Berdan’s Sharpshooters, mentioned that his company was composed of “…. Swiss Riflemen from the armies of the old world and trained soldiers. Only one or two of them speak English. I was the only Lieutenant who could speak German.” He described a rebel charge into the heart of his company’s line: “The enemy charged in splendid style. I never saw a finer sight. Three times advanced yelling like demons, crying out ‘Ball’s Bluff! Ball’s Bluff!’ Eight rods in front of us was a rail fence. Only one man, a Captain, crossed it and he fell dead. …The next morning I visited the battlefield. I never before had seen death in such a shape. In one place I counted 70 dead; 40 in another. It was an awful sight. One rebel and Union soldier lay together, each impaled on the other’s bayonet.”
Captain Root of the Keuka Rifles, part of the Thirty-third New York Regiment of Volunteers, reported that Gen. McClellan commended the 33rd for its role in the Williamsburg battle. A charge by three companies of the 33d broke a rebel advance and inspired the entire Federal line. The General said to the Regiment: “Officers and Soldiers of the 33rd: I have come to thank you for your gallant conduct on the battlefield on the 5th inst. I will say to you what I have said to the other Regiments engaged with you. You all did well! Did all that I could have expected. But you did more! You behaved like veterans! You are veterans – veterans of a hundred battles could not have done better. Those on your left fought well, but YOU won the day. You were at the right point, did the right thing at the right time and for your gallant conduct, you shall have ‘Williamsburg’ inscribed upon your banner.”
Charles Chapman of Benton, a member of the Keuka Rifles, reported that they were only 32 miles from Richmond and “I think we shall see it in less than two weeks.”
For more on the Battle of Williamsburg and the Thirty-third NYSV, visit the Blue Gray Review.