Fort Magruder and the Battle of Williamsburg

Photo by Michael Kleen

A small monument and a few wayside markers are all that remind passersby that two Civil War armies once fought here.

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The Battle of Williamsburg was fought on May 5, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet outside Williamsburg, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was tactically a draw, with the Confederate army withdrawing toward Richmond during the night.

In the spring of 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan took his massive 120,000-man Army of the Potomac by boat and landed at Fort Monroe near Hampton Roads. He planned to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, bringing a swift end to the war. Standing in his way was Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder, a series of small forts and defensive works, and 11,000 men. Magruder’s elaborate showmanship and deceptive tactics delayed the Union army for nearly 30 days.

The delay bought time for Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to arrive with reinforcements. Their combined force of 57,000 was still no match for McClellan, so Johnston decided to withdraw to the defenses around Richmond. A force of 32,000 commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet was left to defend Fort Magruder, southeast of Williamsburg, and cover the withdrawal.

On the morning of May 5, Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 2nd division of the Union III Corps attacked Fort Magruder from the southeast, becoming tangled with Cadmus M. Wilcox’s brigade in a desperate fight over swampy ground. Reinforcements arrived on both sides as a steady rain began to fall. Confederates counterattacked and drove the Union lines back, but only temporarily. Fresh Union troops charged headlong into the Confederate advance and forced them back to Fort Magruder.

On the Confederate right flank, Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade occupied some abandoned Confederate works and swatted aside a disorganized attempt to retake them. When night fell, 2,283 Union and 1,682 Confederate casualties lay on the field. The Confederates abandoned Fort Magruder and continued their withdrawal toward Richmond, where a much larger series of battles would unfold.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

After the armies moved on, the area eventually recovered and a tourist industry developed around Colonial Williamsburg and nearby Yorktown. The relatively minor Battle of Williamsburg was forgotten. Most of the battlefield has been lost to development and remembered in street names and businesses like the Fort Magruder Hotel.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a small monument to Fort Magruder on the battle’s centennial anniversary in 1962. In 2006, a local hospital donated 22 acres for use as a public park, containing remains of the old Williamsburg Line, now called Redoubt Park.

Fort Magruder Hotel and Conference Center is located at 6945 Pocahontas Trail in Williamsburg, Virginia, Redoubt Park is at 510 Quarterpath Road south of the hotel, and the Fort Magruder Monument is at 1035 Penniman Road, just southeast of Grace Baptist Church. The monument and remains of Fort Magruder are currently fenced off and closed to the public, but Redoubt Park is open dawn to dusk.

Endview Plantation, which served as a Union field hospital during and after the battle, is located at 362 Yorktown Road in Newport News. Admission is $8 for adults. Hours vary by season, so call (757) 887-1862 or email endview@nnva.gov for more information.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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