Scroll To Top

Yorktown Civil War

Embarkation for White House Landing, Virginia, Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, the Peninsular Campaign, May-August 1862. The Lower Wharf at Yorktown.--The steamer Robert Morris ready to depart, waiting for the embarkation of that portion of the Army of the Potomac which went up the York River to the mouth of the Pamunkey from Yorktown, May 6th, after the evacuation. Already the dismantling of both the Confederate and the Federal forts had begun. One sees gun-carriages, mortars, and tons of shot and shell, ready to be taken up the river for the operations against Richmond.

Yorktown and the Civil War

It was during what became known as the Peninsular Campaign that the second siege of Yorktown began. Lincoln wanted Union forces to mount a campaign from Washington D.C. to take the Confederate capital that was just over a 100 miles south. Union General George McClellan convinced the president that the better approach would be to send Union forces up the peninsula created by the York and James Rivers with the Union Navy providing support.

As McClellan began his advance he was surprised when he encountered Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder had established a small outpost at Yorktown. It wasn't too difficult to outwit the over-conservative Union General George McClellan into thinking that there were more confederates in and around Yorktown than were actually there. Fortifications from the Revolutionary War were still plainly visible as McClellan moved up the York River on his way to engage the enemy in Richmond.

Fortifications and the large Parrott Guns at Yorktown, during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. James F. Gibson, Photographer

When McClellan realized that a sizeable force may be located in Yorktown, he stopped his forward advance on Richmond and instead opted to construct siege fortifications to take on what he thought was a heavily defended Confederate position stretching from the cliffs at Yorktown south along the Warwick River. In fact, on McClelland's maps the Warwick River had been drawn as running parallel to the James River instead of flowing almost all the way from Yorktown across the peninsula to the James River, effectively throwing a blockade in front of him.

Thanks to erroneous scouting reports due in part to a little bit of trickery on Magruder's part, McClellan was led to believe that there was perhaps 100,000 Confederate forces massed from Yorktown across the peninsula all the way to the James River. Rather than attack, McClellan chose to hold up and await reinforcements.

On the Confederate side of the line, Magruder had a number of his estimated 10,000 troops march in what amounted to a large circle giving the impression to enemy observers that there were more forces in position than there actually were. Even during the night he had his band play signalling the arrival of even more forces. Dams were destroyed along the Warwick River that flooded the area to a depth of 4 to 6 feet making an advance appear even more difficult.

With such formidable position lying in front of him and much to President Lincoln's regret, McClellan began constructing fortifications across the peninsula. Not content with the armaments already at his disposal, McClellan requested even more artillery prompting Lincoln to send a hasty message to him expressing his exasperation "Your call for Parrot guns from Washington alarms me, chiefly because it argues indefinite procrastination." Indeed, it would be McClellan's indecision and prolonged precaution that would extend the war.

As McClellan waited for additional artillery pieces, Magruder received additional reinforcements. As the days and the delays mounted, more artillery supplied by the Union navy were added to McClellan's siege line. All totalled, McClelland had amassed 101 siege guns, including 40 siege mortars including a 13" seacoast mortar weighing almost 9 tons and fired a 220 pound shell. Also online were the new Parrott guns (shown above) with their rifled barrels and distinctive wrought iron wrapping around the base of the cannon to provided added strength required to keep the barrel from exploding when fired. The new Parrott pieces ranged in size from 20 field pieces to the large 200 pound monsters shown above. They also fired new cone-shaped shells that had more accuracy and a longer range.

Battery #1 was the first Union battery to be completed. It was built by the the 1st Connecticut artillery, and had 6 of the new Parrott guns. Five of them were 100 pound Parrotts and one was the massive 200 pound Parrotts. These large guns could only fire about once every 15 minutes, but their range and devastation was unmatched. The distance from the guns to their targets were over 2 miles away and the Confederates were unaware that they guns were even there.

On April 30, a broadside from these 6 guns made their presence known. Aimed at some supply ships unloading at the Yorktown wharf. One shot ripped through the schooner's rigging, another exploded nearby, another exploded in the water throwing up immense sheets of water. The crew and ships departed from the area and moved upriver. After the Confederate retreat, the area was surveyed and damage from these guns was found some 4 miles away.

Never before had so much artillery firepower been massed in one place in the history of the world.

Siege Mortar

Photograph of Battery No. 4 along Wormley Creek showing 3 of the 13" mortars, near the Moore House, facing the Confederate lines in May 1862. The battery contained ten 13-inch mortars manned by the First Connecticut and Second New York Artillery.

Perhaps sensing that their deception had gone as far as possible and just before the full bombardment of the town was to begin, the Confederate army slipped away during the night taking refuse in Williamsburg.

The Union army's month long delay gave the Confederates time to organize their forces that would ultimately drive McClellan back from his attack on Richmond and thus ending the Union's Peninsula Campaign. On August 26, 1862, General George B. McClellan and most of the Army of the Potomac left the Peninsula leaving a few regiments at Yorktown.

Main Street

YORKTOWN: Main Street looking northwest. End of the road is the outer defensive wall built around 3 sides of the town. Large brick building on left is the Custom House. Photo taken in 1862.

After the Peninsula Campaign

Once McClelland's forces left the area on their way to Williamsburg and Richmond, a few Union forces remained and Yorktown became a hospital center where wounded soldiers would be sent for recuperation.

Yorktown Courthouse

YORKTOWN COURTHOUSE, 1862 with the jail located behind. Munitions can be seen on the front porch.

A year later, munitions stored in the Courthouse unexpectedly exploded, completely destroying the 1818 structure.

Civil War Cemetery

Yorktown National Cemetery

After Confederate forces departed from the Yorktown area, it became a Union garrison through most of the remainder of the war. The garrison included a hospital which cared for 1000s of wounded, many of which did not survive. By the war's end there were about 600 Union soldiers that had been buried on this site. In 1866 the cemetery was designated as a national cemetery and Union dead from over 50 different field sites within a 50 mile radius were re-interred here for a total of 2183 burial sites. Of those only 747 were ever identified.