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1862 May 14: The Evacuation of Yorktown

May 14, 2012

The Hudson North Star of May 14, 1862, ran this follow-up on the Battle of Yorktown.


Particulars of the Occupation of the Enemy’s works. 


The telegraph has given us the main facts relative to the capture of Yorktown, but we bean a few additional items from the New York papers of Tuesday.

General McClellan telegraphed the War Department on Monday evening, that the rebels abandoned in their works at Yorktown two three-inch rifled cannon, sixteen thirty-two pounders, six forty-two pounders, nineteen eight-inch columbiads, four nine-inch Dahlgreens, one ten inch columbiad, one ten-inch mortar, and one eight-inch siege howitzer, with carriages and implements complete, each piece supplied with seventy-six rounds of ammunition.  On the ramparts there are also four magazines.  This does not include the guns left at Gloucester Point, and their own works on our left.

The Nelson House, Yorktown, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”1

The rebel soldiers and negroes were at work on their entrenchments until 1 o’clock on Sunday morning, when their rear guard ordered the work to cease, and the march for Williamsburg to be taken up.  In the house of Mrs. Nelson, where the Magruder had slept the night before the evacuation, were found several open letters lying unfolded on a table.–Two addressed to Gen. McClellan, one to the first Yankee who comes, one to Abe Lincoln.  One of those to Gen. McClellan reads as follows:

GEN. McCLELLAN—You will be surprised to hear of our departure at this stage of the game, leaving you in possession of this worthless town; but the fact is, McClellan, we have other engagements to attend to, and we can’t wait any longer.  Our boys are getting sick of this damned place, and the hospital likewise ;  so, good bye for a little while.

Adjutant TERRY,2 C. S. A. M.

Tents were left standing, with bedding and articles of luxury in them.  On the canvass and sides of the huts were caricatures of the Yankee soldiers.  Many of the tents were cut in different places.—Four large trucks for carrying heavy guns stood near the dock, with an immense quantity of lumber. 

In the inside entrenchments were wooden guns projecting from the embrasures.—Fort Magruder, which we built strong works to reduce, was found to be weak place.  Its inside works were sand bags piled up with logs of wood painted black on the end.

On the parapets northeast of Yorktown six guns were left.  On the south side two smooth bores were found spiked,—portions of Yorktown were undermined.  The magazine doors are forbidden to be opened for fear of explosion.  Torpedoes and shells, with a fuse fastened to small wires, lie in the roads, redoubts, &c.—The Fifth Regiment New York (Duryea’s Zouaves) had five men killed and several wounded by the explosion of a torpedo.  The Thirty-eight New York Volunteers, Colonel Hobart Ward had two men killed and four wounded by the bursting of a prepared shell.  His regiment was among the first to enter the rebel works.  The Fortieth New York Volunteers lost one man killed and two wounded.  The Seventieth Regiment New York Volunteers lost two men killed.  Other casualties have occurred, but I connot [sic] send you particulars at present.

As soon as the evacuation of Yorktown became known in the camps, the bands of different regiments commenced playing, amidst cheering of the soldiers.—The following order was sent to the divisions and brigades, at 7 A.M., from General McClellans [sic]:

“Commandants of regiments will prepare to march with two days’ rations, with the utmost despatch.  Leave not to return.”

At about 8 A.M. the troops began to march, the First Regular Cavalry and four batteries of artillery leading.  Tents were struck, knapsacks strapped, and, within an hour after the order was given the troops were marching beyond Yorktown.

A number of guns, some of them spiked, were left at Gloucester Point, but the precise number I am not able to state.  The fortifications of Gloucester consisted only of outside earthworks, and could easily have been taken.  The main body of the rebls [sic] are encamped three miles from Williamsburg, near James river.

On the night of the 3d, terrific firing was kept up until 12 o’clock within the the [sic] rebel works.  One of our Generals of the trenches reported that it was volleys of musketry and heavy connonading [sic] against our lines, which proved a mistake.  One of the rebel magazines had burst, and the fire scattered to where a large number of boxes filled with cartridges were pilled in.  As each box caught the fire, the report was similar to a regimet [sic] discharging a volley.  Nineteen rebels were killed and over sixty wounded.  The works at Yorktown are nothing like as formidable as we had been led to believe.

The rebel council of war was held in Mrs. Nelson’s house at Yorktown, on Tuesday and Wednesday last.  Jeff Davis [Jefferson Davis] and two members of his Cabinet, General Lee [Robert E. Lee], Magruder [John B. Magruder] and nine other Generals were present.  The debates were warm and exciting, but finally it was resolved to evacuate.  The Generals intrusted [sic] with the orders of evacuation kept it a profound secret from the officers and men.

The honors of the first entering the enemy’s works belongs to the 73d Regiment of New York Volunteers as will be seen by the following sent to headquarters:

YORKTOWN, May 3, 5 A.M.—Captain Jos. [Joseph] Dickinson, A. A. G.:  Captain—Yorktown is evacuated, and I claim for my Regiment (73d New York Volunteers, Hooker’s Division,) the honor of planting the Stars and Stripes upon the rebel fortifications in the town of Yorktown.
                                                                                                                                            W. B. [sic] BREWSTER,3
                                                                                                                                            “Colonel.  73d N. Y. V.”

Baggage belonging to officers and preserved stores belonging to the medical department, have been captured.  Letters and papers were found secreted in Mrs. Nelson’s home, throwing much light on rebel movements.  All the guns, about thirty, found at Yorktown, are spiked, with the exception of two.  Only two guns were left on the front works of the rebels.

Another correspondence dated Yorktown, Mary 4th, says:

 At 12 o’clock last night, a bright light in the direction of the enemy’s water batteries attracted our attention.—Suspicions that all was not right were again revived.  At 1 o’clock A. M., a last and farewell gun was fired.  From thence until daybreak all was silent.  Our pickets advanced further than usual, and met no resistance.  At 5 o’clock, A. M., the pickets were relieved.  The skirmishers were at once thrown out to ascertain the state of affairs, and at 6 o’clock A. M., General Jameson, Colonel Gove of the Twenty-second Massachusetts, and Col. Black of the Sixty-second Pennsylvania, entered Yorktown.  The Twenty-second Massachusetts, and part of the Thirteenth New York were at once thrown into the works, and possession taken.

Our preparations were all complete for opening bright and early Monday morning.  Our guns were of great calibre [sic].—The enemy was terrified at the projectiles they were assailed with from Battery No. 1, the only one yet opened.  In a house in Yorktown—the best there, and evidently the head-quarters of some General—were two of our unexploded shells.  One was a 100 pound, and the other a 200 pound Parrott.  A contraband who lived in the house told us of the remarks made by the rebel officers when they were dug out and brought in.  They were astonished at the size of the first.  But when the 200 pounder was brought in it caused the exclamation:  “Great God !  have we got to stand such things as those ?”

The rebels, from all accounts, have a very heavy force of light artillery on the line.  The deserters say they claimed from 200 to 300 field pieces on the entire line.  A very great many were in embrasure behind earthworks.

The army of the Potomac is disappointed in not having a battle, but a victory is still won—a great and bloodless one, too.  The enemy is forced from his stronghold, and at no other point can he now fortify himself so strongly.  No widows and orphans wail on this occasion.  One more chance of life to every soldier.  Their spirit is the same as ever.  They will follow with alacrity.  “ON TO RICHMOND” now—safely, speedily, and victoriously !

1.  Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68 (available in the UWRF Archives E 468.7 .G87 1866).
2.  William Terry (1824-1888) was a Virginia lawyer, politician, teacher, and soldier. When Virginia seceded, he enrolled in the Confederate Army and saw his first combat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Terry was promoted to major in the spring of 1862 and fought at the battles of Gaines’ Mill (June 27, 1862) and Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862) in the Peninsula Campaign.
3.  William Root Brewster (1828-1869) was the colonel of the 73rd New York Infantry, a regiment in the famed Excelsior Brigade. He will command the whole brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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