On April 4, 1862, Major General George McClellan marched his 121,500-strong Army of the Potomac from Fort Monroe toward Richmond.
Blocking his path were Major General John B. Magruder’s Warwick-Yorktown Line fortifications and the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. Despite outnumbering Magruder almost four to one, McClellan was tricked by Magruder’s bluff of strength and halted his advance. Yorktown, the scene of Washington’s 1781 victory over Cornwallis, was once again besieged.
It was the Civil War’s first siege and lasted for twenty-nine terrible days. Just as McClellan was ready to bombard Yorktown, the Confederates slipped away—because of his delays, McClellan lost the opportunity to quickly capture Richmond and end the war.
Join John V. Quarstein and J. Michael Moore as they chronicle the Siege of Yorktown and its role in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign (as well as the final battles surrounding Richmond). We hope you enjoy today’s #DatedDefinitions from Yorktown’s Civil War Siege!
Duryee’s Zouaves: An elite 5th New York volunteer infantry, which helped reinforce the Federals at Newport News Point, Virginia. These men increased Butler’s troop strength and emboldened the Federals.
During the first week of June, 1862, the Federals marched to Fox Hill and skirmishers ranged as far as Big Bethel Church. There, at the crossing of the northwest branch of the Back River (also referred to as Brick Kiln Creek or Wythe Creek), elements of Duryee’s Zouaves defaced the sides of the church with graffiti stating “Down with the Rebels!” and “Death to the Traitors!!” The Duryee’s Zouaves played an important role at the Battle of Big Bethel, even though it was a complete failure for the Federals.
I doubt whether it had an equal, and certainly no superior among all the regiments of the Army of the Potomac.
- General George Sykes, speaking of the 5th New York Infantry
USS Alligator: A submarine commanded by Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge, who had served aboard the USS Cumberland when she was sunk on March 8, 1862 and who was a temporary commander of the USS Monitor. The Alligator was innovative but impractical.
Burnt Chimneys: A failed Union assault (April 16, 1862), referred to as Burnt Chimneys (or, incorrectly, Lee’s Mill), this attack was a baptism of fire for many soldiers, like Vermonter Private Wilbur Fisk, who would remember it as a short, vicious fight along “a creek with a wide dam, which drank the blood of many of our men.”
Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler: The day that the town of Hampton was to vote on the Ordinance of Secession (May 23, 1861), Butler decided to break the informal truce that existed between the Federal and Confederate forces on the Peninsula. He ordered Colonel Phelps, a West Point graduate and ardent abolitionist, into the town of Hampton to cause a disruption. Amid all the confusion, three slaves—Shephard Mallory, James Townsend and Fred Baker—went to Fort Monroe to secure their freedom. When the slaves’ owner, Colonel Charles King Mallory, sent Major John Baytop Cary to retrieve his property, Butler declared these men to be “Contraband of War.” Ben Butler’s Contraband of War decision began the war’s transition into a conflict to end slavery. Soon hundreds of African Americans were escaping into Union lines.
John V. Quarstein is an award-winning historian, preservationist, lecturer and author. He served as director of the Virginia War Museum for more than thirty years and, after retirement, continues to work as a historian for the city of Newport News. He is in demand as a speaker throughout the nation. Quarstein is the author of fifteen books. He has produced, narrated and written several PBS documentaries, including the film series Civil War in Hampton Roads, a 2007 Silver Telly Award winner. John is the recipient of the Society for History in the Federal Government’s 2011 Henry Adams Prize. He also received the 1993 President’s Award for Historic Preservation and the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s 1999 Jefferson Davis Gold Medal. Besides his lifelong interest in Tidewater Virginia’s Civil War experience, Quarstein is an avid duck hunter and decoy collector.
J. Michael Moore is the curator and registrar for Lee Hall Mansion and Endview Plantation in Newport News, Virginia. He received a bachelor of arts in history from Christopher Newport University and a master of arts in history from Old Dominion University. While earning his graduate degree, he taught American history at ODU. Since his employment with the City of Newport News, Moore has curated exhibits at historic sites and led battlefield tours throughout Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. He is also a consultant with the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society, the Isle of Wight County Historic Resources and the York County Historical Museum. In addition, Moore serves on the Civil War Sesquicentennial Committees for the city of Newport News, York County and Williamsburg/James City County. He is a lecturer for Christopher Newport University’s LifeLong Learning Society. Michael has also served as editor and photographic editor for eleven books and written articles for Virginia Cavalcade, North & South and Military Collector & Historian. A native of Newport News, Moore lives in Yorktown, Virginia.
Read more on Yorktown’s Civil War Siege: Drums along the Warwick here.