150 years ago this month, in April 1862, the storm of Civil War had been raging for a full year. The so-called “Duxbury company,” that is Company E of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, had been serving for roughly eight months but had not yet seen combat.
They spent the fall and winter of 1861-1862 in camp at Hall’s Hill, Virginia, just on the outskirts of Arlington. There they drilled, conducted reconnaissance marches, endured tedious picket duty and drilled some more. Camp life was by no means comfortable but it had its advantages. Food was generally in good supply, the occasional day pass allowed small groups of soldiers to trek into Washington to buy additional clothes or food, mail arrived frequently, and there were baseball and football games to keep them amused. In March 1862, all that would change.
The 18th Massachusetts was part of the Army of the Potomac commanded by Major General George B. McClellan. “Little Mac,” as he was known, had been preparing all winter to launch a massive campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond in the spring. He would mobilize the largest army assembled on the North American continent up to that time…roughly 150,000 men. Rather than take an overland route from Washington to Richmond, McClellan intended to ship his army down to Hampton Roads, disembark them at Fortress Monroe (a Federal foothold in Virginia) and then march swiftly up the Virginia Peninsula. The subsequent six months of marching and fighting would be known as the Peninsular Campaign.
On March 10, the 18th Massachusetts packed up and left their Hall’s Hill camp. They boarded the steamer Elm City on March 21 at Alexandria, and on March 23 they arrived at Fortress Monroe. Some delay followed as McClellan organized his huge force. Then, on April 4, the 18th Massachusetts (along with most of the Army of the Potomac) began to march west towards Richmond. The scant Confederate troops in the area fled before them. It seemed for a day or two that it would be a quick march to Richmond. Then they reached Yorktown.
Yorktown, Virginia, the very spot where the final drama of the Revolutionary War had played out, lay about one-quarter of the way up the Peninsula. There, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder dug in with roughly 11,000 men, prepared to slow the advancing Yankee force numbering over 100,000. By constructing formidable earthworks extending almost the entire width of the Peninsula, and through various ruses intended to make his force look much larger, Magruder managed to stop McClellan in his tracks.
Reaching the outskirts of Yorktown on April 5, 1862, the 18th Massachusetts found various elements of the army, particularly the artillery, engaged with the Confederates entrenched in Yorktown. That day, for the most part, the 18th Massachusetts were spectators, watching the artillery duel. Corp. Thomas Mann of Middleborough wrote in his memoir of the profound impression made by the first shell to strike near their ranks. “…Crashing into and bursting among the rails of that fence, even knocking them out from under several of the boys, [the shell] did more in five minutes to teach every blessed mother’s son of them the value of discipline than the whole previous year’s training.”
The next day, April 6, their brigade was deployed forward to probe the extent of the enemy trenches. This was their first action under fire. Duxbury’s Pvt. David Meechan wrote in his journal that day, “We are moving in front of the enemy exchanging shots from artillery. We can see the great earthworks of the enemy by climbing trees.” We do not have records of any casualties suffered by the 18th Massachusetts during their first brush with Confederates in front of the earthworks at Yorktown. If there were any at all, they were probably quite light. Regardless, the Duxbury boys had seen battle for the first time.
General McClellan, unnerved, believing the force in front of him to be much larger, settled in for a siege rather than taking Yorktown by assault. He has been soundly criticized for this over the years. The one-month siege severely damaged the campaign’s chances of success, primarily because it gave the Confederates time to gather troops around Richmond. General Joseph Johnston, commanding Confederate forces in Richmond wrote of the siege, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”
On April 9, David Meechan of Duxbury wrote, “We move our camp about a mile today, to the right of our line near the bank of the York River in a very large peach orchard. Trees in bloom…We are sending home peach blossoms in our letters. We are ordered to establish our camp here. Looks as if we were going to commence a siege and not to storm the entrenchments. We are hungry again…”
It would be weeks before they got past Yorktown.