Civil War at 150: Union blood stains the Warwick

Few places in Virginia were more treacherous in April 1862 than the epic 12-mile line of earthworks that plowed across the Peninsula along the Warwick River.

Led by champion New York rifleman Hiram Berdan, Union sharpshooters clad in forest green picked off unwary rebels in a devilishly cruel and random sport, teaching the prudent to keep their heads down.

Not until the crack shots of the Texas Brigade arrived did the Federals lose their deadly advantage, pushed from their hiding places in the trees by Lone Star State marksmen eager to do "a little squirrel hunting."

Artillery fire added to the toll, killing and wounding with such erratic malice that one Louisiana officer counted 300 Yankee shells crash nearby in a single day.

But not until April 16th — and the Union's single most dangerous assault on the Confederate lines — did blood flow so fiercely that it stained the muddy waters of the Warwick.

In a few afternoon hours, nearly 200 Federal troops fell at the Battle of Dam No. 1, where the North's failure to reinforce a potential breakthrough squelched a bold attack that threatened to crack the rebel defenses and open the back door to Richmond.

Though the tough Vermont troops who charged across the river would see bigger and bloodier battles — and suffer more losses than any Union brigade during the war — its men always looked back on the Warwick as "a nasty little stream that drank the blood of many a good Vermonter."

"The Vermont boys have broken through. They've repelled a counterattack. They're waving like crazy for help. But no one comes. Nobody sends reinforcements," says Lee Hall Mansion curator J. Michael Moore, co-author of the upcoming book "Drums Along the Warwick."

"The Battle of Dam No. 1 was a huge opportunity lost. It extended the siege of Yorktown by more than 2 weeks — and it gave the Confederacy the time it needed to muster more men and organize the successful defense of Richmond."

Located in the middle of the Southern line, the rifle pits and gun batteries defending the low-lying ground at Dam No. 1 were considered weak even before the Union began marching up the Peninsula.

Just one day after the Army of the Potomac began probing his position, Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder wrote Richmond from his headquarters at Lee Hall.

"Skirmishing along the whole line to-day; enemy threatening every point; erecting batteries in front of Yorktown and in front of our lines on the Warwick River," he reported April 6.

"Balloons have been observing Yorktown and the whole of our line. They discovered a weak point, where numbers must prevail. It is in wood, in our center. We will work day and night to strengthen it."

Union Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock saw the position's vulnerability, too, and had ordered the probe that alarmed Magruder. But just as he began to follow up with a more ambitious advance, Federal commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan issued an order forbidding any attack.

Nearly 10 days passed before McClellan finally gave permission to Hancock's feisty superior — Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith — to disrupt Confederate efforts to bolster these defenses.

But by then Magruder had completed some deadly improvements.

"There are a thousand and one Negroes at work fortifying this place," Pvt. Edmund D. Patterson wrote, describing the South's frantic labors.

Still, by the time McClellan and his French aides arrived to observe the April 16 attack, the pounding inflicted by Capt. Thaddeus P. Mott's 3rd New York Artillery had already disrupted the rebel line.

Not long after they silenced the gun at the far end of the dam, a scout waded across the shoulder-deep water to within 50 yards of the shore and found the nearby rifle pits abandoned.

Carrying their muskets and cartridge boxes overhead, four companies of the 3rd Vermont splashed into the river under fire, struggling with the roots and felled trees that littered the muddy bottom. But their bold rush drove the panicked 15th North Carolina back like "a flock of sheep," forging a Union toehold on the far side of the Warwick.