Symposium Spotlight: “‘So Doth History Repeat Itself’: The Battle of Williamsburg”

In this installment of our 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight we feature Drew Gruber. Drew will be presenting on the oft forgotten battle of Williamsburg. Don’t forget to register for the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium today! Click here to go to our full 2019 Symposium webpage.

The battle of Williamsburg has the dubious honor of being recognized as one of the forgotten battles for the upcoming 2019 Emerging Civil War conference. Why is that? Certainly, it has continued to be pushed further and further out of our collective memory. However for the men and women who fought there and for those who subsequently freed themselves, this battle and its ramifications continued to be on the forefront of their minds. Edwin Brown penned this line, which is a common sentiment by all of those who survived the battle on May 5th, 1862:

“The battle of Williamsburg has received less importance in history than it has merited.”

It would shock me to find out if even one of you, yes you the ECW blog devotee, had not visited the “Historic Triangle.” This triad of historic sites—Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown— welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each year. However, rarely is the Battle of Williamsburg, emancipation, or reconstruction ever on the minds of the average visitor. Busch Gardens and Water Country are always on the trip itinerary but even for those history buffs who plan their trips rarely are they aware of the area’s intense Civil War story.

As you wait for General Washington to review the troops behind Williamsburg’s historic courthouse, did you know you are standing in the midst of the Confederate field hospital? As you watch archaeologists unearth clues about the first permeant English settlement in America, did you know that the iron for the CSS Virginia was tested there as well? As you stand in the earthworks at Yorktown could you imagine soldiers in red from the 33rd Regiment a Foot and the grey blouses of the 5th North Carolina?

Forgotten are the sites and stories associated with the battle here on Cinco de Mayo,1862. News of the Battle of Williamsburg was just reaching editors when the two massive armies began a series of battles outside of Richmond which would command the summer’s new cycle. Restoration of colonial Williamsburg, coupled with the more seminal events of 1607 and 1781 have rightfully commanded the public’s attention. All of these are viable reasons why Williamsburg is part of the conference’s theme, ‘Forgotten Battles.’ However, we also need to blame the historians.

In Gary Gallagher’s edited volume, “The Richmond Campaign of 1862,” the word Williamsburg is mentioned six times. Six. Needless to say its hard to evaluate a campaign when ignoring a battle which included the first machine gun, first captured Confederate battle-flag, or seven Medals of Honor.

William Miller’s three volume set “The Peninsula Campaign of 1862” dedicates 23 pages to the battle. These essays fall flat by simply ignoring the large impression this one day would have on men of all ranks in both armies, setting a pace and expectations for remainder of the campaigns in the Eastern Theater.

In his 2014 study, “To the Gates of Richmond” Stephen Sears penned 11 and one half pages on the fighting in Williamsburg. Scarcely enough ink to unpack the mayhem that 60,000 men struggling in a driving rainstorm for 14+ hours would create.

However, it is only in the last few years has light be shed on the Battle of Williamsburg. In other words, you get a pass if you didn’t know about the battle or thought of it only as a inconsequential rear-guard action or skirmish of low importance. If you fall into this category and you haven’t registered for the conference now is the time. No, seriously. Register now. 

Glenn Brasher’s book, “The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation” and Carol Dubb’s “Defend this Old Town” remain the only two primary works which discuss the battle in detail and the importance of Williamsburg in both martial and socio-political terms. However, I would be remiss in not mentioning the scholarship of Carson O. Hudson  and J. Michael Moore. These two pioneering historians opened up the Peninsula’s Civil War stories in detail, researching, lecturing, and publishing a number of articles and texts without which the aforementioned texts would have not been possible.

It is from these four historians from which I draw my inspiration and continued research for the 2019 conference. Air conditioning, 150 years of hindsight and keyboard courage have afforded us the opportunity to categorize the Civil War’s various events as we see fit or to lambast the decisions of a General or endlessly pontificate the ‘what if’ questions. However for the men and women, white and black, blue or grey who lived through the war this was real, personal, and pivotal- life changing. The Battle of Williamsburg was one of those days.

3 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: “‘So Doth History Repeat Itself’: The Battle of Williamsburg”

  1. Drew, Hope you will recall our conversation with Michael Moore re: WHF Payne and his near fatal oral wound. I recall you know the site where WHFP was wounded. He is called “Lee’s Forgotten Warrior”. We dedicated a cenotaph to him at Brandy Station on 13 June 2018.
    See you at the Symposium

    1. Gene, good to hear from you. Sadly, the site where he was wounded is slated for pending development later this summer. Despite bringing dozens of preservationists there, their interest did not manifest in preserving this critical ground in Williamsburg. See you at the symposium.

  2. A couple of small nits. Earl Hastings and David Hastings covered this battle thoroughly in A Pitiless Rain in 1997 and Sears’ campaign book was published in 1992. The Hastings book unfortunately was published by White Main and probably can only be accessed today as used or as new at a hefty price. Highlighting this battle in a symposium is a great idea. .

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