A young Maine officer forever remembered the profanity-spewing Winfield Scott Hancock ordering a charge early in the Peninsula Campaign.
Commanded by Col. Edwin C. Mason, the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment had “camped some days near Alexandria waiting our time to embark for the Peninsula,” recalled Maj. Thomas Hyde of Bath. The soldiers drilled almost relentlessly by day; at night, the inexperienced 22-year-old Hyde studied Dennis Hart Mahan’s A Treatise on Field Fortification by flickering candlelight.
Hancock commanded the 1st Brigade in William F. “Baldy” Smith’s 2nd Division (IV Corps). The 7th Maine (along with the 33rd New York) belonged to the 3rd Brigade (Brig. Gen. John Davidson). The 2nd Division landed on the Peninsula and, in due time, helped pursue Gen. John B. Magruder and his Confederates retreating from Yorktown.
Both sides collided amidst heavy rain near Williamsburg, Virginia on Monday, May 5, 1862. Southern reinforcements arrived, and Confederates deployed into redoubts outside the town.
Hancock received orders around 11 a.m. to probe beyond the Union’s right flank and attempt to turn the Confederate left. Hancock marched about 1½ miles to the northeast with five infantry regiments: from his own brigade the 6th Maine, 49th Pennsylvania, and 5th Wisconsin, plus the 7th Maine and 33rd New York from the 3rd Brigade. The 1st New York Battery (1st Lt. Andrew Cowan) provided artillery support.
At the first crossroads, Hancock left three 33rd New York companies as guards while he pushed toward nearby Cub Creek. A staff aide, Lt. George Armstrong Custer of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, rode along to show Hancock where his men could they cross the creek.
Near the crossroads, “we were in sight of the York River,” Hyde said. The soldiers “turned [west] toward the town of Williamsburg” and about 1 p.m. “came to a milldam” spanning Cub Creek.
Beyond the dam rose a formidable Confederate earthworks, found undefended by a 5th Wisconsin probe. Garrisoning the fort with more 33rd New York companies, Hancock pushed his men through woods into an open field extending about 1,200 yards west. He saw two Confederate-occupied forts in the distance. Cowan fired on the earthworks; up came Capt. Charles C. Wheeler and Battery E, 1st New York Light, to unlimber on Cowan’s right flank and start shooting. Hancock pushed out three regiments to guard the guns.
Confederate artillery responded. Hancock deployed the 7th Maine to the north and the 33rd New York to the south as skirmishers. “The 7th was drawn up in line of battle against the woods on the extreme right to guard against an attack by cavalry[,] which was expected from that quarter,” wrote a 7th Maine correspondent identified only as “C.”
“Companies G and E, were sent to the fartherest front and right through the woods to watch the enemy in that direction,” he recalled. With those companies went Hyde.
“We could see how few we were,” and the men realized that “the danger of being cut off appeared imminent, as the woods on our right were very dense,” he said. Told to scout the woods “with some skirmishers,” he looked “from tree to tree to see if a foe lurked behind.” Finding the woods devoid of Confederates, he rejoined the 7th Maine soldiers, then “lying down in line in open field.”
About 5 p.m., Confederate generals Jubal A. Early and Dwight Harvey Hill made preparations to charge Hancock. Hyde figured “some three or four thousand of the enemy” advanced past Fort Magruder to attack.
The 7th Maine soldiers watched as, after emerging from the woods, Confederate troops “formed rapidly and advanced upon our lines at the double quick, firing as they came,” C recalled. “They also advanced through the woods [while] firing upon and receiving the fire of our skirmishers.”
Hancock ordered his artillery withdrawn. Confederates came east across the field. Intent on outflanking Hancock, at least one enemy regiment plunged into the woods to the south, and other Southern troops entered the woods north of the field. Drawn from the 7th Maine and 33rd New York, Federal skirmishers engaged enemy troops in the northern woods. Hancock withdrew the regiments that had guarded his artillery.
“The 7th also faced about” and marched “steadily to the rear” toward the Cub Creek earthworks, C wrote. Anxious to join the fight, the men growled as they pulled back.
Edwin Mason had his men lie down. Hyde watched the Confederates charge; “a fine picture … they made,” running “at the double-quick” diagonally across the plowed field, he said.
Enemy troops could not see the 7th Maine boys lying “flat on the ground,” said Hyde, stationed on his regiment’s left flank. Suddenly “I saw General Hancock galloping toward us, bare-headed, alone, a magnificent figure.”
“Forward! Charge!” shouted Hancock. Hyde remembered him uttering profanity: “the air was blue all around him.” The 7th Maine lads stood, lowered their bayonets, “and with a roar of cheers” charged over the slight crest between them and the nearby Confederates.
They “seemed to dissolve all at once into a quivering and disintegrating mass and to scatter in all directions,” Hyde realized. “We halted and opened fire.”
Through the swirling gun smoke the 7th Maine boys watched enemy soldiers “falling everywhere” or waving “white handkerchiefs … in token of surrender,” Hyde said. His comrades rounded up 300 prisoners before sunset.1
1 Adapted from Brian F. Swartz, Maine at War, Vol. 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg (Brewer, ME, 2019), 124-132