Porter’s Water Wolverines

Following the actions at Yorktown and Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, it seemed to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan that the next logical place that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates could oppose his march toward Richmond was the Chickahominy River east of the Confederate capital. Mostly, McClellan’s men made it across without firing a shot, causing the general to question what Johnston’s scheme was by “giving up a great advantage in not opposing me on the line of the Chickahominy…”

Johnston’s Confederates did not concede every crossing quietly, though. To the northeast of Richmond, McClellan sought a place to cross. Federal engineers determined New Bridge, six miles from the city, as the crossing place, should a reconnaissance there prove it to be a feasible one. McClellan ordered his newly minted Fifth Corps commander, Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter, to find a regiment to probe the Confederate defenses on the south bank of the river at New Bridge.

Porter had no trouble selecting a unit. He turned to Col. Dwight Woodbury’s 4th Michigan Infantry. Since “last winter,” Porter “asserted…that there was no better or more gallant regiment in service.” Porter said this unit “would be equal to the task,” perhaps more so than some of the United States Regulars under his command.

4th Michigan’s charge at New Bridge

On May 24, Woodbury sent one of his companies to cross at a ford upstream from the ruins of New Bridge and work their way downstream on the Chickahominy’s south bank toward the bridge site. The lead company surprised the Confederate defenders in their camp and quickly scattered them. Woodbury’s quick success did not last for long. The Confederates rallied and resisted. In two successive waves, Woodbury ordered the remainder of his command across the Chickahominy while under fire and “being compelled to wade up to their armpits.” “Sharp firing” continued for 30 minutes. More enemy infantry and artillery showed up at the bridge site, forcing Woodbury to prudently retire back to the river’s north bank.

In the fight, the Michiganders lost one man killed and seven wounded (two mortally). The Confederates defending the New Bridge area suffered losses of 10 men killed, 21 wounded, and 33 missing or captured. It also revealed to the Federals the terrain south of the river, an important intelligence-gathering part of the mission that was accomplished. McClellan and Porter were both well pleased with the performance of the 4th Michigan. They proved Porter’s assertions on May 24.

Four months later, Porter again called upon the regiment to perform a river crossing under fire. At dusk on September 19, 1862, along the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford downstream from Shepherdstown, Porter ordered the Wolverines to storm across the river and scatter the Confederate rearguard posted on the south bank.

4th Michigan’s charge across Boteler’s Ford

As the 300 Michiganders plunged into the river led by Col. Jonathan Childs and supported by the 1st United States Sharpshooters and volunteers from other units, Childs’ men faced a sharp volley from the enemy on the other side. Unfortunately, some of the 4th Michigan fell wounded into the river. Others charged above the ford and found the water rushing up to their necks. “Tho’ our guns and ammunition were wet and useless, yet on the boys went struggling thro’ the water over the uneven bottom.” Despite the troubles, the 4th Michigan lost an astoundingly similar number of men to the New Bridge affair: one killed and six wounded. They scattered the enemy and secured a foothold on the river’s south bank, setting the stage for a larger Federal crossing the next day.

Twice in 1862, the 4th Michigan became Porter’s amphibious regiment that could be relied upon to charge across a river under enemy fire and get the job done.

1 Response to Porter’s Water Wolverines

  1. Great article, the 4th Michigan was able to Find A way and you say get the job done!

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