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Williamsburg-based Union raid threatens Civil War Richmond

By Mark St. John Erickson

10:32 AM EST, February 3, 2014

WILLIAMSBURG

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Sometime just after 10 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1864, the road leading northwest from Williamsburg began to rumble under the weight of one of the largest, if not the largest Union raid ever aimed at the Southern capital in Richmond.

Nearly 7,000 bluecoats stepped off as the ambitious expedition commanded by Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar of Yorktown got underway — with more armed men than the town had seen since Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had stormed in to confront fleeing Confederates in the May 1862 Battle of Williamsburg.

Sparked by mounting worries over hundreds of captured Federal officers held in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison, the mission became more urgent after Union spies got word of a planned transfer to the newly built yet soon-to-be-infamous Confederate POW camp at Andersonville, Ga.

Two Southern deserters had revealed that the defenses at Bottoms Bridge were only lightly manned, too — and their reliability had been confirmed when they guided a mid- December 1863 raid that brought nearly 100 prisoners back from Charles City County, writes Carol Kettenburg Dubbs in “Defend this Old Town: Williamsburg During the Civil War.”

Despite the efforts of Wistar and Williamsburg commander Col. Robert M. West to keep their preparations secret, however, the advance units of 2,200 Union cavalry “found the enemy (at Bottoms Bridge) posted in strong force, and continually receiving  accessions by railroad” when they arrived early the following morning, Wistar later reported.

Nine troopers were killed or wounded in a courageous but doomed attempt to force a crossing, after which Wistar — recognizing that he’d lost the crucial element of surprise — reluctantly ordered his men to withdraw.

“It was a very good plan — and they had plenty of men to carry it out. But the Confederates knew they were coming,” says Carson Hudson, author of “Civil War Williamsburg.”

“Even before they returned, the Union commander at Fort Monroe discovered from a Richmond newspaper that a Union deserter had given up the information in advance — and he was just livid.

“Butler offered to exchange any number of prisoners in order to get the deserter back. But the Confederates wouldn’t.”

You can find out more about the Union's Feb. 1864 raid from Williamsburg to Richmond later this week when the complete story appears at Hampton Roads History.

-- Mark St. John Erickson