By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 757-247-4783
April 14, 2013
Not long before dawn on April 11, 1863, the first elements of Wise's Legion began pushing up the streets of Williamsburg, sweeping out the smattering of Union defenders in a raid designed to sow confusion during the main Confederate attack on Suffolk.
At first sight the gray-clad soldiers sparked jubilation among the women, children and old men of the town, who had endured nearly a year of occupation. But their joy quickly turned to terror as the angry Union guns at nearby Fort Magruder responded.
For more than six hours, the gunners of the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery fired on one of the most historic neighborhoods in America, ripping into houses, outbuildings, gardens and streets as far west as the St. George Tucker House on Market Green.
Most residents fled to the Lunatic Asylum on the far side of town, which the Union surgeon attending to patients had thrown open as a refuge. But after the last shell exploded about 12:30 p.m., they began returning to their homes with sobering thoughts about the wisdom of trying to outlast an increasingly difficult situation.
"Williamsburg was in the wrong place. It was the closest point to Richmond the Union ever held — and that made it very hard on the town and its citizens," says Carol Kettenburg Dubbs, author of "Defend This Old Town: Williamsburg During the Civil War."
"This was the second time in less than two weeks there'd been fighting in the streets, and many people who'd stayed to protect their homes after the Confederates abandoned the town were having second thoughts."
Just how frantic an experience the Union shelling caused can be seen in the letters of John Coupland, who lived with his pregnant wife and four children in the Vest House on the vulnerable east side of town.
One shell exploded directly over the family's heads as he was hitching the horse to their cart. Two more burst in the garden, another three fell within a few feet of the house and yet another landed in the street near their front door, where it wounded two men and killed a horse.
"Many other houses were struck and portions of them torn to pieces," wrote Sally Galt, who sat in her library writing her cousin at the height of the barrage.
"All that portion of the town from the Episcopal church down embracing much the larger part was pretty well peppered."
From Fort Monroe, acting Department of Virginia commander Maj. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes tried to calm the angry Union gunners, ordering his subordinate in Yorktown to "cease firing unless he knows the enemy are present in arms.
"The town must be held as a shield, and it must not be destroyed except in accordance with my orders," his message continued. But its delivery to the officer in charge at Fort Magruder was delayed when the telegraph line was cut.
Only Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise's decision to pull his men back from the town's eastern outskirts may have saved it from more destruction.
"Wise doesn't advance. He doesn't plan to," says Carson Hudson, author of "Civil War Williamsburg."
"But he's certainly taunting them. He wants them to move against him and draw Union forces on the Peninsula away from Suffolk."
Once the shelling stopped, some of the residents' elation returned as they enjoyed life under the Confederate flag for the first time since the May 5, 1862, Battle of Williamsburg.
"The people in the country and town are wild with delight at the idea of being able to go and come at will," wrote Mattie Pierce. "Freedom is certainly sweet."
Still, many more took advantage of the open lines to pack up their belongings and escape to Richmond.
So thick was the road with fleeing wagons that they took all day to pass — and the few people trying to make their way back into town found themselves struggling against this tide.
"It was an exodus," Hudson says. "The road was filled of wagons piled high with furniture and everything else — and once they left many of these people never came back."
That left house after house more vulnerable than ever to vandals and looters.
And when the Confederates withdrew to Diascund Creek, the people who stayed behind found themselves more isolated and forlorn than ever.
Mary Southall begged her countrymen not to leave her and the College of William and Mary library she'd saved "in the hands of the Yankees."
And Galt could barely contain her desolation.
"You can't imagine how we feel when our people leave us after a raid," she wrote.
"We always hope they come to stay & when we see them leaving us we feel like…'They have left me here to die.'"
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