The Battle of Dam #1

Or the Battle of Burnt Chimneys

Newport News, Va.

September 5th, 2005

Virginia is Arrow to Newport News City Campgroundone of this country's most beautiful states, but it seems that it is most difficult to find a place to wander without walking over musket shot and cannon ball, fired over the last several hundred years. This is true of the sleepy little campground on the north edge of Newport News, just a stones throw west of Yorktown, where the Warwick River flows.  The campground is rustic, water/electric only scattered in many acres of virgin hardwood. On the lake, boats can be rented and fishing is good.  There is an old wooden walk bridge near the north end. It is truly a quiet and serene place to explore.  This was not the case during the spring of 1862.  The Civil War was raging.  Lee had been driven back to Virginia from Antietam. Now Northern General McClellan, in an attempt to capture the Confederate Capital at Richmond, launched what is called the Peninsula Campaign (March to September of 1862). He came down the east coast, crossed to NewportThe redoubt where sharpshoots lay and then attempted to marched west toward Richmond.  Yorktown and the muddy gully called the Warwick River stood in the way.  When he arrived on the eastern banks of the Warwick, which runs through the campground, he was surprised.  Confederate General Magruder had dammed up the river in three places and the trickle was now several hundred yards wide. Magruder knew that his 10,000 men were outnumbered 10 to 1, but he also know that McClellan had not figured that out yet. With daft precession, Magruder shifted his troops around so quickly that McClellan reported that he was facing a force of over 100,000 men, withdrew his assault  and built siege fortifications, to await heavy guns that he ordered up from the east. 
While waiting for the cannons. 
Colonel Hiram Berdan's 1st  Sharpshooters, concealed behind well defined redoubts, began targeting Confederate troops on the opposite bank of the Warwick River.  Hiram Berdan, considered the nations' best marksman, organized the regiment from hand picked volunteers who placed 10 consecutive shots in a 10 inch circle at 200 yards.  The Sharpshooters wore green uniforms for camouflage and some of the men carried their own the Parrott Rifled Cannontarget rifles with telescopic sights.  The Sharpshooters served as skirmishers in the advance up the Virginia Peninsula.  Although their contribution was outstanding and their effectiveness unquestioned, this was still a war with honor.  Many thought lying in wait and picking off men singly, a barbarous method of warfare.  The regiment would continue serving with distinction until the end of the war, earning the reputation of inflicting the most casualties on the enemy of any Union Regiment. An interesting footnote to the sharpshooters' redoubts. One of the Lieutenants who was responsible for seeing to its construction was the newly made officer, George Armstrong Custer, having just finished last in his graduating class at West Point. He would take his only balloon ride from the courthouse, finding it far to unreliable for his comfort.
Among the artillery pieces which arrived were the new Parrott Rifles. This was a muzzle loaded rifled cannon capable of firing a 10 pound projectile over 3000 yards atThe Warwrick River at the point of crossing 12 degrees elevation.  Invented by Robert Parrott, the cast iron Parrott Rifle gave greater accuracy and longer effective range then comparable cannons.  It was one of the many technological advances that occurred in the North without a comparable product afforded to the South.
   With his guns in place on April 16th, 1862 McClellan sent several hundred troops of the 3rd Vermont across the river just to the left of the wooden bridge, which did not exist at the time.  With their powder wet and without re-enforcements they took the first row of fire pits but were beaten back into the water, suffering terrible losses as they attempted to retreat across the lake. This ended the Battle of Dam #1. McClellan spent the next two weeks trying to get the Union Navy to eliminate Confederate Gun emplacements along the York River so that he might go around the River defenders.  When this didn't happen, McClellan planned for a massive bombardment to begin at dawn on May 4th, but the Confederate army slipped away in the night.  The entire Campaign finely lost steam and McClellan returned to Washington, with Richmond remaining the Capital of the Confederacy for a while longer.  It's fun to find these little known points of history and the physical remains of the efforts people put into what they were trying to accomplish.

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