“Hard Skirmishing All Day” – 96th Pennsylvania in the Battle of West Point

Near a bend in the Pamunkey River about 35 miles east of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, the 96th Pennsylvania unloaded from steamers where they had spent much of the last month.

All around them, the division of General William B. Franklin came ashore and prepared to defend itself from possible attack by Confederate forces. By the end of the day on May 6, 1862, the Pennsylvanians had successfully unloaded their baggage and settled in on the shore of the river. Around them, Union soldiers hacked down trees and brush near a plantation called Eltham.

Map West Point
A map of the Virginia Peninsula showing Eltham and West Point. (Library of Congress)

This area played a key role in General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Across the Pamunkey lay the village of West Point, Virginia. The community sat at the confluence of the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi rivers, where they dump into the strategically important and navigable York River. Controlling the land surrounding the river became vital to adequately supplying and supporting the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula.

Franklin and his troops had the opportunity to create chaos in the rear of the Confederate forces defending the Confederate capital. Johnston reacted by sending forces, including John Bell Hood’s soon-to-be-famous Texas Brigade to pin down Franklin’s forces at Eltham’s Landing.

And so on Wednesday, May 7, the forces ran into each other. Corporal Henry Keiser in Company G, 96th Pennsylvania simply described the fighting as “hard skirmishing all day.”  While forces all around them engaged in direct combat with the enemy, Keiser and his comrades were spared that duty.

A letter from an officer in Company C, 96th Pennsylvania describes the fighting from his perspective. The letter was published in the May 17th edition of the Pottsville Miners’ Journal. 

West Point

The Battle at West Point, Virginia – As the 96th Regiment, P.V., a large number of the men of which are from this County, was in the force engaged in the fight at West Point, last week, much interest has been felt here for the details of its participation. The following extract from a letter written by an officer of Company C, of the Regiment, gives the fullest details we have yet seen of its part in the affair. – Not a man in the Regiment was injured.

Camp at West Point, Va.,

May 8, 1862

We arrived here safely on the afternoon of the 6th. Saw but few rebels to oppose our landing. Our gunboats gave them one shell by way of amusement, when the immediately took to their heels. We at once commenced to disembark by means of pontoons. All of our division did not get on shore that day. Soon after our Regiment was landed, four of our companies (Co. C among the number) were ordered to go out and protect our pioneers, who were obstructing several roads, to prevent the enemy from coming n on us. We returned to camp about midnight and went to bed, only to get rousted out at 3 o’ clock again. We knew we would have to get up at that time, as we will have to do every morning hereafter, in order to prevent a surprise. We were all out and in line of battle, and remained so until daylight.

Immediately after breakfast, our pickets were attacked, and we were formed in line of battle again. Presently word came in that a brigade of rebels was advancing on our right, and that they were also in great force on our centre. Our pickets were reinforced and regiments sent to different parts of the field. We were held in reserve. Our force did not amount to 10,000, while that of the enemy was at least 30,000. Two prisoners, taken the night before, say that they had 50,000, but I will say 30,000 at least. By this time the firing was very heavy, and the wounded were coming in very fast. About 9 o’clock we were sent to the left, under command of Gen. Dana. We took position at the edge of a wood, and a covering out of fence rails. Very soon the regiment which was in front of us was attacked. It was volley after volley for some ten minutes. We thought we would get it very soon, but the firing stopped.

By this time one of our batteries on our right opened, and shelled the woods for some time. The firing on both sides soon stopped. In about a quarter of an hour, a rebel battery opened on our left, and directed its fire on the vessels in the river. Two of our field batteries and gunboats opened on them, the shells from both sides going over our heads. We did not get into action at all; in fact, there were not more than 3,000 of our men in the fight. We held the position on the left until about 4 o’clock, when we were relieved by the 19th Massachusetts. We were on our way to camp when we saw a rebel regiment down near the river. Our batteries opened on them and they left very suddenly.

We then reached camp, got our suppers, and were ordered to strike tents and go to the right to support a battery. We did go, and up to this time held that position. Our loss will amount to about 300 killed and wounded. This morning some of our wounded men were found, who had had their throats cut. We do not know the loss of the rebels, but it must be as large as sure if not larger. One of our wounded, who was placed behind a tree by a rebel, says he saw them carry… away.

None of our regiment were hurt.

West Point map
From the New York Herald, May 10, 1862

The regiment’s first true test of mettle was yet to come.

In the end, the Battle of Eltham’s Landing (or Battle of West Point), claimed 186 Union casualties and 46 Confederates. Compared to the fighting occurring elsewhere on the Virginia Peninsula in those weeks, this was a relatively small, but important engagement.

Want to read more about the Battle of Eltham’s Landing and the Peninsula Campaign?

Here’s where I’ve been reading.

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears 

The Battle of Fair Oaks: Turning Point of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign by Robert P. Broadwater

Battle Summary – Eltham’s Landing by the National Park Service

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