The Water Boiled with Bullets
— 1862 Peninsula Campaign —
You are presently standing at the site of Dam No. 1, one of three dams constructed by Confederate commander John Bankhead Magruder to make the sluggish Warwick River into a defensive barrier. Dam No. 1 was the mid-point between two prewar tide mills at Lee's Mill and Wynne's Mill. The Union attack against the Confederate earthworks across the river on April 16, 1862, would veer to the left of the existing foot bridge.
On April 5, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Union army found its progress toward Richmond blocked by the Confederate fortifications at Lee's Mill. As the Union commander investigated the entire Warwick-Yorktown line, "Prince John" Magruder "played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies,"
wrote diarist Mary Chestnut, "and utterly deluded him."
McClellan, despite outnumbering the Confederates almost ten to one, resolved to besiege the Southern defenses.
Southern soldiers expected an assault at any time, as Surgeon James Holloway of the 18th Mississippi wrote, "why they do not attack is strange for they have a heavy force and every day's delay only gives us the opportunity to strengthen our defenses."
An attack finally came on April 16, 1862, when McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith, USA, to disrupt the Confederate control of Dam No. 1.
On the morning of April 16, Union artillery, including Mott's 3rd New York Battery, began shelling the Confederate earthworks. By noon it appeared as if the Southerners had abandoned their defenses, and at 3:00 p.m. Smith sent 200 men of the 3rd Vermont forward as skirmishers. The Vermonters dashed across the river and captured the first line of rifle pits held by the 15th North Carolina. The Federal troops, however, were forced to withdraw under the stress of a vicious counterattack by Cobb's Georgia Legion since their ammunition was wet and they had not received any reinforcements. The water "Boiled with bullets"
as the Vermonters recrossed "that fatal stream."
A second attempt to capture Dam No. 1 failed to reach the Confederate lines as the Southerners had reinforced the position. The engagement resulted in 165 Federal and 145 Confederate casualties. Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, of the 2nd Vermont, called the battle, "nothing but a dam failure."
The April 16, 1862, Battle of Dam No. 1 (also called the Battle of Burnt Chimneys) was a missed opportunity for the Union to break the Warwick River defenses. Two Federal soldiers, Capt. Samuel E. Pingree and musician Julian Scott, were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the short, vicious fight along "a creek with a wide dam, which drank the blood of many of our men."