Here’s a couple letters published in a Seneca County, New York newspaper from 1862:
Letter from Lieut. Guion.
WILLIAMSBURG, Va., May 8, 1862
The first great battle of the Peninsula is over, and, thank God, victory rests on the banners of the army of the Union. Commencing at Yorktown on Friday, the conflict raged furiously along the lines until Saturday night, when our troops commenced crossing the Warwick River. Early on Saturday [Sunday?] morning our division crossed; and driving the enemy before us from one line of fortifications to another on rolled the army of the Union, on to Richmond. – On Monday morning the enemy rallied in great force near Williamsburg, on a line of fortifications which they deemed impregnable. We had been swerving clear around to our right, near Yorktown, and about noon the enemy succeeded in forcing back our troops upon the left. Now the battle raged terribly. The slaughter on both sides was terrible. For several hours the whole force of the rebel army were thrown upon our left, and slowly our brave troops were driven back. Nobly did they contest every inch of ground, but still the enemy was gaining every moment; when suddenly our division, which had marched at a quick step full fifteen miles through rain and mud, without a halt, opened upon the enemy’s lines, between Williamsburg and the York River, and soon occupied two of their forts. Their whole attention was now turned upon us, and the battle on the left almost closed, as the foe wheeled his huge battalions around to meet us. – Down come their whole power upon us, and the roaring of the artillery, and the rattling of the rifles, was almost deafening. About five o’clock their artillery crossed, and soon their immense force was seen sweeping down upon us like a huge wave, threatening to engulph our comparatively little band. On, On, on they came, regiment after regiment, their long lines stretching far on either side. “For Heavens’ sake stand firm, my men,” cried Col. TAYLOR, as he came riding along the lines, ” everything depends upon you,” and steadily our men awaited the shock, with bayonets fixed, resolved to stand or die, but never to show their backs to the foe. On, on they came. Only a few hundred feet separated the hostile armies, when suddenly with a shout that sounded far above the roar of our artillery, the 33d rushed forward to meet the advancing foe. When that shout went up the enemy halted, and as the 33d came, charging right in upon their very centre, the enemy turned, broke and fled,and the day was one.The shout of victory now rang all along our lines. Once more the troops upon the left rallied to the charge and the victory was complete. Night closed upon the broken, flying legions of the enemy, and the battle of Williamsburg was won.
Strange as it may seem, although the 33d dashed right in upon the enemy’s centre, and killed and wounded nearly 300 men and took 200 prisoners, we lost but 50 men in all, and very few of these were killed.
To day Gen. MCCLELLAN has been up to see us. He addressed the regiment, and thanked us for gaining the victory, and ordered that “Williamsburg” should be inscribed upon our banner. This is the proudest day of our lives. You should have seen him as he spoke to us. The words of that glorious man have more than repaid us for all the privations we have suffered. The boys fairly cried for joy, as they stood with heads uncovered while he addressed them, and it seemed as if they never could stop cheering him.
The battle-field was an awful sight yesterday. The dead and wounded lay strewed around for miles, and all day long we were busy bearying the dead, and bringing in the wounded rebels. It was a sorrowful task, but I thank God that it was not our bodies that were being thus disposed of.
Our troops are again advancing. When next we shall meet the foe we know not, but whenever it may be, the 33d will be ready for the fight.
From the Thirty-Third.
I have received your letter and was very glad to hear from you. I suppose you have by this time received my letter informing you of the fight we had. It was a “right smart one.” We have got the name of the place inscribed on our flag. – There are two other regiments who claimed the honor of the victory. But they could not “come it.” It happened that Gen. MCCLELLAN was on the opposite side of the field, looking at us, himself, through a glass. So you see they did not make much out of their claim. He praised us up “big.” He said in our presence that we saved his whole army. It seems like a big thing that three companies should save a whole Division from being cut to pieces. There were eight regiments charging down upon us. As they came on we fell back behind a rise of ground which hid us from them. When they got pretty near the rise, we were ordered to fix bayonets, which we did in pretty quick time, (we knew what was coming.) Then the order was given to charge – we did so with a yell that made the woods ring. As soon as we gave the yell their ranks were broken and they commenced running every way, and we pouring the lead into them. There were about sixty killed in that one charge. – There was but one in our company wounded – that was ALFORD. He was wounded in the hand. There were five in the three companies wounded. I guess the Rebels won’t say anything more about Bull Run. Our cavalry pursued them for several miles and cut them all to pieces
The road is filled with dead horses, and broken wagons and guns, and our crvalry have taken about all their cannon. *** As we march along the “contrabands” come out to see us. They say when the rebels passed some were bare-footed, and some were crying. A good many of their wounded have since died. Some of the prisoners said that they were taken,after they found out we did not kill them. They have been made to believe that we killed them as fast as we took them. ****
I heard that the Herald gave the 43d regiment the credit of making that charge. I suppose it was a mistake of the printer, as there was no 43d regiment there.
From your affectionate husband,
It wasn’t just the Herald. Harper’s Weekly said that all the Union regiment’s did well but the Fifth Wisconsin and Forty-third New York really stood out.
The story of the Thirty-third N.Y.S. vols.; or, two years campaigning in Virginia and Maryland by David W. Judd (pages 88-89) gives credit to those three companies of the 33rd for inspiring Hancock’s brigade to make its charge. The author also includes General McClellan’s words to the men of the 33rd on May 7th: