A Pitiless Rain: The Battle of Williamsburg, 1862


Book Review by Ryan Diamond

The Battle of Williamsburg gets lost in histories of the Peninsula Campaign as a minor prelude, but it deserves better. Earl C Hastings Jr and David Hastings seek to restore Williamsburg to its proper status in what appears to be the only book-length study of the battle.

The first thing to note about the authors is that they are locals with an intimate and detailed knowledge of the ground. They seem to have walked it all including private areas not generally accessible to the public. That knowledge combines with their research on the defences and the concepts of military engineering behind them to deliver an excellent grasp of the challenges facing both the defending Rebels and the assaulting Union Army. While the authors go to great lengths to debunk many of the hackneyed myths about the battle they do deliver credit to its traditionally well-known figures eg Kearny, Hooker, and Hancock. They also note the performance of less well-known characters like John J Peck. On the rebel side they are rather more forgiving of John Bankhead Magruder than many authors before or since, choosing to ascribe his performance to exhaustion and disappointment rather than drink ("tired and emotional" in British Parliamentary code). The less well-known elder Ewell brother, Benjamin S Ewell, also gets some well-deserved publicity.

In a level of detail that would frustrate Phil Kearny (who described it as "minor affair") the authors give an excellent description of Hancock's crossing of Cub Run, his seizure of the abandoned redoubts, and his repulse of the piecemeal attacks of Early and DH Hill.

Yes there are a great many typographical errors in the book (good luck working out who the historians referred to are - their names are often garbled beyond recognition) and the odd error creeps in on the periphery (they have the West Point goats assigned to the infantry rather than to the cavalry) but for anyone interested in a thorough and engaging treatment of this early battle this is a must have text.