Captain William Lewis – Commander of the Rifles
By Dr. Walter Howell
When he was elected by the soldiers of the Mississippi College Rifles as company commander in December of 1861, William Lewis became the third officer to command the Clinton company. Lewis was a native of Paris, Tennessee, the son of Patrick and Eliza Lewis, who moved to Clinton in 1935. Lewis joined the volunteer company being formed at Mississippi College in April 1861. Older than most of the Rifles, he was elected 3rd lieutenant when the company was formed.
It has been said that commanders of infantry companies during the Civil War were like fathers to the men of their company. When the Rifles were in winter quarters, they would go to Lewis with their multitude of problems. Lewis had to intervene in their quarrels and had to administer punishment when it was justified, yet he had to be a leader because it was those who knew how to lead who got their soldiers through the test of battle and brought them home.
As company commander, Lewis had to have a horse to move about when the Rifles were on the march. He had to keep his men from bunching up and maintain an orderly formation. He had to keep the Rifles moving even when men wanted to stop and pick berries or simply leave the column when they felt tired. Individual soldiers could walk as much as twenty miles a day. A company in formation was lucky to cover ten miles a day. Lewis had been an officer from the beginning. He knew his men. His effectiveness would be determined by how his soldiers responded to his leadership.
Lewis’s task during winter quarters was to toughen his men for the weeks and months of marching and fighting that awaited them in 1862. In March, the Rifles took down their winter quarters, clearing the area of the wooden huts, latrines and cooking huts.
While the Rifles were breaking camp, General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, prepared to invade Virginia with an army of 121,500 men, 44 batteries of artillery, and 14,600 horses and mules. McClellan had more than four hundred vessels of various types to ferry his army to Fort Monroe in Virginia. On April 5, his army marched to Yorktown, the famous battle site of the Revolutionary War, where a Confederate force of 14,000 awaited the Yankees.
General John McGruder was commander of the Confederate forces at Yorktown, part of the Army of Virginia commanded by General Joseph Johnston. The Rifles under McGruder were at Yorktown and took part in the charade that discouraged any attack from the federal army. McGruder had his artillery begin a widespread barrage in the direction of the Yankees while a Confederate band played loudly all day and after dark. He paraded one battalion after another across an open field to mislead McClellan into thinking the Confederates had a much larger army.
After several days of this maneuvering, Captain Lewis and the Rifles were exhausted, but the ruse worked. McClellan was convinced his army was no match for what he believed to be a larger Confederate force. He sent word to President Lincoln that he needed an additional 100,000 soldiers to break through the Confederate lines and march on Richmond. Lincoln ordered McClellan to attack Yorktown, but McClellan dug in for a siege. During the delay, General Johnston moved more troops into the peninsula to defend Richmond. McClellan’s siege lasted almost a month.
McClellan finally moved on Yorktown on May 3 after a heavy artillery barrage. He found the town empty of Confederates, who had evacuated during the night. McClellan declared a victory and then marched his troops towards Williamsburg.
The Peninsula Campaign was underway.
Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the eighth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.