Union Cavalry under Devin and Custer route Confederate Forces!
Thursday, August 29, 2013
The 1864 battle of Winchester in Virginia marked a seminal point in the War of Rebellion and became a proving ground for United States Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s field leadership.
Leading the enemy army was Jubal A. Early, former prosecuting attorney and General Assembly delegate from Franklin County who also argued in the General Assembly against secession (as his constituents wanted).
Shenandoah Valley native and Civil War historian Scott Patchan offers a fresh account of that battle in his new book, “The Last Battle of Winchester.”
Most of the book is filled with descriptions of troop movements and battles. You would expect that. What you might not expect is vibrant prose and clear descriptions that are engaging in a way not usually found in books about warfare.
Patchan tells about the troop movements as if he were a journalist witnessing the action. There is nothing dry or academic in this narrative. It will transport you to the lower Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
And there are maps . No book about battlefields and the movement of two armies and their many divisions should be without maps — lots of maps.
Another distinction of Patchan’s book is his use of the prose style of the Cult of the Civil War.
Sheridan is often referred to as “the Ohioan ” or “Little Phil” or the “little Irishman from Somerset, Ohio.” George Armstrong Custer is sometimes called the “blond cavalry officer.” And Confederate soldiers are called “butternuts,” a reference to the color of their uniforms.
The use of sobriquets is common among Civil War enthusiasts. It shows a level of familiarity and camaraderie that one soldier feels for another. It establishes “street cred” among the true believers, and it provides a kind of charm distinctive to the genre. The use of contemporaneous slang also enhances the descriptive power of the author by re-creating the atmosphere of the time.
If there is a fault in the book, it is the Monday-morning quarterbacking that also is a characteristic of people who study war. After any battle, everybody is a better general than the man in the field — especially if the battle is almost 150 years old.
To deflect some of Patchan’s criticism of Sheridan, consider this defense: Sheridan was developing a new means of using the disparate units of his army as a solidified force, not as separate units fighting in the field, but as a cohesive fighting force. This new use of an army was pioneered by Sheridan during the campaign from Winchester in 1864 until Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865.
The “missed opportunities” for complete defeat and the resulting prolonged war also appears to be part of the overall philosophy of utter and total defeat which would discourage soldiers and citizens from trying to restart the war.
As Sheridan said to Prussia’s Otto von Bismark in 1870, “the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with after the war.” One way to accomplish that is to drive an army to the point that it begs for the opportunity to surrender.
What matters with “The Last Battle of Winchester” is that this book is an excellent account of the facts of the battle. It evokes emotions associated with the warfare. At times, Patchan’s descriptions of battle will make your heart race as if you were in the field yourself. The plentiful graphics help you keep your bearings.
One strong benefit for local readers is the depiction of Early, especially when Patchan exposes his sense of humor. One such incident involved Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge — a Kentuckian — who, having heard many references to first families of Virginia, asked what happened to the state’s “second families.”
Early overheard the questions and offered an answer : “They all moved to Kentucky.”
Patchan always finds time to clearly explain the overall strategies of both sides of the conflict as each tried for decisive victories in the field while protecting their respective capital cities and their valuable railways. Strategy for the United States included a need for significant victory in the Shenandoah Valley in order to support efforts to re-elect President Abraham Lincoln.
Read this book. If you are a Civil War buff, the battlefield action will excite you. If you are interested in history, knowing more about a campaign that helped the survival of the United States will enlighten you. If you are neither, the prose will delight you. If you travel through the Shenandoah Valley, the vivid description of the scenery and what happened there 150 years ago will ignite your imagination so you will have a new appreciation for ground over which you travel.
Gen. George S. Patton was one of America’s premier military commanders in World War II. His family tree included his grandfather Col. George S. Patton, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, who gave his life for the Confederate cause at the Last Battle of Winchester. Patton had had raised the 22nd Virginia Infantry in the Kanawha Valley and spent most of the War Between the States campaigning in the mountains of what is now West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. He suffered wounds in engagements at Scary Creek in 1861 and Giles Courthouse (Pearisburg), Virginia. In 1864, the increasing intensity of the war in the Shenandoah Valley, brought Patton there, where he led the 22nd Virginia in a counterattack that changed the tide of battle at New Market, throwing the Union Cavalry into disorder. He led Echols’ brigade in an attack at the Second Battle of Kernstown that along with the rest of Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s division sent Gen. George Crook’s army retreating in confusion from the battlefield and through the town Winchester.
On September 19, 1864, Col. Patton and his brigade fought at Winchester against Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. After covering a crossing of the Opequon Creek that was not attacked, Patton’s brigade was withdrawn toward Stephenson’s Depot. When Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge found his small command of Wharton’s infantry division and Col. Milton Ferguson’s brigade of cavalry about to be cut-off by Union cavalry moving on their rear, he withdrew toward Winchester leaving Patton as the rearmost infantry command to cover the retreat.
Marching through woods along the bed of the ruined Winchester and Potomac Railroad east of the Martinsburg Pike, Patton’s infantry encountered the advance of Col. Thomas Devin’s cavalry brigade driving back Ferguson’s cavalry brigade in confusion along the Charlestown Road. Patton’s infantry charged, cleared the road and opened the way for Col. George Smith’s cavalry to counterattack and temporarily drive Devin’s men back while Ferguson rallied. Patton then continued the retreat toward Winchester. As he moved toward the main battlefield, a courier from Breckinridge ordered Patton assist the Confederate Cavalry on the Valley Pike.
Patton almost immediately encountered Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, the Confederate cavalry commander, leading Col. William Payne’s brigade toward the Valley Pike to resist the oncoming Union deluge of horse soldiers. The two officers conferred, and Lee told Patton of the approach of Crook’s infantry Lee’s former position on the left of Gen. John B. Gordon’s division. Lee urged Patton to attend to the Union foot soldiers and that Lee would continue on toward the Pike to deal with the Union horsemen. Patton complied and moved his small brigade into position behind a stonewall on the Hackwood Farm in front of Red Bud Run. When the Union infantry appeared on the north bank of that stream, Patton’s Virginians opened fire and pinned down the attacking Ohioans and West Virginians as the struggled to cross the swampy stream. At length, Union forces drove Gordon’s division from its position on Patton’s right, and the infantry in his front began to work their way across Red Bud Run. Patton’s brigade attempted to withdraw but the situation became impossible when Col. Thomas Devin’s brigade attacked on Patton’s left flank and cut off his line of retreat. Division commander Gen. Gabriel Wharton sent “order after order” for Patton to rejoin the division closer to Winchester, but it was physically impossible.
Fitz Lee reported that Patton was mortally wounded as he attempted to change front to deal with the myriad of threats facing his brigade. Two regiments of Devin’s brigade capture 300 prisoners and every battle flag from Patton’s brigade. According to Lt. Col. George Edgar, another VMI grad, he rallied the fragments of Patton’s brigade at Fort Collier with the assistance of Fitz Lee. Lee himself was soon seriously wounded, and the Union cavalry stormed around the Confederate left, routing Jubal Early’s army of the Valley District.
Patton was taken to the home of a family member in Winchester where he died several days later. Contrary to some accounts, he did not grab a revolver and threaten to shoot a Union surgeon who recommended amputation. That story, if true, happened earlier in the war. Instead, it looked like he would recover from the wound, but infection took hold and he died. There are also stories of Patton being mortally wounded in the streets of Winchester near the railroad depot. However, I have been unable to trace these to any contemporary sources. Not surprisingly, Patton’s role seems to have grown during the Civil War centennial commemoration after his grandson had gained fame as one of America’s premier combat leaders in World War II. This story makes for an interesting historiographical study.
The command of Maj. Gen. George Crook in Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah consisted of two infantry divisions and a single artillery brigade. This command is often erroneously referred to by both officers within Sheridan’s army and historians as the Eighth Army Corps. The Eighth Army Corps was not in the Shenandoah Valley at all during 1864. That small corps served under the command of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace and was responsible for the defense of Baltimore. Wallace commanded it at the Battle of Monocacy in July 1864. The Eighth Corps was so small that a division of the Sixth Corps comprised the vast majority of Wallace’s small command.
The force serving under Crook in the Shenandoah Valley was formally known as the Army of West Virginia. A number of its troops had been part of the Eighth Corps in 1863 under Robert Milroy and some even wore that corps’s official badge on the hats. For this reason, many officers and men of Sheridan’s army believed that Crook’s men were the Eighth Corps. Even officers referred to that command as such.
The veteran’s of Crook’s command often decried being called the Eighth in veteran newspapers and insisted on being referred to as the Army of West Virginia. This horror at being referred to as the Eighth Corps was especially strong among the men of Col. Isaac Duval’s (formerly Crook’s) division, which had no connection to Milroy’s disgraced command. Instead, they pointed to their proud roots in the Kanawha Division which served proudly at South Mountain and Antietam in 1862.
Most telling was the pride these veterans had in their commander. One of them wrote that he was satisfied at simply being called one of “Crook’s men.”
For more information on Crook’s command, see my latest book, “The Last Battle of Winchester.”