The XIX Corps at Opequon Creek

General Cuvier Grover

Immediately upon the heels of Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s victory at Opequon Creek, the last battle of Winchester, it became fashionable among the rank and file of the VI Army Corp to blame a temporary setback that nearly wrecked the army upon the XIX Corps. As the story went, the VI corps fell back in Sheridan’s initial attack only because the XIX Corps broke on its right. The blame game officially began with the report of VI Corps commander, Major General Horatio G. Wright. He wrote, “A most determined charge of the enemy was made on the left of the Nineteenth Corps, crowding it back and the turning on the flank of the Third Division, Sixth Corps.” That division’s commander, Brigadier General James B. Ricketts added to the disparagement, writing, “The Nineteenth Corps did not move and keep connection with my right…” Such official proclamations quite naturally influenced the feelings of the enlisted men of both corps. Writings of VI Corps veterans are replete with derogatory references about the XIX Corps and its “poor” combat record.

In researching my book on the Battle of Opequon Creek, it became clear that the fighting men of the XIX Corps had received a bad rap. Their initial advance was made by the division of Brigadier General Cuvier Grover, whose most famous moment in the war up to that point was when his brigade smashed through Stonewall Jackson’s line at the Railroad Cut of Second Manassas only to be violently repulsed as Grover followed up his initial success. At Winchester, Grover’s attack initially drove the left brigade of Confederate General John B. Gordon’s division back in confusion while Gordon’s right maintained its position and repulsed Grover’s left until the break on Gordon’s left forced the balance of his division to withdraw as Grover’s right penetrated deep into the Confederate rear. For a brief time, part of both Grover’s and Gordon’s divisions were advancing and retreating simultaneously until the surge of Brigadier General Henry Birge’s brigade on Grover’s right forced the balance of Gordon’s division to withdraw.

At this point it seemed that Grover had scored a major breakthrough, ala Second Manassas. In reality, his division was already foundering. With four brigades numbering 8,000 men deployed in two lines of battle, Grover’s left front brigade had been repulsed in its advance and lost two brigade commanders in the process. A huge several hundred yards wide developed between it and Birge’s command on the right. The supporting line was too far to the rear to be of immediate assistance although Emory did order Colonel Edward Molineux’s brigade of the second line into the gap. However, by the time it reached the front, the situation had changed completely. First, Birge’s brigade ran into two Confederate batteries that ended his success. Then, Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’ division counterattacked, and Grover suddenly found his brigades besieged by three of Rodes’ four brigades. Although it cost Rodes’ his life, his attack routed Grover’s division. As the Federal’s withdrew across an open field, they found themselves pummeled on their northern flank by six guns of Fitz Lee’s Confederate horse artillery, posted upon the recently preserved Huntsberry Farm north of Red Bud Run. Gordon’s division then rejoined the fight, allowing two of Rodes’ brigade to join the division of Confederate General Stephen D. Ramseur in the fight against the VI Corps. These North Carolinians rolled up the Sixth Corps battle line from right to left and forced four of the five brigades in Wright’s front line to retreat in varying degrees of order or lack thereof before the reserve division of General David Russell restored the VI Corps battle line.

The VI Corps also claimed credit for restoring the battle line of the XIX as well. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although General Emory Upton’s brigade came up and fired a couple of volleys into the ranks of some Confederates engaged with the left of the XIX Corps, Major General William H. Emory had the situation in hand by that time. Emory had brought up artillery and General William Dwight’s XIX corps division and restored his own battle line at a steep cost. The 114th New York lost 185 men killed and wounded out of 350 that went into battle at Opequon Creek, but their stand bought time for Emory to reconstitute his battle line and hold out until Sheridan could bring up General George Crook’s West Virginia.

Another interesting tidbit of information regarding the XIX Corps at Opequon is an examination of the casualties. The two brigades of Grover’s front line lost 146 men killed, 571 wounded and 86 missing or captured for a total of 803 casualties. All of these losses occurred during Sheridan’s initial attack. These heavy losses occurred because the XIX Corps fought a disproportional percentage of Early’s available infantry strength. When Sheridan’s attack began, Early had ten brigades on the battlefield that numbered roughly 7,500 men. Ramseur and Gordon supported by several brigades of cavalry and two artillery battalions were in line confronting the Federals and Rodes was moving forward in toward the center of the Confederate line. The XIX Corps battled 2/3 of Early’s infantry, including his best division, Rodes’. At a more detailed level, the 156th New York which occupied the XIX Corps’ left flank lost 111 killed and wounded with no missing. It remained engaged until the Confederate attack had been completely repulsed. In contrast, the left flank regiment of the VI Corps lost only 54 men before it was put to rout and did not return to the fight for several hours. In short, the XIX Corps broke before the VI Corps did; however, it broke because it ran into a hornet’s next that the VI Corps did not encounter in its initial advance.

As a side note, I have to mention the excellent work of Nick Picerno and Irv Hess of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield in preserving the Huntsberry Farm. This tract of land includes not only the Confederate horse artillery position, but the bloodied fields where Dwight’s division, including the 29th Maine, came up to save the day for the XIX Corps. Students of the 1864 Valley Campaign are in great debt to the folks down at the Battlefield Foundation for all that they do to keep these battlefields preserved so that they can be visited and enjoyed by the public. Also I want to put a link up for Mike Noirot’s blog “This Might Scourge” which has a piece on the Battle of Cedar Creek.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The XIX Corps at Opequon Creek

  1. Great summary. I’ve never understood such VI Corps claims, given the early successes of the XIX Corps and the ferocity of Confederate resistance.

  2. Todd Berkoff

    I enjoyed the analysis of the casulties in the various 19th Corps units. I always like to remind people that it was the envelopment by Crook’s 8th Corps and cavalry charges by Merritt and Averell that ultimately broke the back of Early’s army. While Getty’s and Rickett’s division were floundering along Abraham’s Creek, it was Russell’s division that bore the brunt of the 6th Corps attack. I think I found the location of Upton’s stand — and Russell’s wounding — now a baseball field in the housing development south of the Middle Field. Regards, Todd Berkoff, Arlington, VA

    • Thanks for the comment Todd. Crook’s veterans would vehemently point out that they belonged to the Army of West Virginia. The 8th Army Corps was not in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 nor was Crook’s force ever part of it. Russell was not wounded with Upton but rather closer to Route 7 where he was with Colonel Oliver Edwards’ brigade. Upton went in at the very end and fire a couple of volleys but the Confederate attack had already been broken. It should also be noted that the Sixth Corps of the Valley Campaign was a far cry from the unit that marched into the Wilderness on May 5. It lost more than 12,000 men due to casualties prior to Winchester, thousands more to muster out at the expiration of their term of enlistment and the replacements were largely draftees and substitutes.

  3. Todd Berkoff

    Hi Scott. I completely agree about the 8th Corps/Army of West Virginia nomenclature. However, one thing I found interesting is that many of the regimental monuments in the Winchester National Cemetery have 8th Corps “Stars” on them. This could be a result of some of the veterans of the Army of West Virginia remembering foundly their short time in the 8th Corps before Crook’s command formally became the Army of West Virginia. In any case, some of the regiments in Crook’s command felt the need to chisel the 8th Corps badge on their monuments. As for Russell’s death site, I think you and I are talking about generally the same area. Rodes was killed near the Dinkle Farm (slightly to the east, I think), and Russell pushed his division forward during a crisis moment to meet the brigades of Battle, Cook, and Cox as the CS units advanced to a supposed gap in the Federal line. According to my research, Russell swung his division to the right of the pike (into the present-day development), where Campbell and Edwards met the brigades of Battle and Cook, while Upton on Russell’s far right, met Cox’s brigade (near the basefield today). This entire fight is south of Ash Hollow Run, which one can still find on the battlefield and use as a key to understanding the movements. I always viewed this fight as separate from the Middle Field battle, and was physically separated from it by Ash Hollow Run. Thanks!

    • Hi Todd,

      Thanks for your comments and reading my blog. It is great to meet someone with such in-depth knowledge of the battle.

      You are quite correct about the monuments. However, only two former 8th Corps regiments took part in Opequon with Crook, the 116th Ohio and 123rd Ohio. The latter regiment has both an 8th Corps and a 24th Corps badge on its monument because they belonged to those corps at different points of their service. My point is that Crook’s soldiers prided themselves on being called the Army of West Virginia and “Crook’s Men.” The greater part of the old 8th Corps was represented by Ricketts’ division of the Sixth Corps and didn’t do much to eliminate their rap as “Milroy’s Boys.”

      Regarding Russell’s role in the counterattack, we have to keep in mind that many brigade and regimental commanders reacted to situations on the battlefield before they received orders from on high. This was especially true in the Sixth Corps. For all of its losses, it had a veteran cadre of officers and NCO’s who had butted heads with the Confederate Second Corps on many fields. They had learned during the bloody overland campaign that to wait for orders might mean the difference between success and failure.

      Keeping that in mind, when you get into the detailed accounts and reports you realize that George W. Getty was the first person to see the trouble brewing on his right. Getty personally ordered Campbell’s New Jersey Brigade into the fray. Colonel Oliver Edwards saw what was happening and followed with his brigade to the north side of the Berryville Pike. Russell joined Campbell and Edwards at Dinkle’s Farm, ordered them to advance and was soon killed. Sheridan plays up the drama surrounding Russell’s death in his memoir but I’ve not seen any contemporary evidence to back Sheridan’s claim up (not uncommon). Upton went in farther to the right as you described and fired a “few volleys” at the Rebels but his greatest contribution at Opequon was his role in the final Union attack. He was the only division of the VI Corps pushing the attack, as one would expect from him. The 37th Massachusetts had been holding the line alone in that sector.

      Previous accounts of Rodes’ division’s actions are generally correct at the high level. However, the alignment of his division and who did what have not been completely accurate. Unpublished battle maps and Confederate accounts make it very clear. His line consisted of (from left to right) Cook, Cox and Grimes. The brigades were advancing to counterattack about a half mile to the rear of Gordon’s advancing division. When Gordon broke, they were able to take up the fight. Cook hit Birge’s left flank, then left them to be swept away by Battle’s brigade. The Alabamans had just arrived on the battlefield and weathered a tide of retreating Georgians and went into the battle on the far left of Rodes’ division. They attacked head on into the shattered ranks for the 12th ? Maine, 26th Massachusetts and 14th New Hampshire on the far right of the Union line. Cook’s brigade was the most prolific of Rodes’ division taking nearly 40% casualties and capturing 3 Union battle flags. After taking out the 75th New York and 14th ? Maine on Birge’s right, they hit Molineux’s brigade in conjunction with Cox, forcing Mol to withdraw fighting to the first woods.

      As for Rodes death spot, it occurred very early on in the action, immediately after his three brigades went in. He was posting artillery in the area that was west of the housing development you speak of. Either in the woods or the area that looks like the lunar surface because it was used as a staging area for I-81 Construction. Those woods might be considered by some as part of Dinkle’s farm. He was on the north side of the ravine that separated the Dinkle Farm from the Second Woods area.

      Scott

  4. Todd Berkoff

    Hi Scott. By the way, the housing development is called Regency Lakes and I think Russell was killed near the intersection of Regency Lakes Drive and Pyramid Drive (within 200 yards). The area where Russell’s Division formed up prior to the attack is Lake Wisdom Drive. Ash Hollow has been damed over the years and the two man-made ponds mark the location now, but one can still make out the original stream bed to the east of the ponds. Feel free to email me at tberkoff@gmail if you want to chat. You and I also share in interest in Second Manassas; I was a volunteer guide there for 4 years and more recently have published articles on Brawner’s Farm and Bristoe Station. Regards, Todd Berkoff

  5. Dan

    Nice summary (and blog). Rutherford B. Hayes in his diary talks about the lack of acknowledgement that Crook was given for his role at times and I think he specifically mentions Winchester. Last October I visted Winchester to see a few battlefields where Hayes had fought.
    http://queencitysurvey.blogspot.com/2009/10/raise-rutherford_31.html

  6. excellent information. just finding out that i had an ancestor that fought in the civil war, i am just starting t research.

  7. Jim

    Enjoyed the article on the XIX corp My G Father was First Sargeant of the 156th Regiment He thought he was in charge of Regt. They could not find th OIC He showed up during the fight. GFather was wounded ithe stomach and lived Great article

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