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The Battle of Cool Spring, July 18, 1864: Perspective of Col. Joseph Thoburn, Commander of U.S. Forces on the Ground
I received a mailer today from the Civil War Trust announcing its effort to preserve 1,500 acres of what is to me one of the most pristine and beautiful battlefields in Virginia. The battlefield is best known as Cool Spring but it is also referred to as the Battle of Snicker’s Gap or Castleman’s Ferry. This field is nestled among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and christened by the sparkling waters of the Shenandoah River as it meanders toward Harper’s Ferry, the serene setting of this evocative field takes visitors back in time to July 18, 1864 to experience that “Right smart little fight” as the soldiers called it where Jubal Early repelled an attempt by U.S. Generals Horatio Wright and George Crook to damage Early’s rear guard. As always, the men in the ranks paid the price. To help spread the word about this preservation opportunity and to increase awareness of the battle itself, I thought that I would share
the journal entry of Col. Joseph Thoburn, the combat leader of the U.S. forces that crossed the river in hopes of surprising Early’s rearguard but instead found themselves surprised in turn by Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ crack division. Thoburn’s casualty figures are skewed but the account is terrific. Actual losses were about 400 on either side.
From the Journal of Col. Joseph Thoburn:
Snickers Gap, Va.
July 19th, Moved forward through the Gap yesterday about 1 P.M. I was put in command of Sullivan’s old Division and the 3rd Brigade of Crook’s, and was directed by Gen. Crook to proceed by a circuitous and hidden route to a fording, one and a half miles down the river and effect a crossing, move up the other side and drive the enemy from the upper ford on the Berryville Road. The impression then was that the main body of the enemy had retreated leaving only a rear guard to dispute our passage of the river. On reaching the fording we round the enemy occupying the opposite bank with a strong picket of about 150 or 200 men. By making a rapid dash across the river the picket was driven away without loss to us. We captured a Capt. and eleven men. The captain was a staff officer on Gen. [Armistead] Long’s staff.
From the prisoners, information was gained that 2 divisions of Early’s army were within one mile of the ford and the remainder of the command not farther than 4 miles distant. This news was sent back to Genl. Crook and a position was taken near the river bank and a strong skirmish ‘line was sent forward about half a mile. A line of rebel skirmishers surrounded ours a half mile farther out. In this manner we lay for about one hour when their skirmish line advanced in very heavy force and our line fell back. Behind their skirmish line a heavy column advanced upon our right flank.
About one thousand of the dismounted Cavalry broke and ran across the river. A panic was created by this and a great portion of several regiments followed them in wild disorder. A portion of the line towards the right was entirely deserted and for a short time we were on the verge of disaster. But two regts [116th and 123rd Ohio] from the left were double quicked to the right and the enemy were checked and finally driven beck. Two other attempts were made to dislodge us, but both were repulsed.
About dusk I rec’d. orders to recross the river which was done in good order. Our loss was comparatively light considering the character of the contest which was very stubborn and determined. The men were protected by the embankment of a road that ran along the river bank and under a large bluff. The total killed and wounded will not exceed perhaps 200. The loss of the enemy is much greater, probably three times as much. We are resting today very quietly. The 6th Army Corps and a portion of the 19th is here. No attempt is being made to cross again to the other aide of the river. What the enemy is doing, we know not. The way is open for him to again destroy the railroad at Martinsburg. If they are disposed to do this it will not be difficult to accomplish for our force at that place and Harpers Ferry is not large. Genl. Crook has added the 3rd Brigade of his old Division to Sullivan’s Division and has given me command of the whole. This arrangement will probably not last longer than the present pursuit of the rebels for after that Genl. Crook may be returned to the Kanawha with his old command.
For more details on the Battle of Cool Spring and Jubal Early’s Summer Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley see my book Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign.
As part of my Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to stop in Moorefield, West Virginia and films some takes for filmmaker Jon Averill. He is a distant relative of Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell, the Department of West Virginia’s great cavalry raider in 1863 and 1864.
In August of 1864, Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s force of two brigades of Confederate cavalry camped near Moorefield to rest after his infamous raid which resulted in the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. While McCausland had about 2,600 men in his force, Averell tracked him down with no more than 1, 500 Union horsemen, from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Averell’s scouts dressed in Confederate uniforms and relieved Confederate pickets and captured a southern patrol heading out of Moorefield early on the morning of August 7. Then they charged into the Confederate camps and routed Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson’s command encamped around Willow Hall, driving it back across the South Branch of the Potomac River.
At the river the 14th Virginia Cavalry charged out of McCausland’s camp on the south bank of the river and a wild saber and pistol fight occurred in mid-stream. Averell’s horsemen soon put McCausland’s brigade to flight and the entire force was routed. Averell captured more than 400 prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The defeat shattered the core of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Cavalry at the very time that U. S. Grant was sending Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley.
Prior to Moorefield, McCausland’s brigade had rendered good serv
ice at the battles of
Monocacy and Second Kernstown. Johnson’s brigade had previously improved itself under its former commander, Brig. Gen. William E. Jon
es who was killed at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, 1864. What progress these troops had made, was lost in the demoralizing defeat at Moorefield. I
n many ways, Moorefield was a preview of what was to come in the Shenandoah Valley. There is one significant qualifier – Sheridan’s Cavalry in the Valley
overwhelmed their Southern counterparts through sheer force of numbers. Averell had used stealth and lightning quick strikes to achieve victo
ry not only at Moorefield, but also at Rutherford’s Farm (Stephenson’s Depot) on July 20, where he routed Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur. Ramseur had more
than 4,000 men in his force while again Averell was outgunned, having only 2,600 to take into the fight.
Alfred Young of Pennsylvania has conducted decades of research on casualties in the Army of Northern Virginia in the 1864 Campaigns. His study of the Overland Campaign will soon be published by LSU Press. He was kind enough to share his findings on Third Winchester with me. We have corresponded and spoke on the phone many times over the years and I am very happy that his work is coming out soon. He his a dogged research and a first class gentleman.
As a footnote to Capt. Galle’s account of Third Winchester, Alfred’s research revealed that Cox’s brigade lost 278 men killed, wounded and captured at Winchester. The 4th and 14th North Carolina regiments lost 152 of the brigades total loss. Cox carried no more than 1,000 men into battle that day.
Captain Seaton Gales served on the staff of Brig. Gen. William R. Cox, a North Carolina brigade commander in the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes. Gales relates the course of action for Cox’s Brigade on September 19, 1864 at Winchester and freely and accurately describes reasons for the Confederate defeat. He also expresses the grief felt throughout the army at the death of Rodes during the battle.
September 18, 1864: We tarried at Bunker Hill in the morning, while Gor
don moved to Martinsburg and repeated the comedy of ejecting Averell. We
returned to Stephenson’s depot at night, while G
ordon retraced his steps to Bunker Hill and bivouacked for the night, as after events proved a most lamentable error.
September 19, 1864: Early this morning a rapid cannonading in the direction and vicinity announced the enemy had evidently advanced in force. Ramseur was at the immediately menaced point, Breckinridge was a few miles off, we were lying at Stephenson’s Depot, five miles off, and Gordon was at Bunker Hill, twelve miles away. We were immediately and rapidly moved forward the noise of the incipient conflict increasing and deepening as we proceeded.
As the various divisions would reach the field, they had, of course, to be put in by detail. At a point about 1½ miles from Winchester, we first attacked the enemy, the left of the 19th and the right of the 6th Corps confronting us. The men went to their work in splendid style, and almost in the first dash, succeeded in driving the yankees in great confusion before them. Though our losses were quite heavy-not however to be compared to theirs. It was in this first collision that our gallant Major General Rodes fell, pierced through the head. I was quite near him when he was struck, and cannot describe my feelings of regret and dismay when I witnessed his fall. Cool, brave, cautious, sagacious and skillful, he commanded the full confidence and affection of his troops to the fullest extent. I regard his death as one of the severest losses which our cause has sustained during the war.
At almost every other point as our forces successively came up and engaged the enemy, victory seemed to incline in our favor. Towards noon there was a pause of several hours in the conflict or rather I shall say a cessation of general fighting, and we all began to fondly hope that the foe was too badly crippled and demoralized to resume it. But their great numerical superiority not only gave them the power of reinforcing their lines, and then by restoring confidence, but also to extend them beyond so far as to overlap our left, where we had cavalry protection alone. It is a well known principle or at least experience of warfare, that cavalry, even where the advance of numbers rest with them, are incompetent to cope with infantry, and accordingly when the enemy bore down in force upon ours, they were swept away like chaff, our left of completed turned, and the enemy came rushing in like an avalanche upon our flank and rear.
This of course necessitated a rapid falling back upon our part for new position and dispositions, almost inevitably engendering confusion-a confusion which was converted into a panic, and became with some few and isolated glorious exceptions, so general that all efforts to rally, reanimate and reform the men were unavailing. The army retreated in disorder thro and beyond Winchester, losing a number of prisoners, slowly pursued by the enemy, who however, were frequently confronted by our veterans, who, indignant at the flight of their comrades, would turn with heroic desperation and deliver a volley.
Our own brigade behaved as well as could be expected under such disheartening circumstances. At one moment when it was on the point of giving way, Gen. Cox seized the colors, and he and I, side by side, rode far in advance of the men, cheering them back by the example. God’s mercy alone prevented our being killed, as a storm of bullets greeted our conspicuous presence. Night soon intervened to prevent further pursuit, and we continued to Newtown, near which, we lay the greater portion of the night in line of battle, while thro the night, our stragglers were constantly coming in. And so terminated for the present, a most disastrous affair.
An incident of this fight dwells with most painful impression upon my memory. While engaged in rapidly transmitting orders, just as the retrograde movement commenced, a wounded officer, lying on the field most piteously besought me to take him up behind me on my horse, to prevent his falling into the hands of the enemy. To have stopped to do this would have involved almost certain death for both or at least would have delayed or prevented the communication of most important orders, and I was compelled as gently as possible to refuse his prayer. But I shall never cease to remember the imploring and agonizing express of his countenance.
Source: Journal of Capt. Seaton Gales, contained in Our Living and Our Dead,
Newbern, N.C., March 4, 1874.
To learn more about the Third Battle of Winchester or Opequon Creek, order a copy of my upcoming book from Savas Beatie. It calls upon 20 years of research using sources like Gales’s account to weave together the story of Third Winchester in detail for the first time.