Tag Archives: Battle of Opequon Creek

Battle of Winchester is heart-racing history in Shenandoah Valley

By Scott Patchan. Savas Beatie. 576 pages. $34.95

by

Michael L. Ramsey | Michael L. Ramsey is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.

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.

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Col. George S. Patton and the Last Battle of Winchester

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.

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The 151st New York, Third Division, Sixth Army Corps in the Shenandoah Valley

The Orleans American.
ALBION, N. Y.
Thursday Morning. Oct. 13, 1864.
Interesting Letter from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia.
CAMP NEAR BERRYVILLE, VA.
September, 17, 1864.
BRUNER BROTHERS:— We are in camp on or near Clifton Farms. We know very little about the place, but suppose it to be one of the great, broad possessions of Virginia aristocracy. We came here the 3d inst. This is the longest rest we have had since the pulling up of camp near Culpepper, May 3d. Here there is no firing oftener than once in two or three days. Day before yesterday there was a reconnaissance by the Cavalry supported by the 2d Division of the 6th Corps. Yesterday morning they brought in an entire regiment of South Carolina prisoners.
Since you heard from us at Buckeye-stream, Md., there has been a continued active campaign. We were put on the cars at Monocacy Junction, our old battle-field, the next morning and came directly to Harper’s Ferry, and thence to Bolivar Heights. The army of the Middle Department, well organized under Gen. Sheridan, a brave and accomplished soldier, advanced up the Valley as far as Strasburg; and then back again to Hoeltown, near Bolivar; out again beyond Charlestown; back again to near Harper’s Ferry; and, after a season, another forward movement as far as this place. During the time there has been several little skirmishes but with small loss to the 3d Division. The morning we were ordered from Monocacy Gen. Grant was there. He was at Gen. Hunter’s head-quarters near by the railroad, and as the troops passed by they cheered him grandly. The movements that have been made since then have taught us what he knew then and we did not. Now this morning the Corps Officer of the Day has passed along and reported that Gen. Grant had arrived and was now at Gen. Sheridan’s headquarters.
Inspections are prevalent, and affairs begin to assume a shape that indicates active operations again.
It is singular how soon after an engagement soldiers forget their sorrow for loss of friends; forget their hardships and trials and suffering. After getting in camp and rested, all hands are jubilant. All the little amusements and sports that can be invented, are indulged in. They are very innocent, and certainly beneficial and desirable. Such sports as pitching quoits, playing duck, jumping, cock-fighting &c. We go into a battle and perhaps one sees his best friends cut down by his side. This is grievous and cannot be blotted from the memory in an instant, but it does no good to brood in a melancholy mood over the matter. The hopeful and cheerful spirit is everywhere prevalent in the army. One regiment of our Brigade goes home one week from today. The 87th Pa. are brave soldiers and have done three years good service. We are rejoiced to see so many left to go home. The Brigade is having some recruits, conscripts and substitutes sent to it. Substitutes are usually poor soldiers, however. This Valley is an excellent country, but it should be entirely cleaned out and not a citizen be allowed to stay in it at present. The armies here are using up the substance of this section most effectually.
Occasionally there is a letter published in the Northern Rebel papers reported to be from soldiers. Do not believe this. There was one the other day quoted as being from a soldier in the 151st and dated at Strasburg, the 26th ult. The author ought to be a little more careful in regard to dates. We were not at Strasburg, at all at that time. Seymour, Vallandigham, Pendleton & Co., need not flatter themselves that the army is disloyal, or even partisan. Occasionally, to be sure, a sour, selfish misanthrope may talk venomously, but as a general thing the great mass speak, and will vote for Union and the suppression of the Rebellion by force of arms. The only safe Platform before the people is that of the Union. The nominees of the Baltimore Convention are satisfactory. Everything looks bright and promising.
Wise men told us, even in the days of greatest gloom and doubt, that all would be well. Gen. Grant is rapidly bringing the campaign to a successful and satisfactory consummation. We are all anxiously looking forward for the end of this awful war. But, be assured, none in the army are anxious to have it close till it is done honorably and effectually. The 8th Artillery are really unfortunate. It is sad to see so large a regiment cut down so rapidly. You may remember that out term of service expires Oct., 22d 1865. We trust, by the kind protection of God, to come home safely and honorably.
HARRISONBURG, Va. Sept. 26th.
Since I wrote the above there has been no mail; and there has been so much greater events that all else is made insignificat; nevertheless you have it.
We received marching orders the next day, (Sunday 18th,) but after getting packed up the orders were countermanded. At night, however, about ten o’clock, orders came to march at 2 o’clock, Monday morning. After marching about seven miles in the direction of Winchester we met the enemy. A battle ensued, the first of two great engegements and Victories during last week. The details of these battles are probably already familiar to you. A Cavalry fight occurred in the morning, and then infantry skirmishing till 11:40. At this time a grand charge was made of all the line. The enemy were driven and bitterly punished, but under his withering fire our forces were obliged to fall back a little. This was owing in a great measure to an accidental halt in our lines. But it was only for a short time, and our boys again recovered all the ground the had taken and held it by persistent fighting for four or five hours. The lines were again formed to good order and another charge made which night alone ended. The enemy were driven and dispersed and hosts of prisoners captured together with several cannon.
Our forces occupied Winchester and camped that night on the south side of the town. The 151st were on the skirmish line in the forenoon and consequently did not have to go forward in the first charge, and their loss is not so severe as that of other regiments. The greatest loss was in the first onset. Cannonading was kept up during the brisk skirmishing in the forenoon and many were killed and wounded. Capt. Williams was wounded while skirmishing. He is a very brave officer. Col. Emerson, commanding Brigade, and Lieut. Col. Fay, commanding the Regt., have acquitted themselves gallantly. They have had many narrow escapes. The loss of the regiment is only about 25. That of Brigade 289. This is out of about 900 or 1,000 fighting men. Our in prisoners is nothing. I inclose a list of casualties among the Orleans Co. boys. The lost some of its finest field officers. Major Dilingham the 10th Vt., son of the Lieut. Governor of that State, and Maj. Medenburgh of the 14th N. J., are both among the killed. Both these officers were commanding regiment. Gen. Russell commanding the 1st Division of the 6th Corps was killed early in the engagement.
Tuesday morning this army marched forward up the Valley, reaching Strasburg the same day, and found the enemy in his old intrenched position. The following day our Corps moved to the right and advanced on the enemy, but darkness coming on suspended further operations. During the night fortifications were built, but not used, for early the next day skirmishing began, and an advance was made. The 3d Div. of the 6th Corps was legitimately in reserve, but actually in front. Orders were given that the 8th Corps should take the main works while the 3d Div. of the 6th were to carry a certain crest. But as soon as the charge was ordered, the whole army pushed irresistibly and frantically forward carrying everything before them. Darkness ended the charge but it did not end the exultation—cheers, huzzas and yells. A constant and heavy fire was kept up all day and caused some occasional loss, but it was trifling in comparison with the great achievement. The enemy were behind strong works and a great slaughter was expected if not a repulse, but by the superior strategy of Gen. Sheridan the “Johnnies” were completely routed and lost at least 21 guns, and hosts of prisoners. Gen. Sheridan has made himself everywhere conspicuous during the recent engagements, riding up and down the lines in the hottest of the fire; infusing his troops with the greatest enthusiasm. Officers and soldiers were wild in their pursuit of the retreating foe, but the rebels run so like sheep it was impracticable for infantry to continue further. So cavalry and flying artillery followed as well as they could in the darkness.

After the troops were reorganized and had cooked coffee they moved deliberately forward to Woodstock, 12 miles, where we made breakfast. After a few hours rest we went “onward” again, to Edinburg. The next morning early, marched again, overtaking the enemy at Mt. Jackson. But they were readily shelled out, and after that during the day their rear was constantly in sight. We marched with a skirmish line in front and the “Johnnies” were obliged to skirmish what they could with us in face of our artillery, all the afternoon, continually retreating. Finally, just before dark they made a strong stand about three miles this side of New Market, when night came and we camped. Yesterday the army marched to this place and have remained here to day. The enemy appear to have divided and a portion gone the other side of the mountains. This is most disgraceful retreat any army ever made. Several of their hospitals have fallen into our hands. There are four in this place.

The army, at least our Division, is well supplied with tobacco here. The soldiers are nearly subsisting off the country. This is a pleasant, fertile and fruitful section. The weather is excellent. We are some distance away from our base of supplies, and had hard work getting here, but who says we have not done a successful week’s work?
Yours truly, HOLLEY.

Note from Scott:  The 151st New York Infantry was armed with breach-loading Sharps rifles. Because of this, they usually served on the skirmish line for the Third Division, Sixth Army Corps.

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The Army of West Virginia at the Battle of Opequon Creek (Third Battle of Winchester)

The following is a letter from a staff officer of the Army of West Virginia detailing that command’s critical role in the Union victory at Opequon Cree on September 19, 1864.

Fisher’s Hill

October 10, 1864

 

Editors Intelligencer:

 

            In your paper of September 26, I find what purports to be an account of the battle near Winchester on the 19th of that month. The article was copied by you from the New York World and was maliciously written with the sole object of glorifying a single officer, who although never so gallant and brave, was, on that occasion, only one of a number of heroes whose noble and devoted efforts brought success o our arms in a complete and glorious victory.

            Justice to others requires that the friends of the officers and soldiers composing the Army of West Virginia should have a candid, truthful statement of the events… that I propose to address myself. It would be superfluous for me to given an account of that portion of the battle prior to the bringing up of the reserve, as it is not necessary to the object proposed. Suffice it to say the engagement had been of several hours duration-that the fighting, though obstinate, had brought us no very decided success-that the 19th corps had been several time repulsed, and wa unable to advance and that when the reserve, or the Army of West Virginia, was brought into the engagement, “the even scales in doubtful balance hung,” or rather preponderated against us.

            We had come to a dead lock, and could move the wheels no further with the means hitherto employed. In this posture of the affair, Gen. Crook disposed his gallant command for going into the

Maj Gen. George Crook

Maj Gen. George Crook

fight. The 1st Division, Col. Thoburn’s, was formed in an open field in the rear of a wood occupied by the line of the 19th corps, in two lines, the first consisting of the 1st brigade commanded by Col. George D. Wells, 34th Mass; the second of the 3rd brigade, commanded by Col. Thomas M. Harris, 10th West Va. The 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, commanded by Col.
Robert S. Northcott, having been detailed to guard the train was not in the fight. The 2nd Division, Col Isaac H. Duval’s, was in a like manner formed in two lines in rear of the 1st Division. Gen Crook went into the battle feeling that the fate of the day depended on the conduct of his command, amost earnestly did he labor, not only to impress his division and brigade commanders, but his whole command with the importance of unflinching courage and indomitable determination on their part; and right well did he succeed in that which is the truest part of a great commander, viz: infusing his own gallant determination into his command. These dispositions having been made, the next step was the deployment of the 2nd Division to the right of the 1st, and the whole command was moved as to throw it to the right of, though slightly overlapping the line of the 19th Corps, the object being to turn the enemy’s left.     

            Gen. Crook accompanied the 2nd Division in its deployment, superintending its movements, which were rendered somewhat difficult from the fact that they had to be made through a dense wood in part. It was further obstructed by a slough or pond, which, though not wide at any point, was in places deep and difficult to cross. In its direction in front, tt bent around to the right so that in the advance of the 2nd Division, its two lines were confronted by this obstacle.[1]

            The lines of the 1st Division having advanced through the woods behind which they had been formed to its opposite edge, which revealed the enemy’s position in our front behind stonewalls and hastily constructed works and in and behind buildings [of Hackwood Farm] and extending into patches of woods on our left. The 1st Division was halted for a time to await the getting into position of the 2nd Division. At length, the cheer from that division was heard, indicating that it had received the order to charge, and at this signal, Col. Thoburn, in conformity with instructions he had received from Gen. Crook, ordered the 1st Division to charge and drive the enemy from his position, a task which had been assayed in vain by the 19th Corps over the same ground.

            With bayonets glittering, the lines moved forward rapidly, the men cheering as only the Army of West Virginia knows how to cheer; over fences, through open grounds and through woods, right forward the line advanced in the face of a most terrible fire which strewed the ground with a dead and wounded. In a very short time, the 1st Division had driven the enemy from and had possession of his very first line of works. But so determined was the spirit of the command, and so unbounded its enthusiasm from this, its first success, that scarcely stopping to breathe, onward it went, driving the enemy from one position to another, until the lines now composed of both brigades, mixed up in the completest confusion, as a result of these various charges came within good range for grape and canister from the enemy’s batteries. The troops took advantage of whatever cover presented itself, and all seemed content for a time with merely holding the ground already gained.

            In the meantime, Col. Duval, in his advance encountered the obstruction referred to and found it so great an obstacle as to effectually arrest the advance of a large portion of his command. It was thus compelled to retrace its steps or rather by a march by the flank recross [Red Bud Run] near where the division had crossed at the onset of its deployment, and then came up in rear of the 1st Division. The Colonel Duval, who sees no obstacles, having affected a crossing, pushed forward with the broken and scattered portions of his command that had gotten over, and with the aid of our cavalry, that at this juncture made a charge which broke and drove back the enemy’s left, he succeeded in forming a junction with Col Thoburn who already held the advanced position.[2]

            The place of difficulty was now on our extreme right, where our line was much exposed in open ground, in good range of the enemy’s guns, as well as of his musketry. Here Colonels Thoburn, Duval, Wells, Hayes and man staff and other officers, labored for an hour and a quarter, under a most murderous fire, and labored successfully, to keep the men from breaking. They advanced them as individuals and in squads from one point to another, wherever the slightest cover presented itself to act as sharpshooters. In this way, a line of sharpshooters was finally established of sufficient strength to produce a manifest impression on the enemy’s fire, especially the artillery. Here Col. Duval was wounded after having his horse killed under him. Col. Thoburn had his horse killed and was standing by Col. Duval in consultation, or was near him when he was struck.

            Here the ground was literally strewed with men and horses, dead and wounded. Here, many gallant officers fell or were disabled and taken off the field.  Lt. Col. John Linton, commanding 54th Penn., Lt. Charles W Kirby, Adjt. 10th W. Va., and Lieut. O. P. Boughner, Adjt. 10th W. Va. And Assistant Adjutant General, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division. At this juncture, our cavalry made its final grand and gloriously successful charge, sweeping over the plain from our right, round to our front; breaking the stubborn lines that were holding us in check, and capturing and bringing out many prisoners. Taking advantage of the confusion produced in the enemy’s ranks by the charge, our whole line advanced promptly, consisting now of the 6th Army Corps and the Army of West Va., the 19th Corps being marched by the right flank now appeared in the form of a reserve in our rear, supporting our right.

            In a very short time, we had possession of the enemy’s guns that had but a few moments before been dealing death to us with an unsparing hand. The enemy was routed. The sun was low in the western horizon, but as the result of these many hours of sharp and deadly conflict, the day was won.

            At the going in of the reserve and during Gen. Crook’s absence with the 2nd Division, Gen. Sheridan gave his personal attention to that portion of our lines formed by the 1st Division of Gen. Crook’s command, as being the point of the highest importance and interest. Sheridan expressed himself to Colonel Thoburn in the most enthusiastic terms of commendation of its conduct in this most arduous and successful charge or rather succession of charges. After the junction of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, Gen. Crook watched and directed the whole in the ablest manner.

            Where the conduct of all was so good, it would be invidious to draw comparisons, or descend to special references. Our glorious success on that ever memorable day was the result of wise combinations, a faultless disposition of our forces and the most sublime display of courage and indomitable determination on the part of the officers and men, and finally to the gallant conduct of the reserve, the Army of West Virginia.

 

E.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Battle-Winchester-Shenandoah/dp/1932714987/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380157548&sr=8-1&keywords=last+battle+of+winchester


[1] The slough or pond spoken of was Red Bud Run. While it bent somewhat to the right, it became an obstacle more so because Duval’s division wheeled to the left to strike the Confederate flank on the other side of Red Bud Run. Duval’s men were not aware of the nature of the slough until they stumbled upon it in the midst of their attack.

[2] The author of this letter being from the 1st Division is not entirely correct in his recounting of Duval’s advance. The latter’s division bypassed the obstruction by flanking to both the right and left of the miry stretch of Red Bud Run. Some troops attempted to follow Col. Rutherford B. Hayes across the “morass,” but only a handful succeeded. Most marched upstream and crossed at Hackwood a few hundred yards upstream or marched back downstream until they reached a point where the stream was fordable. In addition to encountering the swamp, Duval’s division met heavy resistance from Confederates posted on the south bank of the stream. The advance of Thoburn’s division on the south bank of the run and the Union cavalry farther to the rest forced those Confederates to fall back before Duval’s “straggling advance” as one of his officers termed it.

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Brig. Gen. William R. Cox’s Brigade at the Third Battle of Winchester

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

Brig. Gen. William R. Cox

Brig. Gen. William R. Cox

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.

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General George Washington Getty

Gen. George W. Getty

In 1864, General George W. Getty received command of the Second Division, VI Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. Prior to that he had served as an artillery commander, infantry division commander in the Antietam and Suffolk Campaigns and a military engineer. He had quietly carried out his assigned duties to the best of his ability, which was quite considerable. Getty had developed a reputation for dependability seldom matched in the often quarrelsome Army of the Potomac. “He is a cool man,” declared Theodore Lyman of General George Meade’s staff . “Quite a wonder,” he added. Getty considered himself to be a soldier whose duty it was to obey orders. ” I always obey an order. If I was ordered to march my division across the Atlantic Ocean, I’d do it. At least I would march them up to their necks in the sea, and then withdraw and report that it was impractical to carry out the order.”

Getty exhibited his leadership ability on May 5, 1864 at the battle of the Wilderness. When ordered to a vital crossroads at Parker’s Store, Getty raced ahead of his division with his staff and arrived at the intersection just ahead of A. P. Hill’s Corps. With only his staff and orderlies, Getty held the position until his combat troops arrived. Getty would lead his troops and others assigned to him in the Wilderness fighting until he went down wounded. He returned to command in time to assist with the fighting at Fort Stevens, during Confederate General Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington. With the Sixth Corps, Getty would spend the balance of the active campaigning that year in the Shenandoah Valley.

Getty was often called upon anytime there was a tight situation at hand. His division bore the brunt of the fighting in an all day, high intensity skirmish at Charlestown on August 21 and anchored Sheridan’s left flank at the battle of Opequon Creek (Third Winchester). When the Confederates smashed in the VI Corps right wing during Sheridan’s initial attack, it was Getty who brought up the New Jersey Brigade from reserve and threw them into the thickest of the fight to staunch the bleeding and turned artillery against the attacking Confederates.

However, it was at the battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, that Getty rose to the apex of his duties in the Valley. With Jubal Early’s legions sweeping Sheridan’s army back in confusion, Getty, who had rose to Corps command due to Sheridan’s absence and casualties,  posted his division on Middletown’s Cemetery Hill, becoming the sole bulwark of Union resistance. Elements of three Confederate divisions attacked, but Getty’s men held the position. Confederate artillery attempted to hammer them off the hill but Getty did not pull back until the Southern infantry had bypassed his right flank in their pursuit of the balance of the Sixth Corps. When Sheridan arrived on the battlefield that morning, Getty’s was the only organized infantry division from the entire army that was on the front line confronting the Confederates with the Union cavalry. After the battle, Sheridan wrote Grant, “General, I want Getty of the Sixth Corps and the brave boys, Merritt and Custer, promoted by brevet. Getty would go on to serve the Union cause well on April 2, 1865, when his division spearheaded the Union breakthrough at Petersburg but his service at Cedar Creek was perhaps his greatest contribution to the Union war effort. Had it not been for Getty, there is no telling how the Battle of Cedar Creek would have played out and what impact its loss would have had on Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

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