Tag Archives: Jubal A. Early

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 William Woods Averell and the 1864 Valley Campaign

Gen. William W. Averell

William W. Averell had worked wonders organizing and training the cavalry in the Department of West Virginia dating back to 1863. He had been sentenced to the remote department after being relieved of his command at the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign. By the spring of 1864, Averell had conducted several successful operations including the Battle of Droop Mountain and his Salem Raid. That spring he led the cavalry portion of General George Crook’s raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad and failed to reach the vital Confederate salt and lead mines, being repulsed by Confederate Generals William E. “Grumble” Jones and John Hunt Morgan.   Averell returned to West Virginia with Crook, until Major General David Hunter summoned the combined force to the Shenandoah Valley in late May.

Crook and Averell joined Hunter at Staunton on June 7. Hunter took a liking to Averell and the cavalryman served as one of Hunter’s primary consultants during the march to Lynchburg. However, when the expedition failed, Hunter and Crook, blamed Averell, the former citing “the stupidity and conceit of that fellow Averell… of whom I unfortunately had at the time a very high opinion, and trusted him when I should not have done so.” While Averell’s advice proved impractical, Hunter’s slow march and repeated delays were the true cause of his failure to sack Lynchburg. Unfortunately for Averell, Grant trusted Hunter and accepted his assessment of Averell at face value.

When Confederate General Jubal A. Early raided Washington, the only Union general to achieve an outright success against the wily Confederate was Averell. Moving south out of Martinsburg, Averell attacked Early’s rearguard a few miles north of Winchester on July 20. Although Averell was greatly outnumbered, his tactical deployments routed the Southerners, inflicting 400 casualties upon ajor General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division and capturing a four-gun battery. Four days later, Crook sent Averell’s small division on an impossible mission against more than double his number of Confederate cavalry at the Second Battle of Kernstown. Crook’s calculations proved exceedingly dubious, and Averell’s division was routed in the most embarrassing fashion. By the end of July, Early had dispatched Brigadier General John C. McCausland on his infamous Chambersburg Raid. With only 1,300 men, Averell pursued McCausland into West Virginia, where he caught him near Moorfield with his command camped astride the South Branch of the Potomac River.

With scouts dressed as Confederates in the lead, Averell misled the Southern pickets and stormed into McCausland’s camps without warning, completely routing the Rebels. Averell inflicted nearly 470 casualties upon McCausland’s force and captured another battery of Confederate artillery. Averell had scored his second victory in impressive fashion in less than three weeks, eliminating nearly 900 Confederates and two batteries from the Southern war effort. Both victories came when Averell was operating as an independent commander where the New York native did not have to work closely with fell officers and coordinate his actions within the confines of an army. That situation would soon change.

Repeated Union failures in the Shenandoah Valley led to the appointment of Major General Philip H. Sheridan to command in that troubled region on the same day that Averell won his victory at Moorefield. From the outset, Grant made it known to Sheridan that he could make his appointments to command based upon his preference and disregard seniority in the process. When Sheridan made Major General Alfred T. A. Torbert his chief-of-cavalry, Averell, the senior officer, fumed. Grant told Sheridan to relieve Averell if he did not accept the matter. A short while later, Grant inaccurately opined to Sheridan that it seemed as if Averell was being driven back without much fighting and that it might be time to relieve the New Yorker. Sheridan did not act upon Grant’s suggestion.

At the time, Averell was operating in a semi-independent command covering the Potomac River on Sheridan’s right flank. Throughout early September, Averell routed the Confederate Cavalry between Bunker Hill and Stephenson’s Depot on an almost daily basis. At the same time, Early’s infantry made it a routine occurrence to march out and drive back Averell. At the Battle of Opequon Creek or Third Winchester on September 19, Averell played an important part in the outcome but acted with an overabundance of caution that seemed to border upon recalcitrance. Not coincidentally, this was the first time that Averell served under Torbert’s direct command. Averell bypassed Torbert and sent a messenger directly to Sheridan in the hottest part of the battle. Sheridan told the messenger that Averell needed to charge. When the staffer protested that Averell’s division had seen hard service at Martinsburg all week and that his horses were tired, Sheridan roared, “I don’t give a damn for horseflesh today. Tell him I said Charge!” Averell did charge, although not with the same vigor and aggressiveness that characterized the actions of Brigadier General Wesley’s Merritt’s division and the casualty rolls bore that out.

At Fisher’s Hill, Crook later claimed that he was the source of inspiration for Sheridan’s successful flanking assault. However, a review of Sheridan’s actions and a time line of events reveal a different story. Sheridan was on the skirmish line all day on September 21. He spent a significant amount of time with Averell’s division, and the New Yorker suggested that a corps of infantry could hug the base of North Mountain and then turn and attack Early’s left flank and rear at Fisher’s Hill. That very plan was adopted and led to the route of the Confederate forces. Although Crook later claimed credit for the battle’s outcome, but the battle plan’s true progenitor may have been Averell.

Unfortunately, Averell did not pursue the retreating Confederates in the aggressive fashion that Sheridan was accustomed to his Army of the Potomac cavalryman doing. The result was that Averell was relieved of his command. Much disappointment abounded among the officers and men of his command. Averell’s military reputation was irreparably damaged and he never held another command during the war. Between his innate recalcitrance, Grant’s urging of Sheridan to relieve Averell and his being an outsider in Sheridan’s cavalry corps, the New Yorker was lucky to have lasted as long as he did. There is no question that Averell served the Union cause ably in 1864 and one might argue that he did so against longer odds and in more difficult situations than did Torbert, Merritt and George A. Custer.

Averell never forgave Sheridan for his indiscretion. Years later, Sheridan encountered Averell in the lobby of a hotel and greeted him as an old friend. Averell spurned Sheridan’s overture, and wrote him a note explaining that he had not forgotten the way Sheridan treated him in the Shenandoah Valley and could not in good conscious act as if Sheridan had not mistreated him in 1864

For additional information on Averell in the Valley, see Shenandoah Summer and Blue and Gray Magazine.

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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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