Before heading off to South Carolina for a Revolutionary War tour, I wanted to get in another post. This letter is from Colonel Windsor B. French, commander of the 77th New York Volunteer Infantry. This regiment served in the VI Corps, Brigadier General George W. Getty’s Division, Brig. Gen. Daniel Bidwell’s brigade and fought on the extreme left of the Union battle line at Opequon Creek (the battle formerly known as Third Winchester). It occupied a position south of the Berryville Road, modern day Route 7, near Abraham’s Creek. Bidwell’s brigade suffered heavily from the accurate firing the Confederate artillery. To read more letters from the 77th New York and learn more about the regiment go to http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/77thInf/77thInfMain.htm
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1864.
FROM THE 77TH
The Late Battles in the Shenandoah.
Correspondence of The Saratogian
Hdqrs. 77th Regt., N. Y. S. V.
Sept. 28, 1864.
Messrs. Potter & Judson:–We have been marching all night, chasing the flying enemy and have halted to rest and draw rations. I am not in condition to write you a letter for publication, but I should be unjust to the many friends of the Seventy-Seventh did I not, at least, let you know of the splendid success of this army, and the part our regiment took in the engagements.
During my three years in the military service I have never seen such splendid fighting, and with such signal success. Let me give a brief account. Monday morning, at half past one we broke camp and took the pike through Berryville, across the Occoquan Creek toward Winchester; the cavalry leading, and the 3d Brigade (ours) leading the whole infantry force. We crossed the Creek at sunrise, and pushed rapidly forward and took position on a hill, where a few cavalrymen were fighting and holding the position with some difficulty. The enemy tried very hard to shell us out, and we suffered much from the sharpshooters. Here it was Lieuts. Ross, Gillis, VanDerwerker and Worden, were wounded, all slightly, or at least not dangerously. Being the advance of the army, of course it was a long time before the line could go forward in concert, as it requires much time to put troops in position. I dreaded to advance, for our front was a wide-open field, with no protection whatever, and across which in the skirt of a wood the enemy were in line, and their artillery fire was very severe. At length the order to advance and attack the enemy was given, and the whole line went forward in most splendid style. I had three companies deployed as skirmishers, and followed them closely with my line.
There is no grander sight in the world than an infantry charge in line. Our batteries were in position, and the engagement at once became very hot; but still we went steadily forward. The enemy, posted on the hills in front of the town, did sad execution with their artillery. One brigade of the 19th Corps broke, leaving the right flank of our Corps, which was held by the 3d Division, exposed, and it was obliged to fall back, thereby compelling the 1st and 2d Brigades of our Division to retire, owing to the conformation of the ground and the line. The 3d Brigade held its ground, at least 900 yards in front of the original position. Soon, however, the 1st Division, Gen. Russell, which had been held in reserve, came up in magnificent style, the old General leading, and the enemy were forced back and our line gained, and held securely the position from which they were just before driven. Here we rested for two hours, I should think, when heavy firing commenced away on our right, and amid the loudest cheering the whole line advanced. At the same time Wilson’s Division of Cavalry made a charge on our left, and in a short time after Torbet did the same on our right. The sequel is soon told; the enemy ran in the wildest disorder, horses were riderless, pack horses galloping, strewing the ground with officers’ mess stuff, tents, kettles, baggage, & c. Men threw away their arms, artillerists cut their horses loose, and rode them off at the wildest speed; in short, it was a complete rout.
Darkness put an end to pursuit and the rebs escaped—only to be again trapped. As I advanced my line the right rested near a grave-yard, upon one of the tomb stones of which was inscribed the name of Major General Daniel Morgan, died in 1802, &e. I could not help but think of Saratoga, the Bemis Height battle ground, when the then Colonel did such noble service for his country, and how his sharpshooters made the red coats run. And I wondered if his spirit did not hover over this battle- field, fighting to uphold the cause he fought to establish, and to continue the Government he fought to inaugurate. Surely the God of battles must aid our just cause.
At 6 A. M., the 20th, we gave chase, and marched to Strasburg, 18 miles, where we arrived at 3 P. M. Nothing more was done on that day. I was detailed Corps officer of the day, and established the line. At noon, the 21st, the order was given to commanders of Corps and Divisions to take designated positions in front of Fisher’s Hill, and for me to advance my line and secure a good position to protect the movement. The army got into position and immediately commenced to entrench, as is customary. One would have thought we expected an attack; but the military genius of Phil. Sheridan comprehended the position, and was determined to drive the enemy from his stronghold.
Fisher’s Hill is one of the ugliest positions I ever saw, strongly fortified with batteries, bearing upon every avenue of approach. One would think, to look at it, that no body of men could take it, flanked on either side as it is by mountains—the Shenandoah, or north branch thereof, being also in front of the left portion of the hill. The North and South Mountains, spurs, or rather independent short ranges, divide the Alleghany and Blue Ridge ranges, respectively flanked the otherwise naturally strong position. At about 5 o’clock Maj. Gen Crook had worked his force along the side of North Mountain, completely flanking the positions which everybody supposed couldn’t be flanked and commenced driving the enemy.
This was a signal for the 6th Corps to advance, which it did, dashing through the woods, over hills, into hollows, across gulleys, over walls, fences, and every conceivable obstruction, and the enemy at the same time pouring upon us all his fiery vengeance, in the shape of shot and shell. Soon as the line was sufficiently swung round a Division of the 19th Corps charged, and then the roar of artillery and musketry was terrific; but amid it all the cheers of our advancing columns rang out into the troubled air. Sheridan came along the lines almost unattended, seeming to appear at every place where there was the least wavering—and such enthusiasm I never saw. The men rushed almost wildly forward, regardless of lines of battle, each striving to outdo the other in noble daring.— Oh, if there is anything that will stir the deepest feelings of man’s nature, making ready and willing to die for our country, it is a battle. Its horrors and awful grandeur no one who has not seen one can imagine. On, on, went this blue mass of living men, and back rolled the Rebel horde, shattered, frightened and demoralized, too cowardly to make a good fight even behind earthworks. The hights are taken, and with them sixteen pieces of artillery, and battle flags and prisoners, I do not know how many.
The enemy fell back in disorder, without the least formation—just one mass of gray backs scattered over the plain, moving back like a vast mob, all running for dear life, and our men chasing them with but little better formation. Truly it was a soldier’s fight, and the charge being under way, the hights would have been taken without an officer save our noble chief. So the battle of Strasburg was fought and won, and this valley, one of the finest in the world, reclaimed from rebel rule.
I am led to inquire what Rebel soldiery will fight, if Early’s army will not. They are certainly the finest body of men I ever saw bearing arms,—strong, healthy, intelligent fellows — the very best troops in the Confederate service. The old Brigade, Division and Corps of Stonewall Jackson—of which we have so long stood in terror—is almost, and I trust will be quite, annihilated.
Our army is in the highest spirits, and finest state of discipline. The result of this last fight is so much the more glorious from the fact that our loss was comparatively nothing. How it was possible to accomplish so much with so little loss I cannot conceive. God be praised for this glorious victory. We are continually saying, what an effect this will have upon our people at home. Will they now clamor for “Peace at any price,” and a “cessation of hostilities?” Is it possible that after so much blood, that our people will be deceived into a delusive hope? Tell the citizen population of your town and county that we who are fighting to sustain our country’s honor and republican institutions will look back with sorrow upon any compromise with traitors. Rebels with swords must be conquered by the sword.
Have we not taken the planks out of the Chicago Platform within the past four days?— Let them all be taken out, they are rotten and deceptive. McClellan can not have the suffrage of the true soldiers. He has many personal friends in the army—those who knew him in the army before the war, and on the Peninsula. His friends have killed him, politically speaking. “God bless our noble President and our country,” I heard a private soldier say last night, after he had exhausted all his eulogies on Phil. Sheridan.
We are to move on. I cannot write more. The confusion is ill adapted to letter writing.
I am, very truly,
Your obedient servant,
W. B. French,
Col. 77th N. Y.