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.