Letter of Chaplain A. H. Windsor, 91st Ohio Infantry
As a chaplain, Windsor watched the battle from atop the mountainside behind the Union lines and had a commanding view of the engagement. His account is fairly balanced, although overwrought at times.
On the night of the eight of May, we encamped at a little town called Poplar Hill, and though we had marched twenty three miles that day, yet, we learned to our disappointment that two regiments had passed on before us and were occupying Rocky Pass, ready to give us a warm reception. The soldiers slept that night in expectation that “the morn” would bring the strife, the marshalling in arm… The enemy had chosen a most excellent position for such forces as were to contend. Nature could not well have placed the hills and valleys in a more appropriate manner to favor the rebels. The moderately elevated ridge, running at right angles with the main road that passes over this ridge to a level plain beyond Dublin is about one mile in length, terminating on either side by a gentle decent of half a mile of beautiful meadow, and likewise in front of the ridge, for a mile or more, this descent continued down to the defile of the mountain called Rocky Pass [The mountain is actually Cloyd’s Mountain]
The artillery of the rebels was stationed along the crest of this ridge, debarring all hope of any attempt to storm their position through these open fields. A crushing defeat, or utter annihilation would have been the result of such temerity. There is one exception to this general contour of the field and that was upon the right and rather toward the front. Taking a direction between the immediate front and the right flank, and running down to the foot of Brush Mountain is a small ridge, which terminates in ravines that run along the mountain side. These ravines and the mountain side are covered with hemlock and scrub-oak, and this timber covers the ridge leading up to the rebel works upon the hill to within about two hundred yards. This forest terminates upon the ridge in a point like a right angle, extending down the plain in front of the rebel works. Along the border of this forest the rebels had built a breastwork of rails, well barricaded and having loop-holes, through which the rebel sharpshooters were to hurl their missiles of death. The position was well chosen for defence, and had there been equal numbers with our own, the battle must have gone against us.
On the morning of the 9th of May, the army left Poplar Hill, where we had encamped during the night, and passed up Little Walker’s Creek, about four miles. Here the main road lead up the mountain directly to the Pass. It was possible for infantry to pass up behind this mountain and, pass over it, through the hemlock entirely unobserved by the rebels, thereby securing the position in the ravines before mentioned, ready when the signal came to rush up the ridge to the conflict. The rebels it seems had anticipated our movement and made their dispositions accordingly. They allowed us quiet possession of the Pass, and took up their position on the crest of the hill before described. The artillery came through the Pass and took up a position at the foot of the mountain. The 2nd [Colonel Carr B. White’s] brigade was placed in the ravine and upon the extreme left; the [Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes] 1st occupied the center, and the 3d [Colonel Horatio G. Sickel] was upon the right flank, next to the artillery.
During all the time of making our dispositions, the enemy had kept up a steady fire with their artillery, but our movements were almost entirely concealed by the thick woods, and their shells, though they made a great noise as they went screaming over our heads did little or no injury. Our own artillery was too far away and below the rebels to do good execution yet I noticed where on of our shells had struck four horses hitched to a wagon, enar one of the rebel guns. They were literally torn to pieces. How many men were killed were wounded by this execution I know not as the rebels carried off most of their wounded and killed. The rebel artillery, though it kept up a continuous fire for about four hours, did not succeed, so far as I know, in doing us very much injury. It was almost exclusively a contest of infantry. “Bombs bursting in mid air” and the screaming of shells and the whistling and crackling of grape and canister among the tree-tops tended to heighten the grandeur of the scenes but only when our force charged on through the open field did the artillery of the rebels prove effective, and then only for a short time.
Our line of battle was formed at about 10 o’clock. The day was bright and beautiful as ever smiled upon a May day party. Not a cloud floated in the serenity above; a gentle breeze moved the branches of the trees over our heads; the birds sang as cheerily as if they were watching the hilarity of a party or picnic. The soldiers moved forward with the enthusiasm that bespoke them going to a banquet rather than the “valley of death.” The word to advance ran along the lines, “Forward!” was the response, and onward moved the long line of determined men. The weapons of death were in their hands, and the steel of courage in their hearts, resolved to gain a victory for their country, or lay their bleeding bodies upon the altar, a sacrifice in her defence. As I saw them marching on so proudly, I involuntarily exclaimed, brave men! When looked my eye upon a scene like this. Two armies ready to join in issue in a life struggle, prepared to combat each other at the gates of death, destined to feel the pain of a crushing defeat, or join in the clarion notes of victory. One or the other must soon be ours! Naught is heard now save the roar of the rebel artillery. It is the silence preceding the storm.
Those challenges of the enemy do not go unanswered long. Our guns begin to reply-a signal perhaps, that we are near the foe, that the battle is about to being. Son the stillness of the forest is broken by a sing gun. You can hear the ball whizzing by. Our skirmishers have met theirs-the rebels are driven back to their supports in the rear. Our line still advances. These signal guns are sounding the signal to engage all along the line, and now the battle actually beings. The rebel artillery belches forth with increased fury its angry thunders, and is answered by the defining roar of our well aimed guns. The musketry that opened in a single volley at first, now joins with the cannon in a continuous roar.
Our columns move forward in tow lines, the advance and reserve. The rebels lie behind their defences and await our approach. Our advance draws near, firing as they go but they get too near for safety; and a well directed volley from the rebels causes our lines to waver. The rebels encouraged by this, leap over their breastworks and break our advance line by a well directed fire. Many of our brave boys fall –many are killed-very many are wounded. Two regiments [14th West Virginia and 12th Ohio] are thus forced back. As the dying and wounded; covered with blood streaming form their wounds, are borne past by their comrades, we look with eager anxiety to see if the day is lost. It is not lsot, but hangs in doubtful balance. The “tug of war” is upon us.
It is well that those two regiments wo were compelled to retire are supported by another two [91st Ohio and 9th West Virginia] as brave as ever drew a sword in their country’s cause… The Colonel of the 91st Ohio [Colonel John A. Turley] beheld the tide that leads on to fortune and was quick to seize it. When the rebels had fired their last volley toward our retreating and discomfited advance, he gave the command to “fix bayonets.” This sounded the death knell, or retreat of the enemy. The 9th Virginia with its gallant Colonel [Isaac Hardin Duval] at its head, the 36th Veterans, the 23d and 91st Ohio, at this moment charged up that hill amid a shower of shot and shell, amid the shout of the victors and the moans of the vanquished, amid the dead and dying the hillside o’erstrewn up to the cannon’s mouth and over them, bearing back the rebels in confusion, and sending the leaden messengers of death thick as hail amid the foes of our country.
That was the hour of victory! It was changed from a battle to a complete rout. It was no longer two armies contending for the supremacy, but was the pursuing and the pursued. The surging billows of battle rolled on toward Dublin. The smoke of strife lifted from the field and we were left with the dead and wounded. Some are wounded unto death; some but slightly, and others have looked upon their last sun and are cold in the embrace of death. I could not gave uopn those upturned faces of the dead and think of the loved ones at home, thus cruelly bereaved, without saying in my heart of hearts, “Our grief will mingle with your tears. Strike down the traitors to the dust.”