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.

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[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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