Col. George S. Patton and the Last Battle of Winchester

Gen. George S. Patton was one of America’s premier military commanders in World War II. His family tree included his grandfather Col. George S. Patton, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, who gave his life for the Confederate cause at the Last Battle of Winchester. Patton had had raised the 22nd Virginia Infantry in the Kanawha Valley and spent most of the War Between the States campaigning in the mountains of what is now West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. He suffered wounds in engagements at Scary Creek in 1861 and Giles Courthouse (Pearisburg), Virginia. In 1864, the increasing intensity of the war in the Shenandoah Valley, brought Patton there, where he led the 22nd Virginia in a counterattack that changed the tide of battle at New Market, throwing the Union Cavalry into disorder. He led Echols’ brigade in an attack at the Second Battle of Kernstown that along with the rest of Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s division sent Gen. George Crook’s army retreating in confusion from the battlefield and through the town Winchester.

On September 19, 1864, Col. Patton and his brigade fought at Winchester against Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. After covering a crossing of the Opequon Creek that was not attacked, Patton’s brigade was withdrawn toward Stephenson’s Depot. When Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge found his small command of Wharton’s infantry division and Col. Milton Ferguson’s brigade of cavalry about to be cut-off by Union cavalry moving on their rear, he withdrew toward Winchester leaving Patton as the rearmost infantry command to cover the retreat.

Marching through woods along the bed of the ruined Winchester and Potomac Railroad east of the Martinsburg Pike, Patton’s infantry encountered the advance of Col. Thomas Devin’s cavalry brigade driving back Ferguson’s cavalry brigade in confusion along the Charlestown Road. Patton’s infantry charged, cleared the road and opened the way for Col. George Smith’s cavalry to counterattack and temporarily drive Devin’s men back while Ferguson rallied. Patton then continued the retreat toward Winchester. As he moved toward the main battlefield, a courier from Breckinridge ordered Patton assist the Confederate Cavalry on the Valley Pike.

Patton almost immediately encountered Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, the Confederate cavalry commander, leading Col. William Payne’s brigade toward the Valley Pike to resist the oncoming Union deluge of horse soldiers. The two officers conferred, and Lee told Patton of the approach of Crook’s infantry Lee’s former position on the left of Gen. John B. Gordon’s division. Lee urged Patton to attend to the Union foot soldiers and that Lee would continue on toward the Pike to deal with the Union horsemen. Patton complied and moved his small brigade into position behind a stonewall on the Hackwood Farm in front of Red Bud Run. When the Union infantry appeared on the north bank of that stream, Patton’s Virginians opened fire and pinned down the attacking Ohioans and West Virginians as the struggled to cross the swampy stream. At length, Union forces drove Gordon’s division from its position on Patton’s right, and the infantry in his front began to work their way across Red Bud Run. Patton’s brigade attempted to withdraw but the situation became impossible when Col. Thomas Devin’s brigade attacked on Patton’s left flank and cut off his line of retreat. Division commander Gen. Gabriel Wharton sent “order after order” for Patton to rejoin the division closer to Winchester, but it was physically impossible.

Fitz Lee reported that Patton was mortally wounded as he attempted to change front to deal with the myriad of threats facing his brigade. Two regiments of Devin’s brigade capture 300 prisoners and every battle flag from Patton’s brigade. According to Lt. Col. George Edgar, another VMI grad, he rallied the fragments of Patton’s brigade at Fort Collier with the assistance of Fitz Lee. Lee himself was soon seriously wounded, and the Union cavalry stormed around the Confederate left, routing Jubal Early’s army of the Valley District.

Patton was taken to the home of a family member in Winchester where he died several days later. Contrary to some accounts, he did not grab a revolver and threaten to shoot a Union surgeon who recommended amputation. That story, if true, happened earlier in the war. Instead, it looked like he would recover from the wound, but infection took hold and he died. There are also stories of Patton being mortally wounded in the streets of Winchester near the railroad depot. However, I have been unable to trace these to any contemporary sources. Not surprisingly, Patton’s role seems to have grown during the Civil War centennial commemoration after his grandson had gained fame as one of America’s premier combat leaders in World War II.  This story makes for an interesting historiographical study.

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3 Comments

Filed under Battles, Biographical

3 responses to “Col. George S. Patton and the Last Battle of Winchester

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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