Captain Seaton Gales served on the staff of Brig. Gen. William R. Cox, a North Carolina brigade commander in the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes. Gales relates the course of action for Cox’s Brigade on September 19, 1864 at Winchester and freely and accurately describes reasons for the Confederate defeat. He also expresses the grief felt throughout the army at the death of Rodes during the battle.
September 18, 1864: We tarried at Bunker Hill in the morning, while Gor
don moved to Martinsburg and repeated the comedy of ejecting Averell. We
returned to Stephenson’s depot at night, while G
ordon retraced his steps to Bunker Hill and bivouacked for the night, as after events proved a most lamentable error.
September 19, 1864: Early this morning a rapid cannonading in the direction and vicinity announced the enemy had evidently advanced in force. Ramseur was at the immediately menaced point, Breckinridge was a few miles off, we were lying at Stephenson’s Depot, five miles off, and Gordon was at Bunker Hill, twelve miles away. We were immediately and rapidly moved forward the noise of the incipient conflict increasing and deepening as we proceeded.
As the various divisions would reach the field, they had, of course, to be put in by detail. At a point about 1½ miles from Winchester, we first attacked the enemy, the left of the 19th and the right of the 6th Corps confronting us. The men went to their work in splendid style, and almost in the first dash, succeeded in driving the yankees in great confusion before them. Though our losses were quite heavy-not however to be compared to theirs. It was in this first collision that our gallant Major General Rodes fell, pierced through the head. I was quite near him when he was struck, and cannot describe my feelings of regret and dismay when I witnessed his fall. Cool, brave, cautious, sagacious and skillful, he commanded the full confidence and affection of his troops to the fullest extent. I regard his death as one of the severest losses which our cause has sustained during the war.
At almost every other point as our forces successively came up and engaged the enemy, victory seemed to incline in our favor. Towards noon there was a pause of several hours in the conflict or rather I shall say a cessation of general fighting, and we all began to fondly hope that the foe was too badly crippled and demoralized to resume it. But their great numerical superiority not only gave them the power of reinforcing their lines, and then by restoring confidence, but also to extend them beyond so far as to overlap our left, where we had cavalry protection alone. It is a well known principle or at least experience of warfare, that cavalry, even where the advance of numbers rest with them, are incompetent to cope with infantry, and accordingly when the enemy bore down in force upon ours, they were swept away like chaff, our left of completed turned, and the enemy came rushing in like an avalanche upon our flank and rear.
This of course necessitated a rapid falling back upon our part for new position and dispositions, almost inevitably engendering confusion-a confusion which was converted into a panic, and became with some few and isolated glorious exceptions, so general that all efforts to rally, reanimate and reform the men were unavailing. The army retreated in disorder thro and beyond Winchester, losing a number of prisoners, slowly pursued by the enemy, who however, were frequently confronted by our veterans, who, indignant at the flight of their comrades, would turn with heroic desperation and deliver a volley.
Our own brigade behaved as well as could be expected under such disheartening circumstances. At one moment when it was on the point of giving way, Gen. Cox seized the colors, and he and I, side by side, rode far in advance of the men, cheering them back by the example. God’s mercy alone prevented our being killed, as a storm of bullets greeted our conspicuous presence. Night soon intervened to prevent further pursuit, and we continued to Newtown, near which, we lay the greater portion of the night in line of battle, while thro the night, our stragglers were constantly coming in. And so terminated for the present, a most disastrous affair.
An incident of this fight dwells with most painful impression upon my memory. While engaged in rapidly transmitting orders, just as the retrograde movement commenced, a wounded officer, lying on the field most piteously besought me to take him up behind me on my horse, to prevent his falling into the hands of the enemy. To have stopped to do this would have involved almost certain death for both or at least would have delayed or prevented the communication of most important orders, and I was compelled as gently as possible to refuse his prayer. But I shall never cease to remember the imploring and agonizing express of his countenance.
Source: Journal of Capt. Seaton Gales, contained in Our Living and Our Dead,
Newbern, N.C., March 4, 1874.
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