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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Battle of Winchester

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America



At light on the morning of the 11th, our cavalry pickets at the crossing of the Opequon on the Berryville road were driven in, and information having been sent me of that fact, I immediately ordered all the troops at Stephenson's depot to be in readiness to move, directions being given for Gordon, who had arrived from Bunker Hill, to move at once: but, by some mistake on the part of my staff officer, the latter order was not delivered to General Breckenridge or Gordon. I rode at once to Ramseur's position, and found his troops in line across the Berryville road skirmishing with the enemy. Before reaching this point, I had ascertained that Gordon was not moving, and sent back for him, and now discovering that the enemy's advance was a real one and in heavy force, I sent orders for Breckenridge and Rodes to move up as rapidly as possible. The position occupied by Ramseur was about one mile and a half out from Winchester, on an elevated plateau between Abraham's Creek and Red Bud Run. Abraham's Creek crosses the Valley Pike one mile south of Winchester, and then crosses the Front Royal road about the same distance south-east of the town, and, running eastwardly, on the southern side of the Berryville road, crosses that road a short distance before it empties into the Opequon. Red Bud Run crosses the Martinsburg road about a mile and a half north of Winchester, and runs eastwardly, on the northern side of the Berryville road, to the Opequon. Ramseur was therefore in the obtuse angle formed by the Martinsburg and Front Royal roads. In front of and to the right of him, for some distance, the country was open. Abraham's Creek runs through a deep valley, and beyond it, on the right, is high open ground, at the intersection of the Front Royal and Millwood roads. To Ramseur's left, the country sloped off to the Red Bud, and there were some patches of woods which afforded cover for troops. To the north of the Red Bud, the country is very open, affording facilities for the movement of any kind of troops. Towards the Opequon, on the front, the Berryville road runs through a ravine, with hills and woods on each side, which enabled the enemy to move his troops under cover, and mask them out of range of artillery. Nelson's artillery was posted on Ramseur's line, covering the approaches as far as practicable; arid Lomax, with Jackson's cavalry and part of Johnson's, was on the right, watching the valley of Abraham's Creek and the Front Royal road beyond, while Fitz Lee was on the left, across the Red Bud, with his cavalry and a battery of horse-artillery, and a detachment of Johnson's cavalry watched the interval between Ramseur's left and the Red Bud. These troops held the enemy's main force in cheek until Gordon's and Rodes' divisions arrived from Stephenson's depot. Gordon's division arrived first, a little after ten o'clock, A. M., and was placed under cover in rear of a piece of woods behind the interval between Ramseur's line and the Red Bud, the detachment of Johnson's cavalry having been removed to the right. Knowing that it would not do for us to await the shock of the enemy's attack, Gordon was directed to examine the ground on the left, with a view to attacking a force of the enemy which had taken position in a piece of wood in front of him, and while he was so engaged Rodes arrived with three of his brigades, and was directed to form on Gordon's right, in rear of another piece of woods. While this movement was being executed, we discovered very heavy columns of the enemy, which had been massed under cover between the Red Bud and the Berryville road, moving to attack Ramseur on his left flank, while another force pressed him in front. It was a moment of imminent and thrilling danger, as it was impossible for Ramseur's division, which numbered only about 1,700 muskets, to withstand the immense force advancing against it. The only chance for us was to hurl Rodes and Gordon upon the flank of the advancing columns, and they were ordered forward at once to the attack. They advanced in most gallant style through the woods into the open ground, and attacked with great vigor, while Nelson's artillery on the right, and Braxton's on the left, opened a destructive fire. But Evans' brigade of Gordon's division, which was on the extreme left of our infantry, received a check from a column of the enemy, and was forced back through the woods from behind which it bad advanced, the enemy following to the very rear of the woods, and to within musket range of seven pieces of Braxton's artillery which were without support. This caused a pause in our advance, and the position was most critical, for it was apparent that unless this force was driven back the day was lost. Braxton's guns, in which now was our only hope, resolutely stood their ground, and, under the personal superintendence of Lieutenant Colonel Braxton and Colonel T. H. Carter, my then Chief of Artillery, opened with canister on the enemy. This fire was so rapid and well-directed that the enemy staggered, halted, and commenced falling back, leaving a battle-flag on the ground, whose bearer was cut down by a canister shot. Just then, Battle's brigade of Rodes' division, which had arrived and been formed in line for the purpose of advancing to the support of the rest of the division, moved forward and swept through the woods, driving the enemy before it, while Evans' brigade was rallied and brought back to the charge. Our advance, which had been suspended for a moment, was resumed, and the enemy's attacking columns were thrown into great confusion and driven from the field. This attacking force of the enemy proved to be the Sixth and Nineteenth corps, and it was a grand sight to see this immense body hurled back in utter disorder before my two divisions, numbering a very little over 5000 muskets. Ramseur's division had received the shock of the enemy's attack, and been forced back a little, but soon recovered itself. Lomax, on the right, had held the enemy's cavalry in check, and, with a part of his force, had made a gallant charge against a body of infantry, when Ramseur's line was being forced back, thus aiding the latter in recovering from the momentary disorder. Fitz Lee on the left, from across the Red Bud, had poured a galling fire into the enemy's columns with his sharpshooters and horse-artillery, while Nelson's and Braxton's battalions had performed wonders. This affair occurred about 11 A. M., and a splendid victory had been gained. The ground in front was strewn with the enemy's dead and wounded, and some prisoners had been taken. But on our side, Major General Rodes had been killed, in the very moment of triumph, while conducting the attack of his division with great gallantry and skill, and this was a heavy blow to me. Brigadier-General Godwin, of Ramseur's division, had been killed, and Brigadier-General York, of Gordon's division, had lost an arm. Other brave men and officers had fallen, and we could illy bear the loss of any of them. Had I then had a body of fresh troops to push our victory, the day would have been ours, but in this action, in the early part of the day, I had present only about 7000 muskets, about 2000 cavalry, and two battalions of artillery with about 30 guns; and they had all been engaged. Whartons division and King's artillery had not arrived, and Imboden's cavalry under Colonel Smith, and McCausland's under Colonel Ferguson, were watching the enemy's cavalry on the left, on the Martinsburg road and the Opequon. The enemy had a fresh corps which had not been engaged, and there remained his heavy force of cavalry. Our lines were now formed across from Abraham's Creek to Red Bud and were very attenuated. The enemy was still to be seen in front in formidable force, and away to our right, across Abraham's Creek, at the junction of the Front Royal and Millwood roads, he had massed a division of cavalry with some artillery, overlapping us at least a mile, while the country was open between this force and the Valley Pike, and the Cedar Creek Pike back of the latter; which roads furnished my only means of retreat in the event of disaster. My line did not reach the Front Royal road on the right, or the Martinsburg road on the left.

When the order was sent for the troops to move from Stephenson's depot, General Breckenridge had moved to the front, with "Wharton's division and King's artillery, to meet a cavalry force which had driven our pickets from the Opequon on the Charlestown road, and that division had become heavily engaged with the enemy, and sustained and repulsed several determined charges of his cavalry, while its own flanks were in great danger from the enemy's main force on the right, and a column of his cavalry moving up the Martinsburg road on the left. After much difficulty and some hard fighting, Gen. Breckenridge succeeded in extricating his force and moving up the Martinsburg road to join me, but lie did not reach the field until about two o'clock in the afternoon.

In the meantime there had been heavy skirmishing along the line, and the reports from the front were that the enemy was massing for another attack, but it was impossible to tell where it would fall. As the danger from the enemy's cavalry on the right was very great and Lomax's force very weak, Wickham's brigade of Fitz Lee's cavalry had been sent from the left to Lomax's assistance. When Wharton's division arrived, Patton's brigade of that division was left to aid Fitz Lee in guarding the Martinsburg road, against the force of cavalry which was advancing on that road watched by Lomax's two small brigades; and the rest of the division was formed in rear of Rodes' division in the centre, in order to be moved to any point that might be attacked. Late in the afternoon, two divisions of the enemy's cavalry drove in the small force which had been watching it on the Martinsburg road, and Crook's corps, which had not been engaged, advanced ;it the same time on that flank, on the north side of Red Bud, and, before this overwhelming force, Patton's brigade of infantry and Payne's brigade of cavalry under Fitz Lee were forced back. A considerable force of the enemy's cavalry then swept along the Martinsburg road to the very skirts of Winchester, thus getting in the rear of our left flank. Wharton's two other brigades were moved in double quick time to the left and rear, and, making a gallant charge on the enemy's cavalry, with the aid of King's artillery, and some of Braxton's guns which were turned to the rear, succeeded in driving it back. The division was then thrown into line by General Breckenridge, in rear of our left and at right angles with the Martinsburg road, and another charge of the enemy's cavalry was handsomely repulsed. But many of the men on our front line, hearing the fire in the rear, and thinking they were flanked and about to be cut off, commenced falling back, thus producing great confusion. At the same time, Crook advanced against our left, and Gordon threw Evans' brigade into line to meet him, but the disorder in the front line became so great that, after an obstinate resistance, that brigade was compelled to retire also. The whole front line had now given way, but a large portion of the men were rallied and formed behind an indifferent line of breastworks, which had been made just outside of Winchester during the first year of the war, and, with the aid of the artillery which was brought back to this position, the progress of the enemy's infantry was arrested. Wharton's division maintained its organization on the left, and Ramseur fell back in good order on the right. Wickham's brigade of cavalry had been brought from the right, and was in position on Fort Hill, just outside of Winchester on the west. Just after the advance of the enemy's infantry was checked by our artillery, it was reported to me that the enemy had got around our right flank, and as I knew this was perfectly practicable, and was expecting such a movement from the cavalry on the Front Royal road, I gave the order to retire, but instantly discovering that the supposed force of the enemy was Ramseur's division, which had merely moved back to keep in line with the other troops, I gave the order for the latter to return to the works before they had moved twenty paces. This order was obeyed by Wharton's division, but not so well by the others. The enemy's cavalry force, however, was too large for us, and having the advantage of open ground, it again succeeded in getting around our left, producing great confusion, for which there was no remedy. Nothing was now left for us but to retire through Winchester, and Ramseur's division, which maintained its organization, was moved on the east of the town to the south side of it, and put in position, forming the basis for a new line, while the other troops moved back through the town. "Wickham's brigade, with some pieces of horse artillery on Fort Hill, covered this movement and checked the pursuit of the enemy's cavalry. When the new line was formed, the enemy's advance was checked until night-fall, and we then retired to Newtown without serious molestation. Lomax had held the enemy's cavalry on the Front Royal road in check, and n feeble attempt at pursuit was repulsed by Ramseur near Kernstown.

As soon as our reverse began, orders had been sent for the removal of the trains, stores, and sick and wounded in the hospitals, to Fisher's Hill, over the Cedar Creek Pike and the Back Road. This was done with safety, and all the wounded. except such as were not in a condition to be moved, and those which had not been brought from the field, were carried to the rear.

This battle, beginning with the skirmishing in Ramseur's front, had lasted from daylight until dark, and. at the close of it, we had been forced back two miles, after having repulsed the enemy's first attack with great slaughter to him, and subsequently contested every inch of ground with unsurpassed obstinacy. We deserved the victory, and would have had it, but for the enemy's immense superiority in cavalry, which alone gave it to him.

Three pieces of King's artillery, from which the horses were shot, and which therefore could not he brought off. were lost, but the enemy claimed five, and, if he captured that number, two were lost by the cavalry and not reported to me. My loss in killed, wounded and prisoners was severe for the size of my force, but it was only a fraction of that claimed by the enemy. Owing to its obedience to order in returning to the works, the heaviest loss of prisoners was in Wharton's division. Among the killed were Major General Rodes and Brigadier General Godwin. Colonel G. W. Patton, commanding a brigade, was mortally wounded, and fell into the hands of the enemy. Major General Fitz Lee was severely wounded, and Brigadier General York lost an arm. In Major General Rodes I had to regret the loss not only of a most accomplished, skillful and gallant officer, upon whom I placed great reliance, but also of a personal friend, whose counsels had been of great service to me in the trying circumstances with which I had found myself surrounded. He fell at his post, doing a soldier's and patriot's duty to his country, and his memory will long be cherished by his comrades. General Godwin and Colonel Patton were both most gallant and efficient officers, and their loss was deeply felt, as was that of all the brave officers and men who fell in this battle. The enemy's loss in killed and wounded was very heavy, and some prisoners fell into our hands.

A skillful and energetic commander of the enemy's forces would have crushed Ramseur before any assistance could have reached him, and thus ensured the destruction of my whole force; and, later in the day, when the battle had turned against us, with the immense superiority in cavalry which Sheridan had, and the advantage of the open country, would have destroyed my whole force and captured everything I had. As it was, considering the immense disparity in numbers and equipment, the enemy had very little to boast of. I had lost a few pieces of artillery and some very valuable officers and men, but the main part of my force and all my trains had been saved, and the enemy's loss in killed and wounded was far greater than mine. When I look back to this battle, I can but attribute my escape from utter annihilation to the incapacity of my opponent.[1]

  1. The enemy has called this battle,"The Battle of the Opequon," but I know no claim it has to that title, unless it be in the fact that, after his repulse in the fore part of the day, some of his troops ran back across that stream. I have always thought that instead of being promoted, Sheridan ought to have been cashiered for this battle. He seems to be a sore of pet of Grant's, and I give the following extracts from the report of the latter, to show the strange inconsistency of which he is guilty to magnify Sheridan's services. In his Monocacy letter to Hunter, Grant says: "From Harper's Ferry, if it is found that the enemy has moved north of the Potomac in large force, push north, following him and attacking him wherever found; follow him if driven south of the Potomac as long it is safe to do so. If it is ascertained that the enemy has but a small force north of the Potomac, then push south with the main force, detaching, under a competent commander, a sufficient force to look after the raiders and drive them to their homes." And further on in the same letter he says: "Bear in mind, the object is to drive the enemy south, and to do this, you want to keep him always in sight. Be guided in your courses he takes." When Sheridan relived Hunter, this letter of instructions was ordered to be turned over to him, and two divisions of cavalry subsequently joined him; yet grant says in regard to Sheridan's operations: "His operations during the month of August and the fore part of September were both of an offensive and defensive character, resulting in many severe skirmishes, principally by the cavalry, in which we were generally successful, but no general engagement took place. The two armies lay in such a position, the enemy on the west bank of the Opequon creek covering Winchester, and out forces in front of Berryville, that either could bring on a battle at any time. Defeat to us would open to the enemy the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania for long distances before another army could be interposed to check him. Under these circumstances, I hesitated about allowing the initiative to be taken. Finally the use of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which were both obstructed by the enemy, became so indispensably necessary to us, and the importance of reliving Pennsylvania and Maryland from continuously threatened invasion so great, that I determined the risk should be taken. But fearing to telegraph the order for an attack without knowing more than I did of General Sheridan's feelings as to what would be the probable result, I left City Point on the 15th of September to visit him at his headquarters, to decide after conference with him what should be done. I met him at Charlestown, and he pointed out so directly how each army lay, what he would do the moment he was authorized, and expressed such confidence of success, that I saw there were but two words of instruction necessary—go in." In the letter to Hunter there is no hesitation about the initiative, and yet, notwithstanding this letter was turned over to Sheridan for his guidance, and two divisions of cavalry subsequently sent to him, and the further fact that he had been operating both on the offensive and defensive during August and the fore part of September, the impression is sought to be made that his ardor was restrained by some sort of orders, of which no mention is made in Grant's report. Really this is very curious, and Grant's admission of his hesitation in allowing the initiative to be taken, and the statement that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal were so obstructed, and the invasion of Pennsylvania and Maryland so constantly threatened, as to compel him to throw off that hesitation, convey a great compliment to the efficiency of my small force. The railroad is twenty-two miles from Winchester at the nearest point, and the canal over thirty and north of the Potomac, while Sheridan was much nearer to both. That Grant did find it necessary to say to Sheridan, "go in!" I can well believe, but that the latter was panting for the utterance of that classic phrase, I must be allowed to regard as apocryphal.