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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/March to Lynchburg and Pursuit of Hunter

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

MARCH TO LYNCHBURG, AND PURSUIT OF HUNTER.

On the 12th of June, while the 2nd Corps (Ewell's) of the Army of Northern Virginia was lying near Gaines's Mill, in rear of Hill's line at Cold Harbour, I received verbal orders from General Lee to hold the corps, with two of the battalions of artillery attached to it, in readiness to move the Shenandoah Valley. Nelson's and Braxton's battalions were selected, and Brigadier-General Long was ordered to accompany me as Chief of Artillery. After dark, on the same day, written instructions were given me by General Lee, by which I was directed to move, with the force designated, at 3 o'clock next morning, for the Valley, by way of Louisa C. H. and Charlottesville, and through Brown's or Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge, as I might find most advisable; to strike Hunter's force in the rear, and, if possible, destroy it: then to move down the Valley, cross the Potomac near Leesburg in Loudon County, or at or above Harper's Ferry, as I might find most practicable, and threaten Washington City. I was further directed to communicate with General Breckenridge, who would co-operate with me in the attack on Hunter, and the expedition into Maryland.

At this time the railroad and telegraph lines between Charlottesville and Lynchburg had been cut by a cavalry force from Hunter's army; and those between Richmond and Charlottesville had been cut by Sheridan's cavalry, from Grant's army; so that there was no communication with Breckenridge. Hunter was supposed to be at Staunton with his whole force, and Breckenridge was supposed to be at Waynesboro, or Rockfish Gap. If such had been the case, the route designated by General Lee would have carried me into the Valley in Hunter's rear.

The 2nd Corps now numbered a little over 8,000 muskets for duty. It had been on active and arduous service in the field for forty days, and had been engaged in all the great battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbour, sustaining very heavy losses at Spotsylvania C. H. where it lost nearly an entire division, including its commander, Major-General Johnson, who was made prisoner. Of the Brigadier-Generals with it at the commencement of the campaign, only one remained in command of his brigade. Two (Gordon and Ramseur) had been made Major-Generals; one (G. H. Steuart) had been captured; four (Pegram, Hays, J. A. Walker, and R. D. Johnston) had been severely wounded; and four (Stafford, J. M. Jones, Daniel, and Doles) had been killed in action. Constant exposure to the weather, a limited supply of provisions, and two weeks' service in the swamps north of the Chickahominy had told on the health of the men. Divisions were not stronger than brigades ought to have been, nor brigades than regiments.

On the morning of the 13th, at 2 o'clock, we commenced the march; and, on the 16th, arrived at the Rivanna River, near Charlottesville, having marched over eighty miles in four days.[1]

From Louisa C. H. I had sent a dispatch to Gordonsville, to be forwarded, by telegraph, to Breckenridge; and, on my arrival at Charlottesville, on the 16th, to which place I rode in advance of the troops, I received a telegram from him, dated at Lynchburg, informing me that Hunter was then in Bedford county, about twenty miles from that place, and moving on it.

The railroad and telegraph between Charlottesville and Lynchburg had been, fortunately, but slightly injured by the enemy's cavalry, and had been repaired. The distance between the two places was sixty miles, and there were no trains at Charlottesville, except one which belonged to the Central road, and was about starting for Waynesboro. I ordered this to be detained, and immediately directed, by telegram, all the trains of the two roads to be sent to me with all dispatch, for the purpose of transporting my troops to Lynchburg. The trains were not in readiness to take the troops on board until sunrise on the morning of the 17th, and then only enough were furnished to transport about half my infantry. Ramseur's division, one brigade of Gordon's division, and part of another were put on the trains, as soon they were ready, and started for Lynchburg. Rodes' division, and the residue of Gordon's, were ordered to move along the railroad, to meet the trains on their return. The artillery and wagon trains had been started on the ordinary roads at daylight.

I accompanied Ramseur's division, going on the front train, but the road and rolling stock were in such bad condition that I did not reach Lynchburg until about one o'clock in the afternoon, and the other trains were much later. I found General Breckenridge in bed, suffering from an injury received by the fall of a horse killed under him in action near Cold Harbour. He had moved from Rockfish Gap to Lynchburg by a forced march, us soon as Hunter's movement towards that place was discovered. When I showed him my instructions, he very readily and cordially offered to co-operate with me, and serve under my command.

Hunter's advance from Staunton had been impeded by a brigade of cavalry, under Brigadier-General MeCausland, which had been managed with great skill, and kept in his front all the way, and he was reported to be then advancing on the old stone turnpike from Liberty, in Bedford County, by New London, and watched by Imboden with a small force of cavalry.

As General Breckenridge was unable to go out, at his request, General D. H. Hill, who happened to be in town, had made arrangements for the defence of the city, with such troops as were at hand. Brigadier-General Hays, who was an invalid from a wound received at Spotsylvania Court House, had tendered his services and also aided in making arrangements for the defence. I rode out with General Hill to examine the line selected by him, and make a reconnoissance of the country in front. Slight works had been hastily thrown up on College Hill, covering the turnpike and Forest roads from Liberty, which were manned by Breckenridge's infantry and the dismounted cavalry of the command which had been with Jones at Piedmont, The reserves, invalids from the hospitals, and the cadets from the Military Institute at Lexington, occupied other parts of the line. An inspection satisfied me that, while this arrangement was the best which could be made under the circumstances which General Hill found himself, yet it would leave the town exposed to the fire of the enemy's artillery, should he advance to the attack, and I therefore determined to meet the enemy with my troops in front.

We found Imboden about four miles out on the turnpike, near an old Quaker church, to which position he had been gradually forced back by the enemy's infantry. My troops, as they arrived, had been ordered in front of the works to bivouac, and I immediately sent orders for them to move out on this road, and two brigades of Ramseur's division arrived just in time to be thrown across the road, at a redoubt about two miles from the city, as Imboden's command was driven back by vastly superior numbers. These brigades, with two pieces of artillery in the redoubt, arrested the progress of the enemy, and Ramseur's other brigade, and the part of Gordon's division which had arrived, took position on the same line. The enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery on us, but, as night soon came on, he went into camp on our front.[2]

On my arrival at Lynchburg, orders had been given for the immediate return of the trains for the rest of my infantry, and I expected it to arrive by the morning of the 18th, but it did not get to Lynchburg until late in the afternoon of that day. Hunters force was considerably larger than mine would have been, had it all been up, and as it was of the utmost convenience to the army at Richmond that he should not get into Lynchburg, I did not feel justified in attacking him until could do so with a fair prospect of success. I contented myself therefore with acting on the defensive on the 18th, throwing Breckenridge's infantry and a part of his artillery on the front line, while that adopted by General Hill was occupied by the dismounted cavalry and the irregular troops. During the day, there was artillery tiring and skirmishing along the line, and, in the afternoon, an attack was made on our line, to the right of the turnpike, which was handsomely repulsed with considerable loss to the enemy. A demonstration of the enemy's cavalry on the Forest road, was checked by part of Breckenridge's infantry under Wharton, and MeCausland's cavalry.

On the arrival of the cars from Richmond this day, Major-Generals Elzey and "Ransom reported for duty, the former to command the infantry and dismounted cavalry of Breckenridge's command, and the latter to command the cavalry. The mounted cavalry consisted of the remnants of several brigades divided into two commands, one under Imboden, and the other under McCausland. It was badly mounted and armed, and its efficiency much impaired by the defeat at Piedmont, and the arduous service it had recently gone through.

As soon as the remainder of my infantry arrived by the railroad, though none of my artillery had gotten up, arrangements were made for attacking Hunter at daylight on the 19th, but, sometime after midnight, it was discovered that he was moving, though it was not known whether he was retreating, or moving so as to attack Lynchburg on the south where it

was vulnerable, or to attempt to join Grant on the south side of James River. Pursuit could not, therefore, be made at once, as a mistake, if either of the last two objects had been contemplated, would have been fatal. At light, however, the pursuit commenced, the 2nd Corps moving along the turnpike, over which it was discovered Hunter was retreating, and Elzey's command on the right, along the Forest road, while Ransom was ordered to move on the right of Elzey, with McCausland's cavalry, and endeavor to strike the enemy at Liberty or the Peaks of Otter. Imboden, who was on the road from Lynchburg to Campbell Court House, to watch a body of the enemy's cavalry, which had moved in that direction the day before, was to have moved on the left towards Liberty, but orders did not reach him in time. The enemy's rear was overtaken at Liberty, twenty-live miles from Lynchburg, just before night, and driven through that place, after a brisk skirmish, by Ramseur's division. The days march on the old turnpike, which was very rough, had been terrible. McCausland had taken the wrong road and did not reach Liberty until after the enemy had been driven through the town.

It was here ascertained that Hunter had not retreated on the route by the Peaks of Otter, over which he had advanced, but had taken the road to Buford's depot, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, which would enable him to go either by Salem, Fincastle, or Buchanan. Ransom was, therefore, ordered to take the route, next day, by the Peaks of Otter, and endeavour to intercept the enemy should he move by Buchanan or Fincastle. The pursuit was resumed early on the morning of the 20th, and on our arrival in sight of Buford's, the enemy's rear guard was seen going into the mountain on the road towards Salem. As this left the road to Buchanan open, my aide, Lieutenant Pitzer, was sent across the mountain to that place, with orders to Ransom to move for Salem. Lieutenant Pitzer was also instructed to ride all night and send directions, by courier from Fincastle, and telegraph from Salem, to have the road through the mountains to Lewisburg and South-Western Virginia blockaded. The enemy was pursued into the mountains at Buford's Gap, but he had taken possession of the crest of the Blue Ridge, and put batteries in position commanding a gorge, through which the road passes, where it was impossible for a regiment to move in line. I had endeavored to ascertain if there was not another way across the mountain by which I could get around the enemy, but all the men, except the old ones, had gotten out of the WHY, and the latter, as well as the women and children, were in such a state of distress and alarm, that no reliable information could be obtained from them. We tried to throw forces up the sides of the mountains to get at the enemy, but they were so rugged that night came on before anything could be accomplished, and we had to desist, though not until a very late hour in the night.

By a mistake of the messenger, who was sent with orders to General Rodes, who was to be in the lead next morning, there was some delay in his movement on the 21st, but the pursuit was resumed very shortly after sun-rise. At the Big Lick, it was ascertained that the enemy had turned off from Salem towards Lewisburg on a road which passes through the mountains at a narrow pass called the "Hanging Rock," and my column was immediately turned towards that point, but on arriving there it was ascertained that the enemy's rear guard had passed through the gorge. McCausland had struck his column at this point and captured ten pieces of artillery, some waggons, and a number of prisoners; but, the enemy having brought up a heavy force, McCausland was compelled to fall back, carrying off, however, the prisoners, and a part of the artillery, and disabling the rest so that it could not be removed. As the enemy had got into the mountains, where nothing useful could be accomplished by pursuit, I did not deem it proper to continue it farther. A great part of my command had had nothing to eat for the last two days, except a little bacon which was obtained at Liberty. The cooking utensils were in the trains, and the effort to have bread baked at Lynchburg had failed. Neither the waggon trains, nor the artillery of the 2nd Corps, were up, and I knew that the country, through which Hunter's route led for forty or fifty miles, was, for the most part, a desolate mountain region; and that his troops were taking everything in the way of provisions and forage which they could lay their hands on. My field officers, except those of Breckenridge's command, were on foot, as their horses could not be transported on the trains from Charlottesvilie. I had seen our soldiers endure a great deal, but there was a limit to the endurance even of Confederate soldiers. A stern chase of infantry is a very difficult one, and Hunter's men were marching for their lives, his disabled being carried in his provision train which was now empty. My cavalry was not strong enough to accomplish anything of importance, and a further pursuit could only have resulted in disaster to my command from want of provisions and forage.

I was glad to see Hunter take the route to Lewisburg, as I knew he could not stop short of the Kanawha River, and he was, therefore, disposed of for some time. Had he moved to South-Western Virginia he would have done us incalculable mischief, as there was no troops of any consequence in that quarter, but plenty of supplies at that time. I should, therefore, have been compelled to follow him.[3]

My command had marched sixty miles, in the three days pursuit, over very rough roads, and that part of it from the Army of Northern Virginia had had no rest since leaving Gaines' Mill. I determined, therefore, to rest on the 22nd, so as to enable the waggons and artillery to get up, and prepare the men for the long march before them. Imboden had come up, following on the road through Salem after the enemy, and the cavalry was sent through Fincastle, to watch the enemy and annoy him as he passed through the mountains towards Lewisburg, and also ascertain whether he would endeavor to get into the Valley towards Lexington or Staunton.

 


  1. On the 15th, we passed over the ground, near Trevillian's depot, on which Hampton and Sheridan had fought, on the 11th and 12th. Hampton had defeated Sheridan, and was then in pursuit of him. Grant claims, in his report, that, on the 11th, Sheridan drove our cavalry "from the field, in complete rout;" and says, when he advanced towards Gordonsville, on the 12th, "he found the enemy reinforced by infantry, behind well-constructed rifle-pits, about five miles from the latter place, and too strong to successfully assault."

    This is as thoroughly a fancy sketch as can well be manufactured. There was not an infantry soldier in arms nearer the scene of action than with General Lee's army, near Cold Harbour; and the "well-constructed rifle-pits" were nothing more than rails put up in the manner in which cavalry were accustomed to arrange them to prevent a charge. Sheridan mistook some of Hampton's cavalry, dismounted and fighting on foot, for infantry; and the statement was made to cover his defeat.

  2. Hunter's delay in advancing from Staunton had been most remarkable, and can be accounted for only by the fact, that indulgence in petty acts of malignity and outrage upon private citizens was more congenial to his nature than bold operations in the field. He had defeated Jones' small force at Piedmont about ten miles from Staunton, on the 6th, and united with Crook on the 8th, yet he did not arrive in front of Lynchburg until near night on the 17th. The route from Staunton to Lynchburg by which he moved, which was by Lexington, Buchanan, the Peaks of Otter, and Liberty, is about one hundred miles in distance. It is true McCausland had delayed his progress by keeping constantly in his front, but an energetic advance would have, brushed away McCausland's small force, and Lynch- burg, with all its manufacturing establishments and stores, would have fallen before assistance arrived. A subsequent passage over the greater part of the same route showed how Hunter had been employed.
  3. Grant, in his report .says: "General Hunter, owing to a want of ammunition to give battle, retired from before the place (Lynchburg). This is a little remarkable, as it appears that this expedition had been long contemplated and was one of the prominent features of the campaign of 1864. Sheridan, with his cavalry, was to have united with Hunter at Lynchburg, and the two together were to have destroyed General Lee's, communications and depots of supplies, and then have joined Grant. Can it be believed that Hunter set out on so important an expedition with an insufficient supply of ammunition? He had fought only the battle of Piedmont, with a part of his force, and it was not a very severe one, as Jones' force was a small one and composed mostly of cavalry. Crook's column not being there was not engaged. Had Sheridan defeated Hampton at Trevillian's. he would have reached Lynchburg after destroying the railroad on the way, and 1 could not have reached there in time to do any good. But Hampton defeated Sheridan, and the latter saw "infantry"' "too strong to successfully assault." Had Hunter moved on Lynchburg, with energy, that place would have fallen before it was possible for me to get there. But he tarried on the way for purposes which will hereafter appear, and when he reached there, his heart failed him and he was afraid to fight an inferior force, and then there was discovered, "A want of ammunition to give battle."