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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Operations in 1865

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


On the 2nd of January, 1865, I had a consultation with Gen. Lee at Richmond, about the difficulties of my position in the Valley, and he told me that he had left me there with the small command which still remained, in order to produce the impression that the force was much larger than it really was, and he instructed me to do the best I could.

Before I returned from Richmond, Rosser started, with between 300 and 400 picked cavalry, for the post of Beverly in Western Virginia, and, on the 11th, surprised and captured the place, securing over five hundred prisoners and some stores. This expedition was made over a very mountainous country, amid the snows of an unusually severe winter. Rosser's loss was very light, but Lieutenant-Colonel Cook of the 8th Virginia cavalry, a most gallant and efficient officer, lost his leg in the attack, and had to be left behind.

The great drought during the summer of 1864, had made the corn crop in the Valley a very short one, and, and as Sheridan had destroyed a considerable quantity of small grain and hay, I found it impossible to sustain the horses of my cavalry and artillery where they were, and forage could not be obtained from elsewhere. I was therefore compelled to send Fitz Lee's two brigades to General Lee, and Lomax's cavalry was brought from across the Blue Ridge, where the country was exhausted of forage, and sent west into the counties of Pendleton, Highland, Bath, Alleghany, and Greenbrier where hay could be obtained. Rosser's brigade had to be temporarily disbanded, and the men allowed to go to their homes with their horses, to sustain them, with orders to report when called on.—One or two companies, whose homes were down the Valley, being required to picket and scout in front of New Market. The men and horses of Lieutenant-Colonel King's artillery were sent to South-Western Virginia to be wintered, and most of the horses of the other battalions were sent off, under care of some of the men, who undertook to forage them until spring. Nelson's battalion, with some pieces of artillery with their horses, was retained with me, and the remaining officers and men of the other battalions were sent, under the charge of Colonel Carter, to General Lee, to man stationary batteries on his lines. Brigadier-General Long, who had been absent on sick leave for some time and had returned, remained with me, and most of the guns which were without horses were sent to Lynchburg by railroad. This was deplorable state of things but it could not be avoided, as the horses of the cavalry and artillery would have perished had they been kept in the Valley.

Echols' brigade of Whartons division was subsequently sent to South-Western Virginia, to report to General Echols for special duty, and McNeil's company of partizan rangers and Woodson's company of unattached Missouri cavalry were sent to the County of Hardy—Major Harry Gilmore being likewise ordered to that County, with the remnant of his battalion, to take, charge of the whole, and operate against the Baltimore and Ohio railroad; but he was surprised and captured there, at a private house, soon after his arrival. Two very small brigades of Wharton's division, and Nelson's battalion with the few pieces of artillery which had been retained, were left as my whole available force, and these were in winter quarters near Fisherville, on the Central railroad between Staunton and Waynesboro. The telegraph to New Market and the signal stations from there to the lower Valley were kept up, and a few scouts sent to the rear of the enemy, and in this way was my front principally picketed, and I kept advised of the enemy's movements. Henceforth my efficient and energetic signal officer, Captain Wilbourn, was the commander of my advance picket line.

The winter was a severe one, and all material operations were suspended until its close. Late in February, Lieutenant Jesse McNeil, who was in command of his father's old company, with forty or fifty men of that company and Woodson's, made a dash into Cumberland, Maryland, at night, and captured and brought off Major-Generals Crook and Kelly with a staff officer of the latter, though there were at the time several thousand troops in and around Cumberland. The father of this gallant young officer had performed many daring exploits during the war, and had accompanied me into Maryland, doing good service. When Sheridan was at Harrisonburg, in October, 1864, Captain McNeil had burned the bridge at Edinburg in his rear, and had attacked and captured the guard at the bridge at Mount Jackson, but in this affair he received a very severe wound from which he subsequently died. Lieutenant Baylor of Rosser's brigade, who was in Jefferson County with his company, made one or two dashes on the enemy's outposts during the winter, and, on one occasion, captured a train loaded with supplies, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

On the 20th of February, an order was issued by General Lee, extending my command over the Department of South-western Virginia and East Tennessee, previously commanded by General Breckenridge the latter having been made Secretary of War.

On the 27th, Sheridan started from Winchester up the Valley with a heavy force, consisting, according to the statement of Grant, in his report, of "two divisions of cavalry, numbering about 5,000 each." I had been informed of the preparations for a movement of some kind, some days previous, and the information had been telegraphed to General Lee. As soon as Sheridan started, I was informed of the fact by signal, and telegraph, and orders were immediately sent by telegraph to Lomax, whose headquarters were at Millboro, on the Central railroad, forty miles went of Staunton, to get together all of his cavalry as soon as possible. Rosser was also directed to collect all of his men that he could, and an order was sent by telegraph to General Echols, in South-Western Virginia, to send his brigade by rail to Lynchburg. My own headquarters were at Staunton, but there were no troops at that place except a local provost guard, and a company of reserves, composed of boys under 18 years of age, which was acting under orders of the Conscript Bureau. Orders were therefore given for the immediate removal of all stores from that place. Rosser succeeded in collecting a little over 100 men, and with these he attempted to check the enemy at North River, near Mount Crawford, on the 1st of March, but was unable to do so. On the afternoon of that day, the enemy approached to within three or four miles of Staunton, and I then telegraphed to Lomax to concentrate his cavalry at Pond Gap, in Augusta County, southwest of Staunton, and to follow and annoy the enemy should he move towards Lynchburg, and rode out of town towards Waynesboro, after all the stores had been removed.

Wharton and Nelson were ordered to move to Waynesboro by light next morning, and on that morning the (2nd) their commands were put in position on a ridge covering Waynesboro on the west and just outside of the town. My object, in taking this position was to secure the removal of five pieces of artillery for which there were no horses, and some stores still in Waynesboro, as well as to present a bold front to the enemy, and ascertain the object of his movement, which I could not do very well if I took refuge at once in the mountain. The last report for Wharton's command showed 1,200 men for duty; but, as it was exceedingly inclement, and raining and freezing, there were not more than 1,000 muskets on the line, and Nelson had six pieces of artillery. I did not intend making my final stand on this ground, yet I was satisfied that if my men would fight, which I had no reason to doubt, I could hold the enemy in check until night, and then cross the river and take position in Rock fish Gap; for I had done more difficult things than that during the war. About 12 o'clock in the day, it was reported to me that the enemy was advancing, and I rode out at once on the lines, and soon discovered about a brigade of cavalry coming up, on the road from Staunton, on which the artillery opened, when it retired out of range. The enemy manoeuvred for some time in our front keeping out of reach of our guns until late in the afternoon, when I discovered a force moving to our left. I immediately sent a messenger with notice of this fact to General Wharton, who was on that flank, and with orders for him to look out and provide for the enemy's advance; and another messenger, with notice to the guns oil the left, and directions for them to fire towards the advancing force, which could not be seen from where they were. The enemy soon made an attack on our left Hank, and I discovered the men on that flank giving back. Just then, General Wharton, who had not received my message, rode up to me and I pointed out to him the disorder in his line, and ordered him to ride immediately to that point and rectify it. Before he got back, the troops gave way on the left, after making very slight resistance, and soon everything was in a state of confusion and the men commenced crossing the river. I rode across it myself to try and stop them at the bridge and check the enemy, but they could not be rallied, and the enemy forded the river above and got in our rear. I now saw that everything was lost, and, after the enemy had got between the mountain and the position where I was, and retreat was thus cut off, I rode aside into the woods, and in that way escaped capture. I went to the top of a hill to reconnoitre, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners, and a force of the enemy moving rapidly towards Rockfish Gap. I then rode with the greater part of my staff and 15 or 20 others, including General Long, across the mountain, north of the Gap, with the hope of arriving at Greenwood depot, to which the stores had been removed, before the enemy reached that place; but, on getting near it, about dark, we discovered the enemy in possession. We then rode to Jarman's Gap, about three miles from the depot, and remained there all night, as the night was exceedingly dark, and the ice rendered it impossible for us to travel over the rugged roads.

The only solution of this affair which I can give, is that my men did not fight as I had expected them to do. Had they done so, I am satisfied that the enemy could have been repulsed; and I was and still am of opinion that the attack at Waynesboro was a mere demonstration to cover a movement to the south towards Lynchburg. Yet some excuse is to be made for my men, an they knew that they were weak and the enemy very strong.

The greater part of my command was captured, as was also the artillery, which, with live guns on the cars at Greenwood, made eleven pieces. Very few were killed or wounded on either side. The only person killed on our side that I have ever heard of was Colonel William II. Harmon, who had formerly been in the army, but then held a civil appointment; and he was shot in the streets of Waynesboro, either after he had been made prisoner, as some said, or while he was attempting to make his escape after everything was over. My aide, Lieutenant William G. Galloway, who had been sent to the left with one of the messages, and my medical director, Surgeon H. McGuire, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the enemy. All the waggons of Wharton's command were absent getting supplies; but those we had with us, including the ordnance and medical waggons, and my own baggage waggon, fell into the hands of the enemy.[1] On the 3rd, I rode, with the party that was with me, towards Charlottesville; but, on getting near that place, we found the enemy entering it. We had then to turn back and go by a circuitous route under the mountains to Gordonsville, as the Rivanna River and other streams were very much swollen. On arriving at Gordonsville I found General Wharton, who had made his escape to Charlottesville on the night of the affair at Waynesboro, and he was ordered to Lynchburg, by the way of the Central and Southside Railroads, to take command of Echols' brigade, and aid in the defence of the city. General Long was ordered to report to General Lee at Petersburg.

The affair at Waynesboro diverted Sheridan from Lynchburg, which he could have captured without difficulty, had he followed Hunter's route, and not jumped at the bait unwillingly offered him, by the capture of my force at the former place. His deflection from the direct route to the one by Charlottesville, was without adequate object, and resulted in the abandonment of the effort to capture Lynchburg, or to cross the James River to the south side. He halted at Charlottesville for two or three days, and then moved towards James River below Lynchburg, when, being unable to cross that river, he crossed over the Rivanna at its mouth, and then moved by the way of Frederick's Hall on the Central Railroad, and Ashland on the R. F. & P. Railroad, across the South and North Anna, and down the Pamunkey to the White House.

At Gordonsville about 200 cavalry were collected under Colonel Morgan, of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and, with this force, I watched the enemy for several days while he was at Charlottesville, and when he was endeavoring to cross the James River. When Sheridan had abandoned this effort, and on the day he reached the vicinity of Ashland, while I was riding on the Louisa Court House and Richmond road, towards the bridge over the South Anna, with about 20 cavalry, I came very near being captured by a body of 300 cavalry sent after me, but I succeeded in eluding the enemy with most of those who were with me, and reached Richmond at two o'clock next morning, after passing twice between the enemy's camps and his pickets. My Adjutant General, Captain Moore, however, was captured, but made his escape.

Lomax had succeeded in collecting a portion of his cavalry and reaching Lynchburg, where he took position on the north bank of the river, but the enemy avoided that place. Rosser had collected a part of his brigade and made an attack, near New-Market, on the guard which was carrying back the prisoners captured at Waynesboro, with the view of releasing them, but he did not succeed in that object, though he captured a piece of artillery: the guard was compelled to retire in great haste. He then moved towards Richmond on Sheridan's track.

After consultation with General Lee, at his headquarters near Petersburg, Rosser's and McCausland's brigades were ordered to report to him under the command of General Rosser, and I started for the Valley, by the way of Lynchburg, to reorganize what was left of my command. At Lynchburg a dispatch was received from General Echols, stating that Thomas was moving in East Tennessee, and threatening South-western Virginia with a heavy force, and I immediately went on the cars to Wytheville. From that place I went with General Echols to Bristol, on the state line between Virginia and Tennessee, and it was ascertained beyond doubt that some important movement by the enemy was on foot. We then returned to Abingdon, and while I was engaged in endeavoring to organize the small force in that section, so as to meet the enemy in the best way we could, I received, on the 30th of March, a telegraphic; dispatch from General Lee, directing me to turn over the command in Southwestern Virginia to General Echols, and in the Valley to General Lomax, and informing me that he would address a letter to me at my home. I complied at once with this order, and thus terminating my military career.

  1. Grant, in speaking of this affair, says: "He (Sheridan) entered Staunton on the 2nd, the enemy having retreated on Waynesboro. Thence he pushed on to Waynesboro, where he found the enemy in force in an intrenched position, under General Early. Without stopping to make a reconnoissance, an immediate attack was made, the position was carried, and 1,600 prisoners, 11 pieces of artillery, with horses and caissons complete, 200 waggons and teams loaded with subsistence, and 17 battle-flags were captured." This is all very brilliant; but, unfortunately for its truth, Sheridan was not at Waynesboro, but was at Staunton, where he had stopped with a part of his force; while the affair at Waynesboro was conducted by one of his subordinates. The strength of my force has already been stated, and it was not in an intrenched position. I am not able to say how many prisoners were taken, but I know that they were more than my command numbered, as a very considerable number of recently exchanged and paroled prisoners were at the time in the Valley, on leave of absence from General Lee's army. I not only did not have 200 waggons or anything like it, but had no use for them. Where the 17 battle-flags could have been gotten, I cannot imagine.