Open main menu

A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Retreat to Fisher's Hill and subsequent Operations until the Battle of Winchester

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

RETREAT TO FISHER'S HILL, AND SUBSEQUENT
OPERATIONS, UNTIL THE BATTLE OF
WINCHESTER.

On the 9th, Imboden reported that a large force had been concentrated at Harper's Ferry, consisting of the 6th, 19th, and Crook's Corps, under a new commander, and that it was moving towards Berryville, to our right. The new commander proved to be Major-General Sheridan, from Grant's army. On the 10th, we moved from Bunker Hill to the east of "Winchester, to cover the roads from Charlestown and Berryville to that place; and Ramseur's division was moved to Winchester, to cover that place against a force reported to be advancing from the west; but, this report proving untrue, it was subsequently moved to the junction of the Millwood and Front Royal roads. On the morning of the 11th, it was discovered that the enemy was moving to our right, on the east of the Opequon, and my troops, which had been formed in line of battle covering Winchester, were moved to the right, towards Newtown, keeping between the enemy and the Valley Pike. Ramseur had a brisk skirmish with a body of the enemy's cavalry on the Millwood Road, and drove it back. Imboden's and Vaughan's brigades had a severe tight with another body of cavalry at the double toll-gate, at the intersection of the Front Royal road with the road from White Post to Newtown; and it was discovered that there had been a considerable accession to that arm from Grant's army. Just before night, Gordon had heavy skirmishing near Newtown, with a large force of cavalry, which advanced on the road from the double toll-gate, and drove it off. We encamped near Newtown; and, on the morning of the 12th, moved to Hupp's Hill, between Strasburg and Cedar Creek. Finding that the enemy was advancing in much heavier force than I had yet encountered, I determined to take position at Fisher's Hill, above Strasburg, and await his attack there. Imboden, with his brigade, was sent to Luray Valley, to watch that route; and, in the afternoon, we moved to Fisher's Hill. I had received information a few days before, from General Lee, that General Anderson had moved with Kershaw's division of infantry and Fitz Lee's division of cavalry to Culpeper C. H.; and I sent a dispatch to Anderson, informing him of the state of things, and requesting him to move to Front Royal, so as to guard the Luray Valley.

Sheridan's advance appeared on the banks of Cedar Creek, on the 12th, and there was some skirmishing with it. My troops were posted at Fisher's Hill, with the right resting on the North Fork of the Shenandoah, and the left extending towards Little North Mountain; and we awaited the advance of the enemy. General Anderson moved to Front Royal, in compliance with my request, and took position to prevent an advance of the enemy on that route. Shortly after I took position at Fisher's Hill, Major-General Lomax reported to me to relieve Ransom, in command of the cavalry, and McCausland and Johnson joined us with the remnants of their brigades. Sheridan demonstrated at Hupp's Hill, within our view, for several days, and some severe skirmishing ensued.

Upon taking position at Fisher's Hill, I had established a signal-station on the end of Three Top Mountain, a branch of Massanutten Mountain, near Strasburg, which overlooked both camps and enabled me to communicate readily with General Anderson, in the Luray Valley. A small force from Sheridan's army ascended the mountain and drove off our signalmen, and possession was taken of the station by the enemy, who was in turn driven away: when several small but severe tights ensued lover the station, possession of it being finally gained and held by a force of one hundred men under Captain Keller of Gordon's division.

On the morning of the 17th, it was discovered that the enemy was falling back, and I immediately moved forward in pursuit, requesting General Anderson, by signal, to cross the river at Front Royal, and move towards Winchester. Just before night, the enemy's cavalry and a body of infantry, reported to be a division, was encountered between Kernstown and Winchester, and driven through the latter place, after a sharp engagement, in which Wharton's division moved to the left, and attacked the enemy's infantry, and drove it from a strong position on Bower's Hill, south of Winchester, while Ramseur engaged it in front, and Gordon advanced against the cavalry on the right.[1]

On the 18th we took position to cover Winchester, and Gen. Anderson came up with Kershaw's division of infantry, Cutshaw's battalion of Artillery, and two brigades of cavalry under Fitz Lee. General Anderson ranked me, but he declined to take command, and offered to co-operate in any movement I might suggest. We had now discovered that Torbert's and Wilson's divisions of cavalry from Grant's army, had joined Sheridan's force, and that the latter was very large.

On the 19th, my main force moved to Bunker Hill and Lomax's cavalry made reconnoissances to Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, while Anderson's whole force remained near Winchester.

On the 20th, our cavalry had some skirmishing with the enemy's on the Opequon, and on the 21st, by concert, there was a general movement towards Harper's Ferry—my command moving through Smithtield towards Charlestown, and Anderson's on the direct road by Summit Point. A body of the enemy's cavalry was driven from the Opequon, and was pursued by part of our cavalry towards Summit Point. I encountered Sheridan's main force near Cameron's depot, about three miles from Charlestown, in a position which he commenced fortifying at once. Rodes' and Ramseur's divisions were advanced to the front, and very heavy skirmishing ensued and was continued until night, but I waited for General Anderson to arrive before making a general attack. He encountered Wilson's division of cavalry at Summit Point, and, after driving it off, went into camp at that place. At light next morning, it was discovered that the enemy had retired during the night, and his rear guard of cavalry was driven through Charlestown towards Hall-town, where Sheridan had taken a strong position under the protection of the heavy guns on Maryland Heights. I demonstrated on the enemy's front on the 22nd, 23rd. and 24th., and there was some skirmishing. General Anderson then consented to take my position in front of Charlestown and amuse the enemy with Kershaw's division of infantry, supported by McCausland's brigade of cavalry on the left and a regiment of Fitz Lee's cavalry on the right, while I moved with my infantry and artillery to Shepherd town, and Fitz Lee with the rest of the cavalry to Williamsport, as if to cross into Maryland, in order to keep up the fear of an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

On the 25th Fitz Lee started by the way of Leetown and Martinsbnrg to Williamsport, and I moved through Leetown and crossed the railroad at Kearneysville to Shcpherdstown. After Fitz Lee had passed on, I encountered a very large force of the enemy's cavalry between Leetown and Kearneysville, which was moving out with several days forage and rations for a raid in our rear. After a sharp engagement with small arms and artillery, this force was driven back through Shepherdstown, where we came very near surrounding and capturing a considerable portion of it, but it succeeded in making its escape across the Potomac. Gordon's division, which was moved around to intercept the enemy, became heavily engaged, and cut off the retreat of part of his force by one road, but it made its way down the river to the ford by another and thus escaped. In this affair, a valuable officer, Colonel Monaghan of the 6th Louisiana Regiment, was killed. Fitz Lee reached Williamsport, and had some skirmishing across the river at that place, and then moved to Shepherdstown.

On the 26th I moved to Leetown, and on the 27th I moved back to Bunker Hill; while Anderson who had confronted Sheridan, during the two days of my absence, with but a division of infantry and a brigade and a regiment of cavalry, moved to Stephenson's Depot.

On the 28th, our cavalry, which had been left holding a line from Charlestown to Shepherdstown, was compelled to retire across the Opequon, after having had a brisk engagement with the enemy's cavalry at Smithfield. On the 29th, the enemy's cavalry crossed the Opequon near Smithfield, driving in our cavalry pickets, when I advanced to the front with a part of my infantry, and drove the enemy across the stream again, and after a very sharp artillery duel, a portion of my command was crossed over and pursued the enemy through Smithfield towards Charlestown. "We then retired, leaving a command of cavalry at Smithfield, but it was compelled to recross the Opequon, on the advance of a heavy force from the direction of Charlestown.

Quiet prevailed on the 30th, but on the 31st there were some demonstrations of cavalry by the enemy on the Opequon, which were met by ours. On this day, (31st), Anderson moved to Winchester, and Rodes with his division went to Martinsburg on a reconnoissance, drove a force of the enemy's cavalry from that place, interrupted the preparations for repairing the railroad, and then returned.

There was quiet on the 1st of September, but, on the 2nd, I broke up my camp at Bunker Hill, and moved with three divisions of infantry and part of McCausland's cavalry under Col. Ferguson, across the country towards Summit Point, on a reconnoissance, while the trains under the protection of Rodes' division were moved to Stephenson's depot, After I had crossed the Opequon and was moving towards Summit Point, Averill's cavalry attacked and drove back in some confusion, first Vaughan's, and then Johnson's cavalry, which were on the Martinsburg road, and the Opequon, but Rodes returned towards Bunker Hill and drove the enemy back in turn. This affair arrested my march, and I recrossed the Opequon and moved to Stephenson's depot, where I established my camp.

On the 3d Rodes moved to Bunker Hill in support of Lomax's cavalry, and drove the enemy's cavalry from and beyond that place.

A letter had been received from General Lee requesting that Kershaw's division should be returned to him, as he was very much in need of troops, and, after consultation with me, General Anderson determined to recross the Blue Ridge with that division and Fitz Lee's cavalry. On the 3rd he moved towards Berryville for the purpose of crossing the mountain at Ashby's Gap, and I was to have moved towards Charlestown next day to occupy the enemy's attention during Anderson's movement. Sheridan, however, had started two divisions of cavalry through Berryville and White Post, on a raid to our rear, and his main force had moved towards Berryville. Anderson encountered Crook's corps at the latter place, and, after a sharp engagement, drove it back on the main body, Receiving information of this affair, I moved at daylight next morning, with three divisions, to Anderson's assistance, Gordon's division being left to cover Winchester. I found Kershaw's division extended out in a strong skirmish line confronting Sheridan's main force, which had taken position in rear of Berryville, across the road from Charlestown to that place, and was busily fortifying, while the cavalry force which had started on the raid was returning and passing between Berryville and the river to Sheridan's rear. As may be supposed, Anderson's position was one of great peril, if the enemy had possessed any enterprise, and it presented the appearance of the most extreme audacity for him thus to confront a force, so vastly superior to his own, while, too, his trains were at the mercy of the enemy's cavalry, had the latter known it. Placing one of my divisions in line on Kershaw's left, I moved with the other two along the enemy's front towards his right, for the purpose of reconnoitring and attacking that flank, if a suitable opportunity offered. After moving in this way for two miles, I reached an elevated position from which the enemy's line was visible, and within artillery range of it. I at first thought that I had reached his right flank, and was about making arrangements to attack it, when casting my eye to my left, I discovered, as far as the eye could reach with the aid of field glasses, a line extending towards Summit Point. The position the enemy occupied was a strong one, and he was busily engaged fortifying it, having already made considerable progress. It was not until I had had this view that I realized the size of the enemy's force, and as I discovered that his line was too long for me to get around his flank, and the position was too strong to attack in front, I returned and informed General Anderson of the condition of things. After consultation with him, we thought it not advisable to attack the enemy in his intrenched lines, and we determined to move our forces back to the west side of the Opequon, and see if he would not move out of his works. The waggon trains were sent back early next morning (the 5th) towards Winchester, and about an hour by sun Kershaw's division, whose place had been taken by one of my divisions, moved towards the same point. About two o'clock in the afternoon my troops were withdrawn, and moved back to Stephenson's depot. This withdrawal was made while the skirmishers were in close proximity and firing at each other; yet there was no effort on the part of the enemy to molest us. Just as my front division (Rodes') reached Stephenson's depot, it met, and drove back, and pursued for some distance, Averil's cavalry, which was forcing towards Winchester that part of our cavalry which had been watching the Martinsburg road.

It was quiet on the 6th, but on the 7th the enemy's cavalry made demonstrations on the Martinsburg road and the Opequon at several points, and was repulsed.

On the 8th it was quiet again, but on the 9th a detachment of the enemy's cavalry came to the Opequon below Brucetown, burned some mills, and retreated before a division of infantry sent out to meet it.

On the 10th, my infantry moved by Bunker Hill to Darkesville and encountered a considerable force of the enemy's cavalry, which was driven off, and then pursued by Lomax through Martinsburg across the Opequon. We then returned to Bunker Hill, and the next day to Stephenson's depot, and there was quiet on the 12th.

On the 13th a large force of the enemy's cavalry, reported to be supported by infantry, advanced on the road from Summit Point and drove in our pickets from the Opequon, when two divisions of infantry were advanced to the front, driving the enemy across the Opequon again. A very sharp artillery duel across the creek then took place, and some of my infantry crossed over, when the enemy retired.

On the 14th General Anderson again started, with Kershaw's division and Cutshaw's battalion of artillery, to the Blue Ridge by the way of Front Royal, and was not molested. Fitz Lee's cavalry was left with me, and Ramseur's division was moved to Winchester to occupy Kershaw's position.

There was an affair between one of Kershaw's brigades and a division of the enemy's cavalry, while I was at Fisher's Hill and Anderson at Front Royal, in which some prisoners were lost; and, subsequently, there were two affairs, in which the outposts from Kershaw's command were attacked and captured by the enemy's cavalry, one in front of Winchester and the other in front of Charlestown, which I have not undertaken to detail, as they occurred when General Anderson was controlling the operations of that division, but it is proper to refer to them here as part of the operations in the Valley.

On the 15th and 16th my troops remained in camp undisturbed.

The positions of the opposing forces were now as follows: Ramseur's division and Nelson's battalion of artillery were on the road from Berryville to Winchester, one mile from the latter place. Rodes', Gordon's and Wharton's divisions, (the last two being under Breckenridge,) and Braxton's and King's battalions of artillery were at Stephenson's depot on the Winchester and Potomac railroad, which is six miles from Winchester. Lomax's cavalry picketed in my front on the Opequon, and on my left from that stream to North Mountain, while Fitz Lee's cavalry watched the right, having small pickers across to the Shenandoah. Four principal roads, from positions held by the enemy, centered at Stephenson's depot, to wit: the Martinsburg road, the road from Charlestown via Smithtfield, the road from the same place via Summit Point, and the road from Berryville via Jordan's Springs. Sheridan's main force was near Berryville, at the intrenched position which has been mentioned, while Averill was at Martinsburg with a division of cavalry. Berryville is ten miles from Winchester, nearly east, and Martinsburg twenty-two miles nearly north. The crossing of the Opequon on the Berryville road is four or five miles from "Winchester. From Berryville there are two good roads to Front Royal, via Millwood and White Post, and from Millwood there is a macadamized road to Winchester, and also good roads via White Post to the Valley pike at Newtown and Middletown, the last two roads running east of the Opequon. The whole country is very open, being in limestone country, which is thickly settled and well cleared, and affords great facilities for the movement of troops and the operations of cavalry. From the enemy's fortifications on Maryland Heights, the country north and east of Winchester, and the main roads through it, are exposed to view.

The relative positions which we occupied rendered my communications to the rear very much exposed, but I could not avoid it without giving up the lower Valley. The object of my presence there was to keep up a threatening attitude towards Maryland and Pennsylvania, and prevent the use of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, as well as to keep as large a force as possible from Grant's army to defend the Federal Capital. Had Sheridan, by a prompt movement, thrown his whole force on the line of my communications, I would have been compelled to attempt to cut my way through, as there was no escape for me to the right or left, and my force was too weak to cross the Potomac while he was in my rear. I knew my danger, but I could occupy no other position that would have enabled me to accomplish the desired object. If I had moved up the Valley at all, I could not have stopped short of New Market, for between that place and the country in which I was there was no forage for my horses; and this would have enabled the enemy to resume the use of the railroad and canal, and return all the troops from Grant's army to him. Being compelled to occupy the position where I was, and being aware of its danger as well as apprised of the fact that very great odds were opposed to me, my only resource was to use my forces so as to display them at different points with great rapidity, and thereby keep up the impression that they were much larger than they really were The events of the last month had satisfied me that the commander opposed to me was without enterprise, and possessed an excessive caution which amounted to timidity. If it was his policy to produce the impression that his force was too weak to fight me, he did not succeed, but if it was to convince me that he was not an able or energetic commander, his strategy was a complete success, and subsequent events have not changed my opinion.

My infantry force at this lime consisted of the three divisions of the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Wharton's division of Breckenridge's command. The 2nd Corps numbered a little over 8,000 muskets when it was detached in pursuit of Hunter, and it had now Keen reduced to about 7,000 muskets, by long and rapid marches and the various engagements and skirmishes in which it had participated. Wharton's division had been reduced to about 1,700 muskets by the same causes. Making a small allowance for details and those unfit for duty. I had about 8,500 muskets for duty. When I returned from Maryland, my cavalry consisted of the remnants of five small brigades, to wit: Imboden's McCausland's. Johnson's Jackson's, and Vaughan's. Vaughan's had now been ordered to South-Western Virginia, most of the men having left without permission. The surprise and rout of McCausland's and Johnson's brigades by Averill at Moorefield, had resulted in the loss of a considerable number of horses and men, and such had been the loss in all the brigades, in the various fights and skirmishes in which they had been engaged, that the whole of this cavalry, now under Lomax, numbered only about 1,700 mounted men. Fitz Lee had brought with nim two brigades, to-wit: "Wickham's, and Lomax's old brigade (now under Colonel Payne), numbering about 1,200 mounted men. I had the three battalions of artillery which had been with me near Washington, and Fitz Lee had brought a few pieces of horse artillery. When I speak of divisions and brigades of my troops, it must be understood that they were mere skeletons of those organizations.

Since my return from Maryland, my supplies had been obtained principally from the lower Valley and the counties west of it, and the money which was obtained by contributions in Maryland was used for that purpose. Nearly the whole of our bread was obtained by threshing the wheat and then having it ground, by details from my command, and it sometimes happened that while my troops were fighting, the very flour which was to furnish them with bread for their next meal was being ground under the protection of their guns. Latterly our flour had been obtained from the upper Valley, but also by details sent for that purpose. The horses and mules, including the cavalry horses, were sustained almost entirely by grazing.

I have no means of slating with accuracy Sheridan's force, and can only form an estimate from such data as I have been able to procure. Citizens who had seen his force, stated that it was the largest which they had ever seen in the Valley on either side, and some estimated it as high as 60,000 or 70,000, but of course I made allowance for the usual exaggeration of inexperienced men. My estimate is from the following data: In Grant's letter to Hunter, dated at Monocacy, August 5th, 1864, and contained in the report of the former, is the following statement:

"In detailing such a force, the brigade of cavalry now en route from Washington via Rockville, may be taken into account. There are now on their way to join you three other brigades of the best cavalry, numbering at least 5,000 men and horses." Sheridan relieved Hunter on the 6th, and Grant says in his report, "On the 7th of August, the Middle Department and the Departments of West Virginia, Washington, and the Susquehauna were constituted into the Middle Military division, and Major-General Sheridan was assigned to the temporary command of the same. Two divisions of cavalry, commanded by Generals Torbert and Wilson were sent to Sheridan from the Army of the Potomac. The first reached him at Harper's Ferry on the 11th of August." Before this cavalry was sent to the Valley, there was already a division there commanded by Averiil, besides some detachments which belonged to the department of West Virginia. A book containing the official reports of the chief surgeon of the cavalry corps of Sheridan's army, which was subsequently captured at Cedar Creek on the 19th of October, showed that there were present for duty in that Corps, during the first week in September, over 11,000 men, and present for duty during the week-ending the 17th day of September, 10,100 men. The extracts from Grant's report go to confirm this statement, as, if three brigades numbered at least 5,000 men and horses, the two divisions, when the whole of them arrived, with Averill's cavalry, must have numbered over 10,000. I think, therefore, that I can safely estimate Sheridan's cavalry at the battle of Winchester, on the 19th of September, at 10,000. His infantry consisted of the 6th, 19th, and Crook's Corps, the latter being composed of the "Army of West Virginia." and one division of the 8th Corps. The report of Secretary Stanton shows that there was in the department of which the "Middle Military division" was composed, the following "available force present for duty May 1st, 1804," to-wit:

"Department of Washington
............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
42,124."
"Department of West Virginia
............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
50,78"
"Department of the Susquehanna
............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
2,970"
"Middle Department
............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
5,627."
making an aggregate of 81,503; but, as the Federal Secretary of War in the same report says. "In order to repair the losses of the Army of the Potomac, the chief part of the force designed to guard the Middle Department and the Department of Washington was called forward to the front," we may assume that 40,000 men were used for that purpose, which would leave 41,503, minus the losses in battle before Sheridan relieved Hunter, in the Middle Military division, exclusive of the 6th and 19th Corps, and the cavalry from Grant's army. The infantry of the Army of the Potomac was composed of the 2nd, 5th, and 6th Corps, on the 1st of May, 1864, and Stanton says the "available force present for duty" in that army on that day, was 120,886 men. Allowing 30,000 for the artillery and cavalry of that army, which would be a very liberal allowance, and there would still be left 90,385 infantry; and it is fair to assume that the 6th Corps numbered one-third of the infantry, that is, 30,000 men on the 1st of May, 1864. If the losses of the Army of the Potomac had been such as to reduce the 6th Corps to less than 10,000 men, notwithstanding the reinforcements and recruits received, the carnage in Grant's army must have been frightful indeed. The 19th Corps was just from the Department of the Gulf and had not gone through a bloody campaign. A communication which was among the papers captured at Cedar Creek, in noticing some statement of a newspaper correspondent in regard to the conduct of that corps at Winchester, designated it as "a vile slander on 12,000 of the best soldiers in the Union army." In view of the foregoing data, without counting the troops in the Middle Department and the Departments of Washington and the Susquehanna, and making liberal allowances for losses in battle, and for troops detained on post and garrison duty in the Department of West Virginia, I think that I may assume that Sheridan had at least 35,000 infantry against me. The troops of the 6th Corps and of the Department of West Virginia, alone, without counting the 19th Corps, numbered on the 1st of May, 1864, 60,782. If with the 19th Corps, Sheridan did not have 35,000 infantry remaining from this force, what had become of the balance? Sheridan's artillery very greatly outnumbered mine, both in men and guns.

Having been informed that a force was at work on the railroad at Martinsburg, I moved on the afternoon of the 17th of September, with Rodes' and Gordon's division, and Braxton's artillery to Bunker Hill, and, on the morning of the 18th, with Gordon's division and a part of the artillery to Martinsburg, preceded by a part of Lomax's cavalry. Averill's division of cavalry was driven from the town across the Opequon in the direction of Charlestown, and we then returned to Bunker Hill. Gordon was left at Bunker Hill, with orders to move to Stephenson's depot by sunrise next morning, and Rodes' division moved to the latter place that night, to which I also returned. At Martinsburg, where the enemy had a telegraph office, I learned that Grant was with Sheridan that day, and I expected an early move.

 


  1. When Hunter was relieved I had hoped that an end was put to his mode of warfare, but I had now to learn how the new commander proposed to carry on the war in behalf of "the best government the world ever saw." (so called). Sheridan had commenced burning barns, mills and stacks of small grain and hay. and the whole country was smoking. Among many others, the barn of a respectable farmer near Newtown, whose name was Chrisman, had been burned within a few steps of his house, and the latter saved with great difficulty, notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Chrisman had received from General Torbert, in command of the Federal cavalry, a written protection stating that for some weeks he had taken care of, and showed great kindness to, a badly wounded Federal soldier. In passing through Middletown, I was informed that one of my soldiers had been tried and hung as a spy. The grave at the foot of the gallows was opened, and the body was recognized by his brother and the officers of his company as a private of the 34th North Carolina regiment. This man had been found by the enemy in Middletown, in attendance on a Confederate soldier whose leg was amputated, and he had claimed to be a citizen, but a paper was found on his person showing; that he had been formerly detailed as a nurse in the hospital. On this state of facts he was hung as a spy. He was not employed in any such capacity, and he was so illiterate, not being able to read or write, that his appearance and evident want of intelligence precluded the idea of his being so employed. I would have retaliated at, once by hanging a commissioned officer, but the enquiry which I made furnished some reason for believing that the man had remained behind, and endeavored to pass for a citizen to avoid service in our army; and I did not therefore wish to risk the lives of my officers and men who were in the enemy's hands, by making his a ease for retaliation. His execution by the enemy, however, was none the less wanton and barbarous.