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Chapter 16:

Opequon Creek rises five or six miles south of Winchester, and flows northeast from three to four miles east of the. city, into the Potomac. Beside the three fords, to which we have alluded in a previous chapter, there were several nearer the mouth, notably one near Summit Point. There, Torbert was to cross, early on the 19th, and form a junction of Merritt's and Averill's cavalry, near Stephenson's Depot, on the Winchester division of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, north of east from Winchester. Wilson's cavalry, on this morning, was to move across the creek by the Berryville pike; the road thence for a couple of miles passes through a wild gorge called Berryville Cañon. Through this, Wilson's cavalry was to charge, to clear the way for the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps. The Eighth Corps was to approach this crossing and take position in reserve. The Opequon receives two tributaries from the west, one flowing a mile south of Winchester,—Abraham's Creek; the other, Red Bud Run, about the same distance north of the town. Between these branches of the Opequon, on its west side, two miles from the town, commenced the battle of the 19th of September.

The Sixth Corps was astir by two o'clock; it moved along Berryville pike, the infantry on either side, the artillery following the road. Two miles from the crossing, which is near the mouth of Abraham's Creek, we passed the Nineteenth Corps; the head of its column was halted by Gen. Wright, to whom its commander had been ordered to report. The Sixth Corps, reaching the earthwork across the creek, which Wilson's cavalry had captured and occupied early in the morning, about two miles from Winchester, was formed in line, the Third Division on the north side of the [175] pike which runs east from the ford to Winchester, the Second Division on the left. The First Division was in reserve. While this line was being formed, the enemy in front, half-way between our position and Winchester, kept up a heavy fire of artillery. The cavalry took position on the left of our Second Division of infantry. Now our corps artillery coming up, four batteries, one of which was A, First Massachusetts, were placed on the corps front, under our chief of artillery, Col. Tompkins; this was to respond to the enemy's guns, which were annoying our infantry while establishing itself on either side of the pike. Before noon, the Nineteenth Corps had formed upon the right of the Sixth; and soon after the whole line moved forward across the uneven ground toward a belt of woods, whence proceeded the enemy's cannonade during the formation of our lines.

In front of the Nineteenth Corps was Gordon, and before the Sixth, Ramseur and Rodes. Confronting Wilson's cavalry on our extreme left was the Confederate cavalry of Lomax. Here the Federal troop first held its adversary in check, and then forced him back.

From the first onset of our infantry, the struggle for the possession and defence of the ground became desperate. The Sixth Corps drove back the divisions of Rodes and Ramseur, and the Nineteenth, having attacked Gordon's force, pressed it back through the wood, following to within musket shot of Braxton's Confederate battery, which was placed unsupported behind the belt of trees through which the infantry had advanced.

This battery, however, firmly held its ground, concentrating its fire upon the ranks of the advancing Nineteenth. Now a fresh brigade of Confederates, just arrived on the scene, with lately discomfited troops of Gordon supporting it upon its flanks, charged through the woods on the Third Division of the Sixth and the Second Division of the Nineteenth, at their junction, causing a temporary wavering of our line, and gaining a temporary advantage, purchased, however, with the loss of the brave and able Gen. Rodes.

Now the first division of the Sixth was brought into the front line. The brigades of Edwards, Campbell, and Upton moved into the gap caused by the Confederate charge, the movement being facilitated by the artillery of the corps, which did good execution [176] under an annoying fire. Upton's brigade,1 moving forward into the woods, delivering heavy volleys into the lines of the advancing ranks of the enemy, caused him to fall back; so the whole division was enabled to gain a position which it held without difficulty till late in the afternoon. During this last action fell the gallant commander of the First Division, the hero of Rappahannock Station, Gen. David Russell.

There was now a period of seeming inaction, a lull, but only on the surface. Crook's corps was now sent to strike the Confederate left, which it did simultaneously with the cavalry of Averill and Merritt. The latter charging around the enemy's left flank, he began to give way. The brigades of Thoburn and Duval charged, by the direct command of Sheridan himself, through the woods in their front, and broke Gordon's division, which was at this point. In the meanwhile the Sixth and Nineteenth, as soon as firing in the rear of the enemy's left was heard, advanced on their fronts, driving the force before them wellnigh into the town.


The exposure of our infantry line was such, at the outset, that the ranks were fearfully thinned, and the movement forward to fill the gaps in the line was attended with considerable loss of officers and men. But such was the vim of the regiments, seemingly inspired by the presence, here and there, of the little dark man on horseback, that the enemy were driven steadily westward. The advance of our lines showed that a serious loss in killed had been sustained by the Confederates, and in wounded who were prisoners, not less than one thousand.

They now seemed resolved to contest the ground between this field and Winchester; and with that dash and energy so often previously exhibited by them, even sought to recover the line they had yielded. Now for an hour the contest raged upon the plateau east of Winchester, artillery sweeping the enemy's flanks, and a steady infantry fire from our side. Now and again a dropping of infantry lines, and a discharge of cannon shot over their heads. During this time their loss must have reached a thousand more, and there was a gradual, but sure, retrograde movement of their lines. Then, Torbert's cavalry coming in upon their left flank with a sweep, drove in several hundred prisoners, and caused a [177] general stampede of their army. Their loss in prisoners, including the wounded, was not less than 3,000. .Gen. E. O. Upton, commanding the Third Brigade of Russell's division of the Sixth Corps, was wounded. We had noted the progress of this officer from a first lieutenant of light artillery, which he was in 1861, in the artillery brigade of Franklin's division.


We spent the night of the 19th in the outskirts of Winchester. These were busy hours for the surgeons, and when morning came, the task of caring for the wounded being still unfinished, and the army about to advance, medical details were left to complete it. A brigade of the First Division of the Sixth was detained in Winchester to hold the town and guard the prisoners.


When we moved through the town, one could perceive the varying sentiments of the women of that place, as evinced by the colors displayed, for there were matrons and maids who wore Union emblems.


The Sixth Corps was the infantry advance on the 20th; the march of twenty miles over the splendid macadamized pike which leads up the valley from Winchester, was made between daylight and three P. M. The cavalry in three portions had preceded us, respectively taking the Front Royal, valley, and back roads, the latter extending south, nearly parallel with and west of the valley (macadamized) road. The valley road crossed Cedar Creek not far from its junction with the west fork of the Shenandoah, which here turns abruptly round the north foot of the Massanutten Mountains, an interloping chain which divides the Shenandoah Valley from this point south for thirty miles. The river makes its way through a gulf along the west base of this mountain spur to the north foot of a dark, lofty peak, around which it sweeps on its way to Front Royal.

On the west bank of the river, in the shadow of the mountain, was the little village of Strasburg. The land rises from Cedar Creek southward to a ridge over which the valley pike and the Manassas Gap Railroad passed, and this village is on the crest, and in the gateway between Hupp's Hill on the west and the river gulf on the east. The valley proper at this place is not more than five miles wide. Its western wall is the Little North Mountain, [178] a spur of the Alleghany; its eastern, the triple-ridged Massanutten. For a couple of miles above Strasburg, the surface gradually falls, by hardly perceptible descent, to the banks of Tumbling Run, the next tributary which the west fork receives above Cedar Creek. Overhanging Tumbling Run is a high, steep bluff, which seems here upheaved for the purpose of yet further narrowing the valley; this is Fisher's Hill. Along the run, westward to the foot of Little North Mountain, the land is hilly and broken, a rugged stretch of land for four miles. Here, the flanks guarded by two mountains, the Confederates were found on the 20th. They had intrenched the position from Fisher's Hill, toward Little North Mountain, and as the valley pike, passing over the hill by a zigzag course, was exposed for a mile to the fire of their artillery, they might reasonably regard their situation one of great strength. Between three and four o'clock our corps crossed Cedar Creek, as did also the Nineteenth, and the two corps occupied the high ground just north of Strasburg, the Sixth upon the right of the line, and the Nineteenth extending toward the Front Royal road. The Eighth Corps was approaching upon the north side of the creek, but was halted there when it reached the banks of the stream.

The picket line of the two corps that evening extended across the northern edge of the village. The enemy's skirmishers were within easy hailing distance. During the next day these skirmishers were driven back to their defences at Fisher's Hill. It was now determined by the general commanding to seize and hold a strong line on the front and right of the Sixth Corps, looking across Tumbling Run, confronting the main position of the Confederates. This was effected, after several temporary checks, by selected troops of the Second and Third Divisions, Sixth Corps. Immediately the trees at this place, which in a degree hid the Confederate position from sight, were cut down by the pioneers, who also prepared the way for the batteries of the corps. The corps was firmly established on this important line along Tumbling Run. This task having consumed the night of the 21st, owing to the broken surface of the ground, the ravines, knolls, and ledges, which are features of this section, in the morning the Nineteenth Corps was placed in the position the Sixth had occupied on the 21st. Now Ricketts's division of our corps, which was on the right of the command, was moved farther to the front, having, [179] with the aid of the three rifle batteries of the corps, driven in the enemy's skirmish line. The other two divisions of the Sixth, with their artillery, were now moved to the right and front, being closely connected, our battery being in the centre of the line of artillery of the Sixth Corps. The line thus gained on the ridge overlooking the ravine was less than 3,000 feet from the trenches on the slope of Fisher's Hill. But our commander-in-chief designed to repeat the tactics so successfully employed upon the 19th of September, and to flank the Confederate position by its left, in spite of the argus eyes on Three Top looking down on both camps. Having sent Torbert with his cavalry up Luray Valley with the design of crossing the Massanutten, and gaining the enemy's rear, he had directed Crook with his Eighth Corps to move along Little North Mountain under cover of the woods, till he should gain the rear of the Confederates. This required for its accomplishment nearly all day; but at six o'clock, having reached, without the Confederates having the faintest suspicion of his presence, the rear of their left flank, his divisions swept along, taking the Confederate line ‘in reverse,’ drove the astonished cavalry, which was dismounted, before them, and rushed into the intrenchments.

Says one of Crook's officers, ‘Had the heavens opened, and had we been descending from the clouds, no greater consternation would have been created.’

Now the Nineteenth and the Sixth (Ricketts having joined his right to Crook's left), took up the charge, descended into Tumbling Run, made a precipitous dash over rocks and walls, and scrambled up the height which an hour ago seemed impregnable. Sheridan and his staff were ubiquitous, the general shouting: ‘Go on! Don't stop! Go on!’ The whole Confederate line broke from its trenches. They had not time to get their guns which commanded the pike out of position; sixteen of them were captured by our forces. Our loss was not more than 400; the Confederate loss, over 1,300. Comrade Longley of our battery received a scalp wound.

In his report three days afterward, Gen. Early said: ‘My troops are very much shattered, the men very much exhausted, and many of them without shoes.’ In his report, the Federal commander spoke in the highest terms of his lieutenants, Generals Crook, Wright, and Emory. On receipt of the news of this victory, Gen. Grant ordered a salute of 100 guns, in the Army of the Potomac.


Roster. Sixth Army Corps. September 19 and 22, 1864.

Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, Commanding.

First Division.

Brig. Gen. David A. Russell.

First Brigade.—Col. Wm. H. Penrose, 4th, 10th, and 15th New Jersey Volunteers.

Second Brigade.—Brig. Gen. Emory A. Upton, 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery, 65th, 67th, and 121st New York Infantry, and 95th and 96th Pennsylvania.

Third Brigade.—Col. Oliver Edwards, 7th, 10th, and 37th Massachusetts Volunteers, 23d, 49th, 82d, and 19th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 2d Rhode Island Battalion, and Wisconsin Battalion.

Second Division.

Brig. Gen. Geo. W. Getty.

First Brigade.—Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton, 62d New York Volunteers and 93d, 98th, 102d, and 139th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Second Brigade.—Brig. Gen. L. A. Grant, 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 11th Vermont Volunteers.

Third Brigade.—Brig. Gen. D. D. Bidwell. 7th Maine Volunteers, 43d, 49th, 77th, 122d New York Volunteers, and 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Third Division.

Brig. Gen. Jas. B. Ricketts.

First Brigade.—Col. Wm. Emerson, 14th New Jersey, 106th and 151st New York, 87th Pennsylvania, and 10th Vermont.

Second Brigade.—Col. J. W. Keifer, 6th Maryland, 9th New York Heavy Artillery, 110th, 122d, and 126th Ohio, and 67th and 138th Pennsylvania.

Artillery Brigade.

Col. Charles H. Tompkins.

Maine Light Artillery, 5th Battery; 1st Massachusetts Light Artillery, Battery A; New York Light Artillery, 1st Battery; 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Battery C; 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Battery G; 5th United States, Battery M.

1 Aided by the Fifth Maine Battery.

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