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Reminiscences of cavalry operations. Paper no. 3.

By General T. T. Munford.

Operations under Rosser.

The next day we moved over to Staunton, and the next day moved out to the back road to find where the enemy's pickets were. On the 5th of October, General Thomas L. Rosser arrived from General Lee's army with his brigade. General Early, in his narrative, page 98, says, ‘Rosser was attached to Fitz. Lee's division, of which he (Rosser) was given command, as Brigadier-General Wickham had resigned. The horses of Rosser's brigade had been so much reduced by previous hard service and the long march from Richmond, that the brigade did not exceed six hundred mounted men for duty when it joined me.’ Meantime we had moved to the front and [134] established our pickets. General Early says, ‘when it was discovered that the enemy was retiring, I moved forward at once and arrived at New Market with my infantry on the 7th. Rosser pushed forward on the back and middle road in pursuit of the enemy's cavalry, which was engaged in burning houses, mills, barns, stacks of wheat and hay, and had several skirmishes with it, while Lomax also moved forward on the Valley Pike and the roads east of it. I halted with the infantry at New Market, but Rosser and Lomax moved down the Valley in pursuit, and skirmished successfully with the enemy's cavalry on the 8th, but on the 9th they encountered the whole cavalry force at Tom's Brook, in rear of Fisher's Hill, and both of their commands were driven back in considerable confusion, with a loss of some pieces of artillery—nine were reported to me but Grant claims eleven. Rosser rallied his command on the back road at Columbia Furnace opposite Edinburg, but a part of the enemy's cavalry swept along the pike to Mount Jackson and then retired on the approach of my infantry. On the 10th Rosser established his line of pickets across the Valley from Columbia Furnace to Edinburg, and on the 11th Lomax was sent to the Luray Valley and took position at Milford.’

This was the extent of General Early's information about the greatest disaster that ever befell our cavalry during the whole war. It was the first time our brigade had ever been routed—I had seen a regiment overpowered. It was the first and only time our division had ever lost its artillery or transportation—once or twice a single gun or caisson had been taken when the horses had been killed, once or twice a wagon or ambulance had been abandoned for like reason, but this was a clean sweep. The enemy captured ‘nearly everything we had on wheels,’ all the trophies we had accumulated during the past two years. (Custer got back many things I had captured when my regiment at Trevillian's captured his headquarter wagon and all of his papers, trunk, &c., &c., together with the four caissons belonging to Pennington's battery). No report was called for by Rosser from my command, and General Early's report clearly shows that Rosser did not report to him the extent of his disaster. In a recent publication, already alluded to, from Rosser's pen, he puts the blame of his want of judgment upon General Early (who happened, as shown, to be twenty-five miles away), and attributes his disaster to his ‘orders from General Early and a misbehaving colonel of Munford's brigade.’ I have given General Early's entire report on this fight, which shows he was not made acquainted with the facts at the [135] time. This fight was one of Sheridan's selection. It was in a location well suited to his advantage, immediately under the eyes of his signal officer, stationed on the south end of Round Top, where he could see our whole number and location. His infantry were in sight supporting, while he knew ours were twenty-five miles away in our rear. When Rosser joined Early ‘he had only about six hundred mounted men for duty’—the burning which the enemy was doing in the direction of the homes of many of Rosser's men had taken off a large number in their anxiety for their families—so that his command must have been reduced to a minimum number. Payne had been actively engaged, and had suffered both at Winchester and Milford, and upon each occasion had received the shock of their attack, so that his command was very much weakened. I have shown that we had been incessantly on the go and had suffered a good deal, so that our division was really not equal in number to a small brigade of the enemy. To make the fight at Tom's Brook was against all the rules of discretion and judgment, and the whole responsibility belongs to Rosser as I will show.

It was a trap Sheridan set for him and was successful. The very acts that the Federal cavalry were committing would demoralize any body of civilized men; they could realize the consequences; the most of the enemy's cavalry were American citizens; a corresponding vim was given to me, and consequently, their rear had been severely punished. We had been incessantly engaged in severe skirmishing; Rosser's head seemed to be completely turned by our success, and in consequence of his rashness, and ignorance of their numbers, we suffered the greatest disaster that had ever befallen our command, and utterly destroyed the confidence of the officers of my brigade in his judgment—they knew that he could fight and was full of it, but he did not know when to stop, or when to retire.

I will here say that my brigade had wonderful advantages in its recuperative ability. It was constantly receiving accessions of boys, ‘young bucks,’ just eighteen (when they came in as volunteers, which was generally the case, they were the best material in the world). These young fellows had heard their fathers and elder brothers talk of the war, until they ‘burned to go and take a hand,’ but their extreme youth and their mother's anxieties had held them back. In my own regiment I do not know how many boys had run off from home and ‘jined’—they would come down to bring a fresh horse for a brother, and would not return. Many a boy was [136] sent back in a wooden box to his home, without a sprig of beard upon his face, but with a smile when he had given up his spirit to his God, having fallen with up-lifted arm in the far front of the battle.

On the evening of the 8th my brigade was in front, we had had a very severe fight, and had forced the enemy across Tom's Brook, in sight of their infanty camps; our loss had been considerable, on that very evening we had lost some of the very ‘seed corn,’ the very best boys in my regiment: Lieutenant Thomas D. Davis, Company D; Dick Oliver and Sandy White, Company C; Jim Cobbs, Company G; Jim Singleton, Company I, were all killed at the creek—all of them beardless boys.

That night the Fourth Virginia was left on picket, Captain Strothers's squadron at the creek, and the regiment near by supporting, my own headquarters not a quarter of a mile from the ford. At the first dawn I was notified that the enemy was astir. Boots and saddles were sounded, and we were ready to move as soon as it was light. I notified Rosser, and sent several couriers and a staff officer, requesting him to come up to where I was. After repeated couriers had been sent, he came up, and in a vaunting manner asked me ‘What was the matter?’ I replied, the enemy are moving up to attack us, and we can't hold this position against such odds. In the same tone and spirit he replied, ‘I'll drive them into Strasburg by ten o'clock.’ I then said they will turn your left—said he, ‘I'll look out for that.’ I had been down to the picket and seen what was going on. We rode on during this conversation towards the picket, and I then pointed to the enemy, and we could see their masses in full view. A courier dashed up and said, ‘Captain Strothers says they are very near him.’ We had no time for further parley. The enemy had driven in the videttes across the ford. The picket of the Fourth was skirmishing. The reserve was near at hand. I moved the Third Virginia to its right and rear. The First Virginia and Second I moved up to the creek bank. The enemy, in considerable numbers, dismounted, were moving up to occupy the opposite bank; but the enemy's command—two full divisions—stretched from the Valley Pike, and connected entirely across to our front. As they developed I endeavored to keep my right extending, to prevent being turned. While I was thus engaged on the right, Rosser, superintending the left, became heavily engaged at the ford, and I was skirmishing with their dismounted men in front of me all along on the line of the creek bank. Rosser repulsed the first attack at the [137] creek, which was intended as a feint, and his two guns under the gallant Carter were very active. I could see that we were in imminent danger of capture. The enemy fell back in Rosser's immediate front. Payne had now moved up, and when this body fell back, another column, unobserved by Rosser, passed under and behind a hill to his left, and pushed rapidly in his rear towards our hospital of the evening before, and our camp. The next time the enemy moved up to attack Rosser, it was a heavy column, and their whole line started. They soon overpowered Payne and White, of Rosser's brigade. We could now hear the yell of the column on our left and rear, and on my right we could hear Lomax's guns receding. I saw we had no possible chance now but to move out, and that, at a run, my left had given away, and it was only by a quick run that we escaped capture. Lieutenant-Colonel Cary Breckenridge had the best opportunity, being on the extreme right—held his regiment in hand, covered by the Sharpshooters of the Second, and when they arrived in some timber, half a mile in the rear, he formed his regiment, and upon which the brigade was soon formed. Captain Lamb of the Third. Hobson of the Fourth, Captain James Breckenridge of the Second, kept his Sharpshooters well out, and Captain Litchfield of the First, were all active with their Sharpshooters, and conspicuous in their efforts.

My men could see the enemy's numbers, and it was clear from the very start that this handful had not a glimmering of a chance in its favor. Had we retired at once, we could have done so without trouble, and with credit; had we attempted to hold our line any longer the capture of the whole command was inevitable. When my brigade had reformed, Rosser came to where we were and told me that the rest of the command were forming in our rear, and would support me; that he wanted me to move over to the road and drive off a small body of the enemy and recapture a part of our train which had attempted to escape. I did move my brigade as he had wished, and upon arriving at the point he desired me to move to, he accompanying me, I made the necessary dispositions for the attack, and just as we were about ready, a regiment moved up in full view with drawn sabres, and his discretion returned, he then said ‘we can't do it.’ The enemy moving up towards us, my sharpshooters engaged them, and we had another sharp skirmish in which Lieutenant Abner Hatcher, of Company A, Second Virginia, was killed, and we lost some others. (I sincerely regret that I am without data to enable me to report from any of the other regiments than my [138] own, many of whom were my old neighbors and personal friends, and of course I knew more of them than of the other splendid regiments of my brigade.) We fell back under fire until we reached a body of timber, which afforded shelter for our men, after which the enemy retired, and we moved to Columbia Furnace, where the remnant of our division and our artillery, officers and men, had assembled. A more discomfited looking body I have never imagined. We had followed Stonewall Jackson up and down the Valley in his great Valley campaign, and when our toils came to an end, we could go to our wagons and enjoy a clean shirt and some of the little comforts that a weary soldier looks forward to. Now we had not even a clean shirt—wagons and all were gone. Sending out a picket, back to the bushes we betook ourselves for the night, while Rosser repaired to General Early's camp to report. The next day we moved to the foot of Rude's Hill, and the next day established our pickets at Edinburg.

In our fight and race at Tom's Brook, I had bruised an ugly boil, which had now turned into a severe carbuncle, giving me a fever and great pain. I got a leave of absence, and was not ready for duty, from the cause above stated, until the 14th of November, when I returned to camp and found the brigade where I had left it. In the meantime the battle of Cedar Creek had been fought. I now give the Federal account of this fight, to show that Rosser's statements in his paper, referred to in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, are not veritable history. Page 202, Pond's book, he says: “Rosser came to his task October 5th with fresh energy. His brigade, it is true, had been worn down by a hard march from Richmond, during which the men had got but little to eat and the horses needed rest, but at least it was full of confidence, eager to redeem the cavalry mishaps in the Valley. He, Rosser, instantly pressed Custer on the back and middle roads, attacking him at Brock's Gap, through which Dry river enters the North Fork, about twenty seven miles from Woodstock, and Lomax moved down the Valley against Merrit. This officer camped the following day within two miles of Woodstock, and Custer near Columbia Furnace. ‘The rearguard of this column,’ says Torbert, referring to Custer, ‘was fighting all day.’ Powell, in the Luray Valley, kept his relative position with the other forces by moving down to Milford. Early's infantry arrived at New Market, and Sheridan's, the next day, at Strasburg, while Merrit, covering the rear, reached Tom's Brook, which crosses the Valley three miles south of the town, at the foot of Round Top. (From [139] Round Top I have stated the signal officer can see everything in the Valley for miles.) Thence Torbert hurried him back to the aid of Custer, whose rearguard had been harassed throughout the march. Sheridan, resenting the boldness of an enemy so lately routed, directed Torbert ‘to start at daylight and whip the Rebel cavalry, or get a whipping.’ Torbert was in the saddle at dawn on the 9th, and continuing the dispositions of the day before. Merrit was to move Sewell up the pike (I call attention to the line they now describe), the second brigade on his right and the first on the right of the second, connecting with Custer. (Thus you see this line connected from the Valley pike to the road at Tom's Brook, while our line could not reach and hold one-quarter of the distance.) A spirited fight of two hours ended in the rout of both Lomax and Rosser, Merrit chasing the former for twenty miles up the pike to Mt. Jackson, and Custer driving Rosser on the back road to Columbia Furnace. Merrit captured five cavalry guns and Custer six, as fair a division as was possible for an odd number of pieces to be shared; about three hundred and thirty prisoners fell into the hands of the victors, together with ambulances, caissons, a battery forge, the headquarters' wagons of Rosser, Lomax, Wickham, and Payne, and other wagons, forty-seven in number; in brief, ‘almost everything on wheels.’

Of this engagement Torbert enthusiastically reports, that ‘the cavalry totally covered themselves with glory and added to their long list of victories the most brilliant of them all, and the most decisive the country has ever witnessed.’ Sheridan promptly sent the tidings to Grant: ‘I directed Torbert to attack at daylight this morning, and finish this “Savior of the Valley.” The enemy after being charged by the cavalry, ran. They were followed by our men on the jump, twenty-six miles. I deemed it best to make this delay of one day and “settle this new Cavalry General.” The engagement at Tom's Brook was a fine offset to the check received by Torbert at Milford, for the same two Union divisions had now routed the combined divisions of Lomax and Rosser, inflicting a loss of four hundred men, while Torbert had but nine killed and forty-eight wounded.’ [I do not see the offset in the same light.] The moral effect of Sheridan's victory at Tom's Brook was very great The Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley had been feeble compared with the infantry, and Sheridan had remarked while at Charlestown, that it was ‘in poor condition,’ and was kept so close to their infantry, that his own large and well appointed corps of horsemen ‘could not get at it.’ Everything is fair in war, but how [140] about his 50,000 men, ‘some not very reliable,’ that Early tried so hard to get at, when behind their works at Charlestown, and Early only had, say 14,000? ‘Fitz. Lee's contingent had strengthened it, but the battle of Winchester and the subsequent defeat at Fisher's Hill, in both of which the cavalry held the flanks that were turned by Crook, had again greatly dispirited it. (Fitz. Lee's division, please remember, was alone in the Luray Valley.) I do not know, of my own knowledge, anything about Fisher's Hill or Cedar Creek. The arrival of Rosser had revived the hope of restoring the cavalry to a passable efficiency, for this officer possessed more dash than discretion. * * The assurance with which Rosser challenged Custer all the way from Harrisonburg showed that he had no conception of Sheridan's mounted strength, though this fatal zeal was probably due in part to the excitement of his men at seeing their farms and houses in flames—for many of Rosser's men were from that region—their eagerness to exact retribution, brought upon them double mortification and suffering, and the disaster of Tom's Brook crushed all hope of efficiency with the Confederate cavalry and almost dazed Rosser's immediate command.’

[My brigade, I trust, will be exonerated from sharing in these feelings, we were only temporarily connected with Rosser, or he with us. Rosser, as the Colonel of the Fifth Virginia, had served in our brigade, and was well understood by the troops.] ‘The chief value of Sheridan's victory was not evident until ten days later at Cedar Creek, where the Union cavalry flushed with success, developed great staunchness, while Early's horsemen proved fatally weak.’ [If they only developed staunchness at that stage of the war, we will say that neither our Lieutenant-General, or Major-General Hampton, or Fitz. Lee were there to take command of our cavalry.] ‘If they were fatally weak,’ Sheridan's physical strength was their weakness. I did not intend to say one word about other cavalry brigades, except as far as was necessary to keep up a connected story. If I could, it would give me infinite pleasure to add to the beauty of their splendid efforts.

But I will say that Lomax's division had never been used much as cavalry, they were armed with miserable guns for the service exacted of them, and for that reason never had a fair show; but under fair circumstances would show themselves equal to any emergency. It was mounted infantry, and their necessities were not supplied, and it could not do impossibilities.

I have given both sides of the Tom's Brook fight, because of a [141] newspaper controversy, will thus make it clear to the ordinary reader.

During my leave of absence the battle of Cedar Creek had taken place, and the cavalry had seen some rough service. When I joined the brigade at Rude's Hill, on the 14th November, they occupied the old lines we had established when I was last with them. The long stay on these bottoms, from which the horses drew their principal supply of food by grazing—most of our wagons had been captured, and corn was hard to get, except at a great distance—the continuous nipping of the horse's front teeth had made the pastures very close, like, by the continuous cutting of a little axe, the largest oak will succumb. So with the big fields covered with grass. They were now getting very lean, and the chilling blasts of the Fall winds were reminding us of the tent flies and blankets we had lost a month before. On the 22d of November, Torbert, with two divisions of the enemy's cavalry, hurriedly pushed back our pickets from Edinburg upon their reserve, but they were checked long enough to get the brigade ready to prepare for them, then entered the broad bottoms, and presented a formidable appearance. As they moved across the river and bottoms we kept apace with them on the north side of the Shenandoah river. General Early being notified, moved out in line of battle with his infantry to the top of Rude's hill. The rumbling of his artillery, the glitter of his bayonets, and an occasional shot from a battery he had placed in position, gave them the information they were seeking, viz: Was Early still there? When they moved back I followed, hanging on their flank and rear for five or six miles, taking advantage of any opportunity of attacking their rear, and hampering them. Pond's Book, page 247, says: ‘They only lost about thirty men.’ They left a good many of their dead in our hands, and as my men were without supplies, all of their dead were stripped as nude as when they were born. I did not know when this was done, or by whom; but as we passed over the same ground returning to camp, I saw then in different parts of the field we had fought over. At Mount Jackson we had a sharp encounter. We lost some good men. The First Virginia behaved very handsomely in a mounted charge. Color-Sergeant Figgatt, of that regiment, was conspicuous in his efforts after this charge, and was shot, a ball cutting his jugular vein. He clung to his colors as long as he had strength to hold them. We returned to camp, and soon after this Rosser went on an expedition to New Creek. I remained on picket with the brigade. On page 17, General Early's [142] Book, he says shortly after Rosser's return from his New Creek expedition ‘Colonel Munford was sent to Hardy and Pendleton counties to procure forage for his horses, the cold weather having now set in so as to prevent material operations in the field. The third division of the second corps was sent in succession to General Lee, Wharton's division, and most of the cavalry and most of the artillery being retained with me.’ (Rosser accompanied my brigade.) We returned in about a week or ten days, bringing back a considerable drove of very fine fat cattle from Vandevender's farm, six or seven miles northwest of Petersburg, in the Moorefield Valley, and a large number of fat sheep said to have belonged to the United States Commissary Department.

The great North Mountain was covered deep with snow when we crossed it, but the splendid valleys below were well dotted with sweet-smelling hay, and the corn-cribs were well filled with grain. The citizens lived in a land of honey and maple-sugar, both of which were enjoyed by the soldiers. The weather was rough, but when a cavalryman could stand his horse up to his eyes in the nicest kind of hay, and had a bundle to stretch himself upon and with corn to spare for his horse, with full rations of fine, fat mutton and beef and no enemy to disturb him, it was a sad hour when he had to depart. The people, generally, were kind and generous, and loyal to old Virginia. I had a few men in each regiment of the brigade whose noses were as keen as fox-hounds, or, probably, I had better say as a bee; or they had an intuitive knowledge of location. If there was a barrel, yes, a half-barrel, or a runlet of ‘apple jack’ or ‘peach brandy’ ‘within a league,’ they would find it with absolute certainty, and when they found it they would first report to each other, and before the next morning—if you ever saw streams of ants go up and down a tree or wall and give signs—that is exactly what these fellows could do, and there would soon be a slick path to that point. There were a few bushwhackers, whose principal amusement seemed to be to annoy this class of my men, who were whiskey hunters. Having sent one of them under guard to his colonel, a few days after he came to see me, and said: ‘Colonel, I want to show you a curiosity.’ He had a five-gallon runlet, which he said he had started with full of apple-jack, that he was hugging in before him on his saddle, and that he heard a ball whistle, felt a thud and a little jar, and looked down, and, ‘darned me,’ if a fellow had not sent a ball through my runlet with more ease than I could have bored the hole with an auger, and there it was spouting out of both ends. The lick had bounced the [143] cork out of the opposite end, and you could hear the ball rattle in the runlet. They had captured the bushwhacker and wanted me to punish him.

My best efforts had to be exerted to keep whiskey out of camp in those mountains. Our expedition had been bloodless, but we had enjoyed it, as we had the best the country could afford, and brought back some fine cattle and sheep. Getting back to our old lines we have had little feed. The day after our return the enemy had moved across the mountains towards Gordonsville, and we hurried in that direction over sleety roads, and I think it was the roughest march we ever made. Arriving near that place we learned that Lomax had repulsed the raiding party, and we returned to Staunton and went into camp near Swoope's Depot on the Virginia Central railroad.

We had hardly gotten settled—we had not been here but a day or two—when Rosser sent an order for me to report to him, on arriving at his camp late in the evening he informed me he had in contemplation a trip to Beverley, West Virginia, eighty miles off, and had an order for so many volunteers or a detail of so many men from my brigade to go. I told him that my men, as he knew, had lost every thing, but that my quartermaster was expected from Richmond the next day, and after his arrival with the necessary supplies, and I could shoe up my horses, I would be glad to second him in his wishes. The snow was very deep and the weather very threatening. He replied, ‘I have the order and I am going.’ I took the order back with me and handed it to the Adjutant-General of the brigade. It was sent to the colonels commanding regiments. They reported at my headquarters, and requested me to intercede for these men, saying, as I knew, they were not in condition. I told them what had already occurred, and they asked to be allowed to go to see Rosser; to this I consented, and when they returned they were very indignant at his reception of them, and it was evident that they had no confidence in him or his care for his men. I could not get a corporal's guard of volunteers and the detail was ordered. It was bitter. About sunrise the next morning, the time appointed for them to move, Rosser and his staff, came by my headquarters, to gather up the command. His Inspector-General, Captain R. B. Kennon, called at my tent, and asked me where my complement for the expedition was. I replied that the orders had been issued the night previous, and the detail had been instructed to report to Colonel Morgan, of the First Virginia; that I had heard the reveille bugle, and had no doubt they were at Colonel Morgan's headquarters, In about half [144] an hour Captain Kennon returned, with a piece of paper in his hand, with words to this effect: I would consider myself in arrest, and confine myself to within so many miles—charges: sedition, conspiracy, with an effort to thwart his efforts—signed by order of Thomas L. Rosser. Upon his return a military court was convened and I was actually tried upon these charges. The court acquitted me honorably, and in dismissing the charges, recommended that charges be not made again against officers without sufficient foundation.

General Early in a recent publication has said, had he had the information at the time, which has subsequently come to his knowledge, he would not have allowed the court to act upon the case. Winter in earnest was now upon us. About this time General Averill made his raid towards Salem, Roanoke county, Virginia, and we were hurried through Rockbridge and Botetourt hoping to intercept him; having failed to get in his rear in time to head him off, we moved back to Callahan's, where, as my regiment was near their homes, we were given a short furlough to remount. When we reassembled at Lynchburg to join the army, I moved back with six hundred and twenty-three sabres. Thus ended our winter campaign.

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