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Chapter 30: Averill's raid and the winter campaign.

A few days after our return from Mine Run, General Ewell came back to the command of the corps, and I returned to my division, all remaining quiet on the Rapidan.

About the middle of December a force of cavalry and infantry moved from New Creek on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad up the south branch of the Potomac, under General Averill of the Federal Army, apparently threatening Staunton in the Valley, while at the same time another force under Colonel Wells moved up the Valley from Martinsburg to Strasburg. General Imboden commanding in the Valley, having only a small brigade of cavalry and a battery of artillery, applied to General Lee for reinforcements, and two brigades of Hill's corps, Thomas' and H. H. Walker's, were sent to Staunton over the railroad, Fitz. Lee's brigade of cavalry being ordered to move to the Valley also. General Lee then ordered me to proceed to the Valley and take command of all the troops there.

I started at once, leaving Orange Court-House by rail and, reaching Staunton, by reason of some delay on the railroad, after the middle of the night. I found Thomas' brigade in Staunton, it having arrived the evening before, ahead of me, and Walker's had moved out to Buffalo Gap, ten miles beyond Staunton on the road to McDowell, at or near which place the enemy under Averill was reported to be.

Very early next morning General Imboden came into town, and I rode with him to his camp across the mountain from Buffalo Gap near the Calf Pasture River. He reported that the enemy's force was about five thousand strong and still confronted him behind Bull Pasture River, on the other side of the intervening mountains, where it was watched by a detachment of his cavalry, and [327] such was the report we found at his camp. After I had been at his camp but a very short time, a courier came to me with a telegraphic dispatch from General Lee, who was then in Richmond, stating that Averill had left the Sweet Springs on the morning of the day before on the road towards Salem. I then started back to Buffalo Gap, and on the way I received another telegraphic dispatch from General Lee, informing me that Averill had entered Salem on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad the morning of that day, and directing me to make arrangements to capture him.

It turned out that Averill with his cavalry had left the front of General Imboden at least two days before I started from Orange, leaving the small infantry force with him, under Colonel Thoburn, to amuse Imboden's pickets, and that Thoburn had also started back to the valley of the South Branch before I arrived. Imboden was ordered to bring his brigade back to Buffalo Gap, that night, for the purpose of being sent after Averill.

The question was how to cut off Averill's retreat, as he had several ways of getting back to a safe position. He might return the way he went-go up the railroad and then by the way of Blacksburg in Montgomery-come back by the way of Fincastle to Covington-or by the way of Buchanan and Lexington through the Valley, there being numerous intervening roads between these main routes which afforded him ample facilities for escape if he had good guides. After consultation with General Imboden, who was very familiar with the country, I determined to send his brigade to Covington next day, where it would be in a position to intercept Averill's retreat on the road by that place or move to the right and intercept him at Callahan's if he returned the same way he went.

During the night it rained in perfect torrents-such a rain as I have rarely seen — and by the next morning all the streams were very high. The direct route to Covington was down the valley of the Little Calf Pasture crossing that stream many times, across Big Calf Pasture [328] and Cow Pasture Rivers. Little Calf Pasture itself, it was evident from the condition of the very small streams at Buffalo, would be impassable where there were no bridges, and there was no bridge over the Cow Pasture, quite a large river, on this route. It was, therefore, impossible for him to go the direct road, but being informed by him that there was a bridge over the Cow Pasture not far above its junction with Jackson's River, which could be reached by going through Rockbridge, and avoiding the other streams, I ordered him to take that route, which was by the way of Brownsburg.

The infantry brigades I determined to move back to Staunton, to be used for the defence of that place in the event of Averill's moving that way, as it was useless to be sending them after cavalry over such a track of country. Colonel Wm. L. Jackson was at Jackson's River Depot at the termination of the Central Railroad, with about five hundred men of his brigade dismounted, and that covered a route by Clifton Forge from Fincastle up the river to Covington. Railroad communication with him was cut by the previous destruction of the bridge over Cow Pasture, but there was telegraphic communication with him, and he was ordered to keep a lookout and make disposition to stop Averill if he came that way. I expected to find Fitz. Lee in the valley by this time, either at Staunton or farther down, and I rode to that place to order him to such point as might be advisable after I heard what route Averill had taken.

On arriving at Staunton, I found General Fitz. Lee himself, who had come in advance of his brigade, which had crossed the mountain at Swift Run Gap. I was now in telegraphic communication with General Nichols at Lynchburg, and from him I received information that Averill had started back on the same route he came, but was stopped by high water at Craig's Creek some twelve or fifteen miles from Salem. I, therefore, determined to order Fitz. Lee to Covington by the way of Lexington and Colliertown, at which latter place Imboden was ordered [329] to unite with him. His brigade passed through Staunton late that afternoon, and General Lee followed very early next morning, with instructions to make all necessary arrangements to capture the raiding force, and with directions to move to any point that might be necessary according to the information which he might receive either at Lexington or elsewhere.

About the middle of the day I received a telegraphic dispatch from General Nichols covering one from an operator, stating that he had gone on the railroad that morning to within a mile of Salem, and that Averill was returning to that place, having been unable to cross Craig's Creek. If this was true, Averill must then attempt to make his escape by the way of the western route by Blacksburg, or the northern route by the way of Buchanan, and taking it for granted that it was true, I at once sent a copy by a courier to General Lee for his information, stating to him at the same time that as he was much nearer to Averill than I was, he might have other information on which to act, and leaving it to his discretion to move to Buchanan or to Covington as his information might justify.

When my dispatch reached General Lee he had united with Imboden at Colliertown, and after consultation with the latter he determined to move to Buchanan, as he had no information which warranted him in supposing that the dispatch from Lynchburg was not true.

During the night after I had received the dispatch informing me of Averill's return to Salem, I received another from General Nichols informing me that the information sent was not true and that Averill had succeeded after some delay in crossing Craig's Creek and moving on. It was now too late to reach Fitz. Lee by courier and I hoped that he might have had some accurate information.

I now determined to try to reach Jackson's position with one of the brigades of infantry, and Thomas' was sent next morning on the railroad, to endeavor to get [330] across Cow Pasture in boats and so reach Jackson. The running stock of the railroad was in such bad condition, and the grades beyond Millboro were so heavy, having a temporary track with inclined planes at an unfinished part of the road beyond that point, that Thomas' brigade could not get any further. I ran down on the road myself to see if the brigade could not be thrown to some point to intercept the enemy. Arriving just at night I found General Thomas in telegraphic communication with Jackson, and the information was soon received that Averill's advance had made its appearance on an obscure road across the mountains into the Jackson's River Valley, and that a small part of Jackson's men were skirmishing with the enemy. This road came in above Jackson's main position, and the party watching it was soon forced back, and Averill's force got into the road between Jackson and the bridge above him, which bridge was guarded by a party of some eight or ten reserves, who abandoned their post.

The enemy thus got possession of the bridge and commenced crossing rapidly. Jackson, in the meantime, moved up and attacked the enemy's rear, which he threw into great confusion, capturing over two hundred prisoners. In his alarm the enemy set fire to the bridge, thus cutting off all of his wagons, and some two or three hundred of his men. The wagons were burned and the men left behind subsequently moved up the river and forded by swimming.

All this information was communicated to me that night and next morning by telegram, and I knew that it was useless to make any further attempt to cut the enemy off with my infantry, as he was beyond pursuit of any kind.

When Fitz. Lee reached Buchanan and found Averill was not coming that way, he moved by the way of Fincastle in pursuit, and ascertaining what route Averill had taken, he then went to Covington and from there followed to Callahan's, but the greater part of the raiding party [331] had made its escape, so he desisted from what was then a useless effort. The facts were that on going back on the route he had come, from the Sweet Springs, Averill found his retreat cut off that way by Echol's brigade of General Sam Jones' force from Southwestern Virginia, which was posted on what is called Potts' or Middle Mountain, and he then turned across toward Covington over Rich Patch Mountain, being compelled to come into the valley of Jackson's River at the point he did to reach the bridge on the road from Clifton Forge to Covington, as there was no bridge on the direct road to that place. He thus succeeded in making his escape by the stupidity or treachery of a telegraph operator, but the amount of damage he had been able to do did not compensate for the loss of men and horses which he sustained, and the sufferings the others endured. He had been able to burn a small depot at Salem with a few supplies in it and one or two small bridges in the neighborhood, which were rebuilt in a few days. His raid really amounted to very little except the name of it.

The same night that Averill made his escape by Jackson, I received a dispatch from General Walker at Staunton informing me that the force that had been at Strasburg was moving up the valley, and had passed New Market. I telegraphed to him to move to the North River at Mount Crawford at once, which he did early next day. Thomas' brigade was moved back to Staunton, starting early in the morning, but on account of the condition of the road, did not reach there until nearly night. On arriving at Staunton myself, I rode out to Walker's position eighteen miles beyond, leaving orders for Thomas to march up during the night. On reaching Walker I found that the enemy was in Harrisonburg, and I ordered an advance early next morning.

At light next day, Thomas came up, both brigades moving forward. The enemy was found to have retired during the night, leaving a small cavalry rear guard, which retreated as we came up. I had no cavalry except [332] a few stragglers from different cavalry commands, which I could employ only as scouts to observe the movements of the enemy, but I pushed on in pursuit. After passing Harrisonburg, a battalion of mounted men exempt from regular service by age or otherwise, called the Augusta Raid Guards, came up, and were ordered forward in pursuit, but accomplished nothing. According to the organization of the command, the men were not bound to go beyond the limits of any adjoining county, and when they reached the Shenandoah line they halted, standing upon their legal rights, though it may be doubted if they would have stood upon them if the enemy had turned back.

This force of the enemy had now got beyond reach, and Thomas' brigade was halted at Lacy's Springs after having marched thirty-six miles since after nightfall the evening before. Walker's moved on to New Market and halted there, having then marched twenty-eight miles.

The movement in this direction had been made to divert some of the troops from the pursuit of Averill, so as to aid his escape; and the force making it now retreated rapidly to Martinsburg. Thomas being moved up to New Market, I rested the men a few days, and I then received directions from General Lee to send a cavalry expedition into the counties of Hardy and Hampshire to get some cattle and meat for his men. Our army was now very much straitened for provisions, especially for meat, of which they were sometimes devoid for days at a time. As soon as Fitz. Lee had returned from the pursuit of Averill I ordered him up to the vicinity of New Market, and when his men and horses had rested a few days he was ordered to cross the Great North Mountain into Hardy, try and dislodge an infantry force at Petersburg, cut the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the mouth of the South Branch of the Potomac, and of Patterson's Creek, gather all the beef cattle he could, and likewise get what of value was to be had.

By the last of December he was ready to move, and [333] started, accompanied by McNeil's company of partisan rangers and Gilmor's Maryland battalion, crossing the mountain over a rugged road near Orkney Springs. I started McClanahan's battery of artillery of Imboden's command with him and some wagons, but it was now the 1st of January and the weather had become excessively cold, the thermometer being near zero, and when the artillery got to the top of the mountain, it was found that the roads on the other side, which were very steep, were sheeted with ice, rendering it impracticable to get the artillery down in safety. The cavalry succeeded in getting down, by the men being dismounted to lead their horses, but the artillery and wagons had to be sent back.

To attract attention from this expedition I moved at the same time down the Valley pike to Fisher's Hill with Thomas' brigade, preceded by Imboden's cavalry under Colonel Smith, and remained there until Fitz. Lee's return, Smith being sent beyond Strasburg to demonstrate towards Winchester. Walker's brigade had been left at Mount Jackson. While we were at Fisher's Hill, there were two heavy snows, and there was very hard freezing weather all the time. The men had no tents and their only shelter consisted of rude open sheds made of split wood, yet, though Thomas' was a Georgia brigade, they stood the weather remarkably well and seemed to take a pleasure in the expedition, regretting when the time came to fall back.

In the meantime Fitz. Lee had reached Hardy, attacked a guarded train moving from New Creek to Petersburg for the supply of that post, captured more than twenty wagons and some prisoners, invested the post at Petersburg, which he found strongly fortified, but having no artillery he abandoned the attempt to dislodge the enemy without making an attack. He then moved down to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, destroyed the bridge over Patterson's Creek and that over the South Branch partially, collected a large number of cattle, and came off with the captured wagons, and prisoners, and [334] some eight hundred or one thousand head of beef cattle. His men had been exposed to the same severe weather to which those at Fisher's Hill had been, and the feet of a few of them had been frosted. As soon as I heard of his safe return, I moved back up the valley, and the cattle brought off were sent to the army.

Not long afterwards, Fitz. Lee's cavalry returned to the eastern side of the ridge, but its place was taken by Rosser's brigade, which had come into the valley.

About the last of January I undertook another expedition into the Hardy Valley for the same objects for which the first had been made. This I determined to make with Rosser's brigade of cavalry and one of the brigades of infantry, accompanied by McClanahan's battery, that being the only artillery there was in the valley.

Rosser with his brigade, McNeil's company, a part of Gilmor's battalion, the battery and some wagons passed through Brock's Gap into the valley of Lost River, while Thomas' brigade moved over the mountains, at the Orkney Springs pass, to the same valley. Imboden was left with Walker's brigade of infantry at Mount Jackson, and his own brigade of cavalry advanced down the Valley pike towards Winchester, to demonstrate in that direction. Passing over the mountain to Matthews' on Lost River in advance of Thomas' brigade I found Rosser at that place, where we spent the night. From this point the road to Moorefield ascends to the summit of Branch Mountain and then along that for several miles, through a wild, mountainous and desolate looking region, until it comes to the point of descent into the Moorefield Valley, which latter, a most beautiful and fertile valley surrounded by high mountains, is reached at the western base of the mountain on the South Fork of the South Branch.

Starting early in the morning we reached the South Fork with the cavalry and artillery early in the day, and leaving the main force there, behind the mountain intervening between the two forks, McNeil's company was [335] thrown forward to Moorefield and the North Fork, to cover our front and prevent the enemy, who occupied the fortified fort at Petersburg eight or ten miles above Moorefield on the North Fork, from discovering our presence in force; McNeil's company being composed mainly of men from that section, and being in the habit of making frequent raids into the valley.

We had ascertained that a large loaded wagon train was on the point of starting from New Creek for Petersburg, and some very trusty scouts perfectly familiar with the country were watching it. During the night, we were informed by the scouts that the train of about one hundred wagons had started, guarded by a force, of infantry, and that it would be on the Patterson Creek road across Patterson Mountain from Moorefield at an early hour next day. Rosser immediately made preparations to move with his brigade and the battery of artillery before light in the morning. Crossing over Patterson Mountain, he found the road obstructed with trees felled across it, extending some distance on each side, and the obstructions defended by a force of infantry. Dismounting a part of his men, he attacked and drove the enemy from the obstructions, and clearing the road, he passed through and soon encountered the train.

The infantry guard was very strong, and McClanahan's guns were brought into action, when by a vigorous charge the guard was dispersed, taking refuge in the mountains, and over ninety loaded wagons with their teams, and more than one hundred prisoners were captured. Fifty of the wagons were sent back with their teams and loads, but the rest were so badly smashed in the confusion resulting from the attack, that they could not be moved; and securing the teams and such of the contents as could be brought off, the injured wagons were burned.

Rosser had been ordered to move around and take position on the road north and west of Petersburg, so as to cut off the retreat of the enemy from that place, [336] against which I proposed moving at light next day, as the infantry would be up at night, and he proceeded to obey the orders.

Thomas' Georgians, moving along the summit of Branch Mountain with nothing but wild inaccessible mountains and deep ravines on each side as far as the eye could reach, could not understand why they were carried over such a route at this season and inquired of each other: “What can General Early mean by bringing us into such a country as this in the midst of winter?” But when they came suddenly in view of the beautiful valley of Moorefield and saw spread out before them what Johnson might have taken as the original of his ideas of the “Happy Valley” in Rasselas, they burst into wild enthusiasm at the unexpected scene, so beautiful and inviting even in the midst of winter and with the tread of an invading enemy upon it.

They were no longer disposed to murmur, and reaching the vicinity of Moorefield late in the afternoon, their spirits were still further cheered by the sight of a large number of beautiful girls rushing out to see and welcome “our” infantry, as they fondly called it, a sight that had not met the eyes of those warm-hearted beings since a portion of the force constituting Garnett's ill-starred expedition had retreated that way early in the war. The Georgians were ready then to go anywhere. Not discontinuing their march they were thrown across the North Fork just at dark on the road to Petersburg, by felling trees from each side so as to interlap, and enable them to crawl over.

The road to Petersburg passed through a narrow defile above, just wide enough for a wagon way, with the river on one side and a very high vertical precipice of rock on the other side, so as to make it impracticable to pass through the file if held by any force at all, and it was then strongly picketed by the enemy, whose main force was in reach. The men bivouacked and kept as quiet as possible during the night so as not to alarm the enemy, [337] and at light next morning I moved with them over the mountain, on a mere pathway lately unused and nearly grown up with underbrush, so as to avoid the defile spoken of and get in its rear, being guided by Captain McNeil with his company.

A thick fog overspread the mountains and the valley, as it was moist, mild weather, and when we reached the open ground on the other side where we were within easy artillery range of the enemy's works, nothing could be seen of them or the town of Petersburg. We heard some drums beating and an occasional cheer, and having sent a small force to get in rear of the defile while I made disposition to advance upon the point where I was told the enemy's works were, information reached me that Rosser was in possession of the enemy's works, the force of the latter consisting of two regiments and some artillery, having evacuated during the night and taken a rough obscure road to the west through the mountains of which Rosser had not known.

Some provisions and forage were found in the works which were appropriated, and Rosser was ordered to move at once down Patterson Creek, cut the railroad, and gather all the cattle and sheep he could by sending detachments through the country. After demolishing the works, which contained several bomb-proof shelters for men and magazines for ammunition and other stores, Thomas' brigade was moved back towards Moorefield, and next day posted so as to cover the approaches from the direction of Winchester.

The men now had an abundance of provisions, and the luxury of a little coffee taken from the enemy; and the kind hospitality of the good people of Moorefield and the vicinity rendered this winter campaign into the mountains a most pleasant episode in their army experiences.

Rosser succeeded in cutting the railroad at the mouths of Patterson Creek and the South Branch where it had been previously cut by Fitz. Lee, dislodging a guard from [338] the latter place, and also in collecting a considerable number of cattle and sheep, with which he returned to Moorefield in two or three days. The, enemy, however, had moved from Cumberland with a large force of infantry and cavalry, and also a brigade of cavalry from Martinsburg to intercept, but he succeeded in passing in safety between the columns sent against him. McNeil's company and part of Gilmor's battalion had been sent west to the Allegheny Mountains to collect cattle and were now returning by the way of Petersburg with a good lot of them.

The morning after Rosser's return I made preparations to retire with the prisoners, plunder, cattle, and sheep in our possession, and as we were moving out of Moorefield, the enemy's force consisting of Kelly's command from Cumberland and Averill's brigade of cavalry came in view on the opposite banks of the river, and opened with artillery. Thomas' brigade, which had moved across to the valley of the South Fork, and commenced retiring, was brought back a short distance and formed in line across the valley with the artillery in position, while Rosser's cavalry retiring through Moorefield took position below Thomas, sending out some skirmishers to encounter those of the enemy.

The object of this was to enable Captain McNeil to get in rear with his cattle, with which he was coming up on a road around our left flank, as we were then faced, and give time to the wagons and cattle and sheep to get well up the sides of the mountain, so that they might be protected against the enemy. As soon as this was done, and we could see the wagons, cattle and sheep slowly moving up the road on the side of the mountain, extending over a distance of some two or three miles, we withdrew gradually, but a small force of the enemy's cavalry followed at a most respectful distance, to the base of the mountains, where it halted.

Rosser's brigade took an obscure road to the left [339] across the mountain, so as to come into the valley of Lost River below Matthews', and Thomas followed the trains. The enemy did not attempt to molest us further, and he had the mortification of seeing all the plunder we had obtained marched off in a long winding train, visible to him for several miles, without being able to interfere with us. It was not in accordance with the object of my expedition to give him battle at this time, and I therefore contented myself with securing what I had.

Everything reached the valley in safety, Rosser taking the route through Brock's Gap with the wagons, etc., and Thomas moving across the mountain the same way we had gone. Riding ahead of the infantry the day after we left Moorefield, I understood, on the road, there was a report at Mount Jackson that the enemy was moving up front below in strong force, and quickening my force I reached Mount Jackson just after the report had been ascertained to be false, and the commotion had been allayed. The whole report had originated in the foolish fright of a small cavalry picket at Columbia Furnace, below, where a road comes in across the mountain from the valley of Lost River, which was caused by the approach on that road of a company of Rosser's men whose homes were in that immediate neighborhood, they having been allowed to go to them for a day or two.

When discharged, after crossing the mountain, without knowing that a picket was near, the men, who had been out in a rain, commenced discharging their arms, and the picket made off, not stopping to hear the calls of the men at whose appearance it had become frightened, but continuing to retreat the faster, magnifying the force, in imagination, at every step, until, when the commander of the picket reached General Imboden, with his horse panting and foaming, it had swelled to two or three thousand men.

Those things will happen sometimes to the bravest of men. We were again able to send General Lee's army [340] about a thousand beef cattle, and some few other supplies, which served to keep up the spirits of our much enduring men.

The weather we had had for this expedition was unusually mild and favorable for that season when, in the section into which we went, the climate is usually as harsh among the mountains as it is in that part of Canada bordering on the Lakes.

Shortly after our return, the troops were moved further up the valley, the two infantry brigades going into camp near Harrisonburg, and the cavalry going to Rockbridge and the railroad west of Staunton where forage could be obtained, a small force being left to picket down the valley.

Major Gilmor subsequently made a raid down the valley, and captured a train on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

After the troops had been located, in company with Captain Hotchkiss, topographical engineer for Ewell's corps, I made a reconnoissance of the country and mountain passes west of Staunton and extending across Jackson's River to the mountains beyond, and selected a line to be fortified so as to prevent raids. Captain Hotchkiss made a sketch of this line and the country, which being sent to General Lee, he ordered the necessary works to be constructed, which I believe was subsequently done.

About the last of February, my services being no longer necessary in the valley, I left for the purpose of returning to my division, after a leave of absence of two weeks granted me. In reaching Gordonsville by the railroad, I ascertained that some movement was being made by the enemy, and I therefore ran down to Orange CourtHouse to be present with my command if anything serious was going on.

It turned out that the enemy's movement was for the purpose of a cavalry raid against Richmond. A force being moved towards Charlottesville on our left, while the main raiding party, under Kilpatrick, went towards [341] Richmond for the purpose of capturing and burning the city, releasing the Federal prisoners, and bringing off or killing the Confederate authorities. This raid proved a ridiculous failure, its approach to Richmond being prevented by some home guards and local troops composed of employees in the departments, while Hampton dispersed a part of it with a few of his cavalry hastily gotten up. The force moving on Charlottesville retired from before a few pieces of artillery which had no support.

After this affair was settled I took the benefit of my short leave — the only indulgence of the kind asked for or received by me during the, whole war.

I returned to my division about the middle of March, and assumed command, finding it in its old position, nothing serious having occurred during the winter.

What was left of Hoke's brigade had been detached and sent under General Hoke to North Carolina, where it participated in some movements, including the capture of the town of Plymouth, with its garrison, by Hoke. It did not return to the division until after the commencement of the subsequent campaign, though it took part in the defence of Petersburg and the attack on Butler by General Beauregard.

We remained in position in our old place until the opening of the spring campaign. In the meantime Major General U. S. Grant had been assigned to the command of all the armies of the United States, with the rank of Lieutenant General, and had come to take immediate command of the army confronting us, which army was being very greatly strengthened by recruits, drafted men, and other troops.

The Army of the Potomac under Meade had been consolidated into three corps instead of five, to-wit: the 2nd, and 6th, and 9th corps under Burnside, which had been very greatly increased, was added to the force in our front. The Army of the Potomac, and the 9th corps, with the artillery and cavalry, the latter having been largely increased, constituted Grant's immediate command, [342] though he had a general control of all the forces.

By the last of May it was very evident that the enemy was making very formidable preparations for a campaign against us, and to meet them we had but what remained of the army with which we had fought the year before, recruited since the close of active operations, only by such men as had recovered from wounds and sickness, and a few young men who had just arrived at the age of military service. Longstreet had returned from his expedition into Tennessee with two of his divisions, McLaws' and Field's (formerly Hood's), Pickett's being absent and south of James River.

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