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Doc. 104.-battle of Wapping heights, Va.

A National account.

army of the Potomac, July 28, 1863.
Lee, with his army, having pushed into the Shenandoah Valley, no sooner found that Meade was at his heels than he made a feint as if he would turn and recross the Potomac. So soon, however, as Meade ascertained to his own satisfaction that Lee had not turned back in force, but only as a feint, he again put his columns in motion, and by the most rapid and fatiguing marches got possession of all the passes in the Blue Ridge Mountains down to Manassas Gap, thus hemming the enemy into the Shenandoah Valley. On the second instant his scouts reported to him that one corps of the enemy was at or below Front Royal, just through Manassas Gap, and that the other two corps were behind and rapidly approaching that point.

Buford's division of cavalry were alone in occupation of this important mountain-pass, through which it seemed probable the enemy intended to force his way, and they were calling loudly for reinforcements, representing that the entire rebel army was menacing them. In this emergency the Third army corps, then guarding Ashby's Gap, was ordered down to Manassas Gap. The order was received late in the day, and by four o'clock the corps was in motion. By an almost unprecedented march they reached Piedmont before dark, when, without halting, the First division, (Birney's command,) temporarily commanded by General Ward, was thrown forward to support General Buford, who was found to be ten miles in advance up the gap. Thus it was nearly midnight when this division reached its camping ground, in the vicinity of Linden, a little town close in among the mountains. Early on the following morning General French moved the rest of the corps up to support the First division, and despatched his chief of staff, Colonel Hayden, to ascertain the position of the enemy.

Colonel Hayden, in obedience to his instructions, pushed ahead and got a position upon the summit of a lofty mountain, whence he had a splendid view of the Shenandoah Valley for miles in all directions. At his very feet rolled the murky waters of the Shenandoah; just in front lay the pretty town of Front Royal; beyond and stretching as far as the eye could reach, south, west, and north, were broad fields, rich with their abundant crops. The scene was a beautiful one, well calculated to rivet the attention and awaken the admiration of the beholder.

But other scenes, of greater interest to the veteran soldier, met the gaze of the observing staffofficer. Upon an ordinary country road, approaching the Shenandoah River almost at the base of the mountain on which he stood, and crossing the stream at that point by a ford, thence losing itself in the system of ravines and hills leading to Chester's Gap, a large body of rebel infantry were moving in close column and most perfect order. Several thousand of these infantry were seen, followed by a large body of mounted men, subsequently shown to be sick and disabled soldiers mounted on horses stolen in Pennsylvania. The rear of the line was covered by a large body of cavalry.

On the turnpike beyond, running nearly parallel with the country road above described, leading directly to Front Royal, were the long wagon trains of the enemy, pushing southward as rapidly as possible, and extending as far as could be seen.

No reconnoissance could be more perfect and satisfactory than this. Taken in connection with the information that had been brought in by scouts on the previous day, it seemed clear that this must be a portion-perhaps the advance — of the rebels' second corps. Their first corps had already passed down the valley; the third must be yet in the rear. The situation was eminently favorable. This was precisely the time to attack. We could now cut the rebel column in two. This was. the natural and common supposition, and there was no dissent from it.

So soon as Colonel Hayden returned and reported his observations, Wood's old brigade of the First division, temporarily commanded by Colonel Berdan, was deployed as skirmishers and ordered forward. Besides the celebrated Berdan Sharp-shooters, there are in this brigade the wellknown Twentieth Indiana, which did such splendid service as skirmishers at Chancellorsville, the Sixty-third Pennsylvania, and the Third and Fourth Maine--ali regiments of the highest reputation, and together forming a skirmishing line of unusual strength and excellence. They were immediately supported by the Ninety-ninth Pennsylvania, and the Eighty-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-fourth New-York.

The line was formed just beyond the little village of Linden, where the pass is very narrow and would admit of no extended line. There was but a single, and that a very narrow, road leading [361] through the gap by which to move up the main body of the corps; but, in the face of these obstacles, General French kept his command well closed up and ready for immediate use.

But the enemy appeared to have no great force in the gap, having been content with occupying its western end with a picket force of a few hundred men. They fell back as our skirmishers advanced, until they came upon a supporting force strongly posted on a lofty hill, facing directly up the gap, and around which the road leading through the gap passed by a debouch to the right. On this hill the enemy made a stand, and seemed disposed to resist our further advances.

General Ward then detached two regiments from his skirmish line — the Third and Fourth Maine, veterans of Kearny's old division — and directed them to clear this hill by assault. Our sharp-shooters held the attention of the enemy while the Maine men crept silently and all unobserved up the face of the hill. On gaining the summit they sprang to their feet, delivered a volley, and with a most determined charge cleared the hill, gaining a number of prisoners and spreading the ground with killed and wounded rebels. The charge was a right gallant one, such as soldiers may well feel proud of having participated in, and will ever be a bright credit mark for these fine regiments.

But, when this hill was gained, it was discovered that the enemy were more strongly posted on a system of hills beyond and in front, commanding the main road through the gap, and to some extent fortified there, having a stone wall, a sunken road, and some hastily constructed breastworks of brush and logs to cover them.

General French was determined to sustain the reputation of the old Third corps, and was not willing that any obstacles should retard its advance when it had received orders to move forward. He directed General Prince, commanding the Second division, to detail a brigade to charge this system of hills, commanding the debouch of the road, and dislodge the enemy.

The famous Excelsior brigade was selected for this bold enterprise. The men were formed in line, and their new commander, General Spinola, addressed them a single word of encouragement, when the gallant fellows gave one of their peculiar cheers, so full of determination and confidence, and started forward. Room was made for them to pass through the line of skirmishers, and in a few minutes they were at the base of the hill.

The eastern slope of the hill was very rocky and precipitous, at some places being so nearly perpendicular that the men were obliged to scramble up on their hands and knees. The enemy, posted on the summit of the hill, were pouring down upon them a murderous fire of musketry; yet the men never flinched nor hesitated, but pushed forward and upward-now hanging by the bushes and scrambling on all fours, again panting and puffing at a double-quick, fearless of danger and intent only on dislodging the enemy. The elevation is estimated at three or four hundred feet.

Up this steep and rough mountain-side this glorious old brigade forced its way, and on reaching the summit fired and received one volley from the enemy, and then, fixing bayonets, gave another shout and rushed upon the rebels.

This charge was too much for flesh and blood to withstand. The enemy quailed before it and fled in confusion, closely and hotly pursued by our victorious troops.

The flight of the enemy from their first position disclosed a second ridge or crest back of the first that had been so gallantly carried, to which the rebels betook themselves and prepared to make another stand.

General Spinola was twice wounded in the assault of the first hill, and was obliged to leave the field he had so nobly won. Colonel Farnum, of the First Excelsior regiment, succeeded to the command of the brigade. The ferocity of the assault had disarranged the line somewhat, and Colonel Farnum, as commander, halted them for a moment to re-form, and then gave the order to advance again, placing himself in front of the line. Not a man hesitated or faltered at the renewal of the fight. Another cheer was given, and with a rush the entire brigade passed over the crest, into and across the ravine, and were quickly seen ascending the slope of the second hill. Here the resistance of the enemy was equally as desperate as on the first hill. But the assailants were flushed with victory, and could not have been checked had the whole rebel army stood in front of them.

All breathless and exhausted with fatigue they gained the summit of the second crest, the line broken and disordered, but only disordered as one and another strove more successfully with their companions for the honor of being first at the top. It was an exciting race, in which the danger was forgotten in the noble strife to be ahead. And as they came up the hill, singly and in squads of five, a dozen, twenty, fifty, and so on, each man rushed forward on his own account to secure prisoners.

Like demons they charged upon the bewildered foe, each man catching his prisoner by the hair, an arm, or perhaps a coat-tail, with the usual exclamation: “Here, you----son of a----, you're my prisoner!” And thus the second crest was carried as quickly as the first, and the Excelsior brigade were unanimously accredited with having made the most desperate and brilliant charge of the war. Their heroic deeds had been watched from the lofty summits in the rear by General Meade and staff, General French and his staff; and by the officers and many men of other corps; and as their success was made certain hill-top echoed to hill-top in a prolonged shout of admiration and praise. The accompanying list of casualties, sustained mainly by this brigade in making this almost unexampled charge, will attest the character of the affair more fully than any words I can give. A parley was now sounded. We had gained a second crest to discover lying yet between it and the valley a third lofty elevation, to which the enemy had fled. [362] Word was also received by General Meade that the rebel corps that had moved down the valley was returning, leaving the impression that it was their intention to make the desperate stand and give us the decisive battle at that point. Acting upon this information General Meade directed General French to suspend his main operations for the present and mass his troops in rear of the points already gained, and ordered up the bulk of his army, in anticipation of a battle on the following morning. The narrow gap was crowded all night with bodies of troops, packed in dense masses so thick as scarcely to be able to lie down. What sleeping was done was done under arms and in battle array.

The dispositions for battle were all made as the troops arrived during the evening, and at early daylight we had a line of battle which, if it was not very extensive, was certainly most formidable. It stretched, however, from mountain to mountain across the mouth of the pass, and would have defied assault. But no assault came. When daylight appeared the fact was revealed that the enemy had wholly disappeared.

From prisoners captured during the morning more exact information of the enemy's movements was obtained. It appeared then that the information brought in by our scouts was entirely erroneous; that the column of troops seen by Colonel Hayden was the rear of their whole line, and was a portion of Rhodes's division; that the forces met in the gap were some of Ewell's corps, who merely wished to hold the gap long enough to allow their column to cross the Shenandoah and move by on its way down the valley.

A detachment from the Third corps was ordered forward early in the morning, and passed unopposed into Front Royal, arriving there only in time to see the dust of the rear of the enemy's column moving away southward. The returning force of the rebels that our scouts had reported, and on which information General Meade had based his calculations for a great battle, proved to be simply a battery sent back by Longstreet to aid in holding the mouth of the gap during the night.

Thus it is seen on how small a circumstance a whole campaign may turn. General Meade, by moving into Manassas Gap and preparing for battle there — for which he certainly was justifiable, having such positive information to guide him — lost two days and a half of time in his southerly march, thus fully enabling Lee to reach the south of the Rappahannock before General Meade could possibly do so.

The brilliant affair in the Manassas Gap receives the title of the battle of Wapping Heights from the name of the system of hills upon which it occurred. There were a number of interesting incidents that occurred during the engagement, of which I have time to give but a few.

The old Excelsior brigade never behaved with greater credit to itself and the army than on this occasion. Officers and men vied with each other in deeds of heroism.

Color-Sergeant Dodds, of the Fifth regiment, carried his colors in front of the regiment unti. exhausted with fatigue, the enemy's bullets perforating the old flag at every step, and flying about the gallant color-bearer like hail. When too much exhausted to lead the. regiment, Colonel Hall took the flag himself and bore it before the command on horseback, making himself a target for the enemy's shots. Color-Sergeant Smith, of the First, was wounded in the arm while bearing the flag of his regiment in front of the line. Although severely wounded, he simply changed hands and continued to bear the national emblem, waving it before the men to encourage them to press forward.

Colonel Farnum, of the First, was shot in his foot, and his horse was badly wounded; but be refused to leave the field.

Major Mehan, of the First, and Major Burns of the Fourth, both had horses shot from under them, the former also suffering a severe contusion by his fall.

Captain Price, of the First, who was killed, was the author of the famous Homestead bill, and has a wide reputation in the country as the champion of homestead exemptions. He was a brave and gallant soldier, much beloved by his command.

Lieutenant Preston, of the Fifth, who was also killed, was wounded at Chancellorsville. He had just returned to his command, his former wounds having but recently healed.

General Prince, commanding the Second division, accompanied the Excelsior brigade in its charge, assuming the general direction of its movements. He would have pressed the noble brigade forward into Front Royal had he not been overtaken by a staff-officer, with orders to him to halt in his pursuit. He showed himself a most gallant and brave soldier, as he has done on former occasions.

General French handled his corps most efficiently, winning the highest encomiums from his superiors and from the commanders of corps in his rear, who were watching his movements. He fully demonstrated that, in his hands, the old Third corps would lose none of its nown.

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George G. Meade (8)
French (6)
Hayden (4)
R. E. Lee (3)
Farnum (3)
W. M. Ward (2)
Spinola (2)
Prince (2)
Excelsior (2)
Abraham Buford (2)
A. G. H. Wood (1)
W. F. Smith (1)
Rhodes (1)
Sterling Price (1)
Charles Preston (1)
Mehan (1)
Longstreet (1)
Kearny (1)
W. Carvel Hall (1)
R. S. Ewell (1)
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Doc (1)
Burns (1)
William Birney (1)
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