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Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

by Franz Sigel, Major-General, U. S. V.
On the 8th of March, 1864, while in command of the District of Lehigh, with headquarters at Reading, Pennsylvania, I received an order from the President appointing me to the command of the Department of West Virginia, and on the 10th of the same month I arrived at Cumberland, the headquarters of the department.

As this was the time when General Grant assumed the chief command of the armies and began his preparations for the campaign of 1864, it seemed to me necessary to subordinate all military arrangements in the department to the paramount object of making the bulk of our forces available as an auxiliary force in the prospective campaign. It was also necessary to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the shortest line of communication between Washington and Cincinnati. To reach these ends a system of defensive measures was applied to the line of that road, and the troops were concentrated at certain points on the road to be reorganized, disciplined, and provided with all the necessary material for active service. The intrenchments at Harper's Ferry were extended and strengthened, and the construction of detached works was begun at Martinsburg, Cumberland, Grafton, and Clarksburg, to protect these places against raiding parties. There were block-houses at the most important points on the Baltimore and Ohio, and iron-clad railroad cars were brought into requisition, each of them armed with a small piece. A pontoon-bridge was laid over the river at Falling Waters, between Harper's Ferry and Williamsport.

At the middle of March there were about 24,000 men in the department, most of them guarding the railroad from Monocacy and Harper's Ferry to Parkersburg and Wheeling, while about 3500 under General. Crook were in the Kanawha Valley. Amid great difficulties the work of organization went on tolerably well, so that I expected to have, after the middle of April, a force of about 20,000 men ready for “active service in the field.” On the 29th of March General E. O. C. Ord arrived. at my headquarters at Cumberland with a letter from General Grant, saying in substance that I should immediately assemble 8000 infantry, 1500 cavalry ( “picked men” ), besides artillery, provided with. ten days rations, at Beverly, for the purpose of marching by Covington to Staunton; the troops to be under the command of General Ord, who supplemented the letter by saying, on the authority of General Grant, that the column should. start within ten days. General Crook was to move from Charleston against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, destroy as much of it as possible, and then turn toward Lynchburg or await further orders. Crook had been summoned to Grant's headquarters about a week before, where this “raid” had been discussed and decided upon. In another letter I was directed to have a large train ready and to move up the Valley and meet the expedition of Ord and Crook as soon as it should reach Staunton. The most energetic measures were immediately taken to put this plan into operation. All the troops that could be spared were concentrated at Webster and Clarksburg to move to Beverly as soon as the necessary material should be collected at that point. But continuous rains had made the roads so bad that it was almost impossible to move even empty wagons to Beverly, and only about 6500 troops could be assembled for the expedition, unless the whole region from Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg to Cumberland and Parkersburg were to be left unprotected and exposed to hostile enterprises. Of all these circumstances General Grant was informed, and General Ord, who was every day in my headquarters, became so diffident in regard to the whole matter that he asked General Grant to be relieved. His request was granted on the 17th of April, and on the same day Colonel O. E. Babcock arrived with instructions from General Grant to confer with me about the best way of solving the “raiding” problem. It was decided that General Crook should move against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad and New River Bridge with the best and strongest part of our forces, about 10,000 men, while the remainder, about 7000, should advance in the Shenandoah Valley, at least as far as Cedar Creek, with the double object of protecting the eastern part of the department, from Harper's Ferry to Cumberland, and at the same time facilitating the operations of General Crook by inducing his opponent to detach a part of his forces from south-west Virginia against the troops advancing in the Shenandoah Valley. This arrangement was approved by General Grant. Reenforcements of infantry and the best mounted cavalry were sent to General Crook on the Kanawha by way of Parkersburg and the Kanawha River; one division of infantry of eight regiments, besides the remnants of General Averell's cavalry division and three batteries (later on increased. to five), was concentrated at Martinsburg and put under the command of General Julius Stahel, the senior officer. Besides these troops there remained on the Baltimore and Ohio, from Monocacy and Harper's Ferry to Parkersburg and Wheeling, a total distance of 300 miles, for local defense and other duties, seven regiments of infantry, several batteries, and a few hundred cavalry.

It was understood that Crook should commence his movement on the 2d of May, while the troops in the Shenandoah should start a few days earlier to divert the enemy's attention from south-west Virginia. General Averell, who had distinguished himself by his successful raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, in December, 1863 [see p. 480], was especially assigned by General Grant to the command of the cavalry division to operate with General. Crook.

In conformity with these arrangements I left Cumberland on the 25th of April for Martinsburg, inspected the troops assembled there, and moved to [488] Bunker Hill on the 29th, and to Winchester on the 1st of May, while the cavalry advanced to Cedar Creek and Strasburg. To meet the wishes of General Crook, the cavalry force left at Beverly was sent forward into Pocahontas County, spreading false rumors as to our strength and movements. General Crook, with the principal force, of from 7000 to 8000 men, left Fayette, not far from the mouth of New River, on the 2d of May, moving by Raleigh Court House and Princeton toward Newbern, “meeting and beating” the enemy at Cloyd's Mountain, then again near Dublin and Newbern, and after destroying the bridge over New River and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad for a considerable distance, returned by Union and Lewisburg to Meadow Bluff, where he arrived on the 19th of May. General Averell, at the head of two thousand cavalry, moved on a more western line against Saltville, with the intention of destroying the salt-works at that place, but, in spite of fighting bravely at that point and at Wytheville, was forced to withdraw, and followed Crook on his homeward march to Union.

The expedition from the Kanawha, although not attaining all that was proposed, was excellently planned and executed, and its moral effect was great; but it would have been of much greater importance if it had been undertaken before Longstreet had rejoined Lee's army. About the time that Babcock arrived at my headquarters at Cumberland the two divisions of Longstreet passed over the Virginia and Tennessee road and New River bridge to the east, and took their position at Gordonsville, forming the extreme left of the Army of Northern Virginia.

From our position at Winchester and Cedar Creek we learned that there was no hostile force in the Shenandoah Valley, except General Imboden's cavalry and mounted infantry, reported to be about 3000 strong. It seemed to me, therefore, necessary to advance farther south toward Staunton, in order to induce Breckinridge to send a part of his forces against us, and thereby facilitate the operations of Crook and Averell. Before leaving Winchester, a force of 500 cavalry, under Colonel Jacob Higgins, was sent toward Wardensville to protect our right flank, and Colonel William H. Boyd, with 300 select horsemen, into the Luray Valley to cover our left flank, especially against Mosby; but Colonel Higgins was attacked and beaten by a detachment of Imboden's brigade between Wardensville and Moorefield on the 9th of May, and pursued north toward Romney. Colonel Boyd was ambuscaded on his way from the Luray Valley to New Market on the 13th and defeated, suffering a loss of 125 men [General Imboden, p. 481, says 464 men] and 200 horses.

Meanwhile Sullivan's division at Winchester joined the troops at Cedar Creek on May 9th, and on the 10th our cavalry, after some skirmishing, occupied Woodstock. Here the whole telegraphic correspondence between Breckinridge and Imboden and the commander of Gilmor's cavalry, stationed at Woodstock, fell into our hands. Among the dispatches was one signed by Breckinridge, and dated Dublin Station, May 5th, saying that 4000 men were en route for Jackson River depot; also that the quartermaster should furnish transportation for Breckinridge and staff and 16 horses. Another and later dispatch, dated Staunton, and signed by Breckinridge, directed Captain Davis, at Woodstock, to find out the strength of our forces. A third dispatch directed Captain Davis to watch particularly any movement of ours in the direction of Grant's army. Another dispatch, dated Staunton, May 10th, also to Captain Davis, stated that General Lee was driving the enemy at every point.

The anxiety of Breckinridge to know whether there was any movement in the direction of Grant's army suggested such a movement on our part, while the unfavorable news relative to the great struggle between Grant and Lee could not fail to prompt me to energetic action.

To gain more detailed information, two regiments of infantry, under Colonel Augustus Moor, assisted by five hundred of the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, under Major Timothy Quinn, were sent forward on the 13th. This force met a part of Imboden's troops near Mount Jackson on the 14th, forced them across the Shenandoah, took possession of the bridge, and, animated by this success, followed them as far as New Market, seven miles beyond Mount Jackson, or nineteen miles from the position of our forces at Woodstock. Having received information of this little exploit late at night of the 14th, and also that Breckinridge was on his march down the Valley, and considering that in case of an attack the position of Mount Jackson would afford many advantages as a defensive point, I ordered the troops to move at 5 A. M. on the 15th. They arrived at Mount Jackson at about 10 o'clock A. M. I rode forward to reconnoiter the ground and to decide whether we should advance farther or meet the enemy's attack at Mount Jackson. During this time I received information from Colonel Moor that he was in a very good position. Major T. F. Lang,--an officer of General Averell's staff, and temporarily attached to my headquarters,--whom I had ordered to the front, sent me a note, saying that our troops were in a good position and “eager for the fight.” Captain Carl Heintz, of the staff of General Stahel, reported to me that Breckinridge was in force in our front, and that “if I would send two batteries they would be of excellent use.” Believing that a retreat would have a bad effect on our troops, and well aware of the strategical value of New Market, commanding, as it did, the road to Luray, Culpeper, and Charlottesville, as well as the road to Brock's Gap and Moorefield, I resolved to hold the enemy in check until the arrival of our main forces from Mount Jackson and then accept battle.

We had 5500 infantry and artillery, with 28 guns and 1000 cavalry. Breckinridge's and Imboden's force I estimated, from what we could know, at 5000 infantry and 2000 cavalry. [See p. 491.] We were about equal, and from what had happened the day before I thought that the advantage was on our side. I therefore hastened forward to New Market, with Captain Alexander and Major T. A. Meysenburg (of my staff), where I arrived about noon, and before the enemy [489] began his attack. It now became clear to me that all the troops could not reach the position close to New Market. I therefore ordered Colonel Moor to evacuate his position slowly, covered by cavalry, under Captain J. C. Battersby, and to fall back into a new position, which was selected about three-quarters of a mile north of New Market, right and left of the pike leading to Mount Jackson. During this time I sent two officers, Captain McEntee and Captain T. G. Putnam, back to General Sullivan, with orders to bring forward all his troops without delay; and at the same moment, when Colonel Moor was approaching the new line from his position in advance, it was reported to me by Captain R. G. Prendergast, commander of my escort, that all the infantry and artillery of General Sullivan had arrived, the head of the column being in sight, and that they were waiting for orders. Supposing this report to be correct, two batteries--Captain Carlin's and Captain Snow's — were posted on the extreme right of the line [see map, p. 482], Thoburn's brigade (34th Massachusetts, 1st West Virginia, and 54th Pennsylvania) was deployed on the left of the batteries, while Colonel Moor was ordered to form on the left of Thoburn; but unfortunately only two of his regiments (the 18th Connecticut and 1 23d Ohio) came into position on the right and left of Von Kleiser's battery, and a short distance in advance of Thoburn's line. The 12th West Virginia and Du Pont's battery took position behind the right of Thoburn's brigade as a reserve , and four companies of that regiment were posted behind the batteries on the right for their support. One company of the 34th Massachusetts was placed on the extreme right, between the batteries and the river, to watch any movement of the enemy through the woods and along the river. Ewing's battery was on the extreme left, and some distance behind it the cavalry. Skirmishers were deployed in our front. I personally directed and superintended this arrangement of the right wing, and was about to proceed to the left to see whether all the troops were in their proper positions, when my attention was directed to the approach of the enemy, whose lines appeared on the crest of the hills opposite our front, north-west of New Market.

Our skirmishers began to fall back, and fire was opened by Snow's battery on our right. I ordered the 34th Massachusetts to kneel down and deliver their fire by file as soon as the enemy came near enough to make it effective. A very severe conflict now followed at short range, the enemy charging repeatedly and with great determination against our line of infantry and the batteries, and being repulsed by the coolness and bravery of the 34th Massachusetts, 1st West Virginia, and 54th Pennsylvania, and the batteries. The smoke from the infantry fire on the left and the batteries on the right became so dense that I could not distinguish friend from foe.1 There was an interruption of a few minutes, when the enemy's lines recoiled, and our men cheered; then the fire began again and lasted about thirty minutes; the enemy again charged, this time especially against our batteries; he came so near that Lieutenant Ephraim Chalfant of Carlin's battery rode up to me and said that he could not hold his position. I immediately ordered two companies of the 12th West Virginia to advance and protect the pieces, but to my surprise there was no disposition to advance; in fact, in spite of entreaties and reproaches, the men could not be moved an inch! At this moment Major Meysenburg of my staff came up to me,2 and, to save the guns, I determined to make a counter-charge of the whole right wing, and requested him to transmit the order to Colonel Thoburn, who was not far from me toward the left. Bayonets were fixed and the charge was made in splendid style, but the enemy rallied, received our line with a destructive fire, and forced it back to its position. Before the charge was made, our extreme left wing had given way; two pieces of Von Kleiser's battery fell into the enemy's hands, and a part of his forces moved against the left and rear of Thoburn's brigade. When Thoburn's regiments came back, strewing the ground with their killed and wounded, the enemy, close on their heels, now again turned against the batteries on the right, filling the air with their high-pitched yells. I saw that the battery would be lost, as men and horses were falling.

I therefore reluctantly gave orders to Captain Carlin, through Lieutenant Chalfant, who was nearest to me, to withdraw his pieces successively, by sections from the right, and take position on an eminence, a short distance in the rear. Suddenly Carlin, who acted as chief-of-artillery, galloped back in hot haste, and his whole command followed him immediately. As some of the horses of two pieces had been killed, the guns were abandoned. Our whole position now became untenable, and the infantry retreated, pursued for a short distance by the enemy.3 During the retreat, and while the artillery were crossing a [490] creek, another piece had to be abandoned, the horses being unable to bring it along. I tried my best to save it, and was nearly made a prisoner by the enemy's skirmishers who followed us. There was some confusion and scattering of our retreating forces, but very soon order was restored. They rallied again and formed a line opposite the Dunker Church, and west of the turnpike leading to Mount Jackson, about three-quarters of a mile from the battle-field. Here we could see a dark line on Rude's Hill, and discovered that it was the line of the 28th and 116th Ohio, the two regiments that were unfortunately not with us during the battle. After remaining in our position about half an hour, we marched back toward Rude's Hill, and the whole command formed in line, with the 28th and 116th Ohio on its extreme left.

When this new and last line was forming I met General Sullivan, and after some consultation we came to the conclusion not to await another attack, for the reason that our losses were severe; that the regiments that had sustained the brunt of the fight were nearly out of ammunition and would have no time to receive it from the train, which was in the rear, beyond the bridge; that our position was not a good one, being commanded by the enemy's guns, posted on the hill in front of our left; and that in case of defeat we could not cross the swollen river, except by the bridge. There was some cannonading, but nothing else was undertaken by the enemy for at least half an hour. I therefore directed the troops to withdraw to Mount Jackson, which was done slowly and in perfect order, under the immediate supervision of Generals Sullivan and Stahel, Captain Battersby's company being the last to cross the bridge. We would have remained at that place, but since the cavalry on our flank, under Colonels Boyd and Higgins respectively, had been beaten, flanks and rear were unprotected. We had a supply train of two hundred wagons with us, destined for General Crook in case we should have joined him. All our ambulances and a part of the train were filled with wounded, who could not have been sent back without being protected by a large detachment. It was therefore thought best to bring our little army back to Cedar Creek, disengage it from its impediments, receive the reenforcements that were expected and on their way, and, according to circumstances, remain there or advance again. As to General Crook, the battle of New Market did not affect his movements at that time, since, after his raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, he fell back to Lewisburg and Meadow Bluff, where, on the 19th of May, he found my dispatch, saying that he should advance to Staunton.

We arrived with all our troops behind the Shenandoah, at Mount Jackson, a little before 7 o'clock in the evening, and took position behind Mill Creek. We were perfectly safe there, as the creek was high and could not be forded, nor could the enemy venture to pass it in the face of our line; but in order to retard his forward movement, if he should try it, to give our troops the necessary rest, without molestation, to gain time for preparation after our arrival at Cedar Creek, and also for the purpose of deceiving Breckinridge in regard to our intention to come back, the bridge over the north branch of the Shenandoah was destroyed. We remained in our position for two hours, during which time (to use the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Lincoln in his “Life with the 34th Massachusetts regiment” ):

the men ate their suppers, while the injured were looked up, their wounds examined and dressed, and the slightly wounded placed in ambulances for transportation. Those more severely wounded were disposed of in the hospital buildings at Mount Jackson, and left under charge of Assistant Surgeon Allen, of the 34th. These arrangements completed, at about 9 P. M., the column was again put in motion, the 34th bringing up the rear.

It will be seen from these statements that we did not “flee in disorder” from our position at Rude's Hill to Mount Jackson and Cedar Creek, nor lose or burn any wagons, nor “forsake” our sick and wounded, as was publicly proclaimed at the time, and often repeated, but we deliberately retreated to Mount Jackson in perfect order. All our wounded, with the exception of those that could not be carried away from the battle-field or transported from Mount Jackson, were with us on the retreat to Cedar Creek. The enemy captured no muskets, except those of our killed and severely wounded, left on the field; and of the five pieces of artillery, two (of von Kleiser's battery) were taken in the first attack on our left — the other three were abandoned and taken on account of the horses having been killed or being unable to bring them along. The losses on both sides [see p. 491] were great in proportion to the forces engaged, which shows that the struggle was severe and was maintained with courage and tenacity.

From Mount Jackson we reached Edinburg by a night's march at 7 o'clock in the morning of the 16th, and after a two-hours' rest proceeded to Strasburg, where we arrived at 5 o'clock in the evening. Early in the morning of the 17th we crossed Cedar Creek and encamped on the same heights we had left just a week before. The troops were disappointed, but not the least “demoralized.” The commander of the 12th West Virginia acknowledged the bad conduct of a part of his troops that failed to do their duty; but this regiment, under the same commander, redeemed its honor by its gallant behavior in the battle of Piedmont, and on other occasions.

On the 18th a detachment of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, under Colonel Wells of the 34th Massachusetts, was sent to Strasburg and the cavalry advanced to Fisher's Hill, the pickets of the enemy retiring before them. The Union flag was hoisted in the little fort at Strasburg, and patriotic speeches were made by Colonel Wells and others. On the 19th, at Cedar Creek, I received two dispatches, one from General Crook and the other from General Averell, bringing the news of [491] their exploits, which of course created much enthusiasm. As I had already instructed General Weber at Harper's Ferry to send all the troops that were not absolutely necessary for the defense of the forts, and also those that were stationed at Martinsburg, to Cedar Creek, I now telegraphed to General Crook to march to Staunton, while I would advance again and try to meet him as soon as he was ready for cooperation.4 He answered on the 19th from Meadow Bluff, that on account of certain difficulties he could not move before a week, but that he would move on the 1st of June and be in Staunton in six days. On the same day I was informed that General Hunter had been assigned to the department and would take command of the troops. This he did at Cedar Creek on the 21st of May. After a friendly conversation with him in which he expressed his desire that I should remain in the department and accept either the command of the Infantry Division or of the Reserve Division, comprising all the troops at Harper's Ferry and the lines of the Baltimore and Ohio, the matter was deferred to the next day, when I accepted and was assigned to the latter command. I took leave of the troops on the same day and proceeded to Martinsburg, where the headquarters of the division were established.

Considering the different raids, and minor enterprises in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, from the beginning of the campaign of 1864 until the appearance of Early before Washington, and including the subsequent engagements at Snicker's Gap and Bunker Hill, they represent in their totality, and in spite of partial successes of Averell, Crook, and Hunter, an utter failure, because Lee, having the advantage of a central position between the Army of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Valley, was always ready and able to turn the scales in his favor, whenever his communications leading west and north-west were seriously threatened; and so it came to pass that finally an army of at least 40,000 had to be applied to a problem that could not be solved by 5000 or 10,000. What should have been done at the beginning of the campaign in May, 1864, with a force of 20,000, in August demanded twice as many.

1 During the battle rain fell in torrents and the wind drove clouds of smoke from our own and the enemy's lines against us, giving the latter the advantage in distinguishing our position and rendering his fire more effective, thus accounting in part for the greater number of killed on our side.--F. S.

2 I was chained to my advanced position on the right by a circumstance that is unpleasant to record. Desiring to know what was going on to the left, I soon turned to ride out of the smoke, and to gain a survey of the whole field. As I did so, the companies placed behind the batteries quickly rose from the ground and followed me, as if by command. I immediately turned around, brought them back to their position, and remained at my post. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, it seemed to me almost comical that a major-general commanding a department and an “army” was condemned to the function of a “watchman.” Then came the charge I ordered from our right. The disagreeable incident mentioned prevented me from performing an important duty.--F. S.

3 The battle was well fought by the Southern troops, especially as to the timely and skillful manoeuvre of Imboden, by which he gained a position with his battery, which enfiladed our line on the left, without a chance on our side, on account of the intervening creek, to attack or dislodge him. But better fighting was never done than by the 34th Massachusetts, under Colonel Wells and Lieutenant-Colonel Lincoln, who were both wounded in the battle; and by the 1st West Virginia, and by the 54th Pennsylvania under Colonel Campbell. The 34th Massachusetts lost 202 officers and men in killed and wounded, the 1st West Virginia 55, and the 54th Pennsylvania 132; I therefore have no doubt that the battle would have ended differently if the two regiments, which I had good reason to believe were near, had arrived in time to assist us.--F. S.

4 A dispatch from General Grant was received in the evening of that day, saying that I should march to Staunton.--F. S.

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