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Sketches of operations of General John C. Breckinridge.

By Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston, of his Staff.

No. 1--from Dalton, Georgia, to Hanover Junction, Virginia.

[Our readers will receive with great interest the following sketches from the facile pen of the gallant soldier whose position on the staff gave him special opportunities for knowing whereof he affirms.]

While the Army of Tennessee was in winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia, General Breckinridge was, early in February, 1864, ordered to the command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia. He repaired to Richmond about the middle of that month, and there remained nearly a fortnight in consultation with the President and War Department, gathering information and receiving instructions concerning his new command. On the 5th of March he relieved General Samuel Jones, and formally assumed command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia, with headquarters at Dublin station, a depot on the Virginia and East Tennessee railroad a few miles west of New river. His new command included all of East Tennessee occupied by the Confederate forces and all of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge. Its great extent of exposed front, with [258] the small force for its protection, had always rendered it a precarious command, and it had proved disastrous to several of his predecessors. With the prospect of a trying ordeal bofore him as soon as the spring and summer campaign should open, General Breckinridge addressed himself at once to the work of placing his troops in an effective condition. To this end he made a tour of inspection to all the posts in Virginia on horseback, going in an inclement season as far as the Warm Springs, in Bath county, and traversing the line as far to the southwest as Abingdon, a trip of nearly four hundred miles. Wherever he went, the officers and men were animated by his presence, and new life was infused into all branches of the service.

About this time, the command of General Longstreet, which had wintered in East Tennessee, was transferred by rail to General Lee's army, thus uncovering his left and leaving it guarded only by cavalry. The scope of this sketch will not admit of a statement of the forces of the Department, further than to say that Vaughan's cavalry was on the East Tennessee front, Morgan's at Abingdon, Jenkins' at or near the Narrows of New River, and W. L. Jackson's on the extreme right at Warm Springs — the largest command not exceeding a good brigade; while the only infantry in the Department was Echols' brigade at Union Draught, in Monroe county, and Wharton's brigade at the Narrows of New River--twenty-six miles north of Dublin. Such was the disposition when information was received that General Crook was advancing in the direction of Dublin, with a strong force, from the Kanawha. General Breckinridge was engaged in preparations to receive him, when, on the evening of the 4th of May, he received a telegram from President Davis, saying that Siegel was advancing up the Shenandoah Valley on Staunton, and that the indications were that he (Breckinridge) would have to go at once to meet him, closing with directions to communicate with General Lee. A dispatch was sent General Lee the same night, informing him of the attitude in the Department and asking instructions. Early on the morning of the 5th of May--the day on which the battle of the Wilderness was fought — an answer was received from General Lee, directing General Breckinridge to march at once with all of his available force to the defence of Staunton. Orders having been previously sent to Generals Echols and Wharton to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment's warning, General Breckinridge proceeded on the same day with his staff to the Narrows, and on the 6th the brigades of Wharton and Echols [259] took up their march for Staunton, at which place General Breckinridge arrived on the 9th--the last of the troops reaching there on the 11th. Immediately on his arrival he proceeded to organize to meet Siegel. The reserves of Augusta were called out, under Colonel John H. Harmon, numbering several hundred men, and the cadets of the military institute at Lexington, two hundred strong. These reported promptly; and General Breckinridge, learning that Siegel was proceeding up the Valley, determined to march to attack him, instead of standing on the defensive. Accordingly on the morning of the 13th he left Staunton with the forces named, camping that night twenty miles from Staunton. Next day he advanced to Lacy's spring; about thirty-five miles from Staunton, and went into camp, heavy rains falling almost continually both days. General Imboden, who was in front with a cavalry force of several hundred, reported the enemy in the neighborhood of New Market, ten miles off. After dark he visited General Breckinridge in person, and informed him that Siegel had occupied New Market. General Breckinridge then determined to attack him early in the morning before information of his advance could be received. Accordingly he put his troops in motion at one o'clock that night, and by day-light was in line of battle two miles south of New Market, his front being covered by Imboden's cavalry; Harmon's command being left as rear guard to the trains, a mile further in the rear. Siegel was apparently unconscious of the presence of infantry in his front, and was advancing confident of the capture of Staunton, with no obstruction except a small cavalry force. The situation will be taken in at a glance. Lee was being pressed at Spotsylvania; Crook was moving on the extreme left of the line from the Kanawha, apparently occupying Breckinridge with the defence of the important country of Southwest Virginia, where lay the salt works, the lead mines and the chief source of commissary supplies for Richmond; while Siegel was moving upon Staunton, the center of the line, the key to the Valley — which was apparently hopelessly indefensible. Besides its strategic importance, as the immediate left flank of General Lee's line, it was at that time the location of large hospitals for the Army of Northern Virginia and depots of commissary, quartermaster and ordnance stores. The importance, therefore, of success by Breckinridge will be appreciated.

To accomplish the defeat of Siegel's advance he had but a meagre force — the aggregate of infantry muskets being but thirty-one hundred. With this command, as the morning opened, he advanced [260] in line of battle; the cavalry of Imboden giving way to our infantry skirmishers and going to the right, with instructions to operate during the day as a cover to our right flank, and to endeavor, as the battle progressed, to gain the rear of Siegel and to burn the bridge across the Shenandoah near Mount Jackson, four miles from New Market. The topography of the country was as follows: The main turnpike passes down the Valley due north through the town of New Market, which lies rather in a depression, from which, both to the north and south, the road and country rise with a gradual ascent. The Massanutten mountain runs parallel with the road, at the distance of a mile or more, with an intervening wooded valley, interspersed with wet weather marshes, rendered by the rain then falling difficult for field operations, which gave Breckinridge's right, good protection. On the left of the turnpike, and also parallel with it, and half a mile or more distant, runs the south branch of the Shenandoah, then swollen with the rains, a high ridge intervening and ascending by a gradual slope from the turnpike. General Breckinridge formed his line of battle with the right resting on the turnpike and his left on the summit of the ridge, placing the cadets in the center between the two brigades. He had but one line of battle in two ranks, with no reserves. It was not long before the skirmish line of the opposing forces became engaged, and after sharp firing the enemy fell back beyond New Market. Then ensued heavy artillery firing, which occupied the greater part of the morning. A reconnoissance showed that Siegel, finding he was opposed by infantry instead of cavalry, had abandoned the offensive and assumed the defensive. To.this end he had retired with his main force to the crest of the hill about a mile north of New Market, where, with open ground in his front and his flanks well covered by the topography already described, he occupied an exceedingly strong defensive position. The rain was almost continuous during the day, and Breckinridge's forces had operated in wheat fields, which made it very laborious, particularly in handling artillery, beyond the reach of which Siegel had now placed himself Notwithstanding the odds at which General Breckinridge now found himself, he determined to press to the attack. Putting his troops in motion, he passed beyond the village of New Market and began to ascend the open space intervening between himself and the enemy, composed of blue grass pastures intersected occasionly with stone fences. Seeing that his troops would be exposed to a heavy artillery fire unless there was some provision to prevent it, he boldly [261] threw ten pieces of artillery, which he moved in a gallop through New Market, upon the right of the pike and beyond the town where a series of slight knolls offered good positions for firing without its endangering his own command. These pieces he directed in person, so arranging that as his line of battle advanced the artillery would limber up, gallop to the front and open fire — making, as it were, a skirmish line of artillery.

The boldness of the whole movement seemed to disconcert the enemy and to give a moral advantage to our side. The first firing of Siegel's artillery passed harmlessly over the heads of our troops, and when our artillery opened with a quartering fire upon his line it seemed to strike them with consternation; so much so, that it was afterwards ascertained that our bursting shells had stampeded his deserves before the first line gave way. Our infantry advanced with wonderful steadiness, firing, and halting at intervals to load, with the steadiness of troops on dress parade; the precision of the cadets' drill serving well as a color guide for the brigades on either side to dress by. The whole scene was one such as is rarely witnessed, the eye taking in at one glance all the forces engaged, save that a good part of the Federal line had the advantage of a stone wall which served as a breastwork. Every man in Breckinridge's command was under his eye, while he, with his conspicuous form, was plain to the view of all his troops, who, though they had never fought with him, were proud of the fame he brought them as a commander and animated to heroism by his immediate presence. When his line had reached within two hundred yards of that of the enemy, the position was very critical, and for a time it seemed doubtful as to which would be the first to give way. At this juncture, Siegel's cavalry, on his left, were seen deploying for a charge down the pike. Breckinridge, with his keen eye, detected the manoeuvre and ordered the guns to be double shotted with canister. It had scarcely been done before they were seen advancing in squadron front, when, coming in range, the artillery opened and the charge was repulsed disastrously — not more than a score reaching our lines, and they as prisoners, lying on the necks of their horses. This seemed to turn the tide of battle, for in a few moments Siegel's line gave way and our troops pressed to the crest only to see the enemy in full retreat. Pursuit was given as soon as our line could be reformed. Siegel made a brief stand at Rood's hill to cover his retreat, which he effected beyond the Shenandoah, burning the bridge as his rear guard passed over. Had Imboden succeeded in carrying out his [262] instructions, the whole of Siegel's command would have been captured. As it was, Breckinridge captured five pieces of artillery, which were abondoned on the field, besides five or six hundred prisoners, exclusive of the wounded left on the field. His own loss, though not nearly so large as Siegel's, was several hundred killed and wounded. That night his soldiers slept on the battlefield, going into camp with cheers of victory such as had not been heard in the Valley since Stonewall Jackson had led them. In fact, every-body hailed Breckinridge as the new Jackson, who had been sent to guard the Valley and redeem it from the occupation of the enemy.

General Breckinridge modestly telegraphed General Lee the result of the battle and the same night received from him his own thanks and the thanks of the Army of Northern Virginia. Next day General Breckinridge issued an order thanking his brave soldiers, particularly the cadets, who, though mere youths, had. fought with the steadiness of veterans.

Immediately following General Lee's congratulatory dispatch came another, directing General Breckinridge to transfer his command as speedily as possible to Hanover Junction. The battle had been fought on the 15th. One day being given the troops for rest, General Breckinridge gave orders for them to march to Staunton on the 17th, he going in advance to make better disposition for their transfer by rail from Staunton to Hanover Junction, a distance of near one hundred miles. The energy and promptness of his movement were such that, notwithstanding the inferior facilities for transportation at that time in the South, his whole command,, including artillery, was at Hanover Junction on the 20th. The Augusta reserves being disbanded, the cadets returned to Lexington and Imboden left to watch the Valley.

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