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Sketches of operations of General John C. Breckinridge.

By Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston, of his Staff.

No. 2.

General Breckinridge's arrival at Hanover Junction was opportune. General Lee was still at Spotsylvania Courthouse, thirty-five miles north. The railroad from Hanover Junction was that to which he looked for supplies of all kinds and communication with Richmond. Knowing this, General Grant had sent Sheridan, with a large cavalry force, to make a raid in Lee's rear and to destroy his communications — particularly to burn the large bridge over the South Anna river, near Hanover Junction. It was in this raid that General Jeb Stuart was killed. Breckinridge's arrival secured the bridge, and Sheridan returned without having effected other material damage.

On the 22d of May, General Lee, having fallen back from Spotsylvania, arrived at Hanover Junction, and in person thanked and complimented General Breckinridge for his victory. In fact the whole Army of Northern Virginia was full of his praise. The veterans of Lee and Jackson greeted him with cheers whenever he came within sight, and wherever he moved among them, in camp or in line of battle, it was a perfect ovation. At Hanover Junction began that series of splended strategic movements by General Lee to check General Grant in his advance on Richmond, which culminated in the defeat of the latter in the bloody battle of second Cold Harbor on the 2d of June. General Breckinridge continued with General Lee during this time, preserving his separate command. He was in various engagements of more or less moment in the interval, and in the battle of the 2d occupied a portion of the line which received probably the heaviest assault. A salient occupied by his troops was carried by the bayonet, but retaken with great gallantry. During an engagement on the evening of the same day, General Breckinridge's horse was killed under him, by a cannon ball which pased through him, just missing the General's left leg. The horse was killed instantly, and in falling caught his rider under him, producing the impression for the moment in the minds of his staff that he was himself killed. It required the strength of several to disengage him, when it was found that, though not wounded, his thigh and leg were so bruised that he was unable to ride for several weeks. [318]

But General Breckinridge's stay with the Army of Northern Virginia was brief. Within a few days the intelligence came that General Hunter, reinforcing and superseding Siegel, had advanced up the Valley and taken Staunton. General Breckinridge was accordingly ordered to return with his force to the Valley and regain it, or protect Charlottesville and the country east of the Blue Ridge. His command moved by way of Richmond, Lynchburg and Charlottesville, to Rockfish gap, where the railroad from Staunton to Charlottesville crosses the Blue Ridge. While preparing to move on Hunter, General Breckinridge received information that the latter was moving to Lexington. Divining his purpose to be to attack Lynchburg, General Breckinridge, instead of pursuing, wisely concluded to get ahead of him; and to this end, marched to Lynchburg by the arc of the circle, through the counties of Nelson and Amherst. His interpretation of Hunter's design was correct, since he had scarcely reached Lynchburg before it was announced that Hunter was within a day's march. Fortunately, General Early, who had started for a diversion towards Maryland, also arrived with a portion of his corps the next day, and when Hunter appeared before the place, instead of finding it unprotected, he found a well organized force to defend it. On the 19th of June he made an attack, but was repulsed, and immediately began to retreat the same night. General Early, being the senior officer, directed the pursuit — his own and General Breckinridge's command following next morning. Having no adequate cavalry force, Hunter was enabled to escape, going by way of Buford's gap and thence to Salem, from which he left the Valley and moved towards the Kanawha by a rough and tedious route. From Salem, Early moved down the Valley, and on the 3d of July, having made a remarkable march, General Breckinridge, after a slight engagement, captured Martinsburg, General Siegel being again taken by surprise and barely escaping being a prisoner.

General Breckinridge's command was now temporarily changed. Before Early's arrival he had been in command of all the forces in the Valley. For purposes of better organization, he turned over to General Early all the cavalry, of which two brigades had arrived from Southwest Virginia--Vaughan's and McCausland's (late Jenkins'). In lieu of this, Major-General J. B. Gordon's division of infantry was assigned to him, and with Echols' division (Echols' and Wharton's brigades) formed into a corps — so that Early's command at this time consisted as follows: Breckinridge's corps of [319] Echols' and Gordon's divisions, Early's corps of Rodes' and Ramseur's divisions, with a corps of cavalry commanded by General Ransom, the constitution or numbers of which I cannot give accurately. There were W. L. Jackson's brigade, McCausland's brigade, Vaughan's brigade, Imboden's brigade, and a number of smaller organization, the whole being about three thousand cavalry, most of it known as wild cavalry — of the inefficiency of which there was constant complaint and almost daily exhibition. The infantry numbered about eight thousand, and were in the main as good as any in the service — all being inured to fighting, except the troops which had come from Southwest Virginia with General Breckinridge, which had not seen so much field service as the others.

From Martinsburg, General Early moved to Sharpsburg, and, threatening Harper's Ferry with his cavalry, crossed on the 5th into Maryland. On the morning of the 9th he reached Frederick City, near and beyond which General Lew. Wallace, with a force of six or eight thousand men, had taken position beyond Monocacy creek. It was at this place shortly after noon that General Breckinridge, with Gordon's division alone, won a decisive victory over Wallace. Crossing the Monocacy two miles below the Monocacy Junction, he struck Wallace with a flanking movement, but not until he had time hastily to change front. The repulse was decisive, the engagement being one of the bloodiest of the war — the heaviest struggle being on the bluff bank of the Monocacy, whose waters were made crimson with the blood of those slain or wounded by its side, many of whom fell or found refuge in the creek. A large number of prisoners, near a thousand, were captured, and Wallace fled with his forces in confusion to Baltimore. The road to Washington being open (forty-five miles), Early marched on the Middletown road next day (10th), and on the 11th, about noon, his advance was in front of the fortifications at Silver SpringBreckinridge being in the advance. It was plainly inpracticable to make an attack, for besides an impassible abatis in front of the works, which consisted of star forts connected by heavy entrenchments, there was every evidence that the forts were manned and supplied with guns sufficient to repel any assault; an almost continuous fire was kept up at us with artillery. Early's object being to make a diversion merely to draw troops from General Lee's front, he remained until the night of the 12th, and then, a council of officers having approved the move, fell back in the night towards Edwards' ferry, reaching Seneca creek, twenty-seven miles from Washington, [320] at sunrise. The same day he continued to the Potomac, which he crossed next morning (14th), and went into camp near Leesburg. Here he remained till the 16th, when he crossed the Blue Ridge in direction of Winchester at Snicker's gap, and camped beyond the Shenandoah. The enemy pursued, and on the 18th he fought a battle at Chapman's ford near by, repulsing the enemy. But he was being sorely pressed, as a heavy column was moving against Winchester, where he had sent Ramseur's division, which here suffered a repulse. He accordingly fell back and concentrated his forces at a place called Fisher's Hill, near the junction of the North and South forks of the Shenandoah, and on the main road from Staunton to Winchester, twenty-four miles south of the latter place. This retreat necessitated the giving up the richest part of the Valley, and surrendered all of our flouring mills which had been put in operation for the supply of the army. The portion of the Valley given up had been found rich in supplies of grain, none having been burned up to that time, and it not being uncommon to find two crops of wheat in the stack. But to utilize this for the army, on account of the scarcity of labor, details of soldiers had to be made to thresh out the grain, place the mills in order — most of them having fallen into disuse — and to grind the flour. Arriving at Fisher's Hill, the army found itself on less than half rations, foot-sore from almost constant marching, weakened from its losses in battle, and encumbered with many wounded. The aspect was very gloomy, and for a time it seemed that nothing was left but to continue the retreat, abandon the Valley, and return to General Lee. The position being good for defence, a few days were given for rest. In the meantime General Breckinridge proposed to General Early the resumption of offensive operations, and on the 25th of July the following plan was adopted at his suggestion: It having been ascertained that the enemy was at Kernstown, five or six miles south of Winchester, it was proposed to march with the infantry at daylight to the attack, the cavalry to be sent on the back road, a dirt road running parallel with the pike two miles off — so as to get in the rear of the enemy, to harrass them in the event of a repulse and cut off retreat. At early dawn the troops were on the road ready to move when a striking incident occurred. Breckinridge's command was in the lead. The rations in feeble supply had not been given out till late the night before, and, small as was the issue, the troops had not had time to prepare them. They were therefore without breakfast, except such as had had some [321] slight crust from the previous scanty meal. As Breckinridge rode along the line, which was at rest, a cry arose of “Bread I” “Bread I” which was taken up and passed along until it seemed threatening to break out into some demonstration of riot. Breckinridge bore it with equanimity, until reaching a colonel of one of the regiments which was peculiarly demonstrative, he halted and good humoredly addressed him: “Your men seem to be in a bad humor this morning, Colonel.” “Yes,” was the reply, “they did not have time last night to cook their rations and they are hungry.” “Never mind, boys,” said the General, addressing himself to the soldiers, “we will have plenty to eat to-night. Those fellows in front of us have got our mills, and they have the biggest droves of fat cattle you ever saw; we are going now to capture them.” This acted like a charm; the men who heard him cheered him lustily, and soon along the line all complaint was hushed, and the surrounding hills echoed with the cheers of the tattered veterans eager to be led to battle. The result of the day verified Breckinridge's predictions. The enemy were found to be at Kernstown as expected. The army was drawn up in line of battle at right angles to the Valley, confronting a parallel line of the enemy. Breckinridge, after a thorough reconnoissance of the ground, which was always his custom before entering into action, took Echols' division, leaving its skirmish line in position, and marching it by the flank, placed it under cover of a ridge on the left flank of the enemy. From the crest of the ridge could be seen the hostile lines not more than forty yards, moving to the attack of the position we had just left. The skirmish lines being engaged, at a signal of command, the division swept over the hill, struck the enemy full in the flank, doubled his line in instant confusion, and in half an hour the whole force was routed and driven in confused flight towards the Potomac — the other divisions moving forward on the first sound of an engagement and completing the rout. A rapid pursuit followed, and had the cavalry carried out its instructions all the enemy's trains, if not the entire army, would have been captured. The army halted for the night three miles beyond Winchester, and for the first time in many days had full rations. Within the very limits of the camp was a mill in which a large supply of flour, which had been abandoned by us a week before, was found undisturbed. The enemy did not halt until the Potomac lay between us, leaving their dead and wounded, several hundred prisoners, and [322] the road along which they traveled, strewn with the wrecks of abandoned wagons and other evidences of a hasty flight.

Thus was the Valley a second time recovered and abundant supplies secured to the army. For a fortnight or thereabouts it remained at rest near Martinsburg, picketing with cavalry well up to Harper's Ferry; the only active operations being McCausland's raid into Pennsylvania, in which he burned Chambersburg in retaliation for the barbarities of Hunter at Lexington and along his whole line of march in the Valley.

In the meantime the Federal forces were preparing for an advance. General Sheridan had been detached from the army operating against Richmond, and had arrived at Harper's Ferry, with heavy reinforcements, both of infantry and cavalry. Early's force had previously been outnumbered nearly two to one, and now that Wright's (Sixth) corps was added to the enemy in front, it seemed impossible longer to remain in the Valley. With the advance of Sheridan, General Early fell back and again took position on Fisher's Hill. He was followed immediately by Sheridan, who then began to carry out his instructions towards leaving the Valley in a condition so barren that a crow flying over it would have to carry his rations. It was on this retreat that General Breckinridge and General Early were riding along together very moodily at the prospect, both of the Valley campaign and the general cause of Southern independence, when General Early spoke up quizzically and said: “Well, Breckinridge, what do you think of our rights in the territories now?” The inquiry was so humorous and in a vein so much in contrast with the gloomy feelings of the company, that General Breckinridge and all present were thrown into good spirits at once. Early was an old Whig, and up to the breaking out of the war a violent Union man, always the antipodes of Breckinridge in politics.

The army had not been but a day or two at Fisher's Hill before it was confronted by Sheridan's whole force, and the indications were that there would be an early engagement. But, unexpectedly, General Anderson, who had succeeded to the command of Longstreet's corps after the wounding of the latter in the Wilderness, had been sent by General Lee with one division of infantry to reinforce General Early, and arrived in the Luray Valley, six or eight miles east of us, before we were aware of his coming. His approach was known to Sheridan before it was to us, and an enterprising officer would have profited by the knowledge in falling at [323] once upon either Early or Anderson, separated, as they were, by an impassible mountain. But instead of this, to our surprise, the early morning disclosed to us the fact that Sheridan had retreated. Instantly Early was in pursuit, but it was useless. Sheridan fell back to Harper's Ferry, leaving traces of his retreat in the smoking mills, hay stacks and barns, which were fired as he fell back by details made for the purpose. General Early remained confronting Sheridan on the line of the Opequon and Bunker Hill, fourteen miles north of Winchester until the 19th of September, when Sheridan advanced with his cavalry on the main turnpike from Martinsburg, and from Smithfield via Brucetown, and his infantry from Berryville. On that day was fought the battle of Winchester. The main engagement was on the Berryville pike, a mile and a half or two miles from Winchester, in which Sheridan was repulsed heavily; but his cavalry, which largely outnumbered Early's, succeeded in driving back the latter, and came down upon our left flank, threatening our rear and the town. This rendered a change of front necessary for a part of Early's infantry which successfully resisted the cavalry; but the firing in the rear of his main force, of which they could not understand its meaning, caused confusion, and finally a stampede. Sheridan at this juncture advanced, and Early only succeeded in getting off the bulk of his force with great disorder, and not until twelve or fifteen hundred had been killed and captured. His retreat, under hot persuit, followed, and on the next day he halted at Fisher's Hill to make a stand. Of his subsequent disasters, it is not my purpose to speak, nor of his brilliant victory at Cedar creek, a month later, turned also into a defeat, since General Breckinridge's connection with his army closed at Fisher's Hill. On his arrival here on the 21st of September, he was met with an order from Richmond, directing him to return in person to the command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia, which required his attention. He accordingly turned his command over to the next senior officer, General Gordon, and parted sadly from the brave men who had followed him so gallantly through the eventful campaign. Never were men more devoted to a commander, and in leaving the Valley he did so with none of the feeling with which he had first inspired both his command and the noble people abated in the least.

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