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Chapter 16: with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley

Some of the troops of General Hunter after his disastrous defeat by Early, had by a circuitous route arrived at Harper's Ferry, and with the two corps returned there, constituted considerable of an army. General Hunter resigned and General Sheridan was sent to command the department constituted as the Middle Military Division, and the army was designated as “The army of the Shenandoah.” It was Sheridan's first independent command, and he was cautioned against attempting any general engagement until his army had become unified in operation, and more developed in morale. He took command on the 7th of August. The army consisted of the 6th and 19th Corps, and the army of West Virginia under General Crook, Averill's cavalry and the cavalry divisions of Torbert and Wilson, sent from the army of the Potomac. In all about thirty thousand men.

A glance at the map, will give some conception of the conditions under which the succeeding operations were carried on. From Harper's Ferry the Potomac River bends to the northwest until only a narrow strip of Maryland lies between it and the border of Pennsylvania. Then it bends slightly southwest to the western limit of the state. This conformation of the country gave to the Confederate army south of the river an advantageous field of operations. Under cover of the river, movements could be freely made to threaten Maryland and Pennsylvania, and Early was a master [177] of strategy. He had the example of Stonewall Jackson's previous successful campaign, and the troops with whom it had been made. His army consisted of three divisions of veteran troops, commanded by Generals Breckenridge, Rodes and Gordon, and they were operating in a friendly country, on familiar grounds. The task before Sheridan was three fold, to prevent another raid into Maryland, to keep so close to Early's army that none of it could be dispatched to Lee, and to keep from a general engagement. These three facts are needed to explain the complicated and erratic movements of the period from the 7th of August to the 19th of September. The itinerary of the brigade is given in a report made by the Adjutant General of the brigade as follows:

August 10: Marched at 6 A. M., camped at Clifton, fifteen miles.

August 11: Marched at 5 A. M. and camped six miles from Winchester, southeast.

August 12: Marched at 7:30 A. M. in rear of trains, camped at Middletown.

August 13: Crossed Cedar Creek at 7 A. M., halted eleven and one-half miles from Strasburg. Enemy found in position at Fisher's Hill. Recrossed Cedar Creek at 10 A. M. and camped on old ground.

August 16: Commenced march to Winchester at 10 P. M.

August 17: Continued march, passed through Winchester at 8 A. M. Camped on Opequon Creek at 4:30 P. M.

August 18: Marched at 6 A. M. via Berryville and camped two miles from Charlestown.

August 21: Enemy appeared at 8 A. M. Skirmished all day.

August 22: Retired at 2 A. M. toward Harper's Ferry. Camped on former ground. At 12 M. [178] moved to Crook's left and remained in reserve.

August 28: Marched at 1 A. M. and camped eleven and one-half miles from Charlestown, in position held on the 21st inst.

September 3: Marched to a position near Clifton and remained until Sept 19.

September 19: Broke camp at 3:30 A. M., crossed the Opequon Creek at 9 A. M.

To fill in the incidents of this period of apparently erratic movement, resort must be made to Colonel Beckwith's narrative. He writes, “While at Halltown, Colonel Olcott and quite a number of men, who had been away wounded and sick, returned to the regiment and increased its strength and appearance materially. On the 16th we started back down the valley, marched all night and passed through Winchester at 8 o'clock in the morning and got some pies and eggs with jewelry advertisements which the inhabitants mistook for greenbacks. On the 21st the enemy drove in our pickets and we were sent out on the skirmish line and skirmished all day. On the way out, when some distance, as we supposed, from the line, Captain Van Shaick commanding our (4th) company, and Bob Topping were wounded, the Captain seriously, and Bob slightly. Both were greatly surprised however, as none of us heard the shots fired that struck them. Going out in regimental front, we were deployed on the run in heavy skirmish order in front of a wood and advanced some distance to the middle of a field from which the wheat had recently been cut. In front of us were some farm buildings, stacks and rail fences along which the Rebs were posted, and they kept up a rapid fire as we advanced. We were finally told to lie down and hold the position. General Upton rode along the line and said to us, ‘I want you to show the army, that no Rebel line of battle [179] can drive this regiment from its position.’ We held our ground all day long, firing all the time. Wilbur Champany of our company was instantly killed by a sharpshooter posted near the stacks before mentioned. We had warned him to be cautious, as they had placed several balls very close to us, one lodging in the blankets of one of the boys, and another in Hank Cole's gunstock. But Wilbur said, ‘I'll have another shot at him any way,’ and was in the act of aiming when a ball pierced his head. He was a fine, fearless soldier, and had not been back with us long, having just recovered from wounds in both legs, received at Salem Church. At dark we carried him back and buried him. At 2 o'clock in the morning we were assembled and marched back to our old camp. After we had gotten some sleep and a meal we marched out to our left and lay in reserve behind Crook's West Virginians, the remainder of the day.”

On the 16th of September, General Grant visited Sheridan and after listening to his plans and approving them, gave him the laconic order, “Go in,” and returned to Petersburg, confident that Sheridan would give a good account of himself and his army. Nor did he have long to wait. On the morning of the 19th of September at daylight the army drew out of camp in front of Berryville and took the pike leading direct to Winchester. Wilson with his division of cavalry was leading, followed by the 6th Corps in double column flanking the pike which was occupied by the artillery and trains. The crossing of the Opequon and the succeeding battle is described, so far as the 121st and the brigade took part in it, more accurately by Colonel Beckwith than by any other writer so far read. He says, “We were well armed, carried extra ammunition, four days rations in our haversacks, [180] and had had a good long rest. Wilson's division of cavalry had crossed the creek and pushed the enemy back, fighting continuously over two miles of rough ground. The 3d Division of our corps moved up, relieving the cavalry. The 2d Division following formed on the left of the 3d. The 19th Corps (Emory's) was formed on the right of the 6th. Our division was moved to the left of the pike and massed in reserve, ready for instant movement to any point. All this under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery. These dispositions occupied a long time and it was nearly noon before a general advance was ordered. The roar of cannon and musketry told that it had begun, and the battle was on. For a time, things seemed to be going our way, and the enemy had been driven back a considerable distance by both corps. But in advancing, a gap had been opened between the right of our corps and the 19th which Getty's division could not close. Seeing this weak spot and an opening in our line, the enemy massed some troops of Rodes' division and made a gallant and desperate charge upon the left of the 19th Corps. It was at this time that we were sent in, moving by left of regiment at quickstep across the pike and for some distance through a field into a wood. There we were ordered to lie down, General Upton riding out some distance to hurry the broken troops behind our line. The 65th and 67th consolidated New York passed to our rear and right and formed. The 2d Connecticut formed to the right of the pike a little to the rear. We could see the enemy coming up in line of battle, and some of the men said it was our own troops, and others said, ‘No, they are Rebs.’ I remember Wilbur Phillips making several such statements before being convinced. To our right we could see our line advancing and the enemy in retreat both firing, [181] the color sergeants waving their standards to encourage the men. But our attention was fixed in that direction but a moment, yet that was of great encouragement to us. We could see a great gap in our line to the right and knew that we were at the point of danger and that perhaps the fate of the battle rested with us. General Upton ordered us to fix bayonets and not to fire until he gave the command, and the word was passed along the line. At last the enemy reached to where there could not be any doubt of their identity, and General Upton gave the order, ‘Ready, aim, fire,’ and crash went that volley of lead, and down tumbled those brave fellows. ‘Forward, charge,’ rang out Upton's short, incisive command, and away we went. Reaching the point where their line had stood we saw many of them lying there, not all shot however. Some of them had dropped down to escape death and became our prisoners. But those who could get away fled for their lives, not stopping on the order of their going. At once out rushed our companion regiments in fine order. The 2d Connecticut advancing and firing, was compelled to withstand a severe fire from the right as well as front, and suffered severely. We reformed and were immediately moved forward and placed on the left of the 37th Massachusetts to close up a gap. This splendid regiment, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, had charged in on the charging Rebels in the nick of time, and had saved our (Stevens') battery near the road, while we had reached their front and poured in our volley. It was about this time that we lost another of our famous and gallant commanders, Gen. David A. Russell, commanding our division. He was killed by a shell while moving up with his old brigade on the charge His command devolved upon General Upton, who shortly after 5 o'clock was also disabled [182] by a severe shell wound, and compelled to leave the field. The command of the division fell upon Colonel Edwards of the 37th Massachusetts. Captain J. D. P. Douw was commanding the regiment. Some little time after we had formed on the left of the 37th Massachusetts, the 15th New Jersey formed on our left and some other troops formed in our rear. We continued firing some until about 4 o'clock, and the 37th, being in the open, kept up a continuous fire. We being screened by small trees and brush, could not see anything to fire at, but we kept a few men in advance a little distance to keep any one from stealing upon us. About 4 o'clock we advanced about a third of a mile to some heavy timber, where the enemy opened a heavy fire upon us. But we charged them on the run, and they did not stop running away from us till they got to the village of Winchester, and we advanced to the railroad. After leaving the last piece of woods they kept us dodging their cannon shots, from two batteries playing upon us as we advanced. It was a splendid sight to see our troops coming up on the right-Crook's and Emory's, I think they were, and the cavalry on the left closing in on them and charging over the open field, with their batteries on the hill back of the town, glistening in the rays of the sun, blazing away at our charging columns. To the fact of our drawing four days rations and my haversack's being full I owe my life. On that day just as we reached the road, a shell burst in front of us (I was on the color guard), I just felt a shock and tumbled forward. A piece of shell had struck my haversack, passed through it and my rations of pork, hardtack, sugar, coffee and tin plate. Then it struck my folded knife, fork and spoon in my pocket and glanced off. In running up the haversack had swung around in front of me and [183] so received the piece of iron. I rolled over on my back surprised. Several of our fellows stooped over me and asked how badly I was hurt and if they should help me back. I said I would see, and very, very carefully felt for a wound, but to my great delight could not find one, and so told them, and that they could go on, I could get along all right. Except a numbness and a bad bruise, I was unhurt and soon got over it. I was somewhat lame, but managed to keep on the march, getting to our camp by the roadside shortly after the regiment. Our total losses of the day were two men killed, and one officer and 12 men severely wounded, several having slight wounds not being reported. As I remember, Charles Carmody was the only seriously wounded man from our company.”

There is no doubt that the crisis of this battle was the check given to the charge of Rodes' division of the Confederate army, upon the left of the 19th Corps. If Rodes had succeeded in driving through to the head of the ravine from which the road debouches, the army of Sheridan would have been cut in two, and the result would have been disastrous at that stage of the battle. General Upton's quick perception of the danger and his prompt disposition of the brigade and especially of the 121st New York not only checked the advance of the charging column, but also threw them into such confusion that they did not recover from it during the rest of the conflict. Due credit was given to General Upton, and the 121st New York in the official report of the battle. But Lossing, in his Pictorial History of the Civil War, gives the credit to General Emory instead of Upton and to 131st New York instead of to the 121st New York. The death of General Rodes at this crisis of the battle was a severe blow to the Confederates, as was [184] that of Russell to us. Captain Weaver in giving an account of this special affair at the crisis of the battle says that Captain Cronkite rushed out alone and captured a Rebel flag. Neither Beckwith nor Colonel Cronkite mentions this in their accounts of the affair. Of the result of the battle Colonel Beckwith says, “We were all greatly encouraged by the splendid victory we had won. We knew the men we had been fighting and we considered them as good as any, if not the best, in Lee's army, but they were no match for us on open ground. It was voted a luxury to be permitted to fight on a fair field instead of in the jungle we had been in, from the Rapidan to the James, and it did us great good. We knew that the Louisianians of Rappahannock Station were there, the Alabamians of Salem Church, the Virginians and Georgians of the Wilderness, and Dole's and Battle's men of Spottsylvania, and we did not fear them with a fair chance. But we were deeply depressed by the loss of Generals Russell and Upton. While it was reported that Upton's wound would not permanently disable him, we feared it would.”

Of all the battles in which the brigade had been engaged since the writer was detailed to duty at brigade headquarters, this was the first in which he had not been under fire. In crossing the field later in the afternoon he came to a point where the two lines of battle must have stood for some time, steadily firing at each other. Between two thickets, probably twenty rods apart there was a row of blue clad dead lying close together, and fairly touching each other; and only a few yards in front of them a similar windrow of gray clad dead, lying as closely and straightly aligned as were their opponents of a few hours before. The wounded had all been removed.

This battle cost the enemy, besides their dead [185] and wounded, 2500 prisoners, 15 battle flags and 5 cannon.

Sheridan's report of this engagement written in Winchester was, “We have just sent the enemy whirling through Winchester and are after them tomorrow. We captured 2500 prisoners, 5 pieces of artillery, 9 battle flags and all the Rebel dead and wounded. Their wounded in Winchester amount to some three thousand.”

According to promise the pursuit was taken up the next day, and on the 22nd of September Early was found twenty miles south of Winchester in a very strong position on Fisher's Hill. Sheridan immediately disposed his army to assail the enemy. He placed the 6th and 19th Corps in front of the Rebel works and sent the 8th Corps by a concealed and circuitous route to concentrate on the left flank of the Rebel works. When this was accomplished, late in the afternoon the command was given to charge, and while the main force of the enemy was engaged in resisting the attack in front the 8th Corps broke over the works on their left flank, and another route, more disastrous than that at Winchester, resulted. The writer had found a good position from which to view as much of the scene of battle as possible, and with a companion was watching eagerly the battle, when a Rebel battery, evidently thinking him and his companion persons of distinction and authority, sent three shells in quick succession at us, but without serious effects. The fragments fell uncomfortably near us however and we moved down out of sight towards the front.

Of this fight Colonel Beckwith gives the part taken by the 121st New York. “About 2 o'clock of the 22d we moved farther to the left, and then forward through some woods down a hill. Coming out of the woods we came to the railroad, and [186] could see across a ravine, the Rebel works. The gulf was spanned by a trestle work and a number of us started to cross it, but we had gone only a few steps when we discovered a gap burned in it, and we had to go back and go down the bank, cross the stream (Tumbling Run), and climb up the steep bank on the other side through the brush and briars. We used them to pull ourselves up by, but going up we were protected by the extreme steepness of the hill, from the Rebel fire. When we reached the top they were on the run, having left their breastworks, thanks to Crook's operation on the left. I do not think we could have carried their works in our front by assault. The ground was so rough that we could not have reached them in any sort of order, or in sufficient numbers at the same time, to have driven them out. Besides they had fine breastworks to protect them. That they expected to give us a very warm reception, was evidenced by the fact that they had arranged cartridges along their breastworks for rapid use. They did not take time to gather them up. They also left several cannon behind. We captured several prisoners and had only two men hurt in the whole affair. As soon as we got over their works, we formed and moved forward in pursuit. About this time Generals Sheridan, Wright and others with their staff officers rode onto the field near us and engaged in some congratulatory talk. We all believed that Early's army was completely broken up and pushed on after them with eager steps.”

General Gordon says of this battle that the position at Fisher's Hill was considered impregnable, and the battle was lost by the fault of an “unprotected flank.” That term covers a large number of strategic disasters. At Chancellorsville it was the cause of Hooker's disaster. In the Wilderness it made the 6th of May a sad date for the 6th Corps. In many other engagements it wrought evil to the [187] Union forces, and now in the valley it had twice brought disaster to the army of the Confederacy. And it was destined to nearly wreck the brilliant career of the army of the Shenandoah within another month after this battle of Fisher's Hill, lost and won because of an exposed flank. In other words the strategy that discovers and takes advantage of the exposed flank of the opposing army is apt to be the successful strategy.

To take up again the itinerary of the army of the Shenandoah from Fisher's Hill to Cedar Creek. September 22: Pursued the enemy all night. September 23: Halted near Woodstock to issue rations at 8 A. M. Marched again at 12 M. and camped at Cedar Creek. September 24: Marched at 6 A. M. Found the enemy in position at Mt. Jackson. Formed line preparatory to an advance, when the enemy withdrew. The brigade held the advance, constantly skirmishing with the enemy, till 6 P. M., when it camped for the night six miles beyond

Newmarket. September 26: Marched without interruption to

Harrisonburg, and camped on the hills east of the town. September 29: Marched to Mt. Crawford. September 30: Returned to camp near Harrisonburg. October 5: Marched to Mt. Jackson. Camped at

6 P. M. October 7: Marched to Strasburg, camped on

Shenandoah River at 1 P. M., and remained in camp till Oct. 11. October 11: Marched to near Front Royal, camped at 4 P. M. October 13: Moved to Millwood, camped at 4. P. M. October 14: Marched at 2 A. M., reached our present camp near Middletown at 4 P. M. In this advance up the Shenandoah Valley and [188] return, frequent skirmishes with the enemy occurred. The country was beautiful and fertile, and the men lived high on what they were able to obtain in one way or another, but sometimes with not very pleasant results. Beckwith relates an experience he had which will stand for the manner in which like conduct was treated by some of the officers, not all of them: “On the 29th we were ordered into camp, and the officers had their tents put up. I thought I would take a stroll into the country and see if I could not gather some more of the luxuries with which it abounded, when we first got to a new field. So with Goodman who was a first rate forager, I went out to a little place called Bridgewater and secured a fine supply. We were not gone over two or three hours, but when we got in sight of the camping place I saw that the troops had moved. Going to where the regiment had camped we found our traps, and getting them on we started to catch the regiment, loaded down with our commissary supplies. We got to Harrisonburg and found the regiment in camp at its former location. We were pretty well tired out, but managed to get a hearty meal and a good night's sleep. The next morning at roll call the sergeant, Duroe, ordered me to report to Captain Douw, where I found several others. After reading us a sermon on the enormity of leaving camp without orders and enquiring about where I had gone and what I got, he said he must punish me severely as an example to other men and to prevent foraging. So my corporals cheverons were again taken from me, and I was compelled to do a lot of police work, which was clearing up the litter made by other men. It was pretty tough, but I stood it without a murmur. I made up my mind that when the opportunity came I would get even, but I never did, for in a short time I was promoted to corporal again.”

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