Reminiscences of cavalry operations. Paper no. 2.
Battle of Winchester, 19th September, 1864.My brigade was moved hurriedly from the right over to the left with Bretherd's old battery, and taken by General Fitz Lee across the Red Bud Creek to relieve the heavy pressure upon a part of General Bradley Johnson's cavalry, then skirmishing with the enemy. Johnson's troops were on the left of Evans' infantry brigade of Gordon's division. We were dismounted, and became engaged very quickly;  but a few well-directed shots from our horse artillery cleared our immediate front—General Fitz. Lee taking command of the whole line, Wickham of the division, I had the brigade. Our battery was moved up to the edge of a piece of timber; to our front and right was an open plateau extending for several miles. Our battery was sheltered by timber on our left. The enemy's batteries were firing obliquely to our right at our infantry and their batteries (Carter's and Braxton's). A little more than a quarter of a mile to our right was ‘Ash Hollow,’ a water shed, a deep ravine in which the enemy had formed, and Rickett's division of the Sixth corps, and Grover's division of the Nineteenth corps, were debouching to attack—this was about 12 o'clock. General Fitz. Lee turned his artillery's guns upon this body of the enemy. The handling of our six guns of horse artillery was simply magnificent Strange enough, the enemy's guns did not respond to these. Our cannoniers made their battery roar, sending their death-dealing messengers with a precision and constancy that made the earth around them seem to tremble, while their shot and shell made lanes in this mass of the enemy moving obliquely to their right to attack Evans' brigade. General Early says in his narrative: ‘When they had appeared within musket range of Braxton and Carter's artillery, and were repulsed by the cannister from their batteries, Battle's brigade, of Rodes' division, moved forward and forced the enemy back.’ As they went back over the same ground over which they had marched to attack in great disorder, having been badly broken up, our battery, if possible, excelled itself, and a more murderous fire I never witnessed than was plunged into this heterogeneous mass as they rushed back. We could see the track of the shot and shell as they would scatter the men, but the lanes closed up for another to follow. The field was strewn with their dead and wounded before they got back from whence they started. There was a little lull, and while we knew only a part of their army had been engaged, yet everything looked well for us; this was about I P. M. A courier dashed up with orders for me to move the brigade quickly over to the right to reinforce Lomax. Wilson's division of cavalry had massed in his front and was threatening. We hurried along, passing in rear of our infantry line of battle, where hundreds of our wounded and dead were being taken to Winchester. En route a friend told me General R. E. Rodes had been killed. Dear friend of my youth, I had known him well and intimately at the Virginia Military Institute ‘in days lang syne.’ ‘No  truer knight ever flashed a blade or responded to bugle's note.’ A costly sacrifice to our army. And later in the evening, when we returned to the left, I learned that Colonel George S. Patton, my roommate for two years and classmate at the V. M. I., had also been killed. Like a chain in a family circle, a link falls out, others may come and take their seats; the missing link can never be forged again; that gap cannot be filled up. On we move to join Lomax, near Abram's Creek, to the right of the Berryville pike. The enemy's battery welcomed us with shell, making our approach to Lomax in an open field very uncomfortable, and, as usual, some good men and horses went down under their fire. It is a grand sight to see masses of troops with glittering sabres or bayonets, and banners and guidons streaming; but the cracking, screaming and bursting of shells from the enemy's guns, over the heads of cavalry, and occasionally dropping in their midst, is never agreeable. I dismounted all the men I could spare from the led horses. They quickly collected all of the loose rock and rails near by, and in an astonishingly short time my men were stretched behind them, willing to take the chances. (Rock piles were very effective against carbine balls, but when a cannon ball and shell hit a rock pile it generally cleared out all behind it.) Then, as it often happened, when we felt about fixed, another courier came, in great haste, for me to move the brigade back to the left, as Averill and Torbert were coming in on the Martinsburg road, and had overpowered our small force of cavalry, and were seriously threatening our infantry, who had to change front to rectify our lines. To withdraw in the face of the enemy is always fraught with difficulties and dangers. It is certain to draw their fire with greater energy from their batteries, and is very apt to make them advance at once. Orders must be obeyed; the men would rather have remained and taken their chances, but back we must go. The men holding the horses were glad enough to see the command preparing to come and mount, for they had been shifting constantly to keep from the range of the enemy's artillery, who were constantly feeling for them. We had to get back slowly, allowing Lomax gradually to extend his old lines, and to relieve my men quietly, so as not to attract the enemy's attention. When everything was ready, back we went to mount, and soon had shell from the same battery shrieking after us. Out we moved, and met courier after courier, telling me to hurry up. Off we went at a trot, and when we reached the left things looked very ugly for us. General John C. Breckenridge and his staff were exerting  themselves to rectify our infantry lines. We could see our cavalry were moving up to meet a very large force who were coming down the pike. Two divisions of cavalry, Averill's and Torbert's, were now just ahead and in sight. Averill had sent a mounted regiment to take Fort Hill, to the north of Winchester, and a very commanding position to the west of the pike. General Early had no idea of allowing him to hold it, as that covered the pike below, and sent orders to me to take it and hold it. Up the hill we went and at them, followed by two guns of our horse artillery. We drove them from the hill, ran the two pieces in the fort, dismounted the First, Second and Fourth Virginia cavalry, giving the Third Virginia the protection of the led horses, and we had just gotten well into the fort when Averill charged to recapture it; but we gave them a rough welcome, and sent them back faster than they came up. A second charge was made with the same result, during which time our two guns had been doing splendid service. They had opened with such precision upon the cavalry below that it checked them. Looking below to our right we could see our infantry falling back rapidly and in some disorder, and our little battery was now to catch it. Three of the enemy's batteries from below opened upon us with a terrific fire. I ordered our guns to retire; they limbered up and had moved out, when a shell from the enemy's battery took off the head of one of our cannoniers. Sergeant Hawley, in charge of that piece, stopped it, and as it was shotted, unlimbered and fired it while the dead man was being strapped on the limberchest, and then moved off. A cavalry regiment charged us again feebly, but were repulsed. From my position I saw General Sheridan's army form in the plateau below us to the right, and looking to the southeast I could distinctly see Wilson's division of cavalry. Why this great body of horse were not hurled upon General Early's army is a mystery to me; why they did not run over my brigade is incomprehensible! I retired to the southwest through the outskirts of Winchester, but was not pressed, and when I arrived at Mil! Creek, one mile south of Winchester, where I supposed we would be in the ugliest kind of a place, I got at within one hundred yards of Wilson's command before they saw us. I charged and drove those off in front of us. We exchanged a few shots and moved on and joined General Early at New Town. Our battery at the fort had done magnificent execution. Was it that our cavalry were in the fort dismounted that Sheridan could not get at us? Is not this a singular fact? General Early says that Wickham's brigade covered  Ramseur's division, the only organized command in his infantry; yet in that manoeuvre Ramseur had held in check Wilson's division, and my little brigade was the only force between Ramseur and Averill and Torbert; thus their three divisions of 11,000 cavalry: indeed more mounted men by double than Early had organized in the field, and yet they let us get away. They did not even press us. Let the military student take Pond's book and maps and see the battle-field and compare it with Early's narrative, and decide this matter in his own mind.
Retreat up the Luray Valley.That night General Wickham sent my Brigade, that is the First, Second and Fourth Regiments (he retained the Third Virginia and the Battery) to Front Royal, to picket and guard the approaches from Winchester, so as to cover the Luray Valley road. I moved then, and was ready for the enemy at the three fords, and when they advanced at dawn we gave them a warm reception. My Brigade executed a manoeuvre in tactics, which was a sharp test of the skill of its officers and the gallantry of its magnificent men. They had to pass three defiles from right to rear and left, in the face of a full division, flushed with the victory of the day before, and they did it successfully, with a loss of about ten or twelve men in killed and wounded, after a four hours fight I record it with pride, but give the glory to the privates who obeyed orders and executed them with magnificent spirit, well knowing the odds against them. Had Sheridan shown any enterprise this magnificent body of heroes could have been hurried that night of the battle of Winchester up the Luray Valley pike, and the doom of Early's army was inevitable; indeed, Early's army should never have been allowed to go to Mill Creek the day of that battle. At Front Royal there are three principal crossings or fords. The Shenandoah river runs east and the pike to Winchester cuts it at right angles. The Fourth Virginia was on the left of my line, the Second Virginia in the centre on the main Winchester pike, and the First Virginia on the lower ford on the extre me right. Our line reached about one-half mile, and our line of retreat was from right to left, and up the Luray pike. The loss of the ford held by the Fourth or Second would of course cut the First Virginia or Second Virginia off from that line. The Fourth and Second were instructed, when dismounted, to hold at all hazards until the First could be withdrawn,  then the Second and Fourth would retire. We had fortified as cavalry generally do, but the infantry had ‘fixed’ the fords for their use. At early dawn Wilson's division moved up the Winchester pike and made a dash at the ford, but were repulsed. Fortunately for us, a very heavy fog had settled over the river. One could not see fifty steps ahead, but could hear everything. A second attempt was made to charge and carry this ford, but they were in turn repulsed; indeed, the pickets kept up such a fusilade that Wilson dismounted a considerable force and tried to drive them off. That did not succeed. He then sent to the other fords, hoping to carry them and sweep up the river and come in the rear of the Second, forcing the First. After some sharp skirmishing they fell back up the river on the Second Virginia. They were placed, supported by the reserve of the Second, and when the head of the enemy's column arrived opposite to my men—we could hear their commands, but they could not see us—Captain C. F. Jordan, of the First Virginia, charged with his squadron, backed by Lieutenant R. C. Wilson, of the Second Virginia, with his, and scattered the head of the enemy's column. The reserve of the Second held its position while Capt. John O. Lasslie, of the Second, moved up to relieve the dismounted men of the Third, Capt. Jesse Irvine's squadron. (They had been receiving a concentrated fire from the enemy's main column, who had hoped to hold these men until their people could take them in the rear.) Capt. Lasslie's mounted squadron was accompanied by the led horses of Capt. Irvine's squadron. The enemy's fire was very severe and Capt. Lasslie and two of his men were killed, holding the ford while the dismounted men ran out and mounted. Displaying Irvine's company mounted, we fell back. In the meantime the sun was well up and the fog was fast disappearing; and up and at us moved two columns that had been attacked by Jordan. The Fourth Virginia were being pressed and we moved back and joined them. By this time the fog was gone, and our little handful was in full view of Wilson's division, now crossing in force. Wickham had come up and was waiting at the mouth of the Luray Valley road with Payne's Brigade, the Third Virginia, and Brethead's battery of horse artillery. We fell back up the Luray Valley, skirmishing all the way. Some several weak charges were attempted by the enemy, but without any real advantages to them or loss to us. Wickham moved back to Gorny Run and formed his line, and there remained for the day and night. There were the cavalry ‘in poor condition’ which Sheridan had so guilelessly said ‘he could not get at.’ This trouble  seemed to have followed him until our great disaster at Tom's Brook, where by Rosser's rashness we were entrapped, and lost more in that one fight than we had ever done before, in all of our fights together. (I refer to material, not men.) On page 176, Pond's book, we find the following: ‘The night of the 21st he sent this dispatch (Sheridan to Grant). “Gen. Wilson's cavalry division charged the enemy at Front Royal pike this morning and drove them from Front Royal up the Luray Valley for a distance of six miles. I directed two brigades of the First Cavalry Division, with General Wilson's division, to follow the enemy up the Luray valley and to push them vigorously.” ’ Pond says, page 178:
Unfortunately Torbert did not succeed in driving Wickham's cavalry from its strong defensive position at Millford, and hence the portion of Sheridan's plan which contemplated cutting off the enemy's retreat by seizing the pike at New Market was not carried out. On the 21st Torbert had moved through Front Royal into the Luray Valley with the divisions of Merritt and Wilson, excepting Devins's brigade of Merritt's division, which had been left to guard the rear of the army at Cedar Creek. He found Wickham, with his own and Payne's brigades, posted on the south side of Gorny Run. At 2 A. M. of the 22d Custer's brigade was sent back across the South Fork with orders, says Torbert, to march around the enemy's flank to his rear, as he seemed too strong to attack in front; but Torbert, on moving forward at daylight, found the enemy had retreated to a still stronger position on the south side of Millford creek, with his left on the Shenandoah and his right on a knob of the Blue Ridge, occupying a short and compact line. The banks of the creek seemed to Torbert too precipitous for a direct attack, and “not knowing,” he says, “that the army had made an attack at Fisher's Hill, and thinking that the sacrifice would be too great to attack without that knowledge, I concluded to withdraw to a point opposite McCoy's Ford.” On the 23d Wilson crossed McCoy's Ford, and Merritt went back through Front Royal, where he skirmished with Mosby during the afternoon. “News was received of the victory at Fisher's Hill and directions to make up the Luray Valley.” Both divisions at once moved forward and bivouacked at Millford creek, which the enemy had evacuated.note.—[Sheridan to Grant] September 23d: ‘Its operations [the cavalry] up the Luray Valley, on which I calculated so much, was an entire failure. They were held at Millford by two small brigades  of Fitz. Lee's division, and then fell back towards Front Royal, until after they learned of our success at Fisher's Hill. Had they been able to move the day before across the South Fork through Massanutten Gap, a powerful body of horse would have been in the rear of the enemy upon their line of retreat; but Early was fully alive to this danger and had guarded against it with Wickham's force.’ A powerful body of horse were held by two small brigades whom Sheridan has already said he could not get at, and that they were in a poor condition! On page 190 Pond says: ‘After the cavalry action at Millford on the 22d, Early had sent in haste for a brigade of Wickham's force to join him at New Market, through the Massanutten Gap. Torbert fell upon the other brigade, Payne's, drove it from Millford, compelled it to retreat again near Luray, Custer capturing about seventy prisoners; thence crossing through the Massanutten Gap to New Market, he proceeded up the pike to Harrisonburg, while Powell's cavalry had gone forward to Mount Crawford.’ These are the facts according to my recollection. The morning after General Early's retreat from Fisher's Hill, he sent for a brigade of Wickham's command. When that order came two divisions of the enemy's ‘powerful horse’ were active and demonstrating in our front, hoping to do what Sheridan had suggested and ordered, and which they should and could have done had they been willing to make the costly ‘sacrifice’ to accomplish it. The idea of two divisions, six thousand strong, of magnificently-mounted cavalry, allowing two skeleton brigades and a battery ‘in poor condition’ to hold them for three days, needs no commentary. When our cavalry was in condition, General J. E. B. Stuart carried it wherever General R. E. Lee sent him, and left very few of them behind. The cavalry that Sheridan had should have been able to go from one end of Virginia to the other at will, and would have gone had Hampton had them! I have digressed. Wickham left me in command and went in person to see General Early, across the mountain. In his route he met couriers, and sent them to me to move with my brigade and join him; but Torbert was now very active, and doing his best to move my command. I knew, with his numbers, if he once got us started, I could do nothing, and determined to hold the advantage I now possessed, and replied to Wickham by the same couriers that it would not be safe to General Early; that Early could not know what was in our front, and that I would not move under present pressure; that as long as we could hold this part of the enemy's cavalry, Early was  safe. Torbert, running out his artillery, commenced a furious shelling, which our battery answered with vigor. His men demonstrated heavily in front of Payne, whose men were at the bridge, and they moved up in our front as if they intended to assault my lines. Payne repulsed those in front of him, and our rifles opened from behind stumps, rocks, and rail piles and trees with such a ringing fire, back they all went. This was being kept up so long I began to suspect something, and sent Captain Thomas Whitehead, of Company E, Second Virginia cavalry, to my extreme right with a scout, who soon notified me by courier that a considerable force (he thought a brigade) were making around across the mountain to turn our position. My line had already been stretched to its greatest tension; our led horses had consumed one-fourth of the command. I was in conversation with Major Brethead when this information was brought me; I asked him if he felt safe with his battery, if I moved the squadron in his front, and over whose heads his guns were firing? He smiled and said: ‘If “Billy” (Colonel Payne) can hold that bridge—and it looks like he is going to do it—I'll put a pile of cannister near my guns, and all h—l will never move me from this position. I'll make a horizontal shot turn in full blast for them to come through; you need not be afraid of my guns.’ Just then the enemy repeated their feint again. I withdrew Captain Strother, of the Fourth Virginia, with his squadron, and gave him the buglers of the First, Second and Fourth regiments, and directed him to move his men, dismounted, quickly on the ridge parallel to the ravine in the woods the enemy were working around to get down behind us, this squadron to be deployed at about fifteen paces interval, and the buglers to be in their rear about regimental distance apart, with orders that whenever my headquarters' bugle sounded the advance they were to echo the same notes, one following the other. This little ruse acted just as I hoped. They had hardly gotten to the point before Whitehead's rifles could be heard falling back. When these troops arrived opposite Strother, his rifles opened sharply; I had the bugle for the advance sounded, and it was responded to in turn by the other three. The echo up the crags and cliffs pealed and reverberated; on our sharpshooters moved, and at the second blast from the bugles back started this column. As some of my men were now in their rear and on their flank, back they went in a hurry. Torbert continued to be active until Custer returned, when they withdrew and went back to Front Royal, as has already been described by Pond. Finding that they had withdrawn, I withdrew, leaving Colonel Payne with his brigade. (At that time  Payne was the Colonel of the Fourth Virginia cavalry of my brigade, detailed to command Lomax's old brigade. Later Payne was commissioned Brigadier-General, and for gallant services which had been well won, given that brigade.) I movd back with my brigade to join Wickham, whom I met at the gap at the top of the mountain. It was then too late to get to Early, as his infantry had passed New Market. We could see that he was retiring in line of battle, and Sheridan following him in line. Wickham was much excited, and wanted to know ‘why I had not promptly obeyed his orders.’ He had been momentarily expecting me to join him, and as the enemy were getting too close to New Market for us to gain that place, he was uneasy lest we be caught up on the mountain. Explaining what had occurred, he promptly accepted it as the best that could have been done under the circumstance, especially as the enemy had retired. We countermarched, and moved back down the mountain and turned up towards Luray, having gone a mile or more, when couriers came dashing up, saying the enemy had returned in force and had run over Payne's little command, and that he was being pressed. Fortunately for Payne, he was able to get back beyond the road that passed through the Massanutten Gap, which the enemy was now making for. Their main body pushed over that route, and only a part of it followed us. We halted and had some skirmishing, but no serious engagement. We had been continuously engaged since the battle of Winchester, our wagons had gone up the main Staunton pike with General Early's train, and we were getting very short of ammunition and had been pinched for rations for men and horses; yet our men were cheerful and ready and willing to do all that in them lay. On the 25th we moved up to near Port Republic, where we joined General Early. There we again met the enemy's cavalry, and with them had some sharp skirmishing. General Early was now expecting reinforcements.