"WAR IS HELL," said our great strategist, General W. T. Sherman. According to its latest code, with few or no exceptions, the end justifies the means, and, if necessary to success, it is right to do wrong.
Fifty years ago one of the fairest regions on earth was that portion of Virginia extending southwesterly about a hundred and twenty miles from Harper's Ferry to the divide beyond Staunton, where rise the headwaters of the James. Walled in by the Blue Ridge on the southeast and parallel ranges of the Alleghanies on the northwest, it takes its name from the beautiful river which winds along its length, and which the Indians poetically christened Shenandoah (Daughter of the Stars!). When some three hundred of us prisoners of war walked wearily a hundred miles from Winchester to Staunton in September, 1864, it was still rich and lovely. A few weeks later, the necessities of war made it a scene of utter desolation.
Grant had rightly concluded [says Sheridan1], that it was time to bring the war home to a people engaged in raising crops from a prolific soil to feed the country's enemies, and devoting to the Confederacy its best youth. I endorsed the program in all its parts; for the stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee's depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed.
Accordingly Grant issued orders with increasing emphasis, particularly in August and September, to make the whole region "a barren waste," to
destroy or carry off the crops and animals; do all possible damage to railroads; seize stock of every description; take away all negro laborers so as to prevent further planting; hold as prisoners of war, if sympathizing with the rebellion, all male citizens under fifty years of age capable of bearing arms, etc.
In obedience to these commands, Sheridan engaged with alacrity in the work of destruction. In a few weeks he reported as follows:
I have destroyed 2000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; and driven in front of my army 4000 head of stock.
Said one of his officers who knew whereof he was speaking, "A crow flying through the valley would have to carry his own rations, for he could pick up nothing! "
At Winchester, the principal town in the Shenandoah Valley, one hundred and .fifty miles N. N. W. of Richmond, with a population of about four thousand, the 1gth of that September was a day of glory but also of sorrow. Four thousand six hundred and eighty of the Union Army, killed and wounded, told how dearly Sheridan's first great victory was gained.
The battle was fought over three, four, or five square miles, east and north from Winchester, for the most part near the Opequon Creek, from which it is sometimes called the "Battle of the Opequon." To reach the field, the bulk of Sheridan's army, starting at three o'clock in the morning from Berryville ten miles east, had to pass through a gorge in which for a considerable distance the turnpike extends towards Winchester. Sheridan's plan at first was to bring his army, except Merritt's and AverelT's Divisions of Torbert's Cavalry, through the defile, post the Sixth Corps on the left, the Nineteenth on the right, throw Crook's Army of West Virginia across the Staunton turnpike (leading southwest from Winchester), and so cut off all retreat up the valley. Meanwhile those two cavalry divisions were to make a long detour on our right to the north from Berryville, and close in upon the Confederate left. Sheridan felt sure of victory, for we outnumbered the enemy nearly two to one. Had our army got into position early in the morning, we should have captured or destroyed the whole of them.
At early dawn Macintosh's Brigade of Wilson's Division of Torbert's Cavalry dashed through the ravine, closely followed by Chapman's Brigade and five batteries of horse artillery. Sheridan and his staff followed. They surprised and captured a small earthwork, and, though fiercely assaulted, held it till the van of the Sixth Corps relieved them.
The narrow pass of the Berryville pike was so obstructed by artillery, ambulances, ammunition wagons, etc., that it was nearly eight o'clock before the Sixth Corps, which should have been in position with Wilson's Cavalry at sunrise, began to arrive; and it was fully two hours later when the Nineteenth Corps debouched and deployed. Here was miscalculation or bad management or both.
This long delay, which the quick-moving cavalry leader Sheridan had not foreseen nor provided for, gave time for Early to call in the strong divisions of Generals Gordon, Breckenridge, and Rodes, from the vicinity of Stephenson's Depot several miles away. They left Patton's Brigade of Infantry, and a part of Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry to oppose Torbert.
Hearing nothing from Torbert, who had now been gone seven or eight hours on his circuitous route, Sheridan suddenly changed his whole plan of action, a perilous maneuver in the face of an active enemy while the battle is already raging intermittently. Instead of flinging Crook's Army of West Virginia, 17 regiments and 3 batteries, across the Staunton pike, to front northeasterly and cut off all possible retreat of the Confederates, he determined to move it to our right and deploy it in line with the Nineteenth. Doubtless this was best under the circumstances, though it left to the enemy the broad smooth highway as a line of retreat up the valley.
Grover's Division (26. of the Nineteenth Corps) in four brigades formed line of battle in front and to the right of the gorge. In touch on the left was Ricketts' Division of the Sixth Corps, and resting on Ricketts' left was Getty's Division of the same corps. Getty had 16 regiments in line; Ricketts, 12 with 6 batteries; Grover, 20 with 3 batteries.
Had Sheridan been able to strike Early by half- past eight with the Sixth and Nineteenth, he would have crushed him in detail. Had Early massed the divisions of Gordon, Breckenridge, and Rodes, and hurled them at the mouth of the canyon at ten o'clock while half of the Nineteenth was still entangled in it, he would probably have split our army into three parts, and destroyed those already arrived. .
It was now eleven o'clock, and the Army of West Virginia at last emerged from the defile. To make room for its movement in our rear behind Grover's Division, and to hold the enemy in play until it should have taken its place on the right of the Nineteenth, and perhaps to await there the appearance of Torbert's Cavalry, it was desirable that Grover should advance. Sheridan of course meant the whole front of the Sixth and Nineteenth to keep in a continuous line. At first it seemed to me that the regiments of the Nineteenth overlapped; but the lines of advance were slightly divergent, and wide breaks began to appear between battalions. Especially on the left of the Nineteenth a large and widening gap appeared; for Ricketts had been instructed to guide on the Berryville pike, and that bore away to the left and south.
My battalion, the veteran Thirteenth Conn. Infantry, should have been led by my Colonel, C. D. Blinn: but he was sick the night before, and in the morning, at the crossing of the Opequon, he fell out, and left the command to me. He had no part in the battle. Our Thirteenth deserves a passing notice. It was the favorite regiment of General Birge, its first colonel.r When he was made brigadier, the regiment entered the brigade commanded by Colonel E. L. Molineux. Birge was never so happy as when riding into action, and Molineux, who had been severely wounded in the same battle with me, was not over-cautious. My regiment and both brigades, the first and second of Grover's Division, had caught the spirit of those two commanders. Quite generally they mistook the forward movement for an immediate charge.
'In New Orleans it was known as "Butler's Dandy Regiment"; for it was then better dressed than any other. It wore dark blue, which Birge had procured through his uncle, Buckingham, the war governor of Connecticut. At the siege of Port Hudson it had distinguished itself above all other regiments by furnishing as volunteers nearly one-fourth of the celebrated "Storming Column" of one thousand men called for by General N. P. Banks the second day after the disastrous assault on that fortress (June 14,1863). Birge was selected by Banks to lead the forlorn hope.
We had been under an intermittent fire for some time, but now the advance intensified the conflict. The chief anxiety of good soldiers at such a time, as I often noticed, is to get at the enemy as soon as possible, and cease to be mere targets. Their enthusiasm now accelerated their pace to a double- quick, and was carrying them too far to the front. Birge and Molineux endeavored in vain to check their rapidity. My battalion, I think, was nearest the rebel line.
Between eleven and twelve the divisions of Getty, Ricketts, and Grover, forty-eight regiments in all, to which were attached eight light batteries with reserve artillery, began to move forward. It was a grand spectacle. At first the movement was steady, and we thought of Scott's lines,
The host moves like a deep-sea wave,
Where rise no rocks its pride to brave,
High-swelling, dark, and slow.
But all is quickly changed.
Looking back upon that scene after the lapse of more than fifty years, its magnificence has not yet faded. I see as in a dream our long bending wave of blue rolling slowly at first but with increasing speed, foam-tipped with flags here and there and steel-crested with Birge's bayonets yonder; glimpses of cavalry in the distance moving as if on wings with the lightness of innumerable twinkling feet; numberless jets of smoke across the fields marking the first line of Confederate infantry, their musketry rattling precisely like exploding bunches of firecrackers; batteries galloping to position, the thunder of a dozen smiting the ear more rapidly than one could count; the buzz, hiss, whistle, shriek, crash, hurricane of projectiles; the big shot from batteries in front and from Braxton's artillery on our right ripping up the ground and bounding away to the rear and the left; horses and riders disappearing in the smoke of exploding shells; the constant shouting of our officers indistinctly heard, and now and then the peculiar well-known "rebel yell"; and finally the command, Halt ! Lie Down ! Molineux and Birge were too far to the front, and the line must be rectified. Ricketts, as we pressed forward, had thrown Keifer's Brigade (26. of Third Division, Sixth Corps), seven regiments, into the broadening interval directly in front of the mouth of the gorge; but it was not sufficient.
It was now Early's opportunity; but he was hours too late, just as Sheridan had been. He
had seen our Sixth Corps and Nineteenth emerge and deploy, had beheld our rapid and somewhat disorderly approach, had noted the widening spaces between our battalions and divisions, had observed the havoc wrought by his artillery and musketry, ten thousand of our soldiers seeming to sink under it; had had time to mass his forces; and now it was "up to him" to hurl them against our centre. It was the strategy inaugurated by Epaminondas at Leuctra and perfected by Napoleon in many a hard battle, breaking the enemy's centre by an irresistible charge, dividing and conquering. Rodes had been killed at a battery in front of our brigade. His veterans and Gordon's, six thousand strong1 constituted the charging column. Neither Sheridan nor any other Federal historian appears to have done justice to this charge. Pickett's at Gettysburg was not more brilliant.
With yells distinctly heard above the roar they advanced. The batteries on each side redoubled their discharges. From our irregular line of infantry extending more than a mile blazed incessant sheets and spurts of flame, the smoke at times hiding the combatants. Gordon was heading toward the now nearly empty ravine. My horse had just been shot under me. I lost two in that fight. Dismounted I walked from the right of my battalion to the left, cautioning my men against wasting their ammunition, bidding them take sure aim, pick out the rebel officers, and not fire too high. They were shooting from a recumbent position, or resting on one knee; lying flat on their backs to reload. As I reached the left, I glanced to the right and saw several of them starting to their feet, and a little further on, two or three began to run back. I rushed to the spot shouting, "Back to your places!" I saw the cause: the regiments on our right were retreating. I was astounded, for we were expecting an order to advance instantly. At that moment Lieutenant Handy, an aide of our brigade commander, rode up, pale, excited, his hands flung up as if in despair. My men were springing to their feet.
[Six thousand is Gordon's statement in his Reminiscences]
"What are those orders?" I demanded.
"Retreat, retreat! get to the rear as fast as possible," he replied.
"Battalion, rise up; shoulder arms—" I commanded. Before I could finish the order, one of Sheridan's staff came on a swift gallop, his horse white with foam.
"For God's sake, what does this mean?" said he; "this retreat must be stopped!"
"Battalion, lie down," I shouted; "our brigade commander ordered retreat!"
"It's all wrong. If this position's lost, all's lost. Here you have some cover. Hold it to the last. I'll bring supports immediately." Striking spurs into his steed, he vanished in the direction of the retreating regiments.
Except the few who had heard my command and remained in position, perhaps seventy-five or a hundred, who kept blazing away at the Confederates, rising a little to kneel and fire, Grover's Division, and all we could see of that of Ricketts, had gone to pieces, swept away like chaff before a whirlwind. Not a Union flag now in sight, but plenty of the "Stars and Bars!" Our sputtering fire checked some directly in front; but most of the on-rushing masses were deflected by the nature of the ground. '
Out of our view and about half a mile in our rear was Dwight's Division, the First of the Nineteenth Corps. It had been left in reserve. It was in line of battle and ready for the onset. The confused fragments of Grover were rallied behind it. Had the ground been favorable, and had no unexpected opposition been encountered, Gordon would have crushed Dwight.
But in fewer minutes than we have occupied in describing this charge, a tremendous and prolonged roar and rattle told us that the battle was on behind us more than in front. Amid the din arose a quick succession of deafening crashes, and shot and shell came singing and howling over us from the left. Russell's Division (First of the Sixth Corps) comprising eleven infantry regiments and one of heavy artillery, behind which the broken battalions of Ricketts had been reassembling, was now smiting the right flank of Gordon's six thousand. Although the charge came too late we cannot but admire the strategy that directed it, and the bravery of the infantry of Gordon, Rodes, and Ramseur, as well as that of the cavalry of Lomax, Jackson, and Johnson, and of Fitzhugh Lee who fell severely wounded. But they had not foreseen the terrible cross-fire from Russell, who died at the head of his division, a bullet piercing his breast and a piece of shell tearing through his heart. Nor had they calculated on confronting the long line of Dwight, nine regiments with the Fifth New York Battery, all of which stood like a stone breakwater. Against it Gordon's masses, broken by the irregularities of the ground, dashed in vain. Under the ceaseless fire of iron and lead the refluent waves came pouring back. Our army was saved.
But we few, who, in obedience to explicit orders from headquarters, had held our position stiffly farthest to the front when all the rest of Grover's and Ricketts' thousands had retreated—we were lost. A column behind a rebel flag was advancing straight upon us unchecked by our vigorous fire........." This is where I posted above about his capture. D.U.