Wednesday, September 10, 2014

150-years-ago -- THIRD BATTLE OF WINCHESTER, VA


Sheridan's last charge at Third Winchester (Library of Congress)



[Excerpted from Confederate States Rangers of the 10th Louisiana Infantry by Michael Dan Jones (Createspace.com 2013)] 

Maj. Gen. Jubal Early  




The second phase of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign began after the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Kernstown when Grant was convinced that Early was not leaving the Valley and he would have to commit a larger force and a better general than Hunter to get rid of him. The Valley was effectively back under control of the Confederate States of America. In addition,  raiding Confederates had demonstrated they could retaliate against Northern cities for the Northern atrocities committed against the Southern civilians in the Valley. Grant  met with Lincoln July 31 and he told the Northern president that he needed the services of 33-year-old Major General Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, who at the time was the commander of the cavalry in the Army of the Potomac. Grant got the go ahead for the changes he wanted and made the desired assignments.  When Hunter learned that his duties had been reduced to administrative, he quickly submitted his resignation and Grant accepted it. Sheridan was just as ruthless as Hunter, but a much better general. The four Federal military districts then in the Shenandoah area were consolidated into the Middle Military Department under Sheridan. “Little Phil” was to take orders from no other general than  Grant. Not only would he command Crook’s 8th  Corps, but also Wright’s 6th  Corps and the 19th Corps under Major General William Emory. He also would have the cream of the crop of  young, combat tested, cavalry commanders – brigadier generals James H. Wilson, Wesley Merritt, and George Armstrong Custer. Sheridan took command on August 6 at Monocacy Junction. His army numbered 37,000 men.
While the Federals were receiving reinforcements, so was Early. Lee sent the Valley Army one of his top commanders, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson, commander of the First Corps, and Major General Joseph Kershaw’s infantry division, Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry division, and a battalion of artillery. This bolstered Early’s command to about 15,200. The Confederates also had the advantage of fighting on their home ground with the support of the people. Sheridan, by contrast, would earn the hatred of the people of the Valley. Colonel John S. Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion (Partisan Rangers) was wreaking havoc behind Federal lines. Mosby destroyed a large Federal wagon train destined for Sheridan on August 13. Now short of rations, and with Kershaw’s reinforcements on the way to Early, Sheridan withdrew to a more secure location further north. But the Federal cavalry division under Merritt turned the tables on the Confederates when he caught Kershaw’s division crossing the Shenandoah and attacked. He captured about 300 prisoners, but only momentarily delayed Kershaw. Sheridan had hoped that the Confederates would be drawn into a trap he was planning, but the wily old Early declined the invitation. Early withdrew into his entrenchments at Fisher’s Hill. He also received a new cavalry commander to take the place of the still ailing Ransom, Major General Lunsford Lomax. But the Confederate cavalry had been greatly reduced by the disaster at Moorefield and would be of limited use during the rest of the campaign. 
Early tried to make good use of his strengthened army. As indicated by Monier’s journal, there was a lot of maneuvering and skirmishing throughout August, but no major battles. Both sides were looking for an opportunity to strike. It was in the action on August 25 at Shepherdstown that the Louisiana Brigade suffered a serious loss. Colonel William Monaghan was killed in action. Unfortunately for Early and the Valley Army, heavy fighting at Petersburg August 26, made it imperative that Lee recall Anderson and Kershaw’s division back to the Army of Northern Virginia. But with all the Federal activity in the Valley, Kershaw wasn’t able to get back to General Lee for a couple of more weeks. Early was now hopelessly outnumbered and it wouldn’t take long for the aggressive Sheridan to make his move. Early’s army had been reduced to 8,500 effective infantry, 2,900 cavalrymen in both Fitzhugh Lee’s and Lomax’s divisions, three battalions of artillery – about 12,000 men of all arms.[1]
Third Battle of Winchester
Sheridan hoped to administer the coup de gr√Ęce to the  Confederate Army of the Valley on September 19, 1864 at the Third Battle of Winchester, also called the Battle of Opequon Creek by the North. Early was not expecting an attack from the Yankees, having underestimated Sheridan, and had split his army, taking Gordon’s and Rode’s divisions with him to Martinsburg, with artillery and cavalry, 20-miles away, for a raid there. Ramseur’s division was solidly ensconced on a plateau outside Winchester with cavalry on each flank and artillery in support. Wharton’s infantry and McCausland’s cavalry, under Breckinridge,  were at Stephenson’s Depot six miles away. Sheridan had massed his army and found it the opportunity he had been waiting for – to destroy Early piecemeal. Wright’s 6th  Corps and Emory’s 19th Corps were to attack Ramseur, while Crook’s 8th  Corps would  flank him from the right. Merritt’s and Averell’s cavalry divisions would attack Wharton. But getting to Ramseur would not be easy. He was behind Opequon Creek and was well dug in on the plateau east of Winchester and between Rose Bud Run and Abraham’s Creek. When Early got to Martinsburg on September 18, he found messages which indicated that Grant had recently been there meeting with Sheridan. He was sure that meant an attack was imminent and ordered Breckinridge, Wharton, McCausland, Gordon and Rodes all back to Winchester to fall in on Ramseur This would be the third battle fought by the Louisianians at Winchester. The first was in the 1862 when the Hays’ brigade made a dramatic charge that helped win the battle. The second was in the Gettysburg Campaign when Hays’ brigade stormed a key Yankee fort at Winchester, and Stafford’s brigade helped cut off the Federal retreat at  Stephenson’s Depot. The third battle there would be dramatically different.
The battle started at about 3 o’clock in the morning when Wilson’s cavalry division crossed the creek at the Berryville Road, which ran through a ravine and some woods which shielded them from Confederate observation. They met Ramseur’s skirmish line at the base of the plateau and quickly drove them back. Three divisions of the 6th  Corps then came up as the Confederate artillery opened up on them. Ricketts’ division formed on the right and Getty’s division on the left. Brigadier General David A. Russell’s division was in reserve. Up to that point everything went smoothly, but the Sixth Corps had also brought up its supply wagons which clogged the road for the 19th Corps, and which delayed the whole attack. Early arrived at 10 o’clock before the main Yankee attack had begun.  Gordon’s division then arrived and he put his men in line of battle in a thicket and on the edge of a long field. Rodes soon arrived and his division and filled the a gap between Gordon and Ramseur. Captain George P. Ring of the 6th Louisiana gave an eyewitness account of the Federal attack. Ring said the bluecoats came “in beautiful order with their bright gun barrels reflecting back in the rays of the sun in a way to make your eyes water.” The Confederates then advanced their line to meet the enemy in an open field battle. Both blue and gray lines kept advancing without opening fire until they were about 200 yards apart. Halting, the opposing forces then exchanged volley fire for 10 minutes. Ring said that “Southern pluck was too much for our Yankee friends.” When the Federals retreated, he added, “We of course raised a Louisiana yell.” Gordon’s entire division charged after them, with the Louisianians in advance of everyone. York, seeing his brigade badly exposed, drew back a hundred yards and repulsed two counterattacks. Ring said, “. . . I think and firmly believe that every man in Hays’ and Stafford’s brigades killed his man that day.” At Stephenson’s Depot, which was Early’s left, Wharton’s infantry and McCausland’s cavalry, were pressed back by Merritt’s and Averell’s cavalry. Breckinridge, however, managed a fighting retreat in good order. The Confederates had to fight off Federal cavalry attacks the whole way to the main body and did not reach it until 2 o’clock that afternoon. When they did reach Early, Colonel George S. Patton’s brigade of Wharton’s division was sent to the Confederate left to bolster Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry on that flank. But the Confederates were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers as the 19th and 8th  corps became engaged. The gray jackets were driven back into a V formation and were being engulfed by a double envelopment on the flanks, much as they had done to Crook’s corps at Second Kernstown. When the a gap was opened in the Federal brigade, Gordon’s and Rodes’ divisions drove through it and the Northerners were in danger of a collapse. General Rodes, however, was mortally wounded when struck behind the ear by a shell fragment and Russell’s division came up to plug the gap, but Russell himself was killed. The counterattack by the Federals sealed the breach, but at a high cost to them. Finally, a massive cavalry charge by Merritt and Averell succeeded in collapsing the Confederate left flank and the whole gray line collapsed as well. Colonel George S. Patton, the grandfather of the
Brig. Gen. Zebulon York
famous World War II general of the same name, was among the dead. York’s Louisianians stayed put and fired volley after volley at the lines of bluecoats overwhelming them, but gave many other Confederates time to get away safely. All of the Louisiana officers who were mounted were wounded, including York who took a bullet in the left wrist and his arm had to be amputated later, leaving him unfit for further field service. The 10th Louisiana finally retreated through Winchester and went into camp at Middletown.
The Confederates suffered 4,000 casualties in the battle, and the Federals 5,081. Half of the Confederate casualties were captives, while 80 percent of the Federal casualties were killed and wounded. The Louisiana brigade’s share of the casualties was 154. The 10th Louisiana had four men killed, 4 wounded, one wounded and captured and five captured for a total of 15. Colonel Waggaman was wounded in the shoulder. The Confederate States Rangers had no casualties in the battle.



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