- 19 Sep 2022 13:08
September 19, Monday
Sheridan’s Federals go into action at 3 am, opening what will become known as 3rd Winchester by the defenders and the Battle of Opequon Creek by the Federals. At first, all goes well for Sheridan’s attackers. Wilson’s division of cavalry crosses the Opequon on the Berryville road, drive off a few pickets, and gallops through a narrow, two-mile-long defile known as Berryville Canyon. At the western end of the canyon, the road ascends a small hill defended by skirmishers from Ramseur’s division. Wilson’s men easily overrun this first line of Confederates, then dismount and hold the hill, thus covering the Federal infantry’s route to the battlefield. Before long, the vanguard of VI Corps arrives. Wilson’s cavalry remounts and moves off to the left while VI Corps forms a line of battle under fire from Ramseur’s battery a mile away. Brigadier General James Ricketts’ division forms to the right of the road and Brigadier General George Washington Getty’s to the left. The division led by Brigadier General David A. Russell remains in reserve.
The soldiers are impressed to see Sheridan “at the very front, and under the fire of the enemy.” Sitting his horse on a “conspicuous elevation,” Little Phil Sheridan is “carefully attending to details which we had been accustomed to see more celebrated commanders entrust to their staff.” But Sheridan is focusing too much attention on the initial attack and not enough on the troops advancing from the rear. As a result, the rest of the Federal infantry gets into a serious snarl. Contrary to Sheridan’s instructions, VI Corps has brought along its full complement of supply wagons and ambulances. These block the narrow Berryville Canyon, bringing the advance of XIX Corps to a virtual halt. General Wright tries to get his wagons to the side of the road to make way for Emory’s troops, but the result is a jam that delays the entire assault.
Early takes advantage of the Federal confusion to reorganize his position in front of Winchester. Around 10 am Gordon, marching in from the north, forms a line of battle in front of a thicket just south of Redbud Run. Rodes, following close behind, files past Gordon’s men to plug the gap between them and Ramseur’s division. Remaining to the north at Stephenson’s Depot are Gabriel Wharton’s infantry division and McCausland’s cavalry, both commanded by Breckinridge. Although forced to give ground slowly under pressure from Averell’s and Merritt’s Federal cavalry, Breckinridge’s force seems strong enough to make an effective fighting retreat, protecting the left of Early’s line.
It is noon before the Federal XIX Corps makes its way out of Berryville Canyon—and by then Early’s main units are in place and waiting. Nevertheless Sheridan, ordering the discharge of a signal gun, launches the main Federal attack. The men of VI Corps on the Union left, after struggling through a dense thicket, moves forward and gets their first look at their objective. The prospect is appalling. The troops will have to advance across a long, open slope to the foot of a steep hill, then move up the hill in the face of Confederate guns located on the crest. Seeing this fearsome sight, the line involuntarily halts and the men throw themselves on the ground. Then, the chaplain of a Vermont regiment will say, “an iron surf, rolling in from the enemy’s batteries, broke over us.”
On the Federal right, XIX Corps is having greater success. Brigadier General Cuvier Grover’s division, leading the charge, slams into Gordon’s left, held by Colonel Edmund Atkinson’s Georgia brigade, and drives the Georgians back into some woods. There General Grover tries to halt and reorganize, but his excited troops, ignoring orders, plunge into the trees after the Confederates. They pay a heavy price for their impetuosity. Emerging from the woods, the Federals are hit by deadly close-range fire from the twelve guns of Lieutenant Colonel Carter Braxton’s artillery battalion. Then, from the right, Fitzhugh Lee’s horse artillery rakes the length of the Federal line, plowing lanes through the regiments. Meanwhile, as the officers of VI Corps get their men moving again, a minor oversight in Sheridan’s orders bring the Federal left to the brink of disaster. VI Corps has been instructed to advance along the Berryville road, which veers off sharply to the south. The men obediently follow the road, even though it means marching left into a hail of canister from the Confederate batteries. Grimly the Federals fight their way sideways and forward, gradually bending back Ramseur’s southern flank. But XIX Corps, drawn forward by their success on the right, continues straight ahead. A gap opens in the center of the Federal line—and the Confederates charge right into it.
The counterattack is staged by Early’s hard-fighting subordinates, Gordon and Rodes. Knowing that their main infantry line will be outnumbered when Sheridan’s entire force gets into action, the two generals agree that the best course of action is to charge, hoping to confuse the Federals long enough to permit their men to escape. the attack is delayed briefly when, just as the two men finish conferring, Rodes is mortally wounded, struck behind the ear by a shell fragment. But Gordon quickly takes command of both divisions and launch the desperate assault. The Confederates surge forward, screaming the Rebel yell, straight for the just-opened hole in the Federal line. The unexpected charge strikes the Federal center “with a heavy force, crumbling off the troops on either side of it, and causing each side of the interval to think that the others had let the enemy through.” Ricketts’ right and Grover’s entire division are driven back. Sheridan is on the knoll when fleeing men begin to “emerge from the woods, their dark blouses looking like black spots on the sunburnt vegetation.” Sheridan sends his staff and escort officers galloping in all directions to try to stop the rout and to summon Crook’s corps, which until now has been waiting in reserve by the Opequon. Then Sheridan simply sits his horse, watching “silent and immovable” as his infantry seems to disintegrate.
But the situation isn’t as desperate as it appears—if only because Sheridan has more than 30,000 men to Early’s 14,000. General David Russell’s division rushes forward from its reserve position, and though Russell is shot through the chest, he urges his men on until another shell fragment strikes him within inches of the first, tearing through his heart and killing him instantly. The three batteries of Colonel Charles H. Tompkin’s artillery brigade rains shells into the advancing Confederates on VI Corps’ right, bolstering that flank. Brigadier General Emory Upton, commanding Russell’s 2nd Brigade, marches his men toward the gap; then, finding he is too late to plug it, places half his command in line facing northwest, at an angle to the Confederate line of advance. These Federals—a Connecticut Heavy Artillery regiment serving as infantry under Colonel Ronald S. Mackenzie—fixes bayonets and wait. Mackenzie, a tough 24-year-old West Pointer, took command of the regiment just months ago, but the men have already learned to hate him, considering him a cruel martinet. There are rumors that some members of the regiment intend to shoot the “Perpetual Punisher,” as they call him, at the first opportunity. But when the Confederates are within 200 yards and Upton orders the charge, Mackenzie is transformed, grinning broadly and waving his hat joyfully as he gallops through “a perfect hailstorm of rebel lead and iron, with as much impunity as though he had been a ghost.” His men can’t bear to shoot a man as brave as that. With the Connecticut regiment in the lead, Upton’s brigade pinches off the Confederate advance, takes hundreds of prisoners, and restores the Federal line.
A lull now settles over the field, and General Early concludes that the fighting is over. Even years later he will refer to the situation this afternoon as “a splendid victory.” But while Early smugly waits for the Federals to retire, Sheridan is energetically preparing to bag Early’s entire army. Sheridan’s plan is to send Crook’s infantry—now on the field after being held up in the Berryville Canyon—to the left. They were to cross the Valley Turnpike south of Winchester to cut off a Confederate retreat in that direction. But Torbert hasn’t sent word about Merritt’s and Averell’s cavalry attack on the Confederate left near Stephenson’s Depot. Sheridan reluctantly tells Crook to go instead to the right of XIX Corps “and look well for the right flank” while Wilson’s troopers move left to feel for the southern end of the Confederate line.
At about this time, as Sheridan will learn shortly afterward, Averall and Merritt are approaching Early’s left, driving Breckinridge’s force southward along the Valley Turnpike. Around 2 pm, one of Breckinridge’s infantry brigades, led by Colonel George S. Patton, had tried to make a stand on that flank along with Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. But they couldn’t hold because both Confederate commanders were wounded—Patton mortally, Lee seriously. Breckinridge reforms Wharton’s weary division perpendicular to the pike to protect the Confederate left. But soon Early learns that Wilson’s horsemen are rounding his other flank and approaching the Valley Turnpike to the south. Early detaches a brigade from Lee’s hard-pressed division to deal with Wilson and keep the pike open.
Early’s “splendid victory” is eroding fast, and Sheridan’s double envelopment is nearly accomplished as Crook prepares the final thrust. Having placed Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s division between XIX Corps’ right and Redbud Run, Crook leads his other division, under Colonel Isaac H. Duval, north across the stream—and discovers he is beyond the Confederate left flank. Instantly, Crook orders an attack. Sheridan gets word of Crook’s preparations when he learns that Wilson’s cavalrymen are pressuring the Confederate right. The time has come for a last, crushing attack. Galloping over to Thoburn’s position, Sheridan orders his division to advance and sends messages instructing XIX Corps and part of VI Corps to wheel forward also, maintaining alignment with Duval’s division. This done, Sheridan returns to his command post, riding along the lines of VI Corps and XIX Corps. Normally, a commanding general would make that ride well to the rear. But the astonished Major Walker sees Sheridan gallop “along the whole of our extended skirmish line, wheeling out from the storm of bullets only as he reached our own division, and pausing as he passed between the brigades to exclaim, with eloquent profanity, ‘Crook and Averell are on their left and rear—we’ve got ‘em bagged, by God!’ ” Crook’s “broad blue waves” surge forward with a yell that lasts for minutes. When Duval’s men have struggled through the swamps along Redbud Run and have linked with Thoburn’s line, General Crook rides over to see why XIX Corps isn’t keeping pace with the advance. He finds General Emory’s men still pinned down by Braxton’s 12-gun artillery battalion, posted at the center of the Confederate line. Crook can’t find General Emory; instead he finds General Upton, from VI Corps, desperately trying to get XIX Corps moving. At length Upton gives up and deploys his own right in front of XIX Corps, joining Crook’s line, and advances. A shell fragment tears through his thigh, knocking him from his horse and laying bare his femoral artery. Ignoring the terrible wound, Upton refuses to leave the field. Once a surgeon has stopped the bleeding, he orders himself put on a stretcher and carried along with his men.
Slowly the tide of battle begins to turn in the Federals’ favor. Ramseur’s and Rodes’s divisions, hearing the roar of Breckinridge’s battle with Crook in their rear, begin falling back toward Winchester. Sensing the kill, Sheridan gallops along the Federal lines, waving his hat and exhorting his infantry forward. Now it is the Confederates who suffer heavy losses. On Gordon’s left flank, the remnants of the Stonewall Brigade withdraw, leaving their commander, Colonel John H. Funk, dying within a mile of his family home. In the center, Braxton’s guns limber up to retreat in a deadly crossfire that kills gunners and brings horses thrashing to the ground. Nearby, Brigadier General Archibald Godwin, who is commanding one of Ramseur’s brigades, falls with a fatal wound in the neck. Then comes the coup de grâce—a thundering cavalry charge by Merritt and Averell. While Averell’s division gallops around the Confederate left to strike at the enemy rear, Merritt hurls his horsemen on the line of earthworks held by Breckinridge just north of Winchester, bursting “like a storm of case-shot in their midst, showering saber blows on their heads and shoulders, trampling them under, and routing them in droves in every direction.” Next, Merritt sends the brigade commanded by a young Boston blue blood, Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, charging for a two-gun redoubt in the center of Breckinridge’s line. Just as the horsemen reach it the cannon roar, smashing a dozen horsemen to the ground. A staff officer riding next to Lowell has his arm torn off, and Lowell loses his fourth horse of the day. But the charge can’t be stopped, and the redoubt is taken. The Confederate line disintegrates, with Merritt’s troopers pursuing fugitives into the streets of a Winchester already battered by overshot artillery shells. With night falling, the town changes hands for the 73rd time in the war.
As General Gordon rides into the maelstrom of fleeing men, wagons, and guns in the streets of Winchester shouting “Georgians never run from a battlefield!” he receives another shock. To his horror, he finds his wife—as well as Mrs. Breckinridge and the wives of other officers—on the streets where shells from Sheridan’s batteries are falling and Minié balls flying. She is pleading with her husband’s troops to keep fighting. General Gordon has to leave her there with their six-year-old son, presuming they will be captured. But Mrs. Gordon talks some soldiers into hitching up her carriage, and she and her son escape, along with Mrs. Breckinridge. The Federal cavalry and Crook’s infantry chase the Confederates for a few miles. General Ramseur, whose exhausted men met the Federals’ first attack, covers the retreat. Their courage in the midst of disaster restores the reputation that had been tarnished the previous month at Stephenson’s Depot.
Darkness puts an end to the chase. As night falls, Sheridan rides into the town and reports the victory to Washington in a matter-of-fact telegram. Then he sends another message to his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel James Forsyth, that in ringing phrases signals an end to Federal humiliation in the Shenandoah: “We have just sent them awhirling through Winchester, and we are after them tomorrow.” Another wire reaches General Grant, provoking the only show of exhilaration his staff officers have ever seen. “He came out of his tent,” one officer will recall, “threw his hat in the air, and went back in again. He knew that was the beginning of the end.”
It is an awful night for the Confederates, leaving their dead and many of their wounded behind them, riding hour after hour. Early has lost more than one quarter of his entire army—estimated at 276 killed, 1,827 wounded, and 1,818 missing or captured for 3,921. Although the Confederates have inflicted heavy punishment on Sheridan’s attackers—697 killed, 2,983 wounded, and 338 missing for 4,018—the Federal losses are proportionately smaller and much more easily replaced. But Jubal Early will never admit defeat. Years later he will charge, “Sheridan ought to have been cashiered” for letting the Confederates escape with three fourths of their men.”
Far off to the west, a rather desperate column under Sterling Price enters Missouri. It is a last-ditch effort by Sterling Price to win the state. Though Price’s plans are imprecise, he proposes timing his invasion to influence the Federal presidential election in November. Price believes that if he can take St. Louis and trigger an uprising of secessionists throughout Missouri, he might help Northern peace advocates defeat Lincoln and force a negotiated end to the war—with Missouri part of an independent South. Price sets to work organizing his force into three cavalry divisions under Brigadier General John Marmaduke, Brigadier General Joseph Shelby, and Major General James F. Fagan. Altogether, Price has 12,000 Missourians and Arkansans and fourteen pieces. One third of the men are raw recruits with no weapons, however, and many even lack horses; they are counting on being able to acquire arms and mounts in Missouri. Price insists on hobbling himself further with a long train of supply wagons, which are bound to be a drag on the army’s progress. In addition, he brings along a clutch of Missouri politicians, including the former governor, Thomas C. Reynolds, who has been presiding over a Confederate Missouri government-in-exile in Texas. Part of Price’s scheme is to reinstall Reynolds in the Missouri capital at Jefferson City. Today Price starts his force northward from Pocahontas, in Arkansas. An affair at Doniphan, Missouri, marks the beginning.
In St. Louis, Major General William S. Rosecrans, who has taken command of the Union’s Department of the Missouri, has received many reports from scouts and spies of Price’s preparations. His own forces, about 11,000 men, are scattered throughout the state. Hastily, Rosecrans concentrates his men at strategic points and requests reinforcements. He is given 4,500 infantrymen from Major General Andrew J. Smith’s corps of the Army of the Tennessee—veterans of the Red River Campaign—who were on their way to join General William Tecumseh Sherman in Atlanta before being diverted to St. Louis.
Cooperating with a force of 1,200 men under Colonel Gano, Brigadier General Stand Watie helps capture a huge Union wagon train at Cabin Creek, in northeastern Indian Territory. Federals report losses of 202 wagons, five ambulances, forty horses, and 1,253 mules, valued at $1,500,000 (2020 $26,861,273) worth of food, clothing, and other necessities for the troops and refugee Amerinds at Fort Gibson. Later on the same day action occurs at Pryor’s Creek not far from Cabin Creek.
In a daring, somewhat farfetched adventure, Confederate agents under John Yates Beall capture the steamer Philo Parsons on Lake Erie and then capture and burn Island Queen. Beall is to sail near Johnson’s Island, where USS Michigan guards Confederate prisoners. Meanwhile, Captain Charles H. Cole, CSA, is to capture Michigan. The two vessels would then release the prisoners and carry out operations on the lake. However, near Sandusky the commander of the Michigan discovers the plot and arrests Cole, a passenger. Beall is forced to burn Philo Parsons at Sandwich, Canada.
As the tide of war has turned against the Confederacy throughout this year, a clandestine force of experienced military has laid plans to cripple the Union from within. Based in Canada, the Confederates originally plotted to strike across the border in a series of raids with the cooperation of local secret anti-government organizations. Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet, the commandant of the Army post of Chicago and the nearby Camp Douglas with its 10,000 prisoners of war, became aware of the threats to Camp Douglas. Initially he dismissed or ignored information about collusion between Chicagoans and prisoners. For instance, in May Army officers in Kentucky interrogated a recaptured rebel escapee from Camp Douglas, who told them that Chicago “copperheads” gave money and horses to escaped men and were led by a man named Charles Walsh, who employed his young daughter to smuggle messages to prisoners. But evidently Sweet failed to act on this information.
Then, in August, a disgruntled rebel officer in Windsor, Ontario, approached the Army commander in Detroit with news that Confederate Captain Thomas Henry Hines planned to lead an attack on Camp Douglas later that month, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Alerted, Sweet hired detectives to locate the Confederates in the city, but the sleuths failed to find them. As Sweet reported, he acknowledged that a secret organization indeed existed in the city, but he didn’t think it was armed or plotting “open armed hostility.” If they were up to no good, he said, “I have not yet been able to detect it.” Acting on reports from other sources, however, higher-ups in the Army chain of command took the threat more seriously and reinforced the Camp Douglas garrison as a precaution. As it turned out, Hines and other Confederates had filtered into Chicago during the convention hubbub and were poised to lead local armed conspirators in an attack, but the locals, led by Walsh, got cold feet at the last minute. Frustrated, Hines sent most of his force back to Canada, while he and about 25 others scattered across southern Illinois to recruit men for another attempt.
Sweet now hires more detectives and assiduously works to uncover plots. As he will later report, his spies inside the camp get wind of a plan to overpower the Camp Douglas garrison today, timed to coincide with the Confederate plot to seize the Philo Parsons steamship in Lake Erie, attack the Union warship Michigan, and free Confederate officers held on Johnson’s Island. But the prisoners at Camp Douglas see his beefed-up defenses and call off the effort.
Off Charleston, desultory fire on Fort Sumter by the Federals lasts the rest of the month and totals 494 rounds. On the Mississippi, Union expeditions from Natchez last several days. A skirmish is recorded for Culpeper, Virginia.
President Lincoln urges Sherman to allow Indiana soldiers to go home as long as they cannot vote in the field. Indiana is a pivotal state to the Republicans and Lincoln in the coming election.
President Davis writes the governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida that “harmony of action between the States and Confederate authorities is essential to the public welfare.” He is referring to state proclamations requiring aliens to serve in the military or leave the South. He points out that such a policy deprives the Confederacy of needed skilled workmen and asks that such aliens be encouraged to serve in nonmilitary capacities.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.