THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY REGAINED
FOLLOWING the Smithfield engagements of August 28 and 29, there occurred a loll in our fighting until the great battle of Winchester, or Opeqnon. But we were by no means inactive, for daring this interval of twenty days we were constantly oat on reconnoitering expeditions, hom ing mills, and locating the enemy.
At Summit Point a singular accident occurred, result ing in the death of Sergt. Peter Gunther. He had stooped to light his pipe at a campfire, when someone jokingly threw in a cartridge, which, exploding, drove the ball through his head. This p·ot an end to a foolish prac tice that had to some extent prevailed.
To the regiment the most interesting circumstance was the transfer, heretofore mentioned, of the First New York. Dragoons from the reserve to the second, or Devin’s, brigade on September 9. There was great rejoicing when the announcement was made that we had severed our brigade relations with the obnoxious regulars. The organization now stood: Second brigade, Gen. Thomas C. Devin. (”The old war-horse.”) Fourth New York, Sixth New York, Ninth New York, Nineteenth New York, (First Dragoons), and Seventeenth Pennsylvania.
General Grant’s terse command, ”Go in,”was no sooner given than “Little Phil “began active preparations to carry it out. Aided by Miss Rebecca Wright, a bright Union girl of Winchester, he obtained valuable information ·regarding the status of Early’s army. This was September 16, and early on the morning of the 19th the grand movement began, ending at night in the first great decisive victory achieved by the Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley.1
BATTLE OF WINCHESTER, OR OPEQUON
To properly understand this battle, let us first take a bird’s-eye view of the entire field, which, as stated in the footnote, contains about forty square miles. According to an excellent map, carefully prepared under the super vision of General Sheridan, the field would be enclosed in a rectangle of seven miles north and south by nearly six miles east and west. Please bear in mind that in the southwest corner of this rectangle is located the city of Winchester, which shall be our radiating point. Five miles east of Winchester is the Opequon Creek, or River, flowing nearly north, and which marks the eastern boundary of the battlefield. Next, notice the three important highways or pikes running out from the city – the Berryville pike, going east and crossing the Opequon; the Martinsburg pike going north; the Valley pike, going south. There were also numerous other roads. The land was generally uneven, cut by numerous creeks, and inter spersed with hills, ravines, cleared fields, and forests.
(footnote from Bowern) 1 The description of this battle is largely from the standpoint of a private soldier, and, particularly, for those inexperienced in war. My recollection of the affair is quite clear. Then I have a letter written the following day giving a full account as I saw it. Besides, I have a carefully prepared lecture descriptive of the battles of Winchester and Cedar Creek, in the preparation of which official reports, histories, and an excellent map of the field were consulted. Comparatively few people have a Just conception of a battle. For an instance: I was invited to give my address before a high school. Answering my inquiries as to how much ground the battled covered, some said ten acres, others thought possibly one hundred acres. Of course, they were astonished when told of that conflict during its various stages, which covered about forty square miles, or over twenty-five thousand square acres; and if we should include the ground passed over by the troops that morning before going Into action, the area would be doubled.
Next, notice the position of the two armies on the morning of the 19th. The main portion of the Confederate infan try was located about two miles east of Winchester, stretched across the: Berryville pike, while a smaller part was stationed some miles to the north. The rebel cavalry was out in different directions from five to eight miles, doing picket duty and guarding the fords of the Opequon.
The Union army occupied various positions still more distant from Winchester. Merritt’s division of cavalry, to which our regiment belonged, was in the vicinity of Summit Point, twelve or fifteen miles northeast of Winchester. Averell’s cavalry was about the same distance nearly north. Wilson’s division of cavalry and our infantry were to the east. Long before daylight all the Union troops broke camp and began moving toward Winchester. We were in the saddle at 2 A. M.
Sheridan’s plan of battle, as you will see, was con ducted somewhat like a wolf drive, with Winchester as the corral, or center, toward which we were all concentrating. Let us first follow Wilson’s division of cavalry, moving on the Berryville Pike, and crossing the Opequon five miles east of Winchester early in the morning. He was followed by the Sixth Infantry Corps. For some distance, after crossing the Opequon the pike ran through a deep gorge. Emerging from this, Wilson struck the enemy, and began the fight, holding the ground until the infantry had got through the gorge and into line. He then moved his division off to the southeast of Winchester to operate against Early’s right flank. It was past midday before all the infantry got in line.
Leaving our infantry, consisting of the Sixth, Eighth, and Nineteenth Army Corps, engaged in a desperate con test with Early’s veterans, we will follow the fortune of the First New York Dragoons, who in the meantime had moved, and struck the rebel outposts at Sewer’s Ford on the Opequon, about seven miles northeast of Winchester. Crossing the river with the balance of Devin’s brigade, we moved nearly west for about three miles, contesting the entire distance with Mc Causlaod’s cavalry and Breck enridge’s infantry. In his official report, General Devin thus speaks of one of these engagements: “I was suddenly attacked on my right flank by a column of the enemy’s infantry which I had broken through. My men were momentarily thrown into confusion, and the rebel cavalry seizing the opportunity, rallied, charged, and forced us back. I immediately formed the First New York Dragoons across the road, and after a sharp fight, succeeded in checking them. It was here that the gal lant Captain Thorp, of the First New York, was killed.”1
At the time Captain Thorp was killed we were facing Mc Causlaod’s cavalry scarcely twenty rods distant. They were drawn up in line on the opposite side of a deep rail road cut and kept up a lively fusillade until charged on the flank by the Ninth New York. We then crossed the
track and joining the Ninth again attacked them. This time they had made a stand on the opposite side of a field. Says/ General Devin: ” The wild cheers and gleaming sabers of these gallant regiments, as they dashed at the ‘chivalry,’ so dismayed them that they whirled and broke for the woods, leaving a lieutenant-colonel and other pris oners in our hands.”These numerous minor engagements were only a part of the one great battle.
(footnote from Bowen) The death of Capt. Alexander K. Thorp oppressed us all with sadness; and every man in the regiment keenly felt his loss, as he was one of those favorite with all. Brave in battle, quick to act yet always jovial and witty, his kindly treatment and consideration of the private soldier won him the love and esteem of us all. He was one of those noble-souled men whose shoulder straps did not spoil or transform Into a petty tyrant. A moment before bis death he remarked In bis oft’-hand way to Lieutenant. “Those hostiles over there are making widows and orphans at a lively rate.”The writer was In conversation with him at the time he was struck In the forehead by the fatal rebel bullet, a.nd, assisted by bugler “Deb”Brown, carried bis bleeding from the field. He was a brother of our Corenel Thorp.
At 2 P. M., Merritt’s division had reached a point about four miles nearly north of Winchester. To the left was heard the roar of the desperate battle being waged be tween the contending infantry forces; to the right was also heard the sound of battle -Averell driving the enemy on that part of the field toward Winchester along the Martinsburg pike. Thus from all sides, we rapidly closed in upon the doomed Confederates, and the grand climax was soon reached.
At 3 P. M. Merritt’s and Averell’s divisions had formed a junction, and the brigades of Custer, Lowell, Devin, Powell, and Schoonmaker swept south toward Winchester with an impetuosity that no force of the gray could resist. These five brigades of troopers were all moving in one continuous line by brigade front. As we advanced across the open country, all our bands playing national airs, and with sabers glistening in the sunlight, combined with the bright-colored banne1·s and battle flags, intermingled with our uniforms of blue, furnished one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battlefield.
Two or three miles north of Winchester, Lomax and Fitzhugh Lee had concentrated their entire cavalry force to resist our advance, but they were hurled pell-mell through their infantry lines, offering but little further resistance; and now occurred a scene unparalleled in the annals of warfare – the grandest and most successful cavalry charge in the history of the world.
Our long line had halted on slightly elevated ground, overlooking almost the entire field of battle, now concentrated about Winchester. Our infantry was still hotly engaged with Early’s stubborn fighters. The contest was so nearly equal that the fortunes of the day might be decided by some slightly favoring circumstance.
Our regiment was well to the left of the cavalry line, facing south, and within a hundred rods of the left flank of the rebel infantry line. They had already discovered us and were seen to be rapidly changing front to meet our anticipated charge, which General Merritt had decided to make with his entire division. Fortunately, the ground between us and the rebel line was open and free from obstructions, affording an·opportunity seldom offered for a mounted charge.
The double line of horsemen, stretching as far as the eye could reach, formed a magnificent spectacle, the troopers preserving their alignment as carefully as if on parade.
Major Scott, usually calm and unexcitable, was now so impressed by the glorious possibilities of the occasion that he galloped along the regimental line, his face all aglow, assuring us of an opportunity to cover ourselves with glory. The men, inspired by the prospect, and the horses impatiently chafing their bits, were all eager for the fray. At this opportune moment the division bugle sounds, “Forward!”and instantly a hundred bugles took up the call. ” Forward! Forward!”is shouted by every officer from the generals down to commande1·s of companies. Says Lieutenant Flint: –
“It was glorious to witness those three· thousand horsemen moving up in line of battle, with sabers glisten ing in the sunlight, while the battle flags floated gaily in the breeze. I shall never forget the thrilling sensation experienced when, at the command, ‘Draw sabers! Charge ! ‘ the three thousand troopers responded as one man. As we shortened the distance between ourselves and the foe, the pace of our horses rapidly increased from the walk to the trot and from the trot to the gallop. Every man’s saber was waving above his head, and with a savage yell, we swept down upon the trembling wretches like a besom of destruction. Then ensued a scene which may well be called the • carnival of death.’ Rising in their stirrups, and with uplifted sabers, our men rode straight into ·the rebel ranks, dealing blows lustily upon the heads of the now panic-stricken Confederates.”
In his report, General Devin says: “It was a terrible scene. Right on, over and through the rebel lines, dashed the wild troopers, slashing right and left, pistoling those who again seized their guns after the surrender, and taking prisoners by the score.”
Referring to our regiment, he further says: ” The brave Colonel Gibbs, of the First New York, and Nichols, of the Ninth, led their regiments in gallant style, and won unfading laurels in this the grandest charge ever made in this war.”
Certain it was that this opportune charge by the cavalry changed the fortunes of the day, deciding the battle in favor of the Union arms.
The scene as we rode into the rebel ranks baffles description. Our regiment alone captured more prisoners than we had men in the fight. The poor Johnnies would throw up their hands, and plead, “For God’s sake, Yankee, don’t kill me; I surrender.””Well, then, get back to the rear lively;”was our demand. Some had been fighting and running until their tongues protruded, and they frothed at the mouth from exhaustion. As a rule, they were anxious to hurry to our rear to escape a terrible enfilading fire from their own batteries, killing more of their men than ours. It is one of> the marvels of warfare how anyone escaped this severe storm of bursting shells and grape. and canister poured upon me from Winchester Heights.
Probably a more novel method of capturing prisoners was never witnessed than occurred here, calling forth, even under such trying circumstances, peals of laughter. So anxious were our captives to escape destruction from their own batteries, that they would seize our stirrups and even the tails of our horses. Then in several instances, they got in line, one behind another, grasping the coats of the man in front, until a string of from three to sixteen rebs were clinging to one galloping horse, and they loping for dear life to hold on and get to the rear. The writer took back eleven Johnnies in a similar manner until out of range, when we halted to rest, and I divided the contents of my haversack with them. The affair was so ludicrous that my prisoners laughed heartily.
After Merritt had thus broken the Confederate left, there followed a vigorous dash all along our infantry lines. Early made a strong effort to stem the tide of disaster, but the ever-ready Custer, with his dashing Michigan brigade and the Twenty-fifth New York, bore down upon them with such momentum as to sweep all before him. It was our privilege to witness this bold and decisive charge. The rebel army was now a broken and fleeing mass of panic-stricken stragglers that only the darkness of night saved from capture or annihilation.
Winchester contained a band of noble and true Union women, and as our victorious army entered the city, they greeted us from their porches and housetops with un bounded demonstrations of joy. Sheridan announced his triumph in this ringing dispatch: “We have sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them tomorrow. This army behaved splendidly.”
In this battle, about fifty thousand men met in a clash of arms. Our loss was severe,- four thousand five hundred killed, wounded, and missing. The Confederate loss was about the same.
Among the many incidents of personal daring in the great charge was the capture of three rebel battle flags, by members of our regiment. I am, however, unable to give the names and full circumstances of but two, Sergt. A. J. Lorish and Corp. Chester B. Bowen. Both charged
not only into, but entirely through, the first rebel line, and far into the rebel ranks beyond; and both almost miraculously escaped unharmed, bringing off in triumph the rebel colors, which were being borne to the rear. As Lorish seized the flag he was after, the rebels yelled, “Shoot that d–d Yankee! He’s got our flag! “Instantly a dozen guns were leveled at him, accompanied by the demand, ” Surrender, you Yankee son of a gun.”Acting with quick decision, Lorish brandished his saber, dashed toward them, and shouted, “Ground your arms, or I ‘ll send every soul of you to hell in a minute !”Astounded at his audacity, they obeyed, when he spurred up his horse and dashed for our lines amid a shower of bullets.
Without his knowledge, the following verbatim extracts are made from an old home letter by C. B. Bowen, dated “Washington, Sept. 24, 1864: “-
“Eight of us came to Washington with our captured flags, and yesterday presented them to Secretary Stanton, after which we had the honor of shaking hands with that distinguished gentleman, and receiving from him his thanks and compliments for our bravery on the field of battle. We are to receive medals of honor.”
Describing the capture, he says·: ” As we charged upon them, cutting, slashing, and taking prisoners, I discovered a rebel color-bearer making off with the colors, and at once started for him, carrying my guidon (a small flag) in one hand, and guiding my horse with the other. Chasing the fellow up to their second line, I ran right over him. As he dropped the fla,r, I sprang off, seized it, and mounting, put spurs to my horse, and escaped without a scratch, though the bullets hummed about me lively. Captain Britton was the most pleased man I ever saw unless it was Colonel Gibbs. As we presented the flag to him, he seized it on his saber, and, whirling it about his head, shouted, ‘Three times three for the little color corporal who went in with one stand of colors, and came out with two.”
Color Sergt. W. A. Ferris writes that the third flag was captured by a recruit, from whom it was taken by an officer of the Second United States Regulars, and the man received no credit for it.
The official report reads: “Color Corp. Chester B. Bowen, Co. I, and Commissary Sergt. Andrew J. Lorish were each in turn presented to Secretary Stanton, who addressed them: ‘I return to you, gentlemen, the thanks of this department for the valor and gallantry you dis played in the capture of these flags. I will direct the adjutant-general to furnish you with medals, with your name inscribed thereon, and they will be sent to your
commanders for delivery to you as soon as prepared. The flags will be placed among the archives of the department.'”
Comrade Henry Sawyer furnishes this incident of a
VERY HAPPY COLORED LADY
”As we were chasing up the badly whipped Johnnies through Winchester, the Union women and colored people greeted us with great demonstrations of joy. I remember one very happy-looking colored woman, her face radiant with smiles, standing by the roadside waving her apron to cheer us on. I said, ‘Miss: Flora, how do you like the Yankees I ‘ ‘ I likes dem fus’ rate, sah. I ‘se done prayed dis long time for de good Lor’ to come and freed us pooah culled folks, and I specs de way dem reb els brunged out de dead sojers, and de way dey runned, all muxed up oaten heah, de good Lor’ jes’ corned hisself, dis time, and venged his people. Yes, sah, de Lor’ fout dis battle hisself, shuah.’ “