his battle, in many respects one of the most remarkable in history, has been so fully set forth by different writers that a detailed description will not be attempted. More particular mention will be made regarding the part enacted by the First New York Dragoons, in which no one regiment contributed more to the success of the battle, especially in the final charge and the gathering up of prisoners and trophies.
After the severe defeat sustained by the rebel cavalry at the ” Woodstock Races,” Sheridan believed Early’s army to be too demoralized to again assume the aggressive. But the plucky Confederate, having been reinforced, was skillfully planning a most desperate attack upon the over-confident Yankee, whom he caught napping. While Sheridan was sending the Sixth Corps and Merritt’s division of cavalry out of the valley, Early’s chief engineer, Jed Hotchkiss, and General Gordon, from the signal station on Three Top Mountain, we’re mapping out the location of all our troops and the. lines of approach to their rear, whereby surprise they might be attacked at the most vulnerable points. It was seen that by following a narrow and difficult path wind ing along the base of the mountain, and twice crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah River, advantageous points of attack on our left could be reached. Simultaneously other portions of the Union lines were to be assailed. Fortunately, the Sixth Corps and Merritt’s cavalry were -recalled, and retained in the Valley during Sheridan’s visit to Washington.
On the night of October 18, Early’s entire army was in motion, moving out to the several points of attack to be made upon our unsuspecting troops at daybreak. The march was made as noiselessly as possible, and after skirting our position for miles, the wary rebels with their flanking column were, in the early morning, lined up within six hundred yards of our camps, ready to spring upon their slumbering prey.
Suddenly there burst through the morning fog a deafening yell from ten thousand throats, followed by the blaze and crash of musketry, and the next moment the charging lines of the shouting and clamorous rebels under Kershaw were within Crook’s camps, shooting and bayoneting the men with such frightful effect that within fifteen minutes the entire Eighth Corps was either killed, captured, or a flying mass of fugitives.
The Nineteenth Corps lay a little further back, and under Emory attempted to stay the oncoming enemy in their rear, but were just then attacked with great fury by Gordon’s troops, which doubled up their flanks and got such an advantage that this corps was in turn broken and hurled back upon the Sixth Corps. The gallant old Sixth, by a desperate stand, somewhat checked the enemy’s advance. When one position became untenable, they would retire to another; and thus time was gained to rally the stragglers. The rebs had captured twenty-four pieces of artillery, which with their own guns were turned upon us with terrible effect. By 11 A. M. the whole army had fallen back nearly five miles, and near Middletown General Wright succeeded in making a stand.
For once that despicable practice of rebel soldiers robbing Yankees, dead or alive, resulted to our advantage; for just at the time when they could have destroyed our army, their propensity to plunder led them to leave their ranks by hundreds to despoil our vacated camps and rob the prisoners. According to Early’s official report, his officers and men were alike guilty. Most of our dead were completely stripped, and even poor boys, badly wounded, were most inhumanely left by those barbarians to suffer in a nude and unprotected condition. To their everlasting shame it must be recorded of the Southern soldiers that with rare exceptions in the treatment of prisoners, they paid no regard to the rules of civilized warfare, and were as destitute of humane principles as ravening wolves.
At the beginning of the battle Merritt’s division was in camp at the right and rear of the Sixth Corps, but on hearing the tiring immediately saddled up and moved out without breakfast for men or horses. We were hurriedly deployed in the rear of our army to head off the demoralized infantry, who were hurrying back not only as stragglers, but by squads, and even regiments. With great difficulty, we checked the route, but in many instances were compelled to use the saber upon our own men, desperately bent upon getting to the rear. Some positively refused to be halted, and could only be prevented from breaking through by tiring upon them. We all deeply deplo1·ed the necessity of resorting to harsh measures, but our orders were imperative to stop the stampede at all hazards. One inconsiderate fellow, at the head of an excited squad, replying to General Devin’s order to ”halt,” said, ” I’ll be hanged if I’ll halt for any damned cavalryman,” whereupon Devin promptly shot him dead.
Those carrying the wounded were passed through the lines. Two heartless fellows bearing a badly wounded man were thus let through by Colonel Gibbs, but they at once dropped the man and ran away. The colonel ordered them brought back, and giving each a good whacking with his saber, started them to their regiment on the double-quick. Scores of similar incidents might be given. At first, the infantry bitterly resented being so determinedly stopped by the cavalry, but this more than anything saved our army from utter demoralization. These men as a rule were by no means cowardly, only panic-stricken, and soon regained their composure, and charged the enemy with great gallantry.
Later in the forenoon, our brigade performed valuable service by resisting the rebel advance on our left, which, according to rebel official reports, prevented them from capturing our trains and working havoc in our rear. Although the rebels made several determined efforts to drive us, we held the position while Wright was getting his shattered forces in shape.
Sheridan’s arrival at Winchester on the evening of the eighteenth, and his famous ride of twenty miles on the morning of the nineteenth; his magical influence and remarkable skill in transforming a terrible defeat into a glorious victory, have given to the annals of the Civil war its most dramatic incident.
An erroneous notion prevails that upon Sheridan’s arrival our defeated army instantly changed front, charged, and defeated an exultant foe. Such was not the fact. He reached the front between IO and 11 A. M. and spent four or five hours getting his crestfallen battalions in proper shape for an advance. Without a word of reproach, he rode cheerily along the lines.
“Boys, we ‘re going back to our camps,” ” We ‘re going to lick them out of their boots,” We ‘II get the tightest twist on them yon ever saw,” were some of the cheering assurances he gave the boys.
Our regiment, holding a position on or near the valley pike, witnessed his arrival. Our first intimation was a wild yelling in our rear, together with a commotion of horses, causing a momentary belief that the rebel cavalry had dashed in behind us; but we quickly learned it was the stragglers, who, recognizing our chieftain, wildly cheered him as he dashed toward the front, and who at once shouldered their muskets and followed in bis wake. After a few moments’ conversations with Torbert, Devin, Gibbs, and other officers, he was off like a flash. Those of us who witnessed the incident will never forget the wild enthusiasm that greeted our hero as he leaped his famous black charger, Rienzi, over the barricades and dashed along the line. With a thundering shout, the men cheered and cheered again, and frantically waved their hats and flags, Sheridan all the time swinging his hat in recognition.
The work of reforming our lines at once began. Officers and orderlies were galloping out in all directions, spreading the glad news – ” Sheridan has come.” The effect upon the panic-stricken men was marvelous, and the tide was soon rolling toward the front, all firm in the belief that our indefatigable commander would keep his promise to give the audacious and exultant traitors the worst thrashing they had yet received, and aJI anxious to have a hand in the affair.
As the cheering continued, the Johnnies seemed greatly astonished at such demonstrations from men so thoroughly beaten. Their heads began to appear above the stone wall, and many climbed upon it to see what all the exhilaration was about. They soon learned to their sorrow.
Before the attack, Sheridan sent his cavalry out upon either flank. Custer’s division to the right and Merritt’s to the left, while the infantry held the center.
About 4 P. M. the order to advance rang out, and was hailed by the men with a tempest of enthusiasm. That order sounded the death knell of the Southern confederacy, as its execution resulted in the destruction of the last aggressive army of Virginia.
Our line of advance met with desperate resistance, for while their infantry poured forth a terrific shower of lead from muskets, fifty cannon opened upon our advancing lines with deadly effect; but the men, now recovered from the despondency of defeat, and with the lion aroused within them, pressed forward with a power that was irresistible.
The first duty of the Dragoons, according to Devin, was to charge the rebel infantry strongly posted in the streets and yards of Middletown. As we advanced, our infantry held the center while the troopers on either flank charged, as Torbert says, “with an impetuosity they could not withstand.”
Early gives the Yankee cavalry credit for the disaster that befell his army, as the following extract will show: “I found it impossible to rally the troops. They would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind. A terror of the enemy’s cavalry had seized them, and there was no holding them. They left the field in the greatest confusion.”
The following, also from Early’s report, has special reference to the First New York Dragoons: “A small body of the enemy’s cavalry dashed across Cedar Creek, and got into the train and artillery running back on the pike, passed through our men to this side of Strasburg, tore up a bridge, and thus succeeded in capturing the greater part of the artillery, ordinance, medical wagons, and ambulances.”
Early’s chief engineer, Jed Hotchkiss, also says: “The Yankee cavalry fell on our train and artillery just after dark, killing horses, turning over ambulances, caissons, etc., and stampeding the drivers. Only a few Yankee Cavalry did it all.” This small force of Yankee cavalry was the First New York Dragoons, together with the Sixth and Ninth New York, 11 of Devin’s brigade. The Dragoons dashed farther in advance than any other regiment.
Later on, Custer’s division came up and assisted in running back the captured property, and then, through overweening greed for fame, impudently laid claim to all the captures. This bold-faced claim was promptly contradicted by both Merritt and Devin in special official reports. Custer’s division did magnificent fighting during the battle, but his ambition led him to attempt what Merritt styles ” wholesale robbery in this instance.”
The following extracts are from a letter written the day after the battle, while all the incidents were fresh in mind:-
“I write this amid the chaotic surroundings of the most tremendous rebel defeat we have ever witnessed. Our battles at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill were great victories. Their severe trouncing and chase of twenty five miles on the pike was another crusher, but the knock out we gave the grayback rascals yesterday caps the climax. It was a battle of strange and contradictory experiences. In the morning our hitherto victorious army was hurled back in apparently utter ruin. Every face was a picture of sorrow, and on all sides was heard the voice of lamentation; but before night closed, defeat was turned to victory, and mourning to rejoicing.”
Omitting much of the letter we further quote: –
”Our company was saddened by the death of Prosper Swift- killed by a sharp-shooter. He was expecting a commission every day. Corporal Clough, of Co. O, had his head shot off by a cannonball. . . . When the order to advance was given, the men needed no urging. I never saw the boys so eager to up and at the wretches, as they were just mad enough to feel like wreaking vengeance upon them. This desire was intensified by finding our killed and wounded stripped of every vestige of clothing. Such inhuman savagery so horrified and incensed our men that the cry was raised, ‘ Give them no quarters! Take no prisoners!’ and by the number of split-headed rebels found, some must have acted upon that idea. But most of the poor scamps had a chance for their lives by a prompt surrender.
“It is beyond my power to describe the scenes that occurred after we had got their army fairly broken, as they nearly lost all semblance of order, and it was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. In the center our infantry was charging double-quick, and popping it to them, all the while yelling like fiends. Custer on the west side was making havoc with their left flank, while we were giving them Hail Columbia on the opposite flank.
“As we advanced, we reached a creek where the Johnnies were seen crossing and climbing up the other bank. Just then General Devin came up, and in his odd way said: Gentlemen, do you see that battery over there which those people are running off 1′ We saw it, and without further suggestion dashed across the stream, knocking down and running over lots of rebs, and made straight for, he guns. When the drivers were ordered to halt and go the other way, a rebel officer replied:
We can’t, the Yankees are coming, and will get our guns 1′ To his astonishment he was informed that the Yankees were there, and he must turn those guns the other way mighty quick, which he did.
“Night was coming on, but ahead of us could be seen more cannon and a big wagon train making for the rear. With a yell, we started forward and were soon ahead of everything. We ordered the drivers to halt, shooting them and their horses if they refused. In this way, we soon had the road blockaded – and such a scene! Wagons, ambulances, cannon, caissons, and everything on wheels were jammed into the mass. Some of the rebel officers, unaware of our presence, rushed about shooting at the drivers to go ahead; but horses, mules, and vehicles were all crushed together in the surging wreck.
“We certainly took great risks, for there were twenty rebs to one of us; and had they not been bent on getting away, they might easily have made us all prisoners. Other portions of our brigade were promptly on hand, and the work of taking back our trophies was continued until about midnight.”
Capt. R. A. Britton writes:
“We rode down everything we came to. Gibbs sent me back to report that he had captured every wheel from Early, and we were so decimated by men going back with prisoners, guns, and wagons, that in case the enemy reformed they might over power him. Missing both Devin and Merritt, I went directly to Sheridan’s headquarters and delivered Colonel Gibbs’ message. It was the first he knew that we were up to Fisher’s Hill. I reported having counted twenty nine pieces· of artillery, and any amount of wagons. Sheridan replied, ‘Captain, you have brought me the best news I ever received,’ and said he would send a division at once to our support. He also remarked, ‘Better take something before you go; ‘ which I did, as the old Indian said, ‘to accommodate him.’
“The following extracts from General Devin’s official report are pertinent: ” I at once ordered Colonel Nichols to go to the assistance of Colonel Gibbs, and remove all the property possible.” This refers to the time we were so far in the advance. Again he says: “I have no hesitation in asserting that no troops except my command went beyond Strasburg. My officers and men were repeatedly fired upon after passing the railroad, and one man of the First New York Dragoons was killed.”
Corp. E. F. Newcomb gives this bit of his personal experience:
“We got back to Strasburg from Fisher’s Hill about midnight, and while riding along just outside the village I heard a suspicious noise in the field at my left. Turning in that direction I pumped out a couple of balls, and shouted, ‘Surrender, or I will charge you.’ Soon a man in the darkness touched my leg and inquired what they should do with their guns. I told him, •Throw them on the ground, and get in line at once;’ then after a few minutes gave the order, ‘Forward, march,’ as if I had a command in my rear. I soon found the regiment and turned them over to Sergeant De Wolf, who counted eleven of them. The prisoners asked if I was alone when they surrendered. When told that I was, they said that a whole company was in line with orders to fire on me, but had become so badly frightened during the fight that my firing started them on the run. One man gave me a loaded Colt’s revolver, saying he would rather I should have it than the provost guard. My brother still has the revolver.”
That the “bloody chasm” is somewhat bridged over is evidenced by an incident connected with the capture of one of the rebel batteries, in which S. S. Morris participated. A few years since, Comrade Morris, while visiting the scenes of our numerous conflicts, had the pleasure of meeting the Confederate officer in charge of that battery, who not only greeted him with great cordiality but invited him to accept his hospitality. Virginia home and talk over the bloody scenes of the great conflict.
Too late for insertion in full, Captain Godfrey sends this incident of Cedar Creek, to the effect that while conversing with Captain Britton, the latter, seeing a horse man rapidly approaching on the pike, declared, “That’s Little Phil,” and at once called General Gibbs’s attention to the fact. Hastily glancing through his field-glass Gibbs exclaimed, ” You are right,” and immediately rode out to meet the hero of ” Sheridan’s Ride.” “We had the pleasure,” adds the Captain, “of seeing two of the grandest men of the day grasp each other’s hands, and each proceeds to do his part to make that occasion one of the first to be remembered as long as ‘Old Glory’ floats upon the air.”
In this battle, Edson S. Barber, of Co. E recaptured a flag and was rewarded with a furlough.