March 2, 1865 (Thursday)
Through the long night, Confederates under Jubal Early made their retirement to Waynesboro, leaving Staunton behind them. There, they established a thin line of defenses on either side of the road, just west of the town.
“My object, in taking this position,” wrote Early after the war, “was to secure the removal of five pieces of artillery for which there were no horses, and some stores still in Waynesboro, as well as to present a bold front to the enemy, and ascertain the object of his movement, which I could not do very well if I took refuge at once in the mountain.”
All told, he had in his band little more than 1,500. Whatever bold front he hoped to present would have to be very bold indeed. “I did not intend making my final stand on this ground,” he continued, ” yet I was satisfied that if my men would fight, which I had no reason to doubt, I could hold the enemy in check until night, and then cross the river and take position in Rockfish Gap; for I had done more difficult things than that during the war.” And yet, this was not to be.
The Federals were helmed by Philip Sheridan, who had pushed them with due speed south to Staunton, above which they encamped the night previous. But come the dawn, they were again on the march, turning east toward Waynesboro and Early’s Confederates. Leading this march was the division of George Armstrong Custer.
“My orders were to proceed to Waynesborough, ascertain something definite in regard to the position, movements, and strength of the enemy, and, if possible, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South River at that point,” wrote Custer in his report filed soon after. “The roads were almost impassible, owing to the mud caused by the heavy rains of the past few days. Our march was necessarily slow.”
They came first upon the enemy in the town of Fishersville, after a slog of six miles. There Early had placed his advance pickets, whom Custer’s own drove with ease, the enemy fading in the direction of Waynesboro. But there, Custer discovered Early’s main line, “posted behind a formidable line of earth-works. His position was well chosen, being upon a range of hills west of the town, from which his artillery could command all approaches, while his infantry could, by their fire, sweep the open space extending along their entire front.”
Custer now selected the brigade commanded by Col. William Wells, which was moved forward in an attempt to compel Early to show his hand. There was, as yet, no attack. This demonstration showed to Custer that a frontal attack would likely not bring victory, but merely blood and dying upon his own men.
“But one point seemed favorable to attack,” Custer recalled. “The enemy’s left flank, instead of resting on South River, was thrown well forward, leaving a short gap between his left and the river. The approach to this point could be made under cover of the woods.”
For this, Custer now chose three regiments, placing them under Col. Alexander Pennington with orders to dismount and fall upon the enemy’s left. Pennington gathered men from Ohio, New Jersey, and Connecticut, drawing them right and into the woods. Now concealed, he himself reconnoitered the ground over which they would assault.
This movement, though mostly concealed from the enemy’s eyes was espied by Early. “I immediately sent a messenger with notice of this fact to General Wharton,” he wrote, “who was on that flank, and with orders for him to look out and provide for the enemy’s advance; and another messenger with notice to the guns on the left, and directions for them to fire towards the advancing force, which could not be seen from where they were.”
The ground now scouted, Col. Pennington rode back to his men, still concealed in the woods, and ordered them forward. They came as close as they might, to within 100 yards of the Confederate left, and were still unnoticed. They halted at a fence, pausing to pull it down, and then charged.
“The movement,” wrote Pennington, “was completely successful. The entire line of the enemy was thrown into confusion and obliged to retreat, many throwing away their arms and accouterments to enable them to do so more effectually.”
Just as the attack came upon Wharton’s line, Wharton himself, who had not received Early’s warning, rode up to Early. Now in sinking shock, Early “pointed out to him the disorder in his line, and ordered him to ride immediately to that point and rectifying it. Before he got back, the troops gave way on the left, after making very slight resistance, and soon everything was in a state of confusion and the men commenced crossing the river.”
The Confederate artillery, unlike the infantry, remained at their posts up until the Federals were upon them. “One piece was captured,” recalled Custer, “with the sponge staff still inserted in the bore and the charged rammed half way home.”
Early rode himself to the water’s edge and across, trying to stop his men and trying to rally them, “but they could not be rallies, and the enemy forded the river above and got into our rear.”
“The rout of the enemy,” Custer went on, “could not have been more complete; no order or organization was preserved. The pursuit was taking up by my entire command, and continue through Rockfish Gap for a distance of twelve miles.”
Early could now see that “everything was lost.” After Custer’s men had gotten between his own and the mountains, and the retreat cut off, Early “rode aside into the woods, and in that way escaped capture. I went to the top of a hill to reconnoiter, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners, and a force of the enemy moving rapidly towards Rockfish Gap.”
General Early had with him his staff and as many as twenty men. They rode first for Greenwood Depot, to where the stores of Staunton and Waynesboro had been removed, but upon approach could see that the Federals were upon this as well. It was then to Jarman’s Gap, three miles distant, and there found some shelter for the night. The weather turned colder and ice formed across the roads, stranding Early and his small clutch of survivors.
In the meanwhile, Custer counted his bounty:
“Among some of the substantial fruits of this victory we had possession of about 1,800 prisoners [probably closer to 1,500], 14 pieces of artillery, 17 battle-flags, and a train of nearly 200 wagons and ambulances, including General Early’s headquarters’ wagon, continaing all his offical desks and records. The result of this engagement was of the highest value and importance to us for another reason; it opened a way across the Blue Ridge Mountains through Rockfish Gap, and thereby saved us from several days’ delay and marching.”
Sheridan would rest his men for a few days upon reaching Charolettesville, and would avoid Lynchburg all together. Early would shuffle around some uncaptured officers, ordering them to Lynchburg, but for no real purpose. For the entire month of March, Early would try to gather his strength in Lynchburg, but he would find that there was little strength to gather.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p502, 504-505; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early. [↩]