“At light on the morning of the 19th; our cavalry pickets at the crossing of the Opequon on the Berryville road were driven in, and information having been sent me of the fact, I immediately ordered all the troops at Stephenson’s depot to be in readiness to move….” – Jubal Early.
Two days previous, General Early had divided his much smaller army in the face of that under Philip Sheridan. Half remained near Winchester, while the other half marched north to Martinsburg. Upon reaching this important railroad town, the Rebels fell upon the line. Early, however, was forced to return to Winchester when he heard that General Grant had parlayed with Sheridan. And an attack was coming, he knew. And on the morning of this date, before his army was fully concentrated, it came.
What he heard along the Berryville Road crossing of the Opequon was a division of Federal cavalry under James Wilson throwing themselves against Stephen Ramseur’s Confederate division – about one-fourth of his entire army – and driving them back.
Early sent word to John Gordon to move south with his division at once from Bunker Hill to Winchester. He likewise ordered John Breckenridge to come north with his division. But before long, he understood that neither were moving, and so turned to Robert Rodes’ Division near Stephenson’s Depot, just north of town.
By this time, it wasn’t just Federal cavalry in their front, but infantry – the entire Sixth Corps commanded by Horatio Wright. When Sheridan arrived on the scene, he noticed first the ground, and how it gave advantage to neither side: “The Confederate line lay along some elevated ground about two miles east of Winchester, and extended from Abraham’s Creek north across the Berryville pike, the left being hidden in the heavy timber on Red Bud run. Between this line and mine, especially on my right, clumps of woods and patches of underbrush occurred here and there, but the undulating ground consisted mainly of open fields, many of which were cover with standing corn that had already ripened.”
Following behind the Sixth Corps was William Emory’s Nineteenth. The going was slowed by the land, but also by ammunition wagons. This would delay things for hours. “General Early,” wrote Sheridan, “was not slow to avail himself of the advantages thus offered him, and my chances of striking him in detail were growing less every moment, for Gordon and Rodes were hurrying their divisions from Stephenson’s depot across-country on a line that would place Gordon in the woods south of Red Bud Run, and bring Rodes into the interval between Gordon and Ramseur.”
This was precisely Early’s plan, if only Ramseur’s troops could maintain. “These troops held the enemy’s main force in check until Gordon’s and Rodes’ divisions arrived from Stephenson’s depot,” wrote Jubal Early in his memoirs. “Gordon’s division arrived first, a little after ten o’clock A. M., and was placed under cover in rear of a piece of woods behind the interval between Ramseur’s line and the Red Bud.”
Early, of course, knew an attack was coming, and thought it imperative that he strike first before Sheridan could bring up his entire command. In this way, both commanders were trying to destroy the other in detail. “Knowing that it would not do for us to await the shock of the enemy’s attack,” Early recalled, “Gordon was directed to examine the ground on the left, with a view to attacking a force of the enemy which had taken position in a piece of wood in front of him, and while he was so engaged, Rodes arrived with three of his brigades, and was directed to form on Gordon’s right in rear of another piece of woods.”
As Rodes was falling into line, pickets were surprised to see hordes of Federals massing in the woods to their front, between Ramseur’s and Gordon’s lines. This was Emory’s Nineteenth Corps, just now gathering their strength. “It was a moment of imminent and thrilling danger,” continued Early, “as it was impossible for Ramseur’s division, which numbered only about 1,700 muskets, to withstand the immense force advancing against it. The only chance for us was to hurl Rodes and Gordon upon the flank of the advancing columns, and they were ordered forward at once to the attack. They advanced in most gallant style through the woods into the open ground, and attacked with great vigor, while Nelson’s artillery on the right, and Braxton’s on the left, opened a destructive fire.”
While to Early’s mind, his army attacked first, Sheridan saw it differently: “Just before noon the line of Getty, Ricketts, and Grover [from both the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps] moved forward, and as we advanced, the Confederates, covered by some heavy woods on their right, slight underbrush and corn-fields along their centre, and a large body of timber on their left along the Red Bud, opened fire from their whole front.”
The Federals were faced by either advancing or steady lines of the enemy, but the force of the Northern attack was too much for the Rebels. “We gained considerable ground at first, especially on our left,” Sheridan continued, “but the desperate resistance which the right met with demonstrated that the time we had unavoidably lost in the morning had been of incalculable value to Early, for it was evident that he had been enabled already to do far concentrate his troops as to have the different divisions of his army in a connected line of battle in good shape to resist.”
The center and left of the Federal line met with fine success, pushing Ramseur’s weary troops back even farther. And while success even extended to Sheridan’s right, there formed a gap between that division and the other two. This “destroyed the continuity of my general line, and increased an interval that had already been made by the deflection of Ricketts to the left.” As the Union troops advanced, they fanned out, spreading their line wider and wider as if following the contours of the two creeks.
The Federal attack had come at Early, seeming to catch him off guard. While his infantry sorted itself out, he turned to his artillery. “[Carter] Braxton’s guns, in which now was our only hope, resolutely stood their ground, and under the personal supervision of Lieutenant Colonel Braxton and Colonel T.H. Carter, my then Chief of Artillery, opened with canister on the enemy. The fire was so rapid and well directed that the enemy staggered, halted, and commenced falling back, leaving a battle flag on the ground, whose bearer was cut down by a canister shot.”
This pause, along with the widening gap in Sheridan’s line, gave Early an opportunity. “Our advance, which had been suspended for a moment, was resumed, and the enemy’s attacking columns were thrown into great confusion and driven from the field.”
Hyperbolic as Early was, Sheridan mostly concurred: “At this juncture both Gordon and Rodes struck the weak spot where the right of the Sixth Corps and the left of the Nineteenth should have been in conjunction, and succeeded in checking my advance by driving back a part of Rickett’s division, and the most of Grover’s.”
As Early viewed the spectacle, he concluded “it was a grand sight to see this immense body hurled back in utter disorder before my two divisions, numbering a very little over 5,000 muskets.” Even his worn down troops in Ramseur’s Division were reforming. Even his cavalry was performing beautifully – throwing back their Northern counterparts and holding infantry in place. All in all, it was clear to Early that “a splendid victory had been gained. The ground in front was strewn with the enemy’s dead and wounded, and some prisoners had been taken.”
This splendid victory was bought at a dear cost. “Major General Rodes had been killed, in the very moment of triumph,” wrote Early, “while conducting the attack of his division with great gallantry and skill, and this was a heavy blow to me. Brigadier General Godwin of Ramseur’s division, had been killed, and Brigadier General York of Gordon’s division, had lost an arm. Other brave men and officers had fallen, and we could illy bear the loss of any of them.”
As these two divisions retreated, Sheridan called up reserves, “and just as the flank of the enemy’s troops in pursuit of Grover was presented, Upton’s brigade led in person by both Russell and Upton, struck it in a charge so vigorous as to drive the Confederates back in turn to their original ground.”
Like Early, Sheridan paid dearly for his victory. “The charge of Russell was most opportune,” he wrote, “but it cost many men in killed and wounded. Among the former was the courageous Russell himself, killed by a piece of shell that passed through his heart, although he had previously been struck by a bullet in the left breast, which wound, from its nature, must have proved mortal, yet of which he had not spoken. Russell’s death oppressed us all with sadness, and me particularly.”
Early had but one division that had not been engaged in the main battle. This was Breckenridge, and though it was not with him, it had tangled with Federal cavalry south of Winchester. It was everything he could do to extract his force, and though he was called upon in the early morning, he could not reach the battlefield proper until 2pm.
There was a lull in which Sheridan was urged to direct George Crook’s corps into battle, but this he resisted, hoping instead to slide them south of town to cut off Early’s retreat. He waited for news from his cavalry near Stephenson’s Depot, but no news was coming. In the end, he “directed Crook to take post on the right of the Nineteenth Corps and, when the action was renewed, to push his command forward as a turning column in conjunction with Emory.”
This all took time, and it was into this time that Breckinridge’s Division was able to slip. As Breckinridge made his egress, Sheridan learned that they were being driven and saw an opportunity to collapse Early’s lines. “Wright was instructed to advance in concert with Crook, by swinging Emory and the right of the Sixth Corps to the left together in a half-wheel.”
They came and met with success almost immediately. Crook began to turn the Confederate left where Breckenridge’s division was to enter the fray.
Though Breckenridge could not make it to the main line, Early placed him at right angles with the Valley Pike to protect his left rear from Crook’s wheeling attack. The Rebels met with some success, in the center and left, but the right, once held by Ramseur’s Division, was reported to have given away completely and that the Federals were around their flank. With nothing else to be done, Early gave the order to retreat. But the reports were fiction, and only discovered as such after the lines had been abandoned. Early was able to stem the flow of those retiring, though it was mostly Breckenridge who remained.
Breckenridge, thus isolated, caught Sheridan’s eye: “The ground which Breckenridge was holding was open, and offered and opportunity such as seldom had been presented during the war for a mounted attack, and [Alfred] Torbert [commanding Sheridan’s cavalry] was not slow to take advantage of it. The instant Merritt’s division could be formed for the charge, it went at Breckenridge’s infantry and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry with such momentum as to break the Confederate left, just as Averell was passing around it.
“Merritt’s brigades, led by Custer, Lowell, and Devin, met from the start with pronounced success, and with sabre or pistol in hand literally rode down a battery of five guns and took about 1,200 prisoners. Almost simultaneously with this cavalry charge, Crook struck Breckenridge’s right and Gordon’s left, forcing these divisions to give way, and as they retired, Wright, in a vigorous attack, quickly broke Rodes up and pressed Ramseur so hard that the whole Confederate army fell back, contracting its line within some breastworks which had been thrown up at a former period of the war, immediately in front of Winchester.”
“The whole front line had now given way,” Early remembered, “but a large portion of the men were rallied and formed behind an indifferent line of breastworks, which had been made just outside Winchester during the first year of the war, and with the aid of the artillery which was brought back to this position, the progress of the enemy’s infantry was arrested.”
For a short time, Early’s forces held, but soon again, the Federal cavalry was flowing around their left and the infantry pressed the attack. “Panic took possession of the enemy,” wrote Sheridan, “his troops, now fugitives and stragglers, seeking escape into and through Winchester.”
“The enemy’s cavalry force,” Early continued, “was too large for us, and having the advantage of open ground, it again succeeded in getting around our left, producing great confusion, for which there was no remedy. Nothing was now left for us but to retire through Winchester.” It was Ramseur’s division alone that held their order, forming a rear guard while Early’s bewildered masses flowed south.
This decisive victory cost Sheridan over 5,000 in killed, wounded and missing. Early paid a higher price, losing 3,600 – over a quarter of his army. Both would now rest and gather their strength. The contest for the Shenandoah Valley was only beginning.1
- Accounts taken mostly from both Sheridan’s and Early’s memoirs. Also The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]