October 9, 1864 (Sunday)
Alfred Torbet had had enough. For days, the Confederate cavalry had dogged his own as he played rear guard for Philip Sheridan’s army moving north from the upper Shenandoah Valley. But the previous night it was decided – Both George Armstrong Custer’s Division and that of Wesley Merritt would be enjoined and attack the outnumbered Rebels.
While Merritt had encamped near Tom’s Brook along the Valley Pike, Custer was on the parallel running Back road six miles away. At dawn, his division would move south to join their comrades. If resistance was met along the way, he was to attack. And as Custer trotted south, Merritt was to place one brigade on the Pike and his other two to the right between the two roads to link with Custer.
The first strike was dealt by Merritt’s Reserve Brigade moving along the Valley Pike and helmed by Col. Casper Crowninshield. They were ordered by Merritt to march south and, if no enemy was met, wheel right in an attempt to gain the enemy’s rear. After a quarter-mile, they met the Rebels, under the command of Lunsford Lomax, formed a skirmish line and connected with the brigade on their right.
“The enemy opened with artillery and simultaneously charged our skirmish line,” wrote Crowninshield, “driving it back a short distance, when effectually routing the enemy, they were forced to retire. We again advanced….”
As Crowninshield skirmished, Custer’s Division was in the thick of it. He had moved south upon the Back Road “to attack and whip the enemy,” as he wrote in his report. Near Mount Olive, they met the Rebels, “and drove them back upon their reserves at a trot.”
They skirmished for quite a while, but pushed their enemies back upon their main line. “This position was well adapted for defense,” Custer continued, “being a high and abrupt ridge of hills running along the south bank of Tom’s Run [Brook]. Near the base of this ridge the enemy had posted a strong force of dismounted cavalry behind stone fences and barricades of rails, logs, &c., while running along near the summit was a second and stronger line of barricades, also defended by dismounted cavalry. On the crest of the ridge the enemy had placed six guns in position, strongly supported by columns of cavalry.”
The Confederates before Custer numbered upwards of 3,500-strong, under the command of Thomas Rosser. They outnumbered Custer by a thousand men.
As legend remembers it (thanks greatly to the pen of Custer’s comrade-in-arms/biographer, Frederick Whittaker of the 6th New York Cavalry), out rode Custer “far in advance of the line, his glittering figure in plain view of both armies. Sweeping off his broad sombrero, he threw it down to this knee in a profound salute to his honorable foe. It was like the action of a knight in the lists. A fair fight and no malice.
“On the ridge before him he had seen Rosser, his classmate at the academy, with whom he had held many a wordy contest in days of old, and who had been his great rival at ‘the Point.’ Rosser had but just come to the valley and was already hailed as its savior. He saw Custer and turned to his staff, pointing him out, ‘You see that officer down there,’ said he. ‘That’s General Custer, the Yankees are so proud of, and I intend to give him the best whipping today that he ever got. See if I don’t.’
“And he smiled triumphantly as he looked round at his gallant Southern cavaliers.”
Bluster and ridiculousness aside, Custer’s artillery opened upon that of the Rebels. “Owing to the extreme defectiveness of the ammunition used,” recalled Custer, “but little execution was done, except to create considerable confusion among the led horses of he enemy and to compel a change in their position.”
Seeing this change, Custer reacted, throwing forward a strong line of skirmishers and even his own artillery. With those moving forward, he positioned another brigade to attack. From the ridge above, the Rebels could espy the entire thing, and their artillery fire was accurate and their shells not defective. “One shot from the enemy’s guns killed or disabled all the cannoneers of one piece,” Custer reported. After still more fire, and even though their ammunition was below par, the Federals managed to disable a Rebel gun and push the other pieces off the ridge.
Meanwhile, on the Union left, Wesley Merritt was hotly engaged with Lomax’s Rebels, his flank nipping at the Rebels’ own. He had managed to slip a battery into a position which allowed it to enfilade the entire line in his front. This, combined with the pressure applied by his troopers, the enemy began to break.
For Custer on the right, a frontal attack was simply out of the question, and so Custer ordered three regiments to attack the Rebel left, taking them in the flank. The rest of his division would attack as well, pinning down the bulk of Rosser’s command. Through trick of geography, the three flanking regiments were able to spring upon the Rebels with little notice, turning their flank almost immediately.
“The enemy,” Custer continued, “seeing his flank turned and his retreat cut off, broke in the utmost confusion and sought safety in headlong flight. The pursuit was kept up at a gallop by the entire command for a distance of nearly two miles, where a brigade of the enemy was formed to check our farther advance.”
The Rebels before both Merritt and Custer were in full retreat. “Not a moment’s delay now occurred,” wrote Merritt in his report, “the enemy was pressed at every step.”
“Hearing the firing on General Rosser’s front retiring rapidly,” wrote Lunsford Lomax, “and stragglers coming from his command with the statement that his force was broken, I withdrew my force slowly, the enemy pressing. As long as the country was broken and wooded my commanded retired in good order and check the enemy from making a rapid pursuit. […] On reaching the open and unbroken country at Woodstock the enemy charged Johnson’s brigade, which was completely broken. I was unable to rally this command.”
“The success of the day was now merely a question of the endurance of horseflesh,” wrote Merritt, “and let it be here stated that no more splendid commentary could be made on the soldierly qualities of the troopers of this division than the fact that their horses , with but few exceptions, endured a run of nearly twenty miles and were found the next day in condition for a reasonable march.
“Tom’s Creek [Brook] was left far in the rear, Maurertown was passed. The enemy’s opposition was fitful; each time our troopers came in view they would rush on the discomfited rebels with their sabers, and send them howling in every direction; numbers fled to the mountains.”
The command did not halt until reaching the foot of Mount Jackson, and “fragments of the enemy’s column could be seen flying miles in advance; where they stopped the terror-stricken wretches could scarcely tell themselves, I cannot.”
Before these poor Rebels could return to their camp, words was sent to their commander, Jubal Early, though their rout was hidden from him. “I have not heard definitely from Rosser,” he wrote to General Lee that afternoon, “but he is, I understand, falling back in good order, having rallied his command, which is on what is called the Back Road, which is west of the pike; but Lomax’s command, which was on the [Valley] pike, came back to this place in confusion.”
While Rosser was able to gather his strength, it was not enough to impress Custer, who pushed him ever back. Once, when the Rebels rallied enough to make a stand, Custer attacked.
“The whole line moved forward at a charge. Once more he was compelled to trust his safety to the fleetness of his steed rather than the metal of his saber. His retreat soon became a demoralized rout. Vainly did the most gallant of this affrighted herd endeavor to rally a few supports around their standards and stay the advance of their eager and exulting pursuers, who, in one overwhelming current, were bearing down everything before them.
“Never since the opening of this war had there been witnessed such a complete and decisive overthrow of the enemy’s cavalry. The pursuit was kept up vigorously for nearly twenty miles, and only relinquished then from the complete exhaustion of our horses and the dispersion of our panic-stricken enemies.”
Though this was a disaster for Early’s cavalry, he was more focused on the enemy’s infantry. Continuing his letter to General Lee, he informed him that Sheridan had moved from Fisher’s Hill and it did not appear as if he would be making a return visit to the upper valley. His next move was, however, a mystery. Would he send part of his force to General Grant before Petersburg and Richmond, or would he remain to the north, guarding the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Early concluded that if Sheridan remained in the Valley, he would muster his Rebels and attack him, “and I think I can defeat his infantry and thwart his movements….” But if Sheridan joined Grant, Early’s next move would be up to Lee.
A more pressing problem, however, was supplies. “He has laid waste nearly all of Rockingham and Shenandoah [Counties], and I will have to rely on Augusta for my supplies, and they are not abundant there. Sheridan’s purpose, under Grant’s orders, has been to render the Valley untenable by our troops by destroying the supplies.”
Along with destroying supplies, Sheridan was amassing quite a collection of Confederate artillery. Custer had captured six guns, while Merritt today held five. “The eleven pieces of artillery captured today make thirty-six pieces captured in the Valley since the 19th of September. Some of the artillery captured was new and never had been fired before.”
That night, in Custer’s encampment, the spoils of the battle were inventories. Custer himself found not only General Rosser’s coat, but his pet squirrel. Being of different sizes, the jacket was a poor fit, but Custer thought his old classmate could help. Taking up pen and paper, he wrote to Rosser asking him if he might not recommend a tailor to shorten the coattails a bit.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p431, 447, 491-492, 520-521, 559, 612; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer by Frederick Whittaker; Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch. [↩]