September 23, 1864 (Friday)
Though Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Valley was undeniably the victor of the previous day’s battle at Fisher’s Hill, the dawn of this morning found him in an undeniably foul mood. While his infantry had been battling the Rebels for the hill, his cavalry was backing away from a fight in the parallel Luray Valley.
Sheridan had planned for his cavalry to race down the Luray and circle round to cut off the Confederate retreat. At the close of the previous day, he wired General Grant that “if they push on vigorously to the main valley, the result of this day’s engagement will be more signal.”
Alfred Torbert, commanding the Federal Cavalry, brought with him the divisions of Wesley Merritt and James Wilson, and found the Rebels in their front fading toward the south. With some pursuit, they found them digging in near Milford. The Confederate cavalry’s position was a fine one, anchored on one flank by a mountain and on the other, a creek.
There was at first an attempt by the Federal artillery to feel out the enemy position, and soon skirmishers added their ginger to the air. But that was all. General Torbert, believing the position unassailable, held back. There was, of course, some movements on the flanks – this was cavalry, after all, but in the end, Torbet decided to see that better part of valor, and began to withdraw north, unknowing of the Federal victory at Fisher’s Hill.
On the morning of this date, Torbet was still retiring toward the main body. The ambulances he had placed in the front of the column, supposing the enemy to be in his rear. As they neared Front Royal, they were set upon by 120 men under John Singleton Mosby, though the Ranger himself was recuperating away from the action.
They were led by Sam Chapman, who had espied only the wagons, taking notice of the columns of cavalry when it was too late. As he turned to flee into the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lt. Charles McMaster of the 2nd US Cavalry, who had been guarding the ambulances, gave chase.
According to Mosby’s men, McMaster rode in front of them, dismounted and tried to halt them with nothing but his saber. They shot him and rode over his body, unable to get out of the way. But according to nearby Federals, McMaster was not attempting to stop them, but feeling he was surrounded, to surrender. If so, the Rebels had murdered a prisoner of war and then rode over the body. One Confederate woman corroborated this story in her diary, writing that McMaster had surrendered and was even begging for his life when he was shot with his own pistol.
Though McMaster was not dead, he was mortally wounded, and would linger some weeks longer. Believing that he was or would soon be dead, the Federals rounded up as many prisoners as they could find to enact their revenge.
They found first Thomas Anderson and after taking him prisoner, murdered him under a tree. Then came Lucian Love and David Jones, who were both murdered in a graveyard. But the killing that stood most in the minds of the Federals as well as the citizens was that of Henry Rhodes. The seventeen year old boy was not officially a member of Mosby’s Rangers, but stole away on a borrowed horse as they passed through Front Royal hours earlier. Upon capture, he was tied behind two horses and dragged as if on parade back into town.
His widowed mother begged the Federals to spare her wayward son, but the men of George Armstrong Custer’s brigade refused. He was taken to a hillside and the executioner emptied his side arm into him.
The Federals, however, were not yet finished. William Overby and a man who went only by the name of Carter were captured by the 2nd US Cavalry and brought before General Torbert. He offered to spare them their lives if only they might tell him where Mosby made his headquarters. Both refused to reveal anything and they were turned over to the provost marshal, Theodore Bean, for further interrogation. When he could coax nothing more out of the men but their names, Torbert ordered them to be hanged for not betraying their commander.
Seven were now dead, murdered as weregild for one. There would be more blood, more reckoning, but not on this day. Mosby, who would learn of the murders in a few days, blamed Custer. Though there’s little evidence that Custer was involved, the hands of his men were most certainly bloody.
Sheridan hardly paid the executions any mind. But Torbert was chastised for not brushing aside the Rebels in the Luray Valley. He also turned his wrath toward William Averell, who he never cared for. Sheridan relieved Averell for failing to round up prisoners following the battle the day before. Unburdened, Sheridan would take up a formal pursuit of the Rebels the next morning.1
- Sources: Gray Ghost by James A. Ramage; Mosby’s Rangers by Jeffry D. Wert; Rebel by Kevin Siepel; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. [↩]