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1864 October 1: More on Sheridan’s Victory at Opequon

October 2, 2014

The following report on Union General Philip H. Sheridan‘s victory at the Battle of Opequon, or Third Winchester, appeared in the October 1, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  As with previous articles on this battle, the killed and wounded Confederate officers are not entirely correct.  In the following square-bracket notes, k=killed, w=wounded, mw=mortally wounded.

Gen. Sheridan’s Great Victory. 

Graphic Account of Movements and Battle.

The following is the Baltimore American’s special account of the great battle in the Shenandoah Valley :

HEADQUARTERS MIDDLE MILITARY DIVISION, WINCHESTER, Sept. 18,—8 P. M.—Gen. Sheridan’s army has this day fought one of the most successful and decisive battles of the war.  Victory again perched on our banner, and the rebel army has been defeated and utterly routed with the loss of at least 3,000 killed and wounded, including five Generals, namely, Rhodes [sic: Robert E. Rodes mw], Wharton,¹ Bradley Johnson, Gordon [John B. Gordon], York² [w] and Goodman [sic: Archibald C. Godwin k], the first two of whom were killed and others badly wounded, and we have captured 2,500 prisoners, 9 battle-flags, representing 9 different regimental organizations, and 5 pieces of artillery with caissons.

Sunday morning Early [Jubal A. Early] sent Gordon’s division of rebel infantry from Bunker Hill, where it had been stationed for the past few days to drive Averill [sic: William W. Averell] out of Martinsburg and destroy the bridges on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad across the Opequan [sic], which they eroneously [sic] though had been repaired.  They occupied Martinsburg for a short time without doing any damage to the railroad, and were eventually driven by Averill as far as Darkesville.

Gen. Sheridan learning this movement ordered the whole command to break camp and prepare to march.  Accordingly, Sunday at 3 o’clock tents were all struck.  The left divisions were all under arms and prepared to march at a moment’s notice.  About 9 o’clock orders were received from Sheridan for the 6th and 19th corps to be ready to start at 8 o’clock and the Army of Western Virginia under Crook [George Crook] at 5 the following morning.—Shortly after 5 o’clock Wilson’s [James H. Wilson] division of cavalry crossed the Opequan [sic] at Berryville, took the Winchester pike, moving his command rapidly along the road, driving the enemy’s skirmish line.  He gallantly charged the enemy’s field works with the first brigade and carried them at the point of the sabre, capturing 30 prisoners.  In this charge Colonel Brenton [sic: William P. Brinton w] of the 18th Pennsylvania cavalry was wounded within a few feet of the enemy’s works while gallantly leading his regiment.  These field works were constructed by rebels to guard the ford at Opequan[sic] and prevent our passage at that point.

Our cavalry having secured a safe passage for the infantry, this being ready the advance was sounded at about 12 o’clock and the different lines move forward.  The two corps advanced in splendid style as though marching at review or parade.

The first line had not advanced more than 200 yards before it became warmly engaged with the enemy, who were posted in line about 600 yards distant.  At the same time our artillery opened a furious cannonade, throwing shells and solid shot into the opposite woods, where the enemy could be distinctly seen moving up reinforcements.  Our left line of battle continued to advance steadily, until within nearly 200 yards of the enemy’s lines, when the rebels opened a furious cannonade with grape and cannister [sic] from two batteries which they had kept secreted and which ploughed through our advancing lines, mowing down large numbers of our men.—The first line was obliged to give away under so murderous a fire, and in retreating behind the second line, threw it into consternation, and it also was obliged to fall back behind the third line, which had in the meantime been ordered to lie down in order to avoid, as much as possible, the effects of the withering fire which the enemy’s batteries were directing against our advancing lines.

The artillery was now brought up and posted in a commanding position to silence those batteries of the enemy which had caused us so much annoyance, and our line reformed and again moved forward, regaining the advanced position which they had held when they were obliged to fall back ;  but this success was not gained without the most obstinate resistance on the part of the enemy.

Gen. Sheridan had previously ridden along the lines and was received everywhere by the men with the greatest enthusiasm, and when they advanced it was with the terrible determination to do or die in the attempt.

Having regained the advanced position which we had previously occupied, the different lines of battle were ordered to lie down and wait the arrival of Gen. Crook’s corps which was held in reserve on the eastern side of the Opequan [sic].  They were ordered up to take position on the extreme right of our line, and in order to counteract a movement on the part of the enemy who were massing troops on their left flank with a view of turning our right.

At precisely 8 o’clock Gen. Crook formed on the right of the 9th Corps, his 1st Division on the right of our line, and the 2d Division in the rear supporting a Division of the 9th corps.  Gen. Crook having formed his men rode along the lines and was received with most vociferous cheering, the men promising to go in and wipe out Winchester.

Gen. Torbett [sic: Alfred T. A. Torbert], with Merritt’s [Wesley Merritt] and Averill’s divisions of cavalry having crossed Opequan [sic] about 9 o’clock at Burns’ and Knox’s fords had been hard at work all day fighting considerable bodies of the enemy’s infantry and cavalry and having been successful in steadily driving them before them, now arrived on our extreme right and was prepared to take part in the final struggle which secured us victory.

Gen. Sheridan rode out to where Gen. Torbett [sic] was stationed, and after a consultation with him as to the part the cavalry was to take, ordered a final charge which was, made with an impetuosity which nothing could resist.

Our line extending nearly three miles in length, advanced with cheers and yells which could be distinctly heard amid the noise of artillery and musketry, in a charge which for its impetuosity has seldom been exceeded in any battle of this war.  Our men had determined to win the day and nerved themselves accordingly for the coming struggle.

Our men had determined to win the day, and nerved themselves accordingly for the coming struggle, and as our lines, advanced closer and closer to those of the enemy, the battle became more and more fierce.  The slaughter now was awful.  At every discharge men could be seen distinctly dropping all around, and the two contending lines at some points could not have been over two hundred yards apart.  Just at this critical period, above the roar of artillery, musketry, cheers, and the fierce yells of the contending armies could be distinctly heard the shrill notes of the cavalry bugle, sounding the charge, which was the death knell to Early’s army.  There could be seen the gallant Custer [George A. Custer] and Merritt, each with the headquarters flag in hand, and conspicuous amongst the advancing squadrons, gallantly leading the charge which, in connection with the desperate courage of our infantry, secured in the victory ;  the columns of Early’s command were forced to give way and break before the fierce onslaught which our cavalry made upon them, who, with sabre in hand, rode them down, cutting them right and left, capturing 721 privates and non-commissioned officers, with nine battle flags and two guns.  The broken and demoralized divisions comprising Early’s command now fled in confusion, throwing away everything which could in any way impede their flight, and strewing the ground with their arms.  Some made for the heights beyond Winchester, but they were speedily dislodged by Averill, and forced to bear a hasty and ignominious retreat up the valley, where such of Early’s command as are left him are now scattered.

Our victory is a glorious one, well calculated to thrill the hearts of all loyal men.

The Michigan brigade, Custer’s command, claim the honor of killing Gen. Rhodes [sic], when they charge his division.³

The Herald correspondent with Sheridan, in his account of the great victory, says the enemy was first met at Darkeville by Averill, who drove in their pickets.  At the same time, however, brisk firing was heard on the left.  Averill then formed his whole division and advanced, finding the enemy at Bunker Hill.  They proved to be Imboden’s force of retreating cavalry.4   Just as our artillery was brought up and opened fire, the force scampered off in a most ridiculous manner.  Another advance was made and the enemy found near Stephenson.  Their artillery opened briskly and was responded to by Wier’s [sic]5.  Averill swung his forces around         as to bring it upon the rear rebel artillery, at the same time our front pressing forward.  Simultaneously with these movements a flanking column was sent around to the left.  The enemy became confused and we pressed forward, silenced their artillery and drove off the supporting infantry.  This movement brought about a junction of Averill’s and Custer’s forces, who had crossed the creek higher up.  They had not met with so much opportunities though a Sprucetown they encountered a heavy force which they attacked vigorously while Averill was crowding the enemy from an opposite direction, forcing them to get out of their position as soon as possible.  Averill’s division was on the right, and Powell’s6 [William H. Powell] on the extreme left. Thus formed, after going a mile or so, the enemy’s cavalry was found in line.  advanced to drive it in, when the enemy made a charge against our left centre, striking full on Custer’s front.  As this column approached, we prepared to meet it.  Sabres were drawn and all was got ready.  On came the rebels, their savers flashing and with hideous yells, scattering themselves so as to make their          of attack fierce as possible.  Just as they got within pistol range of Custer, his brigade went forward recklessly upon the foe.  Then, too, the whole of Averill’s line dashed forward to flank the attacking party.

The rebels could not stand this attack.—They gave way, and on went our chargers, cutting and slashing through their ranks.  About this time, the cavalry line pitched on the infantry line.  Constant fighting, charging and counter-charging, became frequent along the whole line.  At one and the same time Schoemaker’s [sic]7 brigade and Averill’s division charged and took the fortified hill in view of Winchester, Powell’s brigade of the  same division were making and receiving charges under a heavy fire from Fort Jackson ;  Wier’s [sic] artillery was engaged in shelling a redoubt in front of Winchester ;  Merritt’s division keeping up a heavy demonstration on the left of the pike ;  Crook’s corps advancing and attacking the rebel cavalry on the opposite side of Red Bend Creek ;  Emery’s [sic: William H. Emory] corps pouring a rapid fire in on the left of Crook ;  Wright’s [Horatio G. Wright] corps doing the same on the left of Emery [sic], and Wilson’s cavalry cutting in forwards the enemy’s rear, far to the other side of the Berryville pike. The whole of this could be seen by one person.

At about the time Crook’s infantry was attacking the rebel battery, Averill’s cavalry flanked the enemy’s extreme left and occupied the summit of the heights west of Winchester.  The enemy was  then turned out of the work known as Star Fort.  This was very annoying and several efforts were made before the enemy were obliged to leave.  As soon as Crook’s infantry got in line to advance on the main front, a brigade of Averill’s cavalry was sent round to cut off the retreat, when the enemy skedaddled in great haste.  Very soon after this the rebels could be seen dashing out through the main street of the town, taking the road to Strasburg.

1.  Gabriel Colvin Wharton (1823-1906) graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and then became a civil engineer and later a mining engineer.  When the Civil War started he chose to follow his home state of Virginia and joined the Confederate Army, being commissioned major of the 45th Virginia Infantry. He quickly became colonel of the 51st Virginia Infantry.  He escaped from Fort Donelson and then commanded several brigades in the Western Theater. In mid-1863 Wharton was promoted to brigadier general. In the winter of 1863, Wharton served in General James Longstreet’s operations against Knoxville. Wharton took part in the Battle of New Market (May 15, 1864), the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12), the Battle of Monocacy (July 9), and Early’s Valley Campaigns, including the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19). In 1865 he fought in the Battle of Waynesboro, at the end of which his command was largely dispersed and Early’s army virtually destroyed.
2.  Zebulon York (1819-1900) was a native of Maine, but was a lawyer and cotton planter in Louisiana before the Civil War. When Louisiana seceded, York raised a company of men that became part of the 14th Louisiana Infantry. He rose quickly from captain to major to lieutenant colonel. He fought in the Peninsula Campaign and was wounded during the Battle of Williamsburg. Due to his actions during the Seven Days Battles he was promoted to colonel in August 1862. York led the 14th Louisiana at the battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Bristoe, Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. York was promoted to brigadier general and assigned command of the combination of two depleted Louisiana brigades, which he led in Jubal Early’s Valley Campaign. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Opequon and saw no further field service. After the fall of Richmond, however, his actions enabled Jefferson Davis to evade capture for a short time.
3.  Custer’s 1st Brigade consisted of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, 5th Michigan Cavalry, 6th Michigan Cavalry, 7th Michigan Cavalry, and the 25th New York Cavalry.
4.  Imboden’s Brigade, commanded at this time by Colonel George H. Smith, consisted of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, 23rd Virginia Cavalry, and 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry.
5.  Gulian Verplanck Weir (1837-1886), was the lieutenant of Battery L, 5th U.S. Artillery, at this time. He had seen action at the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and was a battery commander at the Battle of Gettysburg. His brother was the famous artist J. Alden Weir.
6.  William Henry Powell (1825-1909) at this time held the rank of colonel and commanded Averell’s 2nd Brigade. He began the War as captain of Company B, 2nd West Virginia Cavalry, and rose to major (June 1862), lieutenant-colonel (October 1862), and colonel (May 1863). Powell was wounded in the chest and captured at Wytheville, Virginia on July 18, 1863, and exchanged on February 22, 1864. After the Valley Campaign, in October of 1864, Powell was promoted to brigadier general and the resigned on January 5, 1865. In 1890 he received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Sinking Creek, Virginia (November 26, 1862), when, as part of a group of 20 men, he captured a 500-man enemy camp, without a single loss of life.
7.  James Martinus Schoonmaker (1842-1927) was the colonel of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and later also commanded a cavalry brigade in Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps. He received the Medal of Honor for gallantry at the Battle of Opequon by leading a dismounted charge against the Confederate artillery in the Star Fort (Fort Alabama), drove the enemy out of the works, and captured many prisoners. After the War, he made a fortune in coke around Pittsburgh, was on the board at Mellon Bank, and was a vice-president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad.

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