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1864 October 8: Third Battle of Winchester

October 13, 2014

The following report from the New York World was reprinted by The Prescott Journal on October 8, 1864.

THE BATTLE OF WINCHESTER.

SHERIDAN’S  GREAT  VICTORY.

HEADQUARTERS 6TH ARMY CORPS, }
ARMY UNDER SHERIDAN, }
Sept. 2_, 1864.

Correspondence of the New York World.

At 11 o’clock in the forenoon, therefore, the armies of Sheridan and Early confronted each other between Winchester and the Opequan [sic] creek, in the following order:  The rebel line extended across the turnpike, covering Winchester, Breckinridge’s corps in the center, Rhodes’ division of Early’s corps on the left, Ramseur’s division of Early’s corps on the right, Johnson’s cavalry on the extreme right, and Fitz Hugh Lee’s, Lomax’s, Imboden’s and McCausland’s cavalry on the extreme left, opposing our own.  The Union army, the Sixth corps (two divisions) on the left, crossing the turnpike, the Nineteenth corps on the right, the Army of Western Virginia on the Opequan [sic] in reserve, General Wilson’s cavalry on the left, Generals Merritt’s and Averill’s cavalry on the right.

The cannonading, which had continued so fiercely throughout the forenoon till these dispositions were finally established, partially ceased.  As I rode to a height directly in the rear of the Sixth corps, overlooking most of the field occupied by our infantry, the old but infinitely beautiful panorama of all battlefields, made still more impressive by the natural aspects of this most lovely of valleys, was spread before and around.  Seemingly in a circle stood the mountains of the Cumberland and the Blue Ridge.  Unto their bases faded away stretches of forest, and woodland, and field, dotted by dwellings, and sparkling with streams, and glowing with the kisses of approaching autumn.  The sunshine was mild, the breezes were faint, the leaves scarcely swayed in their passing, the spires of Winchester were sliver threads.

Beyond the town, and along the pike the enemy’s wagon train, making for the rear, meandered like a white serpent.  Nearer could be seen faint columns of their line of battle, moving masses, flashing bayonets and sabers.  Their sharp-shooters and skirmishers were white specks in the cornfields, were clustered in groups about barns and houses, and nearer still our own skirmish lines posted along the edges of the woods, behind tall fences, across fields, waiting the signal.  Still nearer, directly beneath and around, the splendid marching columns of our infantry had debouched from the pike and woods upon the fields and plateaus ;  some waiting in hollows behind the crest ;  some forming in position for an advance.  The flags of the regiments had a proud look, an elastic tread was in every rank.  The 6th corps was all up and mostly ready.  The 19th corps, ascending the heights to the right, opposite the pike, were slowly wheeling into line.  The levels and hollows between the main army and the skirmish line were crossed and recrossed by galloping staff officers and orderlies, carrying and receiving orders.  Gens. Sheridan, Wright and Emery rode swiftly with their staffs along the lines, looking well to every point of advantage, upon the ground, examining with their glasses the position of the foe, and completing all dispositions for an attack.  For a moment, on this scene of beauty and expectation, there stood perfect calm.  For only a moment, the musketry and artillery were still, the smoke wreaths of our batteries standing silent in air mists as the skirmish line faded away.

The pickets and sharpshooters along the vast line of battle took breath.  In that moment, although save the advantage obtained by Gen. Wilson in the morning (neutralized and more than neutralized by the delay which afforded the enemy time to concentrate his army in the fornoon [sic],) everything was yet to begin and to be gained.  No one who glanced at the spectacle of confidence and strength, disposed for miles along the country within view, could feel his heart throb with serious doubt.

The signal long expected, was given at last Gen. Wright, to whom was assigned the command of the Sixth (his own) and the Nineteenth corps (Gen. Emory), gave the order to attack at precisely twenty minutes to twelve.  The Second (Gen. Getty’s) and the Third (Gen. Rickett’s) divisions of the Sixth corps, joined in the advance, the First (Gen. Russell’s) division being held in reserve.  The Nineteenth corps, including both divisions, under Gen. Grover and Dwight, advanced entire.  The lines, at the signal, were posted, for the most part in the edges of woods, through which the troops advanced giving their fire to the enemy.  For a few seconds the gleaming lines of our bayonets vibrated, before they entered the timber and were lost to view in the shadow of smoke.  The enemy, receiving a severe and continual volley along his entire front, gave back at first volleys as severe, but was forced to retire slowly before the attack.  The roar of battle as the two lines fairly met became thunderous.  The artillery opened simultaneously on either side.  The hollow clang of musketry in the forest was like the fierce clangor in the wilderness.  The bombs bursting in the air and the woods, dealt in bursting the havoc, and had in noise, the horror of the fiercest battle fought by Gen. Grant from the Rapidan to Petersburg.  The precision and quickness of the enemy’s cannonade was almost alarming.  Their guns posted at first in well selected overlooking positions, never knew a moment’s rest.

I counted, during the brief interval between our first advance and the crisis which succeeded it, at least forty shells per minute, which fell along every portion of our lines, and sought in some instances, the pike in the rear, where a portion of the Nineteenth corps was still advancing to the front, and where some of our cavalry were lying in wait.  Neither these nor the musketry fire which met our infantry checked the ardor of our troops.  Their fire remained unslackened for an hour, during which we had driven the enemy at some points back nearly half a mile.  The determination to win the battle, which seemed to inspire every man among our army, urged certain parks of the line along somewhat too hastily in advance.  Gen. Berge’s brigade, attached to Grover’s division of the Nineteenth corps, pushed forward so impetuously in the charge as almost to isolate itself from the division.  The enemy ere long perceived the advantage and charged in turn, threatening the gallant brigade on their flank, and it was forced to retire.  The rebels, still coming on in overwhelming force at this point, pushed back and confused another brigade of the division in support, and the entire left of the division subsequently gave way.

The enemy from a battery, hitherto uncovered, opened this time on our flying troops, following up their advantage.  Their shells decending [sic] among the broken columns of Grover, demoralized and shattered them still more.  The entire infantry line of the enemy recovering its courage at the sight, charged in turn, pouring in severe and rapid volleys toward the point of breakage.  Their troop0s still advanced at a double quick, firing and filing past, and almost turning the right flank of the sixth corps, led by General Rickett’s division, in their pursuit of Grover’s infantry.  The moment was a fearful one.  Such a sight rarely occurs more than once in any battle as was presented on the open space between two pieces of woodland, into which the cheering enemy poured in their eagerness.  Their whole line, reckless of bullets, reckless even of the shells of our batteries, constantly advanced.  Captain Stevens’ battery, posted immediately in their front, poured its fire unflinchingly into their columns to the last.  A staff officer riding up, _arped it to the rear to save it from capture.  Colonel Tompkins in command of the artillery of the Sixth corps, sat upon his horse with a loaded revolver close beside the battery and ordered it not to move.  It did not move.  The men of the battery, loading and firing with the regularity and precision of a field day, kept it at work in the face of the foe, who advanced at least within two hundred yards of the muzzles of the guns.  General Rickett’s division, pressed heavily in flank, gradually broke and commenced falling back.  General Getty’s division, on the left partially fell back likewise.  The day, had such a situation been suffered to continue fifteen minutes longer, would certainly have been lost to us.

Crisis of a great battle !  Crisis met, and thank God, conquered ;  though with such a loss as in the estimation of men highest and lowest in this army, can never be replaced.

General Ricketts saw the danger even before the wavering of his columns, and sent a regiment to his right flank, which formed at right angles of his main line, temporarily protecting it.  Gen. Wright, in command of the forces, acted with prompt decision.  Although it was indeed early in the day to be forced to employ the reserves of an army, he decided to employ his reserves at once.  The first division of the Sixth corps under General Russell, immediately in the rear of our broken centre, was ordered in at the double quick.  Colonel Edwards’ brigade, advancing on the right of General Ricketts’ sent its bullets crashing into the enemy’s hordes, astonishing and checking them.  General Russell, commanding the division, cheered on the troops of his own and General Ricketts’ command, galloping along the lines and endeavoring to reform the columns which were broken.  The lines were constructed with admirable quickness, and the enemy were charged in turn.

As the revived troops moved slowly forward, giving out their volleys, Gen. Russell was struck in the side by a bullet.  Straightening himself up without uttering a word of pain, he called out to the command to “move on,” and moved on with them into the fray.  In half a moment more a piece of bursted shell from one of the enemy’s batteries entered his breast, passing down through his vitals and out on the other side.  He fell from his horse without a word.  His men moved by him.  His officers, moving by, also, saw with hearts full of tears and agony which they will never forget, but which they could not then attempt, even had it been possible, to alleviate.

The enemy, not yet wholly daunted, regained and preserved a somewhat stubborn regained and preserved a somewhat stubborn front.  At this moment the brigade of Gen. Upton, also attached to the First division, moved upon the right of Col. Edwards and charged.—The charge of this brigade was the finest spectacle in the infantry battle of the day.  Gen. Upton, himself a young but laureled hero, rode at the advance of his lines and drawing his sword, sat his prancing horse like a centaur, calling his men to follow.  The brigade went in with a cheer that prophesied the event to come.  Solid and strong, its two lines moved onward out of the woods and into the field.  The rebel advance was an advance no longer.  The rout was turned.  Back over the fences, into and beyond the ravines, and into the woods still beyond their lines, flying and broken, they were pushed on.—The troops of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps, reforming and charging, soon won back the lost ground and a portion of the field beyond.

The battle now slackened for a time, and the main lines of our army were reformed preparatory to a second attack.  The Nineteenth corps was temporarily held in reserve, the Sixth corps and the Army of Western Virginia, which were posted on the left, being ordered to advance simultaneously and drive the enemy out of their position.  During all this time the cavalry of Gen. Wilson, Gen. Merritt, and Gen. Averill, on the left and right, had not been inactive.

Gen. Wilson had joined in the charge made at half-past eleven, driving the enemy’s cavalry in his front.  Gen. McIntosh, commanding one of his brigades had been wounded in the leg.  Gens. Merritt and Averill, who had both been pushing the rebel cavalry from the Opequan [sic], had formed a junction on the Winchester and Martinsburg pike, and were driving them in rapid successive charges down toward the scene of the main battle.  Fitz Hugh Lee’s cavalry had been overwhelmed by Custer, in the early afternoon.  The rest of the rebel cavalry made so little opposition, that for eight miles our troops moved at a trot gallop, corralling and driving them like sheep.  At 2 1-2 [2:30] p. m., therefore, when the second cavalry and infantry advance was ordered, Gen. Torbett [sic] with his two divisions, was in a position to cooperate in time with the main army.  The fire of our artillery, which, owing to the scarcity of good positions, had been previously not too destructive, was now increased.  More batteries had been employed by the sixth corps, and two or three batteries were put in position in the rear of Gen. Crook

A rapid cannonade was opened just before the advance.  The enemy replied to it with their usual vigor.  We advanced again about half-past 2 p. m.  It was made steadily from the first.  The enemy must have known that to withstand this attack was their last hope during the day, but although they met it with a front so stubborn, and for a moment so unyielding, that few would have ventured to wager upon their retreat, their lines were very soon shaken by the determined and fearful volleys of our soldiers.  The stern and magnificent advance of every brigade employed in this movement made up a spectacle, the grandeur of which has certainly not been equaled on any battle field of this war.  The left flank of the enemy, shattered by Gen. Crook, gave way, and began wheeling around towards the southwest, beyond the Martinsburg turnpike.  At this moment Gen. Torbett [sic], to whom the sound of our guns was a signal, moved on his advance to help the attack.  Gen. Devins’ [sic]¹ advance on the left of Gen. Lowell, in support, was confronted just before the advance by the enemy’s infantry, pouring out from a mass of woods, in retreat before Gen. Crook.  Gen. Devins [sic] had under his immediate command but two regiments, the Ninth and First New York.  The moment was critical ;  to hesitate was perhaps to lose both.  Gen. Merritt, in command of the division, shouted out, “Charge them with what you have,” and Devin, drawing his sabre, headed his regiments and went through the flying crowds, cutting them down, still further demoralizing them, and capturing 300 prisoners and three battle-flags.  The rest of the cavalry charging in turn, in conjunction with Gen. Crook, kept pushing the enemy’s left and flank.

Equally as successful an advance had been made on our left and centre by the Sixth corps.  The right flank of the enemy was also pushed back, and in a short time its centre began retreating.  The rebel line formed a triangle, the apex towards us, the base gradually narrowing as both flanks were pushed in towards each other by our attack.  As the rebel centre began to give way, Gen. Sheridan, alighting near the centre of our own lines, felt that the day was won.  Galloping up to Gen. Grover, commanding one of the divisions of the ninteenth [sic] corps, he said to him that all was going well and that now was his time also to go in.  The next instant a solid shot whistling within a foot of Sheridan’s head struck the ground behind him.  “I suppose so,” was the dry remark of the division commander, as he ordered his troops to advance to join in winning victory.

The battle was still a fierce one on both sides.  Although the day was evidently lost to the rebels, they fought on at some points with a desperate resolution.  The rear of musketry, thunder of cannonade, shouts of commanders, cheering of our men echoed now for miles over the fields ;  through the woods, and in the ravines.  More batteries moved up to the front, the cannonade grew and grew in volume until every second gave birth to the report of a gun.  Battery after battery of the enemy was silenced, but from whatever guns they could command they gave back fire for fire.  Evidently believing from the fierceness of our charges that reserves were coming up, they hurled a hissing storm of shot and shell far into our rear, plowing the roads and corn-fields and making the abodes of stragglers scenes of terror.  On and on went the battle, every moment more distant ;  men, women and children coming to their doors and peering from the windows of houses round about listened and wondered, and grew sad and pale.  Back from the front along every roadway, out of the forests, across the meadows, came ambulances and stretchers bearing the cost of triumph that was now secured.  Riding along the country in pursuit of the columns that were pushing the enemy on, one saw the lanes of victory strewn with fearful mementoes.  The dead were horrible dead.  It seemed as if the majority had received their death from shells.  Most of the bodies were dismembered, and at least half were mangled beyond recognition.

Now, if ever, was seen the good work of that class of Samaritans per force, the medical officers and ambulance bearers of an army.  Underneath flying shells, within range even of bullets, these men moved watchfully, bending down now and then to lift the sufferer and bear him to the ambulances in waiting.  So rapid and thorough was this work, that it was rare to find a wounded man uncared for one hour after the battle in which he was wounded had passed over him.  Still on, underneath the glowing sun, revived by fresh breezes, revived still more by the consciousness of victory, the Army of the Shenandoah thundered after its prey.

At the beginning of the battle, before its issues are fairly made up, there is sure to be some straggling.  There is no straggling now.  One, gazing along these columns, wreathed in the smoke of their own discharges, cannot image that a thought of retreat dwells among them.

The word is “Forward !” along the miles of the contest.  “Forward !”  You shall hear it from the lips of commanders everywhere.  From generals and colonels and captains, with a superabundance of oaths and curses and unnecessary entreaties added.  The woods ring with it.  Cheers succeed it, and the lines advance anew.  Yonder, in an orchard on the left, the troops of Getty’s division of the Sixth corps are making havoc among the enemy.  They have crossed a ravine and taken a crest, and the batteries of McCartney and others, posted in their rear on this side of the ravine, are sending over their heads a worse than equinoctial tempest of bombshells.  On the right—far to the right now—the army of Western Virginia, still pressing the foe with resistless ardor, are revenging Winchester.  The First and Third divisions of the Sixth corps, in center, are making an angle out of the triangle described before.  The cavalry of Torbett [sic], on the extreme right, are sweeping around, preparatory to a last and overwhelming charge soon to be made.  The artillery, closing up on our rear, thunders still more heavily.  Back from the mountains, back from the nearing spires of Winchester, the echoes of the battle are trembling.  The last plateau directly overlooking the plain before Winchester is gained by the whole army.  They enemy, encompassed by a semi-circle, fought still, retreating upon the furthest verge of the plateau, their artillery, driven to the plain below, being completely silenced.  Along the plateau the forward march of our battalions is as unswerving as upon parade.

Down lower and lower yet the heads of the rebels sink, and are lost behind its verge.—What a cheer then goes up from the Army of the Shenandoah !  A cheer that, like the sweep of a billow, ranges through the army, making its heart glad.  Forward, still forward, at a double quick, cheering and firing still Winchester is in full view, its roofs and steeples glowing red in the setting sun.  Our artillery borne across the ravine to the plateau, and along the plateau to its furthest verge, now does a work so terrible that to witness it is sickening.  The whole rebel army, swept down the slope and on to the plain below, is completely demoralized.  At every discharge of our guns its ranks bend helplessly forward, like the grasses of a field before a storm.  Rebel horsemen galloping everywhere upon the plain sway useless sabres and shout useless cries for their men to rally.  There is no rallying there.

And now on the right flank of Gen. Crook sweeps around into view, the enemy flying helplessly before them everywhere, the cavalry of Gen. Torbett [sic] still forward to the right, are seen galloping in resistless columns around the left flank of the rebel army.

O, what a sight is there !  These horsemen, each a hero, bent on vengeance, gallop in close ranks, with sabres gleaming red, with cries that sound above the roar of musketry and artillery, to complete the work of this great day.  Their horses, each arching a proud neck, and with nostrils wide and glowing, have a look like the Roman chariot horses of old in the midst of victory.  Faster, yet faster, with a speed greater than the weary feet of the enemy they encompass, they gallop on and in among the flying crowds.  The saber, that arm of which so many mythical deeds have been recorded, does actual work now, Generals Torbett [sic] and Merritt, with their staffs, joining in the splendid glee of the moment, are in the very front of the first line, charging and dealing death with their men.  Generals Custer and Lowell, whose brigades are making the charge, are also in front, doing good service.  The Sixth and Fourth New York, Devins’ [sic] brigade, join in the good work.  The enemy, surrounded on their left by this brilliant movement, can make but a momentary opposition.

Scores, forsaking their comrades, fly to the houses near, and conceal themselves therein.  Numbers are cut down and captured, the rest make their escape, join their flying comrades across the Winchester pike, making toward the town.  Four hundred prisoners, four battle flags, and one piece of artillery, are the prizes, aside from the dead and wounded of the enemy, of this brilliant charge.

The sun, alas, sits on the horizon’s verge.  Across that plain before Winchester, its beams shine upon a scene rivaling in picturesque sublimity all historic fields of most historic wars.  Vast, and level, and beautiful for miles, the field itself, unpeopled, would be full of romance.  Peopled as it is by thousands of rebels, shattered, demoralized, flying, by thousands of still pursuing troops, moving in well ordered battalions, resounding with a torrent of musketry and the boom of cannon, surpassing the roar of Waterloo, it is a scene which I, at least, exhausted by its excitement and the sleepless marches which have succeeded, cannot hope to suggest to any imagination.

The smoke of the battle alone would have told who were the victors.  Along the ragged front of the rebel hosts it rose in patches ;  along the solid front of the Union army it rose in straight thin clouds ;  far off on the heights surrounding Winchester, the enemy’s artillery, again hurriedly posted, thundered a faint answer to our own.

The missiles from these guns, badly aimed, plowed along the plain, endangering the rebel wounded who were left in the retreat, quite as much as our own men.

One more charge ere the sun goes down.—Once more charge with victory in its meaning—victory as its result.  The day is won ;  the rebel army is beaten and overwhelmed at every point.

Flying through Winchester, scarcely attempting a stand ;  except to protect the remaining pieces of their artillery, they are pursued by our men.  In half an hour Winchester and the heights beyond are in our possession.  The twilight gathers ;  darkness falls.  The only signs of the enemy, met in the morning and fought during the day are the echoes of their artillery wagons retreating along the pike toward Newtown.

We have taken twenty-two hundred prisoners, five thousand stand of arms, five pieces of artillery, and eleven battle flags.  Nearly three thousand rebel wounded have been left in Winchester and on the field.  Gen. Rhodes is killed.  Gens. Gordon, Goodwin, Lomax, York, and others, are known to be wounded.  The rebels must have lost at least six thousand in killed, wounded and prisoners.

Our own losses amount to between three and four thousand killed and wounded.  The losses in the 6th corps are nineteen officers killed, and one hundred and ten wounded, one hundred and sixty three men killed and fourteen hundred and sixty-five wounded.  The losses in the 19th corps are said to be between two and three hundred killed and nine hundred wounded.  The losses in the Army of Western Virginia are said to be two hundred killed and six hundred wounded.  Specimen losses, illustrating the fierceness of the battle at certain points, are shown by the fact that in Gen. Grover’s division alone, every colonel commanding a regiment was either killed or wounded.  The 37th Mass. lost sixteen officers killed and wounded.  Certain regiments of the 6th corps were almost annihilated.

I have not attempted (for you have not space) to narrate in detail the conspicuous deeds of heroism which crowned this great engagement.  Where almost every officer and man behaved with courage, such references could only serve to illustrate the character of the fighting.  There were, indeed chivalrous incidents, the memory of which has hung upon my pen through all this hasty chronicle, but I must reserve this and other matter for a future time.

1.  Thomas Casimer Devin (1822-1878), not to be confused with Brigadier General Charles Devens, Thomas Devin fought in Sheridan’s Valley Campaigns of 1864. When General Wesley Merritt replaced General Alfred Tobert as the Cavalry Corps commander, Devin received command of Merritt’s First Division. On November 19, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Devin a brigadier general of Volunteers for his part in the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864).

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