Tag Archives: John B. Gordon

The Battle of Fort Stedman

March 25, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a desperate attack to break out of the siege lines at Petersburg.

By the night of the 24th, nearly half of Lee’s army was situated around Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, a perceived weak point in the Federal line east of Petersburg. The Confederates were commanded by Major General John B. Gordon. The Federals at Fort Stedman belonged to Brigadier General Orlando Willcox’s division of IX Corps.

Fort Stedman | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General John G. Parke, commanding IX Corps, was in temporary command of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac while Meade was at City Point conferring with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant was devising an offensive of his own and did not expect the Confederates to attack.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Confederates came out of their trenches at 3 a.m. on the 25th pretending to be deserters. They quickly silenced the Federal pickets as Confederate pioneers rushed up to destroy the abatis and other works guarding Fort Stedman. This enabled Confederate infantry to rush through and overrun the Federal defenders. Three groups of 100 Confederates charged and took the Federals by complete surprise. Gordon later wrote:

“Although it required but few minutes to reach the Union works, those minutes were to me like hours of suspense and breathless anxiety; but soon was heard the thud of the heavy axes as my brave fellows slashed down the Federal obstructions. The next moment the infantry sprang upon the Union breastworks and into the fort, overpowering the gunners before their destructive charges could be emptied into the mass of Confederates. They turned this captured artillery upon the flanking lines on each side of the fort, clearing the Union breastworks of their defenders for some distance in both directions. Up to this point, the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”

The rest of Gordon’s 12,000 men surged forward, quickly capturing Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 on either side of the fort. Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding a Federal brigade in the sector, directed troops to retake Battery 11, unaware that Stedman was also in Confederate hands. He rode into the fort and later reported:

“Supposing that I had restored the only break in the line, I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving directions with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him, asking his regiment. This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by the rebels, whom I had supposed to be my men, and sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him to Petersburg.”

The Confederates soon held a 1,000-yard section of the Federal line that included (from north to south) Battery 10, Fort Stedman, and Batteries 11 and 12. Gordon wrote:

“We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlen, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. One of these fell upon the works, pierced through the body by a Federal bayonet, one of the few men thus killed in the four years of war. I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlen by assuming command of Fort Stedman.”

Gordon’s men started enfilading the Federal lines to the north and south, but Battery 9 to the north and Fort Haskell to the south held firm. The three groups of 100 men assigned to seize the railroad in the Federal rear stopped to eat captured Federal rations. And logistical problems prevented many Confederates from reaching the field, thus diluting the assault. Meanwhile, Federal troops were starting to assemble for a counterattack.

Brigadier General John F. Hartranft brought up his division and worked with Willcox to stem the Confederate advance before it reached Meade Station on the City Point Railroad. Meanwhile, Federal gunners trained their fire on the Confederates in Stedman and the surrounding batteries. Gordon informed Lee that the Confederates could not break through as hoped.

As Hartranft prepared to counterattack, he received a message from Parke to delay the action until reinforcements from VI Corps arrived. Hartranft reported: “I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the line to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement.”

The Federals regained all lost ground by 7:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later Lee ordered the Confederates to disengage. Gordon wrote:

“It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw. This was not easily accomplished. Foiled by the failure of the guides, deprived of the great bodies of infantry which Lee ordered to my support, I had necessarily stretched out my corps to occupy the intrenchments which had been captured. The other troops were expected to arrive and join in the general advance. The breaking down of the trains and the non-arrival of these heavy supports left me to battle alone with Grant’s gathering and overwhelming forces, and at the same time to draw in my own lines toward Fort Stedman. A consuming fire on both flanks and front during this withdrawal caused a heavy loss to my command. I myself was wounded, but not seriously, in recrossing the space over which we had charged in the darkness.”

Many Confederates chose to surrender rather than risk death by retreating under heavy artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates suffered about 3,500 casualties, 1,900 of whom were captured. The Federals lost 1,044 men, about half of whom were captured. Despite being surprised, it took less than four hours for a single Federal corps to repulse the largest Confederate attack that Lee could hope to mount.

Grant and Meade concluded that Lee must have moved troops from his own right to launch such a massive attack on Fort Stedman. They therefore ordered an immediate assault on the undermanned Confederate defenders at Hatcher’s Run. This resulted in the capture of almost another 1,000 Confederate prisoners. By day’s end, the Confederates had suffered some 4,800 casualties while the Federals lost about 2,080.

The fighting on the 25th not only gained nothing for Lee, but it cost him vital portions of his outer defenses. This meant that Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Grant hurried to launch his own offensive before Lee escaped.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 336-39; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 434-35; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22328-46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17549-69, 17601-31, 17601-31, 17639-95, 17855-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 709-10; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 844-45; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Petersburg: Lee and Grant Prepare for Offense

March 24, 1865 – Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued preparing to mount his spring offensive, unaware that Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee was preparing to attack first.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Nearly half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia assembled near Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg, on the 24th. Lee hoped to break the Federal siege line and seize the railroad line supplying the Federals from City Point. Fort Stedman was manned by Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox’s division of IX Corps and was not expecting an attack.

Grant, commanding the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg, had long feared that once the muddy roads dried, Lee would escape to the west. He therefore planned a major offensive to destroy Lee’s army before it could get moving. On the same day that the Confederates were making final preparations to attack Fort Stedman, Grant issued orders to his top three commanders (Major Generals George G. Meade, Philip Sheridan, and E.O.C. Ord):

“On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved by our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville (rail)roads.”

Three divisions from Ord’s Army of the James would stay in the lines at Bermuda Hundred and east of Richmond, and IX Corps from Meade’s Army of the Potomac would stay in the lines east of Petersburg. All other Federals would turn Lee’s right flank southwest of Petersburg. Grant warned the commanders that their line could be spread dangerously thin due to the rough ground they needed to cover:

“The enemy, knowing this, may as an only chance strip their lines to the merest skeleton, in the hope of advantage not being taken of it, while they hurl everything against the moving column, and return. It cannot be impressed too strongly upon commanders of troops left in the trenches not to allow this to occur without taking advantage of it… the very fact of the enemy coming out to attack, if he does, might be regarded as almost conclusive proof of such a weakening of his lines.”

Grant was right: Lee’s lines were extremely weak. With only about 25,000 troops, Lee had to hold White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, southwest of Petersburg. This was a distance of about 35 miles, or less than 1,000 men per mile. And these men were poorly fed, clothed, and equipped. Conversely, Grant had over 100,000 troops in the Federal lines who were constantly supplied from the railroad running from their massive base at City Point on the James River.

Nevertheless, Lee hoped that capturing Fort Stedman would force Grant to contract his line to protect his supply base, thus leaving an opening to the southwest for Lee to escape. And if he escaped, he might be able to prolong the war long enough for the northern public to finally demand a ceasefire. The assault, set to begin before dawn on the 25th, was to be led by Major General John B. Gordon. The result could potentially decide the fate of the entire Confederate war effort.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 429, 432-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 550; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Petersburg: Lee Targets Fort Stedman

March 23, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee approved a desperate plan for his Army of Northern Virginia to break the Federal siege line east of Petersburg, thereby opening an escape route to the south.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee met with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond in early March to discuss the army’s dire situation. Lee conceded that it was only a matter of time before he would have to abandon Petersburg, which meant that Richmond would fall as well. However, Lee needed time for the muddy roads to dry and his starving horses to regain strength.

Lee suggested that the army withdraw along the railroad line to Danville, and the Confederate government should therefore gather food and supplies at the depots along the way to sustain the men and animals. From Danville, Lee hoped to turn south, join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina, quickly defeat the Federals under Major General William T. Sherman, and then turn back north to confront Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s armies at Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee argued that defeating Sherman would boost southern morale enough for more men to join the cause, and it could isolate Grant’s Federals in hostile Virginia. But such a plan could only succeed if Sherman was defeated before Grant could reinforce him. This required speed, but Lee could not withdraw according to his timetable because he was desperately short on supplies. While visiting his family on Franklin Street, Lee fumed to his son Custis about the problem:

“Well, Mr. Custis, I have been up to see the Congress and they don’t seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco while my army is starving. I told them the condition we were in, and that something must be done at once, but I can’t get them to do anything, or they are unable to do anything. Mr. Custis, when this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it; and now… And now they will repent.”

Lee returned to his Petersburg headquarters on the 5th, where he received word of the defeat at Waynesboro. This meant that Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals were free to leave the Shenandoah Valley and reinforce Grant on the Petersburg-Richmond line. Moreover, Lee learned that Johnston had made no progress in stopping Sherman’s advance through North Carolina.

Concluding that Johnston could hope for no “marked success” without help, Lee began developing a plan to attack Grant’s Federals east of Petersburg before Sheridan could arrive. This could force Grant to constrict his siege line and give Lee enough time and space to withdraw to the west. However, this desperate plan threatened to play right into Grant’s hands because he had been hoping for Lee to come out from behind his defenses and attack him ever since he launched his Virginia campaign last May.

Even so, Lee explained to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge that the condition of the Confederate armies “is full of peril and requires prompt action. Unless the men and animals can be subsisted, the army cannot be kept together, and our present lines must be abandoned.” But Lee assured Breckinridge that “I do not regard the abandonment of our present position as necessarily fatal to our success.” The success or failure of the cause would depend on the southern people.

On the 10th, Lee discussed the situation with one of his corps commanders, Major General John B. Gordon. Lee directed Gordon to move his troops from southwest of Petersburg to east of the city. Gordon spent the next two weeks reconnoitering the Federal fortifications and developing a plan of attack. In the meantime, Lee applied to the Confederate government for the maximum quota of black troops under the new law authorizing black military recruitment. Lee declared, “The services of these men are now necessary to enable us to oppose the enemy.”

Gordon presented his plan to Lee on the 23rd, later writing, “I decided that Fort Stedman on Grant’s lines was the most inviting point for attack.” Stedman was similar to the other forts on the Federal line, except that it was less than 200 yards from the Confederate trenches and there were no abaits in its rear. This made it especially vulnerable.

Gordon explained to Lee that the fort could be captured by a night attack, “and a sudden, quick rush across ditches, where the enemy’s pickets are on watch, running over the pickets and capturing them, or, if they resist, using the bayonet.” However, it would not be easy, as Gordon reported:

“Through prisoners and deserters I have learned during the past week all about the obstructions in front of General Grant’s lines. They are exceedingly formidable. They are made of rails, with the lower ends deeply buried in the ground. The upper ends are sharpened and rest upon poles, to which they are fastened by strong wires. These sharp points are about breast-high, and my men could not possibly get over them. They are about six or eight inches apart; and we could not get through them. They are so securely fastened together and to the horizontal poles by the telegraph wires that we could not possibly shove them apart so as to pass them.”

To solve this problem, Gordon proposed sending his best axe men forward to cut down the abatis and enable the infantry to push through. The Confederates had little chance to succeed, but if they did, they could hold Stedman and seize the Federals’ City Point Railroad, the world’s first railroad built exclusively to supply military forces in the field.

The idea of attacking Fort Stedman appealed to Lee because it could force the Federals to transfer troops from the left (southwest) sector of their line to shore up their right, leaving an escape route in that sector for Lee to break out of Petersburg and join forces with Johnston.

By this time, Lee had learned that Sherman had joined forces with Major General John Schofield in North Carolina, and he presumed that Sheridan had joined forces with Grant. If the Confederates were going to attack, they had to do so immediately. Lee committed the three divisions of Gordon’s Second Corps plus elements of First and Third corps to the attack. The force would total about 12,000 men, or nearly half the entire Army of Northern Virginia.

Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote in his diary: “The dread contingency of which some intimation has been given is at hand. No one can say what the next week may bring forth, although the calamity may be deferred a while longer. Now is the hour when we must show of what stuff we are made.” Lee told Gordon, “I pray that a merciful God may grant us success and deliver us from our enemies.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 516-18; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22302-28, 22346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 564; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8145, 8225, 8237-49; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 649-50, 656-58; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run

February 5, 1865 – Fighting erupted over Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s effort to extend his Federal siege line around Petersburg, Virginia.

After the Federal Army of the Potomac had seized the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg last year, Grant believed that the Boydton Plank Road had become the Confederates’ main supply line. The Federals had tried moving beyond the Confederate left flank to seize this road in October but failed. But Grant was wrong: the Confederates had abandoned the road because it became too dangerous to defend. Nevertheless, Grant renewed his plan to retake the road, hoping not only to cut a key enemy supply line but to block the enemy’s westward escape route.

Peace talks were taking place at Hampton Roads, but President Abraham Lincoln told Grant not to let them “cause any change, hindrance or delay, of your military plans or operations.” Grant therefore moved forward with his planned assault. He wrote to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac on the southwestern sector of the siege line, on the 4th:

“I would like to take advantage of the present good weather to destroy or capture as much as possible of the enemy’s wagon train, which it is understood is being used in connection with the Weldon railroad to partially supply the troops about Petersburg. You may get the cavalry ready to do this as soon as possible. I think the cavalry should start at 3 a.m. either tomorrow or the following day, carrying one and a half days’ forage and three days’ rations with them. They should take no wagons and but few ambulances. Let the Second Corps move at the same time, but independent of the cavalry, as far south as Stony Creek Station, to remain there until the cavalry has done the enemy all the harm it can and returns to that point.”

Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division would ride west to the Boydton Plank Road, supported by Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and two divisions of Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. The infantry would move west along parallel roads, but Meade modified Grant’s plan by placing Warren’s corps to the south instead of Humphreys’s. The expedition would involve 35,000 Federals.

At 3 a.m. on the 5th, Gregg’s cavalry headed out in bitter cold and rain. They rode west to Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, turned south, and then turned west again, sporadically skirmishing with Confederate patrols before arriving at Dinwiddie Court House around noon. Warren’s V Corps crossed Rowanty Creek and stopped on the Vaughan Road to cover Gregg’s right flank. Humphreys’s Federals moved down the Vaughan Road to Hatcher’s Run and covered Warren’s right flank.

Humphreys deployed his troops about 1,000 yards in front of the Confederate defenses. The defenses were manned by Major General Henry Heth’s division and part of Major General John B. Gordon’s Second Corps recently returned from the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederates were caught off guard and offered little resistance at first. The Confederates finally came out of their trenches around 5 p.m. and advanced to drive the Federals off.

Both sides stood their ground and exchanged fire for about a half-hour, but then the Federal line started wavering. Some men joined to sing “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” which rallied the troops. They formed a new line and withstood three Confederate charges before both sides disengaged for the night.

When Grant received word of this engagement, he saw an opportunity to seize not only the Boydton Plank Road but the vital South Side Railroad beyond. He wrote Meade, “If we can follow the enemy up, although it was not contemplated before, it may lead to getting the South Side road, or a position from which it can be reached.” Meanwhile, Federals from Gregg’s and Warren’s commands reinforced Humphreys during the night, and the Federal line now extended south of Hatcher’s Run.

Confederate Brig Gen John Pegram | Image Credit: civilwardailygazette.com

Warren’s Federals scouted the Confederate positions near Gravelly Run and Dabney’s Mill on the 6th. The Confederates fell back to their main defenses, and Gordon dispatched Brigadier General John Pegram’s division to probe the Dabney’s Mill area, east of the Boydton Plank Road. Federals and Confederates met during their respective probing actions, and a fierce Confederate attack in a small area of about 500 yards drove the Federals back to their main force.

Gordon sent in Brigadier General Clement A. Evans’s division on Pegram’s left. Evans’s Confederates drove the Federals back until two brigades came forward to stabilize the line and push the Confederates back. Major General Joseph Finegan’s Confederate division arrived next and attacked, causing the Federal line to buckle. During this assault, Pegram was killed by a Federal sharpshooter. Pegram had been a promising young officer who was just married last month in Richmond’s society event of the year.

Nevertheless, the Confederate assault began overwhelming the Federals, and many fled the field. Only nightfall and freezing rain prevented a Federal rout. The Confederates halted and took coats from dead soldiers for warmth, and the Federals fell back to the line beside Humphreys’s divisions. The Federals still held the south bank of Hatcher’s Run. Meade reported to Grant:

“Warren’s troops were compelled to retire in considerable confusion. They enemy was, however, checked before reaching the position occupied this morning, Vaughan road was recalled when the others were forced back. The troops are now formed in the lines occupied this morning. The fighting has been determined, principally in dense woods, and the losses considerable, particularly in the column compelled to retire. I am not able at present to give an estimate of them.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Civil War Trust: Battle of Hatcher’s Run; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 527-29; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16416-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 550-51; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8098; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 634-35; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 483-84; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350; Wikipedia: Battle of Hatcher’s Run

The Battle of Cedar Creek

October 19, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates launched one more desperate attack against Major General Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior but unsuspecting Federal army in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Sheridan had left his army to attend a conference at Washington. He no longer considered Early a serious threat after defeating him at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill in September. The Federals were encamped along the east bank of Cedar Creek, above the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Their line ran north to south and consisted of three infantry corps:

  • VI Corps under Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the army in Sheridan’s absence, held the right (north) flank.
  • XIX Corps under Brigadier General William H. Emory held the center.
  • VIII Corps (also known as the Army of West Virginia) under Brigadier General George Crook held the left (south) flank.

Early had received reinforcements and regrouped his Army of the Valley. However, his men were short on supplies because Sheridan’s Federals had laid waste to the Valley. Early could have fallen back to replenish his supplies, but he instead decided to launch a bold attack on the unsuspecting Federals.

Through the night of the 18th and early morning of the 19th, Major General John B. Gordon led three Confederate divisions northeast around Massanutten Mountain and over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. This placed them within striking distance of Crook’s unsuspecting Federals on the left. Meanwhile, two supporting divisions took positions on Gordon’s left, poised to hit Emory in the center.

At 5 a.m., the Confederates attacked through the fog between Cedar Creek and Middletown. Many Federals were still asleep when the attack began, and their lines soon disintegrated as Gordon’s forces swept through their camps. Captain Henry A. du Pont, heading Crook’s artillery, saved nine of his 16 guns and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for staving off complete disaster.

As the sun rose and the fog lifted, Emory shifted his XIX Corps to meet Gordon’s advance. This left a bridge over Cedar Creek open, enabling Major General Gabriel Wharton’s supporting Confederate division to cross and attack. Intense fighting took place near the Belle Grove plantation, where the Federals held their ground long enough for their supply wagons to withdraw and VI Corps to prepare defenses to the north.

The Confederates under both Wharton and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw crashed into VI Corps, which put up a fierce resistance and made brief stands as they slowly withdrew northwest toward Middletown. Early opted to concentrate most of his force against this position instead of destroying VIII and XIX corps. Meanwhile, hungry Confederates stopped to loot captured camps.

By 10 a.m., the Confederates had captured over 1,300 prisoners, 18 cannon, and several battle flags. But Early disregarded Gordon’s advice to continue pressing the attack, instead ordering a halt to regroup. Gordon later wrote, “My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day’s hesitation to permit an assault on Grant’s exposed flank on the 6th of May in the Wilderness rose before me.”

Sheridan, asleep 15 miles away, woke to the sound of battle at 6 a.m. He began moving toward the fight two hours later, when the sound became “an unceasing roar.” Sheridan hurried from Winchester and arrived on the scene around 10:30 a.m., where he found thousands of demoralized Federal troops in retreat. Sheridan rode through the men, waving his hat and shouting, “Turn back! Turn back! Face the other way!” When the soldiers cheered him, Sheridan yelled, “God damn you! Don’t cheer me, fight! We will lick them out of their boots!”

“Sheridan’s Ride” | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The troops were revitalized by this spectacular display of battlefield leadership. A VI Corps soldier later wrote, “Such a scene as his presence and such emotion as it awoke cannot be realized but once in a century.” The Federals stabilized their wavering lines north of Middletown, after having been pushed back four miles. At 3 p.m., Early finally allowed Gordon to follow up his morning attack. But by that time, the strengthened Federal lines held firm against the lesser Confederate assaults.

Sheridan counterattacked at 4 p.m. The reorganized VI and XIX corps led the effort, while Crook’s VIII Corps was in reserve. The Federals turned Gordon’s left, which crumbled the rest of Early’s line. Brigadier General George A. Custer led a Federal cavalry attack on Early’s rear; panic-stricken Confederates feared that this would block their escape across Cedar Creek. Confederate Major General Stephen D. Ramseur fell mortally wounded as his division tried making a stand before being forced to fall back.

Federal cavalry attacks by Custer and Brigadier General Wesley Merritt turned the Confederate withdrawal into a rout as Early’s men fell back four miles to Fisher’s Hill. They were forced to leave all their captured guns and supplies behind. Custer celebrated the dramatic Federal victory by hoisting “Little Phil” Sheridan off the ground and dancing with joy.

The Federals suffered 5,665 casualties (644 killed, 3,430 wounded, and 1,591 missing) out of about 30,000, while Confederate losses were estimated at 2,910 (320 killed, 1,540 wounded, and 1,050 missing) from roughly 18,000. Early reported to his superior, General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg:

“I found it impossible to rally the troops, they would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind… The rout was as thorough and disgraceful as ever happened to our army… It is mortifying to me, General, to have to make these explanations of my reverses. They are due to no want of effort on my part, though it may be that I have not the capacity or judgment to prevent them. If you think that the interests of the service would be promoted by a change of commanders, I beg you will have no hesitation.”

Early chastised his men for their conduct in this battle, writing in part, “Many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielded to a disgraceful propensity for plunder… Subsequently those who had remained at their post, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderer… yielded to a needless panic and fled the field in confusion.” He later summed up the battle: “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”

Lee decided not to replace Early, who led his forces to New Market to regroup and possibly confront Sheridan once more. But after being routed three times within a month, the Confederates could no longer contend with the Federals’ superior size, supply, and armament. The troops gradually dispersed, and the Federals gained permanent control of the Valley and its vital resources.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered a 100-gun salute fired into the Confederate defenses at Petersburg in celebration. People serenaded President Abraham Lincoln at the White House, where Lincoln proposed three cheers for “all our noble commanders and the soldiers and sailors…”

Lincoln then wrote to Sheridan, “With great pleasure, I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and especially for the splendid work of October 19.” The Chicago Tribune stated, “The nation rings with praises of Phil Sheridan.”

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana traveled to Sheridan’s headquarters and woke him up late on the night of the 23rd to award him the rank of major general in the regular army. Sheridan also received a commendation from the adjutant general “for the personal gallantry, military skill, and just confidence in the courage and patriotism of his troops… whereby, under the blessing of Providence, his routed army was reorganized, a great national disaster averted, and a brilliant victory achieved.”

Sheridan became a northern hero, and “Sheridan’s Ride” from Winchester to the battlefield became a famous poem by Thomas Buchanan Read. The Federal victory at Cedar Creek stopped any future Confederate threat to Washington, which enabled the Federals to devote more resources to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. This victory greatly boosted northern morale as well as Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 518, 540; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 476-77; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11915-35, 11959-2002; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 511; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8000; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 679-80; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144-58; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 585-86; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 779-80; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 333; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 121, 677-79

The Shenandoah Valley: Early Plans to Attack

October 18, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan went to attend a conference in Washington, while Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates prepared to launch a surprise attack on Sheridan’s army.

Federal Maj Gen Philip Sheridan and Confederate Lt Gen Jubal Early | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As the Federal Army of the Shenandoah withdrew to Woodstock, Sheridan’s cavalry, commanded by Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, fought rear guard actions against Early’s Confederate troopers. Disapproving Torbert’s order not to confront the Confederates, Sheridan directed him, “Either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.”

Torbert complied, ordering two of his divisions under Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and George A. Custer to turn and face the opposing Confederate divisions led by Brigadier Generals Lunsford Lomax and Thomas L. Rosser (a former West Point classmate of Custer’s). Merritt pushed back Lomax’s undersized force on the left, while Custer’s 2,500 troopers took on Rosser’s 3,500 posted on hills along the south bank of Tom’s Brook, near Woodstock.

As Merritt continued pushing Lomax back, Custer traded artillery fire in Rosser’s front while shifting his men to attack the Confederate left. The unsuspecting Confederates immediately broke; according to Custer:

“The enemy, 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.”

With Rosser’s force broken, Lomax’s soon broke and ran as well. The Federals took some 300 prisoners and 11 guns (or 36 total since September 19th) as the Confederates fled 26 miles back to Early’s lines north of New Market. Federals nicknamed this fight the “Woodstock Races” as a response to the “Buckland Races” that Major General Jeb Stuart had inflicted on Custer the previous year. Custer wrote triumphantly:

“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.”

Despite having his cavalry routed, Early still intended to take the offensive against Sheridan. He wrote to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, explaining his intentions and stating, “I think I can defeat his infantry and thwart his movements…” However, Early acknowledged that he might have trouble obtaining supplies now that the Federals had laid waste to much of the upper Valley.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s forces continued falling back northward “down” the Valley, closer to their supply lines. They crossed Cedar Creek on the 10th, just north of Strasburg. The Federals set up strong positions on either side of the Valley Turnpike, unaware that Early planned to attack. Sheridan even detached Major General Horatio G. Wright’s crack VI Corps to return to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg.

By the 13th, Early’s Confederates had advanced to Fisher’s Hill, about five miles south of Sheridan. Despite being reinforced by Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s infantry division, Early’s Army of the Valley was still outnumbered two-to-one. Nevertheless, a part of his force advanced and drove off Federal skirmishers before returning to Fisher’s Hill. More probing on both sides took place over the next two days.

Sheridan reacted to these probes by recalling Wright’s corps, which had stopped at Ashby’s Gap. Sheridan planned to attack Early on the 14th, but the Confederates had fallen back to strong positions on Fisher’s Hill, so Sheridan instead put Wright in command of his army and accepted a summons by Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck to come to Washington for a strategy conference.

While preparing to leave, Sheridan learned that Federals had intercepted and deciphered a message supposedly from Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who had recently recovered from wounds suffered at the Wilderness. The message was intended for Early: “Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will crush Sheridan.”

Sheridan believed this was a bluff, but as a precaution he called off a cavalry raid into the Blue Ridge and placed those men on his right flank. Wright assured Sheridan, “I shall hold on here until the enemy’s movements are developed, and shall only fear an attack on my right, which I shall make every precaution for guarding against and resisting.”

Before his train left, Sheridan warned Wright, “Look well to your ground and be well prepared. Get up everything that can be spared.” Sheridan left with his entire cavalry corps, assuring Wright that he would return in two days, “if not sooner.”

Sheridan conferred with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington on the 18th. Sheridan convinced them to approve his plan to take up defenses in the lower (northern) Valley and send VI and XIX corps back to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He left the capital that day, traveling by train to Martinsburg and then by horse to Winchester, about 15 to 20 miles from his army.

Meanwhile, Confederates spied the Federal positions from atop the Shenandoah Peak and the Massanutten Mountain. They saw Sheridan’s three corps spread out along Cedar Creek’s east bank, not suspecting an attack. Being outnumbered, Early could not launch a frontal assault, but his officers informed him that the Federal left was vulnerable to a flank attack.

On the afternoon of the 18th, Early held a council of war and resolved to launch a full-scale attack at dawn. Major General John B. Gordon began the operation that night by leading three divisions around Massanutten Mountain and across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River so they could assault the Federal left in the morning. Early would then deploy Kershaw’s division to support Gordon and his fifth division with 40 guns under Major General Gabriel Wharton to hit the Federal center along the Valley Turnpike.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20521-29; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 471-72; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11829-59, 11870-900; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 507-10; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7988; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135, 139-41, 144, 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 581-82, 584-85; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 779; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79 | 491-92

The Battle of Opequon

September 19, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals attacked the weakened Confederate army outside Winchester as part of Sheridan’s overall effort to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley was reduced to just 12,000 men after Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s detachment left the Shenandoah to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. Despite this, Early sent two divisions under Major Generals Robert Rodes and John B. Gordon north to destroy a bridge on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, west of Martinsburg.

This left just 4,000 Confederates to defend Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot along Opequon Creek. Early decided to spread his army thin because Sheridan, commanding the 40,000-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had shown no aggression since taking command. But Early was unaware that Sheridan, having received vital intelligence from a spy named Rebecca Wright, was about to attack.

Sheridan initially planned to attack the Confederates at Winchester while cutting off the Valley Turnpike below the town. But when he learned that Early divided his army, Sheridan instead opted to destroy the force at Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot, and then move on to destroy the force west of Martinsburg. Orders were issued for the Federals to mobilize at 2 a.m. on the 19th. According to Sheridan’s plan:

  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would advance on the Berryville Pike, and, “As soon as it has reached open country it will form in line of battle, fronting in the direction of Stephenson’s Depot.”
  • Brigadier General William H. Emory’s XIX Corps would support Wright.
  • Major General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia (i.e., VIII Corps) would be in reserve, “to be marched to any point required.”

As the Federals prepared, Early learned from intercepted dispatches that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had recently met with Sheridan. This indicated that Sheridan might attack soon. Early therefore ordered Rodes and Gordon to stop wrecking railroad tracks and hurry back to Winchester. By the end of the 18th, Rodes was back at Stephenson’s Depot, and Gordon was at Bunker Hill. The Confederates were still spread along a 14-mile line, but they were more concentrated than they had been when the day began.

The Federals advanced at 3 a.m. on the 19th, led by the cavalry. Their initial target was Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s isolated division on the Berryville Road, about a mile and a half east of Winchester. However, Sheridan mishandled the advance by sending his men through the narrow Berryville Canyon, and a major traffic jam ensued among the men, horses, and wagons. The delay gave Early time to bring up Rodes and Gordon from the north, and Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division from the south.

The Federals approached the Confederates on a north-south line, with Wright on the left (south) and Emory on the right. Gordon’s division came up to Ramseur’s left (north), and fighting began in the cornfields and woodlands at 11:40 a.m. One of Emory’s divisions under Brigadier General Cuvier Grover pushed Gordon back but was then repulsed by a counterattack. Gordon’s division nearly decimated XIX Corps.

Combat near Opequon Creek | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates discovered a gap in the Federal center just as Rodes’s division came up, and troops from both Rodes’s and Gordon’s commands pushed through. Early wrote that 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.” But Early suffered a major loss when Rodes was mortally wounded in the assault.

Sheridan brought up the rest of VI and XIX corps to plug the gap, and Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in VI Corps, was killed by shrapnel in the counterattack. The Federals eventually closed the gap, which possibly saved the army from destruction. Sheridan later wrote:

“The charge of Russell was most opportune, 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.”

During a lull on the field, Sheridan directed Crook’s Federals to move around the Confederate left. The Confederates crumbled under the overwhelming assault; Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton) was mortally wounded and his brigade was decimated. Gordon repositioned his withdrawing men behind a stone wall on a line running east to west, perpendicular to the rest of Early’s army. Breckinridge’s division came up to extend the Confederate left flank.

Meanwhile, Wright’s Federals launched another attack on the Confederate right, as Sheridan rode along the front, waving his hat and yelling, “Give ‘em hell… Press them, General, they’ll run!” As the Federals gradually pushed the Confederates back toward Winchester, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal cavalry attacked Breckinridge’s isolated division on the far left until one of Early’s cavalry brigades fought them off.

Sheridan’s final charge | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Around 4:30 p.m., Crook and Wright launched assaults that broke the Confederate left and penetrated Breckinridge’s part of the line. Cavalry under Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and William W. Averell attacked in support. Sheridan wrote, “Panic took possession of the enemy, his troops, now fugitives and stragglers, seeking escape into and through Winchester.” Ramseur’s Confederates held off the Federals to allow an orderly retreat. This marked the first time that Early’s army had been driven from the field.

The Confederates withdrew along the Valley Turnpike to Newtown while moving their supplies, munitions, and equipment to Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan reported to Grant, “I have the honor to report that I attacked the forces of General Early on the Berryville pike at the crossing of Opequon Creek, and after a most stubborn and sanguinary engagement, which lasted from early in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, completely defeated him.” The Federals captured “2,500 prisoners, five pieces of artillery, nine army flags, and most of their wounded.”

Sheridan’s chief of staff telegraphed Washington, “We have just sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them to-morrow. This army behaved splendidly.” The Federals secured Winchester for the last time, holding the town for the rest of the war.

The Federals sustained 5,018 casualties (697 killed, 3,983 wounded and 338 missing) in what they called the Battle of Opequon. The Confederates lost about 3,921 (276 killed, 1,827 wounded and 1,818 missing or captured) in what they called the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederate losses equated to about a quarter of Early’s entire army, but he nevertheless asserted that “Sheridan ought to have been cashiered” for allowing the Confederate army to escape relatively intact.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 181; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 538; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20474-504; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 460; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 497-98; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109, 112, 118, 122; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 570-72; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 776-77; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 332-33; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 260-61, 328, 677-79, 835