Tag Archives: Thomas L. Rosser

The Battle of Waynesboro

March 1, 1865 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry advanced to within seven miles of the last substantial Confederate force in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The Federals attacked the next day.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

“Little Phil” Sheridan had left Winchester with 10,000 cavalry troopers under Major General Wesley Merritt in late February. They had orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, to destroy what remained of the Valley to increase pressure on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s starving army under siege at Petersburg. The Federals marched through Harrisonburg early on the 1st and continued toward Staunton.

Their only opposition was what was left of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley near Staunton. This once formidable force now consisted of just two decimated brigades and some artillery. Cavalry was also scattered throughout the region. When “Old Jube” learned that the Federals were heading his way, he called for the cavalry to concentrate. Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser and 100 troopers rode out to stop the Federals.

Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division led the Federal advance and tried seizing a key bridge over the Middle Fork of the Shenandoah River, also known as the North River. Rosser’s Confederates set the bridge on fire and waited for the Federals in rifle pits on the other side. The Federals outflanked Rosser by fording the river above and below the bridge, thus forcing the Confederates to retreat.

Merritt reported, “This command, under Rosser, was dispersed, captured, or killed. A number of wagons were taken and destroyed by the advance.” The Federals also saved the bridge from destruction, which ensured a quick crossing by the rest of Sheridan’s men. Custer later wrote, “The importance of our success in securing the bridge over North River cannot be over-estimated. Had the enemy succeeded in destroying the bridge it would have compelled a long delay on our part, as there were no fords practicable in the vicinity.”

Rosser and just 30 remaining men joined the main Confederate force at Staunton, where Early ordered a withdrawal to Waynesboro, 15 miles southeast. The Confederates fell back and set up a defense line just west of that town. Their backs were to Rockfish Gap, an important defile in the Blue Ridge. Early wrote:

“My object, in taking this position, was to secure the removal of five pieces of artillery for which there were no horses, and some stores still in Waynesboro, as well as to present a bold front to the enemy, and ascertain the object of his movement, which I could not do very well if I took refuge at once in the mountain. I did not intend making my final stand on this ground, yet I was satisfied that if my men would fight, which I had no reason to doubt, I could hold the enemy in check until night, and then cross the river and take position in Rockfish Gap; for I had done more difficult things than that during the war.”

Brig Gen G.A. Custer | Image Credit: claseshistoria.com

The Federals entered Staunton later on the 1st and found that the Confederates had stripped it of all supplies before retreating. The Federals camped just outside town that night and then resumed their advance in the morning, with Custer’s division in the lead. Custer reported:

“My orders were to proceed to Waynesborough, ascertain something definite in regard to the position, movements, and strength of the enemy, and, if possible, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South River at that point. The roads were almost impassible, owing to the mud caused by the heavy rains of the past few days. Our march was necessarily slow.”

The Federals easily drove off Confederate pickets at Fisherville before approaching the main enemy line. Custer stated that the Confederates were “posted behind a formidable line of earth-works. His position was well chosen, being upon a range of hills west of the town, from which his artillery could command all approaches, while his infantry could, by their fire, sweep the open space extending along their entire front.”

Custer dismounted his men and determined that Early’s front was too strong to break. “But one point seemed favorable to attack,” Custer wrote. “The enemy’s left flank, instead of resting on South River, was thrown well forward, leaving a short gap between his left and the river. The approach to this point could be made under cover of the woods.”

Custer dispatched three regiments under Colonel Alexander Pennington to assault the Confederate left, which was commanded by Major General Gabriel Wharton. Early saw the movement and later wrote, “I immediately sent a messenger with notice of this fact to General Wharton, who was on that flank, and with orders for him to look out and provide for the enemy’s advance; and another messenger with notice to the guns on the left, and directions for them to fire towards the advancing force, which could not be seen from where they were.”

But Wharton was with Early when the Federals poured out of the woods at 3:30 p.m., and he could not alert his men in time. Early “pointed out to him the disorder in his line, and ordered him to ride immediately to that point and rectify it. Before he got back, the troops gave way on the left, after making very slight resistance, and soon everything was in a state of confusion and the men commenced crossing the river.”

As the Confederate left crumbled, two mounted Federal regiments rode straight through the center of the line, leaping over the fortifications and sending the Confederates fleeing through the mud and snow. The Federals chased them through the streets of Waynesboro until nearly all were killed, wounded, or captured. Early rode to the river and implored his men to turn back and fight, “but they could not be rallied, and the enemy forded the river above and got into our rear.”

Pennington wrote, “The movement was completely successful. The entire line of the enemy was thrown into confusion and obliged to retreat, many throwing away their arms and accouterments to enable them to do so more effectually.” Custer reported, “The rout of the enemy could not have been more complete; no order or organization was preserved. The pursuit was taken up by my entire command, and continued through Rockfish Gap for a distance of twelve miles.”

Early barely escaped capture as he rode off with some of his staff to Jarman’s Gap, out of the Federal pursuers’ reach. He wrote that he “rode aside into the woods, and in that way escaped capture. I went to the top of a hill to reconnoiter, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners, and a force of the enemy moving rapidly towards Rockfish Gap.”

Early and the few Confederates not captured eventually returned to Richmond. Public opinion turned against Early for the many defeats he had sustained leading up to the virtual destruction of his army. General Lee was therefore forced to relieve him of command.

Meanwhile, Custer tallied the spoils of the Federal victory:

“Among some of the substantial fruits of this victory we had possession of about 1,800 prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery, 17 battle-flags, and a train of nearly 200 wagons and ambulances, including General Early’s headquarters’ wagon, containing all his official desks and records. The result of this engagement was of the highest value and importance to us for another reason; it opened a way across the Blue Ridge Mountains through Rockfish Gap, and thereby saved us from several days’ delay and marching.”

The Waynesboro rout permanently ended Confederate opposition in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only did it deprive Lee of a final infantry reserve, but it gave Sheridan free reign to spend most of this month laying waste to the region before rejoining the Federals at Petersburg. Sheridan’s Valley campaign, which had begun last August, was a stunning Federal success from which the Confederates would never recover.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 341-42; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 426; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; 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 16797-816, 16874-84, 17569-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; 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. 159; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 265; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 644-46; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 482; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491-92, 677-80, 810-11

The Shenandoah Valley: Confederates Not Quite Defeated

November 13, 1864 – After being routed at Cedar Creek in October, Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates left the Shenandoah Valley. But some were not yet ready to admit complete defeat.

By this month, Early’s once formidable Army of the Valley was no longer a serious threat to Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah. Nevertheless, the Confederates advanced north from New Market as Early vainly tried to find an opening to launch another offensive. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s Federals fell back northward “down” the Valley to be closer to their supply base.

On the 11th, Early received word that Sheridan had moved north in preparation for sending part of his army to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg. Continuing north, part of Early’s army clashed with the Federal rear guard under Brigadier General George A. Custer near Middletown and Newtown. Expecting Early to attack in full force the next day, Sheridan issued orders: “Corps commanders will have their commands under arms and everything hitched up by daylight tomorrow, 5.30 a.m.”

The following day, the Confederates probed Federal positions but were driven back by two cavalry divisions. The Federals called this a decisive victory, but Early called it simply a reconnaissance. If anything, Early “discovered by this movement that no troops had been sent to Grant…”

Sheridan reported to Grant that night, “Yesterday evening the enemy’s cavalry made a demonstration on my front south of Newtown, and my scout reported a large infantry force having moved down the pike to Middletown with the intention of attacking. This morning I had everything ready, but no attack was made.”

This was Early’s last northward advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Having marched 1,700 miles and fought 75 engagements since June, Early’s men had made remarkable efforts to threaten Federals in the Valley and even outside Washington, despite being heavily outnumbered by veteran soldiers. Overall, Early’s campaign had surpassed the fine achievements of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley campaign of 1862.

Early fell back to New Market and returned Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division to the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Richmond and Petersburg. This left Early with just a token force. Sheridan also reduced his army by sending VI Corps to the siege.

Gen. T.L. Rosser | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Although the last major Confederate force in Shenandoah was gone, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s cavalry continued minor operations. Rosser’s two brigades embarked on a raid of New Creek, West Virginia, a supply depot on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad west of Cumberland, Maryland.

Federals considered their New Creek depot to be the strongest among their supply bases along the B & O. It was located between two mountains at the junction of the New Creek and Potomac River valleys. An attack could only come from one direction, which the Federals covered with the 800-man garrison at Fort Kelley and five guns.

Rosser’s 500 troopers reached Moorefield, West Virginia, on the 27th, and a Federal detachment from New Creek confronted them there. The Federals were driven off, but those who returned to New Creek warned the troops there of Rosser’s presence. Rosser, conscious that victory depended on the element of surprise, rode his men all night to get to New Creek as soon as possible.

As the Confederates came within striking distance, Rosser held a council of war to consider his options. He and his officers decided to go through with the attack. By this time, the Federals returning from Moorefield had warned Colonel George Latham, commanding at Fort Kelley, that an attack would come. Fortunately for Rosser, Latham took no precautions.

The Confederates captured the Federal pickets and then descended on Fort Kelley itself. Most Federals were cooking lunches, unprepared for such an onslaught. Within 30 minutes, Rosser’s men captured about 700 Federals and seized enormous amounts of much-needed provisions and supplies. The Confederates burned the buildings and the railroad bridge before disappearing into the woods.

Both Latham and his superior, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, came under intense criticism for failing to guard against such an attack, and Latham was later dishonorably discharged. Rosser’s successful New Creek raid proved that the Confederates were not yet ready to concede defeat in the Valley.

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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 20595; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 485-87, 494; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519-20, 524-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 596, 601-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 410, 644

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

Federals Lay Waste to the Shenandoah Valley

October 3, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan directed his Federals to continue laying waste to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and exact harsh retribution for the loss of a key aide.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After driving the Confederates off Fisher’s Hill in September, Sheridan began the second phase of his campaign by destroying the Valley to deprive Confederate troops of the vital foodstuffs harvested there. As October began, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah was laying waste to the area around Harrisonburg.

The defeated Confederate Army of the Valley, led by Lieutenant General Jubal Early, retired east of Harrisonburg to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge. Early was reinforced by Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s infantry division from the Army of Northern Virginia, and he planned to resume the offensive as soon as he could regroup. In the meantime, scouting and raiding parties harassed the Federals.

On the 3rd, a Federal surveying party consisting of Lieutenant John R. Meigs and two soldiers came across three Confederate horsemen near Dayton, southwest of Harrisonburg. The Confederates killed Meigs and took one soldier prisoner. The remaining soldier escaped and told Sheridan what happened. Having taken a liking to Meigs for his topographical skill, Sheridan was enraged.

The commander declared that Meigs and his companion had been murdered by guerrillas harbored by local residents. As Sheridan later wrote, “The fact that the murder had been committed inside our lines was evidence that the perpetrators of the crime, having their homes in the vicinity, had been clandestinely visiting them, and been secretly harbored by some of the neighboring residents.”

In response, Sheridan ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer’s cavalry division to destroy every house within five miles of Dayton. “The Burning,” as residents later called it, began on the 4th and continued for two days. Federals pleaded with Sheridan to spare Dayton itself, as most people there were Unionists and pacifists. Federal troops helped Dayton residents pack their belongings in anticipation that Sheridan would refuse, but at the last moment he granted the town a reprieve. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Wildes of the 116th Ohio recalled:

“All hands turned to and helped to carry everything back to the houses, and the people of Dayton anyhow, if of no other place in the South, believed there were at least some Yankees who had some humanity in them. There was not a man in the regiment who would not have faced death in a dozen battles rather than to have burned that village in the presence of those weeping, imploring and helpless women and children.”

Although he spared Dayton, Sheridan carried out his threat of killing two Confederate partisans held as prisoners and announced that in the future, he would execute two prisoners for every one Federal soldier killed by partisans. It was later revealed that the Confederates who killed Meigs and his companion were actually scouts in Early’s army, not partisans.

Enraged Confederates retaliated by killing Sheridan’s chief quartermaster, Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius W. Tolles, and his medical inspector, Dr. Emil Ohlenshlager. The Federal depredations also prompted Early to hurry and launch a new campaign. General Robert E. Lee, commanding both Early and his own Army of Northern Virginia, warned him, “You have operated more with divisions than with your concentrated strength. Circumstances may have rendered it necessary, but such a course is to be avoided if possible.”

Taking no heed, Early dispatched a cavalry division led by Major General Thomas L. Rosser (formerly commanded by Major General Fitzhugh Lee, who had returned to Petersburg) to stop Custer. Rosser’s troopers attacked the Federals at Brock’s Gap, but the Confederates could not match the Federal strength and were forced to withdraw.

Early then “determined to attack the enemy in his position at Harrisonburg.” However, when the Confederates came out of Brown’s Gap, they found that Sheridan had fallen back to Woodstock, 20 miles north. Early’s men then advanced to New Market instead.

At Woodstock, Sheridan reported his campaign of destruction to the overall Federal commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant:

“I have destroyed over 2,000 barns, filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep. This destruction embraces the Luray Valley and Little Fort Valley, as well as the main valley. A large number of horses have been obtained, a proper estimate of which I cannot now make.”

Sheridan also reported that his troops sent 400 wagons filled with people drafted into the Confederate army from Harrisonburg to Federal-occupied Martinsburg because they were Quakers, Dunkers, or some other sect of pacifists who refused to fight for the Confederacy. He wrote, “The people here are getting sick of war, hithertofore they have had no reason to complain, because they have been living in great abundance.”

Regarding the future, Sheridan ominously wrote, “Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, &c., down to Fisher’s hill. When this is complete the Valley, from Winchester up (south) to Staunton, 92 miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 180-81; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20512-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 466, 470; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 11818-59, 11870-900; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506-07; 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, 137-41, 144, 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 580-85; 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. 778; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 485; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79

Confederates Forage in West Virginia

January 31, 1864 – Confederate forces scoured the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia to feed the armies, while Federals in the region began panicking at their presence.

Major General Benjamin F. Kelley commanded the Federal Department of West Virginia from Cumberland, Maryland. His main responsibilities included guarding the supply routes through the Shenandoah and Luray valleys from Confederate raiders. This became especially important this winter because General Robert E. Lee sent forces into the region to forage for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

These Confederate forces comprised the new Shenandoah Valley District, led by Major General Jubal Early. They consisted of two infantry brigades and cavalry units led by Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Thomas L. Rosser, John D. Imboden, and Albert Jenkins. Kelley reported on the 3rd, “It now appears that Lee has detached a large force and sent them into the valley. If General (George G.) Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) would send a strong cavalry force into the Luray Valley, it would be an important movement to us.”

Fitz Lee’s cavalry threatened a Federal outpost at Petersburg, but, as Fitz reported, “The greater part of my ammunition being wet, owing to starting in a snow and rainstorm, and having no artillery, I decided not to attack them, and moved upon their line of communication toward New Creek Depot.” In Hardy County, the Confederates captured Kelley’s supply train and 250 heads of cattle before moving toward New Creek.

Stopping within striking distance of New Creek on the night of the 4th, Lee wrote, “Marched at 4 o’clock next morning in a hail storm, and though a point was reached within six miles of the depot, on account of the sufferings of my men and the impassibility of the mountain passes to my smooth-shod horses was unable to proceed farther.” Lee’s troopers soon fell back to Harrisonburg.

Meanwhile, a portion of Early’s command advanced from Strasburg but was forced to stop at Fisher’s Hill due to extreme weather and impassable roads. But this did not stop the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, J.W. Garrett, from panicking at the prospect of a Confederate army operating in the Valley. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It is stated that General (Richard) Ewell is in the valley with 20,000 men.” He asked Halleck “to judge whether considerable re-enforcements are not required to prevent disasters.”

Halleck in turn contacted Meade: “It is now reported that Ewell’s corps is in the Shenandoah Valley. Have you any information to that effect? I think another brigade should be sent here… for transportation to Harper’s Ferry.” Meade responded:

“Our scouts have returned from the valley and report that Early’s command, consisting of five brigades of infantry, estimated at 7,000, together with Lee’s, Rosser’s, Imboden’s, and Jenkin’s cavalry, and some artillery, passed down the valley about Friday last with the intention of making a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad…”

Meade then objected to Halleck’s request:

“I am still of the opinion that the operations against Early, to be effective, should be from the Railroad and defensive, and the character of the season and roads, together with the difficulty of procuring supplies, after exhausting those carried with them, will render nugatory any effort made from this army to cut off Early’s retreat…”

Meade contended that defensive operations against Early “would require a smaller detachment than an independent movement into the valley.” Halleck replied that one brigade should “probably be sufficient to supply General Kelley’s wants.” Meade then shared a more optimistic report: “Further examination of scouts… would lead to the conclusion that the infantry of Early’s command in the lower valley was only two brigades and some detached regiments.”

Operations remained limited through most of January. On the 28th, Early accompanied a Confederate force heading west from New Market in search of forage and cattle. The force consisted of Rosser’s Laurel Brigade of cavalry, an infantry brigade under Brigadier General Edward L. Thomas, and an artillery battery. The next day, the Confederates scattered Federal skirmishers and entered Moorefield. While there, Early and Thomas received word that a Federal supply train was moving toward Petersburg. Early directed Rosser and Thomas to capture the train.

The Confederates moved out on the morning of the 30th. They advanced across Branch Mountain and drove off a Federal force guarding the gap. They spied the train at Medley, protected by Federal infantry and cavalry. Rosser sent his 400 men forward, but the Federals knocked them back. The Confederates advanced again, this time supported by a cannon. They hit the Federals in front and on the left flank, sending them fleeing in panic. The Confederates seized the 95 wagons left behind, which were filled with supplies.

Rosser entered Petersburg the next day and seized more provisions and munitions. While Thomas’s infantry occupied the town, Rosser’s cavalry continued north down Patterson’s Creek in search of cattle and sheep. When Rosser learned that Federal reinforcements were approaching, he led his men to Moorefield, relinked with Thomas, and returned east toward the Shenandoah Valley.

The raiders netted 80 Federal prisoners, 95 supply wagons, 1,200 cattle, and 500 sheep while sustaining just 25 casualties. The troopers of Rosser’s brigade demonstrated their admiration of his leadership by reenlisting after the raid.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 453; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 644-45

Reconsidering the Confederate Partisan Ranger System

January 7, 1864 – Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate partisan rangers operated in northern Virginia, while calls grew louder among Confederate officers to ban the partisan ranger system.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Throughout the winter, Mosby’s rangers operated around Warrenton, an area nicknamed “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby’s men technically belonged to the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia, but under the Partisan Ranger Act, they acted independently and lived among the citizenry. Unlike many rangers who disdained military regulations, Mosby’s troopers were respected as effective members of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Mosby’s activities mainly included raiding Federal wagon trains and scouting. Federal cavalry stationed at Warrenton under Colonel John P. Taylor routinely rode throughout the countryside in search of Mosby’s elusive rangers. In early January, troopers from Colonel Henry Cole’s 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade entered Virginia via Harpers Ferry to hunt Mosby down. But when a detachment of 80 men left Rectortown, Mosby’s men pursued and attacked, killing four, wounding 10, and capturing 41.

Another Federal detachment attacked and scattered Mosby’s command, but a portion counterattacked, capturing 25 Federals and 50 horses. A separate detachment from Mosby under Lieutenant “Fighting Tom” Turner launched a surprise attack on Taylor’s Federals at Warrenton, taking another 20 prisoners. Mosby soon turned his attention back to Cole’s battalion.

Mosby led about 100 rangers to Loudon Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, where Cole and about 200 Federals were camped on the night of the 9th. Mosby later reported, “The camp was buried in profound sleep, there was not a sentinel awake.” However, the Federals quickly awoke and attacked Mosby’s force. Mosby ordered a charge, but the Federals inflicted numerous casualties. One of Mosby’s rangers later recalled:

“The dead and dying lay around. From the tents came forth moans of pain and shrieks of agony. Some of the combatants stood almost in reach of one another, firing into each other’s face, crying out: ‘Surrender!’ ‘No, I won’t! You surrender!’”

The Confederates ultimately drove the Federals off. Mosby reported, “Confusion and delaying having ensued from the derangement of my plans, consequent on the alarm given to the enemy, rendered it hazardous to continue in my position, as re-enforcements were near the enemy.” With the infantry at Harpers Ferry mobilizing, Mosby ordered a withdrawal.

The rangers sustained just 12 casualties (eight killed, three wounded, and one captured) while inflicting 26 (four killed, 16 wounded, and six taken prisoner). However, the Confederates were not used to either taking casualties or retreating. As such, an officer later wrote, “A sad and sullen silence pervaded our ranks and found expression in every countenance. All that we could have gained would not compensate for the loss we sustained.”

While the “Gray Ghost” and his rangers would live to fight another day, Confederate officials debated how they should be organized. More and more officers in the Confederate armies were complaining about the partisan rangers. The rangers did not have to strictly adhere to army regulations, they could live among the people, and they could enjoy the bounties they captured. Perhaps most importantly, they encouraged soldiers to desert the army in favor of this more adventurous (and less regulatory) branch of service.

General Robert E. Lee, who originally supported the partisan ranger system, urged the War Department to disband these units in 1863 due to their lack of discipline, their harassment of civilians, and their tendency to draw troops from the regular armies. Secretary of War James A. Seddon responded in November 1863 by banning all partisan ranger outfits except those commanded by John H. McNeill in West Virginia and Mosby in northern Virginia.

In December 1863, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser, a cavalry brigade commander under Jeb Stuart, reported that 60 of his men deserted while serving in the Shenandoah Valley. Rosser stated that the men had once belonged to a partisan unit that was forced to join the regular cavalry, and they left because they had grown tired of army regulations. Rosser also had problems working with McNeill, who often refused to follow his orders.

This month, Rosser wrote to Lee describing the partisans as “a nuisance and an evil to the service”:

“Without discipline, order, or organization, they roam broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime. They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause. They never fight; can’t be made to fight. Their leaders are generally brave, but few of the men are good soldiers, and have engaged in this business for the sake of gain. The effect upon the service is bad, and I think, if possible, it should be corrected.”

Rosser cited three reasons why all partisan units should be disbanded:

  • Instead of roaming the countryside, their “bayonet or saber should be counted on the field of battle when the life or death of our country is the issue.”
  • They caused “great dissatisfaction in the ranks” because they “are allowed so much latitude, so many privileges. They sleep in houses and turn out in the cold only when it is announced by their chief that they are to go upon a plundering expedition.”
  • They encouraged desertion:

“It is almost impossible for one to manage the different companies of my brigade that are from Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, &c., the region occupied by Mosby. They see these men living at their ease and enjoying the comforts of home, allowed to possess all that they capture, and their duties mere pastime pleasures compared with their own arduous ones; and it is a natural consequence in the nature of man that he should become dissatisfied under these circumstances. Patriotism fails in the long and tedious war like this to sustain the ponderous burdens which bear heavily and cruelly upon the heart and soul of man.”

To remedy the “melancholy” spreading among his men, Rosser urged his superiors to place “all men on the same footing.” If partisan activity was needed for the war effort, “then require the commanding officer to keep them in an organized condition, to rendezvous within our lines, and move upon the enemy when opportunity is offered.” While Rosser singled Mosby out as a “gallant officer,” he argued that Mosby’s service had little impact on the war.

Lee consulted with Stuart, who agreed with everything that Rosser wrote. Stuart contended that Mosby’s partisans were “the only efficient band of rangers I know of,” but he often used just “one-fourth of his nominal strength” while his other three-fourths were living comfortably among civilians. Stuart concluded, “Such organizations, as a rule, are detrimental to the best interests of the army at large.”

Based on this, Lee wrote, “I recommend that the law authorizing these partisan corps be abolished. The evils resulting from their organization more than counterbalance the good they accomplish.” A bill was immediately introduced in the Confederate Congress to repeal the Partisan Ranger Act.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 561; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 33), p. 12-16, 457, 1081-83; Ramage, James A., Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Wert, Jeffry D., Mosby’s Rangers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); Williamson, James Joseph, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion (1909)