FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
ON Sunday, 23d, the regiment returned to camp and made breakfast, having at the same time been ordered to prepare an early dinner and be ready to respond to orders at once. Artillery firing beyond the town was almost continuous, and, to judge from the sound, the forces engaged were holding their respective positions. Marched about noon to about four miles south of the town, the cannonading continuing without intermission. The brigade was here led to the right of the road through a field and piece of woods, the other portion of the command forming on the left on both sides of the pike, at right angles to the same, turning again at a right angle to the former course bearing to the left, and again passing into a piece of woods, was drawn up in line just on its border. An open field was before the regiment, gently rising to a strong wall which bounded it near the top, and beyond this, still on the rise, quite a number of fence-rail barricades. And still beyond this was the top of the hill, crowned by a thin piece of woods, which extended to and covered a portion of the sloping ground. The enemy (Jackson's forces) was posted behind the stone wall mentioned, the rail barricades, and in the woods, - evidently a very strong and well-chosen position, and hard to face.
The First was on the extreme right of the line; two brigades were engaged and one held in reserve. The formation of Shield's forces was like the letter L. The First, to use the military phrase, joined the main line of battle perpendicular to the general line, and overlapped the enemy's line slightly, his left flank being refused. About three P.M. the action opened on the enemy's left (Union right) with the infantry - the artillery, as already stated, had been engaged for several hours - just as the regiment got within range at the border of the woods, receiving the first volley while advancing. No doubt every man thought at this time, while an almost unseen enemy was shooting at him, that absence of body was better than presence of mind; but there was no time to speculate on this, as there was the enemy doing his best to kill; the buzz and whistle of the balls, with now and then a pit or thug as one hit the solid part of a man, was not pleasant music. And it had become a disagreeable necessity to kill him, if possible, in self-defence. The roar of the musketry soon became continuous; all ideas of platoon firing were forgotten, it was simply fire at will, and, like the fight at Donnybrook Fair, hit a head when it was possible to do so, which was all that could be seen of an enemy for some time.
At the commencement of the action it was observed that the enemy as a general thing fired too high: being on the higher ground might account for this. Whether the Union men made this mistake generally is not known; probably there was considerable of it at first, until they became cooler and better used to the novel position. The artillery joined in with its heavy thundering, and altogether there was a melee. This continued for probably two hours. Many of the command had fallen and many been borne helpless to the rear, when at this time a break was observed on the enemy's extreme left; a restlessness began to show itself along the line in the slight shifting of position by small bodies; evidently as the firing became more accurate it made the position too warm for them; in detached bodies they fell back to positions in the rear in very good order. There was no attempt at an advance or a charge, and presently more of them followed the backward movement. The men of the First as well as the whole command were pouring in their fire, pressing them hard, moving up step by step, always forward and cheering, which caused the blood to tingle in the veins of all. No rebel yell there; it was a hearty hurrah, the difference in the two being very plain. At one time early in the action, probably about four o'clock, the enemy threw a small body on the right flank of the First, but this body was met by a force thrown on that flank, led by Colonel Thoburn and Major Duval, which opened such a hot fire that he failed in his effort to turn this flank. This, no doubt, was a critical juncture, but, as the men were not as a general thing well versed in either tactics or strategic positions, it made no difference to them. Just before dark the enemy was in full retreat, protected and well covered by his rear-guard. Shields's forces followed up the valley, but the retreat was orderly, and the rear-guard being well handled never at any time approached a rout. The Union cavalry at this time had not been raised to that degree of efficiency that it afterwards attained under Sheridan, Torbet, Wilson, Custer, and Devens, - witness Aldie, Brandy Station, Fisher's Hill, and the hundred combats of lesser note, winding up with Sailor Creek and Appomattox, where this arm of the Service performed the most hazardous duty, and in nearly all of which West Virginia regiments took their full share. Under Shields the cavalry wall small in number, - too small to render very important service at this juncture, the whole hardly amounting to a regiment, while to have secured the full results of this victory a brigade was necessary. How the centre and left wing of the Union force fared is not known, as the rising ground on the front of the regiment, before described and no doubt the key of the position, prevented a sight, even if anything could have been seen through the smoke. It is believed, however, that the falling back was simultaneous along the whole line, - from their right beyond the pike to their extreme left, - having full confidence that the Ohio and Indiana regiments played their part well and kept up their end of the line. On1 the right, as may be concluded from the foregoing, the brigade was not pushed back during the entire action, but, on the contrary, pressed forward out of the protection of the wood into the open field, there taking advantage of the irregularities of the ground that offered any protection from the hot fire maintained by the enemy. The colonel in command of the small body detached for the purpose of meeting the attack the right flank as stated received a painful wound. The pursuit was left chiefly to the reserve and the small body of cavalry attached to the command.
The division commander, General Shields, having been wounded by a piece of shell, the command devolved on Colonel Kimball; but, after the positions were taken and line of battle formed, very few commands were given or were indeed necessary. The loss to Shields's command was about five hundred; the loss of the enemy about the same, or possibly slightly heavier. The majority of his killed were shot in the head. Have no means of ascertaining the loss of the First in this fight, but, from the best information attainable, believe it to have been between forty and fifty, being about the average of the several regiments engaged. After the battle immediate preparations were made to attend to the wounded and to bury the dead. The former were collected and taken to the improvised hospitals in Winchester. The wounded of the enemy were also cared for. Their friends in Winchester were only too anxious to give them every attention when, a few hours later, they had learned of the result of the fight. Much anxiety was felt in the town, as a number of the young men whose homes were there were in Jackson's army. The derisive shouts of the people, who had confidently relied on hailing Jackson as the victor, were turned into weeping and wailing for their loss. Trenches were dug and the dead placed therein. The brigade bivouacked on the battle-field, and, save the occasional sound of the big guns, now and then varied by the sound of the smaller arms, at this time growing fainter and fainter as the enemy retreated, finally ceased altogether as night threw its veil over the scene and the wearied combatants made preparations for their much-needed rest. No sound interrupted the occupations of the men preparing their evening meal of coffee, flitch, and hard bread - a well-earned supper - but the noise of the ambulances and the voices of the men collecting the wounded, the sound of the mattock and the shovel in the trenches being prepared for the dead, which were being collected and placed therein, - some strong, hearty frames, having been in full health, strength, and vigor of manhood, then a fair-haired Virginian or Georgian, perhaps but a stripling, possibly the idol of a mother or the pride of a sister, laid alongside the other by the rough hands though tender hearts of the Union men, to occupy an unknown grave. A hush fell upon all; each man appeared to mourn the loss of a comrade, and all influenced by the sad surroundings, increased by the gloom of the night. Wolfe's words, though well worn, are singularly appropriate, and will bear quoting: