FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
THE opening of the year 1864, as stated, found the regiment at Petersburg, Hardy County, greatly reduced in number by the capture of Moorefield, in September, of the parts of four companies before mentioned. During the winter a respectable earthwork was built, which could be held by a small body against any ordinary mountain force that would be likely to assail it. In February, owing chiefly to the shortness of transportation facilities and the bad roads, rations, which had been reduced for some time, began to get very scarce, and it was found to be a poor country in which to subsist even a small command for any length of time, hence it is believed that it was the purpose of the commanding officer to evacuate, when probably events hastened this determination.
On the 10th General Early with a strong force was reported in the vicinity and marching on the town. There being no force adequate to dispute its possession with him, preparations were made to retire and leave him the empty place. In order to do this successfully quietness and expedition were necessary, - the point to fall back on being New Creek Station, there being a possibility of securing support at that place. Accordingly, the First, under command of the lieutenant-colonel, was silently withdrawn and started on the road, pushing along all night, securing possession of Greenland Gap, a defile in the mountain which, if once taken possession of by the only practicable route. The men were placed in a good position on the hill, and two pieces of artillery planted commanding the defile. In the morning Early's guns were heard pounding the empty fort, as it afterwards appeared, though at the time it was feared that he had prevented the retreat of the bulk of the command. All fears of this kind, however, were removed during the day by the arrival of all save one, who had ventured too far or remained too long; Captain Robb, of Company A, being the unfortunate one captured. The command had slipped out quietly during the night, and taking an entirely new road, marched all night, arriving in good order, and, without further loss, passed through the Gap. Early advanced no farther at this time, as he doubtless concluded that it would be useless to pursue. The whole command, with train and material, fell back to New Creek without further incident.
During the months of January and February two hundred and fifteen men of the regiment re-enlisted for the war, their time of service to date from the termination of the time of their first enlistment, which would be in the following October and November. And in March the entire battalion, consisting of less than four hundred men, was granted "veteran furlough" to be spent at home, according to the terms and conditions upon which they re-enlisted, with orders to assemble again April 1, the rendezvous being Webster, Taylor County, a few miles west of Grafton, to be placed under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Weddle, Colonel Thoburn having been assigned to the command of a brigade. Undoubtedly the men enjoyed this furlough, and the time, in consequence, speedily passed; but promptly at the time, appointed they assembled at the rendezvous, prepared for another campaign. The First, with a battalion of the Fifth New York Heavy Artillery armed as infantry, Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, and the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Regiments, composed what was called the Second Provisional Brigade, Colonel Thoburn commanding; General Sullivan commanding the division to which it was attached, and General Sigel placed in command of the department. On the 18th of April the brigade moved up to Grafton, as supposed, preparatory to a start eastward, there being no force of the enemy in West Virginia at this time formidable enough to retain this command west of the mountains. During January, February, and March the South suffered severe loss by the capture and the destruction of many of their blockade-runners, about thirty being lost to them in these months three months. Where formerly the crews of these active vessels thought it no evidence of steamship to run the blockade of the ports of the South, it now began to be considered quite a feat to get either in or out of them. And the rebel government being dependent on England, through her West India colonies, for arms and munitions of war, as well and munitions of war, as well as medicines, besides tea and coffee, and even salt, these articles began to be very scarce, commanding very high prices, and hardly to be obtained at any figures. The result of this was great distress among the people themselves, and neglect, even starvation, of the Union prisoners confined in their pens. It is probable that, be the disposition what it might, the enemy was powerless to treat the sick and wounded of the prisoners as they should be treated. No apology, however, can be offered for the barbarity practised towards the prisoners at Andersonville, and the execution of one man cannot atone for all the cruelty and inhumanity there practised during this year. It should not be forgotten that the Confederate government formally announced that no more supplies would be received for the Union prisoners at the South, thus assuming the responsibility of these acts. Thirty-seven thousand deaths at the prison named speak louder than words of how cruel these acts were.
On the 19th the men took the cars, the wagon-train also being loaded on them, and on the 22d arrived at Martinsburg, that familiar gateway to the valley. The command remained here until the 29th, taking off the remainder of the rust that had collected on the men in the month's relaxation from discipline and drill, when orders were received for a move up the valley, and on the 30th arrived at Bunker Hill. Over two years previous to this time the regiment first passed over this ground with about double the number of men that were in the ranks at this time. Then the rail-fences were intact, and it appeared to the men now quite amusing, when reflecting on the stringent orders issued on the first entrance regarding the protection of private property. One order was that none but the top rail should be taken for firewood; this order was issued just after the advent of the regiment in the valley. The next morning the colonel discovered, to his surprise and vexation, that a number of sections of the fence had entirely disappeared. Hastening to the officer in command of the company nearest this plain evidence of disregard of orders, he said, "Captain W., how is this, sir? Your men have been disobeying the most stringent orders and have been acting like Vandals towards these farmers, when you know it is the desire to make it plain by our actions towards them that we come to benefit, not to injure them." The reply was about as follows: "Well, colonel, that is all right and all mighty fine in theory, but when you come to practically enforce the order, just see where you are. A man comes along and takes the top rail, after a while another fellow comes along and he takes the top rail, presently along comes another, and what was the third rail is the top one to him; finally the bottom rail becomes the top as well as the bottom one, then, 'presto,' where's your fence? And there isn't a rascal of them that has taken anything but the top rail. Do you see it?" The colonel did see it, and burst out laughing at the ridiculous order.
The command remained here until the 4th of May, when orders were received for a movement up the valley again, and, without incident of any importance occurring, arrived the same day, bivouacking near Winchester, and remaining here until the 10th, when passing through the town, the line of march was up the well-tramped macadamized road towards Strasburg, arriving there in the evening and bivouacking for the night. Besides being well marched over, this vicinage hall been well fought over, and the question as to which side should possess it was determined within a short distance of the spot the regiment at that time occupied for the night's rest. The ground topographically being admirably adapted to the purpose, was a favorite locality for the operations of the enemy, and could be made a very strong defensive position, hence the regiment generally looked upon a fight or a skirmish there as a matter of course; but, contrary to the expectation, all was quiet and peaceful on that early spring day, with not a suspicious movement or sound that would denote the presence of the enemy, though undoubtedly his scouts were near. The people along the road and in Winchester appeared to be quiet and subdued, which demeanor was in marked contrast with their conduct two years before. They had suffered, doubtless, very severely in the loss of those near and dear to them in the two years' strife, and one wish appeared to prevail, which was, that peace would return to the country, and bring with it blessings to atone in a measure for the curse of the war.
The brigade marched from this point advancing again up the valley through the pleasant little town of Woodstock, then Edenburg, like its Scotch prototype, mounted on the rocks, and Mount Jackson, on the 14th striking the advance of the enemy, when heavy skirmishing began, the brigade driving the cavalry and light line of the enemy's skirmishers up the road and through the fields and woods until the neighborhood of New market was reached. At this time but part of the division was up; the other part, it is believed, was one march in the rear. The First, in command of Major Stephens, was advanced to within about one mile north of the town mentioned, having driven the light troops of the enemy to this point; remaining there until nightfall, preparing to bivouac on the ground, when orders came to the major in command to advance to the north edge of a piece of woods to the right, and fronting on a cross-road leading westward from the town. After taking this position, skirmishers were sent out through the woods to picket the front, when it was discovered that that enemy's pickets occupied the south edge of the woods, about four hundred yards distant from the regiment, hence there would in all probability be a dispute as to the possession of this particular piece of ground. After considerable firing in the dark, the enemy advancing in line, the skirmishers of the First were pressed back towards the regiment, which advancing received the enemy with a volley, driving him back to his former position. The skirmishers were again sent forward, and were again driven in by the enemy in line, who advanced to within one hundred and fifty yards of the regiment; the latter then delivered a steady, well-sustained, and, no doubt, destructive fire, driving the enemy's line back from the entire front. This appeared to satisfy him, as he allowed the regiment with the advanced pickets to hold possession of the ground without further efforts to dislodge them. The enemy suffered considerable loss in this affair in killed and wounded, but it being at night, and no one in the command being familiar with the ground, and, besides, night movements in the face of an enemy on the alert being always dangerous under the most favorable circumstance, no advantage could be taken of this repulse. The wood on the south side being picketed, the men lay on their arms till daylight of the 15th, when the regiment took position towards the front of the woods mentioned in support of Snow's battery, which had been brought up. This position was held until towards noon, Lieutenant-Colonel Weddle in the mean time having arrived and taken command, the major as stated having been in command during the night. At this time only a part of Sigel's command was present, this being parts of two brigades, having for some reason been ordered to march in advance of the other half of the command, and on account of some mismanagement the other part of the division in the rear was not brought up to take a share in the action. The Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania occupied the left of the line; on the right of this regiment was stationed the First; the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts followed on the right in line; and another regiment on the right of the Thirty-fourth; whether there was reserve or not is not known, but suppose there was.
In this position the enemy attacked with great vigor, and his line being longer overlapped the left of the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, and flanking the position held by that regiment. The contest became of the hottest character. The First was supporting Snow's battery (Maryland), which was in position at the south edge of the woods, on the road leading westward, before mentioned; made several shiftings of position, occasioned by the change of position of the enemy on front and flank. The enemy at two P.M. getting on the flanks of the line and threatening the rear, the position was no longer deemed tenable, hence the First, with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts on the right, was ordered to take position on the slope of a hill to the left and rear of the ground then occupied, which placed them on the extreme left of the line, being supported by the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, which had been withdrawn to the rear of the new line. In this position receiving and returning a heavy and well-directed fire, the two regiments remained for about an hour, causing a heavy loss to the enemy. At this time he was discovered advancing at a charge on the left and front in strong force. The First was then ordered to move forward to receive the charge, and when he arrived within a distance of one hundred yards a volley by the regiment was given with marked effect, shaking and throwing the line into disorder for a time; their officers, however, drove them up, and the force greatly outnumbering the Union command opposed to them, overlapping and enfilading, the order was given to fall back, retiring in good order to the face of the hill immediately in rear of the former position, where being exposed to a withering fire of musketry and canister, was for a short time thrown into confusion; rallying, however, from this, with the remainder of the line took position on Rude's Hill, the enemy remaining in possession of the hard-earned ground and the moral effects of the fight. Thus terminated the battle of New Market. General Breckenridge was in command of the enemy. It is almost useless to speculate as to what might have been the result had the whole of Sullivan's division taken part in the fight. There is but little doubt, however, that had it been up and in position the result would have been different. Why it was not has never been explained; officers and men had their own opinion about this, and one expressed that of all, which it may be said was not creditable to one high in authority. The command after this fell back to Cedar Creek, arriving there on the evening of the 16th. The conduct of the men throughout this action was cool and determined, doing their duty faithfully and well.
The official report, being one of the two the writer has been favored with a sight of, mentions a number of officers and men, especially commending them for good and effective service; and as many of them were killed in the action or have since died, it may not appear invidious to those who may survive, who are not mentioned, if these men are named here, though there were many others equally deserving honorable mention, though not coming under the eye of the commander of the regiment. The names are Major E. W. Stephens, Lieutenant and Acting Adjutant H. H. Hornbrook, Captains Oscar F. Melvin, Richard Ratcliff, and John Dougherty, First Lieutenants James W. Singleton, Theodore L. Apple, Thomas Lloyd, Second Lieutenants T. W. Simpson, John F. Beard, Joseph B. Gordon, Joseph P. Adams, William S. Murphy, and J. W. Plattenberg. To these officers the commander of the regiment felt himself greatly indebted for active exertions in leading, cheering, and sustaining the men. Among the men deserving special notice are the names of First Sergeant George L. Connelly and Corporal Alexander Jefferson, Company A, both of whom were killed, also Adam Rader, private, same company, mortally wounded, Sergeant William Ross, Company C, and private Levi P. Davis, Company B, all of whose actions were especially meritorious. In this engagement the First had fourteen officers and three hundred and seventy-three men, of which number seventy-nine were killed, wounded, and missing. Of the latter there were sixteen, the majority of whom were killed or mortally wounded. This action, as shown, thinned the ranks of the battalion very much, which now numbered all told about three hundred; and though but a small battalion, will still be called, as usual, a regiment, being a term better designating a body of this kind, or at least more familiar to the reader. It is very unfortunate that the official records of the regiment have been lost or destroyed, as it is evident the most important books have, for after application in quarters where it was supposed these books and papers would likely be obtained, to the regret of the writer the few pages that were found intact were the records of only a few months of the latter part of 1863, and the months of May and June of 1864, and these embracing chiefly general and special orders, the superscription containing place and date only being valuable. The exceptions to this were parts of the months of May and June, 1864, containing the official reports of the officers in command of the regiment at the battles of New Market and Piedmont. On application in another quarter, where it was believed a ready assent would be given to an examination, the writer was informed that these papers were so mixed up with those of a private nature that they would have to be separated before they could be examined, and that notice would be given when this permission would be granted. After waiting several weeks a renewal of the application was made in this quarter, at the same time reminding the party of the promise. No notice, however, up to the time of this writing, of the permission being granted having been received, no advantage can be taken of this information, if there be any of a general character of interest to the public, which is to be deplored for more reasons than may be inferred from the foregoing. The absence of this information is to be regretted for the reason, if no other, that there must have been recorded many praiseworthy actions of officers and men which now will probably never be given to the public. It is felt by the writer that this is due to those referred to as explaining the omission.