FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
In making the digression in the former chapter to pick up the thread of events that had occurred on the two important fields of operation widely separated, the First was left at Cherry Run Station on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; the stay there was very short, being advanced slowly eastward to Martinsburg, then to Harper's Ferry, and on the 17th of July to Purcellville, Loudon County, Virginia, Colonel Thoburn being in command of the brigade. Marched on the morning of the 18th to the Shenandoah River at Snicker's Ferry, crossing the river at that point, and immediately afterwards had a severe engagement with a body of the enemy, who was in heavy force in the neighborhood, Early's whole command being present. The command was overpowered, being compelled to fall back; and the river being in the rear, across the line of retreat, in getting over this the command was thrown into disorder, but were rallied on the opposite side. The enemy made no attempt to cross. For the time engaged, the loss to the regiment in killed and wounded was quite heavy. The Sixth Corps in the vicinity, on the right bank, for some reason took no part in this engagement. The failure to support the movement appeared surprising to all in the command, but it is probable there was a good reason for it, which was in all probability a desire to avoid a general engagement at the time, the enemy having choice of position. Why the brigade should have been permitted to cross the river in the face of such a force cannot be explained.
On the 20th the regiment crossed the river again, this time without encountering the enemy in strong force, and on the 22d arrived at Winchester, with orders to be ready to move early the next morning. On the next day the infantry formed line of battle, there being heavy skirmishing in the advance. The enemy at this time was very active and aggressive. After a cavalry action, with some loss to both sides, the enemy retired, and quiet was restored along the line. On the 24th, after much skirmishing, the forces met again, the infantry and artillery becoming very hotly engaged. After several hours' hard fighting, with advantages sometimes on one side and then on the other, the Union forces were compelled to fall back, being at one time in considerable disorder, but the enemy failed to take advantage of it, having lost quite heavily. Colonel Mulligan, of the Twenty-third Illinois, a gallant officer, and Lieutenant Nugent, of his staff, were killed in this action, which was a severe one, both sides sustaining a heavy loss. The First lost a number killed and wounded, but how many is not known. Colonel Thoburn was missing from the command, and it was feared at one time that he was either killed or captured, but, fortunately, he turned up all right on the 28th, in having ben cut off in the retreat, and was not able to regain the command before the date named. All rejoiced at his reappearance alive and well.
The brigade brought off all the wagons and material safely, and having developed a strong force of the enemy in the valley, - General Kershaw had joined Early with his division, - orders were given to fall back and cross the Potomac, which was done at Williamsport, saving all the material. The command fell back to Sharpsburg, and about three A.M. of the 27th marched for Maryland Heights, about noon resting in Pleasant valley, _ appropriately named, - at the foot of the mountain. On the next day recrossed the Potomac into Virginia, bivouacking at night on Boliver Heights, General Crook being in command of the troops here. On the 30th moved again, crossing the river, and resting in the evening at Burkittsville, Maryland. The weather being intensely hot at this time, several men were sunstruck during the day; this occurring again the next day, the command was halted at noon and the men suffered to rest until three P.M. This Frederick County is a beautiful part of the State of Maryland. No part of the State surpasses it in beauty and fertility. Moved on to Wolfville, and on August 3 passed over South Mountain, having passed through the town of Frederick, bivouacking near Monocacy Junction, and on the evening of the 6th rested at the foot of Maryland Heights again. What this somewhat singular circuit was made for the men in the ranks did not know, neither can they be enlightened now on the subject, but doubtless was based on the enemy's movements, and not specially to give the men employment.
The regiment at this time was still in the Second Brigade, First Division, Department of West Virginia. General Sheridan with is cavalry was at this camp, and portions of the Thirteenth, Sixth, and Nineteenth Corps were reported at the Monocacy. It certainly looked at that time as though some important move was contemplated, or hardly such a force as this would have been concentrated. The enemy was reported in force near Hagerstown. On the 7th General Sheridan took command of the army for operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and on the 8th of August the regiment again crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, and bivouacked on the banks of the Shenandoah near Halltown. The regiment has camped on the banks of this stream many times during the past two and a half years, and its beautiful waters have become quite familiar to the men. How long will they be moved up and down the river is a question they put to each other, but none can answer it. On the 10th the command was moved to Berryville, Clark County, and on the 11th advanced towards Winchester, but during the day the route was changed to the left, on the Front Royal or Strasburg road, leaving Winchester to the right. Skirmishing with the enemy's cavalry commenced this day. Next day the march was continued in the direction of Cedar Creek, bearing to the right. The enemy making a stand in the afternoon on the bank of the creek named, the First and Twelfth Virginia charged and drove the rear-guard across the stream, his forces retreating in the direction of Fisher's Hill. On the 13th there was considerable picket-firing, which was usual when the enemy was near. This condition of things applies to the 14th also. General Sheridan was in command, as before stated, and all expected that there would be very warm work soon. The brigade remained at Cedar Creek, neither army advancing, but apparently watching each other and for an opportunity to strike a blow. On the 15th, four companies of the regiment being on picket duty, there was a lively exchange of shots during the whole day, and skirmishing along the river. The artillery was also engaged, but no general action followed. The Fourteenth Virginia, picketing the Massanutten Mountain, was engaged the whole day in this desultory fighting. It was felt that all this would certainly bring on an engagement ere long, as the two hostile forces cannot, in the nature of men and things, confront each other and be satisfied with this picket-firing. On the 16th orders were received for a move, and, to the surprise of the men, "'bout face" was the order, taking up the march down the pike, and at the daybreak of the 17th stopping for the rest and breakfast at Middletown. Next day - the 18th - on the back track again, marching to Berryville, - a very hard march, - and, before getting settled for the night, the men were ordered to fall in and continue the march - more correctly speaking, retreat - towards Charlestown, and bivouacked seven miles south of that town. The conclusion in the command was that the enemy had been powerfully reinforced or General Sheridan would not have retreated this distance, which conclusion was correct. The men were now feasting on green corn and foraging for hogs, chickens, apples, etc., which, as may be supposed, were valuable and welcome additions to the marching ration.
The command moved from this camping-ground on the 19th, and marching to within one mile of Charlestown, bivouacked for the night; the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps were also at this point. The next day were on the move again, marching in the direction of Charlestown, Maryland Heights looming up in the north. Lively skirmishing this day, with an occasional shell ploughing up the earth uncomfortably close. About eleven P.M. the command fell back to Halltown, resting there. On the 22d line of battle was formed, the men busying themselves in throwing up earth protections for themselves. Some skirmishing on the front, but at night all was quiet along the line, allowing the men a good night's rest. On the 23d the skirmishing continued, with an occasional shot from the artillery to break the monotony of the musketry; the men busy improving their "gopher" holes. On the 24th the skirmishing and picket-firing continued, and during a reconnoissance by a strong force of the command a brisk exchange of musketry and artillery followed. A number of the enemy were captured and a lot of beef cattle. General Early had a strong force in front, and, while cautious, did not appear to avoid an engagement. On the 25th the picket-firing was again very active, but towards the close of the day there was a cessation of the firing, during which the men began to fraternize. "Yank" and "Johnny" conversed together, which led to an exchange of papers, tobacco, coffee, etc., then banterings and coarse jokes; finally hostilities were resumed, and the men that a little while ago were exchanging coffee and tobacco and the news were again exchanging leaden compliments, - such was army life. August 26th another brigade of the command made a reconnoissance, and after feeling around found the enemy in front in strong force; a few of the men were wounded. On the 27th the enemy fell back, and all was quiet during the day. The next day the command marched in the morning, arriving at Charlestown by noon, remaining there until three P.M., then passing through the town, the regiment bivouacking about one mile south of it. During the day there was a heavy artillery fire on the right in the direction of Bunker Hill. Enemy was reported falling back, but there was no appearance of a desire to hasten his steps.
On the 29th the enemy was on picket duty, but nothing of importance transpired, the usual amount of firing being indulged in. There was heavy cannonading and occasionally the sound of small-arms in the same direction as yesterday, making it probable that the cavalry forces were engaged, as also the light artillery. The command remained in this position until September 3, when on that day the march was resumed at four A.M. on the advance, faces to the south, arriving at Berryville about noon. The First Virginia and the Second Eastern Shore, Maryland, were placed on picket on the Winchester road and were attacked by the enemy. Sharp fighting followed, which lasted until dark. The First lost several killed and wounded, but the men held their positions. The whole army this day rejoiced over the news of the capture of Atlanta, Georgia, which inspirited the men greatly, and will be news to the enemy's pickets if opportunity offers to impart it, this being, apparently, the only way of their obtaining correct information. On the 4th there was an advance made of about two miles, taking a good position and throwing up temporary defences. Cavalry skirmishing during the day, the infantry lying on their arms at night, as matters were beginning to assume a threatening appearance. Rained in the night, making things rather uncomfortable. The next day the men were engaged in strengthening the defences, and the day following there was the usual amount of picket-firing, and rain again this day. On the 7th a lot of convalescents arrived and joined their respective regiments. On the day following there was a retrograde movement to within about six miles of Charlestown; the rain continuing. This appears to be a favorite camping-ground and is called Summit Point. There was considerable artillery-firing this day in the direction of Bunker Hill. During the fine weather, when not on a move or on picket duty, the regiment was drilled every day, becoming quite proficient in movements and the manual. These advances and retreats may lack interest to most readers; they, however, are recorded in as brief a manner as possible, and as they lead to more important events, it is hoped the necessity of detailing them will be recognized. General Early commanded the enemy's forces that confronted the command, and when the Union army fell back it had been discovered that he had been reinforced; this will explain the movements which in the absence of this knowledge might be considered purposeless. Sherman in the Southwest was giving all the forces the enemy could muster in that quarter full employment in attempts to stay his progress, and with all their efforts failing, his movements being a continual advance into the heart of the Confederacy. A large force of the enemy was kept at Mobile, also at Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington. And General Grant kept general Lee always on the alert to hold the Petersburg works, - the key to Richmond, - and, however desirous he (Lee) might be to hold the valley, he dare not weaken his army by detaching a sufficient force to drive Sheridan out, as Grant was constantly feeling for the weak spots in his lines, and gradually working around on the left in his efforts to reach the two railroads, one connecting with Weldon, North Carolina, immediately south, and the other with Danville in the southwest, on the possession of which depended the life of the rebellion; hence, if Sheridan defeated the force under Early, there would no longer be any question as to which side would hold possession of the valley. The selection of this was not far off at this time, as will be seen.
On the 13th there was heavy artillery firing in the direction of Winchester. The Second Division of the Sixth Corps had a spirited engagement with a division of the enemy, and in the encounter captured the Eighth South Carolina Regiment. On the 16th General Grant came up from his army before Petersburg and had a conference with General Sheridan. The latter explained the situation of the two armies, the movements he had made to counteract those of the enemy, and the plan of operations that he proposed to enter upon at once, all to the satisfaction of the commander-in-chief, who, it may he stated, had the fullest confidence in General Sheridan, and acquiescing in what he proposed to do, merely telling him to go ahead and accomplish it, while he would endeavor to keep the enemy employed on his own front.
The command remained at this point until the 19th, all the sutlers and extra baggage having been ordered to the rear. Marched at five A.M.; the First, Fourth, and Twelfth West Virginia Regiments, forming a small brigade, being left at Opequan Creek to guard the trains and hospital, there being detachments of the enemy constantly moving on the flanks of the army, picking up everything that was not strongly guarded. The Sixth and Nineteenth Corps, with the Army of West Virginia, under General Crook, - the Sixth Corps being under command of General Wright, and the Nineteenth, General Emory in command, - having advanced towards Winchester, at about ten A.M. there was very heavy artillery-firing, followed by musketry, indicating the progress of a severe engagement, lasting nearly the whole day, when it began to recede, and finally ceased. The fighting had been very hard until late in the after noon, when General Crook got on the left flank of Early, charging him with great impetuosity, followed by an advance of the whole Union line immediately afterwards, which broke the enemy's line, he falling back, and in a confused and beaten mass went "whirling through Winchester" towards Strasburg pursued by the cavalry, leaving in the hands of Sheridan's army over two thousand prisoners, several battle-flags and pieces of artillery.
This was the battle of Winchester, a splendid victory to the Union arms. Both sides sustained a heavy loss, the enemy's being greater. On the 23d the brigade advanced to Winchester, remaining there but a few hours at Cedar Creek at five P.M. Heavy fighting at Fisher's Hill, where the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps attacked Early, intrenched on the front, the Eighth Corps being on the left flank. An assault was made by the latter on the left, and at the same time a general advance was made along the whole line, repeating the movements made at Winchester with a like result, breaking Early's line and forcing him to a swift, disorderly retreat up the valley, leaving in the hands of Sheridan about fifteen hundred prisoners and fifteen pieces of artillery, the cavalry in pursuit giving the enemy much annoyance and picking up many additional prisoners. This was the battle of Fisher's Hill, and was another complete victory for the Union arms.
On the same day the brigade advanced to Woodstock, and the regiment was placed on picket duty. Another lot of prisoners was brought in by the cavalry on this day. On the 24th the whole command marched to New Market, and bivouacked again on familiar ground. The cavalry was still pushing the enemy and giving him little rest. The next day continued the advance up the valley, arriving at Harrisonburg at dusk, and remaining here until October 2, on which day there was heavy artillery-firing on the left towards Port Republic, which was an engagement of cavalry; a division of the Union force having been sent by the Luray Valley to get into the rear of Early, met a force of the enemy on the road and were repulsed, suffering some loss. The chief force of the cavalry at this time was engaged in carrying out the order, "To see to it that nothing be left to invite the enemy to return." Accordingly, all the mills, barns, and grain in this beautiful valley were committed to the flames, and at times fires could be seen in every direction, which at night made a grand sight. Abundance of provisions was found at the time, and, unless destroyed, the probability was would be sent to Richmond for the hungry army and populace. Cattle, hogs, and sheep were brought in in abundance by the cavalry.
This day the regiment was sent in the direction of Staunton to collect refugees, if any could be found. Very few were secured, however. On the 6th marched to Rood's' Hill on the Shenandoah and bivouacked. Marched again the next morning, arriving at Woodstock the next morning. The order to "leave nothing," etc., had been literally carried out, and according to General Sheridan's report, the whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountain had been made untenable to the enemy; two thousand barns filled with wheat and other grain, hay and farming implements, and over seventy mills filled with grain and flour were destroyed. Four thousand head of stock and three thousand sheep were driven off and used by the army. Many dwelling-houses in the lower part of the valley were also destroyed, being the property of or harboring bushwhackers. This all appeared a very cruel proceeding, but it was both a defensive and a retaliatory measure. The enemy at the time referred to was following the army down the valley, a witness to this destruction, but making no effort to prevent it, as he kept at a respectful distance; his late heavy losses doubtless had made him very cautious. About this time he was again heavily reinforced by General Kershaw's division and a force of cavalry which General Lee had sent to Early's aid, who no doubt was at the time watching his opportunity to strike a sudden blow, which must be done very soon or there would be nothing left in the valley worth fighting for.