For two days the brigade was lost. For a time the report of its capture was generally credited. That it escaped, no thanks were due to General Torbert, the chief of cavalry. It is not likely that he knew anything about what a predicament he had left Custer in. The latter was, as usual, equal to the emergency.
I must pass now rapidly over a period of nearly a month, devoted, for the most part, to reconnoitering and retreating, to the eve of the battle of Winchester.
September 18, about 8 o'clock in the evening, I went to headquarters to consult Dr. Wooster, brigade surgeon, about the condition of my health. I was very feeble, unable to eat, my eyes and skin the color of certain newspapers during the Spanish-American war. The doctor told me I must go home and insisted on making out a certificate of disability, on which I might obtain a "leave of absence." General Custer and most of his staff were present. I recall the circumstances very well, for a conversation in which the general asked me confidentially certain questions, was incautiously repeated by some one who was present and returned to vex me after many years. I returned to my own camp about nine or half past nine, much cast down over the doctor's diagnosis of my case. I mention all this to show how secretly the preparations for the eventful next day had been made. Not a word was dropped during my long interview with the general and his staff to arouse the suspicion that the army was about to attack Early. Yet, at midnight, orders were received to be ready to move at two o'clock in the morning. Before that hour, horses were in line saddled, the men ready to mount. My cook made a cup of tea and a slice of toast. I drank half of the tea but could not eat the toast. At three o'clock I mounted my favorite saddle horse "Billy" and by order of General Custer, led my regiment in advance of the division, toward Locke's Ford on the Opequon creek. Nothing was said, but every one knew that the army was in motion and that great things were in store for us.
We neared the ford about daylight. There was a faint hope that the enemy might be taken by surprise and the ford captured without resistance, as it was a difficult crossing when bravely defended. In this, however, we were doomed to disappointment, for an alert foe was found awaiting the attack. Indeed, they must have known of the federal approach. Halting an eighth of a mile back and out of sight, Custer directed me to dismount the regiment and move in column of fours through a ravine at right angles with the creek. This ravine ran out at the top, where it reached the edge of a plowed field. This field extended some 100 or 150 yards to the crest overlooking the ford. Along the crest were fences, outbuildings, and the farm house. Thence, there was an abrupt descent to the bed of the Opequon Creek. This side hill slope consisted of cleared fields divided by fences. The hill where the house and barns were, also sloped off to the left. The road to the ford skirted the hill to the left till it reached the bank, then ran parallel with the creek to a point about on a line with the farm house, where it turned to the left and, crossing the stream, took a serpentine course up the opposite slope. This latter was wooded and dotted on both sides of the road with piles of rails behind which were posted infantry sharpshooters.
The leading files had barely reached the summit, at the edge of the plowed ground, when the enemy opened fire on the head of the column of fours, before the regiment had debouched. There was momentary confusion, as the sharpshooters appeared to have the exact range. The regiment deployed forward into line under fire, and with General Custer by my side we charged across the field to the crest. Custer was the only mounted man in the field. Reaching the houses and fences, the Sixth proceeded to try to make it as uncomfortable for the confederates as they had been doing for us. General Custer had gone back to direct the movements of the other regiments which were still under cover in the rear.
The charge prostrated me. I succeeded in getting across the field, cheered on by the gallant Custer, who rode half way, but then fell down and for a minute or two could not stand on my feet. I suppose my pale face and weak condition made a very fair presentment of a colonel demoralized by fright. It was a case of complete physical exhaustion. While it is probably for the most part moral rather than physical courage that spurs men into battle, it is equally true that good health and a sound body are a good background for the display of moral courage. If any of my friends think that jaundice and an empty stomach are a good preparation for leading a charge across a plowed field in the face of an intrenched foe I hope that they never may be called upon to put their belief to the proof.
Custer then sent orders to engage the enemy as briskly as possible and directed the Twenty-fifth New York followed by the Seventh Michigan, to take the ford mounted. The attempt was a failure, however, for the head of the New York regiment after passing the defile around the left, when it reached the crossing, instead of taking it, kept on and, circling to the right, came back to the point from which it started; thus, in effect, reversing the role of the French army which charged up a hill and then charged down again. The Seventh Michigan having received orders to follow the other regiment, obeyed and did not see the mistake until too late to rectify it, much to the chagrin of that gallant officer, Lieutenant Colonel Brewer, who commanded it, and who later in the day, laid down his life.
The First Michigan was then ordered up to make the attempt. That regiment moved in column down the road to the foot of the hill at the left and halted. Two squadrons, commanded by Captain George R. Maxwell, an officer of the most undoubted courage, were detailed as an advance guard to lead the charge. Some minutes passed and the sharpshooters began to annoy the mounted men of the First. Major Howrigan, of that regiment, thinking that the Sixth ought to occupy the attention of the enemy so completely as to shield his men from annoyance, galloped up to where I was, and excitedly asked if we could not make it hotter for them.
"They are shooting my men off their horses," he shouted. As he halted to deliver this message, a bullet struck the saddlebag in rear of his left leg. Reaching back he unbuckled the strap, lifted the flap, and pulling out a cork inserted in the neck of what had been a glass flask, exclaimed: "Blankety blank their blank souls, they have broken my whisky bottle." Saying which, he wheeled and galloped back through a shower of whistling bullets.
General Custer then sent orders by a staff officer for the Sixth to advance dismounted and support the charge of the First. The Seventh was also brought up mounted to charge the ford at the same time. Preparations for this final attack were just about completed when it was discovered that the confederates were leaving their cover and falling back. Lowell had effected a crossing at another ford and was threatening the flank of the force in our front. The Sixth moved forward with a cheer. All the regiments advanced to the attack simultaneously, and the crossing of the Opequon was won. A sharp fight followed on the other side with Early's infantry in which a portion of the First Michigan led by the gallant Captain Maxwell made a most intrepid charge on infantry posted in the woods behind a rail fence.
The cavalry soon had the force opposed to it fleeing toward Winchester, but making a stand from time to time, so that it took from daylight in the morning until nearly three o'clock in the afternoon to cover the distance of three or four miles between the crossing of the Opequon and the outskirts of the town after which the battle has been named, though, perhaps, it is more correctly styled "The battle of the Opequon." Breckinridge's infantry and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, the same gallant adversaries who hustled us over into Maryland in such lively fashion during the previous month, stood in the way and made vigorous efforts to stop our progress. It was a case of hunted turned hunter and the Wolverines more than balanced the account charged up against Breckinridge for the affair at Shepherdstown, August 25. To borrow an illustration from the Rugby game, the cavalry kept working around the end for gains until a touchdown and goal were scored at five o'clock in the afternoon.
The battle was fought along the Martinsburg pike, the enemy being flanked or driven from one position to another until all the brigades of Merritt's and Averell's divisions, which had been converging toward a common point, came together about a mile out of Winchester.
As that place was approached, the signs and sounds of a great battle became startlingly distinct. The roar of artillery and the rattle of small arms saluted the ear. Within sight of the fortifications, around that historic town, a duel was raging between the infantry of the two armies. The lines of blue and gray were in plain sight off to the left. Puffs of smoke and an angry roar told where the opposing batteries were planted. Dense masses of smoke enveloped the lines. From the heights to the front and right, cannon belched fire and destruction.
The Union cavalrymen were now all mounted. The Michigan brigade was on the left of the turnpike; to its left, the brigades of Devin and Lowell; on the right, Averell's division of two brigades—five brigades in all—each brigade in line of squadron columns, double ranks. This made a front of more than half a mile, three lines deep, of mounted men. That is to say, it was more than half a mile from Averell's right to Merritt's left. At almost the same moment of time, the entire line emerged from the woods into the sunlight. A more enlivening and imposing spectacle never was seen. Guidons fluttered and sabers glistened. Officers vied with their men in gallantry and in zeal. Even the horses seemed to catch the inspiration of the scene and emulated the martial ardor of their riders. Then a left half wheel began the grand flanking movement which broke Early's left flank and won the battle.
When the Michigan brigade came out of the woods, it found a line of confederate horse behind a stone fence. This was the last stand that Fitzhugh Lee, who commanded Early's cavalry, attempted to make. Indeed, it was here, probably, that he received the wound which rendered him hors de combat. General Wickham succeeded him. In the stone fence there were places where the stones had fallen or had been thrown down, making openings through which horses could pass one, or at most two, at a time. The Union cavalrymen made for these openings, not halting or hesitating for an instant. The fence was taken and breaking through they put to flight the confederate cavalrymen who did not stop until they found refuge behind their infantry lines.
The union line was broken up too. The country for a mile was full of charging columns—regiments, troops, squads—the pursuit taking them in every direction where a mounted enemy could be seen. The cavalry disposed of, the infantry was next taken in hand. Early's lieutenants, finding their flank turned, changed front and tried hard to stem the tide of defeat. The brigade became badly scattered. Custer with a portion of it charged right up to a confederate battery, but failed to get it, not having force enough at that point. The portion of the command with which I found myself followed Lee's cavalry for a long distance when, reaching the top of a slope over which they had gone in their retreat, we found ourselves face to face with a strong line of infantry which had changed front to receive us, and gave us a volley that filled the air with a swarm of bullets. This stopped the onset for the time, in that part of the field, and the cavalry fell back behind the crest of the hill to reform and, to tell the truth, to get under cover, for the infantry fire was exceedingly hot. They were firing at just the right elevation to catch the horses, and there was danger that our cavalrymen would find themselves dismounted, through having their mounts killed.
As my horse swerved to the left, a bullet struck my right thigh and, peeling the skin off that, cut a deep gash through the saddle to the opening in the center. The saddle caused it to deflect upwards, or it would have gone through the other leg. At the moment I supposed it had gone through the right leg. Meeting General Custer I told him with some pride that I was wounded and needed a surgeon. Not finding one I investigated for myself and found that it was one of those narrow escapes which a pious man might set down to the credit of providence or a miracle. The wound was not serious and I proceeded to assist in rallying as many men of the regiment as possible to report to General Custer who was preparing for what proved to be the final charge of the battle. This was made upon a brigade of infantry which was still gallantly trying to make a stand toward Winchester and in front of a large stone house. The ground descended from Custer's position to that occupied by this infantry. Custer formed his men in line and, at the moment when the enemy began a movement to the rear, charged down upon them with a yell that could be heard above the din of the battle. In a brief time he was in their midst. They threw down their arms and surrendered. Several hundred of them had retreated to the inside of the stone house. The house was surrounded and they were all made prisoners.
This charge, in which the Michigan brigade captured more prisoners than it had men engaged, was for perhaps an eighth of a mile within range of the batteries on the heights around Winchester, and until it became dangerous to their own men, the artillery enfiladed our line.
A fragment of one of those shells struck my horse, "Billy," in the nose, taking out a chunk the size of my fist and he carried the scar till the day of his death (in 1888). This last charge finished the battle. Early retreated through Winchester up the valley and nothing was left but to pursue. Sheridan broke Early's left flank by the movement of the cavalry from his own right. It was the first time that proper use of this arm had been made in a great battle during the war. He was the only general of that war who knew how to make cavalry and infantry supplement each other in battle. Had the tactics of the battle been reversed,—that is to say, if Sheridan had moved against Early's right flank instead of his left,—nothing could have prevented the capture or destruction of Early's army, as his retreat would have been cut off. But the way to the south was left open, and Early escaped once more to Fisher's Hill, where he was found the next day with the remnant—a very respectable remnant—of his army.
It may be of interest to some of my medical friends to remark here in passing, that the battle of Winchester cured my jaundice. After crossing the Opequon I began to be ravenously hungry, and begged and ate hardtack until there was some danger that the supply would be exhausted. The men soon saw the situation and when one saw me approaching he would "present hardtack" without awaiting the order. So I went into the mounted part of the engagement with a full stomach and in more ways than one with a "better stomach for a fight."
I regret that it is impossible to give a complete list of casualties in the brigade. In the appendix to this volume may be found a roll of honor of all those who were either killed or died of wounds received in battle.
Of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Melvin Brewer was mortally wounded. The bullet which killed him coming from the stone house in which the confederates had taken refuge. Colonel Brewer went out in the First, of which regiment he had risen to be a major. With that rank he was assigned to command the Seventh and only in the previous June had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was an officer modest as he was brave; cool and reliable on all occasions. Lieutenant Albert T. Jackson, of the First, killed early in the action, was a young officer of much promise. Captain William O. North of the Fifth, who lost his life in the melee near Winchester, was also a most excellent officer. Captain A.S. Matthews, of the First was wounded. The casualties on the whole were not so numerous as in some other less historic engagements, most of them befalling in the attacks on infantry, early and late in the day. Breckinridge's infantry seems to have fired low when resisting the mounted cavalry, for the havoc among horses was very great. I find by my official report made to the adjutant general at the time, that seven officers in the Sixth alone had their horses shot, and there is no reason to suppose that this record exceeded that of the other regiments.
For the next three days, the brigade was in front of infantry at Fisher's Hill, so close to their lines as to draw their fire and keep them in their intrenchments.
On the 22nd, Torbert was sent to Milford in the Luray Valley, taking Wilson's and Merritt's divisions. His orders were to break through one of the passes in the Massanutten mountains and come out in rear of Early's army when Crook's flanking movement on the other side would have driven the confederates out of the strong position at Fisher's Hill. Crook's attack was completely successful and Early was soon "whirling up the valley" again. Torbert made a fiasco of it. He allowed Wickham, who succeeded Fitzhugh Lee after the latter was wounded, with, at most, two small brigades, to hold him at bay and withdrew without making any fight to speak of. I remember very well how the Michigan brigade lay in a safe position in rear of the line listening to the firing and was not ordered in at all. If Custer or Merritt had been in command it would have been different. When Sheridan found that Torbert had retreated, he gave him a very peremptory order to retrace his steps and try again. Custer, followed by Lowell, was sent to the front and in the forenoon of the 24th Wickham's troopers were scattered in flight and the way opened for Torbert to carry out his instructions. Even then the march was leisurely, and the two big divisions arrived in Newmarket on the 25th only to find that it was too late. Early had escaped again.
On the 26th at Harrisonburg, Custer assumed command of the Second division in place of Averell and I succeeded to the command of the brigade.
On the same day, the brigade was ordered to Port Republic and seeing a wagon train on the other side, the Sixth and Seventh were sent across the south fork of the Shenandoah river to attack it. It turned out to be Kershaw's division, which had been shuttle-cocked back and forth between Lee's army and the valley all summer and which, once more on the wing to reinforce Early, was just coming from Swift Run Gap. The two regiments were driven back, but retired in good order and recrossed the river. Sheridan then withdrew to Cross Keys, hoping to lure Early to that point, but was unsuccessful. The next day Port Republic was reoccupied and the brigade established a picket line extended thence to Conrad's Ferry, a distance of twenty miles.
While occupying this position, the discovery was made that there were several good grist-mills along the river that were also well stored with grist. There were plenty of men in the brigade who were practical millers, and putting them in charge, I had all the mills running very early in the morning, grinding flour and meal which the commissaries were proceeding to issue to the several regiments, according to their needs, and we all flattered ourselves that we were doing a fine stroke of business. This complacent state of mind was rudely disturbed when, about seven o'clock (the mills had been running some two hours, or more) General Merritt accompanied by his staff, dashed up and, in an angry mood which he did not attempt to conceal, began to reprimand me because the mills had not been set on fire.
The fiat had gone forth from General Grant himself, that everything in the valley that might contribute to the support of the army must be destroyed before the country was abandoned. Sheridan had already decided on another retrograde movement down the valley and it was his purpose to leave a trail of fire behind, obeying to the letter the injunction of the general in chief to starve out any crow that would hereafter have the temerity to fly over the Shenandoah valley. The order had gone out the day before and the work was to begin that morning. Custer was to take the west and Merritt the east side and burn all barns, mills, haystacks, etc., within a certain area. Merritt was provoked. He pointed to the west and one could have made a chart of Custer's trail by the columns of black smoke which marked it. The general was manifestly fretting lest Custer should appear to outdo him in zeal in obeying orders, and blamed me as his responsible subordinate, for the delay. I told him, with an appearance of humility that I am sure was unfeigned, that those mills would never grind again, after what had passed.
The wheels were not stopped but the torch was applied and the crackling of flames intermingled with the rumbling of the stones made a mournful requiem as the old mills went up in smoke and General Merritt's loyalty was vindicated.
It was a disagreeable business and—we can be frank now—I did not relish it. One incident made a lasting impression on the mind of every man who was there. The mill in the little hamlet of Port Republic contained the means of livelihood—the food of the women and children whom the exigencies of war had bereft of their natural providers and, when they found that it was the intention to destroy that on which their very existence seemed to depend, their appeals to be permitted to have some of the flour before the mill was burned, were heartrending. Worse than all else, in spite of the most urgent precautions, enjoined upon the officers in charge, the flames extended. The mill stood in the midst of a group of wooden houses and some of them took fire. Seeing the danger, I rode across and ordered every man to fall in and assist in preventing the further spread of the flames, an effort which was, happily, successful. What I saw there is burned into my memory. Women with children in their arms, stood in the street and gazed frantically upon the threatened ruin of their homes, while the tears rained down their cheeks. The anguish pictured in their faces would have melted any heart not seared by the horrors and "necessities" of war. It was too much for me and at the first moment that duty would permit, I hurried away from the scene. General Merritt did not see these things, nor did General Sheridan, much less General Grant.
The army began to fall back on the 6th of October, the cavalry bringing up the rear, as usual, Merritt on the valley pike, Custer by the back road, along the east slope of the Little North mountain. The work of incineration was continued and clouds of smoke marked the passage of the federal army. Lomax with one division of cavalry followed Merritt, while Rosser with two brigades took up the pursuit of Custer on the back road. The pursuit was rather tame for a couple of days but the sight of the destruction going on must have exasperated the confederate troopers, many of whom were on their native heath, and put them in a fighting mood, for on the 8th they began to grow aggressive and worried the life out of our rear guard. The Michigan brigade had the rear. The Seventh was sent ahead to see that nothing escaped that came within the scope of Grant's order; the Fifth acted as rear guard; the First and Sixth in position to support the Fifth if needed. The pike formed the main street of the little town of Woodstock, the houses coming close to it on either side. On nearing that place, it was found that a fire started in some small barns and haystacks in the outskirts, had caught in the adjoining buildings and the town was in flames. Dismounting the two regiments, and sending the lead horses beyond the village, orders were given to have the fires put out. The men went to work with a will, but were interrupted in their laudable purpose by Lomax, who charged the rear guard into the town, and there was some lively hustling to get to the horses in time. The brigade was then formed in line in a good position facing Woodstock and awaited, indeed invited attack by the confederates. Lomax, however, kept at a respectful distance until the march was resumed, when he took up the pursuit again. Thus it went, alternately halting, forming and facing to the rear, and falling back, until Tom's Brook was reached late in the afternoon. Then General Merritt directed me to send one regiment to reinforce Custer, who was being hard pressed by Rosser on the back road, and take the others and drive Lomax back. The Seventh was sent to Custer and the First, Fifth and Sixth, the Sixth leading, drove the cavalry that had been annoying our rear at a jump back to Woodstock, a distance of about six miles. By that time, Lomax had his entire division up and when we started to fall back again, gave us a Roland for our Oliver, following sharply, but always declining the invitation to come on, when we halted and faced him. It was particularly annoying to the Fifth which brought up the rear and distinguished itself greatly by the stubborn resistance which it offered to the attacks of the enemy. Captain Shier's squadron of the First, supported the Fifth with much spirit.
On the morning of the 9th, Sheridan told Torbert to go out and whip the cavalry that was following us or get whipped himself. It was a short job and the battle of Tom's Brook is regarded as one of the humorous incidents of the war. With slight loss, in a very brief engagement, Rosser and Lomax were both routed and the pursuit of the latter on the pike was continued for about twenty miles. The battle known in history as that of "Tom's Brook," was facetiously christened "The Woodstock Races," and the confederate cavalry cut little figure in Virginia afterwards. The Michigan brigade had a prominent part in the battle, being in the center and forming the connecting link between the First and Third divisions. In the opening attack the confederate center was pierced by the mounted charge of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Michigan, assisted by the Twenty-fifth New York. The First being on picket during the previous night had not returned to the command. I believe I am right in claiming that the first impression made on the enemy's line of battle was by these regiments, though the line was rather thin, for the reason that the heaviest part of Rosser's force had been massed in front of Custer and on the pike, making the center an especially vulnerable point. When the flight began, they took to the roads, and the Michigan men being in the woods did not get very far into the "horse race," as it was called. The First, coming from the picket line, trailed the leaders along the pike and managed to get a good deal of sport out of it with very little danger.
I must now pass over the few intervening days to the crowning glory of the campaign, The Battle of Cedar Creek.
THE BATTLE OF CEDAR CREEK
The engagement which took place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, on the nineteenth day of October, 1864, will take its place high up in the list of the decisive battles of history. Like Blenheim and Balaklava, Cedar Creek will be remembered while literature lasts. One of its dramatic incidents furnished the theme for the poet's song, and "Sheridan's Ride," like Horatius, will remain until the imagination can no longer be thrilled by the recital of the record of heroic deeds. Thus doth poesy erect monuments, more enduring than bronze or marble, to the memory of the brave.
Yet, the events of that day have been greatly misconceived. The imagination, inflamed by the heroic verse of Read, and unaided by the remembrance of actual personal experiences in the battle, sees only the salient points—Gordon's stealthy march along the Massanutten mountain; the union troops, in fancied security, sleeping in their tents; the absence of their great leader; the morning surprise; the rout; the mass of fleeing fugitives; the victors in exultant pursuit; Sheridan's ride from Winchester; the magic influence of his arrival on the field, in arresting the headlong flight of the panic stricken mob; the rally; the reflux tide of enthusiasm; the charge back into the old camps; the glorious victory that succeeded humiliating defeat.
With all due allowance for poetical license, the conception of this battle which long ago became fixed in the public mind, does a cruel injustice to the gallant men who were maimed or killed on that hard fought field. Enveloped in the mists of receding years; obscured by the glamour of poetry; belied by the vivid imagination of stragglers and camp-followers who, on the first note of danger, made a frantic rush for Winchester, seeking to palliate their own misconduct by spreading exaggerated reports of disaster, the union army that confronted Early at Cedar Creek, for many years made a sorry picture, which the aureole of glory that surrounded its central figure made all the more humiliating.
It is due to truth and justice that every detail of that famous fight should be told, to the end that no undeserved shadow may rest upon the fame of the men and officers who took part in it—no unjust stain upon their record.
History, so called, has been misleading. It is true that Sheridan's narrative sheds much new light upon his part in the battle, and General Merritt, one of the leading actors, wrote a paper upon it for the Century series though I doubt if it has been generally read, or if read, effective in modifying preconceived notions. An idea of that which has been written in the name of history may be gained from an extract taken from the American cyclopedia (vol. xvi) which says:
"He (Sheridan) met the fugitives a mile and a half from town, (Winchester), and with a brigade which had been left in Winchester, moved upon the enemy, who had begun to intrench themselves."
The absurdity of such "history" ought to be self evident. Imagine, if you can, a brigade of infantry following Sheridan on his wild ride of "twenty miles" and then rushing to attack an army which, according to the tradition of which I have spoken, had just whipped four army corps. Of course, the statement is an absurd one. No brigade came from Winchester. No brigade could have come from Winchester; and had such a thing been possible, it would have constituted but a slight factor in the contest.
There were in the federal army on that eventful morning, seven brigades of infantry (the Sixth corps) seven brigades of cavalry, not to mention one division (Grover's) of the Nineteenth corps, (four brigades), making eighteen brigades in all, that were neither surprised in their camps, nor in the slightest degree demoralized at any time during the progress of the battle; and which had forced Early to stop short in his headlong career of victory long before the famous black charger brought his fiery rider to the field. The Eighth corps which was surprised was a small corps of only five brigades, and although after Kershaw's onset, conducted by General Early in person, it was practically eliminated, there was a fine army left which, crippled as it was, was fully equal to the task of retrieving the disaster, and which, as the event proved, needed only the guiding hand of Sheridan to put it in motion and lead it to victory.
It is not, however, the purpose of this paper to give all the details of that great battle, but to narrate what a single actor in it saw; to make a note in passing of some things that do not appear in the official records, that are not a part of the written history of the war; some incidents that are important only as they throw light on that which is bathed in shadow, though having for one of Custer's troopers an interest in themselves; to do justice to the splendid courage displayed by the cavalry, especially the Michigan cavalry, on that occasion; to pay a tribute of admiration to the gallantry and steadfastness of the old Sixth corps; and to the courage and capacity of the gallant Colonel Lowell, who was killed.
Cedar Creek is a small stream that rises in the Blue Ridge, runs across the valley, at that point but four miles wide, and pours its waters into the Shenandoah near Strasburg. It is very crooked, fordable, but with steep banks difficult for artillery or wagons, except where a way has been carved out at the fords. It runs in a southeasterly course, so that its mouth is four miles or more south of a line drawn due east from the point where it deserts the foot-hills on the west side of the valley. The valley, itself, is shut in between the Blue mountains, on one side, and the Massanutten, a spur of the Great North mountain, on the other. It is traversed, from north to south, by a turnpike road, a little to the left of the center, which road crosses Cedar Creek between Middletown and Strasburg.
On the night of October 18, 1864, the federal army was encamped on the left bank of Cedar Creek, Crook's Eighth corps on the left flank, east of the pike and nearly in front of Middletown; Emory's Nineteenth corps to the right and rear of Crook and west of the pike; then, successively, each farther to the right and rear, the Sixth corps, temporarily commanded by General James B. Ricketts; Devin's and Lowell's brigades of Merritt's (First) cavalry division; the Michigan cavalry brigade; and last, but not least, Custer with the Third cavalry division. All faced toward the south, though posted en echelon, so that, though Crook was some three or four miles south of Middletown, a line drawn due east from Custer's camp, intersected the pike a little north of that place. For this reason, Early's flanking movement, being from the left through the camp of Crook, could not strike the flank of the other corps, successively, without shifting the line of attack to the north, while the Sixth corps and the cavalry were able to confront his troops, after their first partial success, by simply moving to the left, taking the most direct route to the turnpike. The position which the Michigan cavalry occupied was somewhat isolated. Although belonging to the First division, it was posted nearer the camp of the Third.
The brigade consisted of the four Michigan regiments and Captain Martin's Sixth New York independent horse battery. The First Michigan was commanded by Major A.W. Duggan, a gallant officer who was wounded at Gettysburg; the Fifth by Major S.H. Hastings; the Sixth by Major Charles W. Deane; the Seventh by Lieutenant Colonel George G. Briggs, the latter officer having only just been promoted to that position. The New York battery had been with us but a short time, but Captain Martin and his lieutenants ranked among the best artillery officers in the service.
For a few days, only, I had been in command of the brigade. General Custer, who had led it from the time he was made a brigadier, in June, 1863, was promoted to the command of the Third division and, hastily summoning me, went away, taking his staff and colors with him. I was obliged while yet on the march, to form a staff of officers as inexperienced as myself. It was an unsought and an unwelcome responsibility.
For two or three days before the battle, our duty had been to guard a ford of Cedar Creek. One regiment was kept constantly on duty near the ford. The line of videttes was thrown out across the stream, connecting on the left with the infantry picket line and on the right with Custer's cavalry pickets. The Seventh Michigan was on duty the night of October 18, the brigade camp back about a mile from the ford.
No intimation of expected danger had been received—no injunction to be more than usually alert. It was the habit of the cavalry, which had so much outpost duty to perform, to be always ready, and cavalry officers were rarely taken by surprise. Early's precautions had been carefully taken and no hint of his purpose reached the union headquarters, and no warning of any immediate or more than usually pressing danger was given to the army.
But, somehow, I had a vague feeling of uneasiness, that would not be shaken off. I believe now and have believed, for many years, that there was in my mind a distinct presentiment of the coming storm. I could not sleep and at eleven o'clock, was still walking about outside the tents.
It was a perfect night, bright and clear. The moon was full, the air crisp and transparent. A more serene and peaceful scene could not be imagined. The spirit of tranquility seemed to have settled down, at last, upon the troubled Shenandoah. Far away, to the left, lay the army, wrapped in slumber. To the right, the outlines of the Blue mountains stood out against the sky and cast dark shadows athwart the valley. Three-quarters of a mile away the white tents of Custer's camp looked like weird specters in the moonlight. Scarcely a sound was heard. A solemn stillness reigned, broken only by the tread of the single sentry, pacing his beat in front of headquarters. Inside, the staff and brigade escort were sleeping. Finally, a little before midnight, I turned in, telling the guard to awaken me at once, should there be firing in front, and to so instruct the relief.
I cannot give the exact time; it may be I did not know it at the time; but it was before daylight that the sentinel awoke me. Not having undressed, I was out in an instant, and listening, heard scattering shots. They were not many, but enough to impel me to a quick resolve. Rousing the nearest staff officer, I bade him have the command ready to move at a moment's notice.
In an incredibly short space of time, the order was executed. The tents were struck, the artillery horses attached to the gun carriages and caissons, and the cavalry horses saddled. No bugle call was sounded. The firing grew heavier, and from the hill where Custer was, rang out on the air the shrill notes of Foght's bugle, telling us that our old commander had taken the alarm. Rosser had attacked the pickets at the fords and was driving them in. He had done the same on one or two mornings before, but there was an unwonted vigor about this attack that boded mischief. The federal cavalry had, however, recovered from their earlier habit of being "away from home" when Rosser called. They were always "in" and ready and willing to give him a warm reception. He found that morning that both Merritt and Custer were "at home." In a moment, a staff officer from General Merritt dashed up with orders to take the entire brigade to the support of the picket line. Moving out rapidly, we were soon on the ground. The Seventh Michigan had made a gallant stand alone, and when the brigade arrived, the enemy did not see fit to press the attack, but contented himself with throwing a few shells from the opposite bank which annoyed us so little that Martin did not unlimber his guns.
A heavy fog had by this time settled down upon the valley. The first streaks of dawn began to appear, and it soon became evident that the cavalry attack upon the right flank was but a feint and that the real danger was in another quarter. Far away to the left, for some time, volleys of musketry had been heard. With the roll of musketry was intermingled, at intervals, the boom of cannon, telling to the practiced ear, the story of a general engagement. The sounds increased in volume and in violence, and it was no difficult matter to see that the union forces were falling back for, farther and farther to the left and rear, were heard the ominous sounds. From the position we occupied no infantry line of battle was to be seen.
Soon after the Michigan brigade had taken its position at the front, Colonel Charles R. Lowell rode up at the head of the Reserve brigade. Colonel Lowell was a young man, not much past his majority, and looked like a boy. He was a relative of James Russell Lowell, and had won distinction as colonel of the Second Massachusetts cavalry. He had succeeded Merritt as commander of the Reserve brigade. He had a frank, open face, a manly, soldierly bearing, and a courage that was never called in question. He was a graduate of Harvard, not of West Point, though he had been a captain in the Sixth United States cavalry.
Colonel Lowell informed me that his orders were to support the Michigan men if they needed support. No help was needed at that time. I told him so. The enemy had been easily checked and, at the moment, had become so quiet as to give rise to the suspicion that he had withdrawn from our front, as indeed he had. A great battle was raging to the left, and in response to the suggestion that the army seemed to be retreating, he replied:
"I think so," and after a few moments reflection, said:
"I shall return" and immediately began the countermarch.
I said to him: "Colonel, what would you do if you were in my place?"
"I think you ought to go too" he replied and, presently, turning in his saddle, continued: "Yes, I will take the responsibility to give you the order," whereat, the two brigades took up the march toward the point where the battle, judging from the sound, seemed to be in progress. How little either of us realized that Lowell was marching to his death. It was into the thickest of the fight that he led the way, Michigan willingly following.
A startling sight presented itself as the long cavalry column came out into the open country overlooking the battle-ground. Guided by the sound, a direction had been taken that would bring us to the pike as directly as possible and at the same time approach the union lines from the rear. This brought us out on a commanding ridge north of Middletown. This ridge as it appears to a participant looking at it from memory, runs to and across the pike. The ground descends to the south a half mile, or more, then gradually rises again to another ridge about on a line with Middletown. The confederate forces were on the last named ridge, along which their batteries were planted, and their lines of infantry could be seen distinctly. Memory may have lost something of the details of the picture, but the outlines remain as vivid, now as then. The valley between was uneven, with spots of timber here and there and broken into patches by fences, some of them of stone.
The full scope of the calamity which had befallen our arms burst suddenly into view. The whole battle field was in sight. The valley and intervening slopes, the fields and woods, were alive with infantry, moving singly and in squads. Some entire regiments were hurrying to the rear, while the confederate artillery was raining shot and shell and spherical case among them to accelerate their speed. Some of the enemy's batteries were the very ones just captured from us. It did not look like a frightened or panic stricken army, but like a disorganized mass that had simply lost the power of cohesion. A line of cavalry skirmishers formed across the country was making ineffectual efforts to stop the stream of fugitives who had stolidly and stubbornly set their faces to the rear. Dazed by the surprise in their camps, they acted like men who had forfeited their self-respect. They were chagrined, mortified, mad at their officers and themselves—demoralized; but, after all, more to be pitied than blamed.
But all these thousands, hurrying from the field, were not the entire army. They were the Eighth corps and a part of the Nineteenth only, a fraction of the army. There, between ourselves and the enemy—between the fugitives and the enemy—was a long line of blue, facing to the front, bravely battling to stem the tide of defeat. How grandly they stood to their work. Neither shot nor shell nor volleys of musketry could break them. It was the old Sixth corps—the "ironsides" from the Potomac army, who learned how to fight under brave John Sedgwick. Slowly, in perfect order, the veterans of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania were falling back, contesting every inch of the way. One position was surrendered only to take another. There was no wavering, no falling out of ranks, except of those who were shot down. The next morning, one passing over the ground where those heroes fought, could see where they successively stood and breasted the storm by the dead men who lay in line where they had fallen. There were two or three lines of these dead skirmishers. The official record shows that the Sixth corps on that day lost 255 men killed and 1600 wounded.
The two brigades had reached a point where the entire field was in view, and were in position to resume their relation to the line of battle, whenever the scattered fragments of the army could be assembled and formed for an organized resistance to the enemy.
In the meantime it had been decided to mass all the cavalry on the left of the line, opposite to where it had been in the morning. The order came from General Merritt to continue the march in that direction, and the long column led by Lowell turned its head toward the left of the Sixth corps and formed on the other side of the pike. Moving across, parallel with the line which had been taken up by that corps, the cavalry was exposed to a galling fire of artillery. One shell took an entire set of fours out of the Sixth Michigan. Not a man left the ranks. The next set closed up the gap. Custer was already there, having been transferred from right to left while the two brigades of the First division were out on the picket line. Crossing the pike, we passed in front of his division. It was formed in line of brigades, each brigade in column of regiments, mounted. It is needless to say that they were faced toward the enemy. Custer, himself, was riding along the front of his command, chafing like a caged lion, eager for the fray. Devin, with Taylor's battery had been there for some time and, under the personal direction of General Merritt, had been most gallantly resisting the advance of the victorious enemy. The Michigan brigade took position in front of Custer, Martin's battery next the pike. Lowell with the Reserve brigade was stationed still farther in advance toward Middletown. The Sixth corps made its final stand on the prolongation of the cavalry alignment and from that moment the attacks of the enemy were feeble and ineffective, the battle resolving itself, for the time being, into an artillery duel in which Martin's battery took a prominent part.
It could not have been much later than nine o'clock when the two brigades of cavalry arrived. Their coming was opportune. Who can say how much it had to do in stopping the further progress of Early's attack? It is now known that Early dreaded a flanking movement by the body of horse which he saw massing in front of his right flank. The gallant Lowell, who so bravely did his duty and who exhibited in every stage of the battle the highest qualities of leadership, a few hours after his arrival on the left laid down his life for the cause he so valiantly served. He was killed by a bullet from the gun of a sharpshooter in Middletown. He did not live to make a report and the story never has been told officially of how he marched from right to left at Cedar Creek.
Sheridan had not yet come up, but after his arrival, which he states in his memoirs was not later than ten o'clock, Custer was moved to the right flank, arriving in time to thwart a threatened flanking movement by Gordon and Kershaw. It is evident that every strategic attempt of the enemy, save the morning surprise, was checkmated by the union cavalry and, it must be remembered, that it was the absence of cavalry on the left which rendered the morning surprise possible.
The First division was now all together with General Merritt personally in command. A part of Lowell's brigade, dismounted, was posted well to the front, the Michigan brigade, mounted, in its rear. While in this position, having occasion to ride up into the battery to speak to Captain Martin, a sharpshooter in Middletown took a shot at us. The bullet narrowly missed the captain and buried itself in my horse's shoulder. Unlike the shell at Winchester, this wound disabled the old fellow, so that he had to go to the rear and give way to a temporary remount,—furnished by the commanding officer of the First Michigan,—much to the regret of the old hero, for he was a horse who loved the excitement of battle and relished its dangers.
Thus, for perhaps an hour (it may have been more) we stood in line inviting attack. But the enemy, strongly posted behind fences and piles of logs, with two ravines and fences separating us, seemed anxious to "let well enough alone." Then Merritt rearranged his line. Devin's brigade was posted next the pike, Lowell in the center, the Michigan brigade on the extreme left. Martin's battery took position in an orchard, on a rising point, which commanded the entire front and sloped off to the rear, so that only the muzzles of the pieces were exposed to the enemy's fire. Directly in front was a section of a battery which Martin several times silenced but which had an aggravating way of coming into action again and making it extremely uncomfortable for us. The First, Sixth and Seventh were formed in line of squadron columns, the Fifth a little to the rear as a reserve and support. A strong line of mounted skirmishers held the front. The left was thrown somewhat forward, menacing the confederate right.
Soon after the formation was complete and probably not far from eleven o'clock, General Merritt with his staff came along inspecting the line, and halting near Martin's battery, he expressed the most hearty approval of the dispositions that had been made. While he was still talking, a round shot from one of the enemy's guns ricochetted and nearly struck his horse. He was very cool and gave his view of the situation in a few encouraging words.
"The enemy," said he, "is almost as much surprised as we are and does not know what to make of his morning's work and in my opinion, does not intend to press his advantage, but will retreat as soon as a vigorous assault is made upon his line."
These are, I am sure, almost the precise words uttered to me by General Merritt before Sheridan came up. At least, if he was with the army at the time, certainly General Merritt did not know it. They show what was the feeling in that portion of the army which was not surprised, and which did not fail, from the moment when the first shot was fired in the early morning, to the last charge at dusk, to keep its face to the foe. General Merritt also suggested, though he did not order it, that I send a regiment to feel of the confederate right flank. He had an impression that it might be turned. The Seventh Michigan was sent with instructions to pass by the rear to the left, thence to the front, and attempt to get beyond the flank of the enemy, and, if successful, to attack. After an absence of about an hour, it returned and the commanding officer reported that he found a line of infantry as far as he deemed it prudent to go. The force in front of the cavalry was Wharton's (Breckinridge's) corps, reinforced by one brigade of Kershaw's division. Early's fear of being flanked by the union cavalry caused him to strengthen and prolong his right. Rosser's cavalry, for some reason, did not put in an appearance after the dash in the morning.
There was a lull. After the lapse of so many years, it would be idle to try to recall the hours, where they went and how they sped. There was no thought of retreat, slight fear of being attacked. All were wondering what would be done, when cheering and a great commotion arose toward the right. "Sheridan has come; Sheridan has come; and there is to be an advance all along the line," sped from right to left, as if an electric battery had sent the message, so quickly did it fly.
Sheridan did not pass to the left of the pike where the cavalry was, but dashed along in front of the infantry for the purpose of letting the army know that he was there and give it the inspiration of his presence. History puts in his mouth the words: "It is all right, boys; we will whip them yet; we will sleep in our old camps tonight." I was not near enough to hear and do not pretend to quote from personal knowledge, but whatever may have been his exact words, the enthusiasm which they aroused was unmistakable. The answer was a shout that sent a thrill across the valley and whose ominous meaning must have filled the hearts of the confederates with misgivings. This was the first intimation we had that Sheridan was on the ground, though he says in his memoirs, that it was then after midday and that he had been up about two hours.
But the Sixth corps needed no encouragement. Nobly had it done its duty during the entire progress of the battle. Sheridan and his staff, therefore, busied themselves reforming and posting the Nineteenth corps and strengthening the right where Custer was to be given the post of honor in the grand flanking movement about to begin.
An ominous silence succeeded. Even the batteries were still. It was the calm that precedes the storm. To those on the left, it seemed that the dispositions were a long time in making. When one has his courage screwed to the sticking point, the more quickly he can plunge in and have it over the better. The suspense was terrible.
The Michigan brigade had ample time to survey the field in its front. First, the ground descended abruptly into a broad ravine, or depression, through which ran a small creek. Beyond the top of the opposite ascent was a wide plateau of rather level ground, then another ravine and a dry ditch; then a rise and another depression, from which the ground sloped up to a belt of timber stretching clear across the front, almost to the pike. In the edge of the timber was the enemy's main line of battle, behind piles of rails and logs. Half way down the slope was a strong skirmish line along a rail fence. Behind the fence, on a knoll, was the battery, which had annoyed us so much. The brigade was formed with the First Michigan on the right, the Seventh on the left, the Sixth and Fifth in the center, in the order named. Each regiment was in column of battalions, making three lines of two ranks each. Martin's battery was to continue firing until the cavalry came into the line of fire.
At length, the expected order came. The bugles sounded, "Forward." Simultaneously, from the right to the left the movement began. At first, slowly, then faster. It was a glorious sight to see that magnificent line sweeping onward in the charge. Far, far away to the right it was visible. There were no reserves, no plans for retreat, only one grand, absorbing thought—to drive them back and retake the camps. Heavens, what a din! All along the confederate line, the cannon volleyed and thundered. The union artillery replied. The roll of musketry became incessant. The cavalry crossed the first ravine and moving over the level plateau, came into a raking fire of artillery and musketry. Pressing on, they crossed the second ravine and ditch. The slope was reached and, charging up to the rail fence, the first line of hostile infantry fell back. But the cavalry had gone too fast for the infantry. Sheridan says faster than he intended, for his intention was to swing his right wing and drive the enemy across the pike into the arms of the left wing on the east side; the too swift advance of the First cavalry division frustrated the plan. The brigade next to the pike, exposed to a galling crossfire, wavered and slowly retired. The entire line then gave way and retreated rapidly, but in good order, to the first ravine, where it halted and reformed. In a short time the charge was again sounded. This time the fence was reached. The right of the Sixth Michigan was directly in front of the battery, as was also the First Michigan. General Merritt, who was riding by the side of Major Deane, said: "Major, we want those guns." "All right, we will get them," gallantly responded the major, and through and over the fence rode the brave cavalrymen. The First Michigan made a dash for the battery, but it was not ours this time for, seeing that the Sixth corps had received a temporary check, the cavalry once more fell back to the nearest ravine, and whirling into line, without orders, was ready instantly for the last supreme effort, which was not long delayed. The charge was sounded. The infantry responded with a shout. This time the cavalry pressed right on up the slope. The enemy did not stand to meet the determined assault but gave way in disorder. The line pushed into the woods and then it was every regiment for itself. The First, under Major Duggan, charged toward the pike, but Devin, being nearer reached the bridge first. The Seventh, under Lieutenant Colonel Briggs, charging through a field, captured, seemingly, more prisoners than it had men. The Sixth, under Major Deane, who knew the country well, did not pause until it reached Buckton's Ford, on the Shenandoah river, returning late at night with many prisoners and a battle flag for which Private Ulric Crocker, of Troop "M," received one of the medals awarded by act of congress. The Fifth, under Major Hastings, charged down a road leading to one of the fords of the Shenandoah, Major Philip Mothersill, with one battalion, going so far that he did not rejoin the command till the next day.
Thus ended the battle of Cedar Creek. Darkness, alone, saved Early's army from capture. As it was, most of his artillery and wagons were taken.
It is needless to tell how Sheridan broke Early's left by an assault with the Nineteenth corps and Custer's cavalry at the same moment of the last successful charge upon his right. It was a famous victory, though not a bloodless one. Of the gallant men who went into the fight that morning on the union side, 588 never came out alive. Three thousand five hundred and sixteen were wounded. Early did not lose so many but his prestige was gone, his army destroyed and, from that moment, for the confederacy to continue the hopeless struggle was criminal folly.
Cedar Creek was the ending of the campaign in the Shenandoah valley. There was some desultory skirmishing, but no real fighting thereafter.
Among the wounded were Captain Charles Shier, jr. and Captain Darius G. Maynard, both of the First Michigan cavalry. Captain Shier died on the 31st of October. He was wounded in the charge on the confederate battery. Captain Shier was as gallant an officer as any who periled his life on that famous battle field; and not only a fine soldier but a polished scholar and an accomplished gentleman as well. He was a distinguished son of the state of Michigan and of the noble university which bears its name. In his life and in his death he honored both. Massachusetts remembers the name and reveres the memory of Charles Lowell. Mothers recite to their children the circumstances of his heroic death, and in the halls of Harvard a tablet has been placed in his honor. Charles Shier is a name which ought to be as proudly remembered in Michigan and in Ann Arbor as is that of Charles Lowell in Massachusetts and in Cambridge. But fate, in its irony, has decreed that the nimbus which surrounds the brow of a nation's heroes shall be reserved for the few whom she selects as types, and these more often than otherwise idealized types chosen by chance or by accident. These alone may wear the laurel that catches the eye of ideality and furnishes the theme for the poet's praise. Others must be content to shine in reflected light or to be forgotten. The best way is to follow William Winter's advice and neither crave admiration nor expect gratitude. After all, the best reward that can come to a man is that intimate knowledge of himself which is the sure foundation of self-respect. The adulation of the people is a fugitive dream, as Admiral Dewey knows now, if he did not suspect it before.
In the original manuscript of the foregoing chapter, written in the year 1886, Lowell was represented as marching "without orders" from right to left with his own brigade and the Michigan brigade. In the text the words "without orders" have been omitted. This is not because my own recollection of the events of that day is not the same now as then, but for the reason that I am reluctant to invite controversy by giving as statements of fact things that rest upon the evidence of my own unsupported memory.
After the manuscript had been prepared, it was referred to General Merritt with a request that he point out any errors or inaccuracies that he might note, as it was intended for publication. This request elicited the following reply:
"West Point, December 2, 1886.
"General J.H. Kidd, "My Dear General:
"So much has been written as to the details of the war that I have stopped reading the war papers in the best magazines, even. An officer writes one month what is to him a truthful account of events and the next month that account is contradicted by three or four in print with dozens of others who content themselves with contradicting it in talk. The account you send me of Cedar Creek is not more accurate than the rest.
"The morning of the attack Lowell's brigade had been ordered to make a reconnoissance on the 'Middle road.' This order was given by me the evening before. The picket line of the First brigade was attacked before the Reserve brigade moved out, and Lowell was ordered to hold his brigade in hand to help the First brigade if the attack was pressed.
"Soon after, the fighting on the left of our army was heavy, as shown by the artillery fire, and stragglers commenced coming across towards the back road. These were stopped and formed as far as possible by my headquarters escort—the Fifth U.S. cavalry. About this time Devin's brigade (my Second) was ordered to the left of our line to cover and hold the valley pike.
"About ten o'clock, the remainder of the First division was moved to the left of the infantry line and disposed so as to connect with the infantry and cover the valley pike. This was soon done, the Second brigade (Devin's) occupying the right, the Reserve brigade (Lowell's) the center, and the First brigade (Kidd's) the left of the division line of battle.
"This is the account of the first part of the battle taken from my report written at the time. The movement of Lowell's brigade and your own by agreement, and without orders, was impossible. We had all been posted where we were as part of a line of battle, and any soldier who took a command without orders from one part of a line to another subjected himself to the penalty of being cashiered, as such action might jeopardize the safety of an army.
"The principle of marching to the sound of battle when you are distant and detached and without orders that contemplate the contingency is well defined, but for a commander to leave without orders one part of a line of battle because there appears to be heavier fighting at another is all wrong and could not be tolerated.
"I should be glad to renew our acquaintance and talk over the war, though as I have intimated I am sick of the fiction written with reference to it.
General Merritt in his letter omits one clause in his quotation from his report written at the time which seems to me to have an important bearing upon this question. The clause is as follows:
"The First brigade was at once ordered to the support of its picket line."
Or to quote the passage in its entirety:
"About 4 a.m. on the 19th an attack was made on the pickets of the First brigade near Cupp's ford, which attack, coupled with the firing on the extreme left of the infantry line, alarmed the camps, and everything was got ready for immediate action. The First brigade was at once ordered to the support of its picket line, while the Reserve brigade, which had the night before received orders to make a reconnoissance on the Middle road, was ordered to halt and await further orders. This brigade had advanced in the execution of its reconnoissance to the picket line, and subsequently acted for a short time with the First brigade in repelling the attack of the enemy, feebly made on that part of the field. Soon after moving from camp the heavy artillery firing and immense number of infantry stragglers making across the country to the Back road from our left, showed that it was in that direction the heavy force of the enemy was advancing. The Fifth U.S. cavalry attached to the division headquarters was deployed across the field and, together with the officers and orderlies of the division staff did much toward preventing the infantry going to the rear. About the same time the Second brigade (General Devin) was ordered to move to the left of the line, cover and hold the pike, and at the same time deploy men in that part of the field to prevent fugitives going to the rear."
The rule about moving toward the sound of battle is succinctly stated by General Merritt in his letter and does not admit of controversy. But I may in all fairness call attention to the conditions that existed at the time when it was asserted that Colonel Lowell took the responsibility to move his brigade from the picket line to the rear, if not to the left, and order the First brigade to follow. The division line of battle of which the three brigades had been a part had been broken up. There was no division line of battle. The First brigade had been ordered to reinforce its picket line. The Reserve brigade which on the night before received the order to make a reconnoissance in the morning was held to support the First brigade and had "advanced as far as the picket line." Devin's brigade had been ordered to the valley pike to hold it and "deploy men to prevent fugitives going to the rear." May it not then be said with truth that he was "distant and detached" and "without orders that contemplate the contingency?" The enemy that attacked "feebly" had disappeared. There was in sight no picket line either of the enemy's or of our own. There was visible no line of skirmishers or of battle. The "fighting on the left of our army as shown by the artillery fire" was not only "heavy," as described by General Merritt, but indicated clearly by the sound that the army was falling back. Lowell's movement was under the circumstances entirely justifiable. That he moved from the picket line to the rear voluntarily, and that he took the responsibility to order the Michigan brigade to follow, is as certain as that when the moon passes between the earth and the sun it causes an eclipse.
The march from the picket line to the pike was continuous. There was no halting for formations of any kind. It is quite possible, however, that the staff officer who conveyed the order from General Merritt found Lowell in motion in the right direction and delivered the order to him to cover the movement of both brigades. I do not remember receiving any order except the one from Lowell until after reaching the pike.
One more point and this subject, which has been given more space perhaps than it ought to, will be left to the reader. General Merritt's report takes up the matter of arranging the division line of battle with the formation at "about ten o'clock," with the Second brigade on the right, next to the pike, the Reserve brigade in the center, and the First brigade on the left. That was some time after the arrival of the two brigades. The first position taken by the First brigade was next the pike in rear of Lowell and Devin. Martin's battery was posted originally close to the pike and it was while there that my horse was shot. I still believe that it was not much after nine o'clock when we first formed on the left of Getty's division. The subsequent rearrangement of the line is referred to in the text and was exactly as described in General Merritt's report.
The following table of killed and wounded in the Michigan cavalry brigade in the Shenandoah Valley campaign is compiled from the official records in the office of the adjutant general of Michigan:
First Fifth Sixth Seventh Michigan Michigan Michigan Michigan Total Winchester 16 8 7 8 39 Shepherdstown 1 5 1 0 7 Middletown 1 — — — 1 Smithfield 2 4 2 3 11 On Picket 1 — — — 1 Cedar Creek 3 5 6 2 16 By Mosby's Men — 18 — — 18 Front Royal — 2 — 2 4 Newtown — 4 — — 4 Tom's Brook — — 1 1 2 Berryville — — — 1 1 —— —— —— —— —— Total 24 46 17 17 104
Recapitulation—Killed and died of wounds, Shenandoah Valley:
First Michigan 24 Fifth Michigan 46 Sixth Michigan 17 Seventh Michigan 17 —— Total 104
The following table of killed and wounded in the First cavalry division in the battle of Cedar Creek is taken from the official war records:
First Brigade— Officers and men killed 10 Officers and men wounded 43 —— Officers and men killed and wounded 53
Second Brigade— Officers and men killed 3 Officers and men wounded 16 —— Officers and men killed and wounded 19
Reserve Brigade— Officers and men killed 9 Officers and men wounded 27 —— Officers and men killed and wounded 36
Total killed and wounded, First Brigade 53 Total killed and wounded Second and Reserve Brigades 55
It is thus seen that the First brigade lost in killed and wounded within two of as many as both the other brigades—almost fifty per cent of the entire losses of the division.
Custer's division of two brigades lost 2 killed and 24 wounded.
Powell's division of two brigades lost 1 killed, 8 wounded.
In other words, while the entire of the Second and Third divisions—four brigades—lost but 35 killed and wounded, the Michigan brigade alone lost 53 in this battle. Thirty-four per cent of the entire losses killed and wounded in the cavalry corps were in this one brigade.
These figures give point to the statement of General Merritt in a communication to the adjutant general of the First cavalry division, dated November 4, 1864, that the list of killed and wounded in a battle is presumptive evidence of the degree and kind of service performed. General Merritt also gives the Michigan brigade credit for "overwhelming a battery, and its supports," in other words capturing the battery.
A MYSTERIOUS WITNESS
In the latter part of the winter of 1864-65 I was detailed as president of a military commission, called to meet in Winchester to try a man charged with being a spy, a guerrilla, a dealer in contraband goods, and a bad and dangerous man. The specifications recited that the accused had been a member of the notorious Harry Gilmor's band of partisans; that he had been caught wearing citizen's clothes inside the union lines; and that he was in the habit of conveying quinine and other medical supplies into the confederacy. He was a mild mannered, inoffensive appearing person who had been an employe of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad company. He appeared under guard, before the commission, at its daily sessions, accompanied by his counsel, a leading attorney of Winchester, whose learning and ability were not less pronounced than was the quality of his whisky, samples of which he, at irregular intervals, brought in for the solace, if not for the seduction of the court. It was no more like the article commonly called whisky than Mumm's extra dry is like the pink lemonade of circus time. It had an oily appearance, an aromatic flavor, and the lawyer averred that there was not a headache in a barrel of it, though he was the only one who ever had an opportunity to test the truth of the statement and there is no doubt that he knew.
The prisoner exhibited a surprising degree of sang froid considering the grave crimes with which he was charged, the penalty of conviction for any one of which was death. This attitude of the accused puzzled the commission not a little, for he acted like either a very hardened criminal, or a man who was both conscious of innocence and confident of acquittal, and he did not look like "a very bad man."
The case was on trial when the army moved. General Sheridan seemed to lay much stress on the matter for he refused the request of the president of the commission to be relieved in order to rejoin his regiment. A personal letter from General Merritt to General Forsythe, chief-of-staff, making the same request was negatived and an order issued directing the commission to remain in session until that particular case was disposed of and providing that such members as should then desire it, be relieved and their places filled by others.
During the progress of the trial the commission was informed that a very important witness had been detained under guard, by order of General Sheridan, in order that his testimony might be taken. On the witness's first appearance it was noticed that the guard detail was very careful to give him no opportunity to escape. He proved to be a person of most noticeable appearance. Rather above than under six feet, well-built, straight, athletic, with coal-black hair worn rather long, a keen, restless black eye, prominent features, well-dressed, and with a confident, devil-may-care bearing, he was altogether, a most striking figure. His name was Lemoss; his testimony to the point and unequivocal. He acknowledged having been a guerrilla, himself. He had, he said, been a member of Gilmor's band and of other equally notorious commands. He had deserted and tendered his services as a scout and they had been accepted by General Sheridan. He swore that he knew the prisoner; had seen him serving with Gilmor; and knew that he had been engaged in the practices charged.
After this witness had given his testimony the court saw no more of him, but he left a very bad impression on the minds of the members and there was not one of them who did not feel, and give voice to the suspicion that there was something mysterious about him which was not disclosed at the trial. When news of the assassination of the president came to Winchester, all wondered if he did not have something to do with it and the name "Lemoss" was instantly on the lips of every one of us. He had, in the meantime disappeared.
When I met General Sheridan in Petersburg, after the surrender, and he inquired what disposition had been made of that case I told him of the distrust of the principal witness and that it was the unanimous opinion of the commission that the witness was a much more dangerous man than the prisoner. The general smiled and remarked, rather significantly I thought, that he kept Early's spies at his headquarters all winter, letting them suppose that they were deceiving him, and that before the army moved he had sent them off on false scents. The inference I drew from the conversation was that Lemoss was one of those spies and that the trial was a blind for the purpose of keeping him where he could do no harm, without letting him know that he was under suspicion. Nothing more was said about the matter, and I presume that, at the time, General Sheridan did not know what had become of Lemoss.
Soon after the grand review, my regiment was ordered to the west and, while en route to Leavenworth, Kansas, I stopped over night in St. Louis. When reading the morning paper at the breakfast table, I came upon an item which was dated in some New England city, Hartford or New Haven, I think, stating that a man by the name of Lemoss, who had been a scout at Sheridan's headquarters in the Shenandoah valley, had been arrested by the police in the city in question and papers found on his person tending to show that he had been in some way implicated in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. This recalled to my mind the surmises in Winchester on the day of the event and also the hint thrown out by General Sheridan in reply to my question in Petersburg. I cut the slip out, intending to keep it, but before my return to the states a long time afterwards, had both lost it and temporarily forgotten the circumstance. It was not until many years had elapsed and I began to think of putting my recollections of the war into form for preservation, that all these things came back to my mind. I have often told the story to comrades at regimental or army reunions. The conjectures of the members of the military commission; the suggestion of General Sheridan that Lemoss was a confederate spy; and the newspaper clipping in St. Louis; all seemed so coincident as to form a pretty conclusive chain of evidence connecting the Winchester witness with the conspiracy. I never learned what was done with him after the arrest in New England.
Recently, when consulting Sheridan's memoirs to verify my own remembrance of the dates of certain events in the Shenandoah campaign, what was my surprise to find that the purport of a passage bearing directly upon this subject had entirely escaped my attention on the occasion of a first reading soon after the book appeared.
On page 108, volume 2, appears the following:
"A man named Lomas, who claimed to be a Marylander, offered me his services as a spy, and coming highly recommended from Mr. Stanton, who had made use of him in that capacity, I employed him. He made many pretensions, was more than ordinarily intelligent, but my confidence in him was by no means unlimited. I often found what he reported corroborated by Young's men, but generally, there were discrepancies in his tales which led me to suspect that he was employed by the enemy as well as by me. I felt however, that with good watching, he could do me very little harm and, if my suspicions were incorrect, he might be very useful, so I held on to him.
"Early in February Lomas was very solicitous for me to employ a man, who, he said, had been with Mosby, but on account of some quarrel had abandoned that leader. Thinking that with two of them I might destroy the railroad bridge east of Lynchburg, I concluded after the Mosby man had been brought to my headquarters, by Lomas about 12 o'clock one night, to give him employment at the same time informing Colonel Young that I suspected their fidelity and that he must test it by shadowing their every movement. When Lomas's companion entered my room he was completely disguised but on discarding the various contrivances by which his identity was concealed he proved to be a rather slender, dark-complexioned, handsome young man, of easy address and captivating manners. He gave his name as "Renfrew," answered all questions satisfactorily, and went into details about Mosby and his men which showed an intimacy with them at some time. I explained the work I had laid out for them, * * * * * They assented and it was arranged that they should start the following night. Meantime Young had selected his men to shadow them and, two days later, they reported my spies as being concealed in Strasburg without making the slightest effort to continue on their mission. On the 16th of February, they returned and reported their failure, telling so many lies as to remove all doubt as to their double-dealing. Unquestionably, they were spies, but it struck me that through them I might deceive Early as to the time of opening the spring campaign. I therefore, retained the men without even a suggestion of my knowledge of their true character. Young, meantime, kept close watch over all their doings."
General Sheridan then, after giving a summary of the scattered locations of the various portions of Early's army continues as follows:
"It was my aim to get well on the road before Early could collect these scattered forces and as the officers had been in the habit of amusing themselves during the winter by fox-hunting, I decided to use the hunt as an expedient for stealing a march on the enemy and had it given out that a grand fox-chase would take place on the 29th of February. Knowing that Lomas and Renfrew would spread the announcement south they were permitted to see several red foxes as well as a pack of hounds which had been secured for the spurt and were then started on a second expedition to burn the bridges. Of course, they were shadowed, and two days later were arrested in Newtown. On the way north, they escaped from their guards when passing through Baltimore, and I never heard of them again, though I learned that, after the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, Secretary Stanton strongly suspected his friend Lomas of being associated with the conspirators and it then occurred to me that the good-looking Renfrew may have been Wilkes Booth, for he certainly bore a strong resemblance to Booth's pictures."
There is no doubt that "Lemoss," the witness, and the "Lomas" of General Sheridan's narrative, were one and the same person. When he wrote the account from which the foregoing is an extract, General Sheridan had, probably, forgotten about leaving the spies in Winchester under guard where they remained until he was well on his way towards Appomattox. After giving his testimony, Lomas and Renfrew were sent north under guard by General Hancock, Sheridan's successor as commander of the Middle Military Division, and making their escape as explained in Sheridan's narrative, Wilkes Booth, alias Renfrew, was able to carry out his part of the plot. It is, also, quite probable that Lomas's part in the conspiracy was to assassinate either General Sheridan or Secretary Stanton, but, that the scheme was interrupted by the detention of the two spies in Winchester coupled with the unexpected opening of the spring campaign. It is likely that the arrest of the two conspirators led to a postponement of the date of the assassination and that the scope of the plot as originally conceived in the fertile brain of Booth, was very much abridged. There was never in my own mind a particle of doubt, from the moment we heard the news of the president's death, that the man Lomas or Lemoss had something to do with it. The fact that he was on terms of intimacy with Secretary Stanton and contrived to be stationed at Sheridan's headquarters, seems to point conclusively to the part he was to play in the tragedy. At that time, Sheridan was considered, perhaps, the most dangerous enemy the confederacy had to fear and his name must have been high up in the list of those marked by the conspirators for assassination.
An amusing incident occurred as this trial neared its close. The defense asked to have William Prescott Smith, master of transportation of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, summoned as a witness. His residence was Baltimore and he was summoned by wire, the telegram bearing the name of General Hancock, commander of the department. Mr. Smith did not want to come to Winchester and urged the commission to go to Baltimore. Failing to secure acquiescence in that proposition, he suggested as a compromise, that the commission meet him half-way by going to Harper's Ferry. This was agreed to and on the appointed day, the commission took passage on a special train consisting of a locomotive and one passenger coach taking along the prisoner and a guard. Harper's Ferry was reached a little after dark and a messenger from Mr. Smith met us with the compliments of that gentleman and a request that we proceed to his private car. The invitation was accepted and the party was received by the railroad magnate with every manifestation of welcome and a courtesy that seemed to be entirely unaffected. It was found that the most generous and thoughtful provision had been made for our comfort. The colored chef prepared a dinner which would have tickled the palate of an epicure, much more those of a quartet of hungry officers directly from the front. There were champagne and cigars in abundance of a quality such as would have been good enough had General Hancock himself been the guest. The host was courtesy itself, an excellent raconteur, a good fellow, and a gentleman. He could not have treated the president and his cabinet with more distinguished consideration that that with which he honored that little party of volunteer officers.
Late in the evening his testimony was taken and he gave the prisoner a very good character. We slept in his car and in the morning had a breakfast that suitably supplemented the elegant dinner. Some more choice cigars, and then Mr. Smith's private car was attached to an ingoing train and he departed for Baltimore. At the very last moment before his train started, Mr. Smith said:
"Pardon me, gentlemen, but it is too good a joke to keep and I am sure that you will appreciate it now better than you would have done last night. When you wired me to come, you know, General Hancock's name was signed to the telegram. I supposed I was to entertain him and don't mind telling you, frankly, that the dinner was provided with especial reference to his supposed partiality for the good things of life. I don't mean to say I would not have done the same thing for you. I certainly would now that I know you, but, all the same, please say to the general that I expected him and regret much that he was not one of the party so that I might have had the pleasure of entertaining him as well as yourselves. And, by the way, he continued, when I urged you to come to Baltimore it had been arranged that the mayor and a large number of prominent citizens of the city were to meet you at a banquet to have been given at the Eutaw House in honor of General Hancock."
The refined courtesy of the gentleman was something that has been rarely surpassed.
Mr. Smith was a thoroughbred.
A MEETING WITH MOSBY
At the time of the surrender of Lee and the fall of Richmond about the only confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley was Mosby's band. The last of Early's army had been swept away by Sheridan's advance, led by Custer, and for the first time since 1860, that beautiful valley was free from the movements of armed forces confronting each other in hostile array. The bold and dashing partisan was, however, capable of doing much mischief and it was thought best by General Hancock to treat with him and see if he would not consent to a cessation of hostilities and, possibly, take the parole. Accordingly, an agreement was made to meet him at Millwood, a little town a few miles distant from Winchester and near the mountains. General Chapman, a cavalry officer, was selected to conduct the negotiations and with an escort of two regiments left early on the morning of the day designated for the rendezvous agreed upon. Not yet having been relieved from duty there I readily obtained permission to accompany the expedition. I was early in the saddle and joining a party of staff officers, struck across country, arriving at about the same time as the escort which took the main road.
The region to which we were going was one of the favorite haunts of Mosby and his men and it produced a queer sensation to thus ride peacefully through a country where for four long years, the life or liberty of the union soldier caught outside the lines had been worth not a rush, unless backed by force enough to hold its own against an enemy. There never had been a time since our advent into this land of the philistines (a land literally flowing with milk and honey) when we could go to Millwood without a fight, and here we were going without molestation, right into the lair of the most redoubtable of all the partisan leaders.
But Mosby's word was law in that section. His fiat had gone forth that there was to be a truce, and no union men were to be molested until it should be declared off. There was, therefore, no one to molest or make us afraid. No picket challenged. Not a scout or vidette was seen. The country might have been deserted, for all the indications of life that could be heard or seen. The environment seemed funereal and the ride could hardly be described as a cheerful one. Each one was busy with his own thoughts. All wondered if the end had really come, or was it yet afar off? Lee had surrendered but Johnson had not. Would he?
The chief interest, for the time being, however, centered in the coming interview with Mosby, under a flag of truce. If he could be prevailed upon to take the parole there would not be an armed confederate in that part of Virginia.
It had been expected that he would be there first but he was not and his arrival was eagerly awaited. The escort was massed near a large farm house, the owner of which was very hospitable and had arranged to give the two commands a dinner.
The officers were soon dispersed in easy attitudes about the porches and lawn or under the shade of friendly trees, smoking and chatting about the interesting situation. Eager glances were cast in the direction from which our old foe was expected to come, and there was some anxiety lest he should fail to meet the appointment after all. But, at length, when the forenoon was pretty well spent, the sound of a bugle was heard. All sprang to their feet. In a moment, the head of a column of mounted men emerged from a woody screen on the high ground, toward the east, as though coming straight out of the mountain, and presently, the whole body of gray troopers came into view.
It was a gallant sight, a thrilling scene, for all the world like a picture from one of Walter Scott's novels; and to the imagination, seemed a vision of William Wallace or of Rob Roy. The place itself was a picturesque one—a little valley nestling beneath the foot-hills at the base of the mountains whose tops towered to the sky. Hills and wooded terraces surrounded it, shutting it in on all sides, obstructing the view and leaving the details of the adjacent landscape to the imagination.
Mosby evidently had arranged his arrival with a view to theatric effect—though it was no mimic stage on which he was acting—for it was to the sound of the bugle's note that he burst into view and, like a highland chief coming to a lowland council, rode proudly at the head of his men. Finely uniformed and mounted on a thorough bred sorrel mare, whose feet spurned the ground, he pranced into our presence. Next came about sixty of his men, including most of the officers, all, like himself, dressed in their best and superbly mounted. It was a goodly sight to see.
General Chapman advanced to meet the commander as he dismounted and the two officers shook hands cordially. There were then introductions all around and in a few moments, the blue and the gray were intermingling on the most friendly terms.
It was difficult to believe that we were in the presence of the most daring and audacious partisan leader, at the same time that he was one of the most intrepid and successful cavalry officers in the confederate service. He was wary, untiring, vigilant, bold, and no federal trooper ever went on picket without the feeling that this man might be close at hand watching to take advantage of any moment of unwariness. He had been known in broad daylight, to dash right into federal camps, where he was outnumbered a hundred to one, and then make his escape through the fleetness of his horses and his knowledge of the by-roads. On more than one occasion, he had charged through a union column, disappearing on one flank as quickly as he had appeared on the other. His men, in union garb, were often in our camps mingling unsuspected with our men or riding by their side when on the march.
We were prepared to see a large, fierce-looking dragoon but, instead, beheld a small, mild-mannered man not at all like the ideal. But, though small, he was wiry, active, restless and full of fire.
"How much do you weigh, colonel?" I asked as I shook his hand and looked inquiringly at his rather slender figure.
"One hundred and twenty-eight pounds," said he.
"Well, judging from your fighting reputation, I looked for a two hundred pounder, at least," I replied.
His spare form was set off by a prominent nose, a keen eye and a sandy beard. There was nothing ferocious in his appearance but when in the saddle he was not a man whom one would care to meet single-handed. There was that about him which gave evidence of alertness and courage of the highest order.
It was astonishing to see officers of Mosby's command walk up to union officers, salute and accost them by name.
"Where did I meet you?" would be the reply.
"There was no introduction. I met you in your camp, though you were not aware of it at the time."
Major Richards, a swarthy-looking soldier, remarked to me that he was once a prisoner of the Fifth and Sixth Michigan cavalry. He was captured near Aldie, in the spring of 1863, and made his escape when the Michigan regiments were on the march back to Fairfax Court House, in the night, when his guards were not noticing, by falling out of the column and boldly ordering his captors to "close up" as they were coming out of a narrow place in the road when the column of fours had to break by twos. In the darkness and confusion he was mistaken for one of our own officers. After he had seen the column all "closed up" he rode the other way.
After awhile the farmer called us in to dinner and the blue and the gray were arranged around the table, in alternate seats. I sat between two members of the celebrated Smith family. One of them, R. Chilton Smith, was a relative of General Lee, or of his chief-of-staff, a young man of very refined manners, highly educated and well bred. He sent a package and a message by me to a friend in Winchester, a commission that was faithfully executed. The other was the son of Governor, better known as "Extra Billy" Smith, of Virginia; a short, sturdy youth, full of life and animation and venom.