«MAJ. GEN. CHARLES S. HAMILTON HISTORY of THE THIRD REGIMENT of WISCONSIN VETERAN VOLUNTEER INFANTRY 1861 — 1865. BY EDWIN E. BRYANT Late Adjutant. ...»
The valley of the Shenandoah is that part of the great valley of Virginia, lying between the Blue Ridge on its southeastern side and the North mountain and other ridges which run parallel to and are the eastern lines and rows of the great Alleghenies. From Harper’s Ferry northwestward up the Potomac it is about twenty-four miles in width, growing narrower upward. The Shenandoah river extends from its mouth at Harper’s Ferry upward and southwest, close along the base of the Blue Ridge for thirty-six miles to Front Royal, and near there divides into two branches called the North and South forks. Near the confluence of these branches and between them a mountain chain called the Massanuttons rises abruptly and stretches off southwest parallel to the Blue Ridge for fifty miles, then sinks into the general level.
Being nearer to the Blue Ridge than to the North mountain, it divides the valley into two much narrower valleys trending in the same direction; the eastern one being called Luray valley. The western side of the Massanuttons is known as “The Valley.” The north fork is the smaller branch of the river, rises in the North mountain, to the westward of Harrisonburg — which lies near the southern terminus of the Massanuttons — flows down the valley on the northwestern side; but at Mount Jackson it crosses the valley to the base of the Massanuttons and skirts along the foot of that chain in a tortuous course to near Strasburg. There it bends around the north end of that
-39mountain chain, flows eastward past Front Royal to join the South fork. The latter is the main branch, and extends with numerous windings up the narrow Luray valley to Port Republic, a little south of which three streams — the North, Middle and South rivers — drain a large portion of the upper valley and unite to form the fork. Numerous small streams called “runs” flow across the valley discharging at various points into the main river.
Martinsburg, on the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, is a considerable town in the northeast part of the valley, about eighteen miles from Harper’s Ferry. An excellent turnpike, wide and durably made, runs from Martinsburg twenty-two miles to Winchester, hugging the western side of the valley, thence eighteen miles to Strasburg, thence through numerous villages — Woodstock, Edensburg and New Market being the more important — to Harrisonburg, some eighty-eight miles from Winchester, thence onward about twenty-four miles to Staunton.
At Strasburg, going southward, the main valley becomes quite narrow.
The Massanuttons here consist of three ridges, between which are two small valleys, called Powell’s Big Fort valley and Powell’s Little Fort valley. The main valley is much broken in its narrow part, above Strasburg, with deep ravines and heights affording good defensive positions, well situated to resist advance either up or down the pike. Common dirt roads run parallel to the turnpike. An unpaved road runs from Port Republic down the Luray valley to Front Royal. From Winchester another macadamized road leads to Harper’s Ferry, and another road running eastward crosses the Shenandoah at Castleman’s Ferry, leads over the Blue Ridge through Snicker’s Gap to Manassas and to other points between the Blue Ridge and Bull Run mountains.
A good turnpike also leads from Winchester south up the valley to Front Royal, running for several miles nearly parallel with the Strasburg pike, and from one to two miles apart, then this latter bears off southwesterly and the Front Royal bends easterly and swings around again so that its general course is due south. Front Royal is twenty-two miles south of Winchester.
The scenery in the valley, and especially from Strasburg southward is beautifully picturesque. The turnpike runs along a natural ridge, winding and undulating to conform to the road-bed nature had provided. A column of troops in march never presented a finer sight than when moving in good order on this excellent roadway. Col. Gordon went into ecstacies at the sight; and two years later Gen. Sheridan was delighted at the same view, as his gallant legions pressed up the valley on the heels of the fleeing Early; and from the head of his column he could look backward over them all.
The streams flowing down from the mountains on either side are remarkable translucent. The fields put forth a rich green in the early spring.
The orchards of apple and peach blossom luxuriantly in the first warm days,
-40well sheltered from the northern winds and the humid chill of the Atlantic coats. The summer haze mellows the scene and softens the tints on the mountain sides. This valley, destined to be harried, desolated and torn by the blasts of war, to be the scene of alternate victory and defeat for either cause, seemed, when we entered it in the spring of 1862, to be the sequestered vale where peace herself would choose her abode.
About this time the Confederates fell back from Manassas to Gordonsville, south of the Rapidan; and plans of campaign were changed.
McClellan was to move on Richmond by the peninsula; and Banks was to cover Washington. So, March 16, Banks was ordered with his corps to the vicinity of Manassas. Shields was recalled from Strasburg. Williams, now in command of a division, started over the Blue Ridge. The Third Wisconsin in his command encamped on the night of the 22nd at Berryville, and moved next day up through Snickers’ [sic] Gap and three miles east of the Ridge.
Jackson soon learned of this movement, and, divining its purpose, resolved to attack whatever small force might be left at or about Winchester.
He retraced his steps quickly, attacked Gen. Shields and received a sound threshing at Kernstown,15 the particulars of which do not belong to this history.
During this battle which began at about sunset of March 22d, Shields sent orderly after orderly with dispatches to Gen. Williams. Gordon’s brigade while crossing the Blue Ridge had heard the distant cannonade in the valley. As soon as dispatches came, they retraced their steps, marching twenty-six miles on the 24th, reaching Winchester late at night.
Banks, who had pursued on with Shields to Strasburg, ordered Gordon to report to him there. On receipt of this order Gordon’s brigade moved out at about sundown, and made a night march towards Strasburg. The signs of Jackson’s hasty retreat were along the route. The dead and wounded of his command were in the houses; bridges had been destroyed to hinder pursuit;
and people said his flight had been rapid and exceedingly hard on his men.
On the evening of the 26th the Third Wisconsin encamped at Strasburg.
The next day Gordon’s brigade was thrown forward, to a camp back from the road concealed behind Round Hill. Sullivan’s brigade was in front of the hill. Near Sullivan was Jackson’s rear guard; and it was a matter of some sport that Sullivan was in a state of constant excitement lest Jackson should be upon him.
On the first day of April the column advanced up the valley, driving Jackson from his camp near Woodstock in such haste that his men left their dinner cooking over the fire. Pushing on in pursuit to near Edensburg, the The writer, with Company A, Third Wisconsin, was in Winchester at the time on duty as provost guard, and witnessed part of the movements of this battle; and spent the night in taking care of the wounded of both sides. Some of Company A’s men went out and did some shooting in the battle, “on their own hook.”
-41brigade encamped on the 2nd, near Tom’s Brook. The rebel forces were on a range of hills beyond; and they amused themselves by throwing shells at our pickets.
The weather was abominable. Rain and snow, and a bleeding of snow and rain, that made disagreeable every phase of camp life, picket or march.
The spring had been arrested by one of those storms peculiar to the climate, when the ground is covered with watery snow, the air dense with the chilliest and most penetrating moisture, and everything saturated. For several days this weather continued; and men shivered on sentinal [sic] duty and in camp about sputtering fires.
And now a new programme was laid out for us. Gen. McClellan, and st the 1 of April, sent a letter to Gen. Banks, that the change in affairs in the valley had rendered necessary a change of previous plans. Jackson was to be kept well back; and Banks in certain contingencies was to push on to Staunton.
On the 17th of April the welcome news came to advance to New Market, fifteen miles southward on the pike. There was Mill creek to cross; and here the enemy could offer serious resistance, if he chose. As the creek ran across the road at right angles, the passage, if disputed, would be difficult to force. South of the creek was Mount Jackson a few hundred yards distant, and there Jackson had made his camp at a point easy to be held, as the hill commands all the passage of the creek. Here Jackson made a show of fight.
The position must, therefore, be turned. Col. Gordon, with his own brigade and Col. Dunnings of Shields’ command, was ordered to proceed along the north side of the creek to the middle or dirt road that led up the valley to new Market. Under a pelting sun Gordon’s flanking column moved over a road all ledges of rock and quagmires of mud. Dunnings’ brigade in leading, straggled fearfully, as the early start and the heat had much fatigued the men. This column halted at 9 o’clock P.M., and slept till morning in its tracks. In the morning they learned that Jackson had scampered off; and Shields was pursuing down the main pike. To join the main column the North fork of the Shenandoah must be forded. The water was up to the armpits, cold as ice and swift, but the men crossed with uproarous [sic] hilarity. Many stripped off their clothes and held the bundle high over their heads; and all roared with laughter when the current carried the legs from under some luckless comrade and ducked him clothes and all.
On the 25th the column was again in motion along the base of the Massanuttons on the left to Harrisonburg, 80 miles up the valley from Winchester. But Jackson had left the valley, and turning to his left had moved over into Elk Run valley across the South fork of the Shenandoah. Behind him was a gap in the Blue Ridge through which was a turnpike to Stannardsville and Gordonsville, putting him in communication with Ewell. He
-42had a good line of retreat. Before him was the Shenandoah to guard him from Banks’ advance, and on either hand spurs of the Blue Ridge protected his flanks. The camp was admirably selected for an inferior force; from it he menaced Banks’ communications, and prevented his advance southward.
During the advance up the valley the good news came of Grant’s victories at Donelson and Henry, the evacuation of Yorktown, the occupation of New Orleans, Portsmouth, Norfolk. When Gen. Williams received the dispatches he celebrated the news with a bottle whiskey and sent word to his brigade commanders to “let the boys yell.” At this early period of the war, there was much plenty in the upper valley. Poultry was abundant and prices for butter, eggs and other articles of food were quite moderate. The devastation of the valley came later.
On Sunday, May 4th, Gen. Banks left his headquarters at New Market and went up to the front, to discuss with his brigadiers the practicability of a movement against Jackson. While this conference was in session, orders came from the Secretary of War to fall back to Strasburg, with Williams, the cavalry and artillery. Shields, with his division, was to cross the Blue Ridge and join McDowell at Fredericksburg. The next day Williams’ division retraced steps twenty miles down the valley. Arriving at New Market, the headquarters were found in alarm lest Jackson, who was reported to be in the Luray valley over the Massanuttons, should be dong some mischief. Gordon’s brigade weary as it was, was ordered to cross over into Luray valley and attack a detachment of Jackson’s forces said to be there. At 12 o’clock at night it started. The turnpike to Luray leads over the Massanuttons range in one of those depressions called a “gap,” but really a slight depression here, and the pike ascends and descends the mountain in zig-zag courses. The dawn of the 6th found the column on the summit weary enough; but the magnificent scenery on which they gazed was itself refreshing,16 Behind the the beautiful An incident that comes to memory may here throw a little light on the condition of the people of that region at that time. While Gordon’s brigade was lying in the Luray valley Lieut.
James G. Knight, quartermaster of the regiment, and the writer crossed over this mountain from New Market to the camp of the Third. When on the top of the mountain we dismounted to give our horses a rest and to view the scenery. At some distance from the road, nearly hidden by the trees, we saw a little cabin. Curiosity impelled us to visit it. We found there two elderly women, evidently living in loneliness and poverty. To make an excuse, we asked if they could sell us some dinner.
“‘Deed and double, we can’t.” said one of the women. “There ain’t a thing to eat in the house, not a thing.” “Well then,” said Knight, “you will boil a little coffee for us, won’t you?” “Coffee?” replied the dame. “Coffee” It’s only rye coffee we’ve had for a year, and not that is all gone. There ain’t a kyurnal in the house.” “Oh, well,” said Knight, “I’ll find the coffee and sugar; you find the water and kettle, and we’ll all have a nice cup.” “What, ra-al coffee?” said the old lady, “ra-al coffee?” “Yes,” sad Knight, who was a “good provider,” both for his regiment and himself, as he drew from his saddle bags a little sack of nicely browned coffee. The two dames looked on it with gloating eyes, and soon the pot was simmering in the rude fireplace. When the kernels had been pounded the old woman said: “I’m groan’ to sarch around and see if I can’t find a bite o’ bread and meat to