Battle of Cool Spring—July 18th

Colonel Joseph Thoburn
Colonel Joseph Thoburn

Today we welcome back guest author Kyle Rothemich.

Following Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s withdrawal into the Shenandoah Valley in early July 1864, thousands of Union soldiers followed in pursuit. Many of them were part of the Union 6th Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright. Early’s retreat west was not met without resistance.

The Army of West Virginia was a conglomeration of Union soldiers from West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and other ‘western’ states. Leading these men in the field was Brig. Gen. George Crook. Attempting to cut off Early’s retreat, Crook was ordered to move towards Harpers Ferry. Earlier in the summer, Crook’s men suffered defeat at the hand of Early at the Battle of Lynchburg and fled into the Allegheny Mountains. Resupplied and ready for a fight, the Army of West Virginia joined forces with Wright in the pursuit of Early.

By July 17th, Early returned to the Shenandoah Valley crossing the Shenandoah River near Berryville at Snickers Gap. After some skirmishing with Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. Alfred Duffie on the 17th, Early began to strengthen his position on the west side of the Shenandoah River near the Cool Spring Farm. At the same time, Union soldiers under Crook began to march towards this position readying for an attack the next day.

On the morning of July 18th, Union forces under Generals Crook and Wright, traveled west. Their objective was to cross the Shenandoah River and drive Early’s command of nearly 8,000 further back into the Valley. Little did they know, simultaneously Confederates in Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes and Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s divisions began to strengthen their position. By midday, Wright and Crook were reconnoitering the Confederate position opposite the west bank of the Shenandoah. Wright ordered Crook to send forces across the river to dislodge the Confederates from their position. Instead of attacking head on, Crook ordered Col. Joseph Thoburn to take his division and cross the Shenandoah at Island Ford further to the north.

Thoburn’s men began to ford the river by 1:00 on July 18th, and the Battle of Cool Spring began. Wharton’s men anchored the Confederate right as Rodes’ men filed in to create the Confederate left wing. Rodes formed his extreme left in an arc in an attempt to get around Thoburn’s line. Union skirmishers made their way across the bank and instantly began to receive fire from the Confederate position. Union soldiers began to flee, seeking shelter around stone walls that lined the Cool Spring Farm. It was not long before Thoburn’s small force began to retreat back across the Shenandoah. William Hewitt of the 12th West Virginia later wrote, “Thoburn quickly changed front to meet the flank attack of Rhodes but after hard fighting, our right was forced across the river some getting drowned.” The Union line began receiving fire from both Confederate infantry and artillery located around the Cool Spring Farm.

Map by Steven Stanley. Courtesy of the Civil War Trust
Map by Steven Stanley. Courtesy of the Civil War Trust

As Crook’s line wavered and began to break, he pleaded to Brig. Gen. James Ricketts of the 6th Corps to send in his division to the front. By 6:00pm, to Thoburn’s dismay, Ricketts did not reinforce his command. Thoburn linked the inaction of Ricketts to the loss of his men. He recalled later in his autobiography, “I lost some valuable men here, murdered by incompetency or worse.” Thoburn’s men made one final stand along a stone wall aided by Union artillery fire from across the river. This deadly stand pushed the Confederate line back and bought crucial time for Union soldiers to retreat back across the Shenandoah River. Rodes men picked off Union soldiers during their retreat across the Shenandoah River.

By nightfall the Battle of Cool Spring was over, with Union and Confederate forces in the same position as the morning. Early’s men occupying the west bank of the Shenandoah River, and Union men peering from the east. The only real consequence was the cost of life. Nearly 850 men would be killed wounded or missing following the battle. Dr. Alexander Neil, a surgeon in Thoburn’s command wrote home describing the scene he saw, “Many of our dead, the rebels left naked on the field, every stick of clothing having been taken, some whom they pretended to bury, were only half buried, heads & feet both sticking out of the ground.” Early’s victory at Cool Spring enabled him to move further west into the Shenandoah Valley. Two days later, on July 20th, just north of Winchester Union forces would strike back.

To commemorate these events, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park will be conducting special “On This Day” Battlefield Tours. These tours will occur exactly 150 years after certain actions took place in the Valley. Tours include The Battle of Cool Spring on July 18th, Battle of Rutherford’s Farm on July 20th and the Battle of Second Kernstown on July 24th. All of these tours are free and we encourage visitors to walk in the footsteps of these soldiers some 150 years later. For more information, visit our website. Or call us at 540-869-3051. Also, like our Facebook page.

Looking west across the Shenandoah River towards the Cool Spring Farm . Thobrun’s left flank crossed near here.
Looking west across the Shenandoah River towards the Cool Spring Farm . Thobrun’s left flank crossed near here.

Author Bio: A senior at James Madison University studying History and Public History, Kyle Rothemich is entering his third year as an interpretive Park Ranger at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove, NHP. Kyle has developed numerous interpretive programs on the history of the Shenandoah Valley, the Civil War in the Valley, and the Battle of Cedar Creek; he has also aided in the development of interpretative exhibits now displayed in the park’s new visitor contact station. Currently, Kyle is working on a B.A. Honor Thesis researching the presentation and interpretation of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. Kyle also maintains a blog chronicling his journey as a Park Ranger and a history student known as “A Historian in Training.”

4 Responses to Battle of Cool Spring—July 18th

  1. Thanks for giving this Battle attention that it deserves. For clarification, 7It should be noted that Ricketts was in command of the entire Sixth Corps. Its advance was posted back in Snickers Gap. By the time the courier from Thoburn delivered the request to Army commander Horatio Wright, he in turn issued orders to Ricketts, and the time it took to March from the Gap to the battlefield, the situation on the field had deteriorated. Thoburns division was pouring back across the river in confusion when Ricketts advance reached the east bank of the river. From a military perspective, there was nothing to be gained by crossing the river. To do so would have placed Ricketts troops in danger with no military tactical objective to accomplish at that point.

    The battle happened because George Crook believed that Early’s army had retreated and left only a strong reset guard where the main road crosses the river. Crook miscalculated. Early had three divisions in the immediate area and the men paid the price for Crook’s mistake. Crook later attempted to cover up his failure by blaming Ricketts.

    Also, Col. Thoburn did not link his losses to Ricketts action in an autobiography. He died at the battle of Cedar Creek and his wartime writings make no such claims. Crook is the source of that allegation that was picked up in the post war years on the reunion circuit.

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