Today we welcome back guest author Kyle Rothemich.
Following his victory at Cool Spring on July 18th, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early started to withdraw deeper into the Shenandoah Valley. On July 19th he sent Confederate Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and his division west to Winchester. Early feared Union forces would arrive from the north via Martinsburg, West Virginia. Early told Ramseur explicitly not to bring on an attack; and to occupy the fortifications around Winchester.Accompanied by cavalry under Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn, Ramseur, marched west arriving in Winchester that evening.
On the morning of July 20th, Ramseur and his command found themselves two miles north of Winchester. Vaughn’s troopers galloped north to feel out the oncoming Union force. The Union force advancing south on the Valley Turnpike was a division under the command of Brig. Gen. William Averell. Averell’s command contained both Union cavalry and infantry. Many of Averell’s men had been serving in the Shenandoah Valley or West Virginia throughout the war. Union skirmishers met Vaughn’s cavalry north of Winchester between noon and two o’clock. Vaughn requested a battery and asked how far he should drive back the enemy. Ramseur obliged and sent him artillery, confident he could whip Averell’s command.
By about 4:00pm Ramseur heard the sound of battle nearing his position. He soon was met by fleeing horsemen of Vaughn’s cavalry. Vaughn claimed that there was only a regiment of cavalry and infantry, accompanied by four guns. Ramseur saw an opportunity to overwhelm his foe and immediately ordered his division into battle. Going against Early’s orders, the Confederates moved forward, concealed in thick woods. North Carolinians under Brig. Gen. William Lewis’s brigade anchored Ramseur’s left on the west side of the Valley Turnpike.The Confederate right was made up of more North Carolinian’s under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert D. Johnston. Ramseur placed his last brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert D. Lilley in reserve.
Averell’s advancing line of blue contained only four regiments commanded by Col. Isaac Duvall consisting of West Virginia and Ohio units assisted by some cavalry. All together Averell would bring in a total force numbering nearly 2,300 men. The first volley was fired from the Confederate left into the 14th and 9th West Virginia. During this fire, Confederate Brig. Gen. William Lewis was hit by a ball but continued to command his men. At the same time, on the other side of the Turnpike, Johnston’s Tar heels were keeping a steady fire on Averell’s left.
At a crucial moment, the 14thWest Virginia saw its opportunity. Their Union line out extended the Confederate line to their front as the Confederate flank was in the air.If they could launch a desperate charge across the open ground, and get on the Confederate left, their fire would drive back the North Carolinians. The West Virginians marched forward, west of the Rutherford Farm and hit the Confederate line. Jesse Tyler Strum on the 14th West Virginia remembered, “We rushed forward to the rebel line withholding our fire but yelling like demons.” This enfilade fire, coupled by a charge by the 2nd West Virginia cavalry caused the 57th North Carolina to break. This rout was contagious as the rest of Lewis’s brigade broke to the rear.
In order to stem this retreat, and hold his lines, Ramseur ordered a section of artillery from his right to his left. Hoping canister fire would stall the oncoming Federal assault. However, this move had adverse effects. Ironically, this section of cannon had been rapidly firing into the Union left and the 91st Ohio, pinning them down. With this artillery fire gone, the Ohioans saw their opportunity and surged forward against the Confederate right. Accompanied by the 9th West Virginia, these Union regiments broke through the Confederate line. In one final attempt to stem the disaster, Ramseur ordered his reserve brigade under Lilley to the font. However, this was too little too late. Ramseur’s men broke and were fleeing south towards Winchester. Averell, not knowing the whereabouts of the rest of Early’s command decided not to pursue.
This resounding Union victory resulted in nearly 1,100 casualties. A West Virginian in the 2nd West Virginia cavalry simply labeled this engagement as, “one of the most brilliant and quickly executed victories of the war.” Early’s army reconvened some 20 miles south of Winchester at the defensive positions at Fisher’s Hill. Many, including the newspapers, and his men blamed Ramseur for this loss. A North Carolina soldier simply stated, “Somebody blundered and many brave fellows paid the penalty.” To Gen. Early, Ramseur was the one to be blamed. He later wrote, “General Ramseur did not take the proper precautions in advancing.” In a letter written on July 23rd, Ramseur confided to his wife, “Again I have escaped the ordeal of battle. I am greatly mortified at the result. My men behaved shamefully. They ran from the Enemy, and for the first time in my life I am deeply mortified as the conduct of troops under my command.” Ramseur seemed more concerned about his reputation in the press than the state of his men.
With this loss, Ramseur’s men rejoined Early’s command around Fisher’s Hill. Union forces entered Winchester taking position in and around the town. Union high command thought that Early was in final retreat towards Richmond, to reinforce Gen. Robert E. Lee. For the next couple of days, Confederate cavalry would attack the Union position south of Winchester. Many commanders viewed this as a screen to protect Early’s full retreat. Little did they know, Early was not done. Early had one last trick up his sleeve as he conjured up a plan of attack.
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.
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.” http://prospectivehistorian.wordpress.com/