Part two in a series.
Finally, the days of waiting were over. For over a month, the Federals under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan had been marching back and forth through the Shenandoah Valley in a veritable dance with Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates. Now, on the morning of September 19, 1864 Sheridan was finally leading his men into battle. Acting on intelligence that Confederate troops from Early’s army had been recalled to the lines around Richmond and Petersburg, along with reports that the Confederates were strung out around Winchester, Sheridan moved to the attack. His plan was simple; the Yankees would advance west along the Berryville Turnpike and hit the Confederates before Early could consolidate. First, Sheridan’s cavalry had to clear the way through a steep gorge known as the Berryville Canyon.
This assignment fell on the shoulders of Brig. Gen. James Wilson, commanding one of Sheridan’s cavalry divisions. It was critical for Wilson to secure the western edge of the canyon and quickly. If the Rebels could hold him at bay, they would not only buy time for Early to concentrate, but potentially stack up and trap the Federals in the gorge. Moving out before dawn, Wilson’s troopers ran into Confederates commanded by Maj. Gen. Stephen Ramseur. The gray infantry gave up ground begrudgingly, delaying Wilson long enough for Early to recognize the threat and bring two of his infantry divisions under Robert Rodes and John Gordon into position just east of Winchester.
As Early brought his men onto the field, so did Sheridan. The first of the Union infantry to arrive was the VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright. Wright deployed Maj. Gen. James Ricketts’ division south of the Berryville Turnpike. Joining Ricketts’ right was Maj. Gen. George Getty’s division. While Maj. Gen. William Emory’s XIX Corps linked into Getty’s northern flank, Wright placed his last division, still in column in reserve. With Ricketts, Getty and Emory preparing for battle, it appeared that Brig. Gen. David Allen Russell would have to wait his turn to enter the fight.
Russell was born in Salem, New York on December 10, 1820 and came from good Yankee stock. His father would serve for six years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Russell graduated in the Class of 1845. After serving in Mexico, Russell was transferred to the Pacific Northwest. Interestingly, one of Russell’s subordinates in the mid-1850s was a young Philip Sheridan.
Returning east late in 1861, Russell would be appointed Colonel of the 7th Massachusetts Infantry. Leading his men through the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam, Russell was promoted to Brigadier General on November 29, 1862. Commanding a brigade in the VI Corps, he would distinguish himself during the Chancellorsville Campaign. That fall, in temporary command of a division, Russell, along with his budding protégé, Col. Emory Upton, stormed and carried Rebel earthworks at Rappahannock Station. For this action, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, the corps command wrote that Russell deserved “the highest praise bestowed upon a soldier”. After Sedgwick’s death at Spotsylvania in May, 1864, Russell was placed at the head of the First Division, VI Corps.
On May 10, together with Upton, Russell helped orchestrate a brilliant infantry assault on the Mule Shoe Salient. The faith that his superiors had in him was born out at the conclusion of the fighting at the North Anna. Russell’s division was chosen by Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to accompany the cavalry on the Federal march beyond Robert E. Lee’s right flank to the Pamunkey River. Unbeknownst to him on the morning of September 19, Russell’s ability would be put to the ultimate test.
As the Confederates filed onto the field, Sheridan decided to send the VI Corps divisions on the Berryville Turnpike to attack the Rebels. During the attack, the Federals were to guide on the road. Unbeknownst to Sheridan and just out of sight from his headquarters on the J. Eversole farm, the pike veered sharply to the south. This abrupt bend would cause the infantry following the road on the left to lose their connection with their comrades to the right. At 11:40, a lone gun fired, signaling the attack.
The blue lines marched steadily across the open field. When they came within range, the gray ranks opened up a destructive fire. This fire caused the famed Vermont Brigade to seek shelter in a swale near the bend. To their immediate right, the brigades of William Emerson and J. Warren Keifer continued onward. Heading straight for the Rebels, Emerson and Keifer did not see the Vermonters take cover on their left and a gap began to form in the Union line, growing ever bigger with each step.
Observing the hole open in the enemy line, Robert Rodes immediately ordered his division forward. Advancing toward the gap was Rodes’ old brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Cullen Battle. Back on Eversole’s Knoll, Sheridan watched in horror as it appeared that the Alabamans would split the Federal line. Also watching was David Russell.
Recognizing that the pivotal moment was at hand, Russell reacted swiftly, ordering his brigades to deploy into line of battle and move forward to plug the hole. Astride his horse and watching his men prepare to meet the Rebels, a shell burst overhead. Shrapnel struck Russell in the head and he fell from his mount dead. His efforts would not be in vain. One soldier lamented that they had lost “another of our…gallant officers”. Despite their loss, Russell’s men counterattacked and drove the Rebels back to their original position.
As the battle progressed, Emory’s attacks north of the Turnpike were also repulsed, forcing Sheridan to call up Brig. Gen. George Crook’s Army of West Virginia. “Crook’s Buzzards” as they were known launched an attack which drove back the Confederates and the opposing lines stabilized. Later in the day, with the help of the cavalry, Sheridan launched another assault. With Union horsemen crashing down on the Confederate left, Early’s lines finally broke under the pressure, his men streaming through Winchester in utter rout.
This victory, could, in part, be credited to David Russell. While the Union cavalry divisions under William Averell and Wesley Merritt played a critical role late in the day, Russell’s quick perception of the developing crisis and decisive action in sending his division forward not only filled the gap in the Union lines, but pushed Rodes’ division back. Ironically, as Rodes was watching his ranks go forward, he was also struck down by a shell and killed. It was Russell’s counterattack early in the fighting that enabled Sheridan, his old subordinate, to hold his position and launch additional attacks later in the day that eventually forced the action and gained the field.
The next day, after the smoke of the battle had blown away, Russell’s body was removed and taken to Harper’s Ferry. From there, the final journey was made back to Salem, where Russell was interred on September 27 in Evergreen Cemetery. Although there would be many eulogies, the most fitting may have come from Russell’s immediate superior, Horatio Wright. The VI Corps commander wrote simply that Russell’s merits “were not measured by his rank”.