War History Letter


Letter From the Historian of the Army of West Va.

IRONTON REGISTER  Thursday January 17, 1880

Submitted by Barbara Madden

We gladly surrender the column which we had intended to give to a description of a visit to the Cedar Creek battlefield, to a letter written to Gen ENOCHS by Mr. John T. BOOTH, historian of the Army of West Va. It contains much information on points alluded to in our Shenandoah articles, and we know will be very interesting to a large number of our readers.

Cincinnati, Ohio Jan 5, 1880

My Dear General,- The same carrier that brought me “The Ironton Register” of 3rd instant, at same time carried away to mail a lengthy letter for me to Col. Herbert E. HILL (late of the 8th Vt. Inft. 19th Corps) Boston, Mass. Some time since I read a notice of a very excellent paper of his on the Sheridan valley campaign, and addressed him seeking a copy. A copy of same not being obtainable, he presented me with a copy of History of 8th Vt., which contained much of the same article from his pen that I had asked for. On page 199 of History, it reads as follows : “But General SHERIDAN did not propose to neglect his advantage, and on the morning of the 21st instant the Union troops were advanced to within artillery range of Fisher’s Hill, and the day was spent in shelling the woods on the enemy’s flanks and fixing a position from which to strike a decisive blow. At day-break the next morning, the batteries opened a brisk fire, to which the Confederate made but a feeble reply, while the infantry line was moved into the woods north of the hill; and during the forenoon strong earth works were thrown up , though for what reason the soldiers did not know, unless it was to amuse the Johnnies, who gazed down upon them from their strong hold on the bluff.

(page 200) “At two o’clock p.m. the skirmishers advanced and drove a detachment of Confederates out of some rifle-pits in front, and at five o’clock General SHERIDAN’S plan of attack became apparent. While the movements in front had engaged the attention of the enemy, CROOK with the 8th Corps had executed a successful flank movement, surprising them and turning their left. This was what Sheridan had been waiting for, and as soon as it became certain that CROOK had gained the rear, he ordered a general advance along the line.

“Col. THOMAS and his regiment pushed forward with the rest of the 19th Corps. towards the base of the bluff that looked so formidable bristling with blazing guns. But it seemed incredible that Crook could actually be in the enemy’s rear, or that the strong works would yield to assault. Just then, however, Captain WILKINSON, of Gen. EMORY’S staff came dashing along, waving his hat and shouting, ‘They’ve left their guns and are running like cowards!’ General Sheridan, too, was all along the line with his aides, impatient of delay, and commanding everything to be hurried forward.

“Across the ravine, through the tangled brushwood, and up the steep ascent scrambled the troops, to find the works deserted and EARLY’S army in full retreat along the valley road, their dead and wounded, batteries, and everything on wheels left behind, and the troops so panic stricken at the sudden bursting of the Eighth Corps upon their unguarded rear that they were indeed running like cowards, while a considerable force had failed to escape and were made prisoners.”

When I read the above I turned to my desk and wrote to Col HILL as follows (having first cited the words quoted) “Do I read aright that Gen. Sheridan was present with your Corps during the morning and afternoon; in other words was not with Crook’s Corps from the time the Corps was set in motion in the morning up to the time of which your historian writes, 5 p.m. or later?” To which I received an answer yesterday as follows: “Your letter of 27th at hand. In reply you can rest assured, without a doubt that the statement by our History 8th Vt. page 200 is correct. Crook accompanied his Corps (8th Corps) along side of the mountain in two parallel columns to rear and left flank of enemy , where he fell upon Early’s rear and flank, while Sheridan remained with us 6th and 19th Corps, in front until we heard your guns and knew you had arrived at proper point for our advance to strike enemy in front, same moment you struck him in rear and flank. Sheridan of course, directed Crook how to move, where to move, and was with him until the separation of Crook and his Corps from the 6th and 19th Corps, when he moved off , cut loose and crawled alongside of the mountain under cover of heavy timber, and fell like a thunderbolt on the unsuspecting foe. That the enemy had no more idea of being whipped than he had of flying with wings, I may mention this fact: As we advanced up the open plain facing their mighty embankments and works, I could see the men behind their guns, in shirt sleeves, looking upon us in front as so many grasshoppers, until they heard Crook’s guns, then their firing was wild and many shots flew over our heads; but for this of course, we should have been literally torn in pieces. Sheridan was with us on this charge and we could see him occasionally. Where I crawled over the enemy’s works a gun stood hot still. I put my hand on it and said, I remember, ‘you are mine’; but I was obliged to leave it of course, for others coming up and rush on so could not turn it over as my, or our, trophy.

“This brilliant move and blow to the enemy, by Crook’s command, will stand in history as one of the keenest thrusts during the war, and of the same Corps at Winchester (Opequan) I cannot say too much. It was my good fortune, and the lot of my regiment, to witness entire the gallant blow struck there, and not only to look on , but to take active part, for my regiment under General THOMAS flung itself onto THOBURN’S left front and became the ‘Iron Prow’ to his ‘Engine of War’ as he hurled himself against GORDON and BRECKENRIDGE in the final successful charge of that decisive battle.”

My own impression has always been the same that I expressed to yourself and Gen CROOK recently at Columbus; that with Gen Crook originated the flank maneuver, and by Crook was suggested to Sheridan and accepted and used by the Army of West Virginia at Opequan. It is well known how successful the movement proved upon that occasion, and that it was at Crook’s instigation again adopted at Fisher’s Hill –how gloriously successful everyone there knows who participated. This has been my impression all along, and is a matter of record in my diary. As I remarked at Columbus, when discussing this question, I had talked with General Sheridan at Portsmouth, two years before, and that while he (Sheridan) said (in effect, I will not attempt tp give his words,) he did not recall the exact circumstances as to origin of suggestion, that he held Crook in high estimation, and that while such might, in a measure or in whole, be true, certain it was he would not have treated inconsiderately anything coming from Crook, but he felt quite sure he had given Crook (I think he said carte blanche) at least considerable latitude to act upon his (Crook’s) judgment. When we were talking over this matter on the stage at A. of W.Va. reunion, if you remember, I said to General Crook I could not recall the exact language used by Gen. Sheridan, but when I referred to something that had been said or done in connection with the battle of Opequan, in proof of, or to explain, my impression as to correctness, General Crook remarked that I was then speaking of Opequan while he, (Crook) had especially in consideration at that time what had been told General WILLIAMS, by Gen Sheridan, relative to his (Sheridan’s) personal action in connection with Crook’s command in the charge at Fisher’s Hill. You possibly also remember that when I suggested that Gen Williams might have misunderstood General Sheridan, General Crook made no direct replybut his conversation left the impression that he fully believed Gen. Williams’ words.

I read the article in the Register with special interest, accompanied by a feeling of regret that I had not had the pleasure of making the trio a quartet. I presume you saw the two monumentsdonated and erected by my friend (of whom I have made mention in the opening of this letter), Col. Herbert E Hill, at Winchester (Opequan) and at Cedar Creek, dedicated to the fallen comrades of the 8th Vt. The following extracts from Diary and Journal are word for word as was written twenty five years ago. They will explain themselves.

Extracts form Diary Journal

“36th O.V.I. in the War of the Rebellion”

“Winchester Sept 19th 1864”

“Today has brought on glory enough to repay a year’s hard service. ” ” ” ” and his shattered column are now retreating by night up the valley.

At sunrise, Crook broke camp at Summit Point and marched up the east bank of the Opequan, reaching the crossing of the Berryville pike about 10 a.m., and just as the rear of the 6th Corps passed over. The 10th had crossed earlier.

“Heavy fighting was done before the Army of West Va. reached its position.

” The 6th and 19th pressed the enemy heavily so as to keep him in his place, while Crook with his 1st Division made a circuit and struck him square in the flank. This was a masterly movement, conceived, as I am informed, by Crook, who suggested it to Sheridan, and was by Sheridan instructed to execute it. It not only possessed all the advantages of a flank movement, but compelled the enemy to leave a ford of the Opequan below, which permitted our cavalry to cross and operate still further to the right of the First Division.”

This is a brief extract from Journal account of battle of Opequan, but the words italicized for this occasion show that we understood that Crook first suggested the flank movement at Opequan Sept 19th, and as the following extract from Journal, or Diary, as you may choose to call it, will show that the same idea-right flank movement-was again suggested by Crook, to Sheridan at Fisher’s Hillat which latter you were present at the time. These extracts are word for word as they were written twenty odd years ago:

Sept 20, 1864 “Marched to Cedar Creek, a distance of 15 miles. Found 6th and 19th Corps already across the stream confronting the enemy in his entrenched camp at Fisher’s Hill. This position is naturally a strong one, and is made more so by an extensive field works. The Army of West Va. camp on the north bank of Cedar Creek.

Sept 21,1864 “Kept quiet until after darkThen crossed to the south side and camped in a wood hidden from a view of the enemy.

Sept 22 “Another battle today and another glorious victory. This morning , early movements indicated that something important was to take place. The 19th pressed up close to the enemy’s right and kept up a continual skirmish, as did the 6th along the center. The same tactics were observed as in the battle of the 19th inst. The two corps were to engage the enemy in front while the Army of W. Va. was to operate in turning the l eft. The rebels lay, as they thought, securely behind their works with loaded muskets, ready to butcher any column that might have the temerity to attempt to carry them by direct assault. While they were thus overconfident of the strength of their position and yelling at our skirmish line to come on, Crook was stealing along through thickets and under cover of ravine toward North Mountain. He reached it and marched his troops almost to the rear of the rebel works before being discovered. At about 4 p.m., his men were drawn up on the mountain side for the combat. I got a fair view of the rebel lines, and saw too, that we had gained a great advantage. At the command, the little army swept down on the rebels like a terrible avalanche. They were taken completely by surprise and fled in several places without firing a shot. The column moved along with the awfulest yells I ever heard men utter, and it is no wonder we drove the rebels in herds, capturing their battery as we went. Crook did not stop, until he reached the banks of the Shenandoah and the last rebel was on the double-quick up the valley. This battle was won by the strategy of Crook and the impetuosity of Crook’s army.”

I did not set out to write a history of the Shenandoah campaign, but simply to give some evidence in my possession that go to show that to General George Crook , not to General Sheridan, is due the honor and glory of the two successfully fought battles on the part of the Union troops-Opequan Sept 19, 1864 and Fisher’s Hill. Sept 22, 1864.

Yours in F., C. and I.

John T. Booth