02 March 2014

149 Years Ago Today - The Battle of Waynesboro

As I finish up work on the Battle of Waynesboro Book, I almost forgot to post this tribute to the battle's 149th anniversary - March 2. This was posted earlier this year at the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation's website:

In 1947, a 12-year old boy sat at a desk in a bedroom of his grandfather’s home. There he sketched a pencil drawing of his hero–General Robert E. Lee. It is an excellent profile likeness of the good General; especially considering it was drawn by a 12-year old. This home is located in the neighborhood now known as the “Tree Streets”—on Locust Avenue. Here, between what is now Pine and Cherry Avenues the last battle of the War Between the States in the Shenandoah Valley was fought. The young boy could gaze out his second story bedroom window and look up the hill from his home where Confederate forces faced overwhelming odds 82 years earlier. On this battlefield, Southern boys and men fought and died for what many of them had finally come to realize was a lost cause. Northern boys and men fought and died for what they hoped would soon be over. Though this was not a major battle, the sacrifices of the men who fought here—North and South—should not be forgotten. Some well known names were involved in the conflict.

Confederate General Jubal A. Early’s army was now but a shell of what it once was. Early would be facing an old adversary and a man despised by Valley residents—Union General Philip H. Sheridan. The year before, on October 29th, Sheridan had ordered his cavalry to burn all the “forage, mills, and such property as might be serviceable to the Rebel army” lying between Staunton and Harrisonburg. Known by Valley residents simply as “the Burning,” the action left Valley residents and the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” with something with which they were not familiar—hunger. So complete was the devastation that Sheridan reported: “A crow would have had to carry its rations if it had flown across the valley.” Even Sheridan’s own men were shocked at the despair caused by their deeds. Union Colonel James H. Kidd wrote that “The anguish pictured in their faces would have melted any heart not seared by the horrors and ‘necessities’ of war. It was too much for me and at the first moment that duty would permit I hurried away from the scene.” Sheridan was not known for being moved by “anguished faces” and was evidently one whose heart had been seared by the horrors of war, once telling his overwhelmed troops that, “We’ll sleep in our own beds tonight or we’ll sleep in hell.” Valley residents would have preferred the latter.

Sheridan’s lack of remorse regarding war and its ugly consequences was shared by another well known Union officer that was present at the Battle of Waynesboro. Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer was considered Sheridan’s protégé. Custer was in command of Sheridan’s 3rd Cavalry Division and the twenty-five year old Custer was already a brave, battle-hardened warrior. Custer had been involved in the “measure for measure” hanging duel with Confederate Lt. Colonel John Singleton Mosby: each side retaliating by executing or hanging prisoners. Custer, too, was a principal in “the Burning” saying he wanted “to put the fear of Hell in these people.”

Jubal Early knew he was facing formidable foes. But Early was as fearless as were his Union counterparts—and just as controversial. Known for his “imaginatively profane speech,” Early originally fought hard to keep Virginia in the Union; but after being outvoted at Virginia’s Secession Convention in 1861, Early cast his fortunes with his native Virginia. General Early was known for his bravery and leadership. He would need both at Waynesboro where Early’s 1500 Confederates would face Sheridan’s Union cavalry of 10,000. The small division Early was left with was a tough and seasoned one and could count as one of its former brigade commanders, Colonel George S. Patton, the grandfather of the WW II general.

March 2, 1865 was a miserable day in Waynesboro. It was cold, foggy, and, according to Confederate mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss, “cold sleet…was constantly falling.” Sheridan’s forces had marched into Staunton on the morning of March 2nd. He ordered Custer to “proceed to Waynesboro, ascertain something definite in regard to the position, movements, and strength of the enemy, and if possible, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South River at that point.” Custer reported that the road to Waynesboro – the “Staunton Pike”—was all but “impassable,” made into a quagmire of mud from several days of rain.

Early was expecting Sheridan and had his defenses in position stretched along a west to east line that would coincide with present day Pine Avenue from 14th street and extending beyond Main Street near where the Plumb House stands. During the heat of battle the Plumb family sought protection in their cellar. The home was on the receiving end of a Union cannonball and, after the battle, Union soldiers helped themselves to some of the Plumbs’ food stores. Early had his artillery facing West on the high ground between 13th and 12th Streets. At first glance, this would seem like an ideal position to defend against the Federals advancing from the West. Custer later reported that, “His [Early’s] position was well chosen, being upon a range of hills west of the town, from which the artillery could command all the approaches, while his infantry could, by their fire, sweep the open space extending along their entire front.” Early, however, had made a huge tactical blunder. Confederate Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton had advised Early to take up a position on the opposite (east) bank of the South River, but Early rejected Wharton’s counsel. He chose, instead, to back Wharton’s vastly outnumbered infantry division up against the rain-swollen river. Should the Confederates find it necessary to retreat and escape there would be no where to run. While there were two bridges in the area, one was on the east side, a good distance from Early’s position and the other was a railroad bridge which offered only a narrow route—not enough space to handle 1500 men rushing to avoid a slaughter. The shivering, sleet-covered Confederates had the unenviable posture of having 10,000 Yankees in front of them and a raging river behind them.

There was another weakness in the Confederates’ position. Early had failed to extend his line far enough to the south (Toward present day 16th Street) so that it would reach the river. This exposed his left flank. As the Federals approached the Confederate line around 2 pm, Custer ordered Colonel William Wells’ 2nd Brigade forward. Encountering stiff resistance from the Confederates, Custer considered other options. He quickly discovered the one-eighth mile gap in the Southerners’ left flank. He would later report: “…one point seemed favorable to attack. The enemy’s left flank, instead of resting on South River, was thrown well forward, leaving a short gap between his left and the river.” Custer ordered three regiments – the 2nd Ohio, the 3rd New Jersey, and the 1st Connecticut to attack Early’s exposed flank “under the cover of woods.”

The Federals, armed with seven shot Spencer repeating rifles, surprised and overwhelmed the Confederates. While the left flank was collapsing, Union Colonel Capehart’s 3rd Brigade tore into the Confederate’s front line and according to local historian and author, Robert Moore, the Confederates fired a “single ragged volley.” Hotchkiss reported with disgust that it was “one of the most terrible panics and stampedes I have ever seen. There was perfect rout along the road up the mountain.”

Early was watching the battle from a hill near the river. In just a few minutes, he realized “everything was lost.” Early and his staff, including Wharton and Dr. Hunter McGuire, made a dash for the bridge that led to Rockfish Gap. Early and Wharton escaped but as Dr. McGuire’s horse made a gallant effort to jump a rail fence, the two went tumbling into the mud. When McGuire stood up, he was greeted by a Union cavalryman pointing a gun in his face. McGuire immediately made a secret Masonic distress order which was recognized by another Union officer who intervened and took charge of the mud splattered McGuire. And at the bottom of Main Street Hill, Colonel William H. Harman (Brother to Stonewall Jackson’s quartermaster, John Harman) was surrounded by five Federals. Refusing to surrender, Harman was killed and a monument to his bravery was erected near the spot of his death. Since that time, this monument has been moved a number of times and now rests in Waynesboro’s Constitution Park.

In total, over 1200 Confederates were captured, along with all of the Confederates’ artillery pieces, wagons, and several battle flags. Thus ended the War Between the States in the Shenandoah Valley. In little more than one month, General Lee would surrender to General Grant at Appomattox.

Mature trees and stately homes now line the beautiful streets of this battlefield which holds the blood of brave Americans. The young boy that sketched the image of General Lee as he daydreamed from his bedroom window on Locust Avenue was my father. His grandfather, Charles “Mr. Charlie” McGann, once owned some of the land upon which the Battle of Waynesboro was fought. And his father, John McGann served with the 51st Virginia Infantry; which was present at the Battle of Waynesboro. By the time my father was twelve, the guns of March 2, 1865 had long been silent. Yet tales of battlefield bravery die hard in the hearts of 12 year old boys—as well they should. This is especially true when you grow up on those battlefields. As my father explored the woods, fields and streams surrounding his boyhood home, he was often haunted with reminders of the bravery and sacrifice of the gallant soldiers of March 1865. and he often spoke of the bravery of those men on that day so many years ago. Many Civil War veterans were still alive in the 1940’s. One veteran, Colonel C.H. Withrow (who would also serve as Mayor of Waynesbor), had fought for the Confederacy and lived on Pine Avenue. My father could recall his grandfather—Mr. Charlie—telling my father how he would walk to Col. Withrow’s barn on Pine and feed the old Colonel’s horse, “Bird.” Today, Bird’s bit occupies an honored place on my office wall.

Thankfully, the fighting is long over and the Tree Streets are quiet today. Yet many historians have written that the most heartrending sounds heard on battlefields like this one were actually heard after the fighting was over—boys and men crying out in anguish for their mothers and their God as they lie dying alone. The cries of those soldiers have echoed down through generations; from father to son. Their mothers were unable to hear them; their God did hear them, and may we never forget them.
Richard G. Williams, Jr. is a life-long native of Waynesboro and Augusta County. The author of several Civil War related books and numerous articles, he is currently writing a book about the Battle of Waynesboro to be published by The History Press in 2014.
Note: Readers interested in studying more about the Civil War in Waynesboro and the surrounding area are advised to purchase a copy of Robert H. Moore’s book – Gibraltar of the Shenandoah – Civil War Sites and Stories of Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County, Virginia. The book is available at the Waynesboro Heritage Museum.


Anita Henderson said...

Thank you Richard for a wonderful word picture of the battle of Waynesboro. I had contacted you a couple of years ago about Maria Lewis the black woman who served with the 8th NY Cavalry and participated in the 3rd Cavalry division charge against the confederate line. I am still working on the project and hope to get a paper published soon. Your narration brings to life the bravery of the soldiers on both sides and their sacrifice during this desperate battle.

ropelight said...

By today's standards Sheridan and most of his officer corps would be considered war criminals for The Burning, along with a similar condemnation for Sherman's making war against civilians on his March to the Sea.

ropelight said...

Today, on the 3rd of March in 1931 The Star-Spangled Banner became the US National Anthem.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yes, I've explored Sheridan's Shenandoah shenanigans while researching the new book. Quite interesting how some of his own men were revolted by what they witnessed.

Didn't realize the anniversary of the SSB - thanks.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anita - can you contact me privately? I want to ask you something. stonewallbook@yahoo.com


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anita - BTW, thank you for your kind words.

ropelight said...

Jubal Early earned his reputation for bravery and aggressiveness on the attack, not for his defensive skills.

Early's apparently inexplicable decision to deploy his exhausted and vastly outnumbered troops with their backs to a rain-swollen river against General Wharton's strong recommendation is consistent with repeated condemnations of Early that he resented advice from subordinates and often responded stubbornly with harsh criticism and public humiliations.

Custer's rather modest instructions were to ascertain Confederate strength, identify enemy positions and movements, and to destroy the RR bridge if possible. Had he arrived in Waynesboro and found Early's forces protected behind a fast moving river, that would have fulfilled the first part of his task and his options would have been narrowed to an attempt on the bridge, which would have looked exactly like a well-baited trap.

Early foolishly put his outnumbered troops in an impossible position, and invited an attack. It cost his men their freedom, it cost him his command, and the defeat left the Shenandoah undefended and open for Union plunder and destruction.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You summed it up rather well there Rope. It's interesting to note, however, that Custer would later write that he thought Early's position was a strong one and well-chosen. That could be to make his involvement in the victory look all the better - knowing Custer, that's not beyond the realm of possibility.

ropelight said...

A few additional observations: The only way Jubal Early's deployment with his back to the river makes sense (instead of being protected behind it) is that his priorities were shielding the town and defending the RR bridge: both sides apparently recognized the bridge's vital importance.

Lacking the means to accomplish both tasks, and smarting from a humiliating defeat at Ceder Creek when victory was his for the taking, an angry and embarrassed Confederate General made the wrongheaded decision at Waynesboro to try to do too much with too few tired, wet, and cold men.

Early ended up thoroughly compromising his left flank with disastrous results even though he was confronted by only about half of Sheridan's strength. Moreover, Early's flank was surprised and routed in astonishingly short order largely because Custer's men were armed with new 7 shot repeating rifles which gave them an overwhelming advantage in naked firepower.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I don't believe he was protecting the town, it was of no strategic importance. I don't think he made any mention of protecting the bridge either. They knew they were vastly outnumbered. I believe Early's only concern was survival.

"he was confronted by only about half of Sheridan's strength."

True, but even half of Sheridan's 10,000 was more than 3 times what Early's force. But I agree, the ideal spot would have been across the river at the west side bottom of Rockfish Gap where Early would have been flanked by mountain ridges. He could have held out indefinitely there.

ropelight said...

RGW, you're the expert (and I'm late to the party) but it seems to me that if survival was Early's chief concern wouldn't he have withdrawn his forces to safety across the river and burned the damn bridges himself preventing any hot pursuit? That way, what was left of Early's army could have lived to fight another day.

Additionally, how far North to you put Wharton's trench line beyond Main Street, did it extend beyond the RR tracks or stop short? I checked the Hotchkiss map but couldn't get enough resolution on my laptop to make out much of anything definitive.

The other online maps are rather inconsistent and seem largely to stem from the imagination of scribblers and graphic designers. Maybe the need for something approaching precision was greater than I thought.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Rope - no, I'm no expert when it comes to battle strategies. Just an observer and student. Yes, that would have made more sense to me, though he would have given up the high ground which, had the river been at normal levels and the odds more even, would have made sense.

"how far North to you put Wharton's trench line beyond Main Street"

Not sure. I have a good map drawn in the 1990's. I'll try to take a closer look next week and post something on it. There was some artillery on the high ground, North of Main Street.