‘Little Phil’ and ‘Old Jube’ get serious.
For the footsore soldiers of the First Vermont Brigade, the morning of August 21, 1864, was a heaven-sent opportunity to rest, wash, write letters home and attend divine services. After being yanked from the trenches at Petersburg six weeks earlier, they and the rest of the Union VI Corps had tramped endlessly under a pounding summer sun across the Shenandoah Valley and Maryland in pursuit of Jubal Early’s elusive Rebel army. Despite near-daily skirmishes, there had been no battles, and many began to describe their tedious chase as the “Mimic War.”
As the soldiers prepped for a Sunday inspection, Aldace F. Walker, the 11th Vermont’s newly promoted major, remained asleep, having skipped breakfast following a bout of dysentery the previous night. No one seemed too worried about the whereabouts of “Old Jubilee” and his Rebs; a picket line that formed what Walker called “a grand curve around our left flank…half a mile from our camp” through gently rolling terrain had perhaps given the brigade a false sense of security. The first hint of trouble came at about 9:30 a.m., when the sounds of heavy firing rolled in from the picket line. Moments later, the Union sentinels were scrambling back “in confusion” toward the camps. The Battle of Charles Town, soon to be proudly inscribed upon the brigade’s flags, had begun.
The campaign leading to the engagement at Charles Town began in early June, in the wake of the bloody Battle of Cold Harbor, when Lt. Gen. Jubal Early moved his Second Corps into the Shenandoah Valley to relieve embattled Lynchburg. Joined by Confederate forces already in the Valley, Early marched north across the Potomac River and defeated the Federals at Monocacy, near Frederick, Md., before advancing to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The bold move forced Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant to rush the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps to the defense of the nation’s capital, as well as the XIX Corps, which was en route north from Louisiana.
After a sharp clash at Washington’s Fort Stevens on July 11-12, Early recrossed the Potomac on July 16 and continued south, easily outdistancing the Federals’ tepid pursuit. On July 24, the cantankerous Virginian turned and whipped Brig. Gen. George Crook’s Union army at Kerns town, then sent his cavalry into Pennsylvania to burn Chambersburg. Early had created enough havoc to completely unsettle government officials in Washington.
The repeated Union debacles finally caused Grant to replace a number of his marginal commanders and consolidate his forces in the Valley under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. In addition to Crook’s Army of West Virginia (informally known as the VIII Corps), Sheridan was given command of the VI Corps and both divisions of the XIX Corps, the second of which was still arriving from Louisiana in early August. Grant also handed him two cavalry divisions from Petersburg, which, when added to the one already present, gave the Yankees an overwhelming superiority in that arm.
Although this marked the first time in the war that all Union forces served under one commander, the new general-in-chief faced major constraints. Early’s raid had rattled the Lincoln administration, and with the presidential election only a few months away, “Little Phil” was under intense pressure not to lose another battle. The Union high command also retained inflated ideas of Early’s strength— some reports put his numbers at more than 40,000 men.
Nevertheless, Sheridan advanced on Berryville, Va., on August 10, and after some brisk cavalry skirmishes drove Early back past Strasburg to Fisher’s Hill. General Robert E. Lee then upped the ante by sending Early reinforcements under Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson by way of Front Royal, flanking Sheridan and forcing him to fall back toward Harpers Ferry. Anderson brought with him Kershaw’s Division, an artillery battery and two brigades of cavalry under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. Sheridan reacted cautiously, mindful of his orders and unsure whether this new force on his flank was the entire Confederate First Corps.
Early trailed Little Phil north, settling above Winchester while the Yankees squatted just east of Charles Town, protecting the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and their supply hub at Harpers Ferry. During this phase of the campaign, the dominant terrain feature was Opequon Creek, whose steep banks bisected the ground north to south between Harpers Ferry and Winchester. To get at the other, the armies would first have to cross this “very formidable barrier.” Old Jube moved first, in the early hours of August 21, traversing the Opequon at Smithfield Crossing with Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ Division in the lead. Anderson advanced on a converging axis through Summit Point to the south while Fitz Lee drove up from Berryville. With luck, all would unite that morning at Cameron’s Depot, about two miles outside Charles Town.
The Vermonters’ uninvited callers that day were Rodes’ Division Sharpshooters, an elite demi-brigade of four sharpshooter battalions fighting under Colonel Hamilton A. Brown. Screened by Brig. Gen. “Tiger John” McCausland’s cavalry, they had achieved almost complete surprise. The Rebels quickly deployed, staking out an open-order skirmish line covering almost the entire Federal front. Soon some were approaching the Yankee camps.
Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur’s Division moved up beside that of Rodes, adding its three sharpshooter battalions to the fight. But the Vermonters, who enjoyed a reputation as one of the toughest outfits in the Army of the Potomac, were veteran fighters and not prone to panic. As 2nd Division commander Maj. Gen. George W. Getty and his staff trotted through camp, the soldiers scrambled for their arms and equipment, struck their tents and fell into ranks. Getty ordered Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant, the Vermont Brigade’s commander, to reestablish his picket line. “The order was simple,” Aldace Walker explained, “but its execution seemed likely to be difficult, for the line had been driven in for nearly or quite a mile in extent along the semi-circle of which our position was the centre, and whether by a line of battle or a skirmish line was entirely unknown, as well as in what direction we were to expect the strongest hostile force.”
Grant put the 3rd, 4th and a portion of the 6th Vermont Infantry regiments into skirmish formation and sent them out to where the firing seemed heaviest. The rest of the brigade followed in support—“more deliberately on various radii of the curve assumed by the skirmishers,” Walker wrote. Directly in front of the Vermonters lay a hill covered with corn “of so high a growth that a man passing through it could not be seen; it soon appeared that it concealed a uniform line of rebel skirmishers.” After giving them a volley, the Green Mountain boys “plunged recklessly into the corn” and pursued the retreating Southerners to a fence line.
The rest of the brigade took off after them. Regiments on the right stopped upon seeing a Confederate line on the next hill, but the men on the left—who had not heard about stopping when they reestablished the picket line— kept going “a half mile beyond it” before Getty and his chief of staff could rein them in. Among those down in the initial confrontation was Walker’s commander, Lt. Col. George Chamberlain, who fell mortally wounded.
Getty’s caution proved to be justified. Rodes’ sharpshooters fell back a short distance as Colonel Brown requested reinforcements. Rodes sent a courier galloping to Brig. Gen. Bryan Grimes, who sent up the 43rd North Carolina. The regiment’s commander, Captain Cary Whitaker, arrayed his men in skirmish order and used them to extend the left end of Brown’s line. The Confederates suddenly about-faced and counterattacked, touching off “a general musketry battle” all along the line.
Recalled Walker: “By this time, all the Brigade had reached the front line, and, becoming deployed, covered the whole mile as skirmishers. The enemy attacked us from behind trees, ridges, fences, and walls with a force that could not clearly be made out, and with a vigor that expressed their disappointment at finding themselves no better off than in the early morning.”
Captain Whitaker found the enemy’s fire “pretty severe” and had to fall back a bit himself. The Vermonters, who vowed to “make a day of it,” scraped together makeshift shelters from fence rails and whatever else they could find. Walker readily conceded that they were “pressed most dangerously.” The 6th Vermont in the center of the line suffered severely, while those posted on the right lost only a few men.
Walker’s battalion of the 11th Vermont fell back to a large brick house on the left of the line owned by the Packett family, “in a position entirely exposed to the enemy’s fire…while the rebels from behind a stone wall at short range were annoying them terribly.” They quickly lost their color-bearer and a number of other men, and Getty’s favorite horse was killed as the general inspected their lines. Now on foot, Getty authorized Walker to station sharpshooters in the house. As he spoke to another officer of the 11th, a bullet whistled between them.
Walker and his men occupied the dwelling, which he quickly realized was the key to the position. “All the windows that faced the enemy,” he reported, “were opened and filled with picked marksmen.” Filling the house with Yankees immediately drew nearly all the Rebel fire toward it, which had the happy effect of giving some relief to the hard-pressed men outside. To complicate matters, the proSouthern family that lived there flatly refused to leave, instead taking refuge in the basement. Even though there was “a constant rattle of bullets against the walls of the mansion,” the Vermonters seemed safe enough. Shortly after noon, however, the Confederates added a fieldpiece to the mix, throwing a shot over the building that “was intended as a warning for us to withdraw.”
The Vermonters stood fast, even when the next shot took down the chimney, showering them with bricks. The Rebel gunners cranked down their piece and kept shooting. “Shell after shell plowed through its walls and exploded in its rooms,” Walker recalled. “One hole torn in its side was used as a loophole by some brave fellow, not a half a minute after the shell had entered”—an act of bravado that rated a cheer from both sides. Some shells hit the basement, causing the homeowners to finally bolt to the rear, “weeping and shrieking.”
Miraculously, neither the family members nor the soldiers had been hurt to that point, though Walker’s men twice had to extinguish fires started by the shells. Walker stepped out of the room moments before a “death-bearing missile” exploded inside it, killing one man and wounding several others. The major finally thought it prudent to retire. As they moved out, “the musketry reopened all along the line with renewed vigor, and the battle continued until the evening fell.”
The firing tapered off late in the afternoon, allowing Walker and some other officers a chance to take a break on the back porch of the brick mansion, where the “thoroughly subdued” owner fed them. About 6 p.m., Federal reinforcements arrived in the form of an outfit from another of the corps’ divisions. As it passed by on its way to the left of the line, the men mocked the exhausted Vermonters about “fighting a phantom” all day. The fresh regiment marched forward, “preserving a capital front, until they approached the stone-wall mentioned above, when suddenly a gray line of rebels rose up” and let them have it. “Saluted by a thousand rifles,” the newcomers broke and legged it to the rear without firing a shot, followed by the jeers of the Green Mountain boys.
All day Old Jube had held off his main attack, scanning the roads south with his field glasses for the telltale dust clouds that would herald Anderson’s and Fitz Lee’s approach. Unfortunately for the Confederates, both had been held up by Yankee cavalry, who, with their fast-firing Spencer repeating rifles, had become a serious threat in their own right.
That evening the Vermonters tallied the day’s losses, figuring the fighting had cost them 23 killed, 98 wounded and two missing, for a total of 123 men. The exposed 6th Vermont accounted for 39 casualties, including all its field officers, and Walker placed his own losses at 10 killed and 40 wounded. By comparison the brigade’s casualties at the hard-fought Battle of Cedar Creek that October would be 284, so the engagement can hardly be dismissed as trivial. The sharpshooting Confederates had also taken down many of their best officers, including their commander. Overall Union casualties for the day ran to about 275 men killed and wounded—making this a “brisk” action on par with Fort Stevens or Cool Spring.
Confederate accounts of the day’s fighting are few, but Colonel David G. Cowand, commanding the 32nd North Carolina, reported that the sharpshooters of Grimes’ Brigade had “quite a severe fight” and “suffered a good deal.” Overall, the day’s casualties for Rodes’ Division were about 160 men. Brigadier General Philip Cook’s Georgia brigade, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have been as heavily engaged as Grimes’ Tar Heels. In an Au – gust 27 letter, Jack Felder, a sharpshooter with Company K, 4th Georgia, gave the losses in his company as two slightly wounded on August 21 and none on August 24.
The action at Charles Town was unique and important in two ways: It was one of the largest open-order battles of the war, fought between two of the best practitioners of the art, and it was the best opportunity the Confederates would have for a decisive victory in the Shenandoah. The Vermont Brigade had made somewhat of a specialty of open-order fighting—that is, stringing out the entire brigade into a skirmish line with the men four to six paces apart instead of the elbow-to-elbow line of battle. Extended formations like this put a premium on unit leadership and the individual initiative and marksmanship of the soldier, but the Green Mountain boys excelled at it. On July 10, 1863, spread out over two miles on some wooded high ground outside Funkstown, Md., they had handily held off attacks by two Confederate brigades advancing in line of battle. At Charles Town, Aldace Walker swore that he had been fighting off “a full line of battle with artillery to boot, and had held our ground with a skirmish-line,” but Confederate accounts make it clear that it was an openorder action on their side as well.
A few days after the action at Charles Town, Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont mused on what it took to soldier on the skirmish line:
Almost any man had rather stand in the open field and fight, when he knows where the enemy are, and knows that he has an equal chance with them, than to pick his way along an ad – vancing skirmish line, without knowing when he may receive a whole volley from the enemy, and liable all the time to run upon a line of concealed sharpshooters, or an ambush of lurking foes. Skirmishers have to feel out the enemy’s position, and are the first the receive their fire….It requires peculiar courage in the men, and particular sagacity and courage in the officers, to do good skirmishing. I always feel uneasy when I am on the skirmish line, in front of the enemy, unless I am being handled by skillful hands. We must not advance upon a superior force of the enemy and expose ourselves needlessly; and we must not break our connection with those on our right and left, or lose our directions and get lost or captured.
With a good General to lead, we can string the whole brigade of us, in a line five feet apart, or ten if they want; and advance straight ahead without pulling apart here, or crowding together there, keeping a straight line and going straight ahead, until we come upon the enemy’s works, and find out all we wish to know, and then we can turn about and go back again without having a man captured, and if it is in the night, without letting the enemy know when it is done, or getting lost ourselves.
Fisk also pondered why the Vermonters seemed to draw the duty so often. One reason was that “we all know that it requires nerve and reckless daring, to make a good skirmisher,” qualities the Green Mountain boys naturally had in abundance. Another, he thought, was that the brigade’s commander, Lewis Grant, was “the best General in the corps to manage a skirmish line.” In short, the Vermonters got the job because they were good at it, “everywhere and all the time.” Still, Fisk thought that perhaps his commanders favored them a bit too much—“it seems to me to be a poor return for valor, that the best troops should always have the hardest work to do.”
On the Confederate side, Robert Rodes used his sharpshooters as a light infantry force both to feel out his enemy’s strength and position and as a fighting force to shape the battle. Although Early held back his infantry brigades pending Anderson’s arrival, Rodes and Ramseur aggressively pushed forward their skirmishers, attempting to drive in those of their enemy before launching the main attack. As such it fits the general pattern of Rodes’ tactics since the North Anna, putting in his division sharpshooters supported by a section or two of artillery, then backing them with line infantry as needed. Confederate sharpshooters stirred up a hornets’ nest and had to call for reinforcements, but it’s significant that the supporting regiment, the 43rd North Carolina, came up not in line of battle but in skirmish formation to lengthen Rodes’ line. By this time, many of the veteran regiments such as the 43rd had become adept in open-order fighting and often fought with the division sharpshooters when required.
As for numbers, Confederate inspection reports of August 20 show 3,300 men in Rodes’ Division and about 2,000 in Ramseur’s. Assuming that one man in six was assigned to the sharpshooters, this would mean that their combined division sharpshooters probably numbered somewhere between 800 and 900 men, plus whatever infantry reinforcements Rodes sent them.
Although not broken down by brigade, Federal returns list the overall infantry strength of the VI Corps on September 10 at 12,674, which would mean that individual brigade strengths were between 1,400 and 2,000. Private Fisk gave the strength of the Vermont Brigade on October 4 (after the hard-fought Third Battle of Winchester) at about 1,600, meaning that six weeks earlier it was probably nearer 2,000. The Confederates were undoubtedly somewhat outnumbered.
By Civil War standards, the amount of lead expended at Charles Town was remarkable. “Two mules were employed all day bringing up ammunition,” Walker recalled. “The Brigade consumed 56,000 cartridges. So steady and constantly severe a fire has rarely been known.” Walker claimed that his own battalion had fired 7,000 rounds just from around the house he defended. Captain James M. Garnett, Rodes’ ordnance officer, estimated that on August 21 his division shot some 60,000 rounds—even more than the Yankees fired—without including the ammunition used by Ramseur’s men.
As the shadows lengthened, Early’s best opportunity of the campaign to strike a crippling blow to Sheridan’s army slipped away. Little Phil brought up reinforcements but pulled back his line, conceding the field to the Confederates. Still unwilling to risk a general engagement, he retreated that night to his fortifications at Halltown, near Harpers Ferry. On the skirmish line, the honors were about even—the Vermont boys never reestablished their picket line, but the Confederates could not boast of having entirely driven it in, either. When the day ended, however, the still-intact Union picket line was a good ways farther east than it had been when the day began.
Early’s Army of the Valley was, with Anderson’s reinforcements, as strong as it would ever be, numbering nearly 25,000 men. After their victories of the summer, its men were confident in themselves and their leader and spoiling for a fight. The Union Army of the Shenandoah, however, was only three weeks old, and though it was composed of veteran units, none of the army’s three corps had ever worked together or with Sheridan, who had mostly served in the Western theater or with the cavalry. Although the Federals could field more than 35,000 men, the 2nd Division of the XIX Corps was still not completely up from Louisiana, and so far the Union experience in the Valley had been one of failure and humiliation.
Probably the battle’s most lasting legacy, however, was Early’s underestimation of his opponent as just another timid Union general. Sheridan seemed to invite this opinion in the next few days, waiting passively behind his earthworks while the Rebels once again sniffed at the Potomac crossings, holding his army at bay with only Anderson’s infantry division. Early’s miscalculations would materially contribute to the outcome of the bloody battle at Winchester three weeks hence.
Fred L. Ray wrote Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.