On July 20, 1864, the fortunes of war turned against one of the Confederacy’s bright young commanders.
“I may be pardoned for saying that I am making a reputation as a Maj. Gen’l,” wrote Stephen Dodson Ramseur to his wife in the early summer of 1864.The young North Carolinian had good reason to be bursting with confidence and pride by mid-July.After all,on June 1 he had become among the youngest major generals in the Confederacy at age 27, had proved his mettle as a battlefield commander in the campaign to drive Major General David Hunter’s Union troops from Lynchburg,Virginia,and had performed admirably in Confederate General Jubal A. Early’s campaign into Maryland to the outskirts of Washington.But in the latter half of July,his boasts of “making a reputation” seemed a bit premature when he became the first general to lose a battle in the Shenandoah Valley in more than two years.
While Ramseur beamed with confidence,Federal forces prepared to strike Early and his subordinates. On July 19 Early greeted a courier at his headquarters near Berryville,Va.The man gave Early some startling news—“that a column under [Maj.Gen. William Woods] Averill [sic] was moving from Martinsburg towards Winchester.” Early knew that if he did not act quickly, all of his achievements of the past month, as well as the large number of stores collected, would be lost. Remaining near Berryville left Early wide open to raids from Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. To save his wagon trains and protect his army, Early ordered his men south to Strasburg that evening.
Throughout that hot night,Early’s men packed up their stores, broke camp and marched to Strasburg.Fearful of an attack on the withdrawing column, Early ordered Ramseur to take his division to Winchester to protect the Confederate withdrawal from attacks by Averell and to secure any remaining supplies and wounded from the town.
As Ramseur’s men entered Winchester,the town’s Northern sympathizers were hopeful the movement signaled that they would soon be delivered from the Confederates. “Great excitement in town…the rebs falling back….We hope to see the Federals in town tomorrow,” wrote staunch Unionist Julia Chase.
As the sun rose the following morning, Ramseur met with Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn. He ordered Vaughn to move his cavalry north to reconnoiter and ascertain Averell’s strength. By late morning,Vaughn reported to Ramseur that the Union force appeared to be small in numbers.With a seemingly perfect opportunity to wreak havoc on his foe, Vaughn requested that Ramseur send an artillery battery to destroy the apparently feeble enemy. Ramseur received the order and agreed, and around noon four guns arrived to support Vaughn’s mission.When the cannons arrived,Vaughn posted them in woods east of the Valley Pike. With the guns came a directive from Ramseur,ordering Vaughn to drive the enemy to Bunker Hill about a dozen miles north of Winchester.
Although Vaughn was generally correct in believing that the Federal force advancing from the north was inferior to Ramseur’s 5,000 troops, he was mistaken in relaying to Ramseur that it consisted of only one regiment each of cavalry and infantry,supported by four cannons.In reality Averell’s force was much stronger—four regiments of infantry from Colonel Isaac Duval’s brigade, elements of three cavalry regiments and two artillery batteries—nearly 2,700 men strong.
While Vaughn prepared to drive Averell from the field, the Union commander in the early afternoon learned that the Confederates were prepared to block the Union advance and were posted about three miles north of Winchester. Certain that battle loomed but unclear about the strength of the enemy in his front,Averell formed his men in battle array.The troops moved from column formation into battle lines as quickly as they could, but movement was difficult as the afternoon heat began to take its toll. “The day was intensely hot,” recalled a veteran of the 14th West Virginia, “and the pace the general took soon exhausted the men and many fell out, overcome by heat.”
Averell anchored his line with one infantry regiment in line of battle on each side of the Valley Pike. Behind each regiment in battle line was another regiment of infantry in column formation. Cavalry guarded each flank, and artillery formed the center. Now prepared to meet the enemy,Averell’s column moved forward— men falling out of the ranks from heat prostration all along the way. Around 2 p.m. Vaughn, sensing the enemy’s approach, asked Ramseur to prepare an ambush.Vaughn said he hoped to use his cavalry as bait, draw Averell’s men into a trap and have Ramseur’s infantry destroy the Union force.That suggestion did not appeal to Ramseur, who wanted to obey Early’s orders not to bring on an engagement with the enemy. Ramseur simply wanted to gather the wounded and supplies and move south to Strasburg with all possible haste.Circumstances,however,altered Ramseur’s plans.
About 3 o’clock that afternoon Vaughn’s force locked horns with Averell’s advance, beginning the Battle of Rutherford’s Farm (also known as Carter’s Farm or Stephenson’s Depot). “The enemy announced his position,” Averell recorded in his after-action report, “by opening a rapid fire from four guns concealed in the timber which stands upon Carter’s farm.” After the opening salvo, Averell deployed skirmishers to reconnoiter the Confederate position. While Averell’s skirmishers tested the enemy, who were posted at the northern edge of dense woods on the east side of the Valley Pike, Averell sought a view of the enemy position.
The nature of the terrain— woodlots and parcels of high ground—prevented Averell from getting a good look at the Confederates. Infuriated by this “blindness,” Averell, according to one account, climbed on to a nearby barn roof to spy the enemy position, but still could find no clear view of the Southern forces.Not knowing what lay before him, Averell relied on his ears to judge his foe’s strength. He concluded from the amount of small arms fire Confederate skirmishers produced as Averell’s advance probed south that the enemy was not present in any great strength.Sensing an opportunity to strike,Averell climbed down off of the barn roof and rode to Duval. “Move your line forward,” Averell ordered Duval, “I think there is nothing but a skirmish line.”
Realizing that he might have the opportunity to brush aside a small Confederate force, Averell put his four regiments into line of battle—the 14th West Virginia to the west of the Valley Pike,the 9th West Virginia’s left flank anchored on the Valley Pike and extended to the east;the 91st and 34th Ohio forming Averell’s left to the east of the pike.As the line advanced,Vaughn’s cavalry began to test Averell’s right, and Averell countered by sending the 2nd and 3rd Virginia (U.S.) to meet the attackers. As Averell’s 12 guns belched forth iron shot and shell,Vaughn’s troopers became “hotly engaged” with Union infantry and cavalry. While cannon and small arms fire rumbled like thunder north of town,Winchester’s townspeople grew curious about the growing battle.
When that same thunder reached Ramseur’s ears, “Dod,” as he was affectionately called by friends and family,formed his division and marched it north toward the sound of the fighting. Vaughn greeted Ramseur and gave him the impression that all was under control,confidently reiterating his earlier report that the enemy had only one regiment each of cavalry and infantry supported by four guns.Ramseur, having no cause to doubt that, saw a tremendous opportunity to lash out at a weaker adversary despite Early’s orders.
Ramseur immediately put his men into position. Brigadier General Robert Johnston’s brigade formed in line of battle on the east side of the pike and Brig. Gen. W. Gaston Lewis’ brigade took position on Johnston’s left, across the Valley Pike to the west, with Brig. Gen. Robert Lilley’s brigade of Virginians in reserve.
As the Union line advanced closer to the enemy, Averell was finally able to get a view of the enemy position. The sight of Ramseur’s men forming into battle lines seemed to startle him. According to one Union veteran who was near Averell, the Union commander quickly decided “the situation was hopeless…[and] sounded the retreat.” The artillerymen, however, according to one observer, were the only ones who heard the order to withdraw, and they “fled for the rear at breakneck speed.”
The infantry had already begun to exchange small-arms fire with the Confederates by the time the order was given, so they had no choice but to stay and fight. The miscommunication actually worked in Averell’s favor, as the Confederates became confused while forming to meet the oncoming Union battle line.
Lewis’North Carolinians on Ramseur’s left,still forming,faced men from the 14th West Virginia and the right companies of the 9th West Virginia. Although tremendously outnumbering their foe, Lewis’ Tarheels were not formed in battle lines but rather in a confusing mass.Sensing an opportunity,the 14th West Virginia’s Colonel Daniel Johnson marched his men obliquely, positioning them on the Rebel left.Once in a position to threaten the Confederate flank,the men fixed bayonets and charged. “We raised the yell,” remembered the 14th’s Jesse Sturm, “and started on the double quick.” Lewis’ Brigade organized itself well enough to return fire.Although some Union veterans of the battle later remembered the Confederate volleys as intense, the Confederate fire was not sustained for any great length of time.
Some Confederates fled their position only minutes after first contact, leaving Lilley’s reserve brigade in a precarious position as it tried to form. One of Lilley’s men recalled, “Our brigade was fired into before they got formed and we were in support of the other two brigades.” A captain in the 13th Virginia—also part of Lilley’s reserve—simply said, “We began to deploy and just as we were getting into position the left of the division broke.”
While the lion’s share of Ramseur’s leftmost regiments fled hastily from the field, some Confederate soldiers tried to get in one last shot before fleeing. One defiant Confederate soldier—refusing to give up without a fight—leveled his musket at Captain Andrew Mathers of Company D, 14th West Virginia,and killed him instantly. Union soldiers opened a furious fire on the Confederate soldier, riddling his body.
Individual acts such as this one by Confederate soldiers were unusual;most of the men cared about one thing—survival. To the Virginians in Lilley’s reserve—some of whom hailed from the Valley—the scene was appalling.The 13th Virginia’s Captain Samuel Buck tried to do all he could to stem the tide. As the North Carolinians broke, he “struggled with these fellows trying to stop them.” Buck recalled after the war: “I grabbed one big fellow and ordered him to shoot a color bearer who had planted his flag within fifty yards. He almost got out of his coat trying to get away from me but I held on to him and instead of shooting the color sergeant he fired his gun in the top of the trees,broke from me and ran like a turkey.”
Officers like Buck,in the reserve brigade, had hoped that their stalwart Virginians would not run in the face of attack, but their hopes were to no avail.The throngs of fleeing Tarheels busted up the reserve.Panic spread throughout Ramseur’s ranks. Despite valiant efforts to hold its ground, Lilley’s reserve could do little. To Confederate soldiers who had enjoyed so much success in recent months the scene was shocking. Captain Buck tried to rally his 13th Virginia but found himself alone.Rather than take part in what he called a “stampede,” the young officer headed south “on a brisk walk.” A few shells exploding over his head, however, persuaded him to forsake that dignity for the “double quick.”
Initially Ramseur paid little attention to what was going on with his left-most regiments as he readied Johnston’s brigade on the right to strike the regiments bearing down on his position. As Ramseur readied Johnston’s infantry to meet the Buckeyes and West Virginians,he glanced to the left and saw his men breaking. Ramseur later admitted he was “greatly mortified at the conduct” of his men in the battle.
Not all Ramseur’s men took to their heels.Brigadier General William L.Jackson rallied some of his horsemen, the lion’s share from the 19th Virginia Cavalry, and mounted a delaying action,allowing enough time for Ramseur’s men to get south of Winchester. The efforts of Jackson’s cavalry energized clutches of infantrymen who reformed in Fort Collier—an earthen fort constructed in the early months of the Civil War,situated just north of Winchester’s outskirts on the east side of the Valley Pike. “Wm. L. Jackson had been by some branded a coward,” wrote Private H.M. Potts of the 20th Virginia Cavalry, “but he was a very brave man,a man that old Kentucky will always be proud of.[Ramseur’s] men always respected our brigade. When we would ride by, they would take off their caps, and say ‘That is Jackson’s brigade, they saved us.’”
Approximately an hour after the infantry clashed,the fight ended,leaving Averell in control of the field. The Federal soldiers beamed at their victory over a numerically superior foe.It “was the hardest fighting I have ever been in….In this fight we fought four times our number and whipped them,” gloated the 91st Ohio’s Lt. Col. Benjamin F.Coates.Major Shriver Moore of the 14th West Virginia wrote of the Union victory in his diary, “the Rebs run….Had a hard fight and lost a number of men….Whipped the Rebs badly.” Although Averell beat the odds at Rutherford’s farm,he did not revel in his victory. He simply recorded in his diary for July 20, 1864, “Attacked and defeated Ramseur in front of Winchester.”
Despite the victory,the battle left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Union soldiers—namely cavalrymen. Newspapers, battle reports and letters home praised Duval’s infantry as the reason for the victory,and Averell’s troopers felt slighted at not being given proper credit.Private J.J.Sutton of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry recognized the contributions of Duval’s men,but was angry that the cavalry too “were unable to reap the fruits of victory….” He added, “This is a mistake,and does injustice to the troopers.” Not disputed, however, is that fact that the Federals triumphed. Averell’s men captured four pieces of artillery and inflicted more than 400 casualties. Averell suffered 214 casualties.
Following his success,Averell moved his cavalry forward,hoping to pursue,but the Confederate muskets bristling from the earthen forts on Winchester’s northern fringes cooled his ardor. “Advancing my cavalry and artillery I pressed the pursuit,” Averell explained, “but soon found that I could not venture with the force at my command to inflict further injury upon the enemy without an imminent risk of losing all I had gained.”
Had he pushed, however, the Yankee commander might have caused Ramseur even more damage. The Rebel chieftain fretted because many of his men “threw away their guns and ran on to Newtown 6 miles beyond.” Despite his unwillingness to pursue the enemy, Averell achieved something that afternoon that no Union commander had been able to accomplish in the Valley since March 23, 1862, when Union forces defeated General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at First Kernstown: He defeated a Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley.As the sun set over the lower Shenandoah, Averell kept his men several miles north of Winchester— hoping to occupy it the next day.
When General Early, who was near Newtown (present-day Stephens City) received word of Ramseur’s predicament,he hustled Maj.Gen.Robert Rodes’division north. Upon learning that Averell had halted north of Winchester, and hearing rumors of another Union column advancing on Winchester from Berryville, Early ordered Rodes to return to Newtown.
As night fell,the eerie cries of wounded men filled the stifling summer air. Amid the throngs of wounded and dead lay Lieutenant Randolph Ridgeley.Following the battle,Confederate staff officer Henry Kyd Douglas went to the Winchester home of his dear friends—the Russells. When he knocked on the door Tillie answered,and Douglas implored her to look for Ridgeley in the morning.
Time, however, was of the essence, and she wrapped herself in a shawl, grabbed a lantern and headed north to search for Ridgeley. Amid the horrors of the scene she found him—undoubtedly gathered with the wounded of both sides in the yard surrounding J.H. Rutherford’s residence. Ridgeley’s severe thigh wound meant he could not be moved, so Russell remained on the field throughout the night and cared for him. He survived.
When Early heard of Russell’s efforts,he proclaimed,“God bless the women of Winchester.” Following the war, John Esten Cooke wrote an article for the Winchester Times that described the event,portraying Russell as an angel of the battlefield. Soon it came to the attention of the painter Oregon Wilson, who depicted it in his moving painting Woman’s Devotion.
Ramseur,who had been riding so high, now became a scapegoat, portrayed by Southern newspapers as cowardly and inept. The rank and file were divided in their opinion: Some claimed Ramseur wept as his men were being driven from the field in a panic;others defended Ramseur and placed the lion’s share of blame for defeat on the misinformation that Vaughn had given Ramseur earlier in the day.
“A worse planned and fought battle I never saw,” recorded a 13th Virginian. “Gen.Ramseur was a most gallant officer but was in some way misled and walked into the enemy as [if] they were friends.”
Winchester’s civilians also weighed in with their opinions of the engagement. “We had a sharp fight here,and have been worsted,” wrote irate Laura Lee.She continued, “Gen. Ramseur had orders not to fight but he was misled by a false report of the numbers of Yankees and thought he would make a brilliant affair of it.”
The defeat weighed hard on Ramseur, who saw his chance for permanent division command slipping away.He defended himself to his wife: “They acted cowardly and I told them so…they will of course try to throw the responsibility upon me. Gen’l Lee himself would fail,if his troops would run off the field & leave him.”
Ellen, Ramseur’s wife, was at first extremely angry with the treatment her husband received from the Confederate press, and urged her husband to make the newspapers print a correct version of the account.He replied: “I did all in my power to stop them, but it was impossible. Officers who are acquainted with all the facts… claim that had the troops behaved with their usual steadiness we would have gained a glorious victory. I am sure I did all that mortal man could do.Yet—newspaper editors and stay at home Croakers will sit back in a safe place and condemn me.” For a time Ramseur considered lashing out publicly against his detractors,but he soon deemed that option “unmilitary and improper.”
General Rodes,who was one of Ramseur’s closest friends (he would perish at the Third Battle of Winchester in midSeptember 1864),stood by Ramseur after Rutherford’s farm. “Ramseur acted most heroically,” Rodes said, “as usual exposed himself recklessly, but could do nothing with the men; they were under the influence of panic.” He continued in a communiqué to General Richard Ewell on September 12,“I feel that it is due Ramseur as my friend, and as an admirable officer, that I should make some effort to relieve him at once of the embarrassing situation he finds himself in at Richmond, at least among his brother officers, and before his old commander.”
After the war,although Early wrote that “Ramseur did not take the proper precautions in advancing,” he also recognized Vaughn’s inaccurate assessment of Averell’s overall strength as the root cause of the debacle. Confederate topographer Captain Jedediah Hotchkiss apportioned the blame equally between Vaughn and Ramseur. “Vaughn…reported a small force,” Hotchkiss wrote from Confederate headquarters near Strasburg on July 23, “of the enemy in front & induced Gen. Ramseur to go out and capture it.”
Regardless of how many should have shouldered the blame, the stigma of the defeat would not last for long. Following Averell’s victory, confidence amid Union commanders seemed boundless. Federal General Horatio Wright, who since July 13 had been in overall command of Averell’s forces, viewed the success at Rutherford’s farm and an apparent Confederate withdrawal southward as the signal that the Union mission in the Valley had been accomplished and that Early’s battered command appeared to be leaving to join with Lee near Petersburg.Wright was mistaken.
Four days after Averell’s splendid achievement over Ramseur, Early’s forces struck General George Crook’s small Army of West Virginia at the Second Battle of Kernstown and routed the Union force. There, Ramseur avenged Rutherford’s farm. His divisions slammed into the Union right flank and put the final touches on Early’s well-orchestrated attack.
In the months that followed,the military careers of Ramseur and Averell took different paths.On September 23,Maj.Gen. Philip H.Sheridan relieved Averell of command, considering him inept. Ramseur, meanwhile, received permanent division command and saved Early’s army from near destruction at Third Winchester on September 19.One month later,however, Ramseur was mortally wounded at Cedar Creek, and he died on October 20.
Following Ramseur’s death,the Rutherford’s farm debacle received little attention. After the war,Early considered Ramseur’s career and wrote approvingly of his conduct: “He was a most gallant and energetic officer whom no disaster appalled….He fell at his post fighting like a lion at bay,and his native state has reason to be proud of his memory.”
Jonathan A. Noyalas is a history professor at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown,Va.,and the author or editor of three books on Civil War–era history. For further reading he recommends Gary W. Gallagher’s Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee’s Gallant General.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.