Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Battle of Waynesboro


The Battle of Waynesboro by Richard G. Williams is much more than a description of troop movements and soldiers' recollections. It is a history of the Civil War in the Waynesboro, Virginia community on the eve of the battle and the changes that occurred in the antebellum period. The author makes extensive use of quotes from soldiers and civilians in describing the events during this period.

Williams begins with a brief history of Waynesboro which was established "where the trail from Rockfish Gap to Staunton crossed the South River [the Southern Fork of the Shenandoah River] at a shallow gravelly ford." The town was named after Revolutionary War hero General "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Men from the area joined the Confederacy in the Spring of 1861. Letters home describe the battles that these men fought in and the promotions they won.

General Jubal Early
The author provides background on the opposing generals. General Early is described as someone who announced "his likes and dislikes ... without hesitation." General Early's "early record in the war was mostly successful, and his reputation as a tough commander was a solid one." However, by February 1865, the war had taken its toll on the Confederates and Sheridan's destruction of the Shenandoah Valley reduced the Confederates to "a starving and demoralized skeleton of what it had been in the fall of 1864." Williams presents Sheridan's background including his victories in the fall of 1864 and the destruction of farms and mills and taking of livestock and grain.

The description of the Battle of Waynesboro comprises about a quarter of the book. The length may be expected because the battle was a minor affair compared with others during the last month of the war. The events of March 2, 1865 are overshadowed by Lee's desperate battles to save the Confederacy.

General Phillip Sheridan
Although Major General Philip H. Sheridan was the overall Federal commander in the Valley, Brigadier General George A. Custer was in charge of the Union troops. Custer's Third Cavalry Division was composed of three brigades with a total strength of 2,500 men. Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early   commanded the remnants of the Confederate Army of the Valley that opposed Custer's division. Custer's force was twice as large as Early's command of one infantry division, three artillery batteries, and a company of cavalry.

Early placed his men behind earthworks on a low ridge just west of Waynesboro. The general put a three-gun artillery battery on his extreme right. He placed his infantry along the earthworks. He placed two artillery batteries to the left of his line of infantry. Early's left flank was exposed because he believed that the woods would serve as an effective barrier to attack. In addition, the only lines of retreat over the rain-swollen South River were a railroad bridge and a small footbridge. Early said that he thought his men could hold until night and then escape unmolested in the dark. 

General George A. Custer
An artillery duel began shortly after Custer's men arrived on the town's outskirts at about 2:00 p.m. Custer learned about the gap between the Confederate left flank and the South River. The general sent three cavalry regiments to attack the flank and ordered a feint on the center of the Confederate defenses. The Union flanking attack was launched at 3:30 p.m. and rolled up the Confederates' left flank. Custer followed up on this attack with another on the center of the Confederate line.

At a given signal, the three dismounted regiments charged on our right. Woodruff [artillery] opened his guns upon the enemy, compelling them to lie down behind their works, while the brigades of Wells [Second Brigade] and Capehart [Third Brigade] moved to the attack in front, at the charge. So sudden was our attack and so great was the enemy's surprise that but little time was offered for resistance. 

The Union cavalry were equipped with Spencer rifles that were "equivalent to three of any other arm." The Confederates were "really afraid of the seven shooters, they dread them, a panic seems to posses them as soon as they see them coming."

Jedediah Hotchkiss said it was "one of the most terrible panics and stampedes I have ever seen." The escape routes over the South River were clogged with fleeing men and hundreds of Confederates were captured. Confederate Colonel William Harman was killed after he refused to surrender. Dr. Hunger Maguire was saved by a Union officer when gave the Masonic sign of distress. Early and some of his staff, escaped through Rockfish Gap.

The author adds two interesting footnotes to the battle. In the first, he describes the development of the black community on Port Royal Road. He adds a story by Dr. Anita L. Henderson about "Maria Lewis: A Woman of Color in the 8th New York Cavalry?"

The Battle of Waynesboro is a fine addition for students of the Civil War in the Shenandoah. Williams' use of quotes to tell the story adds life to the account and provides a first person perspective to the events.  

1 comment:

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you for the review Mr. Mesch.