"Never saw a more magnificent sight" A forgotten skirmish at Strasburg, Virginia


A few days before the First Battle of Kernstown (March 23, 1862), a portion of Shields' Federal Division fought a minor skirmish with a portion of Stonewall Jackson's army just south of Strasburg, Virginia. The results were inconclusive; the Rebels retreated from the field and the Federals returned to Strasburg, but it helped set the stage for the Battle of Kernstown which took place five days later.
 
Captain James Huntingdon commanded Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery; this battery was part of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Daum's artillery battalion and earned a distinguished combat record with the Army of the Potomac. Battery H had men from opposite corners of the state: Marietta and Toledo. Huntingdon's letter to his wife (reprinted below) appeared in the April 2, 1862 issue of the Marietta Intelligencer and gives some insight into this relatively obscure engagement.
 
A map showing the principal towns of the Lower Valley. Captain Huntingdon's letter recounts a reconnaissance in force that began in Winchester, Virginia, proceeded south along the Valley Turnpike to Confederate positions a few miles south of Strasburg. (Map by Hal Jespersen)
 
 
Winchester, Virginia
March 21, 1862

          Since I last wrote, we have made a reconnaissance in force and have had a crack at the Rebels. I will give you a description of the trip, but first let me say that the organizations of the artillery of this division has been altered; it now forms a separate brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Daum, a German officer of much experience and great ability. The force consists of four batteries and a half, or 27 guns.

 
A street scene in Virginia during the summer of 1862. (Library of Congress)

          On Tuesday morning we received orders to march without baggage, taking three days’ rations and forage. The 8th Ohio regiment with two sections of Clarks’ Battery [Captain Joseph C. Clark, Jr., Battery E, 4th U.S. Light Artillery], having gone on in advance the previous night. It was a lovely morning as we defiled through the streets of Winchester and out on the Strasburg road with Shields’ entire division totaling 15,000 men all told. The head of my battery was halted a mile or two outside the town at one of our pickets where they had 13 contrabands who had come in the previous night. A jollier set of fellows I never saw! They said they belonged to one General Mims and had left that gentleman’s premises on Saturday night; they entertained us with the Negro minstelry free of expense during the halt.

 
General Nathaniel P. Banks commanded the Union forces in the Valley in the spring of 1862 which included Shields' Division. Pictured here seated at center surrounded by his staff, he was given the sobriquet "Commissary Banks" by his Confederate opponents in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. Banks' combat record in the east was undistinguished.

The first part of the march was very odious owing to the frequent halts made by the infantry until about 2 P.M. when I began to hear firing in advance, the reports becoming louder and more frequent and we could distinguish the sharp incessant crack of Clark’s Parrott guns. Still we moved slowly along, but at last galloped back an orderly who turned out the infantry and transportation to the side of the road and ordered the artillery to the front. Trot then gallop was the order, and we swept down the smooth hard road like a whirlwind, a dense cloud of smoke rose in the front we were there late; the enemy had crossed Cedar Creek and burnt the bridge behind them. We went into battery on a hill commanding the bridge, but it was so dark by that time that we could not see them had they been there, so we prepared to spend the night. I was pretty cold as a wind had sprung up as the sun went down, but rails were aplenty and we kept up good fires.

A typical Union camp in the Shenandoah Valley during the 1862 campaign. The Confederate prisoners in the foreground were captured at Front Royal by the men of Shields' division in June 1862 in the closing phases of the Valley campaign. (Library of Congress)
 

At daylight the next morning the camp was astir. We moved down to the burnt bridge and forded the stream just below it without difficulty and soon reached the town of Strasburg which is about as large as Harmar [a district on the western side of Marietta, Ohio]. Here we halted and learned that the enemy had been reinforced and were going to make a stand at a strong position at Tumbling Run some two miles beyond Strasburg. We had previously passed the infantry except the skirmishers and Andrew sharpshooters who were scouting the advance. The batteries were closed up and prepared for action. The enemy had chosen a very pretty position for commanding the road as they had a flanking fire on us for at least half a mile and afterwards a raking fire where the road was narrow, with a high bluff on one side and a steep bank on the other. The annexed diagram will enable you to understand the position:

 
The sketch of the Strasburg area that Captain Huntingdon provided to the Marietta Intelligencer to supplement his letter.


You can see that as we marched down the pike between Strasburg and the point marked F they had a fair chance at us and I expected every moment to see a puff of smoke from their battery and have a shell come skiting in among us. But they did not fire, probably because they thought we would keep on down the road over the bridge where we would be entirely helpless, as the road was too narrow to turn in or even to go in battery. But Colonel Daum was too old a bird for that, and leaving the road at F, we went through the field covered by the woods marked H, wheeled to the left up the hill and into battery on the crest or rather a little back of it so we could fire over it and the caissons well down the slope in the order named; in this place the enemy opened on us as we were going into battery, but their shells fell short.

 
Detail from a painting by Gilbert Gaul showing Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery in action during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864.

I never saw a more magnificent sight than was presented on that hill: 25 grim cannon in line, the gunners all holding the lanyards in hand waiting for the word while some 5,000 infantry in solid masses stood by with their colors waving in the sun. The woods on either flank were filled with skirmishers, creeping up like tigers. Not a shot was fired till every gun was in position when at an order from Colonel Daum, the whole 24 guns discharged at once. The shells screamed like so many locomotives and there was a ‘heaving to and fro’ among the Rebels on the opposite hill, and after the second round they broke for a quieter locality with our cavalry hard after them so that our shots killed three horses of the Michigan cavalry [a battalion of the 1st Michigan Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. Copeland] as we could not distinguish them from the enemy.

 
A view of the important Shenandoah River near Harper's Ferry, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

The battery limbered up and moved down the hill by the line marked E to the pike again. Clark’s battery continued the pursuit for a few miles and threw some shots after them. We returned through Strasburg and limbered on a hill nearby and yesterday we marched back to our old quarters in as cold a piercing rain as it was ever my ill-luck to travel in. I found two short letters from you which I was very glad to get; do not be afraid I shall not get your letters, they all come straight. I also found the enclosed letter from Dr. Will Isham with a photograph. We captured a lot of property belonging to the Rebel army in Strasburg including flour, hams, rice, tobacco (enough to last the boys for the whole campaign) and a lot of letters. I send you some samples of the letters which are rather good. The old lady’s letter is very good, a real mother’s letter. If I ever get to Abingdon, I shall call and pay my respects to her. It was funny to see the ladies of Winchester smiling as we came back; they thought, the poor innocent dears, that we were whipped. They look savage enough when we went out.

Comments

  1. Correct name is "Capt. James F. Huntington." Thanks for posting.

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