All the Demonism of a Battle: A New Yorker at Third Winchester
In the bloodiest engagement of the 1864 Valley Campaign, the 114th New York took the sad honors of losing more men than any other regiment engaged at the Battle of Opequon/Third Winchester. "A ragged sleeve, a twinge of the arm, and the remonstrances of the Doctor remind me that I am not entirely whole from the fight," one captain noted.
Captain James Franklin Fitts commanding Co. F of the 114th New York, numbered amongst those wounded survivors of the fighting of September 19, 1864. He recalled the battle itself as an impressive sight, if frighteningly dangerous.
"But the sight that met our eyes barely 200 yards across that clearing—who that was there can ever forget it? Three Rebel battle flags were tossed defiantly in the air from a line-of-battle apparently four times the length of our own, while the smoke of an incessant discharge of musketry and artillery welled away from the field. Two hundred yards is a small measure of ground, but when it is considered as the space separating two hostile lines; filled with screaming, bursting shells, and whizzing balls, and with all the demonism of a battle raging over it, it becomes fearfully narrowed. I had supposed it impossible that a more galling fire could be encountered than that which swept through our ranks before Port Hudson, but at Winchester our loss was proportionately greater by one-sixth. Not merely from our immediate front but from both flanks a murderous fire was poured upon us," he wrote.
The 114th New York was assigned to the First Brigade (Colonel George L. Beal), First Division (Brigadier General William Dwight), of General William H. Emory’s 19th Army Corps; other regiments of the brigade included the 29th Maine, 30th Massachusetts, 116th New York, and 153rd New York. Dwight’s division arrived on the field around 11 a.m. and was held in reserve initially, then went into action in the afternoon on the right of Dwight’s division. The regiment subsequently lost 188 men killed or wounded, the highest number of any regiment at the battle.
Captain Fitts survived the wound and the war; he died January 11, 1890 in Lockport, New York and is buried at Cold Springs Cemetery. Co. F, 114th New York Volunteer Infantry. His account of Opequon/Third Winchester originally saw publication in an October 1864 edition of the Chenango Chronicle published in Norwich, New York.
In the field near Harrisonburg, Virginia
September 26, 1864
Editors Chenango Chronicle,
Just one week has elapsed since the great battle and victory near Winchester, of the 19th instant, and after a close pursuit of the flying enemy of more than 70 miles, General Sheridan's army has halted for a brief rest. An opportunity is now given me to furnish you with a description of the important part taken by our regiment in this action, and to attempt to do justice to the glorious record which it has made. You will probably be furnished by others with complete lists of the killed and wounded, and with particulars of individual bravery on the field which I would gladly mention if time and space allowed. It has seemed to me that a comprehensive summary of what the 114th New York did in this engagement—how it fought, where, how long, and under what circumstances—must be of deep interest as well to the friends and relations of the gallant slain and wounded, as to the host of those who feel pride in the regiment and its good name; and to a mention of these particulars you will permit me to confine myself. With the field at large I had nothing to do, but of that part of it held by the 114th, and of the action at that point, I can speak with almost entire accuracy.—Should the narrative grow lengthy under my hands, the deep interest of the subject must be my apology.
The Battle of Winchester was fought in a northerly direction from the town of that name, some four miles from the turnpike road running to Berryville, and began at 12 o'clock, noon. The ground upon which it was fought was a succession of woods, clearings, and rolling intervals, with stone and rail fences crossing them. For two weeks previous to the fight, our army had lain in an entrenched camp, several miles east of Berryville. Leaving it at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 19th, we moved across the turnpike and proceeded toward Winchester. Circumstances occurred to delay the 19th Corps so that it did not reach the vicinity of the enemy until 11 o'clock, but in good time, however, for its share in the battle. Several batteries had been throwing shells from the head of the column during the march, the reports of which came back to the rear frequently and distinctly. Reaching a clearing, bordering a wood of unusual thickness, the corps was formed in order of battle under a heavy shelling from some artillery out of sight.
|General William Dwight, commanding First Division, 19th Army Corps|
Our brigade moved through this wood in column by regiment, the 114th in advance. The 29th Maine had been sent farther to the right, and the 30th Massachusetts was in the rear guarding a wagon train; so that but two regiments followed ours—the 116th and 153rd New York, in the order named. I mention these facts distinctly, as their bearing will presently be seen. Our regiment moved straight to the front, through a half mile of dense woods and underbrush, and during the last quarter shells and bullets burst and whistled over and around it. The fire grew very annoying before we cleared the woods; several of the men were struck and disabled; Colonel Samuel R. Per Lee's horse was wounded under him, and Major Oscar H. Curtis's instantly killed. But there was no sign of faltering or hanging back; the regiment bore itself right through the woods (which for the last 300 yards projected in a triangle having clearings upon either side of it) and halted in the open space several rods beyond it. The order to commence firing was given, and a rapid and effective discharge of musketry was instantly opened. The men loaded and fired with the most perfect coolness, the officers animating and encouraging them, and for more than one hour their fire continued unslackened. All seemed to stand to their work with a will and determination to win.
|First Lt. Charles L. Brown|
Co. F, 114th N.Y.
But the sight that met our eyes barely 200 yards across that clearing—who that was there can ever forget it? Three Rebel battle flags were tossed defiantly in the air from a line-of-battle apparently four times the length of our own, while the smoke of an incessant discharge of musketry and artillery welled away from the field. Two hundred yards is a small measure of ground, but when it is considered as the space separating two hostile lines; filled with screaming, bursting shells, and whizzing balls, and with all the demonism of a battle raging over it, it becomes fearfully narrowed. I had supposed it impossible that a more galling fire could be encountered than that which swept through our ranks before Port Hudson, but at Winchester our loss was proportionately greater by one-sixth. Not merely from our immediate front but from both flanks a murderous fire was poured upon us. It is my deliberate conviction that at this point the 114th withstood more than a whole brigade. Of 350 in action, 190 were killed and disabled, and the clothes, knapsacks and accoutrements of many of the survivors were found to be cut and torn by balls. The statistics of the war may well be challenged to produce so frightful a record of casualties as this.
For more than an hour this slaughter was endured with firmness, and then, to save his command from utter decimation or destruction, Major Curtis (Colonel Per Lee having left the field, seriously wounded) gave the order to retire. The two other regiments in the meantime had formed one line some hundreds of yards in our rear and were lying down in the cover of the woods when our crippled regiment came back, bearing its wounded, and facing about from time to time to send a volley back to the enemy. A poor remnant was rallied on the colors and moved by the flank to the right of the 116th New York, ready to prolong the contest. The order was given, and the three regiments moved out of the woods and crossed the clearing on the double-quick with a yell of defiance to the Rebel line, from which a furious fire burst out anew. A rail fence crossed this clearing, to the left of which, and much in advance, was the line of woods which the 114th had been compelled to abandon. Halting at this fence, the brigade lay down and opened fire. For three hours this position was maintained unflinchingly, under a terrific rain of shells and bullets, with dead and dying lying thickly around. The brigade behaved nobly, gallantly; and, in spite of the severe ordeal to which it had been subjected for the last hour, the 114th did its full part in the work.
|Sergeant William M. Johnson of Co. E of the 114th New York would be killed in action a month later at Cedar Creek.|
I had intended, in writing this account, to avoid all mention of individuals, because all behaved well; but in speaking of this fight upon this second line, I cannot refrain from alluding to the noble death of First Lieutenant Edward E. Breed, of Co. H. The color-bearer had been wounded on the first line, and Lieutenant Breed carried the flag when the brigade moved forward to the fence. He was wounded mortally, in the breast, not a yard from me and carried to the rear. Many, very many, had been stricken down beside me in death, or with painful wounds, but to him my attention had been particularly drawn. His conduct was gallant from first to last, and a brave, true heart grew still when he died. Peace to his ashes, and lasting honor to his memory!
After a lapse of two hours, it was plainly to be seen that the Rebel fire was slackening. Their line had not advanced a foot from the first, from which fact I infer it was much cut up. But just at this time the cartridge-boxes were completely emptied, and it became necessary to fall back across the clearing into the edge of the wood, in order that the men might not be unnecessarily exposed while out of ammunition. The brigade retired in the very best order, took up a new position, received a fresh supply of cartridges, and again renewed its fire. For another hour it continued the fight, while our men fell fast around us; one stern, terrible hour more of effort and exposure, and then General Emory rode up to the line. I fancied that the veteran looked sadly at our shattered and wasted ranks, as he was told that this little handful represented the 114th New York. "I will relieve you," he said, and we were at once withdrawn with the Brigade into the cover of the wood.
The 8th Corps, which had not yet been in the action, was moved up past us; a stirring cheer burst from their long line, and the charge which ended the day's work followed. Our brigade joined in the pursuit which was instantly commenced, and passed over the field. It was completely strewn with the dead and wounded of both sides, with arms, accoutrements, knapsacks, and all the horrible debris and wreck of the battlefield. A few shells from the retreating Rebel batteries exploded in front of us, but the work had been done which sent the Rebel army flying panic stricken through the streets of Winchester, and a cavalry charge near the town completed the rout. One hundred and twenty men were all of the 114th that were with its colors the following morning, and today there are less than 170 available men present.
|A post-war flag bearing the fan-leafed cross with the hexagonal center, the emblem of the 19th Army Corps.|
I will state here what I omitted to say in its proper place—that a portion of the Second Division of our corps had been repulsed in front of the first position of the 114th, and that a disorganized mass of stragglers fell back upon us. Many of these were rallied to our colors and acted with us during the remainder of the day. The official report of Major Curtis, which I have been permitted to read, will, I think, corroborate every essential statement which I have made. When it is considered that the regiment fought for over an hour in an advanced position, without supports on either flank, and with a vastly superior force of the enemy, losing more than one half of its numbers—that it fell back only at the last moment, in the last extremity, and then carried all its wounded from the field—that it afterward renewed the fight with the brigade, and continued to fight for four hours, on a footing with two regiments which had not before been seriously exposed—that through all this fiery ordeal it kept up its organization, carried its colors, and when the day was gained, joined in the pursuit—when these facts are remembered, I think the judgment of our people at home upon the 114th must be, "It has done well."
I should apologize for occupying so much of your space, at the same time that I omit the services of the regiment during the pursuit of the enemy up to this day. Some other hand, I hope, will describe the stirring scenes of the 24th instant, when our regiment was on the advanced skirmish line, and again measured arms with the enemy; the thousand and one moving incidents of the battle-field, with its accumulation of horrors, its dead, its dying, it groans of pain and writhings of distress, and its appearance after the fight, with its burden of ghastly slain—these I have no heart to particularize. They are the inseparable attendants of every battle, but never have I been so deeply impressed with their painful aspects as in this, the greatest battle of the Shenandoah Valley.
The praises of the Regiment should perhaps be sounded by some other than one of its number, but in this statement, I have merely repeated facts which are well known throughout the entire corps, and talked of by every camp fire. A copy of General Dwight's congratulatory circular accompanies this letter, which please publish. Well as I have known the bravery of this regiment, I know it now still better. Its reputation for unflinching courage under fire has been established beyond all cavil, and it has gained for itself a name of which we are all justly proud. Ours is the only Regiment in the Division complimented by the General for its work on the 19th.
A ragged sleeve, a twinge of the arm, and the remonstrances of the Doctor, remind me that I am not entirely whole from the fight, and that my pen must be laid aside. Allow me to remain,
Very truly yours, J. F. F.
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