A Hoosier Gunner at Cross Keys

After two weeks of chasing Stonewall Jackson’s army up the Shenandoah Valley, Corporal Augustus Smith of the 26th Indiana Battery could hardly wait to grapple with the Confederates. The Hoosier soon got a bellyful of fighting as he and his fellow Hoosiers rolled into action during the Battle of Cross Keys on June 8, 1862. The position had just been abandoned as “too hot” by another Federal battery.

“In this extremely dangerous position, we took our stand and opened a terrific fire upon the batteries of the enemy,” Smith remembered. “From plank to plank along the lines of either side now blazes one continued stream of fire; but soon the enemy’s guns have disappeared, the heavy clang of musketry has ceased, and all is still as death. Taking advantage of the momentary cessation just described, the wounded Milroy withdrew his brigade to our rear, the Rebel columns shifted to the right, planted a battery, drew up their battalions of infantry and cavalry, and all at once with increased vehemence resumed the bloody fight.

Corporal Smith’s account of Cross Keys first saw publication in the July 5, 1862, edition of the Princeton Clarion.

 

Edwin Forbes sketched this view of the action from the perspective of just behind the Federal lines during the Battle of Cross Keys on June 8, 1862. In the left foreground, cavalrymen rest in formation overlooking a field filled with ambulances and horses which are arrayed behind the line of Federal artillery batteries near the Armentrout House. The 26th Indiana Battery went into action on the far right of this sketch. 

Mt. Jackson, Shenandoah Co., Virginia

June 15, 1862

          The details of our late battle at Cross Keys between Harrisonburg and Port Republic in Rockingham County, Virginia will be perused by your readers with interest. We have been on a constant march ever since we left Franklin, Virginia on May 25th, much of the time within one day’s march of Jackson’s army.

          For one week we hotly pursued that notorious Rebel commander, firing now and then into his rear guard and capturing 15-20 prisoners daily. In his hurried flight, he burned bridges and retarded our progress as much as possible, but we hastily constructed pontoon bridges and vigorously pursued the enemy. Arriving at Harrisonburg on the 6th instant, we occupied the campground where his forces encamped the previous night. On the same evening, a reconnoitering party consisting of 600 cavalry and 120 infantry of Colonel Kane’s Pennsylvania infantry were surrounded by 4,000 Rebels in ambush, fired into, and after a brisk engagement of three quarters of an hour, were forced to abandon the field, leaving their Colonel Kane a wounded prisoner of war. [To learn more about this engagement called the Battle of Good’s Farm, click here to read an account from a Connecticut cavalryman in “Chasing Ashby: A Connecticut Trooper Recalls the Fight at Harrisonburg.”]

          After one day’s rest, we again pursued the enemy in full force and found him at Cross Keys with his batteries planted on Mills Creek hill and his lines of infantry and cavalry formed, prepared to make a stand. At 10 o’clock on the ever-memorable Sunday the 8th, the enemy opened fire on our advance. The advance brigades engaged him on the left and heavy firing ensued. The roar of cannon and din of musketry infused new life into our veins and with a rush on we sped to the theater of action. Fiercer and fiercer grew the contest as we approached to take our stand on a disastrous point abandoned by Hayman’s battery [Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, see here], the captain having petitioned and obtained the consent of the major to abandon that dangerous position on the plea that it was too hot, too near the sharpshooters and the falling treetops cut off by cannon balls, telling too disastrously on his pieces, men and horses.

General Robert H. Milroy, the Grey Eagle of Indiana, suffered a slight wound during Cross Keys. 

          In this extremely dangerous position, we took our stand and opened a terrific fire upon the batteries of the enemy. From plank to plank along the lines of either side now blazes one continued stream of fire; but soon the enemy’s guns have disappeared, the heavy clang of musketry has ceased, and all is still as death. During that momentous period of clamor and consternation, General Robert Milroy’s horse fell wounded in the breast and the general himself slightly wounded in the leg. Taking advantage of the momentary cessation just described, the wounded Milroy withdrew his brigade to our rear, the Rebel columns shifted to the right, planted a battery, drew up their battalions of infantry and cavalry, and all at once with increased vehemence resumed the bloody fight.

 

“My noble horse Jasper received two shots in quick succession, the first across the hind leg, the second in the left breast which ranged across and lodged in his right shoulder, totally disabling him. He reared and plunged and nearly fell with me. I sprung off and saw the blood spurting out of his breast and gave him up for dead.” ~General Robert H. Milroy

 

          Quicker than the shooting of a star, Ewing’s, Hayman’s, and Rigby’s batteries responded with shell, shot, and canister, spreading havoc among their cavalry, dispersing the infantry, and completely silencing their artillery. Another great calm succeeded the terrible storm and our troops retired to a more open field, but no sooner had we planted our batteries than cannonading recommenced from the enemy. Johnson, Ewing, and Rigby’s batteries returned the fire, shelling the woods, killing many while dismounting two of their pieces. Night threw her sable mantle around the closing strife; the tumult of the sabbath died away and quietly sinking into the soft embraces of repose, se slept soundly upon the battlefield as a home guard upon his downy bed.

          Morning comes, the enemy is gone, and we follow him to Port Republic where after repulsing a portion of two brigades under General Samuel S. Carroll, they crossed the South Branch of the Shenandoah River, burnt the bridge which prevented further pursuit. Separated by the river, Jackson and Fremont camped within sight of each other, but were utterly unable to strike a decisive blow. Small bodies of men could be seen all evening burying their dead under a flag of truce. About dark, their flag was taken down and we effectually shelled the woods. Next morning, we commenced a retrograde movement and retraced our steps to the place designated by the date above. Our loss at Cross Keys in killed and wounded is estimated at 800.

To learn more about the Battle of Cross Keys, check out these posts:

"Dirty, ragged, and footsore: A View of Fremont's Army from a lieutenant in the 82nd Ohio."

 "Harlan Bradford at the Battle of Cross Keys." [Battery I, 1st OVLA]

"Heman's Last Letter: Final Words from a Private in the 60th Ohio." 

"Chasing Stonewall: A Connecticut Cavalryman Campaigns with Fremont." 

Source:

Letter from Corporal Augustus W. Smith, 26th Indiana Battery, Princeton Clarion (Indiana), July 5, 1862, pg. 2

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