The Battle of Opequon or Third Winchester, Sept. 19, 1864

James N.

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Part I - The Battle Opens
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Position of Maj. James Breathed's battalion of Confederate horse artillery overlooking Red Bud Run.

On Sept. 10, 1864 Confederate Brig. Gen. Bryan Grimes, commanding a brigade in the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, wrote home to his wife in North Carolina "...Tomorrow we will break up our encampment and again go in the direction of Bunker Hill, when we move up the enemy fall back, and when they come in force we toll them up the Valley where we expect to reap the fruits of a Victory if they come on us and if we were to fight them here they would fall back into their holes too securely and have no long road to travel - So far Gen'l Early has been very Successful indeed in all his Manoeuvres."

Indeed, ever since Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had led his Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley in July of that year things had gone well. He had chased one Federal army out; invaded neighboring Maryland and won a battle; threatened Washington; and generally proved a nuisance to the administration of Abraham Lincoln. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hoped that by consolidating four separate departments and their forces into one - the Department of the Shenandoah - under his cavalry chief Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan that Early and his small force would be eradicated. So far, however that had proven illusory as the two generals continued to spar with each other, Sheridan from fortified Harpers Ferry and Early from his base at Winchester.

Things began to change the day after Grimes wrote his letter, however, when the overconfident Early led most of his army north through Bunker Hill and another ten miles to Martinsburg in another attempt to distract Sheridan, who he had come to regard as merely another timorous opponent. A Quaker lady resident of Winchester named Rebecca Wright sent word to Sheridan by a black courier that not only had Early moved north, but more importantly, the division of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson had also departed to return to Lee's army at Petersburg. This was the good news Sheridan had been waiting for and he immediately set his army in motion.

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Confederate commanders at Winchester included, form left to right above: Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, who led all of Early's cavalry, much of which had come from his uncle's stationary army besieged at Petersburg; cantankerous "Old Jube" Early, commanding the Army of the Valley; his second-in-command, Lt. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, nominally leading a corps that had shrunk to be some attached cavalry and the small division of Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton. When Early learned of Sheridan's move he turned the divisions of Robert Rodes at Bunker Hill and Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon around and rushed them back to Winchester, leaving Breckinridge and Wharton to contest what developed to be an overwhelming force of Union cavalry. Soon Early also ordered Breckinridge to bring his force too, but the former vice-president realized that if he did the Northern horsemen would rush behind Early and catch him between two fires. For the time being, Breckinridge decided to remain where he was near Stephenson's Depot.

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As the battle developed, Sheridan's army was drawn out in a long marching column along the Berryville Pike, leading from that town westward to Winchester. The Union VI Corps at the head of the column soon encountered Confederate pickets from the sole remaining Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur along the banks of Opequon (Oh-PECK-un) Creek which gave its name to Union accounts of the battle. Soon Ramseur was being pushed steadily back towards Winchester where he drew up a line that eventually stretched between Red Bud Run on the north and Abraham's (Abram's) Creek on the south. (In the map above, note the light blue and brown areas that indicate that portion of the battlefield that has been preserved and from where the bulk of the photos that follow were taken.)

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The VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, deployed its three divisions and proceeded along the Berryville Pike (modern Route 7) heading sightly southwest towards the town of Winchester. This area is now almost completely covered by modern development so that although the battle raged here as fiercely as it did to the north there is little to indicate it. One surviving wartime structure in the area is Abram's Rest, above, said to be the oldest house remaining in Winchester, dating from the mid-1700's.

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The modern walking trail whose entrance is above follows generally the direction taken by the two-division XIX Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. William Emory which moved forward in such a fashion that a gap soon appeared between it and its neighbor, the VI Corps.

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Just in time, Early arrived at the head of Rodes' and Gordon's divisions to extend Ramseur's line between the two creeks with his flanks securely on both. The battlefield soon became divided into what the troops described as the First Woods, from which Ramseur was driven; the Middle Field between, and the Second Woods where the Confederates were massing. (All are indicated on the map.) Above shows the view from Gordon's position on the left towards the attacking XIX corps divisions of Brig. Gen.'s William Dwight and Cuvier Grover.

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Just across Red Bud Run on the north of the developing battle Fitzhugh Lee placed the battalion of horse artillery commanded by Maj. James Breathed which took position at right angles to the advancing Federal infantry. They were supported for a time by some of Lee's cavalry under Col. William Payne, until pressure from the north caused Lee to move them later in the afternoon.

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Grover's division was savaged by unexpectedly heavy Confederate infantry fire from Gordon's men in their front and Breathed's guns on their right and fell back almost in panic to the safety of the First Woods where they were rallied by Sheridan and XIX Corps commander Emory. The view above looks out over the Middle Field where so many Federal casualties of the battle occurred.

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When the advancing Federal lines diverged they created a gap between the VI Corps and XIX Corps which was soon exploited by a counterattack by the Confederate divisions of Rodes and Gordon. Heavy fighting ensued before the Union lines were stabilized and the Rebels driven back. In the swirling action, Confederate division commander Robert Rodes and Union VI Corps division commander Brig. Gen. David A. Russell were both killed. The view above looks from the position in the West Woods from which Rodes' Division began its attack; when he fell his men were disheartened but his place was soon taken by Brig. Gen. Cullen Battle and that of Russell by Union rising star Brig. Gen. Emory Upton.

Next, Part II
 
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James N.

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Part II - Crook Outflanks the Confederate Line
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Battle of Opequon or Winchester, Va. by Kurz and Allison is one in their turn-of-the-twentieth century series of Civil War-themed prints that appears to be a condensed version of the battle: In the background Union infantry debouches from the Berryville Canyon and forms in lines of battle facing a line of Confederates across a (Middle?) field who are in the process of being outflanked on their left by charging Union cavalry.

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The Middle Field above, as seen from the vantage point of the hundreds of Federal infantry that attacked repeatedly across it was the epicenter of the battle. When Emory's divisions of Dwight and Grover were stymied by stiff Confederate resistance here, the VIII Corps commanded by Bvt. Maj. Gen. George Crook set out to outflank Early's line by crossing Red Bud Run on the north. Crook always maintained that it was he who instigated this action which was to prove the turning point of the battle, and that Sheridan merely agreed to it.

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Meanwhile, the Union rear behind the battle lines of the VI and XIX Corps was as usual a scene of disorder, crowded with wounded going to the rear, Crook's fresh troops moving to the front, and supply and ordnance wagons that had created the traffic jam in Berryville Canyon at the beginning of the battle.

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Union commanders at Winchester, from left to right above: Maj. Gen. William Emory commanded the XIX Corps divisions of Brig. Gen's. William Dwight and Cuvier Grover; Grover, whose division was driven back in confusion when it first attacked; Irish-born Col. Joseph Thoburn who led one of the two divisions in Crook's VIII Corps; and Brig. Gen. David A. Russell of the VI Corps, an associate of Sheridan's in the Old Army and the only Union general to die at the Opequon.

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When Crook's VIII Corps entered the battle, Joseph Thoburn's division attacked on the Union right in the area above where it too came under the fire of Gordon's infantry and Breathed's artillery. Thoburn's men had long been veterans of battles in the Shenandoah, going back to both battles at Kernstown and Port Republic against Stonewall Jackson and were probably the best division in Sheridan's army.

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By this time in mid-afternoon, Breckinridge had finally arrived on the north edge of Winchester, followed closely by the Federal cavalry. Early finally realized the threat from the north and began shifting troops toward that sector, part of which was Payne's cavalry which had been here in support of the horse artillery. Now without support, Breathed had no choice but to follow, clearing the way for Crook to outflank the main Confederate line.

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As Thoburn attacked Gordon frontally, Crook led the division of Col. Isaac Duval across Red Bud Run past Breathed's now-abandoned position to look for a suitable place to recross the creek and get onto Gordon's flank. When Duval was wounded, his place was filled by his senior brigade commander, Col. Rutherford B. Hayes.

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Hayes finally found a place to cross Red Bud Run, seen here in July when it was probably lower than during the battle. Once across, Gordon was forced to realign his division from north-to-south to a right angle east-to-west thereby refusing the Confederate left flank to meet the new threat by Crook's corps.

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Hayes division now proceeded to attack Gordon's refused flank as Thoburn pressed against the angle made where Gordon's Division joined that of Rodes/Battle's. Country lanes like that below felt the tread of Crook's men outflanking the Confederate battle line.

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Next, Part III - The Union cavalry attacks
 
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James N.

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Part III - The Union Cavalry Attacks
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Sheridan's Final Charge at Winchester as portrayed by artist Thure de Thulstrup, even if inaccurate nevertheless depicts the overwhelming power of the assault by massed mounted Federal cavalry; note the flamboyant Brig. Gen. George A. Custer riding the black horse at left of the first rank of officers.

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On the north and west the town of Winchester was protected by several outlying fortifications, unconnected earthworks built atop hills that were intended to be filled with artillery offering overlapping fields of fire as a deterrent to any attacks. At the northeast corner stood the Star Fort which was largely unoccupied during the battle of Third Winchester. It had been at one time a bastion of defense, but was in the wrong position to assist in the battle as it developed.

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Two additional views of the fort, one of the better-preserved places in Winchester, though now engulfed by housing development.

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Opequon was a highpoint in the history of the Federal cavalry arm; left to right above are leaders of Sheridan's horsemen: Cavalry Corps commander Alfred T. A.Torbert who was largely overshadowed in the Valley Campaign by his division commanders; Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, commanding the First Division, would eventually replace Torbert; Brig. Gen. William W. Averill of the Second Division, whose career veered from highs like his recent victory over Ramseur's Division at Stephenson's Depot to lows that would soon cost him his job two days after Fisher's Hill; and the only real disappointment here at Winchester, Brig. Gen. James Wilson, a protege of U. S. Grant whose failure at the head of the Third Division to cut Early's line-of-retreat saw him "exiled" back to the western theater of war, replaced by that up-and-coming brigadier from Merritt's division George Custer.

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East from the Star Fort was smaller (and on much lower ground) Fort Collier which was built alongside the railroad tracks. Unlike Star Fort, Collier was garrisoned by a Confederate battery and later by some of Payne's dismounted cavalry. This was nothing that could stop the mass of Union horsemen from Merritt's and Averill's two divisions that barrelled through the space between the two forts along the Valley Pike and railroad tracks alongside it.

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The painting at top is reproduced on a sign here at Fort Collier which is represented by the small earthwork and cannon at the right of the picture. The partially-manned earthworks were overrun by the charging cavalry, collapsing the Confederate left held by Breckinridge and Wharton's small division.

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The original Stine House that stood here and around which Fort Collier had been built was destroyed in the battle; the present structure is a post-war replacement now housing a museum.

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Next, Part IV - Confederate retreat
 
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Bee

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note the flamboyant Brig. Gen. George A. Custer riding the black horse at left of the first rank of officers.

Never in a blue moon would I have caught this! I appreciate these battle threads, as I know they take a lot of time and effort to assemble.
 

Dilba

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Hi James N - Great posts, thanks! How did you learn so much about Opequan? One of my ancestors was in Emerson's Brigade (87th PA, Ricketts' division, VI Corps) and wounded just south of the Berryville Pike on Sept. 19, 1864. See attached. I've been researching the battle and area for a few years. Do you know Winchester well?
 

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KLSDAD

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Thanks James .... do you have a current map of the trails? The one I got on-line a couple months ago was very much out of date. Got me a might bewildered......
 

James N.

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Part IV - Confederate Retreat Becomes a Rout
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Naturally, the Northern press and illustrated weekly magazines made much of the Union victory, especially the stirring cavalry charge like pictured above; this was in stark contrast with the depressing stalemate simultaneously occurring in the trenches at Petersburg. This, along with the recent capture of Atlanta at the first of the month by Sherman's army was the beginning of the resurgence in support for the Lincoln administration and continuance of the war. The victory here and later in the Shenandoah helped secure Lincoln's reelection in November and propelled Sheridan to the first rank of Federal heroes.

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As Sheridan's entire army finally arrived on the field Early found his fewer than 20,000 men heavily outnumbered by close to 45,000 Federals, making Opequon the largest battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley during the entire war. Growing pressure on his front had steadily driven back the main Confederate battle line from the Second woods closer to Winchester. As the sounds of Torbert's cavalry corps grew louder and began to move behind the embattled divisions of Ramseur, Battle, and Gordon they began to give way and turn to the rear. The present U. S. National Cemetery and Stonewall Confederate Cemetery (pictured above and below) are in the area directly behind Ramseur's final position. This was land that saw some of the final parts of the battle at Winchester.

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The parallel cemeteries were then open ground along the final north-south ridge between Winchester and the Federal army and here Ramseur's division made a brief stand. Since early morning, Ramseur had contested with the powerful Union VI Corps of Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, largest in Sheridan's army. The three divisions had steadily pressed the outnumbered Confederates back, but made no attempt to outflank them from across Abrams Creek. As the attack of Crook's and Emory's men to the north gained momentum, Wright was also able to advance in pursuit as Ramseur drew his men back.

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Today many of the fatalities of the battle rest on this portion of the field where they fought and died. Both the side-by-side Stonewall Cemetery and the National Cemetery, seen here above and below, are laid out in rows running north-to-south that parallel the battle lines of Ramseur's division as it withdrew and Wright's three advancing divisions.

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The Confederate withdrawal soon degenerated into a disorderly tangle in the streets of Winchester; citizens joined generals Early, Breckinridge, Gordon, and even Mrs. General Gordon who was visiting her husband in vainly exhorting, begging, and cajoling the panic-stricken infantry to turn and fight. The sounds of the cavalry pursuit overcame all other feeling, however, turning the retreat into an unseemly rout, sweeping up the street past the courthouse below, which as in every other battle at Winchester or Kernstown would again be turned into a prison and hospital for the several hundred captives. Fortunately, Sheridan's Third Cavalry Division under James Wilson which had begun the battle allowed a small force of Rebel horsemen under Col. Lunsford Lomax to block their attempt to cut off the entire Confederate army. Casualties for both sides had been around 5,000, but many of those for Early's army had been taken captive; impending darkness brought a halt to what could have been an even greater disaster for the Confederates.

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Early regrouped his shattered army south of Strasburg on a height known as Fisher's Hill and again faced down the pursuing Federals, as detailed in the wayside exhibit below. The battle that resulted was largely a replay of the Opequon: an outnumbered Confederate force attempted to hold defensive terrain it was too few in number to adequately cover; the left flank was protected by a weak force of cavalry, mainly dismounted, and were outflanked by a stealthy march performed by the VIII Corps of George Crook moving undetected along the slope of Little North Mountain that should have anchored the Confederate flank. The result was another Confederate stampede that Sheridan considered to have put an end to Early's control of the Shenandoah Valley for good; as time would prove, this estimate was overly optimistic.

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Confederate losses in the dual battles at Winchester and Fisher's Hill contributed to cripple the Cause, especially in competent subordinate commanders like those pictured below from right to left: Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, who was killed by the splinter of a shell that exploded above his head as he led his division forward in the early part of the battle of Winchester; Col. Alexander S. "Sandie" Pendleton, who began the war as aide-de-camp to Stonewall Jackson and rose to be chief-of-staff to Second Corps commanders Richard S. Ewell and Jubal Early and was mortally wounded at Fisher's Hill attempting to rally the fleeing Confederates; and brigade commander in the division of Gabriel Wharton during the final collapse at Winchester, Col. George S. Patton, grandfather and namesake of the World War II general. Patton was laid to rest in Winchester's stonewall Cemetery beside his brother who also died in the war.

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An unintentional Federal casualty of Winchester and Fisher's Hill was the friendly relationship between Phil Sheridan and his old West Point classmate George Crook, seen below along with another friend at right, John Nugen in a photo taken after the graduation of Crook and Nugen a year ahead of Sheridan who had been held back a year "because of his belligerent actions" in pointing a bayonet at the breast of cadet officer Virginian William Terrill. When Sheridan published his official reports of the actions in the two battles, Crook felt he had downplayed the part taken by the VIII Corps in securing the victories with their flanking marches, moves which Sheridan also took full credit for instigating, much to the discomfiture of his friend and subordinate. Sheridan also used Fisher's Hill as an excuse to get rid of Averill, who he accused of dilatory maneuvering that allowed Early's fleeing army to escape.

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Next, Part V - Touring the Battlefield Today
 
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Private Watkins

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Thanks so much James... this is wonderful, especially given that it's a little far from Oklahoma to make a weekend excursion to see all of this in person. :thumbsup:
 

James N.

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Thanks James .... do you have a current map of the trails? The one I got on-line a couple months ago was very much out of date. Got me a might bewildered......

Finding and touring the scattered locations that preserve the battlefield of Third Winchester can be very challenging and not a little frustrating! At least more of its battlefield survives than the first and second battles do, but they are poorly marked from city streets and highways and a little research was necessary to know what they were and where to find them. Asking in Winchester's relatively new visitor center proved useless as the elderly volunteer lady behind the desk had NO idea what I was asking about, even though the trail has been developed for several years by now. Inquiring at the Stonewall Jackson Headquarters House museum was better - at least personnel there knew what I was talking about - but even then a call had to be placed to get directions to the trailhead which was tucked inconspicuously behind the huge new high school!

Part V - Touring the Battlefield at Winchester Today
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As can be seen by comparing this map with the one at the top of the thread, the preserved area is in fact a wedge along Red Bud Run that encompasses the northern part of the field where the divisions of Rodes and Gordon vied with Emory and Crook's corps. The entire Ramseur-Wright fight area has been entirely paved over, mainly as effluvia from Interstate 81 which bisects the battlefield north-to-south. One especially serious omission has been the destruction of Berryville Canyon, obliterated by the construction of Rte. 7 into a four-lane divided highway; it's no longer possible to realize it as the serious bottleneck that greatly hampered and delayed by hours what was supposed to be Sheridan's early morning attack.

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The ensuing trail has two entrances, the one above which is across the parking lot from the school which allows access behind the Federal line and allows the visitor to walk in the direction of the Union attack; and another on what is still a country lane north of Red Bud Run that accesses Maj. Breathed's artillery position and the rest of Gordon's and part of Rodes' lines in the Second Woods. That trailhead entrance just off Red Bud Road is shown in the photo below.

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The photos in this thread generally follow the course of the battle and NOT either of the trails. Be aware that the entire trail system covers approximately three miles; Mike and I covered it in two separate visits from either trailhead on two different days. Most of the signage is pictured here, and although helpful would provide a very limited understanding of the battle and its phases, many of them occurring as they did well outside the confines of the preserved area.

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This ground saw additional use after the battle, as described on this marker which describes the 1864 - 65 winter camp of Averill's cavalry division. According to the sign, pits remain from the huts constructed on what was then cleared land. Likely in more recent years the land has been used for grazing and agricultural purposes; one large section (shown in brown on the map at the top of this thread) was until recently part of a farm and has yet to be opened for visitation. There is a period house on it that is described from the trail by a marker indicating its use as a hospital following the battle.

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Places like the Star Fort above, and Fort Collier are better-marked; however one needs to at least be aware they're there in order to find them! Winchester has grown into the largest city in the Shenandoah Valley, some 70,000 if I remember right, and although it's still a lovely place to visit has overgrown or is quickly encroaching on many of its historic sites.

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The cemeteries provide quiet places near the often-bustling downtown nearby and are easy to find like the Stonewall Confederate Cemetery above which is a section of the larger Mt. Hebron City Cemetery. Here rest many of the dead gathered from Winchester, Kernstown, and various other nearby battles occurring in the northern or Lower Shenandoah Valley.

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Just across an intervening side street from Stonewall Cemetery is located the U. S. National Cemetery, seen here in the remaining photographs. Above amid the graves is a monument to troops from the State of Massachusetts.

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Because there was no move to preserve and protect the battlefield here like at Gettysburg or Antietam, the National Cemetery became the home to various northern state monuments commemorating action by their troops in the battle of third Winchester like units of the VI Corps above and the State of Pennsylvania below.

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rpkennedy

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Yes; in fact it was Wilson who delivered one of the few defeats to Nathan Bedford Forrest in the waning days of the war outside Selma, Alabama at Bogler's Creek.

He must've learned something from his abysmal performances in the East then.

R
 

AUG

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Thanks for taking the time to put together yet another fine thread, James. Winchester and many of the other battlefields throughout the Shenandoah are still among those I have yet to visit, though certainly on my wish list.

Haven't really dug into the '64 Valley Campaign much as far as reading goes either, besides some unit histories and other books that cover it in part. Heard that The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott Patchan was a pretty good read on this battle.
 

Bee

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The Largest Cavalry Charge of the Civil War: Torbert’s grand charge at Third Winchester, September 19, 1864
Learn More About Third Winchester

Tasked with rendering the Shenandoah Valley useless to Confederates, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the new Army of the Shenandoah, sought to deal with the main Confederate force in the Valley under Confederate Gen. Jubal Early. On September 19, 1864, Early and Sheridan clashed at the Battle of Third Winchester. Just before noon the bloodiest battle fought in the Shenandoah commenced. Early parried Sheridan’s thrusts until late afternoon.

Unfortunately for Early, Sheridan had three powerful cavalry divisions which numbered almost as many troopers as Early had infantry. Union cavalry chief Gen. Alfred Torbert unleashed two of his three divisions in an attack up the Valley Pike. While Union infantry pressed hard on Early’s front, Torbert’s troopers attacked in front and threatened the Confederate rear. The Southerners offered stubborn resistance at every fort, fence line and barricade they could find, but by nightfall, the city of Winchester was in Union hands. The Union cavalry charges were several but the final attack involved as many as 8,000 troopers in the largest cavalry charge of the Civil War. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/gainesmill/gaines-mill-history/greatest-charges.html
 
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