HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE GULF,
Galveston, Tex., November 27, 1865
As I was the ranking officer of the forces, in the absence of, Major General Sheridan, when the battle began, it will be necessary to a clear narrative of the events of the day to commence on the evening of the 18th. About 9 o'clock of that evening I was called upon by Major General Crook, commanding the Army of West Virginia, who reported that the reconnaissance of a brigade sent out by him that day to ascertain the position of the enemy had returned to camp and reported that nothing was to be found in his old camp and that he had doubtless retreated up the Valley. It should be borne in mind that the destruction of all supplies by our forces between our position at Cedar Creek and Staunton had made it necessary for the enemy to supply his force from the latter place by wagons, and consequently we had been expecting for some days that he would either attack us or be compelled to fall back for the supplies, which it was believed he could not transport in sufficient quantity by his trains. This view of the matter, which is still believed to have been sound, lent the stamp of probability to the report of the reconnoitering party, but anxious to place the truth of the report beyond a doubt, I at once ordered two reconnaissances to start at the first dawn of the morning, one of a brigade of infantry to move out upon and follow the general direction of the pike leading up the valley, the other, also a brigade, to take the Back road some three miles to the westward and nearly parallel to the former, with instructions to move forward till the enemy was found and strongly felt, so as to clearly ascertain his intentions. The first party was to be drawn from the Nineteenth Corps, the other from the cavalry. At the first blush of dawn the camps were assaulted by a considerable musketry fire upon our extreme left and a fire of a much slighter character upon our right. A moment's hesitation convinced me that the former was the real attack, and I at once proceeded to that point, the firing meanwhile growing heavier. Becoming assured that I was not mistaken as to which was the attack to be resisted in force, I sent back orders to Brevet Major-General Ricketts, commanding the Sixth Corps in my absence, to send me two divisions of his command at once, and taking the brigade of the Nineteenth Corps (before alluded [to] as ordered on the reconnaissance and which was just starting) I proceeded to place it and the troops of General Crook's second line in position on a ridge to the eastward of and nearly parallel to the pike, connecting them with the left of the Nineteenth Corps. As the two divisions of the Sixth Corps, ordered from the right of the line to the left, could reach that point within twenty minutes of the time that the line referred to was formed, and as the position taken up was a satisfactory one, there was, in my judgment, no occasion for apprehension as to the result, and I felt every confidence that the enemy would be promptly repulsed. In this anticipation, however, I was sadly disappointed Influenced by a panic which often seizes the best troops, and some of these I had seen behave admirably under the hottest fire, the line broke before the enemy fairly came in sight, and under a slight scattering fire retreated in disorder down the pike. Seeing that no part of the original line could be held, as the enemy was already on the left flank of the Nineteenth Corps, I at once sent orders to the Sixth Corps to fall back to some tenable position in rear; and to General Emory, commanding the Nineteenth Corps, that as his left was turned be should fall back and take position on the right of the Sixth. I should, perhaps, have stated that upon the original line the forces from left to right were posted in the order of, first, the Army of West Virginia, Major-General Crook commanding; second, the Nineteenth Corps, Brevet Major-General Emory commanding; third, the Sixth Corps, commanded by myself, and in my absence by Brevet Major-General Ricketts. The cavalry, under the command of Brevet Major-General Torbert, was disposed upon the two flanks. The first lines of the Army of West Virginia and the Nineteenth Corps were intrenched, but the Sixth Corps was not, as its naturally strong position rendered any defenses unnecessary. Indeed, the latter was held with a view to its acting rather as a movable force than as a part of the line.
Returning from this digression and resuming the narrative, the Sixth Corps, of which two divisions were on the march to the support of the left, at once moved to the rear on receiving instructions to that effect, as did the Nineteenth Corps, which had been slightly engaged with a portion of the rebel force, which had evidently attacked by way of a diversion. About this time General Ricketts was seriously wounded and the command of the Sixth Corps devolved upon Brevet Major-General Getty, who moved steadily to the rear, and by well timed attacks did much toward checking the enemy's advance, giving time thereby for the change of front which was necessary and for taking up the new position. A portion of the First Division, under Generals Wheaton and Mackenzie, and a part of the artillery of the corps, also behaved admirably in checking the enemy and giving time for the rest of the troops to take position. Several pieces of the artillery were lost here, it being impossible to bring off the guns, owing to their horses being killed. Meanwhile the Second Division had taken up the position indicated, with its left resting on the pike. The Third and First were forming on its right, while on the right of the Sixth Corps the Nineteenth was being formed. One or two not very persistent attacks had been repulsed. About this time Major-General Sheridan came up and assumed command and I returned to the command of the Sixth Corps. Soon after the lines had been fully formed the enemy made a sharp attack upon the Sixth Corps, but was rudely repulsed, falling back several hundred yards to a stone wall behind which a part of his line took shelter. The position of the troops at this time from left to right was, first, the Second, Third, and First Divisions of the Sixth Corps; second, the Nineteenth Corps, the cavalry being on both flanks. Everything having been prepared and the men somewhat rested from the fatigue of the morning, an advance was ordered by General Sheridan of the entire line. The Second and First Divisions moved forward steadily, but the Third was for a time seriously checked by the fire from behind the stone wall before alluded to. A movement made by the Nineteenth Corps toward flanking this wall (in which a regiment of the Third Division, Sixth Corps, detached for the purpose, took part) shook the enemy, and a gallant charge of the line started him into full flight, pursued by our victorious forces. But little further resistance was experienced in the advance to Cedar Creek, where our infantry was halted in its old camp, while the pursuit was continued by the cavalry. The enemy being entirely demoralized and his ranks completely broken, he retreated without regard to order. The battle, which in its earlier stages looked anything but favorable for our success and occasioned a fear of defeat to many a brave hearted soldier, resulted through the admirable courage of our troops, the bravery and good conduct of their officers and the persistence of the commander of the army, in a complete victory.
It may be proper that I should say something in the way of explanation of the causes of the comparatively easy success of the enemy in the early part of the action. To the professional soldier it will be a subject of interest, even if it is lost to others, now that the war is over and this battle is partially forgotten with the many other as hard fought fields, yet in justice to those engaged it may be well to explain some points of which many are of course ignorant. I have already referred to the reported result of the reconnaissance of the preceding day, which was to the effect that the enemy had retreated up the valley. That this was not true is now well known, but how the mistake was made is not easily explained. Probably the force had not advanced so far as it supposed, and had not really reached the enemy's lines, which were some miles in advance of ours. However this may be, I have no question that the belief in the retreat of the enemy was generally entertained throughout the reconnoitering force. Again this force, which, as before remarked, was from the Army of West Virginia, returned to camp through its own lines and must have made known to the troops its received belief in the enemy's retreat. Now it happens that the advance of the enemy was made upon this part of the line. The surprise was complete, for the pickets did not fire a shot, and the first indication of the enemy's presence was a volley into the main line where the men of a part of the regiments were at reveille roll-call without arms. As the entire picket-line over that part crossed by the enemy was captured without a shot being fired, no explanation could be obtained from any of the men composing it, but it is fair to suppose that they were lulled into an unusual security by the report of the previous evening that the enemy had fallen back and that there was consequently no danger to be apprehended. This supposition seems to me likely enough. It certainly goes far toward explaining how an enemy in force passed and captured a strong and well connected picket-line of old soldiers without occasioning alarm, and gave as a first warning of its presence a volley of musketry into the main line of unarmed soldiers. It was reported in camp that he first relieved a part of our lines by his own men dressed in our uniform, but I have never been able to confirm this rumor.
The proceedings up to this point were bad enough for us, as it gave the enemy, almost without a struggle, the entire left of our line with considerable artillery, not a gun of which had fired a shot. But the reserve of this line was posted a considerable distance ill its rear, where it could be made available as a movable force, and was well situated to operate upon any force attempting to turn our left. It was in no way involved in the disaster of the first line, which was, after all, but a small part of our whole force, being only one weak division, and its loss was in no wise to be taken as deciding the fate of the day. With the other troops brought up, this supporting division was in good position to offer sturdy battle, with every prospect of repulsing the enemy, and aided, as it soon would have been, by the rest of the force, the chances were largely in our favor. Here the battle should have been fought and won, and long before midday the discomfited enemy should have been driven across Cedar Creek stripped of all the captures of his first attack, but from some unexplainable cause the troops forming this part of the line would not stand but broke under a scattering fire, which should not have occasioned the slightest apprehension in raw recruits much less in old soldiers like themselves. Most officers who have served through this war have had instances of the same kind in their own experience, and will therefore readily understand this, though they may find themselves as much at a loss for a satisfactory explanation of its cause. It was the breaking of this line which involved the necessity of falling back. A change of front was necessary, and this must be made to a position which would place our force between the enemy and our base. That there was no intention of retreating tile soldiers who stood fire clearly understood, and when once brought into the new position in the face of the enemy they were ready to advance upon him, as was shown by their magnificent attack when ordered forward.
To the Sixth Corps, which it is my honor to command after the death of that noble soldier Sedgwick, to its officers and its men, I desire to acknowledge the obligation which, in addition to the many others it has imposed, it laid upon the country by its steadiness, courage, and discipline in this important battle. Without disparagement to the soldierly qualities of other organizations concerned, it is but just to claim a large share in the successes of the day. Being from the nature of the attack upon our lines somewhat in the position of a reserve force and therefore fairly to be called upon to turn the tide of unsuccessful battle, it came up nobly to its duty, fully sustaining its former well earned laurels.
To the commanders, one and all, the full meed of thanks is due. That
they bore themselves bravely is evidenced by the fact that of the general
officers one was killed, five more or less seriously wounded, and all lost
their horses from the enemy's bullets, while the list of casualties will
show that their subordinates were in no degree behind them in gallantry
and devotion to duty. In one division there was but one field officer for
duty when the battle was over.
Where all did so well, it may seem invidious to attempt to discriminate, but I desire to call attention to the division commanders to whom so much of the success of the day was due. Brevet Major-General Ricketts was severely wounded early in the action. Brevet Major-General Getty, subsequently in command of the corps till it was resumed by me after the arrival of Major-General Sheridan, stoutly contested the enemy's advance and gave time thereby for the necessary formations. Brevet Major-General Wheaton, who conducted himself gallantly, and Brigadier-General Keifer, who was in command of the Third Division during the entire day, General Ricketts being first in command of the corps and subsequently taken wounded from the field.
To my own staff also I was as usual under great obligations for important services rendered, often in circumstances of the greatest danger. Their names have already been submitted to the War Department and their merits acknowledged by the Government.
Major-General of Volunteers, Commanding Sixth Corps.
Bvt. Brig. Gen. G. A. FORSYTH,
Chief of Staff, &c.