General Henry W. Birge’s Report on His Brigade at the Battle of Opequon
On September 19th, 1864, the 6th and 19th Corps of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah crossed Opequon Creek and advanced toward the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester, Virginia. Just east of the town, Sheridan attacked the Confederates of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Sheridan, who also had the 8th Corps in reserve plus some cavalry divisions for a total of about 40,000 men greatly outnumbered Early’s 12,500, the fighting at the Battle of Opequon, or Third Winchester as it was also called, was intense with heavy casualties on both sides. The Union forces finally gained the advantage when Sheridan attacked with the 8th Corps and his cavalry, collapsing Early’s left flank and forcing him to withdraw.
Brigadier General Henry W. Birge commanded the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General Cuvier Grover’s Second Division of the 19th Corps. Grover’s division was on the Union right in wooded area with a stream called Red Bud Run on the division’s right. Birge’s brigade consisted of the 9th Connecticut, 12th and 14th Maine, 26th Massachusetts, 14th New Hampshire, and 75th New York Infantry regiments. Some of these regiments, like the 12th Maine and 75th New York, had seen extensive action with the 19th Corps in Louisiana, while others, like the 14th New Hampshire, and seen little. Birge’s brigade was heavily engaged at Opequon, facing the Georgia, Virginia, and Louisiana regiments of Major General John B. Gordon’s Division of Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Corps. After the battle, Birge filed this report on his brigade’s action:
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., SECOND D IV., 19TH ARMY CORPS,
Harrisonburg, September 27, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to report that this brigade moved from camp near Berryville at 2 a.m. September 19; marched through Berryville to within two miles of Winchester, and at 11 a.m. was assigned position by Brigadier-General Grover, commanding division. The line was formed from right to left as follows: Fourteenth New Hampshire Volunteers, Colonel Gardiner; Twenty-sixth Massachusetts, Colonel Farr; Twelfth Maine, Lieutenant-Colonel Ilsley; Fourteenth Maine, Colonel Porter, and Seventy-fifth New York, Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock. A strong skirmish line was advanced through’ and to the edge of a piece of woods in front of the position, and the Ninth Connecticut, Colonel Cahill, deployed 400 yards on the right on a line perpendicular to the line of battle, with skirmishers in advance. Colonel Cahill was instructed to connect the left of his skirmish line with the right of the advanced skirmishers, and to conform to the movements of the brigade and main-rain his relative position by moving by a flank as the line advanced. The Third Brigade was in position on my left, and two regiments of Fourth Brigade on the right. At 11.45 a.m. received orders to move on the enemy, and immediately advanced through the woods before mentioned and into an open field about 500 yards in width; crossed this field under an artillery and infantry fire from the enemy in position in a belt of woods in front and extending to the right, and when within 200 yards charged with fixed bayonets at double-quick. Broke his line on the entire front of the brigade and drove him through and out of the woods. As the troops entered the woods I was ordered by General Grover to halt and hold that position and not to go farther into the woods, but the charge was so rapid and impetuous and the men so much excited by the sight of the enemy in full retreat before them that it was impossible to execute the order, and the whole line pressed forward to the extreme edge of the timber, some 300 yards beyond the enemy’s original position and to his rear on both flanks. The brigade was now far in advance of our own line and subjected to a severe and concentrated enfilading fire of artillery and infantry from the right and infantry from the left. In front the enemy were retreating in great confusion, but immediately and simultaneously threw a heavy force on each flank. Meantime our forces on my left had been forced back, the movement commencing to the left and extending till it had reached the right of the Third Brigade. Under these circumstances, to hold the position was impossible, and the brigade fell back on the original skirmish line. Immediately after, the One hundred and thirty-first New York, Colonel Day, reported to me, and until the second advance held an advanced position in the field between the two lines. At 4 p.m. a second general advance was made, the One hundred and thirty-first New York and Thirty-eighth Massachusetts, Major Allen, forming the left of my line, which connected with the right of the Sixth Corps. My right, connecting with the Fourth Brigade of this division, advanced under a severe fire, particularly of artillery, the whole line pressing the enemy steadily back at all points. At 5 o’clock the enemy was in full retreat; at 7, went into camp one mile and a half beyond Winchester. The Ninth Connecticut still remained in its original position and took no part in the engagement. It joined the brigade the next morning.
September 20, at 6 a.m. moved out on the Strasburg pike, and at 5 p.m. went into camp on the left of the town; distance marched about eighteen miles. September 21, moved to a position on the right and in advance of the town. The Ninth Connecticut was sent to the left to reconnoiter the fords and drive the enemy’s pickets from the bluffs on the opposite side of the river. September 22, moved at daylight to the front and right of the town and intrenched. At 4 p.m. moved to the left and occupied the works on the hill in front of the town before held by Second Brigade, then advancing. At 5 received orders from General Emory to move to the front till the head of the column struck the pike and wait for further orders. At 7.30 received orders to move down the pike, and soon after came up- with and joined the division. The Twelfth Maine was then sent forward on the skirmish line and the Fourteenth Maine, Fourteenth New Hampshire, Twenty-sixth Massachusetts, and Seventy-fifth New York, deployed on the right and left of the road in two lines. Marched in this position till near Woodstock. The four last-named regiments marched by a flank, passed through Woodstock, and went into camp a short distance beyond the town at daylight on the morning of the 23d. The Ninth Connecticut, which had been left at Strasburg, came up and joined the brigade at 8 a.m.
The casualties in the five regiments named as engaged in the battle on the 19th were: Killed–8 commissioned officers, 96 enlisted men; total, 104; wounded–35 commissioned officers, 325 enlisted men; total, 360; missing–4 commissioned officers, 71 enlisted men; total, 75; making an aggregate of 539, a numerical and nominal list of which has already been forwarded to you. Three of the officers reported as missing are known to have been taken prisoners, and most of the men. In Seventy-fifth New York every man is accounted for. Those in other regiments not accounted for are doubtless prisoners or killed and buried unrecognized. Among the officers wounded are Colonel Gardiner, Fourteenth New Hampshire, and Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock, Seventy-fifth New York, both of whom lost a leg; Major Clark, Twenty-sixth Massachusetts, wounded slightly. Major Thurber succeeded to the command of the Seventy-fifth New York and Captain Tolman to the Fourteenth New Hampshire.
Owing to the rapid and continuous advance of the army since the 19th, I have not been able to obtain official reports of the commanders of regiments. These will be forwarded when received, with supplementary report giving more detailed account of the part taken by each regiment and individuals who distinguished themselves by gallantry and meritorious services.
In concluding this report, I beg leave to say that, in my opinion, the charge made by this brigade has rarely if ever been excelled for the gallantry and steadiness with which it was made, and that the officers and men of the five regiments who participated in it are entitled to special praise and commendation. They only relinquished the position which they had gained when more than one-quarter of their number were either killed or wounded, and to have remained longer would have been, without support, inevitable destruction. I also express my thanks to Captain Fiske, Thirtieth Massachusetts; Captain Ripley and Lieutenant Wright, Fourteenth New Hampshire; Captain Goddard, Twelfth Maine, and Lieutenant Bischoff, aide-de-camp, members of my staff, for faithful and zealous attention to their duties and conspicuous gallantry on the field.
I am, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. W. BIRGE,
Brig. Gen. of Vols., Comdg. 1st Brig., 2d Div., 19th Army Corps.
Capt. J. HIBBERT, Jr.,
The Battle of Opequon was an important, though costly, Union victory. Birge’s reported casualty figures were revised and officially listed as 107 killed, 349 wounded and 69 missing for a total of 525. The brigade suffered the most casualties of any Union brigade in the battle. The 19th Corps suffered 40% casualties, and the totals for the Army of the Shenandoah as a whole were 697 killed, 3983 wounded, and 338 missing. Confederate casualty figures are less detailed, but are believed to be 1900 to 2000 of the approximately 12,500 present.
From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 by Jeffry D. Wert.
History of the Nineteenth Army Corps by Richard B. Irwin
Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley by Wesley Merritt. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLIII Part 1.