Monday, February 2, 2015

"A combat more persistent or heroic can scarcely be found..." - The 28th New York at Cedar Mountain

View of the Crittenden Gate on Cedar Mountain Battlefield. At this location
the Crittenden Farm Lane (off-screen to the right) joined the Culpeper Road
(marked by the fence line stretching away from the camera). This general
area marked the apex of the 28th New York's charge on August 9th, 1862.
During the Civil War, some regiments sacrificed all on pivotal battlefields, their blood shed as the price paid for victory and for glory. The Iron Brigade and the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg come readily to my mind. Yet many other units gave their last full measure of devotion on lesser-known fields, where often the results of battle hardly justified--if they ever did--the enormity of the suffering and loss. Yesterday, I explored the Cedar Mountain battlefield for the first time. This quiet, rural site some six miles south of Culpeper, Virginia remains in an excellent state of preservation. The Civil War Trust and the Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield have preserved and interpreted about 160 acres, complete with a 1.25 mile trail that takes you to significant sites of the August 9th, 1862 battle between Nathaniel Banks' 2nd Corps, Army of Virginia, and Stonewall Jackson's command of the Army of Northern Virginia. I had not studied this battle in any detail previously, but I was struck by the audacious, and ultimately ill-fated courage of the federal soldiers here, storming forward in the face of a superior foe with a daunting reputation for battlefield prowess. The soldiers who fought under Nathaniel P. Banks often suffer a poor reputation, primarily stemming from Banks' failures in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. This battlefield though told a different story. In particular I came away wanting to learn more about the 28th New York Infantry, a unit I had not come across before.

The 28th New York mustered for two years of service in May of 1861. Recruited from Western New York, the regiment participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and saw action at Antietam and Chancellorsville, but it was at Cedar Mountain where the regiment made its most substantial, and most costly, contribution to the war effort.

The New Yorkers had capable officers, led by Colonel Dudley Donnelly, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin F. Brown, and Major E.W. Cook. The regimental historian recalled that these field officers proved highly satisfactory to the men in the ranks of the 28th. "Colonel Donnelly was a man of military education and training," he wrote, "naturally a soldier, and fitted to command." Donnelly had served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 66th New York State Militia for years before the war. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Brown had "few superiors as an organizer and a leader," and the men regarded Major Cook as one of the best shots in the regiment. Adjutant Charles P. Sprout ably assisted these men in their duties, and had earned his own reputation as "a man of sturdy, rugged nature; a fine soldier, one who never knew fear." At Cedar Mountain, they would all have an opportunity to prove themselves against Stonewall Jackson's vaunted "foot cavalry."

On August 7th, 1862, Stonewall Jackson ordered his three divisions across the Rapidan River in the hopes of dealing a crippling blow to a portion of John Pope's Army of Virginia before it could fully concentrate around Culpeper. Two days later, at about noon on August 9th, Jackson met Nathaniel Banks' 2nd Corps disposed on a  ridge overlooking Cedar Run. With temperatures nearing or surpassing triple-digits, both sides deployed their forces and exchanged artillery fire. The duel lasted for close to two hours.

Meanwhile, Banks' arrayed his forces across the road leading from Orange Court House to Culpeper, determined to dispute Jackson's advance. On the left side of the road he stationed Christopher Augur's division, and on the right Alpheus Williams' division. Banks didn't realize it, but Jackson's forces doubled the 8,000 federal soldiers on the field. Nevertheless, he brashly chose to move forward on the attack.

The 28th New York found themselves in Williams' front line, as part of Brigadier General Samuel Crawford's brigade. For most of the cannonade, Crawford's men lay sheltered by a densely wooded ridge in their front, and suffered little. At 5 p.m. preparations began for the impending assault. The brigade rose up and moved into the densely wooded terrain. In his official report, Crawford described the landscape that spread out before him on the opposite edge of the woods:
A thick belt of woods skirted an open wheat stubble field on three sides; a road [Culpeper Road] running across formed the fourth. To the right a thick undergrowth of scrub oaks and bushes covered the space. In front of the line the field sloped generally downward toward the woods directly opposite, the point of which terminated at the road.
Realizing that his men would have to cross 300 yards of open wheatfield before reaching the far woods, and that the rebels undoubtedly held those woods in unknown strength, Crawford sent back to have a battery of napoleons brought up to shell the woods. Before receiving a response, the Assistant Adjutant General of Williams' staff arrived and urged an immediate movement, proclaiming it to be the "decisive one of the day." Crawford readied his men for combat, deployed in a line from right to left: 46th Pennsylvania, 28th New York, 5th Connecticutt, and 10th Maine. The Maine men, on the extreme left flank, were pulled some distance from the other regiments and operated independently under direct orders from Banks. The remaining three regiments, along with six companies of the 3rd Wisconsin attached to their right flank, prepared to go forward. Crawford ordered bayonets fixed.

View in the distance of Cedar Mountain. Jackson's forces during the battle covered to slopes of the mountain, and then stretched to the right of the camera's view. Crawford's brigade advanced against them, traversing the field in front of the camera from left to right.
Gazing across the open field, the 28th's color bearer, Sergeant William Lewis of Company D, recalled that he could not see a single rebel soldier. Momentarily, Crawford gave the signal for his men to move out. An eyewitness recalled that the brigade moved forward in one long line, "burst with loud cries from the woods, [and] swept like a torrent across the wheat-field." Sergeant Lewis, who moments before had seen no enemy, noted:
We had hardly struck the first edge of the wheat-field till we were made aware that the enemy were there in full force. Oh, how the bullets flew around and about us, but our boys pushed on at a double-quick across the field.
In the race across the open ground, Colonel Donnelly received a mortal wound, and was led from the field on his horse, supported by an orderly. Despite the loss of their leader, Corporal F.A. Camann of Company K recalled that it took a while for the enemy to find the range:
The missiles that were sent upon us did but little harm, as but now and then a comrade from our closed column sank wounded to the ground. The arms of the enemy did not carry far enough, or their aim was taken too low. Whizzing, the bullets turned up the ground before our feet and excited the dust.
The federal charge had caught the Confederates unprepared. The rebel left flank was poorly posted and in the air. Compounding the problem, during the artillery duel preceding the federal advance a shell ripped through the arm and side of the commander of Jackson's divison, Charles S. Winder, inflicting a mortal wound. Crawford's men began their advance in the confused aftermath of this incident. Spurred on by their officers, the 28th New York--with their Connecticut and Pennsylvania comrades at their side--paused only once to unleash a volley before reaching the far woods, driving Virginians in great confusion before them. In his official report, even Stonewall Jackson recognized the rout:
Federal infantry moved down from the wood through the corn and wheat fields, and fell with great vigor upon our extreme left, and by the force of superior numbers, bearing down all opposition, turned it and poured a destructive fire into its rear. Campbell's brigade fell back in disorder.
The federals crowded into the woods and pushed forward toward Jackson's batteries on the opposite side of the Culpeper Road. The carnage continued at close quarters, sometimes hand-to-hand. At the height of the action, and for the first and only time in the war, Jackson drew his sword, so rusted he could not remove its scabbard, and waded into the melee. Staff office Charles Blackford offered an account of the scene:
In an instant a regiment or two burst through into the open spot where I was standing, all out of order and mixed up with a great number of yankees. I could not understand it; I could not tell whether our men had captured the yankees or the yankees had broken through our line. In an instant, however, I was put at rest, for Jackson, with one or two of his staff, came dashing across the road from our right in great haste and excitement. As he got amongst the disordered troops he drew his sword, then reached over and took his battleflag from my man, Bob Isbel, who was carrying it, and dropping his reins, waved it over his head and at the same time cried out in a loud voice, "Rally men! Remember Winder! Where's my Stonewall Brigade? Forward men, forward!"
This photo looks toward the Crittenden Gate, and the woods beyond in which the 28th New York reached zenith of their charge. At left is General Winder Road, this portion following the approximate course of the Crittenden farm lane in 1862. Crawford's charge began in the right background of this view, moving through the woodline seen in the distance toward the gate, where the Crittenden Farm Lane met the Culpeper Road, which can be made out by the distant fenceline.
Despite their ferocious and sudden onset, Confederate numbers began to tell against Crawford's men. The Stonewall brigade and reinforcements from A.P. Hill's division began to crowd into Crawford's front and around his flanks. Losses began to take their toll on the 28th New York, particularly among its officers. Lieutenant Colonel Brown had his arm shattered and was taken prisoner, and Major Cook was also wounded and captured. Adjutant Sprout lay dead at the farthest point of advance, just beside a rebel gun. Several dead Confederates lay about his body. Of the eighteen officers that went into battle that afternoon, the casualty roll listed seventeen as either killed, wounded, or captured. In the whole brigade, fifty-six out of eighty-eight officers became casualties.

In his official report, General Williams wrote:
A combat more persistent or heroic can scarcely be found in the history of this war; but men of even this unequaled heroism could not withstand the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, especially when left without the encouragement and direction of their officers.
Crawford wrote dejectedly just days later in his report:
Their field officers had all been killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, the support I looked for did not arrive, and my gallant men, broken, decimated by that fearful fire, that unequal contest, fell back again across the space, leaving most of their number upon the field. The slaughter was fearful.
With the tide of battle pressing against them, the survivors of the 28th now sought to cut their way back out. Nearly surrounded, they needed to escape the woods and traverse the open wheatfield to reach safety. Color Bearer Lewis had already received a wound, but remained on his feet. As he retreated, he looked around and found only two of the eight corporals designated to protect the flag. After making it partway across the wheatfield, Lewis finally collapsed from the effects of his wound, and turned the flag over to a corporal from Company H. The flag disappeared into the smokey landscape. This second bearer fell wounded too. The last member of the guard, when wounded and cut off from escape, tore the flag from its staff--which had been twice shot in two--and tried to conceal it under his coat. A member of the 5th Virginia of the Stonewall Brigade came upon him, however, and captured the flag.

The broken and bloody remnants of the 28th New York scampered back across the wheatfield and into the woods from which they had begun their charge. Belatedly, support did arrive, but only in time to stem the rout. Banks' corps would be driven from the field that evening, retreating toward Culpeper and reinforcements. Stonewall Jackson's soldiers once again held the field. Jackson's performance was questionable, and he did not accomplish his goal of inflicting a significant defeat upon a portion of Pope's army. But after Cedar Mountain John Pope did cede the initiative to his adversary, and Robert E. Lee would take full advantage, inflicting a devastating blow against Pope's army just three weeks later at Second Manassas.

The 28th New York reached Culpeper a shattered unit. They had taken into battle on August 9th eighteen officers and 339 men. Of these, 213 became casualties. On August 15th in Culpeper, Colonel Donnelly succumbed to his wounds. When the regiment gathered to escort his body to the train for his last trip home, it could only muster sixty-four men. Three days later, Colonel Donnelly was laid to rest in Lockport, New York. The survivors of the regiment later erected a monument in the cemetery in his honor.

The veterans of the regiment never met their Colonel again, but they would reunite with the flag that he led them into battle under at Cedar Mountain. On August 10th, the night after the battle, captured members of the regiment had gathered at the train station in Orange Court House to await transport to Richmond prisons. There at the train station one of the members of the regiment discovered their flag sitting amongst other rebel trophies of the battle. Wanting a memento, the soldier cut a small square from the flag, and carried it with him through his imprisonment. After his parole, he turned over his treasure to Lieutenant Colonel Brown, and for 20 years Brown held on to this prized possession. In 1882 Brown visited the flag-room at the United States War Department, where the government stored many flags recaptured in Richmond at the end of the war. As he glanced at the host of flags before him, Brown discovered one that looked familiar. Upon investigation, he determined that it was the 28th's flag, and identified it beyond doubt by the piece that he had kept for so many long years. Brown wrote to the Secretary of War, and received permission to have the flag returned to the surviving veterans of the 28th New York.

Less than a year after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the 28th New York mustered out of service. They did not witness the Battle of Gettysburg, the fall of Atlanta, or the surrender at Appomattox. They did not erect multiple monuments on fields visited by thousands of Americans each year. On their most memorable day of the war, they impetuously led an ill-fated charge into some of the best soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nathaniel P. Banks' plan of battle at Cedar Mountain was ill-conceived and doomed to failure. 8,000 soldiers could not drive 16,000 soldiers from the field. And yet, despite the odds stacked against them, and despite the reputation of their foe - the officers and men of the 28th New York for a brief moment did hold the field. Their stunning success even upset the equilibrium of the famously taciturn Stonewall Jackson, and drew forth his sword for the first and only time in the war.

Just days after the battle, Matthew Brady photographer Timothy O'Sullivan captured the fresh aftermath.
Library of Congress.
After the battle, dead federal soldiers sat out in the broiling August sun for two days until the opposing combatants agreed to a truce to allow for federal soldiers to bury their comrades. When soldiers of the Army of Virginia returned to the battlefield, the blackened corpses were beyond recognition, and many soldiers were laid to rest unidentified in one large grave. After the war, many of the Union dead from the Cedar Mountain Battlefield were re-interred in Culpeper National Cemetery. Some 48 soldiers from the 28th New York perished in the battle or received mortal wounds there. Today, many of them--the exact number is not known--rest in Culpeper National Cemetery. In 1902, the veterans of the 28th chose the cemetery as the proper location for their only Civil War monument, where today it overlooks the graves of their fallen comrades. Next time I'm near Culpeper, I plan to stop by and pay my respects.
A Note on Sources
Looking for more information? I used the following sources in preparing this post:
Alpheus S. Williams' Official Report

Samuel Crawford's Official Report

Thomas J. Jackson's Official Report

28th New York Page - New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.
(Always a useful start when researching New York Regiments)

C.W. Boyce, A Brief History of the 28th Regiment, New York State Volunteers (Buffalo: The Matthews-Northrup Co., 1896)
(Includes not only Boyce's account, but also several other essays and recollections written by other veterans of the regiment) 

John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

Ethan S. Rafuse, Manassas: A Battlefield Guide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).
(An excellent guide that includes "excursion trips," including an excursion to Cedar Mountain)

James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: MacMillan, 1997).

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