Augusta County: "The Battle of Piedmont, Part I," by Gen. J. D. Imboden, 1883
Summary: John Imboden's account of the Battle of Piedmont, which occurred in Augusta County in 1864.
As I have never seen in print a detailed account of Hunter's capture of Staunton, which was the result of our defeat at Piedmont, I have long intended to write the history of that conflict, as I know a great deal of error about it was spread broadcast at the time; and unless some one who knows the cold, naked facts, corrects it, our local history may in time be falsified.
The battle of Piedmont, Va., fought on Sunday, June 5, 1864, was the culmination of three weeks of rapidly recurring events that immediately followed our victory over Sigel at New Market on the 15th of the preceding month. General Lee was so hard pressed by Grant from Fredericksburg to James River below Richmond in May, 1864, that it was with the utmost difficulty he could succor us in the Valley, where, with a single brigade, less than 1,500 effective men, I was confronting Sigel, who was at Strasburg with over 11,000 troops of all arms. Finally my appeals were so urgent that he sent General Breckinridge with somewhat less than 5,000 men to the Valley. With these veterans, my brigade, and the Virginia Military Institute cadets, whom I, as district commander, had called out, General Breckinridge gave Sigel battle at New Market on the 15th of May and defeated him with heavy loss.
The day after that battle, General Beckinridge was ordered back to General Lee's army, and took with him not only all the troops he had brought to the Valley, but also that grand old regiment, the 62nd Virginia Infantry (mounted when with me), then the largest regiment of my brigade, and commanded by the bravest man, I sometimes thought, I ever saw, Col. George H. Smith, now of Los Angeles, Calif. This left me the 18th Virginia Cavalry, Col. George W. Imboden; the 23rd Virginia Cavalry, Col. Robert White, now, or lately, attorney general of West Virginia, with Lieut. Col. Charles T. O'Ferrall most frequently in command; Maj. Harry Gilmor's Maryland Battalion; Major Sturges Davis's Maryland Battalion; Captain McNeill's company of Partizan Rangers; and McClanahan's splendid battery of six guns. The cadets were returned to the Virginia Military Institute, having suffered heavy losses in the battle, and a few hundred reserves (old men and boys) I had called out from Augusta and Rockingham were also permitted to go back to their homes and work. I was, therefore, left with about 1,000 veteran effectives to hold the Valley.
Sigel was promptly removed from command after his defeat and Maj. Gen. "Dave" Hunter, a human hyena, succeeded him. In less than ten days he was reenforced at Strasburg to the full extent of Sigel's losses at New Market, and being at the head of 9,000 infantry, 2,500 cavalry under General Stahl, and thirty-one field guns fully manned and equipped, he began active preparations for a forward movement, in cooperation with Generals Crook and Averill from Kanawha upon Staunton and Lynchburg as their objective points.
I was at New Market, with outposts at Woodstock, when Hunter slowly began his march the last week in May. I at once made the most earnest appeals to General Lee for help, representing my inability with 1,000 men to prevent the junction at Staunton of Hunter, Crook, and Averill, with a combined force of over 18,000 men. General Lee replied that he could not spare a regiment, not even my own noble 62nd, to help me; directed me to call out again all the "reserves" of the Valley (old men, boys, and detailed men in the shops, forges, etc., at quartermaster and commissary posts); and to at once telegraph Gens. Sam and William E. Jones, in Southwest Virginia, to come to my aid, saying, in conclusion, that he would send them orders to forward to me by rail every available man; and that in the meantime I must, at all hazards and to the last extremity, resist Hunter's advance up the Valley till this help reached me, when we must drive him back and then turn and confront Crook and Averill and drive them back from the Valley.
This was the situation and these were my orders when, on the 1st of June, 1864, my little band of not over 1,000 brave and noble men, mounted on lean and jaded horses, was driven out of New Market to Lacy Springs, where we camped for the night. On the 2nd we were driven back through Harrisonburg and to Mount Cranford, here I decided to contest the passage of the river, and to that end had trees cut into all the fords, and mounted a heavy gun or two, sent me from Staunton, on heights commanding the bridge and fords.
It was vital to preserve my devoted men from capture as a nucleus for the reenforcements hoped for and, therefore, I could offer little resistance to Hunter's army in the open Valley, for Stahl's 2,500 cavalry were ever present and ready to flank and envelope my little band of followers. Occasionally we could, and did, make a stand and check them till flanked, when there was no help for it but to fall back rapidly.
On the night of the 2nd of June, I took up my headquarters at Mrs. Robert Gratton's, that matron who, as well as her three daughters, would have done honor to Rome in its palmist days. Augusta reserves and a few from Rockingham joined me there, and I also received a telegram from Gen. William E. Jones that he was at Lynchburg, on his way by rail, with 3,000 men to join me. On the 3rd these troops began to arrive in small detachments, having marched on foot from Staunton, seventeen miles. Fortunately for us, Hunter made little progress that day, remaining at Harrisonburg and sending out scouting parties of cavalry, with whom some of my men had several trifling conflicts when they chanced to meet on the north side of the river, where I kept the gallant 18th regiment on duty all day to observe the enemy's movements.
To my dismay, I learned from officers in command of the detachments arriving that no large organized body of troops was on its way to join me except Vaughan's small Tennessee brigade of cavalry. Jones had cleaned out the hospitals from Lynchburg to Bristol of convalescents, and gathered them together with the depot guards along the railroad, aggregating all told less than 2,200 men. The largest organization was no more than a battalion, not a single complete regiment was coming on, except, as stated, Vaughan's brigade of about 800 men. Mostly they were in companies, and parts of companies. During the day they all arrived, and in the evening I ordered their various commanding officers to report to me in person. Quite a crowd of these assembled, all strangers tome, and many strangers to each other, from Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. I obtained lists of their respective commands, and had a roster of the officers made by Capt. Frank B. Berkeley, my accomplished adjutant general. Colonels Jones and Brown, of Southwest Virginia, whose Christian names I fail to remember, were found to be the officers of highest rank present. Of each of these I improvised a brigadier, and, with Captain Berkeley to assist, set them to work to divide the numerous small bodies of men between them as nearly equal in numbers as possible, so as to form two small brigades for themselves, respectively, to command. In a few hours during the night this work was done, when I ordered the two brigadiers pro tem to aggregate their men and complete the or-ganization by forming regiments and battalions. About 10 o'clock that night Colonels Jones and Brown reported their brigades organized as directed, and were formally assigned to their respective commands.
Perhaps at no time during the war were such heterogeneous materials brought together so suddenly and compacted into harmonious and obedient bodies of troops. I have often thought this incident proved most strikingly the devoted patriotism of our Confederate soldiers. Here, without acquaintance with each other, in the face of the enemy, and a desperate battle impending at any moment with overwhelming odds, some 2,200 men and officers, without a murmur of objection, accepted the situation and with alacrity stepped into ranks and "touched elbows" with strangers, and obeyed orders from, to them, unknown and unfamiliar lips. It was an instance of sublime devetion to their country unsurpassed, so far as I know, during the war, and deserving to be held in everlasting remembrance by us as a personal honor to each and every one of the officers and men who thus behaved in the face of an enemy ready to fall upon them the next day in the proportion of three to one.
On the morning of the 4th, before sunrise, Gen. William E. Jones and staff reached Mrs. Gratton's, having ridden rapidly from Staunton. He was of my own grade in the army, but his commission was a year older than mine, and, of course, he at once assumed command. Before and during the hasty breakfast by a camp fire, I explained to him the situation. He adopted and ratified my organization of his detachments of infantry, and informed me that General Vaughan was coming forward from Staunton with about 800 weary cavalry to join us. While we were discussing what was best to be done, a courier from Col. George W. Imboden, of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, who had remained all night on the north side of the river in vigilant observation, brought the intelligence that Hunter's entire army was in motion on the road from Harrisonburg to Port Republic. We instantly divined his purpose to flank our somewhat strong position behind the North River, and to get across at Port Republic without opposition, and thence move upon Staunton. General Jones was wholly unacquainted with the country, never having been through it except on the Staunton and Winchester pike, and, as I knew it perfectly, he naturally looked to me for information to guide his movements. I gave him a full description of Hunter's proposed route, and made him a rude map showing the streams and roads, distances, etc.
I particularly described the topography at George W. Mowry's, three miles above New Hope on Long Meadow Run, and urged the selection of Mowry's hill west of the stream as the place for us to deliver battle, with such advantages in our favor as to fully compensate for the disparity in our numbers and insure us a complete victory at small loss of life on our side. When he fully understood me, he, without hesitation, concurred in my views. I then proposed, with my brigade alone, to place myself in Hunter's front that night at or near Port Republic, and to so retard his march next morning as to give Jones ample time to move all his infantry and the artillery and Vaughan's jaded command to Mowry's hill, and occupy it long enough before the enemy appeared in his front to throw up some light works and rest his men before action. All this was agreed to, and, at his request I furnished him guides from the Augusta reserves. I think the late W. J. Davis Bell and another citizen, whom I have forgotten, volunteered to lead him by the shortest and best route. I accompanied for a mile or two from Mrs. Gratton's, and, just before we parted, General Vaughan rode up, and Jones introduced us, when, on comparing the dates of our commissions, Vaughan also ranked me by about ten days, which entitled him to the command of all the cavalry, mine included. He generously proposed to remain with Jones and let me proceed alone and in command to Hunter's front, We then parted, Jones for Mowry's hill with the infantry, artillery, and Vaughan's Brigade, and I for Mount Meridian.
I recalled Colonel Imboden from the north side of the river and proceeded cautiously, picketing all the fords of the North River. On reaching Mount Meridian late in the evening, my scouts brought information that Hunter had crossed and gone into camp at Port' Repubilc. I placed a picket of about twenty men at the forks of the road leading to Weyer's Cave, on Col. Alex Given's farm, and bivouacked my command on Col. Sam Cranford's farm, with orders to be in the saddle at day dawn. Just as it was light we were in the act of mounting, when a sharp firing was heard from the picket post. The 18th Cavalry, being nearest at hand, I ordered and accompanied Colonel Imboden to the support of the picket. I have omitted to remark sooner that General Jones, when we parted, directed me under no circumstances to become involved in a serious conflict with numbers from which I might not be able to extricate my command, but simply to offer such opposition as would harass and delay Hunter. Bearing this in mind, when I passed through the village of Mount Meridian, I directed Colonel Imboden to throw down the fence and pass into a hill field overlooking the road and form line of battle. He had barely accomplished this, when a charge being made by the enemy on the picket, they fled over the hill toward us, hotly pursued. The 18th immediately charged these pursuers and drove them back rapidly, but followed too far, for the whole of Stahl's 2,500 cavalry was just beyond the forks of the road and my men ran into them, when the situation became very serious.
We were driven back and, in turn, pursued with great vigor. Capt. Frank M. Imboden, commanding one of the best companies in the regiment, was wholly cut off and surrounded, when he and about forty men fell into the enemy's hands as prisoners; with very great difficulty the rest of the regiment was saved. I, being cut off and pursued alone by an entire company, owed my escape to the speed and great power of my horse, a gift stallion from my command, who carried me at a bound over a post and rail fence into the river road below the village, where no one could follow. Rejoining the regiment just above the village of Mount Meridian, a running fight was kept up that would have destroyed us all but for the opportune arrival of Col. Robert White at the head of his regiment, the 23rd Virginia Cavalry; whose gallant and impetuous charge, along with Davis's Maryland Battalion, checked the enemy, with some loss on both sides, and enabled the 18th to get out of the lane in front of Col. Sam Cranford's house, where it had become "wedged in" between post and rail fences, and was at the mercy of the enemy in the fields on both sides, and also in the road behind. This affair at an end, we fell back without further difficulty to the eastern brow of the hill, where the battle of Piedmont was fought a few hours later, and there formed line of battle.
The position overlooked cleared land for more than a mile in our front, and my object in making the stand there was to compel Hunter to deploy his whole army, if possible, in the fields before and a little below us, knowing that if we could do so, he would lose at least two hours in breaking into column again to resume his march after we should have retreated through New Hope, as was my intention, as soon as he should deploy into line and advance. To get the full benefit of this maneuver, I felt the great need of artillery to hold Stahl's Cavalry well in check. Believing Jones to be at Mowry's hill, three miles back, for I had not heard from him, I dispatched a hasty note requesting him to send me a section of McClanahan's Battery and 500 infantry, with which I offered to so retard Hunter that he would not reach Mowry's Hill till afternoon. My courier met Jones and his staff before he was out of my sight, riding rapidly toward us. In a moment the General rode up and greeted us. I hastily detailed the incidents of the morning, and inquired whether he had read my note. He replied that he had. Just then the head of Hunter's column came in sight, and my skirmishers opened fire on them more than half a mile in front of us. I told the General that a trusty scout had gotten into Port Republic the night before and ascertained very accurately Hunter's force, and reported it at 9,000 infantry, 2,500 cavalry, and thirty-one guns, an odd number. I knew our force to be about 2,200 infantry, 1,800 cavalry, some 200 "reserves," McClanahan's six-gun battery, and, I understood eight guns that had been manned at Staunton under command of Capt. J. C. Marquis, with a body of detailed men and reserves temporarily organized as a field battery; 14 guns in all.
(Concluded in January number.)
Bibliographic Information: Source copy consulted: Confederate Veteran, Vol. 31 (1923), p. 459-461