Thursday, September 29, 2016

Colonel George H. Gordon to Captain William D. Wilkins, May 28, 1862

Camp near Williamsport, Md.
[May 28, 1862.]

CAPTAIN: Agreeably to instructions received from headquarters of the division, I have the honor to report the movements of my brigade in all engagement with the enemy on the 25th instant in front of and less than a third of a mile from the town of Winchester, Va.. At dawn in the morning I received information through the officer commanding the pickets that the enemy in large numbers were driving them in and approaching the town. I immediately formed my brigade in line of battle, the right resting upon the commanding ridge, the left extending into the valley. The ridge surrounds the town, which it holds as in a basin. It is less than one-third of a mile distant, and presents many key-points for positions. I placed my artillery, Battery M, of First New York, composed of six 6-pounder Parrotts, under Lieutenant Peabody, upon the ridge, and thus awaited further developments.

About 5 a.m. skirmishers from the Second Massachusetts, on the right and crest of the hill, became sharply engaged. At about the same time I directed the battery to open upon the columns of the enemy evidently moving into position just to the right and front of my center. This was done with admirable effect. The columns disappeared over the crest. For more than an hour a fire of shell and canister from several rebel batteries was directed upon my position. My brigade, being somewhat protected by a ravine, suffered but little loss. The fire of our skirmishers and the spirited replies of the battery, with heavy musketry and artillery firing on our left in Donnelly's brigade, were the only marked features of the contest until after 6 a.m.

At about 6.30, perhaps nearer 7 a.m. large bodies of infantry could be seen making their way in line of battle toward my right. They moved under cover of the dense wood, thus concealing somewhat their numbers. I directed the Twenty-ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Murphy, and the Twenty-seventh Indiana Regiment, Colonel Colgrove, to change position from the left to the right of line, holding the Second Massachusetts, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrews, first on the right, in the center, the Third Wisconsin Regiment, Colonel Ruger, forming the left. This movement I had hardly completed, despite a new battery which opened upon my line, when three large battalions of infantry moving in order of battle, came out from their cover and approached my brigade. They were received with a destructive fire of musketry, poured in from all parts of my line that could reach them. Confident in their numbers and relying upon larger sustaining bodies (suspicions of which behind the covering timbers in our front were surely confirmed), the enemy's lines moved on, but little shaken by our fire. At the same time, in our front, a long line of infantry showed themselves, rising the crest of the bills just beyond our position. My little brigade, numbering in all just 2,102, in another moment would have been overwhelmed. On its right, left, and center immensely superior columns were pressing. Not another man was available; not a support to be found in the remnant of his army corps left General Banks. To withdraw was now possible; in another moment it would have been too late.

At this moment I should have assumed the responsibility of requesting permission to withdraw, but the right fell back under great pressure, which compelled the line to yield. I fell back slowly, but generally in good order, the Second Massachusetts, in column of companies, moving by flank; the Third Wisconsin, in line of battle, moving to the rear. On every side above the surrounding crest surged the rebel forces. A sharp and withering fire of musketry was opened by the enemy from the crest upon our center, left, and right. The yells of a victorious and merciless foe were above the din of battle, but my command was not dismayed. The Second Massachusetts halted in a street of the town to reform its line, then pushed on with the column, which, with its long train of baggage wagons, division, brigade, and regimental, was making its way in good order toward Martinsburg.

My retreating column suffered serious loss in the streets of Winchester. Males and females vied with each other in increasing the number of their victims, by firing from the houses, throwing hand grenades, hot water, and missiles of every description. The hellish spirit of murder was carried on by the enemy's cavalry, who followed to butcher, and who struck down with saber and pistol the hapless soldier, sinking from fatigue, unheeding his cries for mercy, indifferent to his claims as a prisoner of war.

This record of infamy is preserved for the females of Winchester. But this is not all. Our wounded in hospital, necessarily left to the mercies of our enemies, I am credibly informed, were bayoneted by the rebel infantry. In the same town, in the same apartments where we, when victors on the fields of Winchester, so tenderly nursed the rebel wounded, were we so more than barbarously rewarded. The rebel cavalry, it would appear, give no quarter. It cannot be doubted that they butchered our stragglers; that they fight under a black flag; that they cried as they slew the wearied and jaded, “Give no quarter to the damned Yankees.”

The actual number of my brigade engaged was 2,102.

In estimating the force of the enemy I turn for a moment to the movement of the First Division from Strasburg to Winchester on the preceding day, the 24th, and my engagement with the enemy during the march, which assured me of their presence in great force upon our right flank.
The capture and destruction of Colonel Kenly's command (First Brigade) on the 23d at Front Royal while guarding our railroad communication with Washington and the facts set forth in my report of my engagement on the 24th tended to a conviction of the presence of a large force under General Ewell in the valley of the Shenandoah. The union of Jackson with Johnson, composing an army larger by many thousands than the two small brigades, with some cavalry and sixteen pieces of artillery,, which comprised the entire army corps of General Banks, furnishes evidence justifying a belief of the intention of the enemy to cut us off first from re-enforcements, second to capture us and our material, beyond peradventure.

From the testimony of our signal officers and from a fair estimate of the number in rebel lines drawn up on the heights, from fugitives and deserters, the number of regiments in the rebel army opposite Winchester was 28, being Ewell's division, Jackson's and Johnson's forces, the whole being commanded by General Jackson. These regiments were full, and could not have numbered much less than 22,000 men, with a corresponding proportion of artillery, among which were included two of the English Blakely guns. Less than 4,000 men in two brigades, with sixteen pieces of artillery, kept this large and unequal force in check for about three hours; then retreating in generally good order, preserved its entire trains and accomplished a march of 36 miles.

Where all the regiments in my brigade behaved so well it is not intended to reflect in the least upon others in mentioning the steadiness and perfect discipline which marked the action of the Second Massachusetts, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrews, and Third Wisconsin, Colonel Ruger. The enemy will long remember the destructive fire which three or four companies of the Third Wisconsin and a like number of the Second Massachusetts poured into them as these sturdy regiments moved slowly in line of battle and in column from the field.

I herewith inclose a list* of the killed, wounded, and missing of the several regiments of my brigade, hoping that the numbers will hereafter be reduced by arrivals of those marked missing. How many were captured it is impossible now to determine.

Colonel Murphy, Twenty-ninth Pennsylvania, is known to be a prisoner. Major Dwight, of the Second Massachusetts, while gallantly bringing up the rear of the regiment, was missed somewhere near or in the outskirts of the town. It is hoped that this promising and brave officer, so cool upon the field, so efficient everywhere, so much beloved by his regiment, and whose gallant services on the night of the 24th instant will never be forgotten by them, may have met no worse fate than to be held a prisoner of war.

To my personal staff, Lieut. C. P. Horton, Second Massachusetts Regiment, my assistant adjutant-general; to Lieut. H. B. Scott, of the same regiment, my aide-de-camp, I am indebted for promptness in transmission of orders, for efficiency and gallant services in action.

I desire to express my thanks to Colonels Murphy, Ruger, Colgrove, and Andrews, and to the officers and men generally of my command, especially to officers and men of Battery M, whose skill and courage tended so much by their destructive fire to disconcert the enemy and hold him in check.

In fine, in the two days of the 24th and 25th of May the larger portion of my brigade marched 61 miles, the Second Massachusetts skirmishing on the 24th for more than six hours with infantry, cavalry, and artillery, the entire command on the 25th fighting a battle.

I herewith inclose such reports of colonels of regiments as have been forwarded.

Colonel Second Massachusetts Regt., Comdg. Third Brigade.
 A. A. G., -Fifth Army Corps.

* See revised statement, p. 553

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 247; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 12, Part 1 (Serial No. 15), p. 616-8

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