Re-enactors recall fighting in 1863

Strategy: The bridge over Goose Creek was the scene of fighting during the Gettysburg campaign, and this year's Cedar Creek re-enactment will commemorate that encounter.

October 12, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was two months after the Confederacy's decisive victory in May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., and Gen. Robert E. Lee was preparing his army for a full-fledged invasion of the North.

The time for another critical battle was drawing nearer as both cavalries rode through the county trying to probe the other side.

To disguise his preparations, Lee sent Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and all but two cavalry brigades to confuse Union intelligence.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, sent the forces under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to search for information on Lee's position.

The two forces came into contact June 17 in Aldie, Va. Sharpshooters limited the extent of that engagement.

In the next two days, the Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick sustained 369 casualties as the fighting moved into Middleburg.

However, coming from behind Pleasonton's lines, were Brig. Gen. David Gregg's cavalry brigade and Col. Strong Vincent's infantry brigade.

At 7 a.m. June 21, Pleasonton ordered the attack on Stuart. Union soldiers marched up Ashby's Gap Turnpike toward the Confederate troops. The dismounted cavalrymen stood behind a series of stone walls perpendicular to the road. The cavalry was in the field and battery on the left.

Vincent ordered the 16th Michigan Infantry Regiment to advance, and three more regiments followed suit on foot. The last of the three, the 83rd Pennsylvania, moved swiftly to the left, through the trees and behind the stone walls concealing the Confederates. The flank of Stuart's forces was exposed and had to fall back toward Goose Creek.

"The movement was entirely successful. Finding their position turned, the enemy fled in confusion," Vincent wrote in his report the day after the battle.

The Southern artillery was quick to respond, opening fire on the Union forces. A two-hour artillery battle ensued, reverberating across the landscape. Hooker heard the cannon fire from his camp.

"Pleasonton's cavalry and two brigades of [Maj. Gen. George G.] Meade's infantry were directed to attack Stuart's cavalry this morning. The fight commenced about 7 o'clock and for several hours raged with great violence," Hooker reported to President Abraham Lincoln that evening.

Stuart once again took position behind stone walls north of Goose Creek. The Union troops pursued them, going north on Ashby's Gap Turnpike toward a small stone bridge.

The 83rd Pennsylvania tried to capture Goose Creek Bridge. Union cavalry attacked Brig. Gen. B.H. Robertson's brigade, which panicked and retreated. Col. Wade Hampton adjusted his troops to the left to compensate and was successful in flanking Kilpatrick's troops as they attempted to chase Robertson.

Though vastly outnumbered, the Confederates mounted a counterattack, which was repulsed. As Kilpatrick charged one last time, Stuart retreated, abandoning his dead and wounded. Gregg and the Union cavalry were in pursuit.

Vincent watched the Confederate retreat because his men could not follow Stuart on foot:

"The charges of the cavalry, a sight I had never before witnessed, were truly inspiring, and the triumphant strains of the bands, as squadron after squadron hurled the enemy in his flight up the hills and toward the gap, gave us a feeling of regret that we, too, were not mounted and could not join in the chase," he wrote.

Stuart secured Ashby's Gap, 4 1/2 miles away, at which point Gregg called off the assault. Pleasonton moved his brigades back to Middleburg with the knowledge that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was continuing north en route to Gettysburg.

Amanda Angel is a student at Suffolk County Community College in Seldon, N.Y. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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