SKIRMISH AT CEDAR RUN
OUR CORRESPONDENT WITH
MCDOWELL’S CORPS IN VIRGINIA
NEW YORK AND WISCONSIN
That instrumentality known as the Army of Virginia has been given full effect with General Pope’s orders to undertake a general movement upon Confederate forces at Gordonsville. On the 9th , Bank’s Corps was heavily engaged with Jackson’s Army in a sharp fight at Cedar Mountain. It is commonly understood that this move has been calculated to assist the Army of General McClellan, now situated about Harrison’s Landing on the James. As these movements are now fully known to the enemy, I can safely disclose developments since the contest of the 9th.
McDowell’s Corps has moved in support of Banks. I stepped off with Doubleday’s Brigade of New Yorkers following the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. We reached the Rappahannock at dusk on the 10th. The bridge was out so our column had to cross at Kelly’s Ford. Under a clear, moonlit sky, the outlines of individual soldiers could be seen wading the waist deep water. Some became amused when one of their number slipped on a rock and became totally submerged. They were compelled to carry clothing, cartridge boxes, belts, and arms on their heads to keep them dry.
The New Yorkers march splendidly. Of particular note are those of the 84th Regiment of Zouaves and their distinguishing red trousers., who prefer to be known to the Army as the 14th Brooklyn. The regiment marches in perfect order and with few stragglers. But soldiering is more than pretty marching and I soon learned that Gibbon’s Brigade of Westerners were ahead of Doubleday and would likely encounter the enemy first. So I resolved to ride on ahead and see what there was to be learned.
I came upon them already encamped at Stevensville. Wisconsin soldiers of the 7th Regiment of that state had come upon and expertly liberated twelve bee hives full of honey. Regimental officers kindly offered me some fresh bread baked by a kindly old Virginia woman of the town. The freshly baked bread and honey was the first meal any of us had had that day and was welcome to all.
The next morning we advanced through Culpepper to Cedar Mountain, where evidence of the struggle on the 9th was plainly evident. Broken down gun carriages, discarded rifles and cartridge boxes and the other impedimenta of war were strewn about the fields on either side of the road. Soldiers of the 3rd Wisconsin in one of Bank’s brigades were picketing the area and greeted their homestate fellows warmly but the celebratory mood was quickly broken as in somber tones the men of the 3rd spoke of the previous fight and who they had lost. Even as they spoke burial details went about their grim but sadly necessary work.
General Gibbon put his brigade into bivouac in the already battle scarred fields and promptly sent out companies of infantry to establish a strong and well guarded picket line as it was known that Jackson’s Army was still in the immediate area and capable of striking a further blow at any time. A tired and worn out locomotive and some ramshackle rolling stock of the Orange and Alexandria line, abandoned by the retreating Rebels, lay still on the tracks. Some of the boys were railroad men and they soon convinced their officers that they could undertake repairs and make the engine serviceable. That was soon done and two companies of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry were placed aboard and the train moved forward at a slow but steady pace. Maps of the locality suggested their was a small train depot not far ahead and the infantrymen were ordered to establish a picket post at that point. I rode along the track with the brigade artillery. It seemed probable that General Gibbon expected more than the usual difficulty in establishing that picket and had sent along the guns in support.
Suddenly, the train’s whistle sounded and it lurched to a stop. Just ahead the Rebels had torn up the track to prevent just such an advance. Soldiers clambered out of the cars and quickly formed into column and began a cautious march along the line. There was the crack of musketry and officers bellowed orders for the men to form line to either side of the tracks. Skirmishers were deployed and they were almost immediately exchanging shots with the enemy who were somewhere ahead in a patch of woods. I got off my horse and tethered it to a nearby tree and then went on ahead to have a closer look. At the edge of the wood was an old, abandoned plantation house which soon became a headquarters and field hospital. Already, men were being brought in who had been wounded in the first exchange.
Just then, a pair of guns boomed and their deadly metal projectiles whined overhead, the resulting explosion tearing at the trees and showering us with splinters. Still more shots, and the Plantation house immediately behind me was hit, one shell clawing the front door and tearing it from its hinges. More shouted orders and I saw our guns go into battery right in front of the house. It was B Battery of the 4th regiment of regulars. All six guns of the battery were brought to bear on the enemy with promptitude. The guns were expertly and admirably served by men who knew their work well and had the utmost confidence in their officers. B Battery drove off one enemy battery only to see it replaced with yet another.
The infantry had deployed in two companies on either side of a meadow which obviously belonged to the plantation house property. The area was surrounded by a thick growth of young trees that largely obscured the enemy from our view. Little plumes of bluish white smoke marked the places from which the Rebels were firing. It soon became apparent that they had placed a line of infantry along a series of intrenchments on the opposite side of the meadow. I too became a target as the unmistakable sound of a minnie ball zipped past my left shoulder. I shifted my position and got down on one knee to frustrate whoever it was who had bothered with me.
The firing continued all along the line. Other cannon shots ripped into the old plantation house yet again. The wounded were being attended to in the lane next to the house as it had become much too dangerous to remain within. I crawled forward to where a young cannoneer with a severe arm wound lay propped up against a fence. When he saw me and the pencil and notebook of my trade he cried out amidst a good deal of pain, “write home to my ma,…tell her I fought brave.” The young man’s arm was almost completely shattered and the surgeons had no doubt marked him for an amputation. I asked the man who he was so I might honor his request. He said he was Private Joseph Van Roy of Evansville, Wisconsin. I did not have to tell him that his wound meant the loss of the arm. He also had to know that his very life was in jeopardy as the will of a higher power often does not allow for a recovery from such a grievous wound. There were others there and hearing our loud talk amidst the clangor of the guns they asked if I might write their families as well. I promised them I would try but at the very least make sure they were properly listed among the casualties so anxious loved ones at home might at least know of their fate. With each name, regiment, and hometown I wrote in my book I came to feel the true cost of this cruel war.
In the meantime our guns had continued to fire with great accuracy and rapidity, finally silencing that other battery and providing the opportunity for the infantry to make some sort of advance. Captain Campbell of B Battery was suddenly at my elbow. It seemed that his officers and men were fully occupied and that I was wanted for some kind of errand.
Would I go to the lieutenant commanding the infantry company on our right and with his compliments tell him to charge the infantry and guns which were then trying to limber up and move away opposite? I could see immediately what was wanted. The Rebel battery had had so many horses shot down that a pair of their guns could not be gotten off promptly. If we were quick we might capture the guns and their infantry supports as well. I picked myself up and ran amidst the continued musket fire to the lieutenant and his men, laying prone in a small swale. He greeted me by grabbing my arm and pulling me down to the ground quite unceremoniously. “Do you want ta be killed man?” he growled. I gave him my message with the Captain’s compliments. It seemed that was just what he wanted to hear. He got up and barked out the order to advance in line. The infantry company rose to their feet and charged with a loud huzzah across the meadow right at the Confederate intrenchments. A ragged but effective volley rang out from the fence and trees opposite and six or seven men went down. But the others charged on. The infantry company on the left rose too and fired a well ordered volley just as their comrades to their right were charging. They then stepped forward to the advance on our left. The combined movement was more than the Rebels wanted. They quickly fled. I caught sight of a Confederate battle flag waving defiantly as they rushed off.
Some of the enemy stubbornly held on to cover their retreat and were gobbled up by the lefthand infantry company as they came upon their line. We took a dozen or so prisoners—men of Hill’s Division of Jackson’s Corps. They gave me such an angry and willfully hostile look that I felt moved to ease their discomfort at being made prisoners by telling them they had fought hard and well. That brought thankful and easy smiles to their faces. It was true. They had contested this ground with vigor and courage.
I looked away. All was quiet except for one or two shots which rang out as a soldier dispatched a wounded horse. We had taken the two guns. They could not be brought off quickly enough and they became prizes of war. Already our infantry had moved on ahead to establish an even more forward picket post and to guard against some further move by the enemy. It is unlikely you will hear much if anything of this fight; a brief but deadly and mortal brush with the enemy. There are so many like them as to defy recounting. You will undoubtedly hear of skrimishing on a lovely Sunday along a small stream at the foot of Cedar Mountain and nothing more.
The foregoing account was based on research and observations made on the field by Thomas M. Sobottke, portraying New York Tribune Correspondent Samuel Wilkeson at the Green Bay Railroad Museum, Green Bay, Wisconsin on August 9, 10, and 11 2002.