Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie

Assault on Fisher’s Hill and Battle of Cedar Creek

Colonel Mackenzie
Colonel Mackenzie

General Sheridan’s method of operation could hardly be held as dilatory. It would doubtless have commended itself more highly to his men if it had been somewhat more so, when at daylight on the morning after the splendid success of September 19th they were ordered in pursuit of Early’s army.

The Confederate forces had taken position on Fisher’s Hill, considered the Gibraltar of the Valley, and according to Sheridan, almost impregnable to a direct assault. Two days were occupied in bringing up troops and making dispositions for the attack. The Second Connecticut reached its assigned position on the 21st near midnight, and found itself “on the very top of a hill fully as high as Fisher’s Hill, and separated from it by Tumbling River. The enemy’s stronghold was on the top of the opposite hill directly across the stream.”

On the 22nd more or less skirmishing took place all day. A force had been sent round the enemy’s left flank; the attack it delivered late in the afternoon was a complete surprise to Early’s men, and an advance by the whole Union line quickly routed them.

To make this charge the regiment moved down the steep hill, waded the stream, and moved up the rocky front of the rebel Gibraltar. How they got up there is a mystery,–for the ascent of that rocky declivity would now seem an impossibility to an unburdened traveler, even though there were no deadly enemy at the top. But up they went, clinging to rocks and bushes. The main rebel breastwork, which they were so confident of holding, was about fifteen rods from the top of the bluff, with brush piled in front of it. Just as the top was reached the Eighth Corps struck the enemy on the right, and their flight was disordered and precipitate. The Second Connecticut was the first regiment that reached and planted colors on the works from the direct front.

They were marching in pursuit all that night and for three succeeding days, until the chase was seen to be hopeless and the army faced northward again. Four killed and nineteen wounded were added at Fisher’s Hill to the growing record of the Second Connecticut’s losses.

Such complete failure in their campaign had, it was now believed, eliminated the enemy in the Shenandoah Valley. The Sixth Corps was accordingly ordered back to Grant’s army before Petersburg after a few days of rest, and was moving toward Washington on its way when there came a sudden change of orders.

Early, reinforced and once more ready, was again in the works he had been driven from at Fisher’s Hill. The corps, recalled to join the forces of Sheridan, went into camp along the north bank of Cedar Creek on October 14th, and here there soon took place one of the most thrilling and dramatic conflicts of the war.

“For the next few days,” the history of the regiment states, “there was much quiet and a good deal of speculation among the troops as to what would be the next shift of the scenes. The enemy was close in front, just as he had been for weeks preceding the battle of Winchester, but this attitude which might once have been called defiance, now seemed to be mere impudence,–and it was the general opinion that Early did not wish or intend to fight again, but that he was to be kept there as a standing threat in order to prevent Sheridan’s army from returning to Grant. And yet there was something mysterious in his conduct. He was known to be receiving reinforcements, and his signal flags on Three-top Mountain (just south of Fisher’s Hill) were continually in motion. From the top of Massanutton Mountain his vedettes could look down upon the whole Union army, as one can look down upon New Haven from East Rock, and there is no doubt that the exact location of every camp, and the position of every gun and every picket post were thoroughly known to him. Nevertheless, it seemed the most improbable thing in the world that he could be meditating either an open attack or a surprise. The position was strong, the creek and its crossings in possession of our pickets both along the front and well out on either flank.” But Early himself, being in difficulties his enemy knew nothing of, says, “I was compelled to move back for want of provisions and forage, or attack the enemy in his position with the hope of driving him from it, and I determined to attack.”

His plan was, like his adversary’s at the last encounter, a surprise around the left flank with a feint on the right, and it was carried out on the morning of October 19th with complete success. General Sheridan had been called to Washington a few days before, as no active operations seemed imminent, and the army lay feeling quite secure.

Good fortune attended the attacking forces, and the surprise was perfect. General Merritt writes: “Crook’s (Eighth Corps) camp and afterwards Emory’s (Nineteenth Corps) were attacked in flank and rear, and the men and officers driven from their beds, many of them not having time to hurry into their clothes, except as they retreated, half awake and terror-stricken from the overpowering numbers of the enemy. Their own artillery in conjunction with that of the enemy, was turned on them, and long before it was light enough for their eyes, unaccustomed to the dim light, to distinguish friend from foe, they were hurrying to our right and rear intent only on their safety. Wright’s (Sixth Corps) infantry, which was farther removed from the point of attack, fared somewhat better, but did not offer more than a spasmodic resistance.” Nevertheless, they made Early “pay dearly for every foot gained and finally brought him to a stand,” as Nicolay and Hay record.

The history of the Second Connecticut tells the story of the day as follows: “Most of the regiment were up next morning long before Reveille and many had begun to cook their coffee on account of that ominous popping and cracking which had been going on for half an hour off to the right. They did not exactly suppose it meant anything, but they had learned wisdom by many a sudden march on an empty stomach and did not propose to be caught napping. The clatter on the right increased. It began to be the wonder why no orders came. But suddenly every man seemed to lose interest in the right, and turned his inquiring eyes and ears toward the left. Rapid volleys and a vague tumult told that there was trouble there. ‘Fall in!’ said Mackenzie. The brigade moved briskly off toward the east, crossing the track of other troops and batteries of artillery which were hurriedly swinging into position, while ambulances, orderlies, staff officers, camp followers, pack horses, cavalrymen, sutler’s wagons, hospital wagons, and six-mule teams of every description came trundling and galloping pell mell toward the right and rear and making off toward Winchester. It was not a hundred rods from our own camp to the place where we went into position on a road running north. General Wright, the temporary commander of the army, bareheaded, and with blood trickling from his beard, sat on his horse near by, as if bewildered or in a brown study. The ground was cleared in front of the road and sloped off some thirty rods to a stream, on the opposite side of which it rose for about an equal distance to a piece of woods in which the advance rebel line had already taken position. The newly risen sun, huge and bloody, was on their side in more senses than one. Our line faced directly to the east and we could see nothing but that enormous disk, rising out of the fog, while they could see every man in our line and could take good aim. The battalion lay down, and part of the men began to fire, but the shape of the ground afforded little protection and large numbers were killed and wounded. Four fifths of our loss for the entire day occurred during the time we lay here,–which could not have been over five minutes,–by the end of which time the Second Connecticut found itself in an isolated position not unlike that at Cold Harbor. The fog had now thinned away somewhat and a firm rebel line with colors full high advanced came rolling over the knoll just in front of our left not more than three hundred yards distant. ‘Rise up,–Retreat,’ said Mackenzie,–and the battalion began to move back.

“For a little distance the retreat was made in very good order, but it soon degenerated into a rout. Men from a score of regiments were mixed up in flight, and the whole corps was scattered over acres and acres with no more organization than a herd of buffaloes. Some of the wounded were carried for a distance by their comrades, who were at length compelled to leave them to their fate in order to escape being shot. About a mile from the place where the retreat commenced there was a road running directly across the valley. Here the troops were rallied and a slight defense of rails thrown up. The regimental and brigade flags were set up as beacons to direct each man how to steer through the mob and in a very few minutes there was an effective line of battle established. A few round shot ricochetted overhead, making about an eighth of a mile at a jump, and a few grape were dropped into a ditch just behind our line, quickly clearing out some soldiers who had crawled in there, but this was the extent of the pursuit. The whole brigade (and a very small brigade it was) was deployed as skirmishers under Colonel Olcott of the One Hundred and Twenty-first New York. Three lines of skirmishers were formed and each in turn constituted the first line while the other two passed through and halted, and so the retreat was continued for about three miles until a halt was made upon high ground, from which we could plainly see the Johnnies sauntering around on the very ground where we had slept.”

Once more could Early claim the credit of a victory of which at night he was to find himself again deprived. Sheridan’s famous ride, his meeting and turning of the tide of fugitives, is the feature of the day’s occurrences which will always live in the popular memory. It is a significant hint of the scale of such a battlefield to know that the men of the Second Connecticut had no visual perception of his presence that day, though they heard the cheering occasioned by his appearance in other parts of the scene, and in his report there is mention of a meeting with Colonel Mackenzie, whom he tried to persuade to go to the rear on account of his wounds.

The Confederate belief in their victory was not unreasonable, but it was now to suffer an astonishing upset. Weary and demoralized with success, they were entirely unprepared for the vigor of their opponents, who after repulsing their last assault, quickly reformed the lines and prepared for a general advance. Sheridan writes: “This attack was brilliantly made, and as the enemy was protected by rail breastworks and at some portions of his line by stone fences, his resistance was very determined.”

The history of the Second Connecticut gives a detailed account of its movement, first against a stone wall in front which after some opposition was abandoned by the enemy, who then “attempted to rally behind another fence a little further back, but after a moment or two gave it up and ‘retired.’ Not only in front of our regiment, but all along as far as the eye could reach, both to the right and left, were they flying over the uneven country in precisely the same kind of disorder that we had exhibited in the morning. The shouts and screams of victory mingled with the roar of the firing, and never was heard ‘so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.’ The sight of so many rebel heels made it a very easy thing to be brave, and the Union troops pressed on, utterly regardless of the grape and canister which to the last moment the enemy flung behind him. It would not have been well for them to have fired too much if they had had ever so good a chance, for they would have been no more likely to hit our men than their own, who were our prisoners and scattered in squads of twenty, squads of ten, and squads of one, all over the vast field. At one time they made a determined stand along a ridge in front of our brigade. A breastwork of rails was thrown together, colors planted, a nucleus made, and both flanks grew longer and longer with wonderful rapidity. It was evident that they were driving back their men to this line without regard to regiment or organization of any kind. This could be plainly seen from the adjacent and similar ridge over which we were moving,–the pursuers being in quite as much disorder (so far as organizations were concerned) as the pursued. That growing line began to look ugly and somewhat quenched the ardor of the chase. It began to be a question in many minds whether it would not be a point of wisdom ‘to survey the vantage of the ground’ before getting much further. But just as we descended into the intervening hollow, a body of cavalry, not large but compact, was seen scouring along the fields to our right and front like a whirlwind directly toward the left flank of that formidable line on the hill. When we reached the top there was no enemy there! They had moved on and the cavalry after them.

“Thus the chase was continued, from position to position, for miles and miles, for hours and hours, until darkness closed in and every regiment went into camp on the identical ground it had left in such haste in the morning. Every man tied his shelter tent to the very same old stakes, and in half an hour coffee was boiling and salt pork sputtering over thousands of camp fires. Civil life may furnish better fare than the army at Cedar Creek had that night, but not better appetites; for it must be borne in mind that many had gone into the fight directly from their beds and had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours.

“Men from every company started out the first thing after reaching camp to look for our dead and wounded, many of whom lay not fifty rods off. The slightly wounded who had not got away had been taken prisoners and sent at once toward Richmond–while the severely wounded had lain all day on the ground near where they were hit while the tide of battle ebbed and flowed over them. Some of the mortally wounded were just able to greet their returning comrades, hear the news of victory, and send a last message to their friends before expiring. Corporal Charles M. Burr was shot above the ankle just after the battalion had risen up and started to retreat. Both bones of his leg were shattered and he had to be left. In a few minutes the rebel battalion which I have already mentioned came directly over him in pursuit, and was soon out of his sight. Then being alone for a short time he pulled off the boot from his sound leg, put his watch and money into it and put it on again. Next a merciful rebel lieutenant came and tied a handkerchief around his leg, stanching the blood. Next came the noble army of stragglers and bummers with the question, ‘Hello, Yank, have you got any Yankee notions about you?’ and at the same time thrusting their hands into every pocket. They captured a little money and small traps, but seeing one boot was spoiled they did not meddle with the other. Next came wagons, picking up muskets and accoutrements which lay thick all over the ground. Then came ambulances and picked up the rebel wounded but left ours. Then came a citizen of the Confederacy asking many questions, and then came three boys who gave him water. And thus the day wore along until the middle of the afternoon when the tide of travel began to turn. The noble army of stragglers and bummers led the advance–then the roar of battle grew nearer and louder and more general, then came galloping officers and all kinds of wagons, then a brass twelve-pounder swung round close to him, unlimbered, fired one shot, and whipped off again–then came the routed infantry, artillery, and cavalry, all mixed together, all on a full run, and strewing the ground with muskets and equipments. Then came the shouting ‘boys in blue,’ and in a few minutes Pat Birmingham came up and said: ‘Well, Charley, I’m glad to find you alive. I didn’t expect it. We’re back again in the old camp, and the Johnnies are whipped all to pieces.'”

The victory was as complete and satisfying as it was spectacular; the enemy was at last so thoroughly beaten that a dangerous attitude could not be taken again. It was a fitting close for Sheridan’s famous campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

To the Second Connecticut the day at Cedar Creek brought losses nearly as heavy as were suffered at Winchester just a month before: thirty-eight killed, ninety-six wounded, and two missing, besides a large number made prisoners,–an entire company having been captured early in the morning while on picket,–of whom eleven died in captivity. These losses were in fact proportionately even larger than those met with at Cold Harbor, as the hard service of the preceding months had reduced the regiment’s effective strength to about twenty-five officers and seven hundred men present for duty.

General Sheridan’s report on the Shenandoah campaign gave high praise to Colonel Mackenzie, who, as a result of his conduct, received a promotion and was commissioned brigadier-general in December. His disability from the two wounds received at Cedar Creek, however, necessitated his relinquishing the command of the regiment immediately after that engagement, and this devolved upon Lieutenant-Colonel James Hubbard; to him in due course came the colonel’s commission, and he led the regiment throughout the rest of its career.

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