The First Battle of Wapping Heights

A little more that twenty years ago, while writing a regimental history of the 4th Maine Infantry, I came across an entry in the Official Records of the Civil War indicating the regiment had fought in a battle called “Wapping Heights.” I did not expend a lot of effort researching the engagement when I was writing the book as I assumed it was a minor skirmish. The 4th Maine had, after all, been absolutely devastated just three weeks before while fighting in the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg.  The unit had lost half of its officers and nearly half of its enlisted men there. My research on Wapping Heights indicated the regiment had just one man wounded out of the thirteen officers, and one hundred and sixty-nine sergeants, corporals, and privates left in the regiment. I assumed the fight at Wapping Heights must have been of little significance. I was wrong.

According to the record, early on the morning of July 23, 1863, the Maine regiment saw its first action that day when they were ordered to provide support for the 4th Maine Battery. As the day wore on, however, more work was required of them. When it was discovered that the Confederates had entrenched themselves on the summit of a hill known locally as Wapping Heights, General John Hobart Ward assigned the task of clearing the prominence to the 3rd and 4th Maine Infantry. While the two Maine regiments climbed the hill, out of sight of the Confederates, the 1st and 2nd U. S Sharpshooters “kept up a brisk and accurate fire on the rebels above. As soon as the Maine men reached the crest, they stood, and at once fired a deadly volley which both surprised and routed the enemy. Many of the Confederates were captured, but many more fell dead or wounded from the deadly musket fire. Those that survived were routed and pursued at a brisk pace for more than a mile and a half.”

Wapping Heights new

July 23, Map of the Second Battle of Wapping Heights, or Manassas Gap.

This was all that I knew about the Battle of Wapping Heights. I later learned Union troops had labeled the contest the Battle of Manassas Gap. I never once thought of the fracas as being significant. After all, only one 4th Maine man had been wounded there. Further, if I had been asked, I would have sworn the 4th Maine had never visited, nor had it fought in, the Shenandoah Valley. Once again, I would have been wrong on all counts.

Though it had always been my understanding that the Battle of Wapping Heights was considered to be the last engagement in the Gettysburg Campaign, I did not know the skirmish was actually fought in two segments over a three-day period. I suppose the fight the 4th Maine had been involved in on July 23 could have been called the Second Battle of Wapping Heights. What one might label the First Battle of Wapping Heights was actually fought two days earlier on July 21. It is with that day’s contest that this story is dedicated.

For the Confederates the first day’s combat at Wapping Heights mainly involved one regiment, the Seventeenth Virginia Infantry Regiment. The Seventeenth Virginia had been mustered into service in May of 1861. The unit had seen action in nearly all of the major campaigns and battles fought by the Army of Northern Virginia from First Manassas to Fredericksburg.

At Antietam the 17th Virginia marshalled just fifty-six combatants. Undaunted by its size its commander, Montgomery Corse, led the regiment in a heroic attack that captured two Federal colors. When the contest was over only its commander and seven other fighters were left standing. The regiment would endure but it would miss the conflict at Chancellorsville while they were on detached service with General James Longstreet while his Corps was operating independently near Suffolk, Virginia.

When Robert E. Lee began his invasion of the north in June of 1863, one of General George Pickett’s Brigades, the one the 17th Virginia belonged to, was left behind to guard the Virginia Central Railroad near Gordonsville. Its new brigade commander, Montgomery Corse, was very disappointed that he and his brigade had been excluded from the Gettysburg campaign. When news reached Richmond of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, though, the brigade was ordered north to Winchester to reinforce Lee’s Army.

Corse

General Montgomery Corse

When Corse’s Brigade was ordered to rejoin Lee’s Army, it included the 15th, 17th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiments, and numbered some twelve hundred men. The brigade would march more than one hundred miles in less than five days in order to rejoin their old division. With General Pickett’s battering during his famous charge at Gettysburg his division was in critical need of these reinforcements.

Simpson

Major Robert H. Simpson

The commander of the 17th Virginia Infantry at this time was Major Robert H. Simpson. Simpson was an 1845 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. Most recently he had worked as an educator at Front Royal Male and Female Academy. In 1859 he had helped organize a militia company in that same community which became known as the Warren Rifles. In early 1860 the unit was officially attached to the 149th Regiment of Virginia Militia.

The second contender in the First Battle of Wapping Heights was a Federal cavalry brigade commanded by Brigadier General Wesley Merritt. Merritt was an 1860 graduate of West Point. Currently he commanded the Reserve Brigade, 1st Division, Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Merritt had been slightly wounded at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. Three weeks later he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers for his “gallant and meritorious service” there. He was one of a diminutive number of Union officers promoted directly from captain to brigadier general.

Merritt

General Wesley Merritt

On July 20, 1863, Cavalry Division commander General John Buford, was assigned the mission of trying to penetrate the Blue Ridge Mountain Range and to cut off Robert E. Lee’s route of retreat from Gettysburg. At five PM that day, while located at Piedmont, General Buford divided his command into three segments. Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s Reserve Brigade, accompanied by Battery K, 1st US Artillery, was ordered to advance on Manassas Gap some fourteen miles distant. By early evening Merritt had arrived at a point one mile east of the gap where he bivouacked for the night.

The following morning General Merritt dispatched a detachment from the 1st US Cavalry toward the western exit of Manassas Gap. Their instructions were to “penetrate as far as practicable toward Front Royal.” “This unit rode to within two miles of Front Royal and reported back that they had not detected any enemy.” Merritt conveyed the information back to General Buford stating he could “gain no further information up to this time.”

On July 21, Corse’s Brigade and Read’s Battery began their day camped at Cedarville, just nine miles distant from Manassas Gap. Corse had ordered his command rousted just before dawn. “After allowing time for a hurried breakfast, the general put his brigade on the road about daylight.” The march from Cedarville to the banks of the Shenandoah River was about four miles.

Unfortunately, when the brigade arrived opposite Front Royal the pontoon bridges had not yet been laid across the Shenandoah River. The brigade was ordered to ford the river which they did at great danger to themselves.  The south fork of the river was running exceptionally high due to recent rains. Several of the men were swept downstream and lost. The remaining members of the 17th regiment, some two hundred and seventy soldiers strong, stubbornly persisted and completed the crossing by nine AM.

Nelly and Lucy Buck

Nellie and Lucy Buck

Twenty year old Lucy Buck, one of six hundred inhabitants of Front Royal, found herself on the streets of town that morning cheering as the waterlogged members of the 17th Virginia Infantry marched into town. Much attention was paid to Company B, the town’s own Warren Rifles. Lucy’s spotted two acquaintances which she described as “poor worn, dirty fellows, dusty and bronzed by the sun.” The two of them fell out of the ranks to speak to her but “were so hurried they could only exchange greetings before they ran back to rejoin their company.” She watched their “receding figures gradually lose themselves in the throng of martial forms.” Lucy “looked after the regiment as long as it could be seen through tears” and then returned to her home.

The majority of Corse’s brigade, including the 30th, 29th, 32nd and 15th Virginia, were ordered south toward Chester Gap. The 17th Virginia, on the other hand, was ordered to march east where they were to guard Manassas Gap. By nine thirty AM the 17th Virginia was marching upward toward the western end of ravine. Their objective was the small hamlet of Linden. Here they would set up a defensive line along a prominence known as Wapping Heights.

Wapping Heights derived its name from the nearby home of John and Sarah Hansbrough. Their residence was known locally as the Wapping House. “The dwelling had stood as a relay station for the stagecoach before the war.” It was known as an “ordinary which was a business that provided food, liquor, and lodging for passengers traveling through Manassas Gap.”

Determined to avoid any surprises, and realizing the capture of Front Royal would cut off the retreat of General Lee’s Army, Major Simpson began to lay out his plan to defend Manassas Gap. First Simpson detailed Companies B and C, numbering some sixty-three men, “to take the mountain road to Wapping and watch out for the regiment’s left flank.” He then detailed Companies A, E, and G, about fifty-five combatants strong under the command of Captain James Stewart, to perform picket duty out in advance of the main line. The remaining companies’, one hundred and fifty men total, would setup in the woods just off the main road.

Merritt’s 1st U. S. Cavalry soon spotted the three companies of the 17th Virginia that had been sent out as pickets. The cavalrymen formed line and quickly charged the Confederate infantry putting them to flight. Of the fifty-five Virginia infantrymen Major Simpson had placed on picket duty the Yankee cavalrymen quickly captured some twenty of them, including four officers.

As the charge continued on the threat of the approaching attack trickled back to the remaining members of the 17th Virginia. As the riders approached the Confederates they unleashed a volley which emptied the saddles of several of the Union riders. Captain Eugene Baker of the 1st U. S. Cavalry was determined to carry the position, however, and drive on to Front Royal. Baker would make several additional attempts to dislodge the Confederates, all of which were unsuccessful.

Major Simpson quickly realized the gravity of the situation. Private Edgar Warfield was dispatched on horseback to find General Pickett and request reinforcements. When word finally reached Pickett of the crisis at the gap, he ordered Major Joseph R. Cabell, who commanded what was left of Lewis Armistead’s brigade, to assist the 17th Virginia. Pickett realized the survival of Lee’s Army was at stake.

The sounds of the fighting in Manassas Gap could be plainly heard in Front Royal. Lucy Buck heard “rumors of the advance of the Yankees into town.” Lucy’s father reported to his family shortly after noon that the “17th had engaged the enemy near Mr. Armistead’s and ‘twas reported they were surrounded and would be captured unless Pickett’s division, which was expected, should arrive in time to relieve them.” The discharge of musketry “which was ever and anon heard” terrified the townspeople. Everyone wanted to know was if their “poor boys were safe.”

Frustrated by his inability to shove the Rebels out of his way, Captain Baker called upon General Merritt for assistance. Merritt responded by sending the 2nd US Cavalry to join in the fighting. The arrival of these reinforcements produced another round of combat during which the 17th Virginia had two of its color bearers shot. Once again, however, the Federal attack was repelled.

At this point General Merritt decided to send additional help in the form of Captain Julius W. Mason’s 5th U. S. Cavalry. It was decided they would try to outflank the Southern line on their left flank by way of the Mountain Road. Fortunately, Major Simpson had anticipated this move. Companies’ B and C had been dispatched there previously to guard against this actuality. A quick volley from this small detachment knocked down just one man but put the remaining Union cavalrymen to flight.

About 4:00 PM “the beleaguered Virginians heard the sound of drums beating behind them. This time, however, their hopeful glances were rewarded with what one man described as the “glorious sight” of a Confederate battle flag drifting over a “long gray line of veterans” rushing to their assistance. Cabell had formed Armistead’s brigade into line west of Wapping Heights before he began his final advance toward Manassas Gap. The Union cavalrymen were quickly pushed aside and fighting was concluded for the day. Wapping Heights and, more importantly, Front Royal still remained in Confederate hands.

About six PM Merritt reported to his commander “I am occupying the Gap” having been ordered to do so “at any and every cost.” “Have made frequent reports to headquarters through General Buford. Find the enemy in strong position at the west end of the Gap. Had two small fights yesterday, and have been skirmishing more or less all day. Used the artillery freely this morning. The enemy show no disposition to advance, save by turning my flanks. Columns of cavalry are reported moving down the Valley to Front Royal from Winchester, and large wagon trains have been seen on same road.”

Lucy Buck would record in her diary “the 17th had succeeded in repulsing a body much larger than their own of dismounted cavalry – old U. S. regulars. Huzzah! Bless our glorious 17th! How they have longed ever since the war for a brush with the foe in the Valley and near their homes, and now that wish has been gratified, they’ve whipped them bravely.”

On the same day that the 17th Virginia was fighting for its life at Wapping Heights, Robert E. Lee had set up his tent for the night among the soldiers of the Second Corps two miles south of Winchester. Unknown to him two hundred and seventy soldiers of the 17th Virginia had held off the advances of a full Federal cavalry brigade at Manassas Gap. Their stand there had prevented Union forces from taking Front Royal and allowed Lee’s engineers to complete a pontoon bridge across the Shenandoah River.

About two in the afternoon of July 22, A. P. Hill Corps reached Front Royal and began crossing the Shenandoah River. There would be no fighting that day while General Merritt awaited the arrival of reinforcements. William Buck, Lucy’s father, was currently in town watching the battered vestiges of the Army of Northern Virginia cross over the pontoon bridges. It was a little before four o’clock when William spotted General Robert E. Lee and his staff and quickly invited them to his home for refreshments. General Lee gratefully accepted the invitation.

Bel Air

Post War Photo of Bel Air Which was Owned by the Buck Family.

Lucy Buck was at home when General Lee and his officers arrived at Bel Air. Lucy remembered how the men tried to “stretch their cramped limbs and drink fresh buttermilk. I shall never forget the grand old chief as he stood on the porch surrounded by his officers; a tall commanding figure clad in dusty, travel-stained gray but with a courtly, dignified bearing.” Lucy and her sister Nellie played the piano and sang a “rebel song” at General Lee’s request. For a few moments the war was forgotten. It was an event that would not soon be forgotten by the general or the residents of Bel Air.

Refreshed, General Lee remounted Traveler and was soon well on his way to Chester Gap. A large part of Lee’s Army, however, was still strung out along the road between Winchester and Front Royal. As we mentioned earlier, an additional days fighting would take place on July 23rd in Manassas Gap between elements of the Union Armies’ III Corps and a small segment of Lee’s Army.

Lucy Buck remembered the shooting continued all afternoon on the 23rd. She recalled how they “could distinctly see the flash of the cannon, see the smoke, and see the shell when it exploded – see the troops moving about the pieces.” “Toward dusk the firing gradually ceased and now all is calm.” When the last shot was fired that day the Confederates still held the gap. And with that last discharge so too would end the Gettysburg Campaign, all within the confines of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Robert e lee button

Robert E Lee’s Button at the Warren Museum.

As an interesting side note, several years after the war, when Robert E. Lee was president of Washington College in Lexington, Lucy wrote a letter to him requesting a “personal memento” of his 1863 visit. Lee “responded with a kind note enclosing a uniform button that, he said, had ‘accompanied him in all his Virginia campaigns.’” Both the note and the uniform button have been preserved and are on display at the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum on Chester Street in Front Royal. For those of you interested in viewing this rare item I suggest a visit to the museum. The collection housed there is well worth your time. The museum is currently closed until April 15.

Warren Rifles Museum

Warren Rifles Museum on Chester Street in Front Royal

 

Baer, Elizabeth. Shadows on My Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia. University of Georgia Press. Athens, Ga. 1997.

Dalton, Peter. With Our Faces to the Foe: A History of the 4th Maine Infantry in the War of the Rebellion. Union Publishing. Union, Maine. 1997.

Hunt, Jeffrey. Meade and Lee After Gettysburg: The Forgotten Final Stage of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Falling Waters to Culpeper Court House, July 14-31, 1863. Savas Beatie. El Dorado Hills, Ca. 2017

Official Records, Part III-VOL. XXVII, CORRESPONDENCE. pp 730-756.

Official Records, Part III-VOL. XXXIX, CORRESPONDENCE. p. 510.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Merritt

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