Battling Along the Back Road

burning of Valley

Custer’s Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, October 7, 1864, by Alfred R.Waud (Library of Congress)

Between September 26 and October 9, 1864, the Shenandoah Valley’s agricultural production and processing capacity was targeted and demolished. Author Jeffry Wert would note: “Americans had never before seen such demolition, executed with such skill and thoroughness.” The event, which would become known as “The Burning,” would be a methodical two-week crusade to destroy the Shenandoah Valley as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Crops, barns, farm buildings, mills and even dwellings would be incinerated. Stores of grain, crops, and livestock would be destroyed or appropriated for the use of the Union Army. This was “total warfare” brought to the doorsteps of a civilian population.

General Ulysses Grant advised Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck to see to it that General Jubal Early’s Army was shadowed by “veterans, militia men, men on horseback, and everything that can be got to follow,” with explicit orders to “eat out Virginia clean and clear as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender with them.”

On October 6, George Custer’s 3rd Division broke camp at Dayton, Virginia near dawn, and proceeded in a northerly direction along the North River until they reached the Back Road in the town of Spring Creek. Here fiery destruction was expected to begin in earnest. The targets, however, were to be the “farms inhabited by peaceful Mennonites and Dunkards.” General Custer was sympathetic to the plight of these people and there is no indication that he allowed any of their farm buildings to be torched. Only the grist mills were targeted.

Once Custer’s men crossed the Dry River, however, having left the farms of the Mennonites and Dunkers behind them, the burning began in earnest. Custer’s troopers pushed on gathering livestock of every variety; slaughtering those they could not secure. Union troopers were told “to take all the stock, and to destroy all the supplies on the back road.”

Back Road

Map Showing the Back Road and the Battlefields of Brock’s Gap and Mill Creek.

Cavalry leader General Thomas Rosser commanded the Laurel Brigade, as well as that of General Williams Wickham’s. Evidence of the magnitude of Custer’s efforts would begin to show itself shortly after sunrise. It did not take long for Rebel troopers to mount up and commence their pursuit of Union cavalry. Private Beverly Whittle of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry was involved in the chase. As he progressed along the Back Road he noted: “All along our route were burning barns houses the very air is impregnated with the smell of burning property.” The “Fertile Valley of Virginia is one vast cloud of smoke.”

Newton Burkholder had, early in the war, been a Confederate soldier and later, since January of 1863, a telegraph operator in Harrisonburg. When Union occupation had forced his office to close, Newton had joined a group called the “Winfield’s Guerillas.” As a result, Newton would be a witness to the destruction that was unfolding in the valley. On October 6, 1864 he noted: “Now the whole vale is red with fire mile on mile, and enveloped in smoke high overhead, twisting and writhing, dissolving. See! Yonder goes right at Broadway, John J. Bowman’s mill, Sam Cline’s great stone barn! A sense of our powerlessness oppresses us. Stupidity lays hold on the mind, succeeding consternation. Is the world being set on fire?”

Scores of the men in Rosser’s force had property and family in this part of the Valley. The further they rode the more incensed they became. Confederate troopers were “understrength, underfed and in many cases mounted on horses past their prime.” Enraged, these men were eager to close on the enemy and seek revenge. It did not take long for an opportunity to arise.

James Taylor, who was an artist with Leslie’s Illustrated News, was currently riding with General Custer’s men. In addition to his drawings, Taylor described engagements ascribed to Federal cavalrymen as they burned farm buildings in the Shenandoah Valley. “The main body in columns of fours was in the rear detaching parties to the right and left to burn every mill, barn and haystack to be seen… When the enemy pressed too close, the men would halt and face about, a brisk fullisade would last a few moments, when the graycoats would be off, then trotting on, the rear guard would halt at the edge of the next hill or belt of woods to repeat the operation.”

Battle of Brock's Gap

Map of the Battle of Brock’s Gap

Late in the day on October 6, the 18th Pennsylvania and 5th New York Cavalry had gone into camp near Cootes’ Store at Brock’s Gap. This is the spot where the North Fork of the Shenandoah River pushes through North Mountain at Gap Rock. Here a lane also leads east toward Broadway and New Market. Custer’s men had been held up here for a bit while attempting to drive hundreds of heads of cattle and other livestock across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. As a result of the delay, Union and Confederate troopers would come into contact.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, troopers in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry were ordered dismounted by Colonel Thomas Mumford and flung against Union cavalrymen who had been posted as skirmishers near Key’s Mill, southwest of the river. When the 4th Virginia Cavalry was added to the attack the Union line began to waver. According to Private Beverly Whittle, as the fighting intensified, the Yankees “broke + ran in confusion.”

Colonel Mumford continued to press his advantage. Custer’s men were soon forced back across Dry River and then across the Shenandoah itself. Some of the New Yorkers panicked and some seventy of them fled to the protection of North Mountain. Rebel horsemen appeared to be on the verge of a significant victory.

Fearing the worst, however, General Custer sent a request to his artillery commander for support. Captains Charles Pierce and Dunbar Ransom brought up their “artillery and posted it on a high hill.” With Union artillery added to the mix, Custer’s retreat was quickly halted and order was soon restored. Even the New Yorkers, who had fled westward into the hills in panic, soon return to the ranks. As Confederate cavalry had no artillery support available, they too withdrew.

The following morning General Rosser continued to nip at the heels of Custer’s troopers as they continued to burn the farms along the Back Road. Custer was now operating in Shenandoah County. The further the men of the Laurel Brigade rode, the more complete the destruction became.

Most of the mills, excluding Zerkel’s Mill at Forestville, were soon consumed by fire. The owner, Samuel Hockman, anticipating impending destruction “ran to the top floor of the mill, leaned out a window under the eaves of the structure, and nailed a United States flag to the peak of the roof.” By acting quickly, and by welcoming Union Cavalry, he was able to save the structure.

Zirkel mill.png

Current Photo of Zerkel’s Mill in Forestville.

Colonel James H. Kidd of Custer’s brigade described the scene as they continued to set fire to Valley structures: “What I saw there is burned into my memory. The anguish pictured in their faces would have melted any heart not seared by the horrors and ‘necessities’ of war. It was too much for me and at the first moment that duty would permit I hurried from the scene.”

Rosser’s men continued to pursue the enemy. George Pond believed the Confederate “zeal was due in part to the excitement of his men at seeing their farms and homes in flames; for many of Early’s cavalrymen were from the region. Their eagerness to extract retribution brought upon them double mortification and suffering.”

Battle of Mill Creek

Map showing Troop movements During the Battle of Mill Creek.

About 3:00 in the afternoon of October 7, the Laurel Brigade reached Mill Creek along the Back Road in the area known as Mount Clifton. Here he found Custer’s men on the opposite bank, once again, stalled just north of the ford by hundreds of heads of livestock, and human refugees. Still lacking artillery support, Rosser quickly ordered Colonel Richard Dulany to take Elijah White’s Battalion of the 35th Virginia, and the 7th Virginia Cavalry downriver to the lower ford and attack Custer on his left flank. Dulaney, encountering Union scouts as soon as he crossed Mill Creek, continued to push on. He quickly ordered the 7th Virginia, with 220 troopers, to charge.

Lieutenant Colonel John Bennett’s 1st Vermont Cavalry, about four hundred strong, were there to greet the charging Virginians. Many of these Green Mountain boys were raw replacements, newly arrived from Vermont. Though a request was sent out for reinforcements only a small detachment from the 8th New York and the 1st New Hampshire Cavalry answered the call. Though the odds were in Federal’s favor, enthusiasm and the desire for revenge was on the side of the Confederates.

While Captain Dan Hatcher led the 1st Squadron of the 7th Virginia Cavalry on its flank attack, Delaney conferred with Captain Frank Myer of White’s Comanches. Myer’s asked for orders, but due to the noise and confusion of the moment, it was impossible to understand each other. Myer’s returned to his men and would act on his own impulses.

On his return, Union troopers were putting up a heavy rifle fire with their Spencer and Henry repeating rifles. “Knowing that his men could not remain in that position a minute longer, Myer’s gave the order to charge, which was performed in the most brilliant style. This he did “with his customary dash.” Just as Hatcher began his attack, General Rosser ordered the 11th and 12th Virginia to charge directly across the stream.

The Comanches now numbered less that two hundred men. “In a very brief space the battalion was among the Yankees. Neutralizing their superiority in numbers and carbines by a very free use of their pistols and sabers.” Custer’s men “put forth a feeble resistance and quickly fell back to their main force.” Though the Confederates “could not get within sword’s distance of their enemy”, the Federals could not withstand the power of the attack.

Custer was soon forced to withdraw north and west along Mill Creek. The fighting would continue until nightfall when Rosser’s men drew back. Overwhelmed, Custer’s troopers retreated under cover of darkness. Casualties were light for both sides. The 7th Virginia had two men killed and one captured. The Comanches “had several men wounded, among them Captain Myers, but none were killed or very badly hurt.”

Mill Creek Sign

State Sign for Battle of Mill Creek.

Rosser would recapture several hundred head of sheep and cattle following the Battle of Mill Creek. He would attempt to return the livestock to the locals. The effort was well received by the residents of the Valley. They would label General Rosser the “Savior of the Valley” as a result of his efforts. It was a brand Rosser would savor for the rest of his life.

Late on October 7, Sheridan would report to Grant: “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills, filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep.”

Mill Creek Battlefield

Current Day Photo of Mill Creek Battlefield.  Mill Creek Runs Left to Right Just Beyond the Trees at the End of the field.

On the morning of October 9, 1864, General Custer and six thousand cavalrymen would sit opposite General Rosser’s thirty-five hundred troopers at Tom’s Brook. Many of these men were posted along the borders of the Back Road. Battle was imminent. Private George W. Hunt of the 15th New York Cavalry watched as General Custer rode beyond his line and addressed his opponent. “In plain view of both armies…Sweeping off his broad-brimmed hat, he threw it down to his knee in a profound salute to his foe.” “Custer replaced his hat, turned to his line of men and the next moment the 3rd Division was sweeping on at a trot, the flaming neck tie and bright curls of Custer before all…” Rosser’s cavalrymen were quickly routed. As a result he battle would be dubbed “Woodstock Races.”

Toms Brook Map

Battle of Tom’s Brook or Woodstock Races

Following the war, General Rosser would divulge his feelings about the enemy and the burning of the Valley. “The soldiers who were required by Gen. Sheridan to lay waste the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with the torch were brave, good men, and were blameless in the part they took, for they only did as they were ordered, and every prisoner seemed heartily ashamed such a cowardly means had been employed in the endeavor to crush a brave people who never declined battle. And who could at all times have been met on the field under the rules and customs of civilized war.”

Warfare in the Shenandoah Valley would soon terminate following the decisive Battles of Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek. The families, and their descendants, however, would long remember the acts perpetrated by General Sheridan’s troopers. The scars are still evident. Some of the ruins are still visible. In the end, total war, though seldom executed prior to the Civil War, would, regrettably, become the standard for modern armies.

http://www.shenandoahatwar.org/red-with-fire-the-burning-of-the-shenandoah-valley/

https://www.nps.gov/cebe/learn/historyculture/the-burning.htm

https://www.hottelkeller.org/wp/home/museum/the-battle-of-toms-brook/

Armstrong, Richard L. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E. Howard Inc. Lynchburg, Virginia. 1992.

Barringer, Sheridan. Custer’s Grey Rival: The Life of Confederate Major General Thomas Lafayette Rosser. Fox Run Publishing. Burlington, N.C. 2016.

Burkholder, Newton. The Barn Burners: A Chapter of Sheridan’s Raid up the Valley. Southern Historical Society Papers. Volume XXVIII. Richmond, Va. 1900.

Miller, William J. Decision at Tom’s Brook: George Custer, Thomas Rosser, and the Joy of the Fight. Savas Beatie. El Dorado Hills, Ca. 2016

Myers, Frank M. The Comanches: A History of White’s Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. Kelly, Piet & Co., Publishers. Baltimore, Md. 1871.

Taylor, James E. With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley. Morningside House, Inc. Dayton, Oh. 1989,

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