February 26, 1863
The 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as the “Irish Dragoons,” were operating in the area of Fishers Hill, Virginia, not far from Winchester. Winchester, Virginia was a town that had endured extensive fighting and had endured occupation by both sides. The Union soldiers described the town as “half destroyed and half deserted” when they took possession of it. This tiny border town would eventually change hands 72 times by the end of the Civil War.
Winchester is located in the Shenandoah Valley, a beautiful valley of farms and orchards situated between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghany Mountains to the west. And, an area that was firmly under the control of one General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, not all that long ago. Winchester had served as Jackson’s headquarters during his Valley Campaign. Even though Jackson had left the valley for other battles, Confederate forces still prowled these lands in force.
A Contested Valley
The Shenandoah Valley provided shelter, food, and resources to the Confederates. And, it served as a four lane highway to launching assaults within the Union. Attacking from their Confederate sanctuaries within the valley, the Confederates could and would launch numerous assaults against Union controlled assets: trains, bridges, refineries, food sources, if it aided the Union, it was not safe.
The Union had committed extensive resources to the valley. My great (x3) grandfather Daniel Caldwell and his brother Ezekiel Caldwell, were with the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which had been ordered into the valley in an effort to keep the Confederates at bay. On February 26th, the 13th Cavalry had picked up the trail of a group of Confederate raiders and were giving chase.
The unit had been divided into two battalions of cavalry for the hunt. One battalion was commanded by Major Byrne and the other was commanded by Major Kerwin. The two battalions came into contact with another and were conjoined with one another as the two Majors discussed their operational plans. It was during this interlude that the Confederate cavalry, who was fully aware of the Union soldier’s activities, surprised the Union soldiers and descended upon them with the fury they were well known for. An estimated 300-400 Confederate Cavalry soldiers charged with a hail of bullets and drawn sabers and the 13th Cavalry unit quickly collapsed and fled.
I found two newspaper accounts of the incident. And, they paint a very grim accounting of the regiment. As the 13th Pennsylvania was not in a fighting formation, the Confederates were able to gain a tactical advantage and the Union soldiers turned and fled even though they outnumbered their Confederate attackers.
For twenty miles, the two battalions fled on horseback driving their horses to exhaustion, while the Confederates attacked at will. One newspaper reporter described it with the grim description of “the sport of the enemy can be likened to nothing but that of the Indian in chasing a herd of buffaloes, taking his game with unerring certainty from the rear of the flying drove.”
As the Union soldiers fled, those in the front of the fleeing column turned and fired back at the Confederates, and instead struck their fellow soldiers or their horses killing them instead. Many horses simply died from exhaustion as their riders drove them to flee as fast as possible. For the soldiers who now found themselves on foot, they were easy targets for the Confederates on horseback.
When it was all over the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry had suffered a terrible loss. Reports of the number dead, wounded or captured vary with each account. However, it appears that the officially recorded loss was noted as 2 dead, 2 officers wounded, 11 missing, and 177 captured. Many of those that were captured would be destined for Andersonville, the notorious prisoner of war camp of the Confederates. The majority of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry soldiers sent to Andersonville would die there.
Union General Shenck would later describe the affair of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry as “disgraceful in the extreme.” In one rout, the unit lost almost a third of its soldiers and horses.
Daniel and Ezekiel Caldwell survived this engagement. However, I suspect the experience and the disgrace experienced here would burn brightly in their memory. And, I am sure it would influence later events.
Eric J. Wynn is a professional traveler who believes the Tolkien mantra “that not all who wander are lost.” If you have knowledge of the 13th Pennsylvannia Cavalry, Eric would love to communicate with you.
Burns, K. (Producer). (1990). Ken Burns’ Civil War [Documentary]. [Written by G. Ward]. United States: Public Broadcasting Services
Hand Jr., Harold. (2000). One Good Regiment. British Columbia: Trafford Publishing
Unknown Author. (1863, March 9). The Late Fight Near Strasburg. Daily Patriot and Union, p.2.
Unknown Author. (1863, February 27). The Late Fight Near Strasburg. Pilot, p.2.