Battle of Berryville will be included in new Civil War book
BERRYVILLE — The Third Battle of Winchester was more than two weeks in the future when Confederate Gen. Joseph Kershaw stumbled into a sharp fight on what is now the campus of the new Clarke County High School in Berryville.
The date was Sept. 3, 1864, and Union Gen. Philip Sheridan was in the Shenandoah Valley stalking Confederate Gen. Jubal Early following Early’s earlier attack on Washington.
For Confederate control of the Shenandoah Valley, it was the beginning of the end.
But neither side knew it was on a collision course with the other, until late that fall afternoon in Berryville.
Civil War historian and author Scott Patchen is working on a book about the 1864 campaign in the Valley, “The Last Battle of Winchester,” which is part of a series focusing on battles and tactics used during the final months of the American Civil War.
The Berryville fight “just happened, kind of by accident,” Patchen said.
Confederate Gen. Richard Anderson, sent to help fill out Early’s ranks, was finding the Valley a dull place. On Sept. 3, he decided to move east, over the Blue Ridge and into Loudoun County, perhaps to tempt Sheridan to divide his forces.
Sheridan, who had been cautiously trying to get a handle on Early’s numbers, had just been given the go-ahead to go after the Confederates, following the news that Union Gen. W.T. Sherman had taken Atlanta on Sept. 1.
Photographer and cartographer Dana MacBean of South Carolina has created a map of the Berryville fight that will be included in Patchen’s work.
MacBean was recently in Berryville with his map to talk about the military maneuvers that took place on that September afternoon almost 150 years ago.
The terrain has changed a bit since then, said MacBean, standing at the bus entrance to the new high school.
Using old maps, along with topographic surveys from the 20th century, added to descriptions from those who fought and historians who have studied the fight, MacBean put together the layout of the battle.
He’s also added some additional historic information, such as the routes of old roads and some activities of Mosby’s rangers.
Construction of the new school has transformed the look of the land on top of what was known in the past as “Grindstone Hill” west of Berryville.
Pointing to the field between Westwood Road and what is now Rosemont Inn, MacBean said it’s still easy to see why Union advance forces dug earthworks there. The high ground gave a good view east to the town and west toward Winchester.
On that September day, as the Confederates advanced from Winchester at 4 p.m., they were rather surprised to find the 2nd Maryland and the 1st West Virginia units, picketed astride the Berryville Pike, approximately where St. Bridget’s Catholic Church sits today.
The Union troopers were pushed back by the strength of the Confederate units. They stopped east of Westwood Road, where they found some shallow earthworks for cover.
What Anderson, with 3,700 men, didn’t know was that the federal Army of West Virginia, 7,000 strong under Gen. Crook, was moving into Berryville from the north. Crook sent out more troops to back up his pickets, and the battle began.
On that day, MacBean said, there were woods covering the north side of the road, where the school now stands, and down the hill toward the town.
As the Confederates attacked, units of Crook’s army stopped pitching tents and rushed into battle.
A future U.S. President, Rutherford B. Hayes, was one of the Union officers trying to stem the gray tide on the east side of Rosemont. He and his men took up a position behind a stone wall.
When the retreating Union troops, pushed from the earthworks, jumped over that wall, those behind poured a volley into the Confederates that threw them back, and followed up with a bayonet charge.
At that point, the battle “stabilized” and, as night fell, Patchen reports in his book, the two sides contented themselves hurling artillery and small arms fire at each other.
Another future president, William McKinley, on Crook’s staff, later recalled that the darkness over Berryville was “a brilliant scene: the heavens were fairly illuminated by the flashes of our own and the enemies’ guns.”
But dwindling ammunition, fatigue and rain ended the fighting.
MacBean is working on his own Civil War book, featuring the drawings of illustrator James Taylor, who was “embedded” with Sheridan’s troops during the fall campaign of 1864.
Expected to be out this year, MacBean has spent many years visiting the sites that Taylor sketched during the war and photographing the land as it is now.
On his map for Patchen, he has referenced the pages of the original “James Taylor Sketch Book” that contain sketches of places in the Berryville area covered by the map.
One of those spots is a sketch Taylor made, from other people’s descriptions, of the hanging of Union soldiers, which Col. John Mosby ordered after some of his own men were hung by the Union army in Front Royal.
It happened in Beemer’s Woods, MacBean said.
The Beemer household sat back off Winchester Pike, north of the extension of Mosby Boulevard, and south of the Harry Byrd Bypass.
The new bus entrance to the high school lies basically on the old lane that led to the homestead.
MacBean argues that the actual hangings were probably done close to the Winchester Pike, now West Main Street, since the action was supposed to serve as a warning to the Union about how to treat southern prisoners. It had to take place where the bodies would be seen, he said.
MacBean said his work on the Berryville fight may be the last map he ever makes. But, he added, it has been worth all the work.
With the destruction of the woods over the years, and the re-sculpting of the ground for the high school, only a few places on the old battlefield look now like they looked then.
As teachers and parents and students walk into the high school in years to come, “I hope it helps people understand what they re walking on,” MacBean said.
— Contact Val Van Meter at email@example.com