After the bloodiest year of the war for the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and the Reserve Brigade, troopers must have been looking forward to going into winter camp near Winchester in time for the holidays. After all, they had weathered hard fighting in multiple major battles in two different campaigns in two different areas over the course of the year. General Early’s army had been soundly defeated, and there were no Confederate forces of any strength remaining in the Shenandoah Valley the week before Christmas. Imagine their surprise, then, when the following order was received:
“Field Orders, Headquarters First Cavalry Division, December 18, 1864
The command will be prepared to march early to-morrow morning. Four Days’ rations will be issued and carried on the horses. Each man will be supplied with eighty rounds of carbine ammunition and the usual supply of pistol ammunition.
The Second Brigade will take along one section (rifled) of its battery, the best horses being selected for the march. Camp guards consisting of the dismounted men, and those mounted on unserviceable horses, will be left in camp in each brigade under charge of a field officer. The ranking field officer will take charge of the entire division camp, picketing and making other necessary dispositions for its safety.
No other wheels save those mentioned above will accompany the expedition, save the following: Six ambulances, two wagons to division headquarters, one wagon to brigade headquarters, three wagons for commissary supplies.
These preparations must all be made at once. Further instructions will be given as to the time of march, &c.
By command of Brevet Major General Merritt:
A.E. Dana, Assistant Adjutant-General.”
And so began ten miserable days of winter campaigning. Although General Sheridan had written somewhat dismissively to General Grant on the usefulness of cutting the Central Railroad to interdict Confederate supplies between the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond, he ordered the raid. In case there were any Confederate forces in the area, he ordered General Custer to take his division south through the Valley at the same time Torbert was departing with the other two divisions of the cavalry. General Torbert’s report is a pretty detailed account of the raid.
Headquarters Cavalry Corps, Army of the Middle Military Division
Winchester, Va., December 28, 1864
Sir: I have the honor to report that I started from Winchester on the 19th of December, with the First and Second Divisions of Cavalry, without artillery, about 5,000 men, across the Blue Ridge. On the night of the 19th I camped in Chester Gap, having marched about twenty-two miles, via Front Royal, crossing both branches of the Shenandoah River. It rained nearly all day. December 20, crossed the Blue Ridge, marched via Little Washington, Gaines’ Cross-Roads, and Sperryville, in the direction of Criglersville; marched about twenty-nine miles, Second Division camping on the Hughes River and the First Division on the Hazel. This night it hailed and sleeted all night. During the day the enemy’s vedettes were driven before the advance. December 21, at daylight the march was resumed, in a hail and snow storm which lasted all day, via Criglersville, to Madison Court-House, over one the worst roads I ever traveled. The First Division went to Madison Court-House, had an engagement with Jackson’s brigade of rebel cavalry, driving them from the town, with slight loss. Second Division camped on Robertson’s River near Criglersville. December 22, at daylight the march was resumed, Second Division leading, on the pike in the direction Liberty Mills and Gordonsville. The enemy’s cavalry – Generals Jackson’s and McCausland’s brigades, General Lomax commanding – were driven rapidly before my advance and across the bridge over the Rapidan, at Liberty Mills. On my advance reaching the bridge, which they did under a severe fire from men behind breast-works on the opposite bank, they found some of the flooring of the bridge had been removed. Immediately after reaching the river the bridge was fired by an explosion and soon destroyed. The ford, wich was a bad one, was barricaded and defended by men in rifle pits and artillery in position behind earth-works. It was impossible to effect a crossing in front. Some delay was caused by having to send through the country to find parties who knew the roads to fords above and below Liberty Mills, so that I could cross and flank them out of their position. Finally two columns were started, one to the right and one to the left. Two brigades of the First Division – First and Second, Second Brigade leading, commanded by Colonel Kellogg, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry – were to cross at Willis’ Ford, about two miles above Liberty Mills, and come down on the Stanardsville and Orange Court-House road. One brigade Second Division, Colonel Capehart commanding, was to cross at Cave’s Ford, about three miles below Liberty Mills, and come up on the Orange Court-House and Stanardsville road. It was represented that both of these fords were good, and that the detour of these columns would be about four miles, when, in fact, the column at Willis’ Ford could only cross by twos and had to march about eight miles before getting to Liberty Mills, and the column by Cave’s Ford could only cross by file and had to march about seven miles before getting to Liberty Mills. This caused an unexpected delay, and it was not until just dark when the right column came in sight and immediately charged the enemy, driving them across the Gordonsville pike and in the direction of Orange Court-House; here they were met by my left column, and the enemy withdrew by a country road in the direction of Gordonsville. The fighting was all after dark, and not being able to tell friend from foe, and my own men having fired into each other, the firing was ordered to cease and hold their positions for the night. This day and night was intensely cold. December 23, at daylight the enemy was again engaged and all their artillery – two pieces – taken from them, and driven to within two miles and a half of Gordonsville to the top of the gap in Southwest Mountain. Here the pass was narrow and the enemy were strongly posted behind rails and earth breast-works, where a few men could hold three times their number in check. I attacked the position with nearly half of my force, but could not carry it, and I immediately started a column to flank them on the left by crossing the mountain several miles to the north. While waiting to hear from this column, which had got well on its way, the cars were heard about ten o’clock to arrive at Gordonsville, and about an hour after infantry was seen to file into the breast-works and relieve the cavalry. After becoming fully satisfied of the presence of infantry (Pegram’s division), I concluded it was useless to make a further attempt to break the Central railroad. I had at this time six or eight men killed and about forty wounded, more than I could transport, and the worst cases were left behind. I decided to withdraw and at once crossed to the north bank of the Rapidan. That afternoon and evening I marched to Madison Court-House and Robertson’s River. About thirty prisoners were taken, but having no provisions, and it being very difficult, if not impossible, for them to keep up, I paroled them. The guns, two 3-inch rifled, were brought to camp. December 24, at daylight started from Madison Court-House, marched, via James City, Griffinsburg, and Stone-House Mountain, to near Rixeyville. December 25, at daylight marched to the Fauquier White Sulphur Springs, crossing in the meantime the Hazel and the Rappahannock Rivers, the former with great difficulty indeed. December 26, march resumed at daylight, Second Division leading. On reaching Warrenton the Second Division went in the direction of Salem and Piedmont, camping near Paris. At Warrenton the First Division marched in the direction of New Baltimore, Georgetown, White Plains, and Middleburg, camping near the latter place. December 27, the Second Division marched, via Paris, Ashby’s Gap, to Millwood. December 28, First Division marched to camp near Winchester.
The country through which we passed was thoroughly cleaned of stock and forage. The command was obliged to live on the country for six days. Altogether it was an extremely hard trip on men and horses on account of the intense cold and bad weather. For six days out of the ten it either rained, hailed, or snowed, and sometimes all three.
Brevet Major General, Chief of Cavalry, Commanding.
To Brevet Brigadier General Forsyth, Chief of Staff, Headquarters Army of the Shenandoah.”
Total casualties from the raid were 7 killed, 38 wounded, 47 missing, 10 accidentally hurt, for an aggregate of 102. Torbert does not mention frostbite injuries, but there were over two hundred cases in his force, which was half as large and whose raid was half the duration of Torbert’s. Two hundred fifty eight horses were lost, over five percent of the total, showing the effects of weather and distance on the mounts.
Official Records, Volume 43, Part I, pages 677-679 and Part II, page 803.