Approximately 18 months after two sons vanished during the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley, William H. Rogers of Quitman in Brooks County in Georgia received a letter from Maine.
The letter was from a Yankee lieutenant, Lagrange Severance, not someone upon whom Rogers could look favorably.
After reading the letter, Rogers may have felt differently.
Brooks County lay in southern Georgia, just west of Valdosta and hard up against the Florida-Georgia state line. Not directly touched by Union invaders during the war, the rural county had sent men to fight elsewhere.
Two of Rogers’ sons, Mitchell A. and Uriah J., had enlisted as privates in Co. I (Piscola Volunteers), 26th Georgia Infantry Regiment, on July 23, 1861. Mitchell had been promoted to corporal in May 1862 and third sergeant on Oct. 1, 1864. Uriah was elected the Co. I captain in January 1864.
The last their father knew, the 26th Georgia Infantry was tramping somewhere through Virginia.
So were the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment and Lt. Lagrange Severance. Born in December 1839, Severance had left school at age 14 to work at the Daily Whig & Courier, the Republican-leaning daily that dominated Bangor-based journalism. He joined the 12th Maine Infantry in November 1861 as a private in Co. H; the regiment wound up assigned to duty in the Mississippi Valley, and Severance saw action at Irish Bend and Port Hudson, among other battles.
With the Mississippi River firmly in Union hands, the 12th Maine later shipped to Virginia and joined the Phil Sheridan-led army assigned to sweeping the Shenandoah Valley of all Confederate resistance. A Sheridan-applied whuppin’ at Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864 supposedly broke the back and spirit of the Confederate Army of the Valley, commanded by Jubal Early.
Sheridan evidently believed that advancing up the Valley would be a cakewalk afterwards. Early disagreed.
The 12th Maine and the 14th Maine Infantry (also sent to Virginia from the Deep South) belonged to the 1st Brigade led by Brig. Gen. Henry Warner Birge, who reported to Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover, the commander of the 2nd Division, XIX Army Corps.
Tuesday, Oct. 18 found that corps camped north of meandering Cedar Creek, around 20 miles south of Winchester. That evening, Birge received orders from Grover “to be in readiness to move at 5.30 the next morning” to make “a reconnaissance toward Strasburg,” farther up the Valley.*
Commanded by 1st Lt. Eben D. Haley, the 1st Maine Battery “hitched up at 5 a.m.,” Wednesday, Oct. 19, according to Birge. All four brigades of the 2nd Division turned out “in light marching order” that morning and formed two lines extending from east to west and facing south.
The left flanks of both lines were “reaching almost to the [Valley] pike,” Birge noted. Haley and his six cannons and approximately 100 gunners of the 1st Maine Battery “occupied commanding ground,” and “the whole position [of the 2nd Division] was very strong against attacks from the front, and had been strengthened by earth-works thrown up along the front of the first line, the general direction of which was parallel to Cedar Creek.”
But there was a major problem, as Lagrange Severance and the 12th Maine boys would soon discover. The XIII Corps held “the high ground” east of the Valley Pike; this terrain “entirely commanded” the ground occupied by the 2nd Division, Birge noticed.
Rather than roll over and play dead as Phil Sheridan had imagined, Jubal Early came calling that foggy morning. Launching a successful surprise attack, his Confederate divisions struck the XIII Corps hard.
With Early came the 26th Georgia Infantry and the Rogers’ brothers, assigned to Evans’ Brigade (led by Brig. Gen. Clement Evans) of the division commanded by Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon.
According to Birge, “musketry firing was heard” to the east “about 5.15 a.m. and before any of the troops had moved out on the projected reconnaissance.” The shooting spread west to “our own picket-line in front.”
Grover deployed his brigades to meet the perceived Confederate attack, confirmed as all out when “the firing in the direction” of XIII Corps “became very heavy and incessant,” Birge said. The 2nd Division pickets scrambled north across Cedar Creek, and “as day dawned the enemy appeared in strong force on the high ground on the left of position.”
Birge recalled that the Confederate lines extended “from the creek to our left [flank] and rear as far as could be seen through the smoke and prevailing fog.”
The Confederate troops piled into the left flank of the 2nd Division, where the Union boys “made a stubborn resistance” and “a hand-to-hand conflict ensued” involving at least New York regiments. As enemy artillery enfiladed Cuvier’s division, “our line was forced back, retiring in good order” while leaving bodies on the ground and prisoners in Confederate hands, according to Birge.
The 1st Maine Battery gunners fought desperately; Confederates shot and wounded Haley and killed multiple horses, forcing the gunners to abandon one cannon and three caissons while withdrawing. The 1st Brigade pulled uphill and formed a line perpendicular to the line held only minutes earlier.
“Making a short stand here,” the brigade and the 12th Maine then withdrew to another hill, made “a short stand here,” and pulled back once more and “made a stand in an open field,” Birge later reported.
Lagrange Severance and the 12th Maine lads participated in that fighting retreat, with the entire 2nd Division “making stands at three different points” until mid-morning, according to Birge.
Meanwhile, Capt. Uriah Rogers and Co. I, 26th Georgia Infantry, had fought hard as the clock ticked toward 11 a.m. As the fortunes of war shifted sometime during the next several hours, Uriah and Mitchell would fall on this body- and debris-strewn battlefield.
Not for 1½ years would their father, William Rogers, learn what happened to them.
*Directions in the Shenandoah Valley are based on the Shenandoah River, which flows from southwest (upriver) to northeast (downriver). From Birge’s vantage point, Strasburg was upriver or “up” the Valley.
Next week: Lagrange Severance of Maine keeps a promise made to a dying Georgia soldier.
Sources: Report of Brig. Gen. H.W. Birge, No. 89, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, pp. 322-323; Roster of the Confederate soldiers of Georgia 1861-1865, Volume 3, p. 323; Lagrange Severance letter to William H. Rogers, Aug. 1, 1866, generously provided by Robert L. Bartlett of Columbia, S.C.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.