150 Years Ago This Week: Fighting at Battle Mountain

July 1863

At Elk Creek near Honey Springs in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Union Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt attacked Confederate troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Douglas Cooper. In the severe fighting of the largest engagements in the territory, Gen. Cooper’s command was forced to retire for lack of ammunition. Included in the combatants were Federal black soldiers fighting against Confederate Indians.

The next day, another attack by Union forces was launched against Confederate defenders at Ft. Wagner in Charleston Harbor, S.C. Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour’s 6,000 Federals made a failed frontal assault and suffered appalling losses: 246 killed, 880 wounded and 389 captured or missing. Union casualties were 25 percent of those engaged.

The failure of the attack led the Union commander, Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, to consider laying siege to the Confederate stronghold. The Confederates began moving artillery from Ft. Sumter in the middle of the harbor to reinforce other shore batteries defending the city and the harbor.

In Ohio, Maj. Gen. John H. Morgan’s Confederate cavalry continued to raid through Ohio, heading south and intending to cross back into Kentucky. He found his way blocked by Union troops, and so turned north and headed toward the Pennsylvania border.

In Washington, President Lincoln expressed his disappointment that Maj. Gen. George Meade did not move quickly to catch Gen. Lee’s army with its back to the Potomac River during the three days prior to Confederate crossings back into Virginia. Union troops began moving across the Potomac on July 20.

The next day, there was some severe fighting in the Manassas Gap at Wapping Heights in Warren County, as lead elements of the Union army attempted to secure the passes in the Blue Ridge Mountains to prevent Gen. Lee’s army from leaving the Shenandoah Valley. The Union troops were defeated and the Confederates moved through Chester Gap and into Rappahannock County, intending to get as far as Culpeper Courthouse.

Two-thirds of the Army of Northern Virginia were moving south on the Richmond Road in Rappahannock County, unaware that Brig. Gen. George Custer had arrived near Amissville with some 1,200 cavalry and Battery M of the 2nd U.S. Artillery on July 21. The Confederate Army, with Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps leading, proceeded through Flint Hill, on what is now U.S. 522, and turned south and marched towards Gaines’s Crossroads (Ben Venue today).

Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Third Corps followed the First Corps. As Longstreet’s corps passed through Gaines’s Crossroads on Richmond Road on July 23, Gen. Custer sent a regiment of cavalry west from Amissville to the crossroads by way of the Sperryville-Alexandria Turnpike (present day Lee Highway), where his scouts reported military activity. The result was quick skirmish a short distance south on the Richmond Road from the turnpike.

The Federal cavalry was no match for the sheer numbers of infantry and cavalry escorts, and they returned in haste to Amissville. It was now dark. At daybreak on Friday, July 24, Gen. Custer moved his entire division in force over what is now Battle Mountain Road (today’s Route 640) to intercept the Confederate troops at Newby’s Crossroads (near Laurel Mills). He apparently had no idea when he left his headquarters at the Spindle House in Amissville that he was stalking the entire Army of Northern Virginia, save for Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, which crossed the Blue Ridge at Manassas Gap east of Front Royal.

Gen. Longstreet’s command had passed through Newby’s on the way to Culpeper, and Gen. Custer’s troops occupied the shoulder of Battle Mountain, intending to take on what he thought was a small contingent of Confederate infantry. Gen. Hill sent word to Gen. Longstreet that Union cavalry was attacking his front; Gen. Longstreet detached Brig. Gen. Henry Benning’s Georgia Brigade and sent it north to Newby’s, where the Georgians pinned Gen. Custer’s men between the two Confederate forces.

The fighting was intense but swift, and Gen. Custer ordered his men back to Amissville, hacking their way in disarray through the thick woods. With the Union cavalry out of the way, Gen. Hill’s command continued unmolested towards Culpeper. The fighting at Battle Mountain resulted in two officers from Gen. Custer’s command receiving the Medal of Honor in the 1890s for their service that day at Battle Mountain.