Battle of Lynchburg
From Lexington, Maj. Gen. David Hunter advanced against the Confederate rail and canal depots and the hospital complex at Lynchburg. Reaching the outskirts of town on June 17, his first tentative attacks were thwarted by the timely arrival by rail of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s II Corps vanguard from Charlottesville. Hunter withdrew the next day after sporadic fighting because of a critical shortage of supplies. His line of retreat through West Virginia took his army out of the war for nearly a month and opened the Shenandoah Valley for a Confederate advance into Maryland. (NPS summary)
Battle of Lynchburg
On the morning of the 17th the final drive for Lynchburg began. Averell's men, in the van, moved up the main road to Lynchburg from the south followed by Crook. They "came upon the enemy" at 4 P.M. about 5 miles from town.
Averell's report states that the Confederates gave way to his advance "until they came in sight of the stone church." There the rebel forces "seemed determined to give battle." Despite the fact that the ground was "difficult for cavalry" Averell deployed Schoonmaker's brigade as mounted skirmishers followed by Oley's brigade on the right and Powell's on the left. The attack drove the enemy back to the "crest of the hill" where they encountered "rapid artillery fire". The Federal attackers dismounted and a section of artillery "galloped" to their support. Again the Confederates were forced to give ground. After being driven into their fieldworks the reinforced enemy troops "confidently advanced to charge" the Union position. Averell’s troopers held on until Crook's infantry came into position and the "boldness of the enemy was severely punished."
The subordinate commanders on the scene had a narrower view of the battle and added their own stories to the tale of early Union success.
Colonel Jonathan Hines, 12th Ohio Infantry:
"...came under the fire of the enemy's artillery near a stone church (known as the Quaker Church).” His troops pushed through the retreating cavalry skirmishers with fixed bayonets and stopped the "advancing enemy" and drove them back, claiming 21 prisoners.
While the Union forces successfully drove the defenders back into their trenches, not every soldier was up to the task.
Colonel Daniel Johnson, 14th West Virginia Infantry complimented every man under his command but one. Lt Gillespie "exhibited great cowardice by dodging behind trees, stumps, etc." Again on the 18th he "abandoned his regiment" under artillery fire. Johnson recommended summary dismissal for his young subordinate.
Others were called to higher responsibility by the fighting.
LTC Benjamin Coates, 91st Ohio Infantry replaced his Regimental commander who fell grievously wounded while leading the attack on a Confederate artillery piece. They helped push back the Confederate advance.
Colonel Jacob Campbell, 3rd Brigade Commander, 2nd Infantry Division, and the rest of the 2nd Division troops were relieved by the 1st Division units of BG Sullivan. Crook's men reorganized in the second line, refilled their cartridge boxes, and prepared for the renewal of the battle. Meanwhile Duffie's independent attack on the extreme left was also brought to a halt by the rebel defenders. He was desperately short of ammunition and very close to having his position collapse when they too were saved by darkness. Any hope for pressing the assault forward went by the board when it was determined that the initial Union success could not be followed up. Hunter was satisfied to put his army in camp for the night.
The Federal positions at the end of the fighting on the 17th left them in perfect position to be susceptible to one of the great ruses of the Civil War. General Jubal Early, arriving on the scene late, in an effort to create the illusion that he was being strongly reinforced had empty trains run up and down the track, whistles blowing. The local populace was recruited to raise a cheer every time one of these “troop trains” arrived. Bands struck up martial airs and marching drums were beat, all within the earshot of the Union line. Prostitutes were allowed to pass through the lines to help spread the tale of the great influx of troops to their Yankee customers. Hunter was completely taken in. He eventually believed that he was facing a force twice the size of his own when actually the sides were roughly even. This misconception would play an important part in his decision making during the coming battle.
When the 18th dawned "the enemy opened heavily with artillery." Crook's men were dispatched on a mission to see if they could find a way to flank the rebel position. Several cavalry detachments further weakened the center of the Union line. After "three or four miles" of marching, Crook gave the enterprise and started back for their original positions. Early was watching and decided to attack the Union center before Crook could get fully re-established. At the same time the Confederates renewed their effort to drive a wedge between the isolated Duffie and the main body. Rebel troops poured out of their defenses and struck the Union lines. General Sullivan's troops bore the brunt of the attack. A half hour of hotly contested fighting finally repulsed the effort. On the far left, Duffie struggled for ninety minutes before the Confederates withdrew. Hunter was convinced that he was facing a superior force and inevitable defeat if he remained; instead he decided to throw in the towel. Citing lack of ammunition to fend off another assault he issued the retreat order. The units were instructed to keep up brisk skirmishing to hide their intent until nightfall and then gradually fall back. The rear guard left their posts at midnight.
There seems to have been no disagreement between the Union commanders over this course of action. Many of the soldiers closest to the fighting, however, were disgusted at giving up their hard earned gains. In spite of their protests, shortly after midnight the Federal positions were empty.
Early was indeed planning another attack but wanted to wait until all his troops were up and posted. The assault was planned for sunrise the morning of the 19th. However, he found Hunter gone and had to be satisfied with establishing a pursuit. The chase lasted until the 21st of June when Early called off the pursuit to rest his men. Hunter did not stop. He continued into West Virginia leaving Early alone in the Shenandoah Valley.