The Battle of Cool Spring 155th Anniversary

On Saturday, July 20, 2019, I returned again to the Old Dominion to attend the 155th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Cool Spring, the largest and bloodiest Civil War battle held in Clarke County, Virginia. I previously reported on the 153rd Anniversary Commemoration here. Not much has changed. The walking tour is still fantastic. You can see coverage from TV station WDVM in Hagerstown, Maryland here.

In the wake of Jubal Early’s raid on Washington, DC in 1864, a Union force under Gen. Horatio G. Wright and George Crook pursued Early’s troops. In an effort to flank the confederate forces, Crook sent a division under Colonel Joseph Thoburn to cross the Shenandoah Valley at Parker’s Ford, near the home of Judge Richard Parker, who had presided over John Brown’s trial in 1859. Thoburn’s division was augmented by a brigade under Colonel Daniel Foster and a regiment-sized collection of dismounted cavalry under Colonel Samuel K. Young.

Thoburn’s men crossed the Shenandoah at Island Ford and took up positions on the west bank. In so doing, they dislodged a group of confederate pickets assigned to watch the ford, most of whom escaped to warn Early of the Union force. In response, Early sent two divisions of troops under Generals Gabriel Wharton and Robert Rodes to deal with the Union soldiers. Atop the Blue Ridge, Wright and Crook saw the approach of these two divisions. Knowing Thoburn would be greatly outnumbered, Crook urged Wright to withdraw the force back to the east side of the river, where the river would be an obstacle to the confederates. Wright refused, and instead promised to reinforce Thoburn with James Ricketts’s division.

Wharton’s men arrived first and attacked the bluecoats immediately, giving time for Rodes to arrive with the main attack on Thoburn’s right flank, held by the dismounted cavalrymen. The cavalrymen broke, with many heading back across the river.

Some of the cavalrymen drowned at Parker’s Hole, which is a fifty-foot drop in the bottom of the Shenandoah River. You can see the hole above and notice even the water’s color is different there.

Thoburn kept his cool and showed his competence by redistributing his regiments to meet the new threat and taking advantage of the terrain to hold off several assaults. He would later be killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

Meanwhile, Ricketts arrived and refused to cross the river to go to Thoburn’s assistance, believing the battle to be lost. Crook went to Wright to get Wright to order Ricketts across, but Wright sided with Ricketts. Colonel Charles Tompkins, Wright’s artillery chief, did deploy twenty pieces of artillery to support Thoburn. These he unlimbered on the bluffs on the east side of the river. The two sides were so close, though, that some of Thoburn’s men were hit by friendly fire.

At nightfall, Thoburn and his surviving men were able to recross the river. On seeing Ricketts’s men, the angry soldiers demanded to know why they failed to come help. Ricketts’s men said they wanted desperately to come over to help, but General Ricketts had forbade it. This led to resentment against Ricketts and Wright. Thoburn’s men never forgave those two generals. While both Ricketts and Wright believed the battle was lost when Ricketts had arrived, Thoburn’s men were positive had they been reinforced, they could have won the battle. This was one of the last confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley.

After a terrific walking tour led by Professor Jonathan Noyalas, a fellow Hokie, we went to air conditioned comfort and presentations by Professor Jonathan White and Professor Jennifer Murray. Dr. White talked to us about Civil War soldiers’ dreams while Dr. Murray discussed the 1864 Shenandoah Valley contest between Jubal A. Early and Philip H. Sheridan. Both presentations were excellent.

After that we previewed the new augmented reality display the McCormick Civil War Institute of Shenandoah University developed to give students of the war the ability to have a virtual tour of the battlefield. It includes some battle reenactment in addition to narration.

We were also treated to a small display of Civil War muskets, courtesy of Mr. Phil Spaugy.

All together, the 155th Commemoration was another terrific experience filled with learning.

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