Daily Archives: 27 November 2009

Third Winchester – Seivers and Locks Fords on the Opequon

Last weekend the staff and I rode out through Clarke County for a day trip.  A friend offered an itinerary highlighting sites related to the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, specifically the battles of Berryville and Third Winchester.   Two points we chose to highlight were Seivers and Locks Fords on the Opequon, where Federal Cavalry crossed during the battle of Third Winchester on September 19, 1864.

On that day in 1864 the main body of Sheridan’s Army crossed at the Winchester-Berryville Turnpike, and advanced westward toward Winchester through the Berryville Canyon.  But, tasked with interdicting the Confederate line of march north of Winchester, the 1st Division of Cavalry under Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt crossed 2-3 miles downstream from the Turnpike over two fords.   Merritt split his force with Devin’s 2nd Brigade and Lowell’s 3rd (or Reserve, I’ve read both in the primary sources) Brigade to cross at Seiver’s Ford;  Custer’s 1st Brigade of the Division crossed at Locks Ford further downstream.  Confederates contested both crossing points, delaying the Federal Cavalry in occupying a decisive flanking position.  While the main Federal force remained locked in an infantry fight just east of Winchester, the 1st Cavalry Division fought with a pesky Confederate rear guard.  Only in the afternoon, joined with Averill’s 2nd Cavalry Division, did Merritt’s Division mass on the Confederate flanks to deliver a crushing assault.

A War Department map commissioned in the 1870s marked Seivers Ford clearly, but Locks Ford lay outside the study area.

Detail from the War Department Map (North seeking arrow pointing right)

The “Old Charlestown Road” leading to Leetown (just outside of the detail, to the top) crosses the Opequon at “Ridgeway Ford or Seivers Crossing.”  Today the road is numbered CR 761, and crosses the river over a one lane bridge at the ford site.

Bridge at Seivers Ford from the West

The high ground and the mouth of a creek just upstream (left) of the bridge help pinpoint the location.  Based on the War Department map, McCausland’s cavalry held the ground on the far side.

Looking from the opposite bank:

Looking East at the Bridge

Note the ground on the eastern side does not afford the attacker much cover.  According to Gen. Merritt’s report on the battle, the 2nd Massachusetts and 5th US Cavalry made the crossing dismounted, followed by a mounted charge by the 2nd US Cavalry.  The 2nd US then advanced on Confederates defending along a railroad cut. [Note 1]  Although not indicated on the War Department map, the bed of the railroad mentioned was likely close to the modern line which runs about 300 yards north of the crossing point.

Downstream from the Bridge

The Opequon resembles other intermediate watercourses of the lower Valley at this point – a narrow flood plain with a step off the banks and shallow but rocky bottom.  Creeks such as this always seem to accumulate deadfall along the banks.

The War Department map indicates a building near the ford point, labeled “D. Clevenger.”   An older Federal style house stands in that general area today.

House Overlooking Seivers Ford

Custer’s crossing point, Locks Ford, does not appear on the War Department map.  Custer, in his official report, stated his command advanced from Summit Point (now West Virginia) some five miles to reach the Opequon at the ford.  [Note 2]  Secondary sources indicate Custer used Brucetown Road, matching to the location modern CR 672 crosses the creek.

 

Brucetown Road Bridge over Opequon

 

This view looks from the east at the narrow 1917 concrete bridge over the creek.  At this particular point, the creek passes between a low ridge line on the right (east) bank, and a set of high ridges on the left.  Confederate defenders had the advantage in terrain, as seen looking from the bridge to the ground on the west side.

 

High Ground to the West of Bridge

 

I am told there are remains of Confederate rifle pits on the high ground overlooking the bridge (private property).  If so this further confirms the site.

The ground on the west side, much as at Seivers Ford upstream, exhibits a narrow flood plain.

 

West Bank of the Creek at Locks Ford

 

In high water, of course, this low ground is easily inundated.  And there is the deadfall.

 

Looking Upstream from the Bridge

 

To me, that deadfall offers the most formidable natural impediment to mounted crossing, forcing the attacker to use cleared fording sites or risk losing many animals.

Further in regard to the crossing points, I was struck with the similarity between these sites and those on Antietam Creek in Maryland.  Indeed, the Opequon and Antietam somewhat mirror each other, on opposite sides of the Potomac River, with very similar courses – just in different Cardinal directions!  But of course the Antietam featured several stone bridges, while the Opequon offered mostly fording points.

Touring these sites, I fell into the battlefield stomper’s gaze, imagining the troopers attempting to file through the creek to the far side.  So in closing, allow me to recall Merritt’s description of the morning action:

The rich crimson of that fine autumnal morning was fading away into the broad light of day when the booming guns on the left gave sign that the attack was being made by our infantry.  The glorious old First Division was never in better condition. Officers and men, as they saw the sun appear bright and glorious above the horizon, felt a consciousness of renewed strength, a presentiment of fresh glory to be added that day to their already unfading laurels.  The felt like men who were willing to do and die; that they were not deceived the history of the day proves. [Note 3]

Sort of makes you want to rig up a McClellan right now and splash out across the creek, doesn’t it?

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Notes:

1.  Report of Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, U.S. Army, Commanding First Cavalry Division, October 12, 1864.  OR, Series I, Volume 43, Serial 90, p. 443.

2. Report of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, U.S. Army, Commanding First Brigade, of Operations September 19.  dated September 28, 1864.  OR, Series I, Volume 43, Serial 90, p. 454.

3.  Merritt, pp. 443-4.