History has dismissed the Battle of Berryville, Sept 3-4, 1864, as a minor engagement. But it was major enough for the diminished 13th Regiment and the rest of the Mississippi Brigade.
The federals under Gen. Phillip Sheridan were moving south into the Shenandoah Valley—taking scorched-earth orders into the Rebel breadbasket—with long lines of marching infantry and cavalry armed with new
repeating semiautomatic, magazine-fed breech-loading carbines.
Gen. Early decided to attack them before they got south of Berryville. From Winchester, he threw some of his forces east across the Opequon Creek towards Berryville on September 3.
Kershaw’s Division was in the advance.
“…but this division, not expecting infantry, blundered onto [Gen. George] Crook’s lines about dark,” Gen. Sheridan later wrote in a report to chief of staff Henry Halleck in Washington City. Kershaw’s soldiers were “vigorously attacked and driven, with heavy loss, back towards the Opequon.”
Crook’s troops were mostly native Ohioans like himself, but also some Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers. They composed what had once been called the Army of West Virginia. Now, under Sheridan in the Valley Campaign, it was sometimes referred to as the 8th Corps.
Gen. Early brought up most of the rest of his army in support of Kershaw but found the Yankees too strongly entrenched to dislodge. By this stage of the war, digging-in on defense was the norm.
“This engagement,” Sheridan continued, “which was after night-fall was very spirited and our own and the enemy’s casualties severe….[Kershaw] was handsomely repulsed, with a loss of 50 prisoners and over 200 killed and wounded.”
Almost half of Sheridan’s prisoners apparently were from the 13th Regiment, which, according to my analysis of documents gathered by independent historian Jess McLean, lost 23 captured. The 13th also had 7 killed and 14 wounded, for a total loss of 44—or about 22 percent of their estimated 200 soldiers.
Worse, for the brigade, was the loss of their commander, General Benjamin Grubb Humphreys. He was disabled when a Yankee bullet burrowed a line across his chest, costing him blood and considerable pain. He was out of action and, soon, went home to Mississippi, out of the war for good.
“We had quite a hard fight up here,” Third Sergeant Wilborn P. Smith of the Pettus Guards wrote his sister a few days later, according to McLean. “Our general was seriously wounded.
“We have had some very disagreeable weather, cold and rainy. If we stay here we’ll suffer a good deal as it was very warm when we started on the march up, so all dispersed [sic] with everything except what was absolutely necessary in warm weather. I threw away my coat but now feel the need of it. Quite a few of our men are now barefooted, and we will be ragged if we stay up here long.”
Major George Bruce Gerald, 28 and married, who was a Yazoo City lawyer before the war and was now commanding the 18th Regiment, took command of the brigade from the wounded Humphreys.
Gerald had previously distinguished himself, in a manner of speaking, by challenging former division commander Gen. Lafayette McLaws to a duel. McLaws had declined to accept the challenge, saying that he had only angered Gerald in the performance of his, McLaws’s, duty and he didn’t consider himself personally responsible for his official acts.
All four regiments of what had once been Barksdale’s and then Humphreys’, and was now Gerald’s Mississippi Brigade, withdrew west of Opequon Creek. Little more than a week later, Sergeant Smith would get his wish to leave the Valley.