Published on April 20, 2016

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The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) has embarked on the largest battlefield preservation effort in its history, a multi-year campaign to preserve a 31-acre parcel of the iconic “West Woods” on the Third Winchester battlefield.  And we need your help.

The 31-acre tract was the center of a vortex of battle that drew in and spun off troops of both armies throughout the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864.  No spot was more involved in the fighting.  The property is one of the last large parcels of ground available to preserve on this part of the battlefield.  It also connects directly to the SVBF’s 572-acre Third Winchester Battlefield Park to its north.

“It sounded as if every tree in the woods was falling down and that a terrific thunder storm was raging in the woods.” – Private George Q. Peyton, 13th Virginia Infantry, The West Woods

Zoned for shopping center development in the 1970s and under contract to Wal-Mart before the Great Recession, the 31-acre West Woods parcel is the most valuable battlefield property ever preserved in the Shenandoah Valley, and one of the most significant.   Because of its zoning and location, the property is valued at $5.16 million.  However, thanks to the generosity of the property owner, Mr. Bruce Griffin, and pledges and grants from other partners, the SVBF only has to raise an additional $225,000 to preserve the property.  So your contribution will be matched almost 13 to 1!

This is our last chance to preserve this piece of hallowed ground.  Residential and commercial development is consuming the Third Winchester battlefield.  The West Woods is surrounded by major development with plans to construct additional business facilities such as a major new box store.  If this historic battlefield land is not preserved now it will be destroyed. We need you to join the fight to keep that from happening.

Please contribute today and join the fight to preserve this piece of American history. 

The West Woods – Historical Significance

The Third Battle of Winchester (September 19, 1864) was the largest and costliest battle ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley. More than 54,000 men fought and over 8,600 became casualties in a ferocious see-saw struggle that saw the Confederates gradually forced back until a final decisive attack by Federal infantry and cavalry struck the Confederate left flank, breeching the defenders’ lines and sending the rebels “whirling through Winchester.”

During the battle, no ground was more involved in the furious fighting than the “West Woods” (also known as the “South Woods”).

West Woods
Alfred Waud sketch of the Federal Infantry assault on the Confederate line in the West Woods, Third Winchester

Early on the morning of September 19, 1864, dismounted Confederate cavalry under Gen. Bradley Johnson were posted along the eastern edge of the West Woods, where they sparred with Federal skirmishers across the open Middle Field and along the edge of the woods. Confederate artillery in the woods stiffened the defenses and sent shells crashing into the Federal Sixth and Nineteenth Corps as they began to deploy for their main attack.

Later in the morning, just before the Union Nineteenth Corps launched its massive assault toward the West Woods, Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s division arrived and deployed in a defensive position that started near the Hackwood Farm and then ran south across an 800-yard open field and into the West Woods. Gen. Zebulon York’s Louisiana Tigers took up position in the woods and met the Nineteenth Corps’ assault with a withering fire – Col. James Richardson of the 38th Massachusetts Infantry recalled that, “Under the tremendous fire of ten times our number, the line melted away and the regiment went to pieces.”

But the Yankees rallied. Continued heavy fighting and dogged persistence on the part of the Federals began to wear down and then overwhelm the Confederate defenders – and Gordon’s division started to break. Federal troops entered the edge of West Woods, with the 156th New York Infantry leading the way. The New Yorkers broke the last of Gordon’s defenders – only to face fresh Confederates of Gen. Robert Rodes’ division, racing to bolster the Confederate line.

The pet eagle of the 156th New York could be heard screaming above the noise of the battle as the New Yorkers charged into the woods.

Rodes was killed by an exploding shell while urging his troops into the woods, but Col. William R. Cox’s brigade charged straight across the woodlot, part of a Confederate counterattack that smashed into the already-battered Federals and sent them reeling backwards.

As the afternoon wore on, Cox’s North Carolina troops, 800 strong, were able to hold their position in West Woods. A wounded Union soldier from the 22nd Iowa remembered, “It looked to me as though their position could be held against any odds and I was fearful that the battle had been lost to us.” Describing his position in West Woods, a Confederate soldier from Georgia recalled, “every man had the advantage of a big oak to protect his body.”

The West Woods Today
The West Woods Today

Although seemingly unbreakable, the Confederate position in West Woods was unsupported by reserve troops and the superiority of Federal numbers began to wear them down. Union Gen. David Russell coordinated an assault by the 1st Division, Sixth Army Corps into the woods, but was killed just as the assault began. Gen. Emory Upton then took command of the division, and the Federals again advanced across the Middle Field and crashed into the West Woods.

Col. Joseph Hamblin, now commanding Upton’s second brigade, drove back the weakened Confederate defenders so quickly that many were captured among the trees. The Federals cleared the last of the Confederates from the West Woods by 4:00 pm.

During the final melee amongst the trees, the regimental colors of the 2nd Virginia Infantry were captured by the 37th Massachusetts Infantry. The flag had been given to the 2nd Virginia, a remnant of the famed Stonewall Brigade, by leading ladies of Winchester only a few days earlier. When the Massachusetts men paraded the captured banner down the streets of Winchester later that day, one of the ladies called September 19 “the most dreadful day we have ever spent.”

“[Third Winchester] was one of the hottest times I ever seen. Gettysburg couldn’t hold it a light while it lasted.” – Nathan R. Frazier 45th North Carolina Infantry, writing to his wife after fighting near the West Woods.

Jeff Wert Testamony