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Thursday, February 26, 2015

A.B. West’s Last Day, the Third Battle of Winchester

Entrance to the Battlefield
Little did Alex West know when the bugle sounded the wake-up call on September 19, 1864, that this would be his last day on Earth. The day was likely a warm summer day in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia near the city of Winchester.  Company K of Bryan Grimes’ Brigade of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ Division was camped somewhere in the outskirts of the city of Winchester.

The Third Batty of Winchester is known as the Battle of Opequon.  Opequon is an unincorporated community along Opequon Creek in Frederick County, Virginia.  It is located on Cedar Creek Grade (VA 622) at Miller Road (VA 620) and is also known as Kernstown, Virginia.

The battle, which was fought on September 19, 1864, was the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley.  Union Gen. Sheridan lost 12 percent of his army with about 5,000 of his 39,000 soldiers killed, wounded, and missing.  Confederate Gen. Early suffered approximately 3,600 casualties casualties which represented 25 percent of his army.

Company K of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment, known as “the Wilkes boys,” was part of Lee’s Army of Virginia, which was part of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley.  Early’s Army of the Valley consisted of many seasoned veterans from Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia.  Company K of the 53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment (the Wilkes Boys) was also part part of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ Division and part of Brigadier Gen. Bryan Grimes’ Brigade (formerly the deceased Brigadier Gen. Junius Daniel’s Brigade). 

Confederate officer, Lt. Gen. Early, had an estimated 12,000 soldiers.  His counterpart, Union officer, Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan, had about 40,000.  Both armies had sufficient ammunition, but the Union forces had more cannons, more horses, and more artillerymen.

Red Bud Run
On that fateful morning of September 19, reveille sounded in the Confederate Army camp at 1 a.m.  By 4:30 a.m., Sheridan’s forces were advancing.  At daybreak the first shot was fired when General Ramseur’s North Carolinians fired on Captain Hull’s New York Cavalry.

Heavy fighting took place that day in areas known as the West Woods, the First Woods, the Second Woods, the Middle Field, and Red Bud Run.  A Union soldier commented that the battle at Middle Field “was perfectly terrible but the forces in our front gave way.”  The battle ended at sundown when the divisions of Ramseur, Rodes, and Gordon fell back to positions near Winchester.  Maj. Gen. Rodes was killed that day.  By nightfall the Union Army had taken the city of Winchester.  

Many who died on this historic this day were buried where they fell in battle.  Such was likely the fate of my second great grandfather, Alexander Balus West.

In October 2104, my sister, brother-in-law, husband, and I spent a day on the battleground of the Third Battle of Winchester.  Unlike Gettysburg, the battlefield is not resplendent with monuments and statues.  It is peaceful, serene, and non-commercial in nature.  It has a rustic, natural beauty with an appropriate number of signs to mark locations.  Many of the paths are unpaved, and cars not are allowed on the battlefield.

Vicinity of the West Woods
Like our visit to Gettysburg, this visit was also moving.  I’ve always wanted to see where my 2nd great grandfather died.  As I walked over the hallowed grounds, I tried to imagine where he might have fallen, mortally wounded.  I know that he was part of Rodes’ Division, Grimes’ Brigade, the 2nd Battalion, and the 53rd Regiment (North Carolina Infantry).   Maps of the Battle of Winchester that may be found on the Internet indicate that Grimes’ Brigade in Rodes’ Division was on the southern flank near what is now US Interstate 81.  Most of the heavy fighting occurred that day in the Middle Field, the Second Woods, West Woods, and Red Bud Run.  His brigade was apparently located in that southern part of the battlefield labeled West Woods.  In retreat they moved westward toward Winchester.  I can only assume that he was killed on that southern-most part of the battlefield and possibly during the retreat to Winchester.  In fact the location of his death and burial may presently be located under what is now Interstate 81.  
Much of the battlefield at Winchester has been significantly degraded or destroyed by expanding urban development in and around Winchester.  I found it quite sad that the likely area in which my second great grandfather died and was buried may now be covered by that urban sprawl and the interstate highway.  
Preservation Marker
Residential and business development and highway construction continue to pose threats to the preservation of the original battlefield.  The Civil War Trust has preserved 222 acres of the 567-acre battlefield.  In 2009, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation along with the Civil War Trust and the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, and the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Foundation purchased 209 acres of additional land.  The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation worked toward the restoration of the battlefield for the 150th Anniversary of the battle in September 2014.
Since I was able to be there and walk the battlefield, I left the battlefield with some degree of satisfaction. However, I am still left with a desire to know where he was buried, but I am certain that desire will remain unfulfilled.   
SEPTEMBER 19, 1864
                                      Red:                      Confederate Lines
                                      Brown:                 Confederate Retreat Lines
                                      Blue:                     Union Lines

                                                      Clip on the maps to enlarge them.

SEPTEMBER 19, 1864

Grimes Brigade as part of Rodes’ Division retreated to the west and then southwest toward what is now US Interstate 81 and Winchester.  The brigade may have been in any of the areas marked with the red lines.


·        Battle of Third Winchester Summary & Facts (See featured articles.):

·        Civil War Trust, Saving America’s Civil War Battlefields, “The Battle of Third Winchester,”

·        Grimes Biography from the Dictionary of North Carolina:

·        Maps of Third Winchester, Virginia (1864), CWPT Third Winchester Battlefield Tour Map,

·        Third Battle of Winchester – Wikipedia:


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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