On July 9th came the orders which took the Second Connecticut for many months away from its place before Petersburg, where, after the activities described, it had settled down to a less exciting course of constructing batteries, forts, and breastworks, and laying out camps, with days of comparative peace and comfort notwithstanding several alarms showing the possibility of more arduous service.
The Confederate Army which had been sent under General Early into the Shenandoah Valley to create a diversion in that quarter, had unexpectedly appeared on the Potomac in a sudden dash upon Washington, then defended chiefly by raw levies. Part of the Sixth Corps had been detached from Grant's army and sent to protect the capital a few days before; now the rest of the corps, including the Second Connecticut, was hurried north and reached Washington just in time to defeat Early's purpose. He had planned to storm the city on the 12th, and with good prospects of success; it was on that very day at an early hour, that the reinforcing troops arrived. They were hurried through the city to the threatened point, and the enemy, seeing the well-known corps badge confronting them at Fort Stevens, and recognizing that the opportunity was gone, promptly retreated, after an engagement in which the Second Connecticut took no active part. This occasion was notable by reason of the fact that for the only time during the war President Lincoln was under fire, as he watched the progress of affairs from the parapet of Fort Stevens.
The pursuit which began at once entailed some hard marching, but the enemy could not be brought to a stand. It continued for several days until the Valley of the Shenandoah was reached, when Early, as was supposed, having hurried back to join Lee at Petersburg, the Sixth Corps was marched again swiftly to the capital. Here it developed that the authorities had decided to keep part of the forces sent for their protection, to man the defences, since Early's attempt had come so dangerously near succeeding, and the Second Connecticut was chosen to remain. On July 25th it was moved into the same forts it had occupied when called to the front two months before, and here it might have remained through the rest of its term of service, if Early had, as was presumed, gone back to join Lee at Petersburg. But it was learned now that he had faced about when the chase ceased and was again threatening a northward move. The Sixth Corps was therefore ordered against his force once more, the Second Connecticut going from the anticipated comforts of its prospective garrison duty with anything but satisfaction. "The men who had rolled into those cosy bunks with the declared intention of 'sleeping a week steady,' were on their cursing way through Tenallytown again in twenty-four hours, marching with accelerated pace toward Frederick to overtake the brigade of the red cross, to which they had so lately bidden an everlasting adieu. Oh, bitter cup!"
After much marching and counter marching they found themselves on August 6th at Halltown in the Valley. For more than a month the army, now placed under the command of General Sheridan, was occupied in organizing and manoeuvering for the projected campaign, which the presence of the hostile force in that important quarter necessitated.
Though on a much smaller scale than the operations in which the regiment had borne a part since it had been in active service, the impending action in the Shenandoah Valley was recognized as being of great importance. Grant's official report, speaking on this point, says: "Defeat to us would lay open to the enemy the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania for long distances before another army could be interposed to check him," and aside from the military aspect of the matter, the political campaign then agitating the loyal states made the result of the struggle here of profound influence.
The campaign's activities began with the battle of the Opequan, or, as it is perhaps more often designated, of Winchester. General Sheridan took advantage of an opportunity for which he had been patiently waiting by moving his forces to the attack at daylight on the morning of September 19th, and before noon the engagement was fierce and general, both assault and defence being made with equal spirit and determination; that part of the Sixth Corps which comprised the Second Connecticut, however, had taken small part in it, being held in reserve.
It was about midday that in a counter charge against the Union center, the enemy found a weak point at the junction of the Sixth Corps with the Nineteenth, of which they quickly took advantage, breaking the line and driving back the troops on the flanks of both corps in great disorder. Their successful advance and the flight of the opposing forces gave such assurances of victory that more than one Confederate writer says that at this point the battle which had raged since daylight was won. Jefferson Davis himself wrote, years after, of the charge: "This affair occurred about 11 A.M., and a splendid victory had been gained,"--a judgment which lacked finality. In fact, had the separation of the wings of Sheridan's army been accomplished, as it was threatened, the result would have been utter disaster; just now, however, Upton's brigade, of which the Second Connecticut formed a large part, was brought up to the point of danger. The charge was checked, the enemy in turn driven back, and the Union line re-established.
In the regimental history it is related that the brigade was pushed forward gradually, "halted on a spot where the ground was depressed enough to afford a little protection, and only a little,--for several men were hit while lying there, as well as others, while getting there. In three minutes the regiment again advanced, passed over a knoll, lost several more men, and halted in another hollow spot, similar to the first. The enemy's advance had now been pushed well back, and here a stay was made of perhaps two hours. Colonel Mackenzie rode slowly back and forth along the rise of ground in front of this position in a very reckless manner, in plain sight and easy range of the enemy, who kept up a fire from a piece of woods in front, which elicited from him the remark, 'I guess those fellows will get tired of firing at me by and by.' But the ground where the regiment lay was very slightly depressed, and although the shots missed Mackenzie they killed and wounded a large number of both officers and men behind him.
"About three o'clock, an advance of the whole line having been ordered by Sheridan, the regiment charged across the field, Mackenzie riding some ten rods ahead, holding his hat aloft on the point of his saber. The distance to the woods was at least a quarter of a mile, and was traversed under a fire that carried off its victims at nearly every step. The enemy abandoned the woods, however, as the regiment approached. After a short halt it again advanced to a rail fence which ran along the side of an extensive field. Here, for the first time during the whole of this bloody day, did the regiment have orders to fire, and for ten minutes they had the privilege of pouring an effective fire into the rebels, who were thick in front. Then a flank movement was made along the fence to the right, followed by a direct advance of forty rods into the field. Here was the deadliest spot of the day. The enemy's artillery, on a rise of ground in front, plowed the field with canister and shells, and tore the ranks in a frightful manner. Major Rice was struck by a shell, his left arm torn off, and his body cut almost asunder. Major Skinner was struck on the top of the head by a shell, knocked nearly a rod with his face to the earth, and was carried to the rear insensible. General Upton had a good quarter pound of flesh taken out of his thigh by a shell. Colonel Mackenzie's horse was cut in two by a solid shot which just grazed the rider's leg and let him down to the ground very abruptly. Several other officers were also struck; and from these instances as well as from the appended list of casualties some idea may be gained of the havoc among the enlisted men at this point. Although the regiment had been under fire and losing continually from the middle of the afternoon, until it was now almost sunset, yet the losses during ten minutes in this last field were probably equal to those of all the rest of the day. It was doubtless the spot referred to by the rebel historian, Pollard, when he says, 'Early's artillery was fought to the muzzle of the guns.' Mackenzie gave the order to move by the left flank and a start was made, but there was no enduring such a fire, and the men ran back and lay down. Another attempt was soon made, and after passing a large oak tree a sheltered position was secured. The next move was directly into the enemy's breastwork. They had just been driven from it by a cavalry charge from the right, and were in full retreat through the streets of Winchester, and some of their abandoned artillery which had done us so much damage stood yet in position, hissing hot with action, with their miserable rac-a-bone horses attached. The brigade, numbering less than half the muskets it had in the morning, was now got into shape, and after marching to a field in the eastern edge of the city, bivouacked for the night, while the pursuit rolled miles away up the valley pike." Night alone, wrote General Wesley Merritt, saved Early's army from capture.
To the losses of the day the Second Connecticut contributed forty-two killed and one hundred and eight wounded, the proportion of officers being very large.
Unlike their previous severe engagement at Cold Harbor, the regiment had the thrilling consciousness of complete victory to hearten them after this battle, and, later, when the full history of the day was learned, the realization that they had played a part of no little importance in attaining it.
The moment when they were brought into action was a critical one. General Sheridan, in his report summing up the operations of the campaign, said: "At Winchester for a moment the contest was uncertain, but the gallant attack of General Upton's brigade of the Sixth Corps restored the line of battle," and of this brigade the Second Connecticut formed fully half. Upton's report gave high praise to Colonel Mackenzie, and said: "His regiment on the right initiated nearly every movement of the division, and behaved with great steadiness and gallantry."
The victory itself, with the sequel which followed so promptly three days later, had an importance far beyond its purely military value, through its marked effects upon public sentiment throughout the country; it brought to one side jubilant satisfaction, and gave a corresponding depression to the other, and it elevated Sheridan at once to that high place in popular affection which he always afterwards held. That it was "the turning-point of the fortunes of the war in Virginia," was the verdict of a Confederate officer of high rank, and Nicolay and Hay in the "Life of Lincoln" describe it as "one of the most important of the war."
As for the Litchfield County regiment, among its many proud memories, none surely holds a higher place than that of the worthy and effective part it took in this day's work, forming, as it did, so large a part of the brigade which, in the words of General Upton's biographer, turned possible defeat into certain victory.