A Forgotten Hero of the Civil War

A Forgotten Hero of the Civil War

Col. Charles Russell Lowell Jr., the New Englander who Opposed Col. John S. Mosby, is little known.

<bt>Confederate Col. John S. Mosby and his Rangers are famous in Northern Virginia because of their daring attacks on the Union Army's supply lines during the Civil War.

Less known is one of Mosby's chief opponents, Union Col. Charles R. Lowell Jr. who crisscrossed the region fighting Mosby's men. Lowell was born into a successful Boston family of mill owners, one that was dominant in the business and legal affairs of New England. Lowell entered Harvard at the age of 15, graduating as the youngest member of the class of 1854. A nephew of the renowned poet James Russell Lowell, Charles was described as being "slight of build and fragile looking" by his contemporaries. In 1855, he contracted tuberculosis, a disease difficult to cure and frequently fatal in the 1800s. Taking the advice of his great-uncle, Lowell traveled to the West Indies and the Mediterranean and, after a strenuous regimen of exercise, managed to arrest the progress of the disease.

LOWELL RETURNED to Massachusetts in 1858, and when the Civil War broke out, he was working as an iron-master in Maryland. Joining the Union army in June 1861, he was commissioned a cavalry captain and soon earned a reputation for audacity. By April 1863, he was the colonel of a unit assigned to the defenses of Washington. Lowell and his troopers were constantly on the move across Northern Virginia, clashing with Mosby and his famed band of partisan rangers. Lowell's brigade was engaged in the thankless task of protecting Federal camps and supply lines and trying to eliminate Mosby's wily band. In a war of continuous raids and counterstrikes, his troopers killed and captured more of Mosby's Rangers than any other Union army unit.

During the Civil War, Virginia's Shenandoah Valley was the breadbasket of the Confederacy and the bane of President Lincoln's armies. Stonewall Jackson had swept the valley clear of Union forces in his famous 1862 campaign. In 1863, Gen. Lee had used it as an invasion route during his Gettysburg campaign. In May 1864, an invading Union army had been defeated at New Market, and in June, Lee sent Gen. Jubal Early's corps into the valley with the objective of drawing Union forces away from the Richmond lines. In July, Early's fast-marching Rebels were in Maryland tapping at the outer defenses of Washington. Unable to take the city with his limited force, Early withdrew and then wrecked the large Union railroad yard at Martinsburg. Bent on making as much mischief as possible, Early sent his cavalry to burn Chambersburg, Pa. Early's raids created a political firestorm for President Lincoln. In an effort to stop him, Gen. Philip Sheridan was placed in charge of an army tasked with clearing the Shenandoah Valley of Confederates. As part of Sheridan's force, Lowell's brigade was constantly in the thick of the fighting. Feisty little Col. Lowell had an average of one horse a week shot out from under him for 13 weeks.

IN EARLY October, Sheridan, having pushed Early about as far south in the valley as he could, began pulling back toward Winchester, leaving a 90-mile trail of destruction behind him. Barns, mills and anything else of value to the Confederate war effort went up in smoke; the livestock was slaughtered or carried off. On Oct. 10, Sheridan's army went into camp along the banks of Cedar Creek north of Strasburg to await new orders. Early's gritty little army followed, and in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, he launched an attack that overran the Union camps and drove Sheridan's stunned soldiers northward. It became a rolling battle, one spread over a distance of nearly six miles near the intersection of modern I-81 and I-66.

Col. Lowell's brigade was on the left flank of Sheridan's rallying army north of the village of Middletown, sparring with Wharton's infantry. Aware of the need to hold his position, Lowell moved forward to take a closer look at the enemy lines. A Rebel bullet struck a stone wall and ricocheted into him. The stunning blow left Lowell coughing blood, unable to stand and barely able to speak. Although injured, he refused to leave the field because he wanted to take part in the counterattack he knew was coming.

Around 5 p.m., Gen. Sheridan gave his reorganized soldiers the order to attack. By then, Col. Lowell had recovered enough to ride unassisted, although his orders had to be relayed by aides because his voice would not rise above a whisper. He was in his usual place in front of his troopers, and as they moved out, they came under heavy Confederate fire. A Rebel rifleman, probably firing from the second floor of a house in Middletown, shot Lowell. The bullet sliced through him below the shoulders, knocking him to the ground. Despite stiff resistance, Sheridan's combined infantry and cavalry attack plowed ahead. By 7 p.m., the Confederates were routed and the Union camps lost in the morning were retaken. With Early's shattered army fleeing southward, Confederate military power in the valley was broken.

COL. LOWELL lived long enough to see the victory complete. Fatally wounded, he was taken to a house in Middletown where he died the next day, never knowing his promotion to brigadier general was on its way from Washington. He was one of the nearly 9,000 casualties the armies suffered during the battle of Cedar Creek. The decisive victory helped Abraham Lincoln win reelection in November 1864 and to seal the fate of the Confederacy. Although he is rarely mentioned in Virginia, the diminutive colonel from Massachusetts has been honored in Tucson, Ariz., where Ft. Lowell, an installation active during the Apache wars, was named after him.