CMH Remembers: 200th Anniversary
Sheridan's 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Third Winchester and Fisher's Hill
September 2014, CMH
On 16 September, Grant and Sheridan met at Charles Town to discuss future Union operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan already had a plan in mind to defeat Early and had recently learned of Anderson's departure for Richmond with Kershaw's division. Although Early retained Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, he was now outnumbered by about twenty thousand men. To take advantage of his superior numbers, Sheridan planned a converging attack against Early at Winchester, where Confederates had won previous victories in 1862 and 1863. The main attack would advance west from Berryville.
Sheridan's final charge at Winchester
Wilson's cavalry would clear and secure the ford over Opequon Creek (east of Winchester) for VI Corps to cross it, followed by XIX Corps. Crook's troops, in reserve, were to move behind XIX Corps, swing left, and go south of Winchester with Wilson's cavalry to cut off Early's avenue of retreat. At the same time, Averell, coming from Martinsburg, was to join Torbert to attack the Confederates around Stephenson's Depot, north of Winchester. The Union forces would face the enemy divisions of Rodes and Gordon near the depot, while Breckinridge, with Wharton's infantry division and Imboden's and McCausland's brigades, was east of it. Ramseur's division was positioned with artillery across the Berryville road directly east of Winchester.
General Jubal Early
At 0200, 19 September, Sheridan's troops began moving. Wilson's cavalry drove in Ramseur's skirmishers and secured the Opequon crossing. Wright led VI Corps across Opequon Creek with Getty's division, followed by Ricketts' and Russell's divisions. About two miles east of town, Wright deployed his battle line with Ricketts on the right, Getty on the left, and Russell's men in reserve. Delayed by VI Corps artillery and wagons moving through a defile known as Berryville canyon, Emory's XIX Corps was not in position on the right of Ricketts until 1100. This delay gave time for Gordon and Rodes to react to the Federal advance and to move their rebel soldiers south to reinforce Ramseur. Breckinridge was left to deal with Torbert's cavalry alone, on the north side of Winchester.
The Union general assault began about 1140. In severe fighting, VI Corps troops pushed Ramseur and Rodes back while XIX Corps attacked Gordon's position on the rebel left. As the two Union corps advanced, a gap opened between them. Two Confederate brigades charged into it and threatened to collapse the entire Union right until a counterattack by Russell's division restored the Union line. Meanwhile, Sheridan, concerned how Torbert was faring at Stephenson's Depot, redirected Crook to move his command to the Union right, toward Gordon's rebel lines. North of Winchester, Wharton's infantry temporarily held its position until Averell's cavalry outflanked it, forcing the rebels back. Breckinridge retired toward Winchester with the Union cavalry in pursuit, but, near the town, Wharton's two brigades counterattacked and stalled Torbert's advance.
About the same time, Sheridan ordered a final coordinated thrust against the Confederate line, which was now bent into an L-shaped formation to the north and east of Winchester. Crook's troops hit Gordon's left flank and turned into it, sending the Confederate division reeling back, while Wright and Emory also brought their corps into action. Merritt's and Averell's Federal divisions made a classic cavalry charge into the Confederate's far left flank, breaking the infantry lines. The combination of assaults shattered Early's position and forced his army south in an orderly retreat out of Winchester. Sheridan's infantry stopped on the south edge of the town while Union cavalry continued to pursue the Confederates to Kernstown. Early ended his retreat at a strong position on Fisher's Hill about twenty miles away. Total Union losses killed, wounded, and missing were over five thousand men, while Early's cost was an estimated thirty-nine hundred men.
Sheridan continued his offensive against Early the next day. At dawn, 20 September, his army moved south toward Fisher's Hill. Crook received orders to make a concealed march the next day to hidden positions west of Fisher's Hill and then make an assault on 22 September. Meanwhile, Sheridan sent Torbert east around Massanutten Mountain into the Luray Valley with a reinforced cavalry division. He was to cross back into the Valley some thirty miles south at New Market to cut off Early's retreat. As planned, Crook moved his infantry into position without detection by Confederate signal stations in the nearby mountains while Wright and Emory made distractive feints against Early's positions. About 1600 on 22 September, Crook launched his surprise attack on the rebels' left flank. This assault broke through the Confederate defenses, and, with support from XIX Corps units, Early's army was quickly routed. The panicked Confederates rushed off the hill with Union infantry in close pursuit. Heavy rain and darkness finally halted Sheridan's victorious troops near Woodstock.
Sheridan assumed his maneuvers would capture Early's entire force, but he was incensed to learn that Torbert had turned back. Strong Confederate earthworks blocked the narrow north end of Luray Valley, and Torbert, wary of heavy losses and concerned about being isolated if the assault on Fisher's Hill failed, decided not to attack the rebel positions. Sheridan's temper flared again when he discovered that Averell was not in pursuit of Early but settled in camp. He ordered Averell to get into action immediately with "actual fighting and necessary casualties," but, when Averell instead went back to camp, Sheridan relieved him of command. Sheridan gave the division to Col. William H. Powell, a veteran brigade commander. Meanwhile, Early retreated south of Harrisonburg while Sheridan followed and occupied the town on 25 September.
Convinced that Early was finally beaten, Grant wanted Sheridan to move against the rail junction at Charlottesville, but Sheridan balked. He was almost one hundred miles from the closest Union supply depot, and foraging efforts in the picked-over Valley could not support his army. He suggested destroying crops, barns, and other supplies in the Shenandoah Valley and then withdrawing his army northward. With Grant's approval, Sheridan sent Union cavalry as far south as Waynesboro to cut the railroads, burn grain and woolen mills, and seize or destroy crops and livestock. Many farms and homes that had escaped damage during Hunter's previous campaign now went up in flames. As Sheridan withdrew down the Valley in early October toward Winchester, the general destruction continued, which exacerbated the already nasty blood-feud between Confederate partisans and Union cavalry, with atrocities committed by both sides.
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