July 13, 1864 – Following his unsuccessful attempt to capture Fort Stevens, Lieutenant General Jubal Early led his Confederate Army of the Valley away from the outskirts of Washington and back into Maryland.
The Confederates fell back northward, moving through Rockville and then turning west toward Poolesville and the Potomac River beyond. They reached the Potomac almost exactly 30 days after being detached from the Army of Northern Virginia.
Early’s forces completed their river crossing on the 14th and gathered at Leesburg, Virginia. They had a long supply train filled with captured goods from Maryland, along with about 1,000 prisoners, horses, cattle, and $220,000 taken from Hagerstown and Frederick as reparations for Federal destruction in the Shenandoah Valley.
Early’s raid had been a success in that it caused great panic in Washington, and it diverted Federal attention and resources from other theaters. It also boosted Confederate morale and temporarily brightened the dimming hope that European powers might recognize Confederate independence. But it had not caused the Army of the Potomac to weaken itself enough for General Robert E. Lee’s army to break out of Petersburg.
At the capital, President Abraham Lincoln expressed frustration that Early’s army had been allowed to escape back to Virginia. None of the six nearby generals took the lead in pursuing the Confederates until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, assigned Major General Horatio G. Wright to lead the operation.
Wright’s force consisted of his own VI Corps, elements of XIX Corps, and several units that had been assigned to defend Washington. The pursuit began a full day after Early withdrew, with the Federals not arriving at Poolesville until the 15th. Confederate cavalry guarded the river fords to delay a Federal crossing.
By that time, Major General David Hunter’s Army of West Virginia had finally arrived at Harpers Ferry, burning and plundering homes on their march through their army’s namesake. Hunter received orders to join forces with Wright to pursue and destroy Early, with Wright in overall command. When Hunter protested that he outranked Wright, Grant placed Hunter’s army under command of Brigadier General George Crook while Hunter handled the army’s administrative duties from department headquarters.
Wright hoped to trap Early’s Confederates between his force and Crook’s, but he had trouble communicating with Crook due to Confederates cutting telegraph wires in the area. Crook’s 7,000 Federals crossed the Potomac near Harpers Ferry on the 15th and advanced to Hillsboro.
Early began moving his 12,000 Confederates out of Leesburg the next morning, heading west toward Snickers Gap in the Blue Ridge on his way back to the Shenandoah Valley. Wright’s 17,000 Federals took the entire day to cross the Potomac. During this time, a Federal cavalry detachment set out to locate the Confederates and clashed with troops guarding their wagon train around Purcellville.
When Crook learned of this engagement, he ordered Brigadier General Alfred N.A. Duffie’s cavalry to seize the wagon train. Duffie dispatched a brigade under Colonel William B. Tibbits, which spotted the Confederates about a mile north of Heaton’s Crossroads. Tibbits positioned his troopers and guns on a ridge and opened fire around 2 p.m.
The Confederate guards immediately abandoned the wagon train. The Federal assault became confused as some troopers stopped to seize the wagons and others confronted the Confederates. Major General John C. Breckinridge organized an infantry force to stop the Federal advance, while cavalry rode around to the enemy’s rear. Tibbits and a fraction of his brigade escaped capture and returned to Hillsboro. They seized or burned 80 wagons, but they had to leave the rest and all their cannon behind.
Had the Federals attacked with a larger force, they could have stopped or even destroyed Early’s army. Crook advanced to Purcellville that night, with Duffie’s cavalry skirmishing briefly with Confederate troopers at Woodgrove. By this time, the Confederates were moving through the Blue Ridge.
Wright and Crook joined forces as they pushed west toward Snickers Gap on the 17th. The Confederate rear guard prevented Federal cavalry heading the advance from crossing the Shenandoah River. Wright received word that the Confederates were merely skirmishers and Early’s main army was farther west. This was incorrect, as Early’s main army was guarding the river crossings.
Wright assigned Colonel Joseph Thoburn to lead three brigades around the Confederate left (northern) flank and seize Castleman’s Ferry. As the Federals moved on the 18th, Thoburn learned that the Confederates were massed on the riverbank. Both sides added reinforcements, with the Confederates holding a ridge near the Cool Spring plantation. Thoburn led his Federals across the Shenandoah River and lined them up behind stone walls.
The Federals repelled three assaults before night fell, and Thoburn ordered a withdrawal back across the river. The Federals sustained 422 casualties, while the Confederates lost roughly the same number. Early retained control of the river, as Wright and Crook continued debating how best to pursue his army.
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