July 23, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early and his Confederate army looked to follow up their raid on Washington with another advance northward “down” the Shenandoah Valley.
Following the engagement at Cool Spring on the 18th, Early withdrew his Army of the Valley from Berryville to the more secure town of Strasburg. The Confederates returned to the Shenandoah Valley during one of its best harvests in recent times. During the movement, Early assigned Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division to transfer the Confederate supply base from Winchester to Strasburg.
Major General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of West Virginia from Harpers Ferry, received word that Confederates at Winchester were preparing to raid the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Hunter dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General William W. Averell to stop the raid. Averell’s Federals rode from Martinsburg and halted at Bunker Hill, north of Winchester, on the night of the 19th.
The Federals resumed their southward advance up the Valley Pike the next morning and approached Confederate cavalry guarding Stephenson’s Depot. Both sides brought up their artillery and traded fire. Ramseur disregarded Early’s order to remain in Winchester and not provoke a general engagement by bringing his infantry up to support the cavalry.
The Confederates initially held off the Federal advance, but Averell’s men began turning the Confederate left. The Federals eventually broke Ramseur’s line and sent his men back to Winchester in retreat. Averell did not pursue because he did not yet know where the rest of Early’s army was. The Confederates sustained 470 casualties (73 killed, 130 wounded, and 267 captured) in this defeat, but it did little to change Early’s plan for Ramseur to transfer supplies from Winchester to Strasburg.
Ramseur’s Confederates were gone by morning. Brigadier General George Crook, leading the Army of West Virginia in pursuit of Early’s Confederates, arrived at Winchester and joined forces with Averell. Their combined force numbered about 8,500 Federals.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, recalled the other Federal force pursuing Early, led by Major General Horatio G. Wright. Command of the Shenandoah Valley reverted to Hunter, with Crook leading Hunter’s army in the field.
Grant explained to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck that Hunter’s mission was to pursue Early to Gordonsville and Charlottesville, and cut the railroads there. If Hunter could not do that, then “he should make all the Valley south of the Baltimore and Ohio (Rail)Road a desert as high up as possible. I do not mean that houses should be burned, but every particle of provisions and stock should be removed, and the people notified to move out.”
Hunter’s troops should “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” Hunter was already called “Black Dave” by Shenandoah Valley residents for allowing his troops to burn and pillage the region. Mrs. Edmund Lee, a cousin of General Robert E. Lee and whose home had been destroyed by Hunter’s men, wrote him a scathing letter:
“Hyena-like you have torn my heart to pieces and demon-like you have done it without a pretext of revenge, for I never harmed you. Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back.”
In compliance with Grant’s instructions, Crook and Averell began moving southward from Winchester in search of Early’s army. President Abraham Lincoln, aware of Early’s tendency to preemptively attack, wired Hunter at Harpers Ferry: “Are you able to take care of the enemy when he turns back upon you, as he probably will on finding that Wright has left?”
Lincoln was right. Upon learning that Wright’s Federals had been recalled, Early immediately directed his forces to move northward from Strasburg and attack the Federals coming their way. Early had about 14,000 Confederates to face Crook’s smaller army. Averell’s cavalry clashed with Confederate troopers at Kernstown on the 23rd. Both sides fell back, but Early planned to attack in full force the next day.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20439; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 437-39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 471-74; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 543-45; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415-16, 677-79