August 7, 1864 – Federal cavalry attacked a Confederate detachment that had just finished raiding through Maryland and Pennsylvania.
As August began, elements of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley continued operating north of the Potomac River. These included cavalrymen under Brigadier Generals John McCausland and Bradley T. Johnson. They had burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late July, and now they rode for Cumberland in western Maryland to wreck track on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
The Confederates exchanged cannon fire with a small Federal force under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley before disengaging and riding southeast to Old Town on the Potomac. The next day, they captured a Federal detachment contesting their crossing and moved on to Springfield, West Virginia. Meanwhile, Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell received orders to move “by the most expeditious route” to destroy the Confederate force.
McCausland and Johnson intended to destroy part of the B&O at New Creek, but Kelley deployed Federal troops there and forced the Confederates to withdraw southward. The troopers stopped near Moorefield, south of Romney, where they rested and fed their mounts. McCausland did not know that Averell was pursuing him. Averell’s cavalry reached Springfield on the night of the 5th.
The next day, Averell rode on to Romney. Troops in his vanguard captured a Confederate messenger bearing a dispatch stating that McCausland’s command was near Moorefield. Averell directed his men to mobilize at 1 a.m. so they could attack the Confederates by daybreak. Averell was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, but he relied on the element of surprise to offset this disadvantage.
After capturing the Confederate pickets, Averell’s lead brigade under Major Thomas Gibson rode through Johnson’s camp and scattered his panicked troopers. The Confederates fled across the river as Averell’s second brigade under Colonel William H. Powell slammed into McCausland’s men. These Confederates were routed as well, and Averell scored a spectacular victory.
Averell reported capturing three battle flags, four cannon, 420 men, and 400 horses while losing just 41 troopers (nine killed and 32 wounded). The Federals also recovered a large amount of loot taken from Chambersburg and other towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
This defeat deepened the rift between McCausland and Johnson that had been growing since McCausland threatened to burn several Maryland towns (as a Marylander, Johnson took offense). McCausland later reported, “The affair at Moorefield was caused by the surprise of Johnson’s brigade.” Johnson accused McCausland of not being on the scene when the fight began. Early recalled that this battle had “a very damaging effect upon my cavalry for the rest of the campaign.”
On the same day that the Confederates were decimated at Moorefield, Major General Philip Sheridan took command of the new Federal Army of the Shenandoah at Halltown, Virginia. Sheridan organized and consolidated his new force to “make the first move for the possession of the Shenandoah Valley” and destroy Early’s Army of the Valley. According to Sheridan:
“I desired that Early might remain at some point well to the north till I was fully prepared to throw my army on his right and rear and force a battle, and hence I abstained from disturbing him by premature activity, for I thought that if I could beat him at Winchester, or north of it, there would be far greater chances of weighty results. I therefore determined to bring my troops, if it were at all possible to do so, into such a position near that town as to oblige Early to fight.”
Early fell back from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill, where he planned to move north into Maryland and Pennsylvania once more. However, he received word that Sheridan’s forces were approaching on his right (east) flank and would soon threaten his rear. Early therefore ordered a withdrawal to Winchester, where he could guard all approaches on Opequon Creek with the formidable Fisher’s Hill behind him.
Skirmishing occurred along Cedar Creek as Early pulled back to Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg, on the 11th. Early reported to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, that “the enemy was advancing in much heavier force than I had yet encountered.” Lee responded by sending infantry and cavalry under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson from Culpeper to reinforce Early.
Anderson’s Confederates arrived at Front Royal, at the north end of the Luray Valley, on the 14th. If they moved toward Winchester, they could threaten Sheridan’s left, rear, and supply lines. Also, having detached elements of his army to guard various posts, Sheridan feared that he could now be outnumbered. And Confederate raiders under Colonel John S. Mosby had destroyed a large Federal wagon train near Berryville.
As Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s Federal cavalry reconnoitered Anderson’s forces and guarded the army’s rear, Sheridan ordered his men to retreat. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had advised Sheridan to proceed with caution and avoid a defeat that might hurt President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in the fall.
The Federals fell back to Halltown, 45 miles northeast. Sheridan later wrote, “Subsequent experience convinced me that there was no other really defensive line in the Shenandoah Valley, for at almost any other point the open country and its peculiar topography invites rather than forbids flanking operations.” Early saw Sheridan’s withdrawal as a sign of timidity and set out to pursue him.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 442-44, 446-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11424-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80, 482-86; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 101, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 549-50, 555-56; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 508-09, 677-79, 812-13