August 16, 1864 – Elements of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah scored an impressive victory, but Sheridan came under heavy criticism for withdrawing nonetheless.
Sheridan decided to fall back toward Winchester upon learning that a Confederate force under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson had arrived at Front Royal to reinforce Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Sheridan dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to hold Anderson’s men at bay while the rest of the Federal army retreated.
Confederates led by Brigadier General William C. Wickham drove the Federal pickets back before coming upon one of Merritt’s dismounted brigades under Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin at Cedarville. A saber duel ensued until the Confederates fell back across the Shenandoah River.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General William T. Wofford’s Confederate brigade on Guard Hill was assaulted by Federal horsemen led by Brigadier General George A. Custer. The Federals used their Spencer repeating rifles to drive the Confederates off in retreat. Merritt reported:
“The enemy advanced boldly, wading the river, and were allowed to approach within short carbine range, when a murderous volley was poured into their solid ranks, while the whole command charged. The enemy were thrown into the wildest confusion.”
This decisive Federal victory resulted in the capture of two battle flags and hundreds of prisoners. It also revealed that Confederates were at Front Royal in force, thus validating Sheridan’s decision to withdraw. Merritt’s Federals served as the rear guard and fell back with the main army. Northerners starving for a decisive victory heaped enormous criticism upon Sheridan for withdrawing.
As Sheridan fell back, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, reiterated his orders to destroy anything in his path that might be useful to the Confederates. Grant also instructed Sheridan to arrest citizens of Loudoun County known to support Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans. Sheridan issued orders to his cavalry:
“In compliance with instructions of the lieutenant-general commanding, you will make the necessary arrangements and give the necessary orders for the destruction of the wheat and hay south of a line from Millwood to Winchester and Petticoat Gap. You will seize all mules, horses, and cattle that may be useful to our army. Loyal citizens can bring in their claims against the Government for this necessary destruction. No houses will be burned, and officers in charge of this delicate, but necessary, duty must inform the people that the object is to make this Valley untenable for the raiding parties of the rebel army.”
The Confederates under Early and Anderson joined forces to pursue the Federals, with skirmishing around Winchester, Opequon Creek, and Berryville. Anderson clashed inconclusively with Federal cavalry at Summit Point on the 21st. Early tried moving into the Federal rear, resulting in heavy skirmishing. Sheridan later wrote, “A sharp and obstinate skirmish with a heavy picket-line of the Sixth Corps grew out of this manoeuvre, and resulted very much in our favor, but the quick withdrawal of the Confederates left no opportunity for a general engagement.”
Sheridan then notified Washington on the 22nd, “My position at best being a very bad one, and, as there is much depending on this army, I fell back and took a new position in front of Halltown, without loss or opposition.” The two forces fought at Smithfield Crossing over a four-day period from the 25th to the 29th, as Sheridan fell back to Halltown under the protection of Federal guns at Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights.
The Federals formed a strong defensive line that Sheridan hoped Early would attack. An observer for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported, “The line runs along a commanding ridge which overlooks a broad valley beyond, and is a position of great natural strength. The intervals to the left and right, connecting the rivers, say a mile each, are not so strong, but the enemy could hardly succeed in a flank movement.”
The Confederates initially pushed back VI Corps in heavy fighting, but the Federal line was quickly restored and Early found no weaknesses in the Federal position. Although Early could not break the Federal line, the Federals had once again left the Valley.
Believing Sheridan to be just as timid as his predecessors, Early decided to cross the Potomac River once more. He left a small force in the Federals’ front and moved another into Maryland at Williamsport. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, noted Early’s success in pushing Sheridan back, but added, “It will have little or no effect upon Grant’s operations, or prevent re-enforcements being sent to him.”
Based on Early’s estimate that Sheridan’s army numbered about 30,000 men, Lee wrote that “if Sheridan’s force is as large as you suppose, I do not know that you could operate to advantage north of the Potomac.” Lee also stated that he was “in great need of his troops, and if they can be spared from the Valley, or cannot operate to advantage there,” he would take back Anderson’s force. Early therefore abandoned plans to reenter Maryland and instead fell back to Bunker Hill.
Meanwhile, Grant estimated that he had inflicted 10,000 casualties on Lee’s army over the past two weeks and informed Sheridan, “I now think it likely that all troops will be ordered back from the valley except what they believe to be the minimum number to detain you. My reason for supposing this is based upon the fact that yielding up the Weldon road seems to be a blow to the enemy he cannot stand.”
Sheridan interpreted Early’s withdrawal as a validation of Grant’s message, and he told one of his commanders, “The indications are that they will fall back perhaps out of the Valley… their projected campaign is a failure.” Merritt’s cavalry pursued the Confederates on the 28th, pushing them back to Smithville before Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s forces held them off. Skirmishing continued as Sheridan began realizing that Early had no intentions of leaving the Valley.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 447-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 486-91; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-08; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 558-59, 561; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 677-79