September 22, 1864 – After defeating the Confederate Army of the Valley at Winchester, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals pursued the enemy to a strong eminence blocking the path to the upper (southern) Shenandoah.
Sheridan followed up his resounding victory by directing his Army of the Shenandoah to track down Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates on the 20th. Early’s men retreated 21 miles to Fisher’s Hill, a steep ridge that one Federal officer called “the bugbear of the Valley.”
By this time, Early’s army had been reduced to less than 10,000 men. Early also lost one of his top commanders, Major General Robert Rodes, at Winchester, and now he was told that another, Major General John C. Breckinridge, had to go take command in southwestern Virginia due to John Hunt Morgan’s death.
Early put his diminished force behind previously built earthworks, with Massanutten Mountain on their right (east) and Little North Mountain on their left. Their right was anchored on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and their left was on Fisher’s Hill. The line might have been impregnable if Early did not have to stretch his men so thin to defend it; Brigadier General Lunsford Lomax’s dismounted cavalry had to cover the left. But Early was hopeful that Sheridan would be just as reluctant to attack Fisher’s Hill as he had been in August.
The pursuing Federals skirmished with Confederate rear guard elements before arriving at Strasburg, a mile north of Fisher’s Hill, late on the 20th. Just as Early hoped, Sheridan hesitated to launch a frontal assault. Sheridan informed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “The enemy’s infantry occupy a very strongly fortified position in my front, across the Strasburg Valley.”
Sheridan met with his three corps commanders–Major Generals Horatio G. Wright, George Crook, and William H. Emory–to discuss their next move. Crook proposed leading his corps around Early’s left. Wright and Emory argued against it, but Sheridan approved. He also directed his cavalry commander, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, to lead two divisions across the Massanutten at New Market Gap in the Luray Valley to cut Early’s line of retreat.
The Federals began moving on the 21st. The Confederates tried preventing them from entering the Luray Valley at Front Royal, but the Federals drove them south. Meanwhile, Confederate signalmen atop Massanutten Mountain could see Crook’s corps, causing Crook to delay his flanking movement until after dark.
Crook’s maneuver took most of the 22nd. Some Confederates saw them moving around their left, as one soldier wrote in his diary, “We can see them plainly climbing up the side of North Mountain. I suppose Gen. Early knows this and has troops there to meet them, and unless he has, we will have to get from this position and very quickly too.”
During that time, Early received reports on the size of the Federal force in his front and decided to withdraw, starting that afternoon. But around 4 p.m., Crook’s Federals suddenly appeared on Lomax’s left. They quickly drove Lomax’s men off as Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s infantry tried turning to face them. But Crook’s men routed them as well.
Sheridan then ordered his other two corps to attack the Confederate front, shouting, “Forward! Forward everything!” Wright’s VI Corps linked with Crook, with Emory on Wright’s left, and they quickly drove the remaining Confederates off in a rout. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. “Sandie” Pendleton–chief of staff to “Stonewall” Jackson, Richard Ewell, and Early–was mortally wounded trying to stop the Federal advance.
Early sustained 1,235 casualties (30 killed, 210 wounded, and 995 captured), and lost 20 guns. The Federals lost just 456 (36 killed, 414 wounded, and six missing). The Federals pursued the Confederates into the night, chasing them four miles before the Confederates turned and tried making a stand. They soon broke again and continued fleeing. Sheridan informed Grant that if Torbert’s cavalry “push on vigorously to the main valley, the result of this day’s engagement will be more signal.” But to Sheridan’s dismay, Torbert was unable to cut off Early’s retreat.
Sheridan also learned that while his infantry was chasing the enemy, some troops had stopped at Front Royal, and Brigadier General William W. Averell’s cavalry division encamped at Fisher’s Hill instead of rounding up prisoners. Enraged, Sheridan immediately removed Averell as division commander. The Federals halted their pursuit.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, sent reinforcements to Early with a message: “It will require the greatest watchfulness, the greatest promptness, and the most untiring energy on your part to arrest the progress of the enemy in the present tide of success. I have given you all I can.”
Grant wrote Sheridan, “Keep on, and your good work will cause the fall of Richmond.” Grant ordered the Federals at Petersburg to fire a 100-gun salute, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered similar salutes in 15 other Federal commands in honor of Sheridan’s victory. This greatly boosted northern morale, along with President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in November.
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