Battle of Berryville

An engraved granite tablet marks the site of a battle on the a farm field behind it.
Berryville Battlefield marker placed by Confederate veterans in the 1890s

NPS Photo

"The enemy moved upon my left flank from out of the cover of the woods and also from a corn-field. As the enemy advanced a battery was opened upon our front, and the left of the line at once gave way. I reformed my line and repelled several assaults of the enemy, the men standing to their arms all night."

US Col. Joseph Thoburn

US Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan marched his Army of the Shenandoah south, reaching Berryville on September 3, 1864. Confederates from Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's Army of the Valley found them pitching camp and attacked with limited results. During the night, Early brought up his entire army but by daylight found the Federal position too strongly entrenched to attack. Early withdrew after dark on September 4 to Winchester.

Berryville Battlefield

Virginia historical highway marker J-30 commemorates the battle. It is on the eastbound side of Virginia State Route 7 Business, just west of the junction with US Route 340.

Two Armies on a Collision Course

Prodded by Grant to try another advance deep into the Valley, Sheridan wanted to wait until certain that Early had sent troops to reinforce Gen. Robert E. Lee in the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. On August 30th, Sheridan tentatively sent two cavalry divisions to Berryville to scout the area and cut off Confederate lines of communication.

Coincidentally, Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, commander of a 3,700-man Confederate detachment from the 1st Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, that had been operating in the Valley, decided to head east, back across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sheridan started his southern advance on September 3rd, but apparently had no idea that his 7,000-man Army of West Virginia, or 8th Corps, was on a collision course with Anderson’s Confederates.

Although Sheridan was not expecting a battle, an indicator of potential trouble occurred on the morning of September 3rd when the 6th New York Cavalry Regiment ran into two companies of Mosby’s Rangers under Captain Samuel Chapman. Hearing reports of Federal troops near Berryville, Chapman approached the town from the southwest and struck the New Yorkers. Facing off in a farm field owned by the Gold family about one-half mile south of Berryville, Chapman split his companies into two attack wings and charged.

The aggressive rangers, screaming the “rebel yell,” killed, captured, and scattered the New Yorkers. Despite being armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines, the stunned Federals suffered 42 casualties while the rangers lost five. This firefight at Gold’s Farm did not stop Sheridan’s advance, but it showed that Mosby and his rangers intended to harass Federal incursions into the Valley whenever possible.

Opening Gunfire at Berryville

Camping just west of Berryville later in the afternoon of the 3rd, Army of West Virginia commander Maj. Gen. George Crook deployed his 1st Division under Col. Joseph Thoburn on both sides of the Berryville Pike, the main east-west approach into the town. Facing toward Winchester, Thoburn’s troops could likely block a Confederate attack from the west.

Approximately 1.5 miles further west of Berryville, Thoburn placed a line of pickets under Col. Robert Rodgers. These troops were not in line long, however, before lead elements of Anderson’s eastward-bound Confederate force struck and drove the pickets back toward town.

Confederate division commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw arrived on the scene and decided to attack Thoburn’s left flank. A veteran of many battles, Kershaw sent his Mississippi brigade, concealed by woods, on a short flanking march to slam into the Federal left when the time was right. He also sent his South Carolina brigade and a Georgia brigade forward along the axis of the Berryville Pike to hit any other Federal resistance.

Attacks & Counterattacks

Hearing the growing gunfire, Thoburn led three regiments west to strengthen his defensive line, rally Rodgers’ pickets, and block the Confederates. The three regiments, the 11th West Virginia, 15th West Virginia, and 123rd Ohio joined the pickets in a north-south position roughly along the line of some old, shallow earthworks just south of the Berryville Pike. Lt. Col. William Weddle of the 1st West Virginia, one of the picket units, grumbled, “the earthworks were hardly to be dignified by that name, not being over two or three feet high and affording very little protection.”

Also alerted by the gunfire, Gen. Crook sent the rest of Thoburn’s division to the front where it took positions north of the Berryville Pike and in line with Thoburn’s other units. Assuming Thoburn’s troops could hold their sectors, Crook also ordered Col. Isaac Duval’s 2nd Division forward to crush the Confederate right flank.

Before Duval could get to the fight, however, Kershaw unleashed fire from two artillery batteries and ordered his Mississippians forward to exploit Thoburn’s left flank. The 15th West Virginia and 123rd Ohio fired a volley, but quickly retreated from the charge of the screaming Confederates. To the left of the Mississippians, the South Carolina brigade attacked along the Pike and scattered the 2nd Maryland Eastern Shore regiment and the 1st West Virginia, the two units manning the old earthworks.

Lt. Col. Weddle of the 1st West Virginia was slightly wounded by a Confederate’s bayonet, but a Federal soldier, “jumped up and placing his musket near the Rebel’s head pretty nearly blew it off.” Just north of the Pike, one of Kershaw’s Georgia brigades attacked before Thoburn’s reinforcements could fully deploy. The screaming Georgians chased the panicked Federals back toward Berryville. Thoburn later lamented, “It is with mortification that I report the giving way of the command on the left…the men and officers feel their disgrace…”

Federal Line Bends, Does Not Break

Help was on the way, however, as Duval’s division came up on Thoburn’s left and stabilized the defensive line behind a stone wall. As Kershaw’s Mississippians jubilantly approached the stone wall, Duval’s regiments unleashed a volley of musketry from their 1861 Springfield rifles that slowed the surprised Confederates.

Federals under Col. Rutherford B. Hayes climbed over the stone wall to attack with bayonets. The vicious Federal counterattack pushed both brigades of Mississippians and South Carolinians in retreat approximately one-quarter mile west to the line of the old, shallow earthworks abandoned by Thoburn. North of the Berryville Pike, the attack by Kershaw’s Georgia brigade stalled when faced by fire from the 14th West Virginia and several of Thoburn’s regrouped units.

With approaching darkness, the battle became a stalemate. A steady fire from muskets and artillery continued into the night, with both sides targeting their opponents’ muzzle flashes. Federal captain William McKinley wrote, “the heavens were fairly illuminated by the flashes of our own and the enemies’ guns.” Darkness, rain, and low ammunition finally ended the fight on September 3rd.

General Sheridan arrived later and sent the battle-weary Army of West Virginia (8th Corps) east about one-half mile to align with the 19th Corps. This overnight maneuver created a strong Federal defensive line with the 8th Corps and most of the cavalry on the left flank.

Early Pulls Back, Sheridan Drives On

Meanwhile, Confederate army commander Jubal Early brought reinforcements the next morning, September 4th. While Kershaw’s division skirmished with the 8th Corps, Early led two divisions north to strike the Federal right flank. Facing the 19th Corps, however, with the 6th Corps only a mile further north, Early chose not to attack.

Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss, Early’s topographical engineer wrote that Early’s force, “moved to the left of General Anderson (and Kershaw) and had some skirmishing with the enemy, whom we found well-fortified in our entire front.” That night, under cover of darkness, Early withdrew his force west toward Winchester.

Although estimates vary, casualties for two days of action at the Battle of Berryville totaled approximately 600, with each side suffering around 300 killed, wounded, captured, and missing. The result is generally considered a draw although, after Early’s withdrawal, the Federals held the ground. Sheridan’s drive through the Shenandoah Valley continued with victories at Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar Creek. The Federal momentum in the Valley had begun.

Part of a series of articles titled Drive the Enemy South.

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park

Last updated: April 12, 2024