Part of a series of articles titled Drive the Enemy South.
“About 4 p.m. I discovered a force of the enemy moving… about half a mile to the left, on the side of the mountain. I immediately changed my front to meet his force… I met the force from the mountain (about two brigades) and drove them back… but the works on my right (my original front) not being occupied as I expected, the enemy advanced… and moved on my rear. The infantry failed to come to my support; I was forced to fall back…”
Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax, CSA
Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s beaten, bleeding Army of the Valley retreated south after the Battle of Third Winchester on September 19th, 1864. Early’s objective was to get his force into the defensive works, and seemingly relative safety, of Fisher’s Hill before being attacked by the victorious, 35,000-man United States Army of the Shenandoah under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan.
Something of a geologic anomaly, Fisher’s Hill is actually an east-west ridge running across the northeast-southwest trending Shenandoah Valley. Located approximately two miles south of Strasburg, Virginia, Fisher’s Hill’s eastern boundary is the Shenandoah River just below Massanutten Mountain near Signal Knob, with its western boundary being the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.
Extending across the Shenandoah Valley at its narrowest point, Fisher’s Hill is still nearly four miles long and fronted by streams including Tumbling Run. Very rocky and imposing when viewed from the north, Fisher’s Hill’s elevation and rockiness decline somewhat going west until reaching the wooded and rugged foothills. Often referred to as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” Fisher’s Hill offered at least some security and even limited comfort to Early’s soldiers, many of whom were from the Valley and had occupied the area’s defensive works earlier in the war.
Fisher's Hill Battlefield
Today, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District operates Ramseur’s Hill Park on the Fisher’s Hill Battlefield. These grounds were the location of Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s troops during the heavy Union attacks that day. Visit Fisher's Hill Battlefield »
September 21 & 22, 1864
Despite some reluctance to attack a fortified position, Sheridan had orders from Federal commanding General Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Early’s army; he had to find a way to attack and win. Approaching Fisher’s Hill along several different roads, however, Sheridan and his officers realized that a frontal assault would cost too many Federal lives. During a council of war on the evening of September 20th to discuss options, Sheridan approved a plan by 8th Corps (Army of West Virginia) commander Maj. Gen. George Crook to send that corps over the western foothills to exploit the Confederate left flank.
Based on cavalry reports and Crook’s own reconnaissance, Crook’s troops would sneak through the woods and quietly get into position for an assault while the 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright and the 19th Corps under Maj. Gen. William Emory would face off against the Confederate center and right flank, respectively. Veterans of many battles in the rugged terrain of West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, Crook and his officers thought their corps was ideal for this attack.
Confident in his assault plan and wanting to cut off any Confederate retreat along the Valley Turnpike, Sheridan also dispatched his cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert, along with four cavalry brigades under Brig. Generals Wesley Merritt and James H. Wilson east and south through the Luray Valley.
Screened by Massanutten Mountain, these horsemen were to ride as far south as New Market Gap, cross the mountain and intercept Early’s army. Caught between pursuing Federal infantry and blocking Federal cavalry, Early would be forced to surrender or die. Unfortunately for the Federals, this cavalry mission would fail for what Sheridan considered lack of aggressiveness on Torbert’s part.
Meanwhile, Early and his Confederates dug in and improved their defensive positions. In bad shape after the loss at Third Winchester, Early’s troops were ready to fight despite their hardships. Comments from Confederate soldiers included they “had a great deficiency in clothing,” and “men barefoot and in tatters are not infrequently seen.”
As battle became imminent, Early not only had his men work on Fisher’s Hill’s earthworks, but also on defensive positions on high ground about one mile north called Flint Hill. These works included several “bullpens,” U-shaped barricades of fence rails covered with earth that protected skirmishers and sharpshooters armed with Enfield muskets and a few Whitworth rifles. Early feared that Sheridan would try to take Flint Hill and blast the Confederates with relentless artillery fire; if Sheridan wanted to secure Flint Hill, he would have to fight for it.
Sheridan and his soldiers spent most of September 21st evaluating Early’s defenses and attempting to sweep the Confederates from Flint Hill. First, Sheridan sent cavalry under Brig. Gen. William Averell to determine the strength of the dug in Confederate left flank. Averell reported that “an infantry corps, by hugging the base of the North Mountain, might break around the enemy’s left…” This confirmed Sheridan’s decision to assault the Confederate left with Crook’s force.
Later, Sheridan sent his 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright forward to capture Flint Hill. Federal skirmishers under Maj. Gen. George Getty met sharp resistance from Confederate sharpshooters under Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram, as did Federal reinforcements from Col. Warren Keifer. One Ohioan noted about the hot Confederate fire from their bullpens and other works, “we were much exposed and suffering terrible without the ability to inflict much loss on the enemy.”
By about 6:00 p.m., with daylight soon to decline, Wright sent Col. James Warner’s brigade forward to clear the remaining Confederates from Flint Hill. The attack chased the Confederates out of the bullpens south to the safety of Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan now had unobstructed observation and fields of fire for the next day’s combat.
During the night of September 21st and into the 22nd, both armies established their unit positions. Sheridan sent the 19th Corps to the Federal left flank near the Shenandoah River and facing the highest bluffs of Fisher’s Hill. In the center and around Flint Hill was the 6th Corps, and on the right would come the 8th Corps. While the 6th and 19th Corps kept the Confederates in their sectors busy with orders from Sheridan “to press the enemy,” the 8th Corps would advance through the woods to attack the Confederate left.
For the Confederates, Gen. Early had to defend a line of nearly four miles with under 10,000 men. Captain Samuel Buck of the 13th Virginia infantry lamented, “The position was a very strong one, but our army was too small to man it.”
Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s small division held the right flank versus the Federal 19th Corps. The Confederate divisions under Ramseur, Pegram, and Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon held the center against the Federal 6th Corps.
On the Confederate left, and about to face the onslaught of the Federal 8th Corps, were four small, dismounted cavalry brigades and a horse artillery battery of 3-inch Ordnance Rifles under Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax. Covered only by this cavalry, Gen. Early apparently did not expect a major attack on his left flank.
On the morning of September 22nd, Sheridan sent the 19th Corps forward to seize more bullpens and secure his left flank. The 6th Corps also moved closer to Fisher’s Hill and conducted maneuvers to distract the Confederates. Averell’s Federal cavalry kept Lomax’s troops busy and screened Crook’s advance through the woods on the right flank.
About 4:00 p.m., Crook led his men down the hills and around the boulders to attack Lomax’s Confederates. Brig. Gen. Bryan Grimes, along with other Confederates, detected Crook’s movements and reported to Gen. Ramseur, their division commander. Ramseur apparently forwarded the intelligence to Early, but Early did not respond.
Crook’s soldiers “rushed with unwonted fury down the mountainside,” claimed one Ohioan and crashed into Lomax’s surprised troopers. All order, all formation was lost as the 8th Corps attacked, met resistance, swept it aside, and pushed on.
They were “a legion of fighting demons. No orders were given, as these veterans knew well what to do,” wrote a Federal officer. Now faced by fire from the west and north, Lomax employed his horse artillery and requested infantry support, but the infantry never arrived and his command scattered.
Crook’s frenzied infantry pressed east, through more woods and up a hill to slam into Ramseur’s exposed left flank. Ramseur expected the attack and shifted his excellent brigade under Brig. Gen. Cullen Battle to meet the threat. Battle’s men, along with an artillery battery, slowed the Federal assault according to one of Crook’s division commanders, Col. Joseph Thoburn, who credited Battle with “a more stubborn resistance, and our advance for a short time was driven back.”
But as the Federal pressure continued, Battle’s brigade and the artillery were forced to withdraw. Left to cover Ramseur’s disintegrating left flank, Gen. Bryan Grimes and his brigade encountered Federal fire from three sides, Crook from the west, Col. Rutherford B. Hayes’s 8th Corps division curling around from the southwest, and the 6th Corps division of Brig. Gen. James Ricketts from the north.
As Ramseur’s brigades broke and his troops streamed away to the south, Gen. Early tried to stop his fleeing Confederates with threats. Captain Samuel Buck of the 13th Virginia wrote, “Gen. Early rode up and ordered our regiment to fire into them if they would not halt.” Buck’s soldiers, from Gen. Pegram’s division, refused.
With all the success on the Federal right, the rest of the 6th Corps and 19th Corps now attacked with ferocity in the center and left, loading and firing their 1861 Springfield rifles as quickly as possible. Sheridan rode among some of the troops yelling, “Crook and Averell are on their left and rear, we’ve got ‘em.” Federal soldiers climbed the hill and swarmed into the earthworks as the Confederates hastily abandoned their lines.
Left with few options, Early ordered Gen. Wharton’s division away from the right flank to slow the attacks from the west, but Wharton never got there; the 6th Corps turned east to strike both Wharton’s and Gordon’s divisions.
Even the normally stalwart Louisiana “Tiger” Brigade quit its works, “it required the greatest fleetness of foot to enable us to keep from being captured,” wrote one Tiger officer. With the Confederate infantry and artillery gone, Fisher’s Hill no longer constituted “those unattainable heights,” according to one 19th Corps soldier.
While Sheridan rode among his troops yelling, “Forward! Forward all!” pushing them to pursue, capture, and kill, most of the fleeing Confederates headed south on the Valley Turnpike. Some went cross-country away from the roads, and others escaped to the woods and slopes of Massanutten Mountain.
Wanting more blood, Sheridan sent the 19th Corps in a nighttime pursuit of the disorganized Confederate retreat. In a small firefight along the way, Lt. Col. Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, Early’s chief of staff, was mortally wounded by a Federal bullet.
For the second time in four September days, Sheridan had effectively used his superior numerical strength and firepower to decisively beat Early and the Army of the Valley. Estimates vary, but Early lost over 1,230 irreplaceable men, including around 900 captured, while Sheridan lost about 520 killed, wounded, and missing. The Confederates also lost at least 16 artillery pieces.
Early and his defeated Confederates headed south to Brown’s Gap, near Waynesboro, where they regrouped, treated their wounds, and hoped for reinforcements. With the military situation firmly under control, Sheridan and his victorious army followed; but rather than attack, they turned around, headed back north, and set the farms and crops in the Shenandoah Valley ablaze, signaling a brutal new phase in the Valley campaign of 1864.