Part of a series of articles titled Drive the Enemy South.
After a string of victories and then two weeks of burning farms and taking supplies, US Gen. Philip Sheridan pulled his 32,000-man army back north to the area along Cedar Creek, making Belle Grove Plantation his headquarters. Most of Sheridan's soldiers were confident that the Confederates posed no further threat in the Valley. Sheridan even sent his 6th Corps to join fighting outside the Valley, at Petersburg.
But with new reinforcements making his army about 14,000 men strong, Early cautiously followed the Federal army north. On October 13, 1864, at Hupp's Hill near Strasburg, he found an opportunity.
Outnumbered Confederates Strike
Around 10 a.m., Early led his army to Hupp’s Hill, about one mile north of Strasburg, Virginia, to scout Sheridan’s army. Keeping his troops hidden Early and his staff saw the Federals across Cedar Creek from the crest of the hill. They noticed that the US 6th Corps was not there. “Without displaying any of my force except a small body of cavalry,” Early wrote later, “a battery of artillery was run out suddenly and opened on [Col. Joseph Thoburn’s] division, scattering it in great confusion.”
Over in Thoburn’s camps, as one officer in the 34th Massachusetts Infantry recalled, the men
“were deeply engaged in a game of cards... the bugles had just sounded the call to dinner. Boom! Boom! Suddenly broke upon our ears... we got to our feet and looked to see what it all meant... The Rebels were popping away at us from a hill on the other side of the creek… The assembly was sounded at once... Orders came to us to move out, and ascertain the strength of the enemy.”
The Federals thought it might be a single artillery battery, perhaps with some cavalry in support. Little did they know that Early’s entire army was there.
Thoburn’s brigades crossed Cedar Creek. As one soldier remembered it, “a belt of woods was struck by the center of the battle line which forced the column to separate, Wells verging to the left, Harris to the right of the obstruction, to reunite when it was passed.”
Col. Thomas Harris led his brigade around the right of the wooded ridge, marching up the northeastern slope of Hupp’s Hill. Col. George Wells veered his off to the left, moving up the southeastern slope of the hill. An officer in the 34th Massachusetts wrote later,
“Our route up from the lowland led us through some thick underbrush, coming out of which, about one hundred yards in front, and at short rifle range from the enemy, was a low stonewall. We hurried our pace to get the protection of the wall...”
As Thoburn advanced, Early’s generals brought their troops forward. Gen. John B. Gordon faced Harris, while Col. James Conner moved against Wells. Outnumbered, Harris withdrew down Hupp’s Hill. But “Lieutenant Ballard, in trying to reach [Wells’s] brigade to order us back after the 3rd brigade had retired, had his horse shot, and thus the order did not reach us before the enemy struck...”
Confederate Col. James Conner told his South Carolinians, “Boys, when they come, aim low and give them one good steady fire.” Colonel Wells was surprised to see a Confederate line of battle coming towards him. The Federal soldiers, surprised to see a Confederate line coming, fired from a stone wall but the South Carolinians outflanked them.
The 34th Massachusetts pulled back part of their regiment and held back the Confederates at the right end of the Federal line. The left side gave way and collapsed, and Wells’s brigade retreated down the hill.
Sheridan said of this lost skirmish, “The day’s events pointing to a probability that the enemy intended to resume the offensive; to anticipate such a contingency I ordered the 6th Corps to return from its march.” A week later, those nearly 9,000 veterans would make an big difference at Cedar Creek less than a week later.
Last updated: February 7, 2023