August 11, 1864 (Thursday)
Within the Shenandoah Valley was a network of roads, and there were four that wound south of Winchester. Leaving by the southeast was the Millwood Pike to Ashby’s Gap. This was held by General George Armstrong Custer, whose Wolverines were picking their way toward Opequon Creek. To the south was the Front Royal Road, and General Alfred Torbet’s cavalry patrolled this from their previous night’s encampment at White Post, between these two roads.
Leaving Winchester to the southwest was the Valley Turnpike, a macadamized stretch that made its way through Kernstown to Strasburg and Fisher’s Hill, less than twenty miles away. Finally, paralleling the Valley Pike was the Cedar Creek Turnpike.
While the Federal cavalry patrolled the Millwood Pike and Front Royal Road, the bulk of Philip Sheridan’s infantry was well east of Winchester, placing themselves well north of any of these thoroughfares. This placed his command on the Berryville Pike, running more or less east to Snicker’s Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The night previous, Jubal Early’s Confederates occupied lines of battle just east of Winchester, separating themselves from the Yankees with the Opequon. Come the early morning, Early’s pickets espied the Federals taking great pains to to move around his right flank. In response, he shifted south towards Newtown, “keeping between the enemy and the Valley Pike.”
In hopes of keeping the Rebels where they were so he could outflank them to the south, General Sheridan ordered his cavalry to keep pressing west to cut them off. This is how Custer found himself advancing up the Millwood Pike toward the Opequon. Custer pushed back the Rebel pickets and skirmishers, and crossed the creek before brushing up against the infantry, two miles from Winchester. This was Stephen Ramseur’s Division.
While Custer was considering his next move, Torbet, who commanded the Federal cavalry on this flank, ordered Wesley Merritt’s two remaining brigades to take the Front Royal Road. This was done, but not without a scrap. He “came upon a large force of the enemy strongly posted on a ridge, with temporary breast-works of rails for protection. A sharp fiht ensued, in which the enemy was finally beaten and driven from the field, which gave us possession of the Front Royal pike.”
The Confederates fell back toward Newtown and in the afternoon, and this is where Merritt ordered the two brigades, even pulling Custer’s back as a sort of reserve. Two miles before Newtown, they met the Rebels. “The enemy were strong in numbers and position,” wrote Merritt in his report, “and it was found impossible to dislodge them before dark, which closed the fighting. I regret to say the loss on this occasion was severe to the brigade.” The severity came from the Confederate infantry, which Merritt had encountered after pushing back the cavalry. This was John Gordon’s Division.
The remaining Confederate division, this commanded by John Breckinridge, had covered the Milltown and Berryville Pikes, holding the left flank until ordered by Early to pull out and join the rest of the army near Newtown.
For the rest of Sheridan’s force, including all of his infantry, the day was mostly uneventful. The Sixth Corps, commanded by Horatio Wright, marched south along the Opequon to the Millwood Pike, where it made its encampment. The now-redundant Army of West Virginia, helmed by George Crook, followed until finding a spot near the creek between the Milltown and Front Royal Pikes. William Emory’s Nineteenth Corps bypassed Crook, taking up a position on the left.
“My object in securing the fords,” wrote Sheridan in his memoirs, “was to further my march on Winchester from the southeast, since, from all the information gathered during the 10th, I still thought Early could be brouht to a stand at that point; but in this I was mistaken.”
With Early’s unexpected shift, Sheridan had to rethink his entire approach. No longer could he get south of the Rebels as General Grant had wanted. “I will continue the pursuit in the morning,” wrote Sheridan to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck in Washington. Orders would not be issued until just before dawn. When they were, it would be a day of marching.
Through the night, Jubal Early took up his retreat, crossing Cedar Creek and moving upon Strasburg where he established a line of defenses north of the town.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p17-18, 422, 438, 466; Make me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]