September 5, 1864 (Monday)
The month of August closed in the Shenandoah Valley with little resolution. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley held their own north of Winchester at Bunker Hill. The cavalry skirmished here and there, with the Federals throwing back the Rebels at Leetown. The infantry even had a go at things, when Early pitched into the Union horse soldiers with two divisions.
Much of the fighting was for a crossing along Opequon Creek near Smithfield. It had changed hands twice before Union commander Philip Sheridan ordered it held. In the first couple days of September, he moved his cavalry to Berryville and sent a division under William Woods Averell toward Bunker Hill. There, the troopers were met by infantry and whipped generally.
Early reacted to both the move of Sherman’s main body and of Averell, first crossing the Opequon to possibly attack, and then recrossing it to protect his rear. Finally, Early decided to base his army at Stephenson’s Depot. From there, he could cover not only Bunker Hill, but Winchester as well as the B & O Railroad running through Martinsburg.
As Early repositioned his forces, Sheridan slid his own to a line running northeast from Berryville to Clifton, placing himself east of Winchester. This new move didn’t really seem to bother Early, though he was in the process of making a few changes.
For one, General Lee was getting fairly worried about the Petersburg front and hoped that if nothing was going to happen in the Shenandoah Valley, he might have Richard Anderson’s division either returned to him or moved to a position where Grant might dispatch troops away from Petersburg.
In this light, Anderson moved his division east toward Snicker’s Gap, not realizing that Sheridan’s forces were blocking the way at Berryville. Neither Sheridan nor Early expected a fight, but a fight was exactly what they got.
“At Berryville,” wrote Sheridan in his memoirs, “he blundered into Crook’s lines about sunset, and a bitter little fight ensued, in which the Confederates got so much the worst of it that they withdrew toward Winchester.”
The next day, the 4th, Early rushed three of his four remaining divisions toward Berryville. “We found Anderson in line of battle in front of Berryville and joined him to his left,” wrote the cartographer Jedidiah Hotchkiss. “He was skirmishing some with the enemy.” But Early saw that it was no use.
“I at first thought that I had reached his right flank, and was about making arrangements to attack it,” wrote Early after the war, “when casting my eye to my left, I discovered, as far as the eye could reach with the aid of field glasses, a line extending toward Summit Point. The position of the enemy occupied was a strong one, and he was busily engaged fortifying it, having already made considerable progress. It was not until I had this view that I realized the size of the enemy’s force, and as I discovered that his line was too long for me to get around his flank, and the position was too strong to attack in front, I returned and informed General Anderson of the condition of things.”
There was nothing more they could do. And so on this date, Early then moved his entired force back to the west side of the Opequon to their positions at Stephenson’s Depot. This was done with the hope that Sheridan might come out of his entrenchments and attack. As the Rebels disengaged, the Federals made no signs of advancing.
Sheridan’s force, numbering 40,000, was twice as large as Early’s. And yet, he saw no real way of confronting the Rebels. In his memoirs, Sheridan shares his state of mind at this time of the conflict:
“The difference of strength between the two armies at this date was considerably in my favor, but the conditions attending my situation in a hostile region necessitated so much detached service to protect trains, and to secure Maryland and Pennsylvania from raids, that my excess in numbers was almost canceled by these incidental demands that could not be avoided, and although I knew that I was strong, yet, in consequence of the injunctions of General Grant, I deemed it necessary to be very cautious; and the fact that the Presidential election was impending made me doubly so, the authorities at Washington having impressed upon me that the defeat of my army might be followed by the overthrow of the party in power, which event, it was believed, would at least retard the progress of the war, if, indeed, it did not lead to the complete abandonment of all coercive measures.
“Under circumstances such as these I could not afford to risk a disaster, to say nothing of the intense disinclination every soldier has for such results; so, notwithstanding my superior strength, I determined to take all the time necessary to equip myself with the fullest information, and then seize an opportunity under such conditions that I could not well fail of success.”
For nearly two weeks, the armies would move but little.1
- Sources: A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jed Hotchkiss; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]