September 21, 1864 (Wednesday)
Jubal Early had decided upon Fisher’s Hill, and who might blame him? It was ground with which they were familiar, and he was confident he could hold. However, there were many fewer now than there had been before. “My infantry was not able to occupy the whole line at Fisher’s Hill,” wrote Early in his memoirs, “notwithstanding it was extended out in an attenuated line, with considerable intervals.” So over-extended were they, that much of his cavalry had to be dismounted and formed along side the infantry. But even so, “the line could not then be fully occupied.”
Jubal Early’s position was a fine one, but with one flaw. While the Confederate left was as secure as it could be, the hill itself flowed into a series of valleys running perpendicular to their position. Had Early more troops, he certainly would have covered it, blocking those passage ways around his left. Instead, it was there where he placed his cavalry.
The troopers under Lunsford Lomax had been blamed for the late defeat, and Early was disgusted in their performance. However, he did not let that stop him from placing them on his left flank. He even took an entire brigade away from them, still expecting them to hold. In truth, he wasn’t expecting them to have to hold.
His choices were few. “This was the only position in the whole Valley where a defensive line could be taken against an enemy moving up the Valley, and it had several weak point,” Early confessed. He could have retreated farther south, but that would mean falling back to one of the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was also bolstered by recent history. A month before, the Federals threatened to attack him in position on Fisher’s Hill, but never did. Early was hopeful that their fears would yet remain.
To make matters worse, Robert Rodes had been killed in the previous battle and John Breckenridge was ordered by Richmond to Southwestern Virginia. But Early held out that geography might tip the balance. He also learned that soon enough, Kershaw’s Brigade, which was ordered back to Petersburg, was soon to be turned around and send back into the Valley. It would take a few days, and perhaps he could hold off the Federals until then.
For the Federals, victoriously holding Winchester, there was no rest. Philip Sheridan saw to it that the bulk of his army was up and marching by dawn on the 20th. He pushed his cavalry south, and they found little trace of the Southerners until finally reaching Fisher’s Hill.
From noon till after dark of the 20th, the Federal cavalry was busied by reconnaissance, sussing out Early’s lines. There was even a thoughtful attempt to capture an entire brigade of infantry, but upon further consideration, the subject was forgotten.
Come the morning of this date, Union cavalry tangled with their Confederate counterparts near Front Royal, driving them south up the Luray Valley. Nearer to Fisher’s Hill, the Sixth Corps initiated a sharp skirmish with the Rebels. By evening, Sheridan was concerned.
“The enemy’s infantry occupy a ver strongly fortified position in my front, across the Strasburg Valley,” he wrote to General Grant. Before long, he was calling for reinforcements to the tune of 5,000 men. This was, at least in part, due to his belief that Early’s army consisted of at least 25,000 men. In truth, that was over 10,000 too high.
Sheridan gathered together his corps commanders, Horatio Wright, George Crook and William Emory to consider what they might do next. Sheridan had scouted the ground around Fisher’s Hill for himself and was doubtful that it could be taken by a frontal assault. That the Confederate right flank was firmly anchored upon the North Fork of the Shenandoah River left him but one choice. Fortunately for him, the Confederate left was held by a thin line of gray cavalry.
It was General Crook who suggested the wide swing around Early’s left. Sheridan thought it might work, while Wright and Emory wanted nothing to do with it. After a parlay with Crook’s division commanders, Rutherford B. Hayes and Joseph Thoburn, they ironed out the plan for the following morning. They would march at 5am the next morning.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 2, p119, 121-122; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Sheridan in the Shenandoah by Edward Stackpole; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]