September 24, 1864 (Saturday)
“The whole of the army is now moving forward,” wrote Philip Sheridan to General Grant. His victory at Fisher’s Hill in the Shenandoah Valley had yielded him twenty pieces of artillery and over 1,000 prisoners of war. Though he was unable to bag Early’s entire force as he has wished, it was discovered that he at least disrupted the Confederate general’s plans to remain at Fisher’s Hill indefinitely.
The night previous had seen his vanguard near Mount Jackson, where Early had now moved. With his cavalry in the lead, Sheridan attempted to move around the Confederate left, crossing first the North Fork of the Shenandoah, and attempting to recross it in the rear of the Southerners.
But from his position atop Rude’s Hill, Jubal Early could trace all of Sheridan’s movements and was surprised by none. “As soon as it was fully developed,” wrote Early after the war, “I commenced retiring in the line of battle, and in that manner retired through New Market.”
For nine miles they marched, and were dogged by the Northern enemy. “This movement was made through an entirely open country,” Early related, “and at every mile or two a halt was made, and artillery open on the enemy, who was pursuing, which compelled him to commence deploying into line, when the retreat would be resumed.”
Though Sheridan followed, he had a difficult time in keeping up with his retreating enemy. “I have no cavalry present to hold them,” he confessed to Grant. This was more or less true. The bulk of his cavalry was under Alfred Torbet, and they were fighting their own battle in the parallel Luray Valley, trying to break through and sweep to Early’s rear around the Massanutten Mountains, near New Market.
That morning, they had advanced up the valley, finding their enemy, William Wickham’s cavalry, in position three miles north of the village of Luray. Torbett immediately unleashed George Custer’s brigade who drove the Rebels like cattle for eight miles into the ridges east of New Market.
Word was sent to Early by Wickham that his force was retiring over the pass to New Market, but by this time, Early was already in retreat, passing through the town. In reply, he ordered his cavalry back into the Luray Valley, but the way was barred by Torbert’s Federals. Rather than fight it out, they decided to wait for morning.
As his cavalry was fading into the cover of the ridges, Jubal Early decided to make whatever stand he could. About six miles south of New Market, the road to Port Republic branched off of the main Valley Pike. It was there, on a ridge near a place called Tenth Legion that Early “determined to resist any further advance, so as to enable my trains to get on the Port Republic Road.”
Early deployed skirmishers, sending them forward, backed by his own artillery. But Sheridan refused to bite, instead retiring beyond the reach of Confederate guns, while battering Early with his longer-ranged Federal pieces.
The day previous, Sheridan had relieved from command William Averell, who had commanded a division of his cavalry. He placed the troops under William Powell, and pushed them towards the town of Timberville, on Early’s left. “This latter movement stampeded him so badly” that Early was forced off the Valley Pike to make for Port Republic. While Early was in retreat with plans for leaving the Valley Pike before Powell showed his face, the end result was the same – the main thoroughfare through the Shenandoah Valley was now completely in Federal hands.
As for General Averell, he was ordered to report to Wheeling, West Virginia, but of this he protested, instead, wishing for leave to return home to Bath, New York. “For a long time I have been suffering from chronic dysentery,” he wrote in his request, “which has recently attacked me with increased violence. For the benefit of my health I request this indulgence.”
Sheridan’s original plans had been greatly altered. Originally, he dreamed of “pushing up the Valley with a certain amount of supplies and then returning” to his original position along the Opequon, east of Winchester. But the two late battles held him up, and now he understood that “there is not sufficient in the Valley to live off the country.”
That night, Early decided upon Brown’s Gap as his final destination. He would not leave the Valley, but would wait for the return of Joseph Kershaw’s Division. Originally, General Lee had ordered it back to Petersburg, but after realizing that Early would be left with too small of force to win even a defensive battle (and after losing two such engagements), it was decided to send the wayward division back to the Valley. This would augment Early’s numbers by 4,000 or so, if only he could hold out until they arrived.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p429; Part 2, p162-163, 878; 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; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]