July 18, 1864 (Monday)
The day previous was one of marching. His Rebels being followed after their failed attempt to sack Washington, Jubal Early made his headquarters at Berryville, east of Winchester. Some of his number, the divisions under Stephen Ramseur and John Gordon, he placed at Castleman’s Ferry, on the main road across the Shenandoah, over the Blue Ridge and to Leesburg. Robert Rodes’ division took their place two miles north and along the river. His cavalry was sent north and south to cover the flanks.
But while the Confederates readied their defenses, the Federals under the command of Horatio Wright did little more than rest. Wright had plans, however. The Federal force had been cobbled together and in reality was still cobbling. Nevertheless, George Crook’s Army of West Virginia, as well as Wright’s own Sixth Corps, now commanded by James Ricketts, were to cross the Blue Ridge, and then the Shenandoah at Castleman’s Ferry. If practicable, he was to attack. Following, a Nineteenth Corps division, was to bring up the rear. Though cavalry was dispersed to the front and flanks, Wright trod his entire command along one road, over one pass, and to one crossing – Castleman’s Ferry.
Early morning reconnaissance, led Wright to believe that Early’s main body was closer to Winchester; that the Rebels holding the fords were only skirmishers. But this was not so. From their heights, hidden above the river, the Confederates could see the column of blue winding its way over Snickers Gap and marching toward the Shenandoah.
Wright’s plan was not to simply smash through the ford. General Crook detached an enlarged division, commanded by Col. Joseph Thoburn, sending it to the north, hoping to cross undetected and outflank the supposed Rebel skirmishers at Castleman’s Ferry.
Thorburn made his way with great stealth, and he was unnoticed by the enemy until his crossed the river a Island Ford. Along the road, a few pickets were captured, and they told of massed numbers of Confederates lying in wait all up and down the river. Thoburn did not expect this, and relayed the information to General Crook, who soon sent reinforcements as well as orders not to do much more than hold his crossing.
His three brigades were arrayed a stone’s throw from the river, along a narrow floodplain and flanked on either side by creeks. Bluffs here and there dotted the plain and though Thoburn utilized them to some advantage, they were now under the eyes of Robert Rodes’ Confederate division, holding an opposite ridge near the Cool Spring plantation. As news filtered to General Early, he dispatched another division, that under Gabriel Wharton, to Cool Spring. Together, they were commanded by John Breckinridge.
All this took time and the late morning stretched to mid-afternoon. Finally, Rodes’ division marched closer, falling into line on Wharton’s left. Before them, the Federals had taken up positions behind stone walls. As more time slid by, Rodes launched an attack against Thoburn’s right.
They came screaming and threw some Federals back into the river. But they could not breech the enemy’s line. Thoburn held, but soon after came a second bloody attack, and still they held. With the third, Wharton’s division began to lurch forward, threatening to roll over the entire Federal line. But then there came dusk and then darkness, and the battle drew to an end.
Thoburn command was smashed. They had held the line, but only at a dear cost. Under the stars, he slipped them back across the river, each side losing around 400 of their own.
Back at Castleman’s Ford, nothing had transpired. Neither Wright nor Crook could decide upon a general course of action. For the next few days, there would be skirmishing and sparring, but the Federals would not cross the Shenandoah for nearly two more weeks.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 2, p369; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Shenandoah Summer by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]