September 17, 1864 (Saturday)
General Grant had left his headquarters at City Point on the 15th, bound for Philip Sheridan’s army east of Winchester. “My purpose was to have him attack [Jubal] Early, or drive him out of the valley and destroy that source of supplies for Lee’s army,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. He decided not to stop in Washington, preferring to deliver his orders by hand directly to Sheridan. Otherwise, he feared that his orders “would be stopped there and such orders as Halleck’s caution (and that of the Secretary of War) would suggest would be given instead, and would, no doubt, be contradictory to mine.”
Grant arrived in Charlestown on the 16th and on this date called Sheridan to his side. They met in the Rutherford House and constructed the next move to be made.
“When Sheridan arrived I asked him if he had a map showing the positions of his army and that of the enemy,” recalled Grant after the war. “He at once drew one out of his side pocket, showing all roads and streams, and the camps of the two armies. He said that if he had permission he would move so and so (pointing out how) against the Confederates, and that he could ‘whip them.'”
“I went over the situation very thoroughly,” wrote Sheridan about the meeting, “and pointed out with so much confidence the chances of a complete victory should I throw my army across the Valley pike near Newtown that he fell in with the plan at once, authorized me to resume the offensive, and to attack Early as soon as I deemed it most propitious to do so; and although before leaving City Point he had outlined certain operations for my army, yet he neither discussed nor disclosed his plans, my knowledge of the situation striking him as being so much more accurate than his own.”
Sheridan’s plan was actually fairly simple. He would through the bulk of his troops against the Valley Pike at New town, south of Winchester. His cavalry would then invest the town, fully cutting off Early’s lines of supply and communication. This would force the Rebels to fight, and to do so on ground chosen by Sheridan. If all went well, he would indeed whip them.
Sheridan had learned of the location of Early’s forces the day previous, and built his plan accordingly. But on this date, Jubal Early made a move of his own. Splitting his forces, he marched with two divisions – half his army – in the direction of Martinsburg to the north, leaving behind two divisions along the Opequon north of Winchester. His mind was to fall upon the B&O Railroad, though it might be a risk to do so.
With the cavalry commanded by Lunsford Lomax in the vanguard, Early pushed north, sending a brigade to destroy a railroad bridge west of Martinsburg. The infantry, moving more slowly, wound up around Bunker Hill with Sheridan being none the wiser. He would not learn until the following morning that Early had divided his forces.1
- Sources: Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; 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. [↩]