September 18, 1864 (Sunday)
Philip Sheridan was now ready to make his move. He knew that Jubal Early’s force was diminished, and believed them to be concentrated just north of Winchester. His plan was to cut off the lines of supply and communication by occupying the Valley Pike running south from the town and force the Rebels to attack him on ground of his own choosing.
So certain was he that he gave the order to march and the entire Federal camp began the process of tearing down tents and loading wagons. A supply train from Harpers Ferry had arrived and the men were packing round after round into their cartridge boxes. It was clear to all that there would be battle, but just where and just when was an endless mystery. The orders had the army leaving its encampments after dark at 9pm.
This went on through the noon hour, but it was then that Sheridan’s mind was changed. The Confederates had been formed between Winchester and Bunker Hill to the north. But William Averell, commanding a Federal cavalry division, reported that “they have advanced nearly to Martinsburg” and that “twenty-five wagons were seen in rear of their column.” His scouts were watching them closely, and by all accounts they were making once more for the Potomac River. By noon, Averell had heard from Confederate prisoners that “Rodes’ and Gordon’s divisions of infantry, with a brigade of cavalry, went toward Martinsburg this morning.”
And shortly thereafter, Sheridan understood that Early had divided his army. Two divisions had gone north to Martinsburg, while two remained in Winchester.
“This considerably altered the state of affairs,” wrote Sheridan in his memoirs, “and I now decided to change my plan and attack at once the two divisions remaining about Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot, and later, the two sent to Martinsburg; the disjointed state of the enemy giving me an opportunity to take him in detail, unless the Martinsburg column should be returned by forced marches.” And so the march for 9pm was postponed until 2am the next morning. This necessitated that the camps be reestablished, but it gave the troops a few more hours of rest.
In the meanwhile, Jubal Early rode north with this column, entering Martinsburg around 9am. All through the day, the Rebels tore up track, and destroyed bridges. Early himself searched the town for the telegraph operator. When he did, he learned some very troubling news.
General Grant was at Harpers Ferry. He had just visited with Sheridan. And to Early, that could hold but one meaning – attack. The division of his forces was a blunder committed immediately before an army already twice his size was about to give battle. But Early blundered once more. Rather than sending word back to the two remaining divisions in Winchester, he said nothing of this.
Instead, he simply ordered Gordon’s division and his cavalry back to Bunker Hill. While half of the Rebel army retraced their steps south to join their unsuspecting comrades, Sheridan issued new marching orders.
His objective was Winchester and after his cavalry led the advance, his infantry would move upon it. The Sixth Corps, his center, commanded by Horatio Wright, would move via the Berryville Pike toward Opequon Creek separating the two armies. “As soon as it has reached open country it will form in line of battle, fronting in the direction of Stephenson’s Depot.” To Wright’s left was William Emory’s Nineteenth Corps, which would fall in behind his own and would then be under the command of Wright. This would be the attacking force. George Crook’s single-corps Army of West Virginia would be held in reserve “to be marched to any point required.”
It was fortuitous that Jubal Early came across the news of Grant’s visit and added up the purport so quickly. Though he did not inform Winchester of the likely assault, his wayward divisions were rounded up, so that by nightfall, Rodes was back at Stephenson’s Depot and Gordon was at Bunker Hill. They were now spread out along a fourteen mile line, rather than thirty. Before the dawn, Gordon would again be on the move, and the concentration, hoped Early, would come before the Federal assault.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 2, p102-103, 105; 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; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]