August 12, 1864 (Friday)
General Lee had been desperate. As the bulk of his army filed into the defenses of Petersburg, he had dispatched Jubal Early’s Corps to move north and threaten Washington. When that failed, he wished for them to remain in the Shenandoah Valley to protect the vital crops and always keep the Yankees looking over their shoulders.
But when Lee learned of its failure, he made yet another bold move. On the 6th, Lee ordered General Richard Anderson to take his entire corps away from the Petersburg trenches. He would march with three divisions, including a cavalry division under Fitz Lee, which was ordered to ride north to threaten Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington. The reasoning was simple – if Washington was threatened, troops would have to be pulled away from Petersburg, the Shenandoah or both.
On the 7th, Anderson’s 9,000 men stepped off, coming to a rest in Culpeper on the 9th. There they rested and gathered until the 11th. It was then when Lee proposed a plan, though incredibly vague. He ordered Anderson to hold his infantry to the north of Culpeper and send the cavalry north of the Rappahannock River. At this point, Lee seemed not to know that Sheridan had entered the Shenandoah Valley. But if he had made that move, Anderson was to send the cavalry to demonstrate against Washington.
A day later, and things had drastically changed. Not only was Sheridan in the Valley, but Jubal Early’s forces were backed up to Fisher’s Hill just south of Strausburg. He told Lee “the the enemy was advancing in much heavier force than I had yet encountered.” Fisher’s Hill was a fine defensive position if he were attacked from the front.
What Early feared, however, was that some or all of the Federal force before him would slip south up the parallel Lauray Valley to cut him off from Richmond. To guard against that, he dispatched a brigade of cavalry under John Imboden.
Early knew that Anderson’s two divisions of infantry were at Culpeper, and so he knew that support was but a few days’ march away. Early told Lee of his fears, and Lee finally decided what to do with Anderson. “You had better move up to Sperryville and be governed by circumstances,” wrote Lee. It was as close to a decision as he would ever come.
Lee wasn’t exactly ordering Anderson to Early’s side. Sperryville was on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To then reach Early, Anderson would have to march through Thorton’s Gap, across Lauray Valley, over the Massanuten Range and into the Shenandoah Valley proper, where he would find Early.
Hearing from Lee, Early took it a step farther, requesting that Anderson’s 6,000 infantry come to Front Royal, at the northern mouth of Lauray Valley. This would place his force on the Union left, drawing his own more or less parallel to Early’s. The Rebel force now before Sheridan’s roughly 21,000 effectives would finally match their foe nearly to a man. This would change everything.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p995, 997; 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. [↩]