March 1, 1865 (Wednesday)
It was on the day previous when solid word reached Jubal Early that the Yankees north of him in the Shenandoah Valley were on the move. “Said to be [Winfield Scott] Hancock, with 20,000 men,” wrote Jedediah Hotchkiss in his diary. Through the day, Early and his Confederates moved supplies and sustanence from Staunton, where he had been headquartered, and scouts reported the enemy at Harrisonburg, twenty-five miles north. Early ordered the men to rise early the next day and to be ready to move at dawn.
“My own headquarters were at Staunton,” wrote Early after the war, “but there were no troops at that place except a local provost guard, and a company of reserves, composed of boys under 18 years of age, which was acting under the orders of the Conscript Bureau.”
Though the Confederate reports of Hancock leading 20,000 infantrymen were incorrect in almost every way, Early had no means with which to defend himself against even 10,000 cavalry under Philip Sheridan, trotting now toward Staunton. When confirmation reached him, he sent out messages to his own cavalry units spread far and wide.
The defense was first taken up by Thomas Rosser, a daring general of cavalry, who had most recently taken 300 men into West Virginia to capture nearly twice their number in Federal prisoners. But now and with such haste, he could gather to his command only 100.
For the Federals, too, it was an early day, and they marched through Harrisonburg uncontested before 4am. In the lead was the brigade of Col. Henry Capehart, a Pennsylvania surgeon-turned-officer. Capehart was ordered by George Armstrong Custer, commanding one of two divisions under Sheridan, to race forward and secure the bridge across the Middle Fork of the Shenandoah River.
But when they reached crossing, they found the covered bridge spanning it in flames and Rosser’s men behind riflepits on the far side. The bridge was engulfed, but not yet unsound, as the Rebels arrived minutes before the Federals. Capehart sent two regiments above and below the bridge to ford the river and outflank the Rebels. According to one report, Capehart also charged across the fiery bridge to send the Rebels running. The fire was apparently doused and the bridge saved so that Sheridan might cross the remainder of his little army.
“This command, under Rosser, was dispersed, captured, or killed,” wrote Wesley Merritt, commanding under Sheridan, in his report. “A number of wagons were taken and destroyed by the advance.” The entire army continued south toward Early’s troops now gathering in Staunton.
But Early’s men were not bound to fight in Staunton. Instead, they received orders to make for Waynesboro, fifteen miles southeast. Though Early had wanted to vacate Staunton at dawn, it wasn’t until noon that all of the supplies were away, and not until nearly 4pm when he was himself able to get away. By that time, the Federals had marched to within five miles of the town. Rosser was still around, but his command was reduced to now no more than thirty.
“The importance of our success in securing the bridge over North River [Middle Fork] cannot be over-estimated,” wrote Custer a few weeks later. “Had the enemy succeeded in destroying the bridge it would have compelled a long delay on our part, as there were no fords practicable in the vicinity.”
The Confederates, with their main body at Waynesboro, set up a thin picketline around Fishersville, and would there remain until morning. General Early had no idea which way Sheridan was headed. With Lynchburg, still about 70 miles south, the most likely objective, he ordered Lunsford Lomax to concentrate his force at Pound Gap, near Lexington, and to dog Sheridan should he move toward Lynchburg.
For the time being, Sheridan stopped short of Staunton, electing to camp for the night on the north side of it. The next morning, they would march toward Waynesborough and Jubal Early.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p485, 501-502, 515; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedidiah Hotchkiss; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; History of the Ninth Regiment, New York Volunteer Cavalry by Newel Chaney; The Union Cavalry in the Civil War by Stephen Z. Starr. [↩]