August 10, 1864 (Wednesday)
Philip Sheridan was ready to make his move. He had arrived in Harpers Ferry a few days back and immediately began shifting his Army of the Shenandoah to Halltown. His orders from General Grant were to lay waste to both Jubal Early’s Confederates and the crops of the Shenandoah Valley.
From the moment of Sheridan’s arrival, Early began falling back. The Rebels had been in Martinsburg, along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, but had fallen back to Bunker Hill on the 8th. From this position, just north of Winchester, Early could maintain a hold upon the rail line without exposing his entire Army of the Valley to Sheridan’s forces.
Early’s retreat from Martinsburg and then to Bunker Hill was, thus far, suitable to Sheridan’s needs. “I desired that Early might remain at some point well to the north till I was fully prepared to throw my army on his right and rear and force a battle,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and hence I abstained from disturbing him by premature activity, for I thought that if I could beat him at Winchester, or north of it, there would be far greater chances of weighty results. I therefore determined to bring my troops, if it were at all possible to do so, into such a position near that town as to oblige Early to fight.”
On the 9th, Sheridan issued orders for such a move. In the lead would be the cavalry under Alfred Torbert, who was to cover the army’s right flank and sent scouting parties toward Opequon Creek, near Winchester. The rest of the army would march in three columns – to Clifton, Berryville and Fairfield, between the two towns. This would bring his army east and south (to the right and rear) of Early’s own.
As Sheridan’s troops made ready to step south before dawn the next day, that night (of the 9th), Early was planning on striking north once again. However, around 10pm, a messenger spoiled his ideas. From Shepherdstown came the news that Union cavalry was stirring and that a large force of infantry were about to move from Halltown. Now, if Early made his move, he would be cut off from the Shenandoah Valley.
And so Early issued his own orders to fall back from Bunker Hill to Winchester, an eleven mile tramp. The position at Winchester gave Early a few opportunities. For starters, he could now cover all of the crossings of the Opequon east of Winchester – any attempt to outflank him now would be met head on. Additionally, he was only a day’s march from Fisher’s Hill, a secure defensive position where he could hold off attacks from almost unlimited foes.
Both marches were mostly without event, though some Federal cavalry under George Armstrong Custer brushed up against some Rebel cavalry backed up by a division of infantry near the Opequon. Custer wisely held back and then begged off before he could be mauled.
Seeing that the Rebels had fallen back, Sheridan planned to move at dawn the next morning to secure the fords of the Opequon. In the meanwhile, Early was mostly ignorant of the fact that Sheridan had come so close with all of his force. Come dawn, he would discover his error.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p17, 568, 739-740, 992-993; 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; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]