August 14, 1864 (Sunday)
There were rumors and reports from scouts, even messages from Grant that Jubal Early’s Confederates, now holding entrenchments at Fisher’s Hill south of Strasburg, were about to receive enough reinforcements to equal or even exceed the Federal Army of the Shenandoah. Even worse, the story held that two divisions of infantry and one of cavalry were marching with great haste north down the parallel Luray Valley.
“It caused me much solicitude,” recalled Union army commander, Philip Sheridan, after the war, “for there was strong probability that such a movement would be made, and any considerable force advancing through Front Royal toward Winchester could fall upon my rear and destroy my communication with Harper’s Ferry, or, moving along the base of Massanutten Mountain, could attack my flank in conjunction with the force at Fisher’s Hill wiout a possibility of my preventing it.”
While Sheridan’s initial strength had been enough to best Early, the detachments sent to garrison Winchester and various other points along the route had depleated them enough to cause a real fear of being outnumbered. He had sent a cavalry expedition south through Luray Valley the day previous, but had held back any idea of attacking.
On this date, he sent another detachment to Front Royal “to ascertain definitely what was up,” and advanced Horatio Wright’s Sixth Crops across Cedar Creek, behind which he had developed his lines, to a bit of high ground to the north of Strasburg.
Between Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley and his reinforcements under Richard Anderson rose the Massanutten Mountains. It was this range that separated the main Shenandoah Valley from the Luray. On Three Top Mountain (also known as Signal Knob), part of this range, Early established a signal station so that he and Anderson might communicate with each other.
Not only that, but Early’s signal corps had a fine view of Sheridan’s army. “Every daylight movement of our troops could be seen by the enemy better than if they were in our camp,” complained Sheridan. Wanting none of this, he decided to send a small force to overrun the Rebel wig-wags and establish his own station.
Sixty men from the 12th West Virginia were selected for the task. Led by a local guide and accompanied by a couple of signal officers, scaled the northern face of the mountain and took the Rebel station by surprise. Immediately, they established their own station. But it was only a few hours that could pass before the Confederates counterattacked with a much larger force, driving away the West Virginians and reestablishing their signal station.
The orders that came from Sheridan were to hold the summit. This meant that the following day, it would have to be retaken.
Meanwhile, just entering Luray Valley and arriving in Front Royal were Richard Anderson’s two divisions – one of infantry under Joseph Kershaw, and one of cavlry, under Fitz Lee. This placed upwards of 6,000 men on Sheridan’s left flank. Had the signal station been held, perhaps these would have been noticed, but as it stood, Sheridan knew little more at sunset than he had known at the dawn.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p794-795; History of the Twelfth West Virginia Volunteer Infantry by William Hewitt; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]