Sheridan’s Retreat to Harpers Ferry

August 22, 1864 (Monday)

It took hardly any time at all for Jubal Early’s Confederates to learn that Philip Sheridan had retreated. From the summit of Three Top Mountain, the signal station peered north down the Shenandoah Valley. By the end of the 17th, the Rebels were close behind, driving the cavalry from Winchester. Sheridan had established a line of sorts near Clifton, three miles from Charles Town, and waited to see what the pursuing Southern army might do.

The August 21st Battle of Summit Point
The August 21st Battle of Summit Point

Early had moved his command to Bunker Hill, north of Winchester, by the 19th, sending out his cavalry to Martinsburg and Shepherdstown in an attempt to find Sheridan. His infantry now included the reinforcements sent by Lee, and under the helm of Richard Anderson. which remained for a time near Winchester.

But on the 20th, the Confederate cavalry stumbled upon the Union forces along the Opequon, running a course which divided Winchester from Harpers Ferry. It was now clear that the Federals had not continued north, but had retired in a more westerly direction.

And so the following day, Early orchestrated a movement to fall upon his enemy’s rear. While he and his original command moved through Smithfield, Anderson marched northwest across Summit Point. His cavalry and various other units would fill in the gaps. Virtually every road spanning Opequon Creek would be used to push back any Yankee resistance as all forces concentrated upon Charlestown – 20,000 strong.

There was no grand attack, and to Sheridan, Early seemed to have misjudged the Federal position. Skirmishing, however, was quite heavy, and hundreds ultimately fell. “A sharp and obstinate skirmish with a heavy picket-line of the Sixth Corps grew out of this manoeuvre, and resulted very much in our favor,” wrote Sheridan after the war, “but the quick withdrawal of the Confederates left no opportunity for a general engagement.”


In a message to Washington written on this date, Sheridan was more candid. “My position at best being a very bad one, and, as there is much depending on this army, I fell back and took a new position in front of Halltown, without loss or opposition.”

The new Federal line was situated under the protection of the guns atop Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry. Though the line was a very good one, many Confederates took the retreat to mean that Sheridan was whipped and that they were now, more or less, beseiging Harpers Ferry. This wasn’t incredibly far from the truth. But Sheridan was hardly whipped. Being backed to Halltown had its advantages. Foremost was that now reinforcements brought his numbers to near 40,000.

A scout sent by Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, was sent to observe Sheridan’s new position, and he was impressed. “The line runs along a commanding ridge which overlooks a broad valley beyond,” he wrote, “and is a position of great natural strength. The intervals to the left and right, connecting the rivers, say a mile each, are not so strong, but the enemy could hardly succeed in a flank movment.”

Over the next several days, Sheridan would send his own scouts toward Winchester to divine where the Rebels were encamped. In the meanwhile, the van of Early’s forces pushed forward, skirmishing here and there with Sheridan’s own. Each would hold and wait, sizing the other and decide what must next be done.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p19-20, 880-881; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Sheridan in the Shenandoah by Edward J. Stackpole; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. []
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