September 22, 1864 (Thursday)
Jubal Early’s Confederates now clung to Fisher’s Hill, all hoping that they might hold longer still. They numbered less than 10,000, while before them formed an army nearly four times that reckoning. But to their relief, the enemy seemed only to be in their front and if they could attack at all must do so across an open valley and up a steep incline, all while under what would be the merciless fire of Southern muskets.
Along the length of the hill itself, Early had arrayed his four infantry divisions. The right was held by Gabriel Wharton’s Division, while the center was made up of the divisions of John Gordon and John Pegram. The left was Stephen Ramseur’s, though it was not the extreme left. That was held by a small division of cavalry helmed by Lunford Lomax. Their number stretched across Back Road and to the first hillocks of Little North Mountain. Beyond was open and empty territory mostly hidden by a series of small valleys and rises.
Lomax’s troopers had dismounted and struggled to scratch out a defensive position along their almost wayward lines. Breastworks of logs grew by the hour and some were indeed breast-high. But they were few, and could field perhaps 1,000.
Early had a wide view of the roads and the ground before him. With the aid of scouts, this view increased, and by late morning some reports stumbled back to his headquarters. One signal man sent several dispatches claiming the Union army was preparing for an assault against Ramseur’s Division from the front as well as the flank. A cavalryman reported that it seemed as if the Federals were massing not only in their front but also “on our left, under cover of the timber.”
Other soldiers, too, saw strange things such as the enemy “marching across a naked field on the side of North Mountain for hours….” Even from General Bryan Grimes, who commanded a brigade under Ramseur, came the message that numerous Federal brigades could be seen scrambling over the face of North Mountain. This he told General Ramseur, but the general claimed nothing could be done until Early himself was informed.
Another wrote in his diary: “We can see them plainly climbing up the side of North Mountain. I suppose Gen. Early knows this and has troops there to meet them, and unless he has, we will have to get from this position and very quickly too.” And so to some it was hardly a surprise when an entire Federal corps appeared upon Lunford Lomax’s flank – the flank of the entire Rebel army.
“I was notified by the lieutenant-general commanding [Early] about 12 o’clock that the enemy were massing on the left (my front),” wrote Lomax. “I immediately took every means to strengthen my line and to increase my force by taking men from the led horses.”
But the hours slid slowly by and there was only building and swelling before them, though just how much was seen and when (and even by whom) is debatable. Word was sent to Lomax, but when the Federals came, his men seemed woefully ill-prepared.
The firing at first was a smattering. First the pickets and then the skirmishers peppered the air with shot. But then as if unheralded, they came, blackened with war and screaming. Nearly to a regiment, the Southern cavalry disintegrated, and the lines of blue flooded up the left of Fisher’s Hill. Some fell upon their front, others their rear, but in seconds they swarmed around Lomax’s men, who soon fled in a panic for their lives.
Lomax would later write that his regiments held tight their ground at least long enough to drive the Federals back on the heels. But this was not so. It could not have been. Though some might have launched a counterattack, even that effort was for nothing. Lomax could do nothing but bleed and die and run.
It was thus until the Federals came finally to the left flank of Ramseur’s Division. They first met William Cox’s brigade, which had been slid to the left by Ramseur, who did nothing more to prepare for the reception of an enemy corps. But quickly they were brushed aside, having wandered directionless toward the advancing enemy.
They then came upon General Bryan Grimes’s brigade, but these Rebels were more prepared. It was their commander who had seen the Federals gathering upon their left. They had constructed breastworks and almost welcomed the foe. But as one corps closed steadily upon their left, to their front attacked another. Under the pall of enfilading fire, Ramseur bade Grimes to abandon his position, now nearly surrounded.
In this way, the Federal flank attack picked apart Ramseur’s entire division, scattering the remains to the south. And it was in this way that the next division fell. But when they crumbled, the Federal corps to their front surged forward and hardly had to fire a shot.
In an understandable panic, Jubal Early ordered the division on this right flank under Wharton to march toward the sounds of battle, abandoning their position. Meanwhile, Gordon’s Division held the center, covering the Valley Pike. After firing a few volleys, they saw the rout and fled.
And so Wharton was all who remained, and soon the entire Federal army was their own. As the rest of Early’s forces melted around them, they became the de facto rear guard. And soon even they were in retreat and the sun was setting over the battlefield.
Early’s army retreated to Mount Jackson, while the Federals remained for the night upon Fisher’s Hill. Due to the almost immediately flight, the casualties were low. Early lost but 30 killed, 210 wounded and nearly 1,000 missing, though nearly half would soon return as stragglers. The Federal casualties totaled perhaps 500.1
It was not quiet, and all through the morning shots were exchanged.
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p611; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert; The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 edited by Gary Gallagher. [↩]