August 28, 1864 (Sunday)
General Grant was optimistic. Though the action around the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg had been little more than a complete debacle, there might, he thought, be some good to come out of it. Late on August 26th, he wrote to Philip Sheridan to relay the good news.
“Telegraphed you that I had good reason for believing that Fitz Lee had been ordered back here. I now think it likely that all troops will be ordered back from the valley except what they believe to be the minimum number to detain you. My reason for supposing this is based upon the fact that yielding up the Weldon road seems to be a blow to the enemy he cannot stand.”
To his commander in the Shenandoah Valley, he figured that the Rebels had suffered as many as 10,000 casualties over the past two weeks. It was true, the Confederates had lost a number of troops, but General Lee wasn’t so ready to give up the Valley.
He was more than happy to hear about how Jubal Early forced the Yankees back toward Harpers Ferry, but kept a realistic outlook. “It will,” wrote Lee, “have little or no effect upon Grant’s operations, or prevent re-enforcements being sent to him.”
Early was proud of his accomplishments, but the sheer size of Sheridan’s force, now sprawling to the number of 30,000, dwarfed his own, dwindled to perhaps 10,000. The original plan had been for Early to once more cross the Potomac. However, Lee reasoned that “if Sheridan’s force is as large as you suppose, I do not know that you could operate to advantage north of the Potomac.”
General Lee was still not opposed to taking risks, and suggested that Early divide his force to send a division under Richard Anderson to destroy the railroad near Charlestown. Though the battles around the Weldon Railroad might not have caused Lee to recall some of Early’s troops as Grant nearly promised, it did cause him not to send any additional troops to Early.
Lee would not order Anderson’s division back to Richmond, but added in closing that he was “in great need of his troops, and if they can be spared from the Valley, or cannot operate to advantage there,” he would order them back.
The next day, August 27th, Early backed off. He had held close to Sheridan’s lines, but after a few friction points too many, he decided some distance might be necessary. And so he returned to Bunker Hill, north of Winchester, while Anderson marched his command to Brucetown, just northeast of the same.
Sheridan took Grant’s message to heart and when he witnessed the Confederate pull back, he thought it a retreat. “The indications are that they will fall back perhaps out of the Valley,” wrote Sheridan to one of his cavalry commanders on the night of the 27th. He surmized “that their projected campaign is a failure.” Less than a half hour later, he was convinced that the Rebels were indeed leaving the Valley.
The next day (this date), Union cavalry under Wesley Merritt dogged the Confederate cavalry, quickly backing toward Leetown. There they clashed, and the Confederates were thrown back toward Smithville in disarray. But in Smithville waited Fitz Lee and the rest of the Southern troopers. After an exchange of artillery, Merritt sent forward George Armstong Custer and slowly Fitz Lee’s Rebels faded back toward Bunker Hill. Merritt’s forces, however, stayed on the eastern banks of Opequan Creek, not daring to cross in pursuit.
The next day, and for the next several, Sheridan would learn that the Rebels were not in the process of leaving the Valley. Early had no such stuff in his thoughts. For the next, there would be the ebbing and flowing, the give and take, now so common in this theater. But never again would Early drive so far north.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p 935, 1006-1007; 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. [↩]