Following the defeat of Confederate forces at Third Winchester Gen. Jubal Early withdrew his command south to Fisher’s Hill. Although grandly known as the “Gibraltar of the Valley” Fisher’s Hill was incomparable to Europe’s Rock of Gibraltar. However, the addition of earthworks, abatis, and other obstacles made it the best location for an immediate Confederate defense in the lower Shenandoah Valley. Officers in both armies knew the site well enough to understand that if defended properly no army could break it. “This was the only position in the whole Valley,” Early explained, “where a defensive line could be taken against an enemy moving up the Valley.” When Sheridan threatened Early’s army in August, Confederates withdrew to Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan did not attack then and Early hoped that Sheridan’s timidity would yield the same results. An optimistic Early explained that he withdrew to Fisher’s Hill “with the hope that the enemy would be deterred from attacking me in this position, as had been the case in August.” Early clung to false hope.
While the position may have seemed impregnable in early August, in late September it was not. Nearly 4,000 casualties from Third Winchester and the redeployment of Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s command to the Department of Southwest Virginia diminished Early’s strength dramatically. Furthermore, Early had to send cavalry to deal with the Union cavalry looming in the Luray Valley on the east side of Massanutten Mountain. Flanked to the west by Little North Mountain and to the east by Massanutten, which split the Shenandoah Valley in two, Fisher’s Hill could become the Gibraltar of the Valley only if Early had enough troops to stretch the four-mile span from mountain to mountain. With approximately 10,000 troops Early did not have that capability. A captain in the 13th Virginia succinctly assessed the dilemma: “The position was a very strong one, but our army was too small to man it.”
As the shadows began to grow long on the afternoon of September 20 the lead elements of Sheridan’s army arrived in front of Fisher’s Hill. The men, as one veteran remembered, “could see the hill lifting itself up menacingly to our advance.” Although the scene of Early’s men entrenched on Fisher’s Hill initially caused Sheridan and his staff to declare the place impenetrable to attack, “Little Phil” knew he had to strike. However at the moment he did not initially comprehend how to drive his foe from their defensive position.
Initially Sheridan’s VI Corps commander, Gen. Horatio Wright, pushed for a direct frontal assault. Although the attack would have been suicide, Wright wanted the honor of leading the attack. The “enemy’s position at Fisher’s Hill was so strong,” wrote Sheridan, “that a direct assault would entail unnecessary destruction of life, and besides, be of doubtful result.” Next Sheridan’s lieutenants discussed an attack against Early’s right flank. While Wright and XIX Corps commander Gen. William Emory approved, VIII Corps commander Gen. George Crook did not. Crook correctly surmised that a flank attack on the right would be difficult to conceal from a Confederate signal station atop Massanutten. With his subordinates at an impasse, Sheridan adjourned the meeting and ordered his generals to come to a war council later that evening to discuss a turning movement against Early’s left flank—a plan suggested by Crook to Sheridan earlier that day.
At the “somewhat stormy council of war” Col. Rutherford Hayes, a Harvard-trained lawyer and division commander in Crook’s VIII Corps, argued Crook’s case that a flank attack against Early’s left offered the only hope of success. As convincing as Hayes’ argument might have been, Wright did not like the idea because Crook’s corps would make the attack while the VI and XIX Corps played only supporting roles. Wright demanded that he be given the post of honor of leading the attack. Hayes lambasted Wright: “It is not a question of a post of honor, the question is, how can the battle be fought, and won at the least loss of life? The success of the Union Arms must not at this time be jeopardized by personal interests.”
Although the flank attack against Early’s left seemed the best option, Little Phil still had not decided which of his three infantry corps should conduct the maneuver. Hayes then reminded Sheridan that most of the men in Crook’s command spent much of the war fighting in the mountains of western Virginia. The nature of the ground over which this flank march of nearly a dozen miles would take place was rocky, rugged, and mountainous terrain. After listening to all arguments Sheridan wisely chose Crook to lead the flank attack.
With the plan approved, secrecy was paramount in order to prevent the Confederates from prematurely learning about the flank assault. Many of Crook’s movements would have to take place under the cover of darkness or amidst the fall foliage. Late on the night of September 20, Crook organized his men in heavy woods on the north bank of Cedar Creek. Throughout the following day Crook’s men stayed concealed in those woods while the VI and XIX Corps arrayed themselves north of Fisher’s Hill. As the two corps positioned themselves for the impending battle, Sheridan sent part of the VI Corps to seize Flint Hill—a piece of high ground on the north bank of Tumbling Run that would give Sheridan a better vantage point to direct troop movements.
Finally as the sun began to set on the twentyfirst, Crook’s force marched southwest and occupied a position in an area of dense woods slightly north of Hupp’s Hill. Crook led his men wearing a private’s blouse and with every step kept his eyes trained on the Confederate signal station atop Massanutten. He took every precaution to avoid detection. Talking was forbidden and color bearers were ordered to trail their flags for fear that the bright colors of the stars and stripes or the brass finials atop the flag pole would attract attention. After reaching Hupp’s Hill during the night Crook’s men rested for several hours.
During the early morning hours of September 22 Crook placed his men on the final leg of the flank march. His two divisions—Col. Joseph Thoburn and Hayes—marched west to reach the eastern face of Little North Mountain from where they would launch their assault. Around 2 p.m. Crook’s divisions reached Back Road situated at the mountain’s base. Along the road, near St. Stephen’s Church, Crook’s troops made final preparations for the ascent up the precipitous eastern slope. Knapsacks were piled and the men, “arranged canteens and bayonet scabbards so that no noise would be made by them,” remembered an Ohio soldier. Crook had succeeded in maintaining secrecy throughout the march thus far, but the climb and getting around the flank undetected were crucial elements still to come. Being spotted now would ruin the effort.
To prevent the enemy from spying Crook’s flank march, Sheridan ordered Wright and Emory to increase their activity along Early’s front. Around noon Gen. James Ricketts’ division of the VI Corps along with elements of Gen. William Averell’s cavalry demonstrated against the left center of Early’s line, hoping to cause Early to believe that would be the point of attack. It was, however, all a ruse.
While most Confederates focused their attention on the front, at least one—Gen. Bryan Grimes—noticed some activity on the left flank around 3 p.m., one hour before the flank attack commenced. Grimes met with Gen. Ramseur who initially shrugged off Grimes’ claim—stating that the lines he saw in the distance were nothing more than a fence row. A glimpse through his field glasses, however, revealed Crook’s sixteen infantry regiments bearing down on the left flank. Even though the signs of a flank attack appeared evident, Ramseur declined to bolster the position until he first discussed the matter with Early.
Between 4 and 4:30 p.m. Crook’s two divisions—about 5,500 strong—charged down the slopes to strike Early’s left. As Hayes’ and Thoburn’s divisions rolled down the mountainside into a ravine, the orderly lines of battle were broken. Despite busted ranks every man knew the mission and the mass of blue-clad soldiers smashed into Early’s left. “Thence we went, sweeping down their works like a western cyclone, every man for himself, firing whenever he saw a rebel and always yelling and cheering to the extent of his ability.” The first force that Crook’s infantry encountered was Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s dismounted cavalry. Lomax’s troops did little to slow the Union onslaught. After firing one volley the troopers took to their heels telling Ramseur’s soldiers they had been flanked.
After smashing through the Confederate pickets, Crook’s infantry now set its sights on the main Confederate line. As Hayes’ and Thoburn’s men attacked, Gen. Ricketts moved to support Crook’s left and began pressuring Early’s front. Soon the entire Union line advanced forward—the weight of 30,000 troops bearing down on Early’s 10,000.
The flank attack had thrown Early’s army into complete disarray. Old Jube attempted to redeploy troops to bolster the left, but it was counterproductive. Taking troops from the right flank meant that the Union VI and XIX Corps would have an easier time in their attack. Confederate defenders, especially Ramseur and Grimes, tried in vain to stay the assault. Early had to withdraw. During the initial phase of the retreat Lt. Col. Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, one of Early’s staff officers, tried to rally Confederate soldiers and form a defensive line across the Valley Pike. Pendleton was mortally wounded during the effort. Shot through the abdomen he died the following evening in Woodstock. Pendleton’s death was mourned by many including Early who remembered the young colonel as “a gallant and efficient young officer…He was acting with his accustomed gallantry, and his loss was deeply felt and regretted.”
As darkness descended over the field Sheridan’s army was in full pursuit. Crook’s veterans pursued a short distance beyond Fisher’s Hill, but halted as they were too tired and worn out from the flank march and attack. Meanwhile the VI and XIX Corps pressed Early’s Confederates throughout the night. Pursuit ended near Woodstock.
Fisher’s Hill had been disastrous for the Confederates. Early, as did most Confederate soldiers, blamed Lomax’s cavalry for the defeat. “In the affair at Fisher’s Hill,” Early reported to Gen. Robert E. Lee, “the cavalry gave way, but it was flanked. This could have been remedied if the troops had remained steady, but a panic seized them at the idea of being flanked, and without being defeated they broke, many of them fleeing shamefully.”
Meanwhile Union soldiers reveled in their second victory in three days. Col. Hayes explained that the “victory was complete as possible.” What added to the Union victory was that it came at small loss. The 91st Ohio’s Col. Benjamin Coates echoed that Fisher’s Hill “was another great success without much loss to us.” While battle deaths on both sides were low—only thirty of Early’s men and fifty-one of Sheridan’s—approximately 1,000 of Early’s men were captured and an additional 200 wounded. Sheridan had slightly more than 400 wounded, but he had more men than Early and could afford the loss. “The victory at Fisher’s Hill, though comparatively bloodless,” recalled an officer in the VI Corps, “was one of the most complete of the war.”
Despite high spirits, Sheridan’s army still needed to completely eliminate Early’s command and carry out plans to lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley and remove it as a source of provender for Confederates forces operating in Virginia. With anticipation of complete victory over Early’s forces spreading epidemically through Sheridan’s ranks there was still much work to be done before total victory in the Valley could be claimed. Early had been battered, but still was not ready to relinquish control of the Confederacy’s breadbasket.
About the Author:
Jonathan A. Noyalas is a history professor at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia, where he also serves as director of the College’s Center for Civil War History. He has authored scores of articles, essays, chapters, and reviews for publications including America’s Civil War, Blue & Gray, and the Encyclopedia of African American History (ABC-CLIO). He is the author or editor of four books on Civil War era history including “My Will is Absolute Law”: A Biography of Union General Robert H. Milroy and Plagued by War: Winchester, Virginia, During the Civil War.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “Give the enemy no rest!”: Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.