The Battle of Rutherford’s Farm was a rare Union victory in the Valley, coming amidst a steady stream of defeats at the hands of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early during the summer of 1864.
- See Rutherford’s Farm Today
After the Confederate victory at Cool Spring on July 17-18, 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early continued moving west towards Winchester, followed by Union Gen. Horatio Wright. Approaching Winchester, Early was also threatened from the north by additional Federal troops under Gen. William C. Averell moving south from Martinsburg. Facing threats from multiple directions, Early turned his main force south towards Strasburg, but sent Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s division to block Averell.
Ramseur took up position on the Martinsburg-Winchester Turnpike, about two miles north of Winchester. Around 4pm on July 20, Ramseur heard firing to his north. Ramseur had been ordered to stay on the defensive, but believing that he outnumbered the Federals, he moved north and prepared to launch an assault.
Ironically, the Federal commanders, whose view of the advancing Confederates was blocked by the woods, also underestimated the size of their opponents – and themselves launched an attack, pre-empting Ramseur’s plans. At first the Confederate line held firm against the advancing Federals, throwing back an attack along the turnpike and on the Rebel right. But the Union right overlapped the Rebels’ left, and Federal infantry and cavalry crashed into that vulnerable flank, shattering the end of the Confederate line. The southern defenses began to collapse. Retreating men streamed through the ranks of those who tried to stand, and despite Ramseur’s efforts to stem the tide, the retreat became a rout. The Confederates retreated towards Winchester in confusion, with the Federals capturing four pieces of artillery and nearly 300 men.
“This was the first time the Yankees ever saw my back, but it was run or die and of course we preferred the former.” – Confederate Col. Charles C. Blacknall, 23rd North Carolina Infantry
While the victory temporarily boosted the spirits of the Federals, it had little long-term impact on the campaign. In response to this setback and converging threats, Early withdrew to Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg. Early’s withdrawal convinced Wright that he had accomplished his task of driving off the Confederate invaders. He therefore ordered the VI and XIX Corps to return to Alexandria, where they would board transports to join Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac. Wright left Gen. George Crook with three small infantry divisions and a cavalry division at Winchester to cover the Valley.
The Federals’ opportunity to enjoy their victory at Rutherford’s Farm would be short-lived. Under a standing directive to prevent Union reinforcements from reaching Grant, Early would be quick to take advantage of Wright’s departure just days later at Second Kernstown.