The Battle of Fisher’s Hill

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Sheridan's 1864 Valley Campaign
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The Battle of Fisher’s Hill

After their defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester, the Confederates retreated south down the Valley Pike and established their defensive positions on Fisher’s Hill. In this position they hoped to defend themselves against an assault from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior forces.

Adding to Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s problems, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge and his troops were ordered to return to southwest Virginia. They had  been stationed there prior to their arrival in the Valley in May before the Battle of New Market. This shift of troops underscored the manpower problems that the Confederate armies were experiencing.

Map of Fisher's HillThe simple fact was that the Confederacy, despite its shrinking territory, was unable to adequately defend itself. This was due to a combination of battlefield losses and an increasing rate of desertion.

There is anecdotal evidence that the Army of the Valley was losing confidence in the leadership of its commander, Jubal Early. The Battle of Fisher’s Hill was to add to this lack of confidence.

Several hundred feet above the Valley floor, the Fisher’s Hill battlefield consisted of two roughly parallel ridges. The Confederate Army of the Valley was on the higher southern ridge, facing north. The Union Army of the Shenandoah arrived from the north.

The Confederate position stretched for 3 1/2 miles. It abruptly was cut off in the east by the North Fork of the Shenandoah River while on the western end it leveled out into a small valley which created about a half mile gap to Little North Mountain.

The position was bisected by the Back Road, the Middle Road and the Manassas Gap Railroad tracks. Tumbling Run, a 2 foot deep, 15-foot wide stream, ran roughly northwest to southeast and bisected the hill and ran into the Shenandoah River. Not far from the hill’s east end was the 1,365 foot, Three Top Mountain, a commanding eminence that gave the Confederates a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

Early’s army had just two days’ rest before the arrival of Sheridan’s much larger army on September 22, 1864. With their weakened state both manpower and confidence, it was of little use. With the departure of Breckinridge’s command, Early had less than 9,500 troops available.

Early placed Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s small division on the far right with Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s command to his left, straddling the tracks General John Pegramof the Manassas Gap Railroad. To Gordon’s left was Stephen Dodson Ramseur’s old division of three brigades. It was now led by Brig. Gen. John Pegram and was placed in a position that straddled the Middle Road. Ramseur’s new command was placed to Pegram’s left.

Finally, on his extreme left Early positioned his depleted cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax. The cavalry were being blamed by Early for the defeat at Winchester. They were undermanned, hungry and poorly armed but Early placed them in his most vulnerable location.

Facing them was the Army of the Shenandoah with about 34,000 men. On his far right, Sheridan positioned Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s brigade with the brigades of Brig. Gen. William Dwight and Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton. Continuing to their right were the troops of Brig. Gens. George Getty and James B. Ricketts. The two opposing lines were about half a mile apart at the start of the action.

At a meeting on the evening of September 20th, after some discussion among Sheridan’s corps commanders, George Crook suggested a flanking maneuver around Little North Mountain and an attack on the Confederate left. Horatio Wright and William Emory were opposed to the plan but Crook’s subordinates were in favor, so Sheridan approved it.

Crook moved his troops under cover of darkness, using the mountain to screen the movement from Confederate observers. He planned on attacking at dawn on September 22nd.

The Union cavalry was supposed to circle around the Confederate position and cut off the retreating enemy troops. This part of the plan was unsuccessful because Early sent a cavalry force that blocked the Union cavalry’s line of advance. After some skirmishing, the Union cavalry retreated north and did not resume their advance until after the battle.

Sheridan observed a small hill, called Flint Hill, would give him a better view of Early’s position so he ordered an assault on September 21st. After Fisher's Hill Battlefield todaytwo unsuccessful attacks, four regiments of Vermont infantry took the position. After the capture of this key position, Sheridan realigned his forces on the night of September 21st. This was to cause a delay in the attack from morning to afternoon.

At about 1:30 PM two brigades of Ricketts’ Division attacked Ramseur’s position. The Confederates broke and ran. It was at this point that Early was to later say that he realized that “I knew my force was not strong enough to resist a determined assault.”  He also was to later say that he realized that his position could be flanked and gave orders to withdraw at sunset. Some historians have disputed this but other Confederate participants have pointed that the Union troop maneuvering was easily observed from the higher Confederate position.

Early’s plan to withdraw at sunset was foiled by Crook’s attack which began at about 4:00 PM when his veteran troops emerged from the cover of the woods on the Confederate left.  The thin line of Confederate defenders were overwhelmed in an ocean of blue and were almost immediately routed. This signaled a general assault by the entire Union line.

Ramseur’s men held firm for perhaps a half hour before the flanking and frontal attacks forced them to retreat off the hill and south down the Valley Pike to Woodstock. They were able to buy time for their comrades to retreat, at first with some order but gradually in a rout.

The Confederates lost 14 artillery pieces in the retreat from the Battle of Fisher’s Hill. Their casualties were 30 killed, 210 wounded and 995 missing or captured. The Union force sustained a total of 528 casualties, killed and wounded.

That night the Confederates were bivouacked 25 miles south of the Fisher’s Hill battlefield near Woodstock but some traveled all night to Mount Jackson where they began to reorder their formations. After repulsing pursuit, they withdrew further south to Port Republic and Brown’s Gap. In retrospect, if the Union cavalry had accomplished their part of the plan Early’s entire army probably would have been destroyed.

 

 

 

 

Series Navigation<< The Third Battle of Winchester-Part TwoThe Aftermath of Fisher’s Hill >>

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